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Everything I’ve Read in 2017 (So Far)

July 7, 2017
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Checking in on my reading goal for the year. I hope to read at least 50 books in 2017, and so far I’m two ahead of schedule. Here’s what I loved, loathed, and meh-ed.

Imagine Wanting Only This • Kristen Radtke

The death of a beloved uncle triggers a fascination with ruins and hollowed out places in this graphic memoir. Luminous, melancholy, and unlike anything I’ve read before.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living • Manjula Martin

A solid collection of essays and interviews about writing and commerce. It’s rare and refreshing to hear real talk about money, especially in my field, and I highly recommend this to other writers.

The Hate U Give • Angie Thomas

A young adult novel about a teenager drawn to activism after the police shooting of a close friend. This is the book everyone should be reading right now.

Difficult Women • Roxane Gay

These stories plunge the reader into the lives of very different women — two sisters haunted by a past crime, a stripper with a stalker, a black engineer in a small, Midwestern town, a woman who loves her husband’s identical twin. The women aren’t so difficult, after all; the world is.

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A Separation • Katie Kitamura

A quiet thriller about a woman searching for her estranged husband, who has gone missing in a foreign country. I loved this book. I loved it as a character study, I loved it as a rumination on love, marriage, grief, and endings. I loved it because there’s not a lot of action, but the plot never felt empty.

The Rules Do Not Apply • Ariel Levy

I am such a fan of Ariel Levy’s writing in the New Yorker, and this memoir did not live up to my (admittedly very high) expectations. It felt like the entire book was constructed around Levy’s stunning and memorable Thanksgiving in Mongolia essay, which is fine — but I don’t think the narrator has lived the ending of her story yet.

Thirteen Reasons Why • Jay Asher

I read this one after I watched the TV show, because I was curious how Jay Asher wrote certain scenes. Unfortunately, already knowing every twist and surprise meant I didn’t find the book to be as compelling. Had I done it the other way around, it would be a different story.

The One-Eyed Man • Ron Currie

This novel follows K., a man transformed by grief after the death of his wife, who finds himself the hapless star of a reality TV show. It’s both timely and clever, and it brought to light some uncomfortable truths about the world. I read this with tears streaming down my cheeks, and they were inspired by an even split of laughter/heartbreak. (Though judging from the reviews, I think I felt more maternal and tender toward K. than most readers.)

In the Garden of Beasts • Erik Larson

Erik Larson is all about using precise research to weave a fascinating work of nonfiction that reads like fiction, and this book is no different. This story focuses on the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, and his flamboyant daughter, who slept with everybody but Hitler. The book took a fascinating approach to a subject I thought I was already familiar with, but it was kind of like watching the Titanic crash in slow motion. I kept shouting, “Nooo!” at the page, but nobody listened to me.

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The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse • Jennifer Ouellette

I read this when I wanted to employ some calculus theorems in one of my essays. Then I discovered the essay worked better without them. I finished this book anyway, which says a lot about the conversational voice and the author’s unique lens on calculus.

Underground Airlines • Ben H. Winters

The premise of this alt-history thriller is compelling: It’s the present-day world, and almost everything is the same. Except the Civil War never happened. The execution of this story is a little uneven at times, and I was more interested in learning more about the world Winters constructed than in solving the actual mystery at the heart of the book, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Brief suggestions for raising a feminist child in a world that remains threatened by equality. This will be my go-to baby shower gift from now on.

Small Great Things • Jodi Picoult

I’m always suspicious when an author’s name is bigger than the actual title on a book cover, which is the case with Small Great Things, but I read this book anyway. I wish I hadn’t. It is tries so hard to be A Very Important Novel, in the same overwrought vein as A Very Special Episode of Growing Pains.

The Sun is Also a Star • Nicola Yoon

Teenage love between a Jamaican immigrant who is about to be deported and a first-generation Korean-American poet boy, plus fleeting looks at the other characters who cross their paths.

