Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’m Thankful For

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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November 26: Thankful Freebie

91jxemsjivl._ac_uy218_ml3_1.  Beautiful by Fran Laniado– How obnoxious is it that I included my own book on here? Well, in my defense, publishing this book has taught me a lot about writing and publishing in general and I’m grateful for the experience, everything that I’ve learned, and the ability to carry it forward into my future career.

 

 

91jl3hfvm4l._ac_uy218_ml3_2. Beauty by Robin McKinley– My first week of college, I knocked on a classmate’s door to ask a question and saw her reading this book. That was how I made my first friend on campus. It’s true what they say: when you see someone reading a book that you love, it’s like a book, recommending a person.

 

 

51cbwb1nmql-_ac_us218_3. Fairy Tales– OK this is less a book than a literary category but it was what first made me fall in love with literature. I think that fairy tales taught me some very important lessons that I’ve carried through life: that appearances can be deceiving, that dragons can be beaten and that witches can be good or bad depending on the circumstance.

 

51nvefbi7wl4. Curious George by HA Ray- I remember a point in my early childhood when I thought of Curious George as a friend. Like me, he was curious but unlike me, he was brave. I was often scared, so I let George do the exploring and get into trouble! In a way he was the literary character who showed me how to live vicariously through a character’s experiences on the page. While that’s not always a good idea by any means, at times (particularly in early childhood) it’s the wiser course. So thanks for the friendship George, and thanks for getting into trouble for me!

51f8te9sbwl-_ac_us218_5.Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell– I think that reading this book made me think a lot about the connections that I have to people and my ability to communicate with them. Karana, the heroine of this book is stranded on an island alone for many years. Even after she’s found she’s still isolated because there’s no one left alive who speaks her language. It made me think for the first time about being understood, and how grateful I am to have that ability. It’s something I’ve always valued and this book highlighted why in a way that few things had previously.

41h2mph7rbl._ac_uy218_ml3_6. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume- I think that this book normalized a lot of being a growing girl. Not that it was all accurate: I read it when I was about 9 or 10 and it made menstruation seem like a wonderful treat girls earned when they reached a certain age: that led to a major disappointment a few years later! But it also let me know that what I was thinking and feeling was normal and that a lot of other kids were just as confused about the whole experience of growing up as I was.

51avlw-rakl-_ac_us218_7.Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– I think that this book gave me an awareness of my privilege and I’m grateful for that. I’m not grateful for the unfair advantages that I have as a white, American born citizen. I don’t think it’s right that I have those privileges due to accidents of birth and I wish that we lived in a more equitable society. But I’m grateful that this book gave me a view of life without them. That view made me more aware of them and  how they’ve played a role in my own life. I don’t know if I’m explaining this very well!

71markoye3l._ac_uy218_ml3_8.The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion– A few years ago I lost several loved ones in the space of a few months, including someone very close to me. A lot of books about death and grieving seemed to offer platitudes and trite promises. Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death (while their daughter was in a coma fighting for her life) didn’t wrap it up in any false comfort. Losing a loved one is hard. Grief is confusing and scary. It doesn’t follow any rules. But it’s often the price we pay for loving people.

51dxbewzuil-_ac_us218_9.Anne of Green Gables (series) by LM Montgomery- I’m using these as a stand in for several books that feel like old friends. They’re the books I’ve read so many times that reading them feels like coming home after being away for a long time. I’m thankful for the knowledge that whatever terrible things may happen in real life, these books are always there. They won’t always make everything better, but they’ll help me feel less alone through whatever happens.

41z63vm8bwl-_ac_us218_10. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott– I’ve never been a very organized writer. My process (insofar as I have one) involves me writing down whatever pops into my head, and then fixing it and making it presentable later.  I don’t outline. I don’t have formal “drafts,” I just write and rewrite until I have something. Lamott’s advice to writers is essentially “whatever works.” There’s an understanding that that won’t look the same for everyone. It gives my messy, chaotic writing style a sense of validation.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books Read in 2018

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For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday: 

January 1: Best Books I Read In 2018

Happy New Year to all! Let’s kick off this year with a look at some of the great books I read last year.

  1. 41yjnrznaol-_ac_us218_Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo– This novel of tradition coming into conflict with modern values surprised me several times.  Yejide and Akin are a young Nigerian couple. They don’t have any kids yet but aren’t really worried, until immense pressure from their families causes Akin to take a second wife, despite the couple’s desire to avoid polygamy. In response, Yejide decides to do anything it takes to get pregnant. Both Yejide and Akin make tremendous sacrifices for the sake of family.  Both want to do the right thing, but each sacrifice has lasting consequences. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing culture and world, this story broke my heart.

