My Year in Books

(Please note: This post contains affiliate links.)

I had an epic reading year in 2019. I set a goal in Goodreads to read a book a month. I’m not a fast reader, but I do read a lot. Still I don’t usually set a reading goal so I wanted it to be attainable. I got a message half way through March that I had met my goal. I slowed down a little after the weather warmed up, but I still finished 30 books over the last twelve months. And so many of them were amazing, I need to recommend a few of my favorites here.  I also got a bunch of books for Christmas and I’m ready to snuggle in for my version of Jolabokaflod, which I’m calling “Janubokaflod” (instead of a one day Icelandic readathon, it’s a month of tea and snuggling with books).

Okay, here are my year’s most notables, divided by fiction and nonfiction but in no particular order.

Fiction

The Goldfinch
The Line of Beauty
White Teeth*
Invisible
Less

Nonfiction

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
The Glass Castle*

And, a bit of both:
Lincoln in the Bardo

*Full disclosure: I don’t want to imply that I read more than I do. I actually I listen to a look of books through the Overdrive App that I have connected to my public library. The asterisks indicate books I listened to.

If you are interested in my thoughts on any of these titles, I’m going to list a few below. Feel free to take the titles and run, however. And if you have any book recommendations for me, please leave them in the comments! I’m always looking for my next book fix.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  Probably silly to recommend a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, as most have already heard of it. But I’m doing it because this was my companion on a summer trip to the Oregon coast and it was everything I wanted it to be. There are ways that this book feels like a trilogy stuffed into one book, as it unfolds over three distinct chapters of a young man’s life. It’s a great beach or plane book. I haven’t seen the film that came out this year, but I’m not planning on it, as it didn’t get good reviews.

The Line of Beauty: A Novel, by Alan Hollinghurst. This was, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read. I got it from my favorite uncle for Christmas last year and I just devoured it. I will admit, I was a bit shocked by the sex scenes (not because of the gay sex but because the writing was explicit, and I’m from Utah and it is easy to shock us), but I was over it after the first quarter of the book. Not long after I finished it, Fareed Zakaria recommended it on GPS as one of his books of the week and that made me feel quite brainy and Cosmopolitan.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. People were raving about this book back in 2000 when it came out and I was still working as a bookseller. I have been meaning to read it ever since. I saw it on the Overdrive App and downloaded it to listen to on my daily walks and it was perfection. I’m even glad that I didn’t read it and waited to listen because the performances of the voice actors are superb. I don’t want to try to summarize it (because it would be impossible in a few sentences), but the thing I keep coming back to when I think about it was how many cultures and families and historical events are explored in loving depth the pages. It’s so ambitious and the execution is flawless. The fact that Smith wrote it her early twenties as a college student and published it when she was 25 seems astounding and unfair to me as a writer, but she is a Goddess and deserves all the rave reviews she gets.

Invisible, by Paul Auster. This was my introduction to Paul Auster. It was sent to my by my college friend, Demetria, and her recommendations never fail. The story structure is nontraditional. There are multiple narrators and there is a feel of cutting and pasting of slightly over-lapping narratives, but it worked in the end for me. I have a theory about the title and the way the pieces come together, but I can’t explain it and it would be a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll keep it to myself. Just know that this book does not follow a formula. If you are like me, you will find that refreshing.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. I bought this book because I went to a see David Sedaris read and he told me to. Well, he was talking to an audience crammed with people. But I was there. And he was right. This book also won a Pulitzer Prize and is just a delight. Also, it is the perfect length for a long flight. I don’t know why I just wrote that, as I read it on the couch over several nights, as slowly as possible, savoring it. But it seems like it would be good on a flight, too.

On to nonfiction…

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. This probably sounds like a snore, but it is well paced and interesting to read this in the current moment. Though there was one moment where Andrew Johnson started referring to himself in the third person and it was too much for me. I had to put it down and go for a walk. As much as I liked it, I will admit that you don’t really need to read it. You could just listed to one of the great interviews that Wineapple has done this year promoting the book. I heard one with Chris Hayes (where I first learned about the book) and a more recent one with Ezra Klein. She will tell you all you need to know about the parallels. I did have one interesting thought while watching Fiona Hill’s testimony last month when I was still reading this book and that was this: The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was an attempt to prevent the president from limiting the impact of the loss of the Civil War on the South. They failed. In many ways, the impeachment of the current president is an attempt to prevent Trump from reversing the impact of the loss of the Cold War on Russia. And we are set to fail. So… that sucks.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston. I’ve written about this book before, but that was when I hadn’t yet read it. There is stunning writing in this book. The type where every once in a while you read a sentence that hits you so hard you have  to put the book down on your chest for a minute while you take it in. I think it would be particularly enjoyable to my creative nonfiction friends.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. I realize I am probably the last person on earth to read this book, so there is no point in recommending it. But damn. This book. Was intense. Here is the one thing I want to say about it. If I had read this book before I became a stepparent, I would have been jealous of Walls insane childhood and the perfect book it provided. But I read it as a stepparent, and it made me want to murder one or both of her parents on every other page. “I know they had birth control in the seventies!” I yelled at these people as I listened to the book in my kitchen while cooking one night.  “Go back in time and get some!”

Lincoln at the Bardo, by George Saunders. This weird and crazy book is the first novel by Saunders, who is a well known poet (or so I’ve read; I hadn’t heard of him before I picked this up at BookPeople in Austin because I flew out for a conference and accidentally finished the book I packed while still on the plane). I tried to bring it up in my creative nonfiction writing group because, while this is a work of fiction, there is a significant nonfiction component. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to start the discussion I wanted to have because as soon as I said, “I just read Lincoln at the…” the middle aged lawyer in the group shouted, “THAT BOOK WAS SO STUPID!” and I lost the floor. Here is the thing – this book is not for everyone. It’s quite nuts in general and there are a number of scenes centered around absurdly horny ghosts. Saunders seems particularly concerned with the idea of spirit boners. (Stiffs with stiffies, if you will.) BUT! What I found so interesting, was that book was inspired by a story about Abraham Lincoln becoming so grieved by the death of his son Willie, that he went to the crypt to hold his corpse. (I’ve tried to find out if this is true (not hard, but I tried). According to this article in the New Yorker, he did go to the crypt “but did not handle the body.”) Saunders starts with this detail but then he takes snips and quotes from letters, diaries and historical documents and weaves them together with his fictional ghosts to create a strange Edward Gorey meets Salvidor Dali world and wandering through it is a total trip.

 

Okay – that’s the end of that. Time to go pick the book that I want to read next, to kick off 2020. Happy New Year, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening with Pam Houston

Note: This blog posts contains affiliate links. If you click on these links to and purchase something from Amazon (the book I recommended, or a 40 lb. bag of dog food, or whatever) I will earn a fraction of some cents in the form of a gift card. If I ever get enough fractions of cents to make $20 worth, I will actually get to spend it (probably on more books, or dog food)! Thank you for your support.

Pam Houston was in Salt Lake last week. She gave a reading at the King’s English Bookstore to promote her new memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. My friend, Beth, attended one of Pam’s writing workshops and had a great experience. Apparently Pam is attentive and supportive and really liked Beth’s work (which isn’t a surprise; Beth’s work is beautiful.) I’ve never read any of her work, however, so when Beth called and asked if I would be her date for the reading I jumped at the chance to add a new writer to the mix.

Pam is a shy speaker, but very authentic and down to earth. She joked about her friendship with Cheryl Strayed (one of my favorite writers) and how they thought this memoir was, in some ways, fit as a life’s journey follow-up to Wild. She said they even had a laugh about calling it Tame.

I wrote down a few quotes I liked. This one reminded me of my own journey.

“Turning 40, for me, was permission not to have children. 50 was permission for everything else.”

Then she said something about the different between writing memoir and fiction, and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind ever since.

“The action of fiction is very vertical. Memoir is like a creek: horizontal. And the meaning comes from the saturation. Sometimes you have to sit and stare at it long enough, and then good things will happen.”

I love this so much and I am not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what she meant. As I have thought it over I have made my own sense of it using pottery as a metaphor.  I picture that with fiction, it is like having a slab of clay pre-cut from the earth and placed at my waist level for me to shape to my will. I can add and remove as I build it up, letting my imagination devise what might happen next, and shifting the shape between my hands until I am happy with it.

Memoir is the clay that is still in the ground, on the banks of the creek. And I have to get down on the ground and dig for what is there, collecting it piece by piece.  It is not an exercise of imagination, but of excavation. I have often found with memoir that I am writing something that I thought was in the past, only to discover that the events are ongoing. That is the saturation process. You must to sit and watch the creek as it seeps into the earth, making more clay. And it will make its own progress in its own good time. After all, you can’t write a memoir if you haven’t finished living the story, yet.

Which is not to say that fiction is easy and memoir is hard. They are both hard to do well, in my experience. But I agree with Pam, that it feels like a different process.

The reading was wonderful.  Pam’s writing is stark and furrowed, like the weather-warn mountains that are the background of her story. She lays bare, with gritty detail, a story of abuse and neglect at the hands of her alcoholic mother. I was sucked in immediately and stayed captivated by the way Houston discloses her story, without excuse or apology, seeking a truth, but asking nothing of the reader but to witness. The thought of giving pity to the narrator or her mother never crossed my mind. It simply wasn’t the point.

After the reading we waited in line to get our books signed. Pam immediately recognized Beth and asked about the progress on her manuscript. I could tell Beth was flattered to be remembered and I was thrilled for her. I had just met this woman and had yet to read one of her books, but nonetheless, I found myself star-struck.

I’m finishing up I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley right now (which is awesome and so funny!), but I’ve added Deep Creek to the “next to read” stack by my bed. I can’t wait to dive in an witness more of Pam’s saturation process.

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