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia • Mohsin Hamid

This novel is written in the second-person in the style of a self-help book, so the structure is what initially attracted me. The exquisite prose made me stay.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide • Stephanie Saldana

An American writer makes a home with her new husband on the dividing line between East and West Jerusalem. This is an empathetic and lovely memoir that makes me desperately want to visit the Middle East again — this time for an extended period.

Fun Home • Alison Bechdel

Ahh-mazing. Just read it.

Woman No. 17 • Edan Lepucki

An unsettling LA noir about a writer, a nanny, a boy, a bunny, and how their lives intertwine high in the Hollywood Hills. Every few pages I found myself pulling out a highlighter to preserve some of the most sumptuous passages — and by the end of the book I was highlighting every damn thing.

You Will Not Have My Hate • Antoine Leiris

Antoine Leiris is a French journalist whose wife was killed by terrorists at the Bataclan in Paris. His heartbreaking Facebook post inspired this slim tribute to the exceptional and enduring power of love. It feels both shockingly intimate and universal.

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Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology • David Hinton

A friend in book club loaned this one to me when I was looking for something lovely to read, and this did the trick.

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland • Ken Ilgunas

This is the true story of a man who walks the entirety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — his goal is to have conversations about climate change, fossil fuels, and the oil industry with the people who will be directly affected by the pipeline. What’s really incredible about this book is that my staunchly conservative dad read it first, recommended it to me (<– not a conservative), and then we had a fairly reasonable discussion about climate change.

Today Will Be Different • Maria Semple

I have nothing to say.

Girl Waits With Gun • Amy Stewart

This is the book that helped me plow through the high-anxiety period around Inauguration Day, waking each morning at 3 a.m. with a racing heart and fretful mind. In those wee hours I turned to this sassy piece of historical fiction, in which one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs defended her family against the gang of bullies who threatened them. #Relevant

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What You Don’t Know • JoAnn Chaney

A story about a serial killer that’s violent, gripping, thrilling AND funny? JoAnn Chaney makes it happen. Bonus: Her female journalist character is spot-on.

The Sellout • Paul Beatty

Satire is so hard to get right, but this is masterful. Little wonder it won the Man Booker Prize.

Frankenstein • Mary Shelley

This was my first time actually reading Frankenstein, and I’m embarrassed it has taken so long. Turns out the story is nothing like I thought it would be, this book is breathtaking and gorgeous, and Hollywood’s version of Frankenstein’s monster is a lie.

The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World • Steve Hely

I think I’d like Steve Hely very much if I met him at a hostel somewhere. Instead I met him on the pages of this book.

The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 11: True Stories From Around the World • Edited by Lavinia Spalding

This one is the sweetest one of all, because I’m in it! When I made my backpacking trip around the world, I carried a couple volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing with me. My wish was that someday I would have a story compelling enough to share and the ability to write it well. Seeing my own name inside this book was that dream realized.

I’m biased, but I think this is the very best book on my list.

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This page contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. 

Books I Loved in 2016

December 27, 2016
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Yeah, 2016 was shitty for a lot of reasons. But at least it was a great year for books!

I read 50 books in 2016, shy of my goal to read 52. (But I’m not giving up yet! There’s still time.) And I’m finishing the year with a tall stack of must-read books on my nightstand, an overflowing Kindle, and a bunch of fines on my library card — all signs of a solid literary year.

These were some of my favorites.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube • Blair Braverman

I read Blair Braverman’s longform essay, “Welcome to Dog World!” in The Atavist, and I instantly became a devoted fan. The piece was expanded into this book, which I purchased on pub day — never mind that I’m not even really interested in dog sledding or cold locales. Braverman’s writing is immersive and original, and every page felt like a treat.

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Eligible • Curtis Sittenfeld

I’ve read a lot of “modern retelling of XX” books, and this retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” is the best, funniest one yet. Plus there’s a Skyline reference every few pages, and I’m all about Cincinnati chili. Cut me and I bleed a three-way.

