BRL Best of 2016

Well, Christmas has come and gone, and it’s been a truly lovely one here for our family. My son is five, and he is still at a sweet age to believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas, and not too cool yet to sing carols with his family on Christmas Eve while Dada plays guitar.  (He still calls my husband Dada. We’re hanging on to that as long as we can!)  Our parents are all still healthy and with us, and even though they’re long divorced, my mom and dad get along well enough to spend Christmas Day with us at my in-laws house.  I’ve had some days off and return to work tomorrow.  My family has baked and listened to Christmas CDs and watched The Charlie Brown Christmas Special and drove around looking at lights.  We’ve done all the holiday things we love to do, including reading lots of Christmas picture books!  It’s been so sweet and I really feel grateful.

That said, I’ve not done a lot of reading the past few weeks, and I’ve done even less blogging.  But I feel the desire for both returning, and I’m super excited about my reading plans for 2017!

But before I get to that post, I need to take stock of my reading for 2016.  So without further ado, here’s the Big Reading Life Best Of List!

visit-our-site-to-find-out-more-spark-com

  1. (TIE) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.  Both novels deal with slavery – James’s book is set in Jamaica on a sugar cane plantation, while Gyasi’s spans continents and centuries.   Both illuminate the horror of slavery in ways I’d never even considered before.  Both are stunning.
  2. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.  A memoir as open and vulnerable, but also as joyful and hilarious, as The Boss himself.  I truly appreciated Springsteen’s willingness to call out his own bullshit while not “telling tales” about others.  I especially loved the sections in his childhood and young adulthood.  I love this guy.
  3. Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt.  Weird, sad, and hauntingly romantic.  I haven’t been able to forget about this one all year.
  4. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  Words fail me here.  Utterly magical.
  5. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.  This  kind of book is my catnip anyway – multiple perspective family saga!  Rich People Problems!  But I was wholly invested in these messed-up, authentic characters.  Truly a standout of its type.
  6. March Books One and Two by John Lewis.  While I haven’t yet read the third in the series, I am wholly taken with the first two.  They’ve shown me the power that a graphic novel can have to illuminate and educate.
  7. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Quietly devastating and powerful coming of age story in Nigeria.  So glad I finally read it.
  8. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye.  So. Much. Fun.  Romance and gothic intrigue, a respectful but liberated take on Jane Eyre.  It’s not for everyone, but I just adored it.
  9. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler.  A surprise love for me this year.  Something about this novel just hooked me and didn’t let go even as I could see its flaws.

Goodreads tells me that I completed 80 books this year.  Of these 21 were by authors of color, which is about 26%.  Not quite as high as I’d intended at the beginning of the year, but an improvement on last year.  More stats:

Audiobooks: 4 (Interestingly, all were nonfiction.)

Graphic Novels/Comics: 14 (the most I’ve ever read!)

Nonfiction: 20  (8 were memoirs.)

Middle Grade: 3

Mystery/Crime/Thriller: 10

Rereads: 4 (an unusually high number for me)

Fun Fact:  The only YA titles I read all year were all comics/graphic novels!

So there you have it.  It’s been a very good reading year.  I began the year participating in a reading challenge (the TBR Triple Dog Dare) and ended the year rereading a trio of books, apparently seeking comfort (Little Women, Murder on the Orient Express, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which I’m still reading.)  I’ve been thinking about my reading goals for weeks now, and am really excited to share them in my next post.

I hope you all had/are having very Happy Holidays!  Have you met your reading goals for this year, or made progress towards them?  What was your standout book for 2016?  Have you read any of my top ten?

