Monday, January 7, 2019

New Year, Old Books

It is the real first day of my new year. By that I mean that school starts again for the kids, and it’s no longer OK to spend the entire day on the couch watching the piles of holiday debris grow and tilt on every surface. Of course, like every day in my life, the world has thrown a wrench into my well laid plans to Get My Sh*t Together (2019 resolution, already withering on the vine). One kid woke up with a fever, and our next door neighbors have decided that this is the day to clean out their vents. A big truck pulled up in their driveway, which is mere feet from the side of our house, and the suction process has commenced its ear shattering song. As I write this, it is 7:30 a.m., and I am already reneging on many of the commitments I made to myself (Hello, Internet and your many seductions).

But this is a book blog, not a whine blog (or a wine blog…if I started one, could I sip while I type?). I have decided, as part of the project to eliminate some of my many piles, to make 2019 The Year of the Backlist. And with that decision, I have chosen for the second time to join Roof Beam Reader in the TBR Challenge.

Here’s the premise: I pick 12 books (and two alternates) that were published before 2018 and that are languishing on my shelves (or leaning in a random stack in the closet, or gathering dust on my nightstand). I vow to read twelve of them over the course of the year, thereby reducing the clutter of things undone. This project is good for me because I have two reading habits that conflict: 1)I love to buy books; and 2) I check out hundreds of books from the library. The library books tend to win my attention because of those pesky due dates and even peskier fines. And what happens is the growth of the aforementioned piles and the general hauntings of unread pages.

I have to admit that I tried this challenge four (!) years ago and failed. Or, I suppose, I could reframe the experience and say that I was able to read five books from my incredible leaning stack, leaving just nine to clatter around my house. I am putting a few of those original TBR copies back on this list this year.

I have attempted to make a list that incorporates all the of things I like to include in my reading life – authors from different backgrounds, a mix of genres and topics, and a healthy assortment of challenging and “easy” reads.

It’s time to get started! Here’s the list:

1)    The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: I got to page 111 of this book of essays before getting distracted. I was loving it and always said I’d need to go back to the beginning and try again. The first one describes the author’s experience being a medical actor, a practice patient for medical students developing their empathy skills. The receipt I was using as a bookmark says that I bought it new at Powells Bookstore in Portland, OR in May, 2017.

2)    Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I have always wanted to read this book, and yet I always pass it over for other things. I know that several of you have read this and loved it. I admit to shying away from it because both the terrorist and the opera elements of the description been off-putting. It was on my 2015 TBR list, and I’ve had it on my shelf for at least a decade. I fear that I borrowed it from someone and never returned it. Sorry.

3)    Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I love this author, and I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah, and Dear Ijawele,or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (here is my blog post). One of my kids read this novel for school, and this is his copy. I don’t know where it came from, but it includes a 2016 receipt from The Cheesecake Factory (Pumpkin Cheesecake and Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch). Was he reading it while eating?

4)    Arcadia by Lauren Groff (alternate): I like Lauren Groff (though here's my conflicted review of Fates and Furies), but I’m not really interested in communes, which is the setting for this novel. I remember hesitating when I bought it at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas in 2016. You know how it is when you really want a new book, but nothing really calls out to you? It was one of those days.  I’d rather read Florida by this author – that one is also on my nightstand – but it was published in 2018 and doesn’t qualify for the challenge.

5)    The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin: This one came highly recommended from a friend, and it’s by a Pacific Northwest author. From the price tag, it looks like I bought it used at Powells Bookstore in 2016. Historical fiction is not my go-to genre, which is probably why it has sat unread for so long.

6)    The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma: I bought this one new at Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, IL in 2016, after it was highly promoted on the Book Riot Podcast. And then the New York Times called the author, “the heir to Chinua Achebe.” Nonetheless, the violence promised by the description has put me off. I am hopeful to get over my hesitance and try it.

7)    Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: This is another one that friends have recommended, and I really enjoyed the author’s Sourdough last year. I bought this copy used at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA. I don’t usually gravitate to fantasy-ish books, but I hope to be charmed. A magic bookstore? OK, I’ll bite.

