Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Top 5 of 2015

It’s time to celebrate the beginning of a new reading year. That celebration requires a toast to all the pages turned over the past 12 months.

2015 was a year of books that were BREATHTAKINGLY SAD and BACK-BREAKINGLY LONG. My reading aspirations for 2016 include finding books that have fewer than 500 pages and that don’t crush my soul.

I also tried to read more diversely, incorporating a wider variety of voices and experiences through The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Bingo Challenge. My update on that challenge is forthcoming.

It's hard for me to rank books, because I look for different things at different moments. But here are the five books that made the biggest impression on me this past year:

#5 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I know. This doesn’t make sense. This book wrecked me, and I spent the rest of the year getting over it. It was devastating to read, and I am still haunted. However, its lasting impact on me earns it a place on this list.

#4 A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This book restored my faith in humanity after finishing A Little Life. It was funny and charming and had fewer than 500 pages. Win!

#3 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

This multi-form (poetry, prose, photography) exploration of race and citizenship was gripping.

#2 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This book hardly needs more discussion after the year it has had. It is a beautiful fairy tale and a horror novel, all in one. I was riveted.

I was captivated by this debut novel about immigration, dislocation, and belonging. It was an easy-to-read family saga AND a book filled with weighty ideas. I couldn't put it down.

Of course, there were so many other books worth mentioning. I enjoyed (but was deeply depressed by) Dale Russakoff’s education reporting in The Prize. Erin Malone’s new collection of poetry, Hover, made me think about motherhood in new ways. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel surprised me and pushed me to consider what kinds of things might endure if the world as we know it ceased to exist. And The Turner House by Angela Flournoy was a terrific debut about family, community, and urban change.

Happy New Year to all of you! Thank you so much for being a part of my reading life.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

I’m not the biggest fan of short stories, because I always feel cheated by their shortness. Just at the point where I’ve come to invest in a character, the story ends. Happily, The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora is an exception, largely because characters recur throughout the collection.

Also, the subject matter of this book hits me right in my nerd zone. I’m a sucker for an exploration of dysfunctional suburbia. Each of the stories focuses on a different household in the fictional town of Old Cranbury (Connecticut?). Behind the stately houses lie relationships in disarray. In some cases, the houses themselves reflect the human crumbling within. In other cases, no one but the reader could imagine that things are not what they seem. The themes are many: the tension between old and new; the tension between fantasy and reality; the tension between image and truth.

I think I like books about dysfunctional suburbia for a couple of reasons. For one, my own suburban childhood was full of families like those portrayed in these stories. I only saw the polished side – the manicured lawns, the made-up faces. Stories like these let me open the doors the houses I never got to enter. I also think that there’s something reassuring about witnessing all of these fictional dirty little secrets. Maybe money doesn’t ensure “The Good Life” after all.

I’m not sure that Acampora breaks new ground here, but I had a surprisingly enjoyable time getting to know the various families she creates. I’m looking forward to more from this author!

Here’s Bustle’s list of the top 10 portrayals of suburbia in fiction.  Do you have a favorite?

(Goodreads has a giveaway of this book in January! Free stuff is always fun.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

It's Monday! And the Cookies Are All Gone!

I am officially full of nog. Nogged out. It was a lovely holiday, though, and check out my book haul!

My 2016 stack now includes the following:

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Thank you to all the Santas in my life!

As promised, I read just one book last week – The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora. It ended up being an interesting-but-not-too-taxing read, and my review is forthcoming. I also posted a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. This week I plan to post my “Best of 2015” list and a recap of my progress on my 2015 Diversity Bingo Challenge (which I am losing).

Speaking of diversity, I plan to finish one more book before the year ends: Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. This piece of narrative nonfiction has been discussed as an interesting pairing with Between the World and Me by Ta’Nehisi Coates. I’ve started it, and it’s really good so far.

I hope you all are recuperating nicely from your various celebrations. I’m getting excited for the reading year ahead.

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

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review of Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

I’ve mentioned before that my mother is in search of good portrayals of older characters. This is a difficult quest, because most characters are under 40. Any older characters that do exist are usually experiencing dementia or reinforcing stereotypes by being grumpy or adorable, or both.

My favorite portrayal of an older character this year was Ove in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (though he is grumpy and adorable). However, it turns out that Ove is not even 60 years old. Perhaps this is a case of a much younger writer imagining old age (Backman is 34), where anything over 50 is ancient.

Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night has two things going for it. One, Haruf himself was in his 70s when he wrote it, so the main characters are presumably rooted in real experience. And second, the older characters are fully functional people, living real lives. They do not exist to be the butt of a joke or an exploration of the process of illness or decoration in a family-gets-together-for-the-holidays drama.

The novel – or novella, or short story with very wide margins – follows two characters, Addie and Louis, who are both widowed and living in the same small Colorado town. Addie proposes a unique arrangement – that Louis come sleep (literally) with her at night. The setting is largely Addie’s bedroom, where the two talk and get to know each other and find companionship.

The reader gets to experience the development of a second chapter in these characters’ lives, one that is created after the traditional narrative ends (born, grow up, get married, have kids). We also get to see other people in their families and in the small town grapple with this second chapter (hint: not everyone thinks it’s so great).

I liked this story quite a bit, but I didn’t like the ending. This is the third book in a row where I’ve had this problem, which makes me think that there’s something going on with ME rather than the books I’m reading. In this case, I was disappointed in the novel’s abrupt turn.

Our Souls At Night was published after Haruf’s 2014 death. He reportedly finished it just days before he died. His obituary in the New York Times explains his writing process (e.g. pulling a hat over his eyes to better imagine Addie and Louis’ world).

Sunday, December 20, 2015

It's Monday! And the Jingle Bells Are Ringing!

It’s been a few weeks since I did a Monday update. But my winter break week has finally arrived, now that I’ve completed grading a sleigh-load of student papers. I haven’t been blogging much these past couple of weeks (due to an endless leaning stack of work), but I did post two reviews: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward and The Lake House by Kate Morton. I also posted a new entry in my ongoing series, Dear Corn Syrup.  This one involved figuring out how to manage family holiday celebrations when you don’t like one of your family members. Also, just last night I finished Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night and will post a review soon.

I want to give a shout-out to my TBTB Secret Santa, Lois Johnson, for adding a few new titles to my leaning stack: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  

Also thank you to poet Erin Malone, author of Hover, for making these fabulous bloggish bookmarks:

I am grateful to all of you on the interwebs for bringing me ideas for such fun reading material these past few weeks. I love seeing everyone’s book wishlists and best-of-the-year lists. My very favorite thing to read this time of year is The Millions’ A Year In Reading series. My gift to you is a journey down this festive rabbit hole. Check it out!

Given that I have so much holiday cheer left to spread this week, I’m planning to read just one book. I’ve decided it’s going to be The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora. Here’s the description on Goodreads:

In her stunning debut collection, The Wonder Garden, Lauren Acampora brings to the page with enchanting realism the myriad lives of a suburban town and lays them bare. These linked stories take a trenchant look at the flawed people of Old Cranbury, incisive tales that reveal at each turn the unseen battles we play out behind drawn blinds, the creeping truths from which we distract ourselves, and the massive dreams we haul quietly with us and hold close.

Hopefully I’ll update one more time before the end of the week, but I don’t have a great track record these days. May your days be merry and bright!

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review of In Bitter Chill By Sarah Ward

No, I have not fallen down the chimney. I have just been deeply sidetracked by non-bookish things. End of quarter grading, holiday shopping, egg nog…

I just finished In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward. It’s a debut police procedural that has all the elements of the genre that I love – a brooding-but-kind lead detective, a scrappy young new detective, and a glimmer of flirtation between them. It was ALMOST a perfect escape.

The premise is that two girls were kidnapped in 1978, but only one returned – with no memory of what happened to her or to her friend. Now, decades later, two mysterious deaths bring the old case to the surface, unearthing (ahem) family secrets.

What I love about this book is that it is a genuine crime novel – not a story about a missing teapot or a lost dog. But it is not filled with the intense violence that marks so many mystery/thrillers these days. I was able to get the heart-pounding kick of a good mystery without having to go to therapy afterward.

But I have to say that the ending of this book is terrible, and there is really nothing more annoying than investing  good reading time in a book that ultimately lets me down. I’ll probably read this author’s next book, but I’ll be hoping for a more plausible wrap-up. 

My thoughts about my 2015 reading year will be coming soon!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Review of The Lake House by Kate Morton

I love Thanksgiving food. In the month preceding the holiday, my mouth begins to water at the very thought of our particular traditional dishes. And there’s a reason for that expectation – every dish is chock full of sugar and butter and cream. My cranberries? 2 full cups of sugar! My yams? Sugar and butter and then more sugar! I make a spinach gratin dish that involves butter and milk and cream and cheese! It’s a once-a-year system overload of the bad things that make food delicious.