 

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I came to love the Williamsburg Bridge, once I learned how to walk it.  I was mostly alone, a few all-weather bikers, a few heavily bundled Hasidic women.  I walked either in some dusky circumference of gray light or some blotchy, cottoned afternoon.  It never failed to move me.  I paused in the middle of the filthy river.  I stared at the trash eddying in currents and clinging to docks like wine dregs cling to a glass.  Simone had mentioned the orphan’s dinner as Howard’s to me.  I thought of them all up there at Howard’s on the Upper West Side.  I thought of Jake in a Christmas sweater.  I told them I was busy.  Remember this, I told myself.  Remember how quiet today is.  I had the newspaper, which I would keep for years, and I was on my way to lunch in Chinatown by myself.  As I contemplated the skyline this double feeling came to me as one though, pressing in from either side of the bridge, impossible for me to reconcile: It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.

Have you ever read a book with a full awareness all the time of how other people might hate it?  While I was reading Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter I kept thinking, “I shouldn’t like this as much as I do.”  The main character, a twenty-two year-old named Tess, consistently makes such poor choices. She’s kind of a blank slate as well, and we don’t learn very much about her past at all.  Pretty much every person in the novel is messed up in some way.  There’s really not much plot.  And yet I couldn’t stop reading.

41fe52droflI’ve never been a server, I can’t really cook, I don’t consider myself to possess a particularly refined palate, and still I find myself drawn to books and television shows about food and drink. Sweetbitter is set in New York City, which hits another one of my bookish buttons.  It is divided into four seasonal sections, beginning with summer 2006.  Tess has left an unnamed place, a place she only describes by evoking “the twin pillars of football and church, the low faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs, mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts.”  Tess’s past is not really important in this story.  Instead we jump with her into the deep end of big-city, high-end restaurant business, and into the extraordinarily messy social lives of her co-workers, most of whom have been there for years.

She becomes fascinated with Simone, a senior server, and Jake, a bartender. They have an obvious and ineffable connection with one another, and despite being aware of that, Tess develops a raging crush on Jake.  Simone, who is in her thirties,  takes Tess under her wing, teaching her about wine and food and giving advice about life.  Tess comes to trust her and depend upon her as a sort of mother figure, all the while becoming closer and closer to Jake.

She cut me a piece of cheese and handed it to me – “The Dorset,” she said – and it tasted like butter but dirtier, and maybe like the chanterelles she kept touching.  She handed me a grape and when I bit it I found the seeds with me tongue and moved them to the side, spit them into my hand.  I saw purple vines fattening in the sun.

“It’s like the seasons, but in my mouth,” I said.  She humored me.  She cracked whole walnuts with a pair of silver nutcrackers.  The skins on the nuts felt like gossamer wrappings.  She brushed the scattered skins onto the floor, with the grape sees, the pink cheese rinds.

Let’s be generous and say that I understood about seventy percent of what Simone said to me.  What I didn’t misunderstand was the attention that she gave me.  Or that by being close to her, I was always in proximity to him.  There was an aura that came from being under her wing, with its exclusive wine tastings and cheese courses – the aura of promised meaning.

I mentioned bad choices earlier.  There is so much cocaine, so much alcohol flowing through these pages, so many casual and not so casual sexual escapades and heartbreaks. Thwarted ambitions, people using one another, people tethered to one another and to the restaurant in unhealthy ways.  But there is also the energy and the life of the nightly dance of cook, server, and guest, the camaraderie of going to the same bar with your co-workers every night, the thrill of learning to exist as an adult in New York City.  This is really a coming of age story.  I thought of myself at 22, fresh out of college, so lost without the structure of school, my identity so unformed.  I found myself feeling sympathy for Tess as she blunders on the job and in pursuit of love.  She makes bad choices, but damn it, she owns them.

Isn’t this what you dreamed of, Tess, when you got in your car and drove?  Didn’t you run away to find a world worth falling in love with, saying you didn’t care if it loved you back?

Danler’s writing is exquisite.  It hums and vibrates and pulled me along effortlessly.  I found myself picking up the book at every spare moment, and when I had to put it down again it was with unwilling resignation.  In this time of my technology-induced short attention span, I can’t tell you the last time I had this immersive experience of reading.  I know that some may find this author pretentious, or the plot boring, or Tess utterly unlikable. As for me, I simply lost myself in this world – a world I don’t want to inhabit in real life, but found so beautifully rendered that I couldn’t take my eyes from.