8)    Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok: I bought this Advanced Reader copy at the Friends of Seattle Public Library book sale for fifty cents more than five years ago. I know you're not supposed to buy unpublished copies, so my apologies to the literary world. I’m a sucker for an immigration story, so I’m not sure why this one has languished on the shelves for so long.

9)    Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: Another Patchett! I started this one in 2016 just as we were starting our house remodel. I read 75 pages and set it aside. I seem to remember that this was the time when I went four months without reading, because I was too overwhelmed by picking out paint colors and hinges and baseboard styles.  I got this copy for Christmas, and Santa found me a British paperback edition before the American version came out.

10) The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell (alternate): I also got this one for Christmas in 2016 and it was set aside for the house remodel extravaganza. The description says that the author goes around the world visiting bookstores. What’s not to love about that!? I have this down as an alternate, but now that I’m looking at it, I might read it first.

11) H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: I bought this copy from the remainder table at Third Place Books, Ravenna in Seattle. Everyone I know said it was fantastic nonfiction about grief, but I haven’t picked it up because I’ve been worried about ending up miserable. I want to read great things, but I don't want to propel myself into a sobbing heap. What a readerly dilemma!

12) Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides:  I got this one as a gift, and the gifter knows how much I enjoy this author. I looooved Middlesex (and, fun fact: Eugenides went to my high school, albeit several years ahead of me). This is a collection of short stories, and I am notoriously bad at getting through short stories.

13) The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson: I know that this book the best thing since sliced bread, and I love sliced bread. I promised to read it when I participated in Nonfiction November years ago, and it was also on my previous TBR challenge list. I received this copy in hardcover for Christmas, maybe in 2010.  I don’t know why I am intimidated by this book, but it is time to overcome whatever it is that is in my way.

14) We Were Eight Years in Power: A Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of the essays in this collection, Donald Trump is the First White President, knocked me down when I read it in The Atlantic in October, 2017. And I have written before how Between the World and Me changed me forever.  I bought my copy of We Were Eight Years... at Powells when it first came out, and it has been staring at me from my nightstand ever since.

My plan is to update you along the way as I successfully navigate my way through this list. I'll be keeping track of my progress on this entry, adding completion dates and links to reviews:

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

And if you’re interested in joining me, you can find the “rules” at Roof Beam Reader. Or you can just read your own backlist in your own way, but please let me know how it’s going. I hope you play along!


Thursday, January 3, 2019

My Year in Reading: 2018

I did not read as much as usual last year. To be honest, I struggled with my phone and all of its lures: your adorable kids on Facebook; dogs in costume on Instagram; the endless rabbit hole of Twitter; and Snapchat? I still don’t understand its appeal, but I am certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to decorate a photo of myself. I find that those things pull me and pull me, and a whole pile of my reading time was lost in those mindless ventures.

The question is, of course, whether I want to continue reading this way, or if I should make myself become more intentional and focused. I have always said that reading should not be a grim task, full of rules and requirements. But the internet is my candy corn, straight sugar to the brain. I always feel gross after I consume it.

This is not to say that I didn't read some fabulous things over the last twelve months. I don’t have an easy-to-rank list of favorite books from 2018, so this will not be a straightforward Top 5. Instead, I will follow the lead of one of my favorite reading rituals (on the internet! Ack!): A Year in Reading from The Millions. In that feature, authors talk about their reading adventures over the course of the year. Many of them bring their most pretentious reader selves to the task, leaving me to wonder, “What did you read in the bathtub? Certainly not the snooty stuff you list here.” But each entry brings the possibility that I will find a new title or author or perspective.

When I look back at my own list, I am most struck by the nonfiction. Educated by Tara Westover was fantastic, in part because of its novel-like accessibility, but also because of the questions it raises about the American mythology around pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Westover grew up isolated in a very religious family, enduring restriction and abuse. What made it possible for this kid to transcend her difficult circumstances, finding her way to an intellectual life? Was it something about the kid or the circumstances? Two other books I read also grappled with schooling. The Class: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America by Heather Won Tesoriero and Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side by Eve Ewing ask us to consider how and when and for whom formal education is a pathway to power. Those two books were particularly interesting to read back-to-back, with Ewing’s discussion of structural racism in Chicago suggesting all the unspoken variables that might have led affluent Greenwich High School’s acclaimed science research program to become so special. (In other words, was it just a “life-changing teacher?”) And finally, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond asks us to consider the way that our housing polices might further exploit an existing economic divide. The narrative style of his reporting makes this a particularly compelling read, especially if you are looking for a gut punch. Maybe that should be a new genre category: The Gut Punch.

