Year in Books – 2015

reading meme

Here is how it is with me and reading – Sometimes I start to panic, and I have to talk myself off the ledge with this reminder: “You don’t have to read ALL the books.”

Because, lordy, I surely do want to read all the books.

Anyway, here are the books I read last year. I highly recommend the five star ones; regular-recommend the four star ones; and say “eh” on the three star ones. Fiction titles are in green. Please note: not all of the books I read are “G-rated,” so if you have any questions about content, feel free to ask me.

If you pinched me really hard and MADE me pick one “best book” of last year, it would be the very first one on this list.

The Best (5 stars)

All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Eventide, Kent Haruf
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht
The Humans, Matt Haig
Four Seasons in Rome, Anthony Doerr
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
The Translator, Daoud Hari
Twilight, William Gay
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor
Cutting For Stone, Abraham Verghese
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
One Man’s Wilderness, Sam Keith
Destiny and Power, Jon Meacham

4 stars

The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
Complications, Atul Gawande
Bird Box, Josh Malerman
Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman
Maude, Donna Mabry
A Thousand Lives, Julia Scheeres
Still Life With Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen
Grace: a memoir, Grace Coddington
Home, Marilynne Robinson
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
Still Alice, Lisa Genova
Things That Matter, Charles Krauthammer
One Kick, Chelsea Cain
Good Kings, Bad Kings, Susan Nussbaum
The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
Finding Me, Michelle Knight
The Triple Agent, Joby Warrick
Seal Team Six, Howard Wasdin
The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
The House Girl, Tara Conklin
Memoirs, Elie Wiesel
Five Chiefs, John Paul Stevens
Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy
Full-Rip 9.0, Sandi Doughton
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck
The Time of my Life, Patrick Swayze
Chasing Down the Dawn, Jewel
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
Born To Run, Christopher McDougall
My Own Country, Abraham Verghese
Cyndi Lauper, Cyndi Lauper
Finders Keepers, Stephen King
The Reaper, Nicholas Irving
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi Durrow
Tower, Nigel Jones
Lost in the Taiga, Vassili Peskov
Frederick Manfred, A Daughter Remembers, Freya Manfred
Duel with the Devil, Paul Collins
Stiff, Mary Roach
This Time Together, Carol Burnett
Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn
When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
For The Time Being, Annie Dillard
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
On The Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas
Love, Lucy, Lucille Ball
The Quiet Room, Lori Schiller
This Just In, Bob Schieffer
My Brief History, Stephen Hawking
Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
Deep Down Dark, Hector Tobar
The Stories We Tell, Patti Callahan Henry

3 stars

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills
Then Again, Diane Keaton
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
American Sniper, Chris Kyle
Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres
He Wanted The Moon, Mimi Baird
Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman
Sound Bites, Alex Kapranos
The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall
The Martian, Andy Weir
Drama, An Actor’s Education, John Lithgow
Stronger, Jeff Bauman
Revival, Stephen King
The Circle, Dave Eggers
Look At Me, Jennifer Egan
Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
My Story, Elizabeth Smart
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
41, A Portrait of my Father, George W. Bush
All Things At Once, Mika Brzezinski
Wool, Hugh Howey
Benediction, Kent Haruf
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay
Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, John Carlin
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill
Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell
In the Name of God, Cameron Stauth
Alcatraz, The True End of the Line, Darwin Coon
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
See No Evil, Robert Baer

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The Devil Walks in Mattingly – Q&A with Billy Coffey

Billy headshot 2014We’re back! My book has now gone to the printer (much more on that to come), so I am able to resurrect my blog in the best way possible, by talking about a terrific new book. Billy Coffey has just published his fourth novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly, and it is his best yet. In fact, this is the first book of his that I’ve given five stars to, on Goodreads (and that was certainly one of my most convoluted sentences).

Like the great Rick Bragg and the late, great William Gay, Billy is a southern boy who has a magical gift for storytelling. He’s also the hardest-working writer I know, and if he’s not really famous some day, I’ll eat my hat.

(Inasmuch as I don’t wear hats, this is not much of a promise. But still.)

If you need comparisons, this story is similar to Frank Peretti’s best work, only less preachy and more lyrical. It’s dark, it’s lovely, it’s unputdownable.

Once again, Billy was nice enough to stop by and talk to me about all sorts of nerdy things. It might literally be the best interview ever. Except for the fact that I somehow failed to work Benedict Cumberbatch into the questions.