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

I am so glad that I got over my “I don’t read graphic novels” thing.  What was that about, anyway?  I’d just never read one before, so I didn’t know what I was missing.  It was like my five year-old and everything he won’t eat.  I tell him, “You think you don’t like blueberries, but you don’t know, because you haven’t even tried them.”  (Yes, readers, my son currently won’t eat blueberries, among other things that are yummy.  I know.)

march_book_two_72dpi_lgI don’t review a lot of the graphic novels I read, but I knew I had to review March: Book Two.  It’s going to be one of my favorite books this year, I can tell.  I read March: Book One back in June, gave it five stars on Goodreads, and knew I wanted to continue reading the series. The first book introduced us to the legendary U.S. Congressman John Lewis’s background as a farm boy growing up in rural Alabama and how he got involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Book Two opens with the SNCC working in Nashville to desegregate fast food restaurants and movie theaters.  But its real center is the Freedom Rides, which tested out the 1960 Supreme Court case that was supposed to desegregate buses and bus terminals nationwide.  We meet the first group of Freedom Riders, an integrated group of mostly young people from all over the country, as they get ready to travel deep into the segregated American South.

IMG_3630I don’t know about your high school history classes, but even though I had some amazing teachers, we never seemed to get much beyond the Second World War chronologically.  So though I had heard of the Freedom Riders before, I didn’t really make an emotional connection to the horrors they had to face for simply riding a bus.  Reading March: Book Two, seeing the powerful illustrations, made me feel the hatred and violence in a way that no text book or lecture could.

Juxtaposed with the beatings and the hard work of negotiating the tone of their nonviolent campaign is the promise and hope of the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. This is moving, knowing how far our country has come in 50 years, while still realizing how much work we still have to do to deal with racism. IMG_3631  Probably the most chilling aspect of the graphic novel was the extent to which some Southern politicians and police officers colluded with the vicious mobs, allowing them time to work over the Freedom Riders before they stopped the beatings.  Reading about how open these men were with their racists ideologies made me feel ill, knowing that there are those today who aspire to political office with similar belief systems.

I highly recommend both March:Book One and March:Book Two even to those who don’t care for or haven’t ever tried graphic novels.  I am so glad that these volumes exist, and that perhaps students will read them and become more aware of such a horrible part of our history.  My mom was a six-year old when these men and women were getting viciously attacked for doing something legal in the eyes of the Supreme Court.  She was eight years old when Congressman Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were speaking at the march on Washington, D.C. in 1963.  It really wasn’t all that long ago, although it sometimes seems like it.  Much of the work that we need to do as a country involves reckoning with our history, and I think young white people in particular need to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s violent pushback.  I’m so glad that I read these powerful books.  The concluding volume of this series, March: Book Three, just became available earlier this month.  I’m eager to read it.

 

 

 

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

I came to read Marlon James in January 2015, as many people at Book Riot were talking about how amazing his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was.  I thought, Hmm.  A novel about as assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica and Jamaican crime lords – sounds interesting.  It took me a week or so to settle into the heavy Jamaican patois of many of the characters, but once I did, I was HOOKED.  It was a novel with an energy and vitality I had rarely come across before, and I came to care even about the characters who were VERY BAD people.  It ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2015, and I wrote glowingly about it here.  I knew I had to read Marlon James again.  It only took me another 18 months!

But having finished The Book of Night Women this week, I can now safely say that Marlon James has vaulted onto my Favorite Authors list, and I will now read his other novel, John Crow’s Devil, and will seek out everything he writes in the future.

