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

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

In Defense of Paper Pages

To Kindle or not to Kindle? That is the question.

I have no quarrel with e-readers. Since I am a die-hard fan of learning, any medium that gets people reading is fine by me. Read on a papyrus scroll or an overhead projector or a Minority Report-esque glass screen, it makes no difference to me. But I have no plans to buy an e-reader.

I don’t just love reading, you see. I love books.

********

When I was in grade school, we lived for a time in a small, rectangular house where the ugly carpet was the exact color of rust. We didn’t own a television. When the weather was nice, I sometimes pedaled around the neighborhood on my bike, but most often I was curled up somewhere in our house, reading from a stack of books. I commandeered a corner of the living room, near a window, and dragged a pillow and a sleeping bag there. Lying on my stomach on the rough carpet, I read the hours away as specks of dust swam in the sunlight.

I owned a precious few books, perhaps thirty, and I read these over and over. Others were checked out from the library – I read those over and over too. I was careful with books, never smashing the covers flat, never turning the corners down to mark my place. Every now and then a paper cover would tear slightly, at one of the outside edges, and I would scotch-tape the rip. I still have many of these books. The strips of tape are yellow and brittle now.

To a shy girl whose family moved often, books were treasured companions, tangible comforts. I loved them as deeply as you could love a pet or a playmate. Then as now, their covers, their particular sizes conjured up the stories inside and the hours I’d spent with them. Some books were fat (I liked those best.) Some were tall and thin. Some had glossy covers, some plain. Some had unusual or pretty artwork on the outside.

My handful of childhood books stayed with me through college and marriage and moving across the country and back again. Along the way, they were joined by lots of other books – more than a thousand by now. In many cases, looking at a particular book makes me think of the person I was shopping with at the time, or the loved one from whom it was a gift.

In the late 70’s, my Dad’s sister occasionally came to visit us during the holidays. She seemed exotic, with her long hair and tall boots and her once-upon-a-time residence in France. Pretty and smart, she remained unmarried in her 30’s, which was not common then. She always came bearing gifts of books. She would read to us in the evenings, with a dulcet voice that broke off into a wonderfully throaty laugh.

One year she brought The Gifts of the Child Christ, a two-book collection of the great George MacDonald’s fantasy stories for children. It would be impossible to guess how many hours I spent poring over those two books, over the next few years. I never picked them up, never looked at the familiar illustration on their gray-edged covers and felt their specific heft, without thinking of my aunt, and those hours by the fireplace.

Those books sit three feet from me, now. Volume One has become delicate – the glue in the binding has failed a little. I keep them on a top shelf and away from my small children. But soon my boys will be old enough to understand these stories. They can snuggle up under my arm and carefully turn the pages, studying the woodcut illustrations at the beginning of each tale. They will be able to tell which ones were my favorites by how easily the pages fall open.

********

While on vacation in the 1990’s, my best friend and I ducked into a bookstore. It was raining. After shaking out our umbrellas we wandered around looking at stacks of books, our wet shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. Susan had recently read a novel that she said I simply had to read. But I don’t like that genre, I said. When she couldn’t convince me, she insisted on buying a copy, and handed it over. (She was right. The Sparrow would become one of my favorite books.) My vivacious friend died three years ago, just before her fortieth birthday. As I write this, the book she pressed into my hand that night lays in my lap. Every time I look at it, I think of her.

Books remind me of the places I bought them. From decades ago, I remember the barn-like Christian bookstore that carried Bibles and frightening tracts and the kid’s serial books that I loved. The store is still in business in my childhood hometown, and still smells like mildewed old pews.

I remember the tiny bookstore in the fancy mall in Atlanta, where they kept the rare books locked behind a glass case. I bought my brother an early edition of Hansel & Gretel there.

I remember the bookstore near the wharf in Baltimore, where I wandered in the evenings while on business trips. The store was in an old factory, with huge exposed pipes hanging overhead. When I’m adrift in a strange city, I seek out the nearest bookstore for comfort. Looking at books piled on tables and wedged onto shelves makes me feel like I’ve arrived home.

I remember the bookstores in nearly every airport I’ve ever been in. I remember bookstores in strip malls, and in Victorian houses by the ocean.

Nowadays most bookstores smell like roasting coffee (which always makes me want to unwind my scarf, even when I’m not wearing one). But I still sometimes pick up books and furtively sniff them, to get a whiff of that papery, inky, heavy smell that whispers, Oh, honey, just wait’ll you get me home. We’re going on an adventure.

Granted, as with humans, a book’s essence is found inside it. I understand that. But people’s faces and voices and smells are evocative of all that we love about them.

For me, it’s that way with books, too.

********

I actually wrote the bulk of this post in 2010, then filed it away. A few months ago, I read this gorgeous piece by one of my favorite writers…and knew I wasn’t alone.