2.61ciiq0YV9L._AC_US218_ Idaho by Emily Ruskovich– Years ago, Wade’s first wife, Jenny murdered their younger daughter, while their older one ran away. Now Jenny is spending the rest of her life in prison. Wade has married Ann, and is starting to lose his memory. Ann suspects that there may be more to the incident that destroyed Wade’s family than he lets on, but how will she ever know? This book unfolds from multiple points of view over the course of about thirty years. The mosaic of voices eventually comes together to suggest the truth, but that remains unsaid and ambiguous. I appreciated the craft (gorgeous prose) and the ambiguity, but I can see where some might not like it.

3. 41Q9fVyDjRL._AC_US218_ All New People by Anne Lamott– Nanny Goodman enters adolescence as America enters the 1960’s. Her father is a writer and her mother is an endless source of material. As Nanny comes of age, she sees a culture mirror her as it descends into drugs. There is a mass exodus of fathers from her town. Real estate and technological development change the landscape of the small California town where she lives. An adult Nan narrates she childhood memories with humor and emotional complexity.

4. 41Krb0iOt7L._AC_US218_The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell- Elsie thought she’d found her happily ever after when she married the wealthy Rupert Bainbridge. But when Rupert dies only a few weeks into their marriage, Elsie is stuck with Rupert’s cousin amidst resentful servants and hostile villagers. When Rupert’s cousin, Sarah,  discovers a carved figure that looks a lot like Elsie, as well as a diary, Elsie doesn’t think much of it. But when the figure’s eyes begin to follow Elsie, she starts getting nervous… This eerie, atmospheric Victorian Gothic ghost story, is wonderful tribute to the likes of Shirley Jackson and Daphne DuMaurier.

5. 51uyvcmgxil-_ac_us218_Commonwealth by Ann Patchett– When Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party and kisses her mother, he sets in motion a chain of events that breaks apart both their marriages and joins two families. Spending the summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children form a bond that is later tested when a tragedy sends shockwaves through both families. The story takes place before and after the tragedy, over the course of fifty years. We do eventually learn what , happened that changed everything (yet again) for these families, but before we do, we learn what led up to it, and what the consequences were.

6. 51W3InymdaL._AC_US218_Tangerine by Christine Mangan– I was surprised to see that  this book has a lot of negative reviews on Amazon and goodreads. I think the reason for that is that none of the characters are very likable. But if you’re OK with that, I found this atmospheric, noirish whodunnit to be a lot of fun. A British ex-pat is living in Tangier with her husband in the 1950s. When her former college roommate turns up at her door one day, memories of the past (including a violent death) begin to emerge. It turns out that both ladies have things they want to hide, and that the beautiful city of Tangier might be an exotic ground against which their struggle plays out. I think that this would appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith.

7. 51wn17e1xil-_ac_us218_Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel– Over the course of three decades we read letters to a heroine who we never meet directly. These letters come from her family: her father is a narcissistic former child prodigy. He has divorced her mother and married a traditional Chinese woman. They have a son who wears suits to bed. Her mother is a therapist who never remarried, but may be in love with her Rabbi and overshares on a regular basis. Her sister may have given up on college in order to own guns and land in Arizona. We read letters from all of these characters to our heroine, Julie. We read thank you notes, condolences, family gossip and more. Also included are gems like “The Gerbil You Drowned in 1990 Would Like a Word With You”, “Your Uncle Figured a Mass E-mail Was the Best Way to Discuss His Sexuality” and “Your Intrauterine Device Has Some Thoughts on Your Love Life.” It made me snort with laughter at several points.

8. 518ejevmohl-_ac_us218_The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn– Anna Fox is a child psychologist who suffers from Agoraphobia so debilitating that she can’t leave her Harlem townhouse. She spends her days watching old movies, interacting with people online, and spying on her neighbors (just a little!). When she sees a crime take place in a house facing hers, she calls the police. But her copious consumption of alcohol and prescription drugs means that she’s not the best witness. Anna’s fondness for old film noirs permeates this book and makes it feel like an homage. I definitely recommend this to Hitchcock fans!

