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 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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

On (Attempted) Writing

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last week, I started reading Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi. And, jeepers creepers.

This is by far the best sports bio I’ve ever read. Andre’s story is incredible, better than fiction. (The man hates tennis with a passion, always has. The reason he wound up doing it is heartbreaking.)

To write his story, Andre had the good sense to employ the Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, the writer’s own exquisite memoir. According to the end-notes of Open, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas so he could work on the book full-time, meeting with Andre every day (for hours.) He also employed a research assistant and a fact-checker.

And it still took him two years to write the book.

This is the norm: the best and most successful authors pour thousands of hours into their projects. Laura Hillenbrand, author of the fantastically good (and wildly popular) Unbroken, which is still atop the hardcover bestseller lists more than a year after it was published, went nine years between her only two books – and she writes full-time, has no children, and, due to a chronic physical condition, rarely leaves her house. According to his memoir My Reading Life, Pat Conroy used to leave his small children for months at a time; he’d move to foreign countries to write in solitude. Even Stephen King, one of the most experienced and prolific writers in America, can spend a few years working full-time on a single novel. 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