Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!

 

Advertisements

Book in a Minute: Jane Eyre’s Sisters

I know, I know. It’s been a minute. What can I say? New job for me, husband who’s starting up his own new business, shoulder injury, moving — you name it, I’ve got the excuse. I can’t promise a lot more reviews in the future, but this was a fascinating book, so I thought it’d be worth taking a minute to break my long silence!

Jane Eyre's Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine's StoryJane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story by Jody Gentian Bower

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little slow and ponderous in places–kind of reads like it might have begun life as a doctoral thesis. But what an excellent, under-discussed topic!

As a writer, I’ve sat through countless workshops that try to stuff women’s lives into the “hero’s journey” format laid out by Joseph Campbell. The format was picked up by Hollywood script doctor Christopher Vogler and is widely touted as the only story worth telling.

Personally, I’m not entirely sure I buy the theory that all great stories must fit Campbell’s hero’s journey in the first place. I definitely don’t believe that all great stories about women fit that mold. So Jane Eyre’s Sisters by Jody Bower was a welcome discovery. I’m not sure I agree with all her conclusions, either, but I’m just thrilled that SOMEONE finally decided to analyze the great works of literature that resonate more with women than with men!

View all my reviews

Book in a Minute: I Remember You

I Remember YouI Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing! I was sold by the fact that the super-talented Simone St. James, a worthy successor to Daphne Du Maurier, wrote a rave review of this book. And many others have also loved it and found it super-scary. But for me it was utterly meh.

Three frenemies in dire financial straits have bought an old house on a remote island with plans to turn it into a bed & breakfast for outdoorsy, nature-loving tourists. They decide to go to the island in the depths of winter to do their renovations so they can start raking in the cash from tourists as soon as the weather breaks. Yeah, nothing wrong with that idea as anyone who reads suspense can tell you. Of course things start going creepily wrong right off the bat. There’s the charter boat captain who drops them off and warns them they’ll be totally alone on the island and he may not be able to get back to rescue them right away if the weather turns. There’s the word GOOD-BYE spelled out in seashells on the floor of the cottage. There’s that other person they keep glimpsing from a distance but can never meet. At least, maybe it’s a person…

If it were just a tightly written short story or novella about this trio and their adventures, I think I’d have been all in on this story and loved it. But there’s a parallel story about a doctor whose son has been missing for three years. I found that plot excruciatingly slow-moving and hard to believe. (view spoiler)

Lastly, there was the translation. At least, I hope it was a bad translation. Because the language was so clunky and reportorial, not at all visual and evocative, which to me is what a ghost story needs.

I listed this in my “Did not finish” shelf because I pretty much skimmed my way through the last ten chapters. I did my best in honor of Ms. St. James, but next time she recommends a read, I think I’ll just re-read one of her own books instead!

View all my reviews

Book in a Minute: Catching Dreams

Catching DreamsCatching Dreams by Karin Celestine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How are there not tons of reviews of this sweet little book?!

This is an adorable and very quick read. Part of a delightfully illustrated series about a little animal family featuring Baby Weasus, a baby weasel adopted on Christmas Eve by King Norty, King of the Weasels. And featuring their equally adorable friends, Panda, Emily and Small.

In Catching Dreams, Baby Weasus has a bad dream. King Norty gives him a dreamcatcher, and later, Weasus wants to return the favor, so Emily teaches him how to make one of his own. Each book in the series features a simple craft like this, with instructions on how to make the item.

We shelve these books in our children’s picture book section at the library where I work, but they would make excellent gifts for older kids too. And fun little party favors, even for grown-up occasions like baby showers.

I love these books and am on a quest to tell the rest of the world about them!

View all my reviews

Book in a Minute – Library Edition: The Clairvoyants

The ClairvoyantsThe Clairvoyants by Karen Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Karen Brown won acclaim for her debut The Longings of Wayward Girls, a suspenseful novel about two missing girls. Although her new book, The Clairvoyants, is also billed as psychological suspense, it’s really more accurate to describe it as a coming-of-age story with dark, supernatural overtones.

Martha and her sister Del grow up on a farm in Connecticut. When Martha is only 7 years old, she has a vision of her great aunt. Unfortunately, her great aunt has already been dead for many years when they “meet.” As a child, Martha is only mildly disconcerted by the event. It seems to be an isolated, intriguing fluke. But in her late teens, a harrowing incident triggers her strange gift again. She begins experiencing more visions of the dead — most not as pleasant as her great aunt.

