Big Reading Life Best of 2015

It’s time for another Best Of list!  Do you ever get tired of reading those?  I don’t, actually.  It’s fun to see what really got people excited in 2015.  Last year, when I began Big Reading Life, I only included books that were published in 2014.  This year, I decided to go with my ten favorite reading experiences of the year, no matter when the book was published.

Here we go!  (In no particular order, and with a one word review:)

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James.  Masterful.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson.  Classic.

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff.  Nostalgic.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff.  Fierce.IMG_2076

Dietland – Sarai Walker.  Subversive.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Powerful.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading -Phyllis Rose.  Fun.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson.  Heartbreaking.

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill.  Raw.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie.  Just read it.  (Okay, that’s more than one word, but this YA novel is everything – hopeful, hilarious, heartbreakingly sad – it’s got it all and you just have to read it.)

Goodreads tells me I read 77 books this year.  Of those, 17 were written by authors of color.  My main reading goal this year was to increase my numbers from a paltry 7 titles last year.  So 17 is better than 7, but it’s still only 22% of the total.  Room for improvement.

I didn’t re-read Middlemarch, nor did I complete Love in the Time of Cholera, which were my other stated reading goals.  I tried with the Garcia Marquez, but it just didn’t hold my attention.  It happens!

As you look back on your own reading year, I hope you accomplished some of your reading goals, and if you didn’t… well, I hope you enjoyed the journey anyway!  I certainly did!

 

 

 

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

Like many of you, I’ve been sad and anxious in the wake of last Thursday’s and Friday’s terrorist attacks on Paris and Beirut.  I’ve fretted about the world my son in growing up in – is it really worse now than it was when I was a child, or was I simply blissfully unaware of the atrocities that were surely happening then?  I have been actively seeking out evidence that the world is NOT going to hell in a handbasket.  Any book, poem, article, piece of art or music that reminds me that there are still many, many good and kind people in the world is a balm to my soul right now.  I believe we have to be intentional about seeking out and celebrating kindness in times like these.

To that end, I want to share a picture book I happened upon this week.  The 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards are being voted upon now.  I wanted to read some of the nominated picture books that I hadn’t yet seen, so I ordered a few from other branches in my library system, and Sidewalk Flowers was one of them.  IMG_2685I am absolutely captivated by this beautiful wordless picture book.  It depicts a little girl walking in the big city with her dad, who is talking on a cell phone and is distracted.  At every opportunity along the way home, she stops to pick flowers she spies growing out of cracks in the sidewalk.  How sweet, I thought.  A meditation on seeing beauty everywhere, noticing the moment.

And then I turned the page, and saw the dead bird lying on the park sidewalk.  IMG_2688The girl leaves some flowers on its still, small breast.  Something in me broke open a little bit.

I also liked this image, of her dad shaking hands with a man, possibly a neighbor or friend, while she shakes hands with the man’s dog. IMG_2689 She adorns the pooch with flowers too.

This is a book about kindness, about beauty, about being present, about knowing your neighbors and spreading joy in your neck of the woods.  It’s about family, and love, and the natural world that exists even in the largest of cities.  It says so much without using any words.  I’m so glad I happened upon it, especially this week.  Goodness abounds, and even in the midst of darkness and sadness, there is still much wonder and joy to celebrate.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I was attracted to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year because it is a book about books (my genre kryptonite!) and it is set in New York City (always a plus.) I knew it had gotten good reviews, and that it portrayed the publishing world in the late 1990s.  I obviously knew it involved J.D. Salinger in some way, but this wasn’t necessarily a draw for me, as I’ve only read one of his works.  What I didn’t know was that it would be so damn good.

The memoir details a year Rakoff spent working for The Agency (unnamed, but obviously venerable, as it represented writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.)  While other literary agencies are well into the digital age, The Agency operates almost out of time: typewriters and dictaphones are used instead of computers, people smoke in the office.  A young woman, fresh out of a long-term relationship and grad school in England, Rakoff falls into the position of assistant to one of the senior agents, a woman with a reputation of being somewhat difficult.  Essentially a secretary, Rakoff is assigned the duty of responding to Mr. Salinger’s voluminous fan mail – with a formal response letter.  But as she reads the letters, from all ages, teenagers and World War II veterans alike, she takes the liberty of responding with more personal kindness or advice.  She’s also not supposed to have much contact with Salinger, but as her boss suffers a personal setback, she is forced to engage on a more meaningful level, forming a deeper understanding of the author and his work.