Once I sank into my post-meal food coma, I also sank into The Lake House by Kate Morton. This book has been the darling of the blogging community, so I ignored the goofball cover and jumped in.

(The face on the cover of The Lake House reminded me of this type of 80s cover. Nice outfit, Dude!)
And you know what? This is a great book to read if you don’t want to work hard and if you want to be transported to a different time and place. It was full of literary sugar. Full of it! Brimming over, in fact, and then drizzled with butter and cream and more sugar.

The novel strikes me as a mashup of a cozy mystery and a gothic romance. There are several story lines running alongside each other, and the narrative jumps back and forth in time as the reader tries to figure out two separate mystery arcs. At the center of both is a detective named Sadie Sparrow, who is on leave from her job in 2003 after acting as a leak in an investigation. That investigation involves a woman who disappears and leaves her small child at home alone. The police department concludes that the woman vanished on her own terms; Sadie thinks foul play was involved.  On her break from work, she stays with her grandfather in the country. While there, she stumbles upon an abandoned estate that (miraculously) has been left exactly as it was in the 1930s. Sadie finds herself trying to solve the many decades old mystery of a baby who went missing at the house.

(Here's a creepy abandoned estate I stumbled upon in Ireland. I did not uncover any mysteries, unfortunately.)
If you like non-violent who-dunnits or books about crumbling mansions with hidden passageways and even more hidden secrets, this book is definitely for you. However, this is one of those novels where I had to constantly remind myself not to overthink things. There were so many convenient developments that pushed this plot along – e.g. a crime scene virtually untouched after 70 years and characters that helpfully write everything down in letters to be discovered later. I felt pulled away from the vibrant historical world each time Sadie got unrealistically lucky.

But I suppose you shouldn’t turn to a gothic romance-y mystery if what you’re looking for is realism. Morton gives the reader exactly what she promises, and for me, it was an entertaining holiday indulgence.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dear Corn Syrup: Advice For the Holiday Book Exchange?

Dear Corn Syrup,

Please help! My family is doing a book exchange this Christmas. Each person drew a name out of a hat, and I picked my new brother-in-law. There are three problems with this. First, I don’t really know anything about him except that he likes beer and offensive jokes. Second, I don’t like beer or offensive jokes. And third, I don’t think that he’s a good fit for my sister, and I wish she didn’t marry him. Any suggestions about a good book to give? Price limit is $30.


The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

How awesome is it that your family has a book exchange!? That fact alone tells me that you come from good people. I certainly understand your impulse to protect your book-loving family and its groovy bookish traditions from a tasteless newcomer.

Giving a book to someone you don’t know (and maybe don’t like) is a problem that a lot of us face. The fact that you’re dealing with this issue at a holiday family gathering makes your predicament all the more complicated. Holiday celebrations usually bring out the worst in every family, even families of readers! All of our lingering grudges about unfairness and stolen possessions and parental favoritism rise like curdled clumps in our eggnog.  So my first piece of advice would be to treat the book-giving occasion with the same caution you’d give to a conversation over the holiday meal: no religion, no politics (and in your case, perhaps avoid fiction about sisters who marry evil men). Avoid, at all costs, any book whose title might inspire a showdown between your Uncle Trump and your patchouli-scented cousin who loudly opposes the use of wrapping paper.

But clearly, Grinch, your question is not just about finding the perfect gift for someone you don't know well. You want things to go back to the way they were before your brother-in-law spilled his beer on your family holidays. And, unfortunately, there’s no kind of Christmas magic that can do that. What is in your hands, however, is this fabulous opportunity to give your SISTER a gift this season, the gift of opening yourself up to a friendship with her husband.

Here’s how a book could help you do that. Since you don’t know much about your brother in law, go buy one of those “Best American…” anthologies. There's The Best American Short Stories of 2015The Best American Essays, The Best American Comics, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and others. Go get one. But don’t just give the book to him. You need to read it first, and pick a favorite story within it (remember – no politics, no religion). When you give him the book, tell him that you especially love one particular story, and then tell him you want to discuss it with him. Over beer.

Who knows if he’ll take you up on the offer, but at the very least, you’ll have the knowledge that you handled yourself with grace. It’s also truly possible that this book will inspire a real conversation between the two of you. And wouldn’t that be amazing? Perhaps you’ll find that your heart grows three sizes that day. 

Happy holidays,

Corn Syrup