Hoping to leave the dead behind, Martha flees to college in Ithaca. There she finds romance with a brooding photographer named William. But her idyll is disrupted when the past comes calling in the form of her impulsive sister Del. Just as Martha tries to reconcile herself to being her unstable sister’s caretaker, a fellow student on campus vanishes. Martha’s visions return with a vengeance.

Although the missing girl is pivotal to the plot of The Clairvoyants, Brown’s story is too leisurely paced to feel like suspense. Her focus is less on finding the missing girl and more on understanding Martha’s unwillingness to use her “gift.” Indeed, Martha’s reluctance to get involved in the case becomes a symbol for her reluctance to take charge of her own life.

Readers who enjoy women’s fiction with a dash of magical realism, such as Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper should enjoy The Clairvoyants. Like these authors, Brown uses the suspense genre to explore the rivalries that shape women and their relationships with one another.

This review originally appeared at “Between the Covers,” the book review blog for the Baltimore County Public Library. For more great reading ideas, check out all the reviews there.

View all my reviews

Hibernation Mode

I’ve written before about my desire to spend January and February hibernating. I didn’t always feel that way. In fact, I used to just love love love winter! But that was before I moved to Green Acres and getting anywhere after a big snow became a much bigger ordeal. Also, I think I’m just getting old. Lately, I want to be somewhere warmer and sunnier, even though I was never a beach-y person. I can only assume that dwindling hormones lead to an increase in susceptibility to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Truthfully, since the election, I’d probably even settle for moving somewhere colder and not sunnier, but it turns out fleeing to Canada isn’t as easy as I’d hoped. I have friends — intelligent, kind-hearted friends — who voted for Donald Trump, and although their choice disappoints me, I respect their right to choose. So I’m trying to say as little publicly about this election as possible. Other than, as I pointed out, Canada turns out to not be a realistic option at all.

I’m spending a lot of time this winter repeating the words of Julian of Norwich to myself: All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. Let us hope she was right, and let us all do what we can to make the future a better place for everyone of every class and every color.

And in the meantime, I’m all for avoiding reality as much as possible! Herewith, my suggestions for how to get through the Hibernation Season:

Listen to some great music!

What I’m listening to these days is still Hamilton, the original Broadway soundtrack album and Beyonce’s LemonadeMake sure to buy the actual CD of Lemonade,  so you can see the amazing videos that accompany the songs and hear the stunning, heart-rending poetry of Warshan Shire, which Beyonce recites in between each of the songs.

If Beyonce’s Lemonade isn’t lefty-liberal enough for you, or it’s just too rock-n-roll and rap, try her sister Solange’s beautiful album, A Seat at the Table. Solange explores many of the same themes Beyonce explores on Lemonade, but her music is more introspective and soulful.

Shearwater, a fave alt-rock band of mine, recorded a cover of David Bowie’s Lodger album. There are a limited number of vinyl and digital copies available. Get one if you can. It’s an excellent tribute to one of rock’s greatest innovators and my personal idol.

And of course, if you are still listening to Hamilton, you probably also want to listen to The Hamilton Mixtape, with great covers of songs from the soundtrack by artists like Sia, Queen Latifah and Regina Spector.

Watch some great television!

There’s so much good stuff out there now, thanks to streaming. Here are a few recent faves:

  • Sensitive Skin – a wonderful series on Netflix starring Kim Cattrall and Don McKellar, this dramedy charts a middle-aged couple’s move back to the big city (in this case Toronto) after years of parenting and being buried alive in the suburbs.  All kinds of things happen, a lot of them very sad and very real, but there are a lot of laughs too. Kind of like life. The two stars make every moment feel very real and very believable. I am in awe of Kim Cattrall, who just gets more beautiful and more accomplished as an actress with each passing year.
  • Under the Shadow – Oh, remember how I said I’d try not to be political? I lied. This is an awesome Iranian film set in the early days right after the revolution that put the Ayatollah in power. A young mother goes almost overnight from being a hip, with-it medical school student who watches Jane Fonda videos to living in terror of what will happen if she walks out of the house unveiled. Meanwhile, her husband is off fighting an endless war and her increasingly unstable little daughter is talking to someone who isn’t there and isn’t very friendly. Is it an angry imaginary friend, or is it, as a neighbor suggests, a djinn? Maybe it’s also a symbol of how quickly our lives can be upended when we put our trust in the wrong leaders? Or it’s just a really really good ghost story. You can decide when you watch it. Available on Amazon ($5 to rent and worth every penny).
  • The Man in the High Castle – the best thing Philip K. Dick never wrote.  Because let’s face it, while his ideas were awesome, the execution was frequently fairly addled thanks to all the drugs. I personally think Bladerunner is about ten million times better than the Dick book on which it’s based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And the same thing is true here. The creators of The Man in the High Castle took Dick’s idea of an America divvied up by Japan and Germany after WWII and they really ran with it. Dick’s book focused on some characters on the west coast, under Japanese rule. The TV series also spends time on the east coast, examining life under Nazi rule. Rufus Sewell blows my mind as a not-at-all nice Nazi commander, John Smith. Smith was an American Army officer before the war. Now it’s seventeen years post-war and he’s working for the Nazis pretty enthusiastically. Doing whatever he has to in order to keep his family alive and together, is how he justifies himself to his wife and his own conscience. But the truth is, he kind of enjoys the work entirely too much. This show does a masterful job of showing us how very easy it is to fall into a certain way of thinking when it’s the view pushed by the majority, or whenever it just seems easier to shut up and go along with things. Oops, did I just get political again??? Alexa Davalos and Luke Kleintank are great as a couple of weirdly star-crossed lovers, and Cary-Horyuki Tagawa is excellent as the mystical Mr. Tagomi, who somehow finds himself able to move between alternate realities.

That’s probably more than enough to keep you busy for awhile.

Next week I’ll tackle some reading suggestions. And just keep telling yourself — All shall be well. [A setting of Julian of Norwich’s prayer by Julia Tindall Bloom, with artwork by Kristen Kopp which I found on YouTube.]

Book in a Minute – Library Edition: Born a Crime

This book is getting so much buzz, it hardly needs my little review. But here it is anyway. A confession not included in my review at the library’s website: I was really pissed at Noah for becoming the next host of The Daily Show, since I (like many women) fully expected it to be Samantha Bee. But he has grown on me over time–and Samantha’s doing okay for herself too, so all’s forgiven. But more than that, this book has really transformed my opinion of him. Not because of the hardships he faced (although there were plenty) – more because of the grace and humor with which he has approached those hardships, and the gift he seems to have for relating his personal experiences to the wider world and its struggles with racism, sexism, and all the other  “-isms” that plague our age.

 

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trevor Noah leapt to prominence in the U.S. when he succeeded Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. Now, at age 32, he’s published his memoir. If that seems premature, it’s only because you haven’t read it yet. The title of Noah’s book, Born a Crime, is an indictment of the apartheid system into which the South African comedian was born.

More than an autobiography, Born a Crime is a child’s eyewitness account of life under apartheid and the upheaval that followed when that regime ended. The book’s also a tribute to Noah’s feisty, outspoken mother, Patricia. A member of the Xhosa tribe, Patricia defied the law by having a relationship with white businessman Robert Noah. Once Trevor was born, the couple couldn’t be seen in public as his parents. They enlisted a mixed race neighbor to pose with Robert and Trevor for “family” photos. The Black woman standing in the background of those photos, pretending to be the nanny, was Trevor’s real mother.

Noah finds humor and pathos in this bizarre upbringing. On a more serious note, he also speaks out strongly against domestic violence. Many years after her relationship with Noah’s father, Patricia married Ngisaveni Shingange. Noah recounts in chilling detail the gradual escalation of violence in the household and his mother’s struggle to leave Shingange. The decision almost led to her death. His stepfather’s threats against Trevor’s own life were one of the reasons the comedian turned his sights to a career in America.

Clearly, Noah has packed a lot of living into his short life — and this book only covers the first 25 years. Fans of books by The Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart will enjoy reading Noah’s autobiography, but it will also be of interest to anyone curious about life under apartheid.

Reviewed published at “Between the Covers,” the Baltimore County Public Library’s book review blog [http://www.bcpl.info/between-the-cove…] on December 20, 2016.

View all my reviews