Read on. Continue reading

The Waiting – coming in May 2014

Well, here it is…the stunning cover of Grandma’s book, The Waiting, which will be published in May by Tyndale!  I am working morning, noon and night (along with my partner, Cindy Coloma) to meet the manuscript deadline of December 31.

Tyndale is wildly excited about the project, and is fast-tracking the release for a Mother’s Day tie-in. They have also lined up some exciting national media events for May that I am ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT ALLOWED to talk about. Boo.

I couldn’t have asked for a better agent (Janet Grant), a better collaborator (Cindy), or a better publisher. All of them love and believe in this story as much as I do. It’s been an amazing journey, one I’ll write about someday. I am so privileged to be able to be a part of sharing this wonderful story.

Anyway, the book is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can see it there, by clicking here! I’ll be sharing more details with you as they unfold. And reminding you to help spread the word. Over and over. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

The cover photo was taken while I was in California a couple of weeks ago, by the awesome (and adorable) Stephen Vosloo, who works in Chicago. Those are Grandma’s beautiful hands, holding the photograph of her and baby “Betty Jane” that she carried around for seventy-seven years, while she waited for her miracle reunion. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a synopsis.)

And now, I literally have to get back to work.

thewaiting-cvr-2

When Mockingbirds Sing – A Chat with Billy Coffey

Billy 2013Oh, this is EXCITING.

With each novel Billly Coffey has released, his writing and story-telling skills have taken a quantum leap upwards. When Mockingbirds Sing, his brand-new book, is the kind of fiction I wish all Christian novelists were producing.

Billy is one of my favorite people: geeky-cool and polite and incredibly well-read. That’s not why I promote his work, though. I have too much respect for literature to fudge about quality. Billy just also happens to be one of my favorite writers, period, and is getting better all the time.

When Mockingbirds Sing is one of a planned series of stories set in the fictional small town of Mattingly. The book centers around Leah, a wise child with a bad stutter who creates marvelous, disturbing paintings. Her best friend and fierce defender is Allie, one of the most delightful characters I’ve ever run across. There is a storm coming to Mattingly. Nerves are on edge and relationships are in jeopardy. Just who is the Rainbow Man? Will anyone heed Leah’s message?

Continue reading

The Book – an update

Lots of things are happening behind the scenes in my writing world, which is why I’ve been scarce lately and haven’t been chattering on about all the exciting things happening in the world of physics, such as the solar flare that may/may not be cause for concern, or the fact that in just TWO MONTHS you can start submitting your application to be one of the original Mars colonists, or the fact that Google just BOUGHT A QUANTUM COMPUTER and forgive me for shouting but I think my head just exploded.

Anyway, here’s what’s been keeping me busy.

As you may know, since January of 2012 I’ve been working on a book manuscript of my Grandma’s story. It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve had to squeeze book work into the few hours a week my littlest is at preschool, plus evenings and weekends at the library (plus one trip to my favorite monastery.) Since I’m writing about events that happened a century ago and I’m bullish about factual accuracy, the project requires a ton of research. Continue reading

Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

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Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

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Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

********

I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.

My Year in Books – 2012

Following are the titles of the books I finished reading in 2012. In addition to these, I am still in the middle of so many books, I’m too embarrassed to give you the number (27.)

As I no longer finish books that aren’t at least very good, I can recommend all of the titles on this list. The ones in blue were the best of the best.

I sincerely love book lists, so if you’ve compiled one for your 2012 books, please direct me there!

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

I am in the middle of reading every book you see here. I can't talk about it right now.

Currently reading. I can’t even talk about it right now.

MEMOIRS

No Regrets, by Apolo Ohno
Decision Points, by George W. Bush
Open, by Andre Agassi
My Life, by Earvin “Magic” Johnson
True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy
Coop, by Michael Perry
Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff
Forever Liesl, by Charmian Carr
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business, by Dick van Dyke
Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch
Sharing Good Times, by Jimmy Carter
Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell
A Natural Woman, by Carole King
Total Recall, by Arnold Schwarzenegger

FICTION

Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard
The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Ape House, by Sara Gruen
Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley
The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
The Stand, by Stephen King
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

NONFICTION

Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku
Quiet, by Susan Cain
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Appetite for Life, The Biography of Julia Child, by Noel Riley Fitch
A Silence of Mockingbirds, by Karen Spears Zacharias
The Big Miss, by Hank Haney
Furious Love, by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis
The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote