Favorite books of 2016

2016 sure wasn’t good for much, but apparently it made me want to hide my face in a book even more than usual because I read 143 books this year. My favorite, and the one that I wish everyone in America would read, is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. The heartbreaking and enraging light it sheds on poverty in America is even more important as we head into a Donald Trump administration, where the vulnerable are going to be increasingly at risk. So, please go read it if you haven’t yet!

Here are some more of my favorites, in no particular order:

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote- I just think the world would be a kinder and more forgiving place if everyone read some Ivan Coyote, and this is my favorite of theirs so far.

Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Half Wild: Stories by Robin MacArthur

Honorable mentions: Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins, How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball, Shrill by Lindy West, Ghost Songs by Regina McBride, Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner.

Books I hated that everyone else seemed to love: Uprooted by Naomi Novik (which just seemed like a new version of Twilight to me, lame main character and creepy relationship dynamics) and When Breath Becomes Air (pretentious, felt overly academic and fake to me).

Book sale finds, Part 1: Our Dogs

Our Dogs

I buy a lot of old books from the library book sale and from other sources. My favorites are books about books, or outdated science, but I’m pretty much a sucker for anything odd or beautiful. I can’t remember when exactly I stumbled upon Our Dogs by John Brown (copyright 1909), but it is quite a charmer.
IMG_7037According to WorldCat this book is held at around 30 libraries and was intended for juvenile audience, which is surprising, but I guess it was a different era… It basically reads like an eccentric (and possibly drunk) old man pontificating at length about every dog his family has owned, and it is equally hilarious and touching.

One of my favorite entries is the last one, about a dog named Dick: “Still lives, and long may he live! As he was never born, possibly he will never die; be it so, he will miss us when we are gone… Every family should have a dog, it is like having a perpetual baby. It is the plaything and crony of the whole house. It keeps them all young. All unite upon Dick.”

 

IMG_7039

IMG_7042        IMG_7041

The best book I read in January: The Sound of Gravel

Sound of GravelThe Sound of Gravel is an incredibly gripping, heartbreaking memoir by Ruth Wariner about her life growing up in a polygamous Mormon cult. It’s a terrifying story of deprivation and abuse, and the harm that extreme religious beliefs so often inflict, especially upon women and children. Ruth’s story is more than that, though. Throughout it all, her deep love for her family shines through vividly. Her growing ability to see through the religious bullshit that ruined her mother’s life, and her bravery to do something about it when she most needed to, make for an inspiring read.

Once I started this one I could barely put it down, although I was tempted to throw it against the wall a few times out of sheer rage!

Bookish 2015

I always enjoy looking back over the past year of reading and seeing what stood out. I read 123 books in 2015, and contrary to my usual reading patterns, many of them were non-fiction. Memoirs seemed to make a particular impression on me this year, with many of my favorites falling into that category. Here are some of my favorites, by genre and in no particular order:

Fiction

Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: I finally got around to these, and Life After Life blew me away. I loved it so much I could have kept reading for another 500 pages. I loved A God in Ruins, too, but it wasn’t the magical experience for me that Life After Life had been.

Girl at War by Sara Nović: A powerful story of a young girl fighting for survival during the civil war in Yugoslavia.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry: A really fun piece of historical fiction set in turn of the century New York City, featuring sideshows, lost sisters, and asylums.

Dryland by Sarah Jaffe: A introspective, atmosphere coming-of-age story about a young woman on the swim team in early 90s Portland. A strange, quiet book that I found totally absorbing.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stadal: This one was a really fun read. A sprawling, funny look at family and food in Minnesota.

Non-Fiction

M Train by Patti Smith: A meandering, mesmerizing look at various places and people that have made an impact on Patti in her life. I never thought I would be so enthralled by a book that talked so much about drinking coffee and eating brown toast!

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein: I was really impressed by this memoir by the Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist. SK is one of my favorite bands of all time, and her book is an insightful look at finding community through music.

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas: A beautifully written memoir about lifelong friendships and how they change later in life, among many other things. By the author of A Three Dog Life, which I also read and enjoyed this year.

Hammer Head: the Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin: A memoir of a woman who quit her soul-sucking journalism job to become an apprentice carpenter. I have an enduring fantasy of doing something similar, so of course I was into this one!

How to Be a Heroine: or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis: I love “bibliomemoirs” and this one was so much fun that I even wrote about it for the local paper (http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2015-02-15/powerful-influences.html).

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis: One of the few older books I read this year, this one came out in 1976. It is a classic of the Southern food revival movement, and it was fascinating. It has recipes but also stories of the author’s childhood growing up on a farm in the South. Just lovely.

Dogland: a Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem by Jacki Skole: One of the best books I have read about the homeless pet problem in this country. Heartbreaking but not without hope and helpful suggestions for making a difference.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald: Everyone has read about this one already, so suffice to say I loved it as much as everyone else.

Bad Kid: Growing Up Goth and Gay in Texas by David Crabb: A hilarious look at growing up as an outsider in the 80s and 90s. I could relate to so many of his musical loves, from the early George Michael years to the later Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys. I might be a gay 80s boy at heart.

Comics and Graphic Novels 

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick: I can’t wait to read more of this one!

Paper Girls #1 and #2 by Brian K. Vaughan: My sister got me the first issue for Christmas and now I am hooked.

Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire: This is the best sci-fi comic series I have read in awhile, I loved the art and the storytelling.

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1 and 2 by Noelle Stevenson: Geared toward a young crowd, but it is really fun and charming.

Saga, Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: This series continues to be totally entertaining.

 

 

Rad American Women A-Z

How can I resist an alphabet book in which P is for Patti Smith? Clearly I radamericanwomencan’t, and you shouldn’t either. If you have a child, I definitely recommend this book. I loved the striking, colorful illustrations, and the authors have selected a diverse and inspiring group of 26 women to profile. The biographies are short (one page or so) and clearly written, summarizing the woman’s accomplishments and their importance to American history.

It’s refreshing to see a book aimed at young readers that has such an explicitly feminist viewpoint, and I am envious of the little girls who now have the opportunity to grow up knowing about such figures as the Grimke sisters, Zora Neale Hurston, and Delores Huerta and their important contributions to American history.

In which I arrive unfashionably late to the “Life After Life” party.

This summer I am taking a hiatus from my monthly book review column in the local newspaper, and I am using this opportunity to catch up some of the novels I have skipped over the past few years. When I am planning to write a column every month most of my reading is focused on books that I think I may be able to turn into a column. Many books I want to read end up falling by the wayside, either because they have already gotten a bunch of lifeafterlifeattention or because they are so long that I feel like I can’t invest the reading time. The first book up was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I had been looking forward to since it was published back in 2013.

I am a big fan of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series of mysteries and I love historical fiction (especially when it focuses on the lives of women), so I expected to enjoy Life After Life, but it exceeded my high expectations.

I worried that the literary reincarnation gimmick would become tedious, but it was so well done that I loved it. Ursula is such a well-drawn, complex character, and it is fascinating to look at the 20th events of the early/mid-20th century through her many lives and choices. It’s not a short book, at over 500 pages, but I could have kept reading different iterations of Ursula’s life for far longer than that. Maybe reading A God in Ruins will help, although I am disappointed that it does not carry over the reincarnation plot. Life After Life was well worth the wait and more than lived up to all the hype. It’s one of my favorite novels of the past few years, and one I plan to read again someday.

C’mon, October!

As if the muggy 90 degree weather wasn’t enough to make me wish for fall, look at the books coming out in October!

Untitled-3

Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of my favorite writers, and she hasn’t had a book out since her wonderful 2011 novel Once Upon a River. Her new one is a collection of short stories, and given how much her previous collections rocked my socks, I am incredibly excited about this one.

 
 
 
 
 

Patti Smith is one of my heroes, and I loved her previous memoir Just mtrainKids, which focused on her early years as an artist in NYC and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. M Train is a follow up to Just Kids which will reportedly focus on other aspects of her life, including her marriage to Fred “Sonic” Smith.

A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

red sunThis book seemed like it should be right up my alley: Rural noir, set in my home state of Missouri, written by a Missourian, featuring various down-and-out characters, and it even got positive reviews in both Book List and Publisher’s Weekly. While the book kept me reading with a plot that was reasonably compelling, the cartoonish characters and black and white morality left a sour taste in my mouth.

The story centers on Dale Banks, a Deputy Sheriff in Gasconade County, Missouri (where the author himself resides). Banks and his fellow law enforcement officers struggle to keep on top of the crime that poverty and meth has brought to their once sleepy area. One day, while looking to bust a local dealer, Banks discovers a stash of drug money. Thinking about his family and feeling fed up with the local hoodlums causing so many problems, Banks impulsively takes the money.

Of course this theft opens up a whole raft of problems for Banks, and exposes the various links between the local drug trade and corruption in local politics and law enforcement, which definitely kept me reading. The characters, though, left much to be desired. Both the good guys and the bad guys lacked complexity, with the bad guys seeming almost ghoulish cartoons of familiar stereotypes of “white trash”. The female characters, while all tertiary to the story, are particularly delineated: we have on one hand saintly, pretty, loyal wives; on the other, morbidly obese, sex-obsessed (and sometimes incestuous), scheming, cheating sluts.

What I like about the best rural noir (think Daniel Woodrell here, although others can be great without being quite as literary) is they present complicated characters who may be struggling and making poor choices, but whose motivations make sense to the reader and are easy to empathize with. A Swollen Red Sun totally lacked that kind of complexity and character development, which made the sexism and gruesome violence even harder to take.

Coming soon! Upcoming titles I can’t wait to read.

August: 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay  bad feminist - Copy

I fell in love with this author after reading her new novel, Untamed State, and now I want to read anything she ever writes. I am super looking forward to this one, which comes out next week.

 

 

September:

paying guestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I love Waters’ signature style of suspenseful historical fiction, often focusing on lesbian relationships. Tipping the Velvet is one of my favorites, and this one sounds like it could be just as good. It takes place in 1920s London and centers on a widow and her spinster daughter who are forced to take a young couple into their home as lodgers.

 

Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham 

not that kind of girl

I find Lena Dunham to be quite funny and smart in interviews, and I am a big fan of her show Girls, so I am really curious to see how this book of essays will turn out.

 

 

 

how to build a girl

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

This upcoming coming of age novel had me at the publisher blurb: “Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease.”  It takes place in London in the 1990s, and is written by a well-known UK critic and feminist author who’s non-fiction title How to be a Woman made a big splash when it came out in 2012. Also, look at that great cover! I love the 90s-fied take on the classic cover of The Bell Jar.

 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

smoke gets in your eyes

I’ve heard a lot of hype about this one, and it sounds pretty fascinating. It’s a memoir by a young woman who took a job at a crematory in her 20s and found her calling as a mortician.

 

 

October:

yes pleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler, people! Need I say more? No, I do not.