Archive | December 2014

The 54 Greatest Books I Read This Year

This is all Stephen King’s fault.  In On Writing, his memoir on writing (“the craft” as he puts it), he mentions that he reads anywhere from 50-70 books a year.  When I read that, I decided I could keep up with Stephen King.  I wasn’t going to let two small children, a full-time job and a part-time therapy habit stop me from keeping up with Stephen Fucking King.

So, I read 54 books this year.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: The year isn’t over so I’ll probably actually read 56.)

Back in July, I told you about the first 22 books I read in 2014. I won’t rehash that here, but you can catch up by clicking here.  I kicked the reading into high gear on the back side of 2014. FN1

What follows is the remainder of the year’s books with my honest appraisals and commentary.

The best of the rest:


1. US by David Nicholls: For the record, I hated his insipid, stunty, first book, One Day, which became a lackluster movie with Anne Hathaway.  Let us never speak of that again.  But Us? I adored this.  Structurally, it’s the best book I read this year as it seamlessly weaves from past to present and back again.  Narrated by a guy whose fears and neuroses feel like a pair of well-worn slippers to me:  I love and recognize them, and they keep me warm. It’s so good I would have sworn it was written by a woman.

2. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: You can’t be faulted for skipping over this one. It’s approximately 7,000 pages long.  But do you really want to be a lazy piece of shit all your life? If the answer is no, then get