IMG_3587The Book of Night Women is set in Jamaica in the early 1800s on a sugarcane plantation called Montpelier.  The heroine of the novel, to whom we are introduced on the first page, at her birth, is named Lilith.  Her very young mother dies giving birth to her.  She has the most striking green eyes, with an energy that makes most of the slaves want to “leave her in the bush and make the land take her back.”  But the overseer, Jack Wilkins, gets two of the slaves, Circe and Tantalus, to take her in and raise her.  This is a story of Lilith coming of age, harnessing the “uppity” spirit she had from birth, and making connections with the other strong women on the plantation, namely Homer, the venerable head house slave.  But it is also a story of the violence and degradation of slavery in general.  This is probably the bloodiest book I’ve ever read.  However, it is not gratuitous violence – it simply reflects the truth, the awful inhumanity of not only the whites in power, but the “Johnny Jumpers,” black slaves who helped the overseer keep everyone in line, and the “Maroons,” free black mercenaries who live in the bush and capture runaways for profit.

I don’t want to talk much about the plot of the novel for fear of revealing too much, but through Homer, Lilith comes to meet other women with similar green eyes and fearless souls, and among them there is a rebellion plot afoot.  We also meet the young Master of the plantation, Humphrey, and his best friend/right hand man, an Irishman named Robert Quinn.  There is an interesting dynamic about how negatively the English planters viewed the Irish, and Quinn is always cognizant of his second-class whiteness.  He figures prominently in Lilith’s life later in the novel.

There is a pulsating energy to James’s writing, propelling the reader further into the darkness of the narrative.  It was a world that was almost too cruel to believe, yet I know that these things actually happened.  The slaves spoke in the Jamaican patois yet this was not problematic for me; I think it lends an authenticity to the narrative.  Maybe I was more primed for it having read A Brief History.  This novel enthralled me totally, even if the subject matter was hard reading.  It was simply brilliant, and I think everyone should read it.  I’m going to end with some quotations so that you can get a feel for the language and James’s talent.

Lilith, while watching a slave auction in Kingston:

Lilith wonder what running through bush with no chain on you foot or dog coming after you feel like.  And what it feel like to know all of that, then lose it.  Do losing feel different from never having?  Do a captured nigger be a different nigger?  Lilith gone from perplex to melancholy.  She surprise that she never talk to a Africa man or woman before.  Except Homer.  And even Homer, who talk more Africa tongue than most, still don’t talk ’bout the Africa land much.

Homer, speaking to Lilith when she begins secretly teaching her to read:

Me not nobody nigger.  Learn this, when you can make out word, nothing the massa can do will surprise you.  A nigger, he no got nothing.  He got nothing.  But when you can make out a word, that is something indeed.  You know how long me know that Mass Humphrey was coming?  You think ’bout that.  When a bigger can read, she can plan, if is even for just a minute.  Make me tell you something else ’bout reading.  You see this?  Every time you open this you get free.  Freeness up in here and nobody even have to know you get free but you.

(Book number four of my #10 Books of Summer.)

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Sometimes it’s the books we love the most that are the hardest to write about, right?  I loved Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, plain and simple.  It’s a novel that I want to buy so that I can read it again.  I can see it becoming a “comfort read” for me in the future.  It’s genuinely romantic, a page-turning mystery, and a surprisingly feminist spin on a classic, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I have only read Jane Eyre once  – I know, GASP! – back in high school.  It’s one of those books that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages.  But it’s influence is so widespread that the story feels fresh to me somehow.  I certainly don’t think you have to have read Jane Eyre recently or ever to enjoy Jane Steele, but for me it added an extra layer of enjoyment.

IMG_3493This is not what I would call a retelling, but rather I feel it is a companion piece to the original.  This Jane tells us from the first page,

I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.  My new printing features a daring introduction by the author railing against the first edition’s critics.  I relate to this story almost as I would a friend or a lover – at times I want to breathe it’s entire alphabet into my lungs, and at others I should prefer to throw it across the room.  Whoever heard of disembodied voices calling to governesses, of all people, as this Jane’s do?

Jane Steele is also an orphan, suffers at a horrible boarding school, and she becomes a governess, but there is one huge difference from the original – she’s a murderer.  This is not a spoiler, as it’s on the inside jacket flap and included in the first sentence.  I will say that she does not kill for fun.  Jane Steele is a warrior, fiercely protective of the people she cares for.  Perhaps this is what I loved most about the novel – her spirit of resourcefulness and capability, and her courage.  There is a decidedly feminist tone to the book, in Jane’s strength and also in her ownership of her sexuality.  Jane is a realistically lusty woman, and I appreciated that.

Which brings me to the romance at the heart of the novel.  I am not a dedicated romance reader, as a genre, but I DO appreciate a heartfelt, moving, deeply felt love story.  Lyndsay Faye has succeeded in bringing to life a sexy, slightly tortured, romantic pairing in Jane and Mr. Thornfield. I will not say more because I don’t want to spoil the plot.  But I loved, loved, loved, the pacing and unfolding of Jane’s attraction to her pupil’s father figure.

There’s also a riveting mystery about something precious hidden in a trunk, and a whole bunch of history about the British and Sikh wars in the Punjab, and all the while Jane is terrified of her past catching up with her.  I simultaneously couldn’t turn pages fast enough and didn’t want it to end.

I’m thrilled to have discovered that Lyndsay Faye has written previous novels and am adding them all to my TBR.  And I bought a used copy of Jane Eyre at the bookstore tonight.  I’m inspired now to reread the original after all this time.   This is going up there with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest for my favorite books of the year so far.  It’s also my first read for the 10 Books of Summer challenge.  What a fun, well-written book to kick off my challenge!

 

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

I’m going through a grapefruit phase right now.  Occasionally I’ll get obsessed with a particular fruit and I just can’t get enough.  Right now it’s grapefruits.  I eat half of one almost every morning.  Sometimes I eat the other half later in the day.  I don’t know.  I’m just going with it.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest reminds me of grapefruit.  It’s tart, somewhat sweet, and totally juicy.  I loved it.  It hit many of my bookish buttons right from the start.  New York City setting – check.  Multiple perspectives, told convincingly – check.  Family secrets and lies – check.  I didn’t have a lot of reading time when I first began, but once I was halfway through I finished the remainder in one day.  (My son was sick, and I stayed home and sat on the couch with him and read while he watched cartoons.)  I simultaneously didn’t want it to end and couldn’t stop turning the pages.25781157

The bare bones plot is this:  The Plumb siblings, the youngest of whom is soon turning forty, have been counting on “The Nest,” a ridiculously named trust fund that their father set up for them.  He intended it not to be something that they counted on to save them from bad decisions, but rather a modest sum that they could add to their retirement funds or help their kids pay for college.  Well, what was intended to be modest grew into a sizable sum, and all four kids counted their chickens before they were hatched.  Now that the youngest, Melody, is turning forty, they are all in financial trouble and eagerly awaiting their portions of The Nest.  The trouble is, the oldest sibling, the charming but feckless brother Leo, has gotten himself into major trouble, and Mama Plumb raids the Nest’s coffers to dig him out (and to shield herself from scandal.)

But this novel is so much bigger than its plot.  What I loved most about these characters (and we get to know not just the siblings, but their children, their partners, and their neighbors) is that they all seemed wholly believable to me.  They are all very flawed people, but they are not unlikable.  Sweeney writes with great empathy for her characters. This family not only doesn’t connect well with one another, but they also don’t really know themselves.  And it’s a real treat getting to see how they build (or break) bonds with one another and go on emotional journeys of their own, reckoning with old family patterns and poor choices.