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When Breath Becomes Air • Paul Kalanithi

A slim memoir that tells the enormous story of a dying man examining every facet of life. Beautiful and brilliant. This has become my favorite book to gift to others.

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Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget • Sarah Hepola

Can we travel back in time to give Maggie of 1995 this book? Sarah Hepola articulates so many things it took me years to discover on my own.

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Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home • Jessica Fechtor

The memoir of a young woman who suffers an aneurism and struggles to recover her lost senses. Thanks to the restorative powers of cooking/baking, Fechtor finds comfort, normalcy, and goodness again. This is a great book for anyone who knows that spending time in the kitchen is about far more than putting food on a plate.

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The Arrangement • Ashley Warlick

A gorgeous, sexy novelization of food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s life and loves.

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Before the Fall • Noah Hawley

This author is the producer, writer, and show runner of “Fargo,” so he knows a little something about compelling characters and sustained suspense. This is page-turney enough to feel like a beach read, but well-crafted enough that it never feels frivolous.

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Dear Fang, With Love • Rufi Thorpe

Rufi Thorpe is another writer I discovered through an essay this year. Her Vela piece, “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid,” felt as though it had been written by someone who could see right into my heart, and it had a deep and lasting impact on me. It was so powerful, I was a little nervous to read her fiction — I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to her nonfiction. I was wrong.

This is the story of an absentee father who takes his bipolar daughter to Lithuania for the summer. The family dynamics ring uncomfortably true, and the prose is precise and dazzling.

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The Underground Railroad • Colson Whitehead

Do believe all the hype about this book. It’s that good.

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The Handmaid’s Tale • Margaret Atwood

I read this in a women’s studies class as a freshman in college, and all I remembered was that it blew my mind. Cut to (ahem, MANY) years later, and rereading it blew my mind all over again.

First off, it’s a stunning work. Margaret Atwood writes with a scalpel; there’s not an unnecessary word in this entire book. But more importantly, this novel has never been more relevant. Atwood has created a dystopian society that feels hyper-realistic, showing how easily the public willingly relinquishes power and allows the oppressors to take control. If it doesn’t horrify you, you’re not paying attention.

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What were your favorite reads this year?

Fifty Shades of Meh

February 14, 2015

Well, I saw the first screening of “Fifty Shades of Grey” this morning. Nothing like a little BDSM to dominate the breakfast hour!

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This is the big-screen adaptation of the best-selling E.L. James novel, the story of young college student Anastasia who falls for kinky billionaire Christian Grey.

What I liked: 

• The soundtrack contains “Beast of Burden” and a decent cover of “I’m On Fire.”

• Christian Grey has a very nice bathtub.

• Helicopters! And ultralights! Actually, I would have preferred to watch two hours of just helicopters and ultralights.

• 100% fewer scrunchies than in the book.

 

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What I didn’t like:

• I thought I’d finally escaped the book’s crimes against punctuation. Then Ana and Christian began an e-mail exchange in the film, their messages popped up on screen, and there were all those dumb ellipses again. Come on …

• Christian Grey has an entire closet of grey ties. Who knew there were so many grey ties in the world? But what else would you expect from the CEO of Grey Enterprises, located at Grey House, where they apparently manufacture pencils that say “Grey”?

• The book’s stilted dialogue comes off even flatter in the film. Every time Christian Grey said, “Laters, baby,” I wanted to spank him. And not in a BDSM way. In a schoolmarm way. And not a sexy schoolmarm. Like, my fourth grade teacher at Our Lady of the Rosary who used to throw rulers at kids.

• Do college graduates always shake the hand of their commencement speaker? That’s weird, right?

• I knew going into the book that it was Twilight fan fiction, but somehow I compartmentalized it as a separate piece of work. On screen, however, this is the Twilightiest thing that has ever Twilighted. There was one scene in particular where I expected Christian Grey to sparkle like a Stephanie Meyer vampire.