If there is a book that evokes memories for you, I’d love to hear about it!

Gay Writes

America lost a national treasure on Thursday, when the brilliant writer William Gay died of heart failure at the age of 68.

I’d never heard of Gay before I picked up the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, which included his story “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” From the first sentence (“The Jeepster couldn’t keep still.”), I was hooked.

In the story, Gay wrote in the third person but altered his writing style to reflect the texture and pulse of the story. (This is not something writers attempt very often. The best example I’ve read is Annie Proulx’s wondrous The Shipping News.) Gay’s protagonist, referred to only as “The Jeepster,” is a crazy drug addict whose ex-girlfriend has been killed, and he’s on a mission to see her body at the funeral home. The prose matches his state of mind: jittery, taut, hopped up on adrenaline and who knows what else. Continue reading

My Year in Books – 2011

I’m a few days late (thanks to some looming writing deadlines, and all the media attention this week over my Grandma’s story), but here is the list of the books I finished in the last year, separated by the month in which I read them.

(I am also “currently reading” 16 different books – which, I can’t even talk about that. I so prefer reading books one at a time. Such is life with small boys.)

I publish this list, really, in the hopes that others will follow suit (and if you do, please direct me there.) I love knowing what people are reading. In fact, when I see a photo of a home library in Architectural Digest, I always turn the magazine sideways and peer at the spines of the books, trying to see the titles.

I know. NERD. Continue reading

I Don’t Know How She Does It

We need to talk about Alice Munro. Oh, how we need to talk about Alice.

On most subjects, it is difficult for me to pin down my “favorite” thing: meal, drink, movie, color – there are just too many different categories, people. Who could possibly be so decisive? But when it comes to writing, I have no such difficulty. Of the thousand or so different authors I’ve read, for my money, Alice Munro is the best.

Alice is a Canadian who writes fiction, mostly short stories, and she has earned the highest respect of virtually all literary critics and most successful writers. Think of a writer you love (go ahead), and I can almost guarantee that not only are they familiar with Alice, they are at least slightly in awe of her talent. The perennial literary darling Jonathan Franzen calls her “the Great One.” In a 2004 piece in The New York Times (which was ostensibly a review of Alice’s book Runaway, but which was actually a lengthy essay on Alice’s sheer awesomeness), Franzen said this:

“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”

Whenever Alice pens a new short story, it is snapped up by one of the most prestigious publications in the world. Her work is included in nearly every annual “Best of the Year” story collection. In 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize (given for a lifetime body of work), only the third person to have done so.

Yet Alice Munro is not a household name – and to serious readers, this is a serious affront.

Here is how it is between Alice and me: I don’t know how she does it. And I couldn’t care less. (I spent about five minutes, once, trying to figure out her technique, and then I wisely gave up.)

Can I at least describe what Alice does? I can try, but the problem there is, unless you are actually Alice herself, you don’t possess the literary talent to do her work justice. Quoting her directly is a better method of illustrating what she does.

Well, since you asked.

From the 1997 compilation of her best work, Selected Stories:

“The doctor, the heart specialist, said that her heart was a little wonky and her pulse inclined to be jumpy. She thought that made her heart sound like a comedian and her pulse like a puppy on a lead. She had not come fifty-seven miles to be treated with such playfulness but she let it pass, because she was already distracted by something she had been reading in the doctor’s waiting room.”

And from another story:

“Stella wonders where this new voice of Catherine’s comes from, this pert and rather foolish and flirtatious voice. Drink wouldn’t do it. Whatever Catherine has taken has made her sharper, not blunter. Several layers of wispy apology, tentative flattery, fearfulness, or hopefulness have simply blown away in this brisk chemical breeze.”

And here is the final paragraph of one of my favorite stories, “Material”:

“Gabriel came into the kitchen before he went to bed, and saw me sitting with a pile of test papers and my marking pencils. He might have meant to talk to me, to ask me to have coffee, or a drink, with him, but he respected my unhappiness as he always does; he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with these test papers; he left me alone to get over it.”

It is often noted that Alice’s short stories contain more depth than most full-length novels. Not only does she waste no paragraphs or sentences, she seems to waste no words. But her prose is not terse, like Hemingway’s; it is rich and full, it breathes and floats and is full of warmth.

It’s also as sharp as a dagger.

There are no zombies in Alice’s work, no explosions or natural disasters, no fantastic plots, very few murders. This is not how she keeps a reader turning the pages. Alice generally writes about simple people: housewives and grandparents and bewildered young women and children, in the most normal of settings: in cars, on farms, in retirement homes or back porches or shabby living rooms – but in the middle of this perfect ordinariness, she (as one reviewer put it) “flays” her characters, exposes their inner lives in ways that are shocking in the sense of recognition they stir in the reader.

