BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

Friday Reading Roundup

Another Friday is upon us. Another day closer to Christmas! I hope that you’re not stressed out by holiday plans, shopping, and preparation. What better way to escape the hustle and bustle than to dive into some good books, eh? I’m not yet ready to reveal my Top Ten books of the year (that will be next Friday) or to tally up stats for the reading year (the last Friday!) So today it’s a quick review of what I’ve been reading lately and what’s on my nightstand to pick up next.

Finished lately:

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I really enjoyed this. Picked it off the NEW BOOKS SHELF at work (win!) Contemporary fiction. Three sisters, raised in England by their immigrant Indian parents, travel to India at the behest of their dying mother’s last wish. She has devised an itinerary for them, in the hopes that they will learn more about India, strengthen their bonds, and scatter her ashes there. There are lots of secrets that the sisters are keeping from one another, and they’ve all got some serious issues of their own that their not dealing with very well. Though I could see how things were going to work out, I didn’t mind it at all. I felt like these characters were well developed and believable, and the setting as they travel to the Golden Temple in Amritsar was superb. I’ll definitely try Jaswal’s first book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I’m enjoying the heck out of this! Another off-the-New-Shelf pick. Historical romance. A18h+5O2G3LLately I just want to read fluff. I’m not ashamed to admit it! I think it’s the holidays. I just need something soothing while my mind is pulled in many different directions trying to get stuff done. The premise is classic: 1870’s England, a poor well-read, smart, and beautiful woman (verging on Old Maid at 25), relying on the kindness of her lame cousin for her upkeep – she convinces him to let her take classes at Oxford, which had recently decided to let women take classes off campus. While there she meets other like-minded feminist women and in the course of advocating for changing the women’s property laws, literally runs into the MOST HANDSOME, well-connected, filthy rich Duke. Said Duke of course can’t take his eyes off our heroine either, but definitely disapproves of her ideas and pluck. Very cute stuff follows. Haven’t gotten to the sexy times yet.

Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

I wanted something Christmas-y, and spooky ghost stories appealed. I found this in a recent BookRiot article (check it out here.) So far it’s uneven, as most short story41V3UJFvzmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ collections are. My favorite story so far is by Muriel Spark, called “The Leaf-Sweeper.” Other contributors include Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, and Kelly Link.

What’s next?

I’ve got the next one in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, The Ghost Fields, and my last poetry collection for the year, Kevin Young’s Brown. After that, whatever strikes my fancy.

Do you find yourself reading lighter books during the holidays? Are you a fan of Christmas ghost stories?

Revisiting Reading Goals

Now that we’re into December (how??) and four weeks from now we’ll be into the New Year, it’s time to see how much progress I’ve made on my yearly reading goals. To refresh your memory, they were:

1. Read more from the New Books shelf at work (public library)

2. Read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

3. Read more poetry (four collections)

4. Read more from my own bookshelves

Let’s break it down.

1. Nope. Not really. I had this idea that each month I’d choose a New Book from the shelf kind of randomly, hopefully venturing into genres and authors I didn’t normally read. Didn’t do that at all, ha ha! I did read some New Books but they were books from authors I’d have read anyway, like Elizabeth Gilbert, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly. Truly, I only chose three books randomly from the New shelves this year: The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks, Burnout by Emily Nagoski, and Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory.

2. Yes! I DID read The Count of Monte Cristo. It took me months. But it was worth it. Surprisingly fast-paced (for the most part – there were a few slow sections) and entertaining.

3. Working on it. I’ve read two collections of poetry and have two more checked out from the library. I’ll have them finished by the end of the year. I’m glad I set this intention. I’ve always been a poetry fan but I easily forget to fit it into my reading.

4. Yes! I read 14 books that I owned this year. That’s more than the twelve I’d hoped to read. I didn’t do all the monthly prompts from The UnreadShelfProject on Instagram, but I did so some, and I think that alone made me more conscious of how I need to be reading my own books and not just books from the library.

These are a few of the books I read that I owned this year.

 

All in all, I’m happy with my goals. 3 out of 4 is good enough for me.

How did you do with your goals, if you set any? Are you thinking of what you’ll reach for next year? Or do you preferred not to set formal reading goals?

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (Classics Club)

“You make me sound hardly human, like a kind of fossil,” Leonora protested.

“I didn’t mean that – it’s just that I never think of you as being ruffled or upset by anything. Not like me- that awful night when I burst in on you, whatever must you have thought!”

“People react in different ways. One may not show emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t feel it.”

Barbara Pym is one of my favorites authors, but I’ve been saving some of her books I’ve not yet read. Not sure what I’m exactly saving them for, but I haven’t wanted to rush through all of them. I owned a copy of The Sweet Dove Died, purchased for $1.00 (!) at a local used bookstore, and decided this was the time to cross another Classics Club choice off the list. It’s short (just 208 pages) and typically charming and amusing – but for me it won’t jump to the top of her works.

19523620Written in 1978 (one of her later novels – she died in 1980,) the book’s main character is Leonora, an elegant woman of some means who’s in her early 50’s (I think, although it’s not exactly clear.) She meets twenty-four year old James and his uncle Henry, an antique dealer, at a book auction and immediately the three hit it off. Henry is taken with Leonora and she in turn has her heart set on James. But precisely what sort of relationship she wants with James is rather vague – she seems to just want his companionship and devotion, but not really anything physical.