• At one point, Christian leaps on top of Ana and bites a piece of her toast. (Yes, toast. That’s not a euphemism.) I got very angry about this on Ana’s behalf. The bondage and slapping is one thing. But eating the food out of this poor woman’s hand? Have some boundaries.

• Christian’s safe words are basically Homeland Security threat levels.

 

Major oversight:

• There’s absolutely no use of Devo “Whip It” anywhere. Not even ironically.

 

OK, but how was the sex? 

• The sex was not very sexy. I have seen perfume commercials that are sexier than this movie. Heck, I’ve seen Swiffer commercials that are sexier. The sex here felt entirely clinical, and not at all inspiring, steamy or even interesting.

• Seriously. Old episodes of “Moonlighting” are sexier. Go watch those.

• What is the opposite of sexy? Because that’s what this was. It was as if I’d packed up my lady bits in a snowsuit and sent them off for a trek around Patagonia, that’s how distanced I felt from my body. I was dead inside for a good two hours.

• “The Thornbirds.” Way sexier.

• Has someone done “Fifty Shades of Greyskull” yet? Because I started writing that film in my head during the sex scenes.

• I’d say even “Die Hard” was sexier.

 

Overall:

• I thought it would be worse.

 

2014: Favorite Reads

December 30, 2014

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that there are too many “best-of” year-end lists. Then I went ahead and gave you my top songs of the year. Now one day later, here I am with another list.

Forgive me, okay? Because this is a list of books, and books are good.

My favorite book of the year, as signed by the author. *swoon*

My favorite book of the year, as signed by the author. *swoon*

 

The Empathy Exams • Leslie Jamison

By far, this book shined above all others this year. It’s a collection of essays, but it’s also a guide to being human: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia – em (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”

Read the title essay here. If it doesn’t move you, you’re dead to me.

 

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This slender novel is the documentation of a marriage told in minimalist but exquisite bits of prose. It’s a story I imagine I’ll return to for years to come, and each time I’ll take away something different and special.

 

The Book With No Pictures • B.J. Novak

This book is brilliant. Just brilliant.

It’s a children’s book where the adult reader is forced to say a bunch of silly things, like “bluurf,” “blork,” and “my head is made of blueberry pizza.” So even while it’s engaging and fun, it cultivates a love of language and text for young, soon-to-be readers.

 

Gangsterland • Tod Goldberg

It’s always scary to read a book written by a friend, because what happens if you don’t like it? How do you hide something like that? Especially when you see this person all the time and you have zero poker face and you are me? Rather than lie every day to my friend Tod, I’d have to quit my job and move somewhere where he’d never find me — like Bolivia or Fresno.

So it was a relief to read “Gangsterland” and discover that I genuinely loved it. I don’t have to move to Fresno after all.

This is the story of a Chicago hit man who disappears after a botched job and resurfaces in Las Vegas with a new identity as Rabbi David Cohen. This is where money laundering suddenly meets morality, and the rabbi must learn to make peace with his career, all while fending for his family as best he can.

 

Yes, Please • Amy Poehler

I listened to this as an audiobook at the recommendation of my friend Leigh, and I’m so glad I did. Amy Poehler plays with the genre, inviting in a whole host of guest readers, giggling and singing through sections and speaking directly to the listener. Maybe this isn’t the most highbrow book on my list, but it was definitely the one I looked forward to most each morning.

 

Runners up:

Books I read and loved that weren’t published in 2014: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

 

 

Confessions of an Outlander addict

October 1, 2014

I will always remember this as the summer of big, life-changing things: I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree. I gave birth. And “Outlander” finally came to TV.

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“Outlander” is a series of books by Diana Gabaldon, about World War II nurse who falls through a magical circle of stones, lands in 18th century Scotland and discovers passion with a rugged Highlander. You know, that ol’ boy-meets-time-traveling-girl story.