51njfgrvqcl-_ac_us218_9. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden– This is the first book in Arden’s Winternight trilogy and it definitely has me interested in reading more in 2019. Vasilisa lives in the Russian wilderness with her family. When her mother dies, her father brings a new wife from Moscow. Vasilisa’s stepmother is a religious woman who forbids the family from honoring the traditional household spirits. Vasilisa fears the potential consequences of these actions as misfortune comes to the village. We see several conflicts play out in this book. Traditional religion plays out against Christianity (which was still somewhat new at the time this book was set). Vasilisa also comes into conflict with her stepmother. But really I see the primary conflict in this books as the independent, strong minded Vasilisa coming facing the limited roles that her her world offers for women. 61ftpdsyagl-_ac_us218_

10. The Changeling by Victor LaValle– When Apollo and his wife Emma have a baby boy, they’re thrilled. But soon, like many new parents, they’re exhausted and stressed. When Emma starts behaving odd, Apollo worries it’s Post Partum Depression and encourages her to see the doctor. But before that can happen, Emma commits a horrific act and then vanishes. Apollo must venture into a city that he only thought he knew, to find a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets and a forest full of legends. It’s only by working alongside a mysterious stranger whom he may not be able to trust, that Apollo can hope to regain what he thinks may be lost forever.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best of 2017

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 12: Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017

I’m doing the best I’ve read in 2017 rather than the best that were published this year. I had no intention of just doing books by female writers but that’s how it worked out this year!

517p1odjdbl-_ac_us218_1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery– It took me a while to start loving this book. The main characters initially aren’t all that likable. Renee is a concierge at a wealthy apartment building in Paris. She’s a fifty four year old widow with no formal education but a lifetime of reading under her belt. She conceals her intelligence from the tenants in her building to avoid curiosity. Paloma is a twelve year old girl who lives in the building. She’s highly intelligent but she considers her parents snobs and is convinced that life is meaningless. She plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday unless she can find a good reason not to. In each other, it seems that Renee and Paloma have found an unlikely kindred spirit.  As I said it was slow moving, but I came to care about these characters and invest in their future. I looked forward to the random, quirky events in which they both found a strange beauty.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”

51u68hsyiml-_ac_us218_2. Play it As It Lays by Joan Didion I “discovered” Joan Didion last year, but this was the first time I’ve read her fiction. This narrative switches back and forth between the main character’s first person narration and a strangely detached third person narration. Set in Hollywood in the 1970’s, Maria Wyeth is a minor screen actress. Through her eyes, we see a culture of exploitation, built on open secrets. Just as the narration goes back and forth between Maria’s first person narration and that of others around her, the story itself is alternately shaped by Maria’s choices and the choices of others.  The word that comes to mind when describing this book is “lonely”. It’s a lonely book but there’s beauty in that loneliness.

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”

51dqnh9enml-_ac_us218_3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye– My expectations of this book weren’t high (I’ve read some pretty disappointing Jane Eyre fan fiction!) so maybe it was the fact that it was a pleasant surprise that makes this book stand out. Maybe I just loved the gleeful, dark, slightly messed up humor of a homicidal Jane Eyre figure. In most gothic romance (Jane Eyre included) we see what is essentially a Bluebeard narrative. A young girl goes to live with/work for a wealthy man, who may or may now be a murderer. She usually falls in love with him regardless.  Rebecca, Dragonwyck, and Mistress of Mellyn, are other notable examples. Here Lyndsay Faye turns that narrative on it’s head. Yes, our hero, Mr. Thornfield, has secrets, but in this novel, Jane’s past is just as colorful.

“Reader, I murdered him…”

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– I always feel the need to put a warning before recommending this book, because I feel like it’s such a hard read. It’s long (about 700 pages) and emotionally draining. When we learn about the main character’s background, the abuse and trauma that he endures may be triggering for some readers. Even though I wasn’t triggered,  I found it almost too horrible to be believed. I certainly didn’t want to believe that such abuse could be real. But I can’t deny that it most likely isn’t as fictional as I’d like to believe.  I could see the wrong person, picking up this book at the wrong point in their life might see it as an author saying that there are things too horrible to ever truly recover from. Maybe that is partially what she’s saying, but I feel like she’s doing something more. She’s depicting love in all its forms. She shows how people who love someone don’t give up on them just because it seems hopeless. She shows the beauty that’s a part of the struggle through life.  And ultimately the lesson that she leaves us with is one of compassion.

“But then again, he would think, what about his life- and about Jude’s life, too- wasn’t it a miracle? He should have stayed in Wyoming, he should have been a ranch hand himself. Jude should have wound up – where? In prison, or in a hospital, or dead, or worse. But they hadn’t. Wasn’t it a miracle that someone who was basically unexceptional could life a life in which he made millions pretending to be other people, that in that life that person would fly from city to city, would spend his days having his every need fulfilled, working in which he was treated like the potentate of a small, corrupt country? Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable?Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?”