Even if you have never been in these situations yourself, you think, “Yes! Yes. That is exactly how it is.” Even if you have never met anyone like these characters, you believe that Alice has pegged them perfectly.

Within a sentence or two, Alice gives you exactly enough information to completely understand how each character operates and what motivates them. This is in no way an easy skill. There are very few novelists who can do this, and none do it as well as Alice Munro.

Virtually all of her stories are sprinkled with the kind of sentences that most talented writers are happy to craft a few times in their entire careers. Like:

“Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.”

Or when a character narrates this:

“This was the first time I understood how God could become a real opponent, not just some kind of nuisance or large decoration.”

Who the freak writes like this?!

The author Pat Conroy, in explaining his love of reading (and great writing), says this:

“I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor.”

Which nicely illustrates the difference between mediocre writers – or even good writers – and great ones. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between “literature” and every other kind of fiction, I believe that would be it. Average writers may have the ability to capture me with a story, but they do not write stunning sentences that put me on the metaphorical floor with their beauty.

Alice Munro does this, to a greater degree than any other writer I’ve read. In fact, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island, and could only have one work of fiction with me, I’d choose her Selected Stories.

Yeah, she’s that good.

Look, Alice doesn’t have to be your favorite writer. You don’t have to love her work as much as I do. Her stories don’t have to be your “cup of tea.”

But, my dear fellow writers: if, while reading Alice’s best work (and Selected Stories or Runaway are excellent places to start – or shoot, check out her story “Dimension,” here), you do not at least recognize the level of skill she possesses, if you do not see the genius of what she’s doing – well then, in my opinion, you have some more work to do.

That’s all.

Have you experienced the writings of Alice The Great? And which authors put you “on the floor” with their writing?

The Snipers

This post is about poetry…now just hold on, there.

You’re not going anywhere, Dear Reader.

(By the way, if you can give me the reference for my title, without reading any further, leave me a comment and tell me so. And I will be duly impressed.)

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Here is a great website giving details about this event – please note the endearing invitation to “Join thousands of individuals across the U.S. by carrying a poem in your pocket on April 14, 2011.” (Whole thousands?)

Anyway, I want to celebrate poetry this month because, in many respects, the craft just “don’t get no respect” these days. And no attention, either.

For a long time, I didn’t care that much for poetry – which is odd, for someone who loves words and language as much as I do. But it was partly because a significant percentage of published poetry makes no sense.

At least to me.

Every time I pick up one of the literary magazines (Tin House, I’m looking at you) and flip through it, I crash into a poem that makes me want to rip my own hair out. Because it Has. No. Meaning.

For example:

The jackdaw raises his crested head
And calls forth
From the necklace of bone around my neck
Quavering
He calls
They call
Is this what I have wrought?

Okay, I just made that up. But you get my point.

I realize the fault must be mine. My oldest brother lives for these kinds of poems. When I stand in the bookstore and read them aloud to him, fuming about their nonsensical-ness, he always says, “Oh, no, that makes total sense. I get it.”

Whatever.

I think the other reason I bypassed poetry for a long time is this: it requires far more attention than a novel, or even a non-fiction book. When reading a poem, you have to set everything else aside and give it your full concentration, and you have to read it through a few times, and give it a chance to sink in.

Only then do you realize how breathtakingly good it is.

Poets have to make every single word count; they have to slay you with truth and emotion in only a few lines.

In fact, the best poems contain some of the finest writing in the world.

In his brilliant sci-fi novel Hyperion, Dan Simmons has one of his characters say this: “Words are the only bullets in truth’s bandolier. And poets are the snipers.”

And that’s as good a description of it as I’ve ever read. A great poem can slam you in the gut, take your emotional breath away as no novel can.

A few weeks ago, I picked up the April issue of the Oprah Magazine, which is dedicated to poetry. It contains all sorts of articles, interviews, and essays on poetry – and of course, there are lots of poems.

So to start off Poetry’s special month, here are a few random things I loved in that issue of the magazine.

*******

In a rare interview with the famous, elderly poet Mary Oliver, she is asked: “How do you know when something is a calling?”

She replies: “When you can’t help but go there.”

*******

There is an article on the current U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, who lives in Hawaii and is deeply passionate about the earth. Here’s one of his gems:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

*******

After his mother’s death in 2009, Timothy Shriver found comfort in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Exultation Is the Going.”

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses – past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Bred as we, among the mountains
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

Holy. Crap. (And by the way, writers of the world, unless you can do it that brilliantly, please don’t try to make your poetry rhyme. It’s not pretty.)

*******

Okay, I have to leave you with one final, exquisite poem, by Naomi Shihab Nye. This might be my favorite thing in the issue.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.