I did manage to recover from the gut punching with some great comedy this year. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher was probably the book I enjoyed the most this year. I’m a sucker for academic satire, and this one hit all the right notes for me. I’m not sure if you need to be part of the academic world to enjoy it, but if you are or ever were, this short novel reveals every absurdity. I also loved – and was surprised by – Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate toward a book about magic bread, but this comedy-skewering-foodie-culture/dystopia-in-which-disruptive-technology-runs-amok was a true treat.

And finally, my reading comfort comes from family dramas, and 2018 offered no shortage of those. The most compelling was probably Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. The novel follows two families on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. One is an immigrant family awaiting asylum and the other is an affluent family whose husband/father works for Lehman Brothers. The story explores the idea of the “American Dream” and asks whether it’s attainable (and at what cost). A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza also scratched my family drama itch. In some ways it’s a middle class drama about parental expectations. In other ways, it’s a specifically cultural story about being Indian and Muslim in America. And finally, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee came to me as a surprise. I’m not usually attracted to sprawling historical fiction, but this account of a Korean woman in Japan over the course of the twentieth century was unusually captivating. Plus, it pushed me to think about the economic forces and racist systems that impact an individual’s autonomy, both in this historical context and generally.

I’ve already finished my first book of the new year (Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows). And I’ve started my second (Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver).  I’d love to hear from you all about what you enjoyed in 2018 and what books you’re looking forward to in 2019. Also, how do you stay off your phone? Can you resist the cute animals in costume?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

It's Tuesday at the Leaning Stack of Books!

I’m a day late for my weekly update! So sorry! Can I blame it on the fact that I received another inexplicable recommendation from Goodreads?

Based on my reading preferences??????!
My intent last week was to read one book: News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I did that, and I also got through 2 more: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Rise Up!: Life and Literacy in an Urban First Grade By Linda Katz.

An American Marriage is, of course, the most recent Oprah book club pick. And I have lots of thoughts – ones that I should turn into a longer post. This book is about a marriage, sure, but the title, “An American Marriage,” is significant. My take is that the novel is as much about what our obligations are to each other as Americans as it is about our obligations to each other are in intimate relationships.

A fun tidbit about Tayari Jones – she once shined her famous writerly gaze on this blog. Here’s a screen shot of our exchange on Twitter after I posted my thoughts about her previous novel, Silver Sparrow.

In the spirit of setting small goals, I will be reading one new one this week: Force of Nature by Jane Harper. I read Dry, the first in Harper’s Aaron Falk series, in January, and I’m excited to return to the Australian setting and the fast paced plotting of these mysteries.

For those of you looking for new things to read, here’s a link to The Millions’ list of new books coming out in March. I just added The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea to my enormous leaning stack.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Staying Upright in a Messed Up World

My ability to get things done is very affected by the news. I recently wrote about how destabilized I was by the 2016 election and its aftermath, and how my reading and writing life suffered because of it. Watching the news these last couple of weeks has also unsettled me. But I’m trying to stay upright. I bought a happy light. I put highlights in my hair. And yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in eons.

While on the treadmill, I listened to Will Schwalbe’s new podcast, “But That’s Another Story,” which features different authors talking about their reading origin stories.  Schwalbe is most famous for his book, The End of Your Life Book Club. The first episode spotlights Min Jin Lee, who wrote Pachinko, a book I received at my book club’s holiday book exchange (and which is perched atop my leaning stack!). And at the outset of the episode, Schwalbe reads the famous James Baldwin quote about empathy:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

I don’t know why Baldwin's insight struck me so much at that moment (somewhere around mile 2, at the point where I remembered that I hate running on the treadmill). There have been so many times recently when I have wondered if it matters that I read books or talk about them or write about them. And that set of questions very easily shifts into, “Why bother?” Baldwin reminds me that reading is a bridge to greater understanding of the world, an understanding that I so desperately need right now. So you can thank James Baldwin (via Schwalbe via the gym) for my first "It's Monday!" post in over a year.

