It was an odd year of reading, I'll be honest. I abandoned dozens of books mid-way through, not because they were bad, necessarily (though some were), but because I needed something different at the time. And while there were some definite winners, others I begrudgingly finished because they were okay, I guess, in spite of their flaws. Here's the rundown:
1. A Gate At the Stairs by Lorrie Moore The critics love Lorrie Moore. Read the reviews of this book and you can almost hear them climaxing at the end of every paragraph. Jonathan Lethem, writing for the New York Times Book Review:
I’m aware of one — one — reader who doesn’t care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. “Too . . . punny,” my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance. For others, Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows.
Make that two--two--readers, Jonathan. Moore is brainy, definitely. Humane, I suppose. Unpretentious and warm? Lily-Tomlin funny? Capable of enlisting our sympathies? I must be missing something. I didn't connect with the narrator and the couple at the center of the story (for whom the narrator works as a nanny) is harboring a dark and truly horrifying secret that's revealed so late (after they prove themselves to be miserable, grossly self-centered people) that it was difficult for me to see their humanity. But I'm not the brightest bulb on the artificial Christmas tree, so enlighten me. If you loved this book-or think I should revisit Lorrie Moore--tell me what her writing makes you feel. It makes me feel like I'm standing in an eclipse.
2. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown Brene Brown can do no wrong in my eyes. (Except maybe when she talks about feeling your feelings. Why must we all speak of feeling our feelings? Can't we just, you know, feel? It makes me want to vomit so much less.) If you ask me, Jonathan Lethem's description of Lorrie Moore suits Brown perfectly. Brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm ... Lily Tomlin funny. Capable of enlisting sympathies and sorrows. And she writes non-fiction. "Self-help" without the ugly cover graphics and goofy youkenzdoitgirlfriend-ness. If you've ever struggled to embrace your imperfections, this book will give you some perspective. If you haven't, you should write a book.
3. The Antagonist by Lynn Coady Okay. This one was good. A recommendation from Ann Patchett (on her blog, that is). I'm a big fan of epistolary novels and the premise of The Antagonist was especially interesting. The main character, "Rank", discovers that an old friend from college has published a novel that borrows liberally from the events of Rank's own traumatic past. Feeling betrayed and misrepresented, Rank tells his version of his story in a series of emails to the novel's author. He's funny, he's furious, he's damaged, he's surprising, he's sympathetic -- it's a ride. Worth reading. And quick.
4. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valen This was recommended to me by an old friend, who is brilliant in that way that she can afford to give herself over, body and soul, to fantasy fiction. If you believed in reincarnation you would consider her further along in lives than I am; and the wise have more room for whimsy. I'm still kind of an idiot and need my books to resemble my own reality more closely in order to reap their lessons. When I read fantasy fiction, I can’t seem to relax and go along for the ride. The writing in this novel is delightful—it reminded me of a more modern Alice in Wonderland (another story which makes me profoundly uneasy). If fantasy is your cup of tea—or your daughter’s—I say drink up.
5. Gone Girl Dude. This book was awesome. Chances are you’ve already read it, but if not, you’ll whip through it in a day or two. There was much debate about the ending. I, for one, found it completely satisfying. In fact, I’d venture to say it couldn’t have ended any other way. To say why would be a spoiler, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
6. Defending Jacob by William Landay After Gone Girl I wasn't ready for the suspense to stop, and someone recommended Defending Jacob. I picked it up at the airport and read it over the course of two nights. Fun, entertaining, suspenseful, surprise ending, the best that mass market paperbacks have to offer. Think: John Grisham meets Jodi Picoult.
7. The 10th of December (stories) by George Saunders I don't typically read short story collections because, honestly, they bore the shit out of me. How can something so short take sooooooo loooong? I might get hooked by the first story and by the second I'm like alrightythenmovingon. Writing a short story is like performing a magic trick, and somehow George Saunders has managed to perform an entire magic show in The 10th of December. The guy is equal parts brilliant and humble. His insights are so striking and so well rendered through his characters, and yet he never sounds self-satisfied. If I was his self, I'd be pretty damn satisfied.
8. The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler Is it just me or does Anne Tyler keep writing the same book over and over again, with different characters? Don't get me wrong, she handles her subject well, but her novels have such an unmistakable tone and theme (isolation/family)—it’s funny that I can keep them distinctly sorted in my mind. The Clock Winder is one of her early novels (maybe one of her first) and it definitely has a more old-fashioned flavor. I think that's what I liked about it. I found it at Goodwill, and it was like stumbling on an undiscovered classic. I really liked it.
9. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple Looking for a good time? Call Maria Semple. This novel (also epistolary) was so much fun. Somehow, despite the fact that the whole thing is sort of whacky, it manages to hover in a genre somewhere between chick lit and literary fiction. I could identify with Bernadette's crippling anxiety--if not the lengths she traveled to avoid it. Most of my friends also loved this book, though my mother (who typically shares my taste in fiction) did not. She couldn’t find anything relatable. (And I’d be willing to bet that the protagonist allowing tree roots to grow up between her rotting floorboards was a bit of a turnoff.)
10. Insanely Simple by Ken Segall This was assigned reading for work. While it contained some interesting anecdotes about what it was like to work with Steve Jobs (Segall worked for Apple’s ad agency), it was hard for me to get past the irony of someone writing an entire book about keeping it simple. The author could have taken his own advice and written a great article for Fast Company, but when opportunism knocks, I guess the businessman has to answer.
11. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters This one got a lot of attention this year—lots of critical acclaim—and I agree, it’s very well done. But it’s light, light, light vacation reading. Like reading a Hollywood blockbuster.
12. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison I liked this while I was reading it—it was funny, well paced and stylistically up my alley—but the “terrible, awful” of the narrator’s past—which is the unseen engine that propels him--is so terrible and awful I couldn’t help feeling like it didn’t belong here in this unlikely buddy road trip story. It felt tacked on, as if an editor wanted Evison to take it to the next level, give it some gravitas, supply the TRAGEDY people crave.
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald This was my fourth reading of The Great Gatsby, and once again it was a completely different book. I read it in high school. Again in college. Again in my twenties. And now again at 38. It’s the damndest thing how this novel shapeshifts with every reading, and it gets better every time.
14. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline Loved it while I was reading it, but it didn’t dwell with me afterward. (I think that’s okay – not all books have to reside in your heart for eternity to be worth your time). Also (if you’ve read it, chime in) the main character’s decision at the end seemed totally unrealistic, given the specifics of her traumatic past.
15. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson A young adult novel about the subject of rape. Award winning. Critically acclaimed. Justifiably so. If I had a teenage daughter (Gus does NOT count) I would share this book with her.
16. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers Hoo. Boy. I sure do like Dave Eggers. I sure did like Zeitoun. And I get this book. I do. It’s like Death of a Salesman meets Waiting for Godot in Saudi Arabia. But ugh … it just … dragged on and on and on (which I realize was the point but still) … ultimatelyit was too much subtlety to sustain me. I will say, Eggers paints a vivid picture. I envisioned William H. Macy as Alan Clay so much so it was like watching a film. A very slow independent film I would have raved about when I was in college.
17. Waiting to Be Heard by Amanda Knox I know. I KNOW. I couldn’t resist. I hardly ever read this kind of book, but I was just so curious. Like, how the hell did this happen, you know? And it’s astonishing to hear the details of her ordeal in her own words. What’s even more astonishing is how naïve she was, incriminating herself at every turn, when she was, undoubtedly, innocent. A thousand times I must have said out loud, OH. MY. GOD. STUPID, STUPID, STUPID. WHYYYY? And yet I really liked Amanda Knox in the end. And this book.
18. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach Hands down my favorite book of the year. This was The One. Loved the writing, loved the characters, loved the story arc, did not want it to end. And I’m not even a baseball fan.
19. Wild by Cheryl Strayed Finally got around to reading this memoir (I’ve read her novel, Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things, her book of advice columns from The Rumpus—both excellent, especially the latter). I know there were people (crazy, crazy people from Amazon comment land) who didn’t like this book—but they’re no one I know. It’s just an amazing story, beautifully told. I tweeted to Cheryl Strayed last year saying I loved Tiny, Beautiful Things in a Big Beautiful Way – Huge Goober of a fan. And she wrote back to thank me. (!!!) LOVE THAT WOMAN.
20. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris I got in a bit of a debate on Facebook about atheism and creationism and my younger cousin encouraged me to read this. She considers herself an atheist and, like Harris, questions religion and religious beliefs, and I have no issue with that, no issue at all with questioning. As long as I don’t have to do it with family, over Thanksgiving dinner. Harris’s writing is thought provoking, though I disagree with his position that religion is fundamentally flawed because it’s based on faith, as opposed to observable evidence. Religion is fundamentally flawed because people are idiots. WE are flawed. And because we are flawed there are things we don’t see and can’t know and it’s a healthy respect for the unseen and unknowable that I call faith. God, in my own simple estimation, is somewhere in the connections between people—that force that keeps this whole life thing from collapsing into a pile of shit. What keeps us from giving up on each other? What makes us want to be better people? What makes us long for connection? What is that? Do I think there’s a kind bearded man in the sky who loves me like a daughter and can’t wait to welcome me to his fancy kingdom with a Friendly’s Peanut Buster Parfait? I do not. But no one ever got anywhere by not believing in something, and (I think Harris actually agrees) atheism is an “anti” position that seems to have no purpose other than to say “I’m against what you’re for.” Okay. Now what? Good reading (and available free in PDF form online) if you’re interested in this subject. And a far less angry and condescending alternative to the late “antitheist”, Christopher Hitchens.
21. The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp I heard an NPR interview with Rapp, whose baby was diagnosed with and died from Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always fatal genetic disorder. She’d published this memoir after his death, but it was written—originally in blog posts—when he was still alive. The result is a very raw account of events intertwined with (highly) academic reflections on various pieces of literature, which she used as sort of a coping mechanism and escape. In other words, it wasn’t cohesive in the way a memoir is when someone is looking back and reflecting on the past as a whole. That’s not a criticism, so much as a curiosity. I wonder what forces compelled Rapp to rush this story to print while her son was still alive. And I wonder how she’s doing now.
22. Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine When Gus was cast as the narrator in Into the Woods, I’d never seen or read the play in full. We’d performed excerpts in college, but I had no idea how the story tied together. IT. IS. BRILLIANT. I read it over and over again. Of course, I love reading plays—and then seeing them live—and reading them again. It’s a totally different reading experience that I highly recommend.
23. Proof by David Auburn Since we’re on the subject of plays—I followed up Into the Woods by reading this one, which I saw years ago at Tennessee Repertory Theater. It’s one of the better known Broadway plays, thanks in part to Mary Louise Parker’s turn as Catherine on Broadway (and Gwyneth Paltrow’s in the movie adaptation), and the acclaim is well deserved.
24. The Likeness by Tana French BRILLiant. Brilliant. Brilliant. My second go-round on this one (because I forget what I've read, it was like reading it for the first time). Tana French has written the quintessential literary thriller. It’s a complex (but easy to read) page turner that is rich and smart and totally satisfying, unlike the highly processed airplane reads that are entertaining and all exactly alike.
What were your favorites this year?