As you can tell from the description, this series is full of awesome. The time travel adds a science fiction element, but it’s not about weird robots or anything. It has enough history to make you feel virtuous. And it’s a bodice ripper — literally, bodices are ripped — but all the books have a simple, classic design, so there’s no naked Fabio on the cover to give away your secrets. (It’s the literary equivalent of those Adam & Eve packages that arrive wrapped in plain brown paper, so your mail carrier won’t find out you’ve ordered dildos.) It’s basically the best of every genre.

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I’ve spent years waiting for this book to become a TV show (or movie — I’m not picky) and mentally casting the characters. YEARS. And it finally happened, thanks to the good people at Starz and my friend, Wendy, who lets me come to her house every week to watch it.

I purchased the first book in the series in 2010, when I was traveling around the world. I knew nothing about the story, only that Diana Gabaldon wrote freakishly long novels and that appealed to my backpacker’s budget. I had a great, big Kindle to fill and wanted the most pages for my buck.

“Outlander” quickly became my trusty travel companion. I was often lonely and sometimes bored, but “Outlander” always gave me a place to return.

In Bolivia, I spent some time volunteering at a monkey sanctuary. One of my fellow volunteers was, unfortunately, from Scotland. I mean, it’s terrific that he was Scottish. But it was unfortunate for him that he was forced to spend weeks listening to me yammer about Jacobite risings, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Scottish time travel.

A lot of our conversations went like this:

ME: Have you ever fallen through the stones at Inverness?

HIM: Hmmm, let me think. No.

ME: Well, maybe you weren’t there on the right day.

HIM: I’ve never even been to Inverness.

ME: I don’t understand. Aren’t you Scottish?

Once some little Bolivian schoolgirls wanted to see my Kindle, and I showed them how to read books on the device. They squatted around me on the floor of a wooden house as I flicked from one page to another. Then a passage stood out, black and bold against the blue-grey light of the screen: “And I mean to hear ye groan like that again. And to moan and sob, even though you dinna wish to, for ye canna help it. I mean to make you sigh as though your heart would break, and scream with the wanting, and at last to cry out in my arms, and I shall know that I’ve served ye well.”

Oh my! I blushed furiously, even though the girls didn’t speak any English.

Oh my!

Cheeky Highlander

 

“Outlander” became my addiction. Every few weeks, whenever I reached a city with a decent wifi connection, I downloaded another book from the series. They sustained me throughout South America, every bit as much as chicha and salteñas.

In so many cold hostels, thousands of miles from home, dashing Highlander Jamie Fraser was by my side. While I rode in a rusted bus over dusty, pocked streets, jammed between sweaty farmers and clucking chickens, my mind was in the lush Scottish countryside. When a Bolivian woman peed on my backpack — no, “Outlander” did not help me with that. But afterward I did check into a real hotel with a bathtub, and I read “Outlander” while I soaked.

I read a lot during that backpacking year, and those books are now superimposed over my own experiences. It’s hard for me to think about the places I traveled without also remembering the characters and stories that joined me along the way. In the same way that an INXS song instantly transports me to my sophomore year homecoming dance, “Shantaram” takes me back to a steamy beach in Goa. Whenever I think about “The God of Small Things,” I’m once again curled under a filmy mosquito net in Rwanda. And Geoff Dyer doesn’t know it, but he joined me in a straw hut in rural Ethiopia. (I left him there too.)

I won’t say I’m the biggest “Outlander” fan out there or any kind of expert on the series. In fact, I’m not sure I retained even half the story — I realize now I must’ve done a lot of skimming in between the kilt-dropping scenes. But I’ll never forget how it felt to form a friendship with those books over sprawling months and endless roads. “Outlander” will always be intertwined with my South American memories, my coca fields forever filled with Scottish Highlanders. Those months were all monkeys and Machu Picchu and a time-traveling British nurse.

Now it’s part of my summer of big things too.