The good news is that I finished two books last week. First I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 2017. I will write about that book shortly, because I think it's an important one for those of us grappling with questions about why things in the world seem so messed up.  I also read Girl at War, by Sara Nović, which is a fictionalized account of the Balkan Civil War in the 1990s.

This week I am reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles. This book has been recommended to me by so many people, which is weird because I wouldn't pick it up on my own in a million years ("for lovers of Texas historical fiction"). I have checked it out from the library 5 times, and the fifth time is going to be the charm. In addition to all the praise the novel has received, it has the added bonus of being only 200 pages. I’m all about small goals these days. 

Before I leave you, I have a random question. Can anyone explain the logic of Goodreads’ algorithm for picking recommendations? Today I woke up to this:

I can guarantee that I don’t have a single cowboy romance on the list of things I have read – no offense to cowboys, of course. Also, the blurb says, “Luke like his life – and his women – uncomplicated.” Luke would not like me at all.  Goodreads, I’m feeling a little bit misunderstood.

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, February 5, 2018

Blogtastic!: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

BLOGTASTIC! We’ve reached the last and final square in the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge. Today will feature Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, which fulfills the category, “Book by an Asian-American Writer.”

The book blogosphere loves Ng’s books, because they are very accessible family dramas that offer entry into complicated conversations about identity. Her debut, Everything I Never Told You, was the Amazon Book of the Year in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere was the Amazon Best Novel of the year in 2017 an the Goodreads Choice Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. So y’all love your Ng.

I like Ng’s books. I do! But I don’t love them, and that always makes me feel weird. It’s kind of how I feel about Star Wars. Sure, I’ll go, but I have no interest in standing in line in costume at midnight to see it. 

photo credit: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency at
Little Fires Everywhere is a book that is trying to do several things. First, it is a satire of sorts of white, affluent culture. The novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is the author’s hometown. Ng takes aim at the pristine appearance of the setting, the rules and conventions, and the supposed progressive politics of the very rich people. Second, it is an exploration of the complexities of motherhood, and the novel features several mother/daughter relationships that poke at all the ways that being a “good mother” is difficult. And third, the novel wants to explore intercultural/interracial/interclass adoption, which brings all three themes together. Ambitious, right?

The problem I have is that I don’t think that Ng really trusts her audience to grapple with the complex moral issues at the center of the book. I’m not truly spoiling anything with this discussion, but STOP RIGHT NOW if you are worried about finding out too much about the story. 

The interracial/cultural/class adoption controversy involves a legal challenge between affluent/white adoptive parents and a low income, young, Asian birth mother. Class issues are central here, because the baby will certainly grow up with all sorts of material advantages if she stays with her adoptive parents. But the birth mother’s biological connection and cultural connection sit as important, contrasting advantages.  There’s so much interesting (and tragic) possibility in this subject matter, but I don’t think that Ng allows us to encounter the difficult heart of this problem. I wanted to feel challenged, but the adoptive parents are so completely clueless that I felt manipulated. What if the adoptive parents had surrounded the daughter with people and experiences that would help her connect to her heritage? What if there was genuine goodness – though different goodness - on both sides of the legal aisle? Then the reader would have a real dilemma, just as we do when this issue plays out in real courts, when we have to ask, “How does race matter?” and “How does class matter?”

So read this for your book club! There’s a ton to talk about, clearly. You can even wear your Star Wars costume while you do so.

Original from Then I mangled it.
Here’s an interesting interview with Ng. And here she is in The Atlantic talking about the significance of Goodnight Moon: “If you imagine this book without the words that accompany the pictures, it would be a mystifying work—even a little bit terrifying.”

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Blogtastic!: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Today I’ll be writing about the fourth square on my 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card: Book By An “Award Winning” Author of Color. I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich not because I wanted to, but because my high school aged sons were assigned to read this in class.  And I knew from reviews --EEK, the subject matter! And I don’t think this is a spoiler because it happens in Chapter 1:

The main character’s mother is raped, and the bad guy tries to set her on fire.