 

41wjujfmkyl-_ac_us218_5. Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader by Anne Fadiman- Anne Fadiman is a creature that most bibliophiles will recognize. She’s the woman who will relish a really long word (or Sesquipedalian, which, as I’ve recently learned, means really long word)  rolling it over her tongue and savoring the taste. She’ll look forward to the opportunity to read aloud. She’ll challenge you to see who can find the most typos on the restaurant menu. These essays describe her lifelong love affair with language and books, from her childhood, building with books rather than blocks, or “marrying libraries” with her husband of five years. She takes us inside her “odd shelf” (“small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection reveals a good deal about its owner”) which is sort of a metaphor for her brain, I suppose.

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.”

61kl8q74sml-_ac_us218_6. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff– This was actually the second Lauren Groff book I read this year (the first was Arcadia) but it stands out as a departure from her usual style. While Fates and Furies and Arcadia feature beautiful, poetic prose; this is more plot-based than either of those. It’s part contemporary novel, part ghost story, part historical fiction, and part magical realism. These different elements come together in ways that are occasionally messy, but that’s part of their charm. It’s somewhat less polished than Groff’s other work, and I love it for that reason too.

“Then, when we had done so, we put our hands upon the freezing cold monster, our monster. And this is what we felt: vertigo, an icicle through our strong hearts, our long-lost childhoods. Sunshine in a field and crickets and the sweet tealeaf stink of a new ball mitt and a rock glinting with mica and a chaw of bubblegum wrapping in sweet sweet tendrils down our throats and the warm breeze up our shorts and the low vibrato of lake loons and the sun and the sun and the warm sun and this is what we felt; the sun.”

41z63vm8bwl-_ac_us218_7. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing And Life by Anne Lamott–  This memoir/writing advice guide has been recommended to me over and over again over the past several years, but something irrational in me was turned off by something about it. I finally pushed past whatever it was, and I’m really glad that it did. Lamott shows how difficult writing can sometimes be, from the discipline of actually doing it, to the fact that writing and anxiety go hand in had, to the understanding that by writing a book you’re essentially sharing yourself with strangers. There’s no way to separate the personal from the professional. But she gives her readers advice  with humor and  honesty.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

51m2nd4g30l-_ac_us218_8. The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks-These short stories defy genre and description. They’re strange, inventive, weird, and uncanny. Though they draw on mythical sources and themes, there’s also something very modern about these stories. It’s hard to discuss some of these stories without spoiling them, but let’s just say that there’s a retelling of “The Wild Swans” a story about a space janitor, and a story about a time traveler desperately trying to stop an artist from creating a painting.

“It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

41xbvxm07hl-_ac_us218_9. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly– This is a unique look at Austen’s work that many Jane-ites would do well to read. It argues that in the twenty first century we frequently misread Jane Austen. Her work was more socially and politically aware than we realize. A 19th century readership would have been aware of many of the small references she makes to events that were then current, and they would have understood her work very differently from how we understand it now. Helena Kelly analyses Austen’s work, looking at several of the issues that Austen tackles explicitly and and subtextually. For example, Mansfield Park doesn’t just touch on the slave trade. References to cases and literature that a 19th century readership would know,  are pervasive and they make the book far more political than a 21st century audience realizes. I think that at times the author gets so caught up in her ideas that she reaches a little too far, but I also think that she makes some excellent points about reading Austen through the lens of her own time rather than ours.

And once we read like this, we start to see her novels in an entirely new light. Not an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms, but books in which an authoress reflects back to her readers their world as it really is—complicated, messy, filled with error and injustice. This is a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful; in which landowners and magistrates—the people with local power—are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. But by and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.

61xeuwoxcl-_ac_us218_110. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– This is a weird book to describe. On one hand you can say that it’s about a reporter investigating the apparent suicide of a celebrated filmmaker’s daughter. On the other hand, you could describe it as an eerie, hypnotic adventure that gets better as the plot grows more convoluted. Throughout the pages we see props: newspaper clippings, website screenshots, a coffee stained transcript, and stolen police reports that are intended to blur the line between fiction and reality a bit more. It also blurs the line between film and literature a bit. The structure and the atmosphere of the book are very film noir. We learn about the victim’s father’s films in vivid detail. As we get into some possible theories regarding the girl’s fate, it starts to feel like the more outlandish possibilities are more likely than the realistic ones.

“The Shadow is what people are hunting throughout the tale. Or else it can dog the hero, refusing to leave him alone. It’s a potent force that bewitches as much as it torments. It can lead to hell or heaven. It’s the hollow forever inside you, never filled. It’s everything in life you can’t touch, hold on to, so ephemeral and painful it makes you gasp. You might even glimpse it for a few seconds before it’s gone. Yet the image will live with you. You’ll never forget it as long as you live. It’s what you’re terrified of and paradoxically what you’re looking for. We are nothing without our shadows. They give our otherwise pale, blinding world definition. They allow us to see what’s right in front of us. Yet they’ll haunt us until we’re dead.”