If you enjoy a well-written family saga, if you’re a fan of books like J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine or The Engagements, or Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, you will probably enjoy The Nest.  It’s sharp, smart, funny, and compassionate, and I can’t wait to see what Sweeney writes next.  Definitely one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

Night comes down and her breath deepens.  Millions of stars overhead make the violence of the Big Bang clear.  So much force that matter is still sprinting away from the center.  I feel the velocity of space pinning me to this platform.  I’m tiny but I’m going to be someone’s mom, someone’s everything.  I touch the baby.  None of this is easy to believe.  The stars leave streaks, we’re moving so fast.  Ruth breathes heavily.  One small scintillation above – a gossamer thread of light – gathers oceans, every word ever spoken on the radio, each calorie of sunlight ever captured and stored in a kernel of corn.  You know.  Things like that.  And the star beside it: the tongues of every lizard, spider, leopard.  If spiders have tongues.  One day the sun will suck us in.  I’m not too angry about that.  Lying in these stars, despite them, somehow I can imagine my child seat-belted in a minivan while I stress the importance ofsharing chocolate Easter eggs or stuffed toy pandas or bags of corn chips with the other children.  And I’ll mean that being alive matters, even being alive in the smallest, smallest way.  And aren’t you lucky to be here.

The first book I’ve read so far this year that was published in 2016 is a DOOZY. Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot defies easy description, but I’m going to do my best to tell you why I loved it so much and why you should give it a try.  What I’m not going to do is tell you too much about it.  I didn’t know much about this novel besides the fast that Andi Miller (of Estella’s Revenge) had chosen it for her pick as the best book she read in January for Book Riot.  Reading it is such a thrilling and moving journey that to spoil it would truly be a crime.9780544526709

The novel begins in the recent past in a home for older, physically and/or mentally “damaged” kids in Upstate New York, named the Love of Christ! (intentional exclamation mark) Foster Home.  It’s run by a religious, deranged, but not altogether cruel man named Father Arthur, whom the kids simply call Father. He makes the kids dress in old-time plain clothing and work on the farm. There’s no TV, no internet, no electric heat and air.  Our story initially centers on Ruth and Nat, two 17 year olds who are not biologically related but have become so close over the years that they privately call each other “sisters.”  (Nat is a boy.)  Ruth has a large scar on her face from when her biological mother poured bleach on her.  Her much older sister El aged out of the house at 18.  She never returned for Ruth.  This all sounds really grim, and initially I wondered if the story of the foster kids would take a too-depressing turn, but Hunt somehow manages to weave a streak of hope into the narrative.

We next flash-forward to the present day, and we meet Cora, a twenty-something woman in a dead end (and soul deadening) insurance job.  She spends her breaks buying shoes online and surfing the internet. Cora is having an affair with an older married man, named Lord (!) and she finds out she’s pregnant.  Lord is not happy about this situation, to say the least.  We quickly learn that Cora is Ruth’s niece – the daughter of El, the sister who left her behind.  Ruth shows up at Cora’s door unexpectedly – Cora’s not seen her aunt since she was 17.  And now Ruth won’t or can’t talk.  But with a lot of nodding and pointing she somehow convinces Cora to come with her on a journey.  It’s not like Cora has a lot going for her anyway.

Meanwhile, back at the Love of Christ!, Nat and Ruth start offering seances to the kids at the home, with a mysterious entity named Mr. Splitfoot apparently inhabiting Nat’s body.  He tells the kids what they want to hear – that their parents would be with them if they could.  They get hooked up with a con man named Mr. Bell who wants to take their talents on the road, for a profit.

So we flip back and forth between two time periods, and the propulsive, mesmerizing quality of the writing casts its spell.  I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, but what starts as a weird, sad story about orphans morphs into a thrilling page-turner.  And then it takes this beautiful, haunting turn into something even more magical and meaningful.

I was not able to cobble together much reading time when I first began reading this, but every time I had to put it down, it was with great reluctance.  And then last night I read the entire second half in one breathless gulp.  I ended up with a face streaming with tears.  I didn’t expect to be so moved by this book.  If you like creepy, gothic, mysterious page-turners, put Mr. Splitfoot on your TBR.  It’s a work of speculative fiction (fantasy? magical realism?) with a great big beating heart.