This struck me as a shocking topic for a tenth grade discussion until I realized that it’s probably the plot of half of the mass market thrillers on bookstore shelves. But still, trigger warning for this entire book!

The main character is a Native teenager who, as his family struggles with this crime, has to confront the idea of justice. And the crime happens at a place where location matters – will it be subject to United States federal law or tribal law? The question of rights and authority is literal, but it is also philosophical: can there ever be real justice for indigenous groups?

The other thing that is striking about this book is that it is a coming-of-age story. So much of this book did resemble novels that I had to read in high school: The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, etc. It is the terribleness of the crime that sets it apart, and the fact that a young boy has to live with that kind of violence. Is the reason that I was so shocked at this content because people like me (white, economically stable) can assume a protected childhood? Is this belief just another facet of privilege? There’s a connection here to Between the World and Me, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writes a letter to his son about what it means to be young, black boy today. The message: The world might be safe for some people, but it’s not safe for you.

What would Holden Caulfield say about the fact that adults made an online quiz about him to help kids get good grades in school?
I also saw a connection with Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (#4 on my Best of 2017 list). That book has coming-of-age elements (main character is a teen boy coming to understanding about his family), and it also confronts the idea of whether justice is possible for the characters. There are cultural ghosts in both novels that tether the current day story to history. I can imagine a fantastic book club discussion with the three books together (Erdrich, Coates, Ward) – assuming, of course, that your book club wants to dive into deepest literary sadness.

The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. Erdrich’s 2009 novel, The Plague of Doves, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Award in 1984.

The internet just told me that Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. It’s an independent bookstore that focuses on Native literature and community. So if you’re there for the Super Bowl, go check it out!

Here’s a 2012 New York Times interview with Erdrich about The Round House. And here’s a new one from Elle magazine. The interviewer is Margaret Atwood!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blogtastic!: Janesville by Amy Goldstein

 We’ve made it to the “free square” on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card. I’ve decided to choose the category, “Nonfiction About Race or Class in America.” And the book that fills that category is Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.

I listened to Janesville on audio, and come to think of it, audio books offered a great way for me to branch out from my go-to diet of fiction about sad white ladies. In the final half of 2017, I listened to three audio books that filled squares on my bingo card. Yay, broadened horizons!

Janesville is a true case of narrative ethnography -- only rarely do I feel like the author steps in the middle of it. It follows the trajectory of residents of Janesville, Wisconsin after the General Motors plant closes and offers a complicated story of the declining middle class. I was most struck by the hope that gets pinned on education (workforce retraining) as a way to bolster the middle class in the face of economic change -- and, in this case, its lack of impact.

This book will clearly appeal to people wondering what happened during the 2016 election, and frankly, I think it is better than Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – which was the book that has received the most praise for trying to explain the mindset that propelled some economically struggling white people to become Trump’s base. Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and craft to her work, while Vance is talking about his family and his neighbors and his own history. Janesville is part of this same conversation because of Wisconsin’s Electoral College vote outcome and also because it is Paul Ryan’s hometown. It is notable, however, that this is NOT a book about Trump, and Goldstein doesn’t even mention him until the epilogue. Plus, Janesville voted Democratic during the election.

Several reviewers have noted that Janesville needs a part 2. Understanding the state of our politics requires grappling with race, and Goldstein does not do that with much depth. It’s true that the Janesville community is over 95% white, but the existence of the all-white communities is part of the story of racial segregation and exclusion that is central to American economic history. Goldstein does give a nod to the fact that Beloit, Wisconsin – just down the freeway from Janesville – is more racially diverse (15% African American and 17% Latino). The politics that led to a region that has those racialized elements is important.

Of course, there might be a bigger question at stake for readers who pick up a book about Wisconsin. What is the appeal of cheese curds? Why?!?!?!
Vat O'Curds

Valentine's Day Themed Curds?????
Here’s a link to a Marketplace interview with Goldstein, with an edited print transcript included. And here’s a review that I liked from The New Yorker.  Janesville won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year for 2017.