Leonora liked to think of her life as calm of mind, all passion spent, or, more rarely, as emotion recollected in tranquility. But had there ever really been passion, or even emotion? One of two tearful scenes in bed – for she had never enjoyed that kind of thing – and now it was such a relief that one didn’t have to worry anymore. Her men friends were mostly elderly cultured people, who admired her elegance and asked no more than the pleasure of her company. Men not unlike a Henry Boyce, indeed.

As in many of Pym’s novels, not much happens, but simultaneously everything happens. James and Leonora grow closer, and then not one, but two people come into James’s life and threaten Leonora’s relationship with him. Meanwhile Henry is the odd person out.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, which is unusual for the Pym novels I’ve read – usually there’s at least one sympathetic character. Leonora is rather selfish and cold. But I was entertained and amused – Pym is always wryly funny and observant of human nature, even in an obtuse character. And as the novel went on I felt a little sympathy for her as she tried to hold on to her youth. I was also surprised by how modern the relationships felt, in that one of James’s paramours is a man. And it’s not something anyone in the novel bats their eyelashes at.

All in all, a gentle, intelligent, somewhat melancholy comedy of manners, full of repressed emotions and characters who aren’t terribly self aware. If you’ve never tried Barbara Pym I wouldn’t start with the one, but it makes for an entertaining and fast read if you’ve enjoyed her other books. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

(This is the 17th work read out of 51 classics on my Classics Club list.)

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

Mini-Reviews: 24/6 and In the Woods

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain

Are you addicted to your phone? Do you feel like your kids spend too much time on the computer or game console? Has your concentration, creativity, or sleep suffered compared to the days when you didn’t have a little computer in your pocket all the time? Do you stay awake past your bedtime watching endless episodes of your favorite show on Netflix? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book might be for you.

“Internet pioneer” (it says so on the jacket) Tiffany Shlain has made a very persuasive case for turning off screens for 24 hours during the week. Her family (husband and two kids) are Jewish and they practice a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” screen-free from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They begin the evening inviting people over for dinner, playing actual record albums on a record player, lingering over food and conversation to kick off every weekend. It sounds idyllic. Saturday begins with sleeping in, reading, writing in journals, even normal weekend activities like soccer games. She makes a plan beforehand, with phone numbers or directions written down on paper. (She does advocate the use of a landline telephone for emergencies.) After all, before cell phones we just consulted maps and planned meetings or outings beforehand, didn’t we?

In addition to telling her story, why she came to try this tradition, she goes into the science of unplugging from screens – what it does for your brain, sleep, stress levels, etc.

Though researchers don’t always agree on why sleep is so important, everyone concurs that it is. Sleep does so much for our bodies and brains. It’s when the pit crew comes in and gets everything ready for the next day.

One of the things that happens is a literal brainwash. While we’re asleep, our brains actually shrink in a process called “synaptic homeostasis.” This process makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking. It also allows synapses, which grow and widen while the brain is awake and busy but cannot grow indefinitely, to return to their normal size.

At the end of the book she provides a guide to trying your own Tech Shabbat, with suggestions for activities broken down by age group and even a recipe for challah bread that her family often makes during their time. You can do yours any day that works for your family. She also included friends sharing their experiences trying the Tech Shabbat, what surprised them or challenged them. It’s a very practical book, and it’s quite short, so you could read it in an afternoon.

My family hasn’t gone so far as to commit to a full 24 hours of no screens, but for the past two weeks we’ve had “Tech-Free Time” on Sundays. For five hours we don’t use any screens at all. It might not sound like much, but it’s been a game-changer for me. We play outside, play board games or do puzzles, read, work on projects around the house, and just actually talk with one another without distractions. I feel so much more present, and time actually feels like it’s slowing down. I do leave my phone on in case of emergencies, as we don’t have a landline. But I don’t respond to texts and keep it away where I can’t see it. I keep a notepad for writing down things I need to look up or do online later. I am thinking we should try expanding our time. As Shlain writes, “You are the parent. You can make anything happen. ” I highly recommend this book if you feel like you or your family old benefit from screen-free time.                        ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the Woods by Tana French

I’ve been meaning to read Tana French for years. I finally did and I’m so glad! I was worried that the plot of this would be too disturbing, with kids going missing and/or murdered, but I found that I could handle it. (Is the steady diet of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals finally toughening up my soul?) What I encountered here was lush, thoughtful, atmospheric writing, and a page turning plot as well. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, that sort of autumnal, almost elegiac feeling. The main character, Dublin Detective Rob Ryan, is the survivor of a horrific childhood incident, most of which he doesn’t remember. When a child turns up dead in the woods where Ryan was found twenty years previously, now the site of an archaeological dig and impending highway, he’s desperate not only to find the killer but to see if there’s a connection to his childhood trauma.

I loved the writing, found the characters credible and occasionally irritating in the way real humans can be, and was fascinated by the dual mysteries at the book’s center. I will definitely read more by Tana French.     ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