This book is only partly about Salinger and The Agency, though.  It’s also a coming-of-age story, about dingy, freezing apartments, awful, pretentious boyfriends, having no money for lunch, having to face paying back student loans, growing apart from former best friends.  Rakoff writes with such grace about ordinary moments, vividly capturing what it was like to be young and broke in the City.  Take this passage, where she rashly spends money she shouldn’t part with on a sandwich.

I walked directly and purposely to the elegant food shop on Forty-Ninth from which the agents obtained their lunches.  Around me, the Masters of the Universe ordered frisee salads, rubbing elbows with their female counterparts, thin tanned women with Cartier bangles dangling from their thin, tanned wrists.  The sandwiches sat like pastries on silver cake stands.  After much deliberation, I chose a slender flat of bread with some sort of pink cured meat.  At the register, I grabbed a chocolate cookie, ordered a coffee, and handed over a crisp twenty.  I was not, at that exact moment, overdrawn, but my heart still sped up as I placed my meager change in my wallet.  Sandwich in hand, I walked over to Fifth, sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the tourists, and took a bite, a dense, salt, oily bite.  It was, there was no doubt, the most delicious sandwich I’d ever tasted.  I ate half, planning to save the remainder for the next day, then went ahead and devoured that too.

IMG_2634I loved this book.  I love the cover, with its vertical title on the spine (we learn in the memoir that Salinger apparently liked that style.)  I love that it’s a memoir that read likes a novel.  I love that it evokes nostalgia for the late 1990’s, before cell phones and tablets and social media took over our lives.  I love that it makes me want to read everything that J.D. Salinger has ever written, when before I was content with my one high school reading of Catcher in the Rye.  Most of all I loved Rakoff’s voice, so elegant yet so compelling, the wistful tone, the portrait of a young woman finding her voice and her strength.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I’m not giving this book five stars, but it’s still going to go on my Best of 2015 list.  That might be a first for me.  I nearly abandoned Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.  I made it to page 70 and then my stepfather died, and life became very busy.  It sat on my bedside dresser untouched for weeks.  But after things started to calm down a bit, and my focus returned, I began it again, realizing it was due back to the library and had holds.  I’m so glad I kept at it.  It’s a slow burn, a book that rewards the reader’s persistence.IMG_2589

Why four stars, not five?  Because I was so enthralled with the blazing second half of the book (“Furies”) that it detracts from the (good) first half (“Fates.”)  This is a story about art, family, cruelty, the role of fate in one’s life.  But mainly this is a story of a marriage, told from the perspectives of Lotto and Mathilde, husband and wife, married as they graduate from college after a two-week courtship.  Both Lotto and Mathilde have great sadness in their pasts, but it has marked them in completely different ways.  The reader doesn’t get to know much about Mathilde in the first half of the book – she is the wind beneath Lotto’s wings, so to speak.  She works herself ragged to pay the bills while Lotto tries to find work as an actor, she cleans the house, she takes care of details like plane tickets and rental cars.  She pushes him to embrace his emerging talent as a playwright.  She is oddly lovely, slim, composed, reserved. Lotto is charming, sweet, lovable, attracting people as friends and would-be lovers right and left, but I didn’t completely warm to or buy his character.

And then “Furies” begins, and things we think we’ve learned about the marriage and Mathilde begin to shift, layers opening up and peeling away.  Down we go with Mathilde through their years together, like a deep-sea dive, and we hold our breath as we unearth beautiful and ghastly treasures.  I tore through the second half of the novel, and I realized when it was finished that I’d been silently and skillfully gutted.  I have read a couple of reviews of Fates and Furies that bemoan the lack of well-drawn characters in an otherwise artful novel.  I completely disagree – for me, Mathilde Satterwhite is one of the greatest literary characters I’ve read in years.  She is so alive in my brain, so complicated and powerful and sad.  Her tale, satisfyingly full of revelations, pushes this book into my Favorites of 2015 for sure.

Dietland by Sarai Walker

Dietland has a cupcake on the cover – but do a double take, because that’s a cupcake grenade.  You think you’ve read this book, about a young overweight woman in New York City, trying to be a writer, trying (and failing) to lose weight. IMG_2266But this is not that book.  This is something darker, more subversive, and infinitely more pleasing.

Our heroine is Plum (Alicia) Kettle, living in an rent-reduced apartment owned by her cousin, working every day on her laptop at a cafe.  She writes advice letters to teen girls (about cutting, self-esteem, boys, etc.) who write in to the editor of the teen mag Daisy Chain.  They think they’re writing to editor Kitty, but Plum is crafting the responses.  She weighs around 300 pounds, has one friend, and no love life.  Her routine is work, Waist Watcher meetings, and home.  She’s got a gastric bypass surgery scheduled in a few months, and she pins all of her hopes for a “normal” life on the results of that.

Gradually she notices a young woman following her around, a young woman wearing colorful tights, combat boots, and black eyeliner.  Curious but not frightened, Plum confronts the spy, but she plays it off.  One day Plum covers her friend’s shift at the cafe and the girl gets in line to order.  When she gets to the counter, she takes Plum’s hand and writes one word on it in lip pencil: DIETLAND.  Plum is confused and embarrassed, thinking perhaps that it’s an insult.  Her next encounter with the strange girl is in the bathroom of the Daisy Chain office, where she is given a book: Adventures in Dietland by Verena Baptist. It’s a name that brings Plum back to her teenage days of dieting extremes and humiliation.

I don’t want to give more away, because part of the fun in reading Dietland is in unraveling the mystery.  You’ve got the two story lines, Plum’s physical and emotional journey, and the actions of this enigma of a young woman, coming together in all sorts of unexpected and moving ways.  It’s decidedly more disturbing than one might expect, with a powerfully feminist tone, which I loved.  This is sort of like Fight Club combined with a Jennifer Weiner novel, a revenge-fantasy and smart critique of our body-shaming, sexually violent culture.  Really smart, really provocative, totally absorbing.  One of my favorite of 2015.

Mid-August Mini-Reviews (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison)

I can’t believe it’s mid-August already.  I’ve been reading, but not writing.  Ever since I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, I’ve been dithering about how to write about it.

I’ve not felt confident enough in my ability to do it justice.  But if I’m ever going to write another post, I apparently need to just get this one out and get on with it.  Simply put, this book lit me up.  IMG_2076I finished it around midnight one night last week and my brain felt like it was on fire.  I was so electrified by it that I couldn’t get to sleep.  I wanted to purchase many copies and leave them in public places for strangers to pick up.  I wanted to make friends and loved ones read it.  I settled for purchasing a copy for myself, since I had read an ARC that I won in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.  (Thanks, Goodreads!)

He writes this memoir as a letter to his teenage son, and this is where it connects with me the most, as a parent.  Reading this made me painfully, shamefully aware of the kinds of conversations that I don’t necessarily have to have with my son, simply because of how our skin appears.  (I love that Coates uses the phrase “people who believe they are white” over and over – I bet a lot of people would be surprised if they had genetic testing done and knew their actual genetic makeup.)  Parenthood is fraught with frightening vulnerability anyway, and then add to that a layer of racism, where you never know if the way your son is dressed or how loudly they play their music makes someone think they have the right to kill them.  He wants to simultaneously protect his son but also never hold him back from experiencing life fully, which is something every parent can identify with.  There is a haunting passage where he describes taking his son to visit a preschool.

Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children.  The children were running, jumping, and tumbling.  You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum.  You have never been afraid of people, of rejection, and I have always admired you for this and always been afraid for you because of this.  I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, “We don’t know these folks!  Be cool!”  I did not do this.  I was growing, and if I did not recognize my anguish as the wall, I knew that there was nothing noble in it.  But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing – that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time.  And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed.

Here’s another passage that affected me, about his educational experiences:

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast.One enjoyed the official power pf the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction.  But fear and violence were the weaponry of both.  Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body.  Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body.  And I began to see these two arms in relation – those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets.  The society would say, “He should have stayed in school and then wash its hands of him.

There is so much here in such a slim book.  Painful, challenging, necessary things to read and absorb about what our country is like and what it has been like for so many of its inhabitants.  The writing alone is transcendent.  Mr. Coates has a gift.  But combined with the ideas and the experiences he relates, this book is a modern masterpiece.   I feel like this book has the power to open eyes, minds, and hearts.  I was thrilled to see it at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and I hope it makes it into the hands of a wide ranging audience.

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, written in 1981.  It’s set in that time period, mainly in the Caribbean island country of Dominica.  It’s been far too long since I’ve read anything by Morrison.  In high school we studied Beloved, and as a college freshman I studied Sula.  But that’s been almost twenty years!  How foolish I feel to have waited so long to read more of her work.  IMG_2132This one hooked me from the opening passage.  It was hypnotic, lush, compelling.  It’s a love story, a class story, a race story, a magical story.  Millionaire Valerian Street (that name!) and his much younger wife Margaret have retired to a secluded mansion in Dominica, bringing along with them their hired help, Sydney and Ondine.  Also staying with them is Sydney’s and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, a successful, beautiful fashion model.  Margaret and Valerian’s marriage is in trouble, and relations between them and their help are strained as well.  Enter an enigmatic stranger, a man literally found hiding in Margaret’s closet, a man whom Valerian invites to dinner, much to the dismay of everyone else in the house.  Things get turned upside down, and every relationship is put to the test.  I couldn’t put this one down.  The writing just had this magnetic pull over me.  I  will definitely make more of an effort to read more Toni Morrison now – I’ve realized the error of my ways!

What’s up next?  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.   I’m late to this party as well.  I’ve heard nothing but good things from many sources, and when I read that Jennifer Lawrence was going to star in the upcoming movie, I decided to give it a shot.  (And Richard Linklater is rumored to be the director.)  I think I need something lighter now anyway.

Anyone read The Rosie Project or Between the World and Me?  Have a favorite Toni Morrison novel?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Kind Worth Killing, and Looking Ahead

So.

It’s been a while.  I’ve been reading, but I’ve also been parenting, wife-ing, being a friend, trying to work out, trying to clean – you know, LIFE.  But I’m here now, and I’m excited to tell you about a book!

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Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  Just go get your hands on a copy of this book.  The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson is packed with twists that this reader did NOT see coming.  It’s smart, well-written, entertaining as hell.  It starts out just the teensiest bit slow, but by halfway through, you’re hanging on for dear life and don’t want to put it down.

THIS is the thriller that should be on the best-seller list (not that book about the train, you know the one. It was… okay.  Not great.)   Can we make this book happen, please?  I’m going to do my best to put this in the hands of my patrons at the library.

What’s it about?  I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll give you the basic premise: Ted Severson has discovered that his wife, Miranda, is cheating on him with the contractor for the house they’re building.  On his way back from England on a business trip, he meets Lily Kintner, a waifish, attractive red-head who engages him in  conversation.  When Ted half-jokingly tells Lily that he’d like to kill his wife, Lily basically says, “Why not?”

It’s supposed to be sort of an updated version of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.  I’ve not read that, nor have I seen the film that was based on the novel.  I put the Highsmith on my good old trusty Goodreads TBR.

Peter Swanson has written another book, called The Girl With a Clock For a Heart.  I put that one on the TBR too.

So what’s up next?  Well, I’ve gotten some good stuff lately.  I’ve got an Inspector Wexford (Ruth Rendell) mystery waiting for me at the library.  I also am in the  middle of a travel-memoir called The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s most Glorious – and Perplexing – City by David Lebovitz.  I have a real soft spot for travel memoirs, especially about people moving to France.  This one would be perfect for a real foodie, which I’m not.  So I sort of skim the recipes at the end of each chapter.

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I ordered Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankin from another branch, and I’m psyched to start that.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.  I’ve heard it’s powerful and tough to read.  I’ll let you know how it hits me.

And then two fun books from the used book store: Four Nights With the Duke by Eloisa James and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.  I’m trying to branch out with romance, and I’ve heard that Ms. James is among the best.  And The Shining Girls sounds intriguing but pretty terrifying, so we’ll see if I can handle it.  Maybe not!

What have you guys got lined up?  Got any good thriller/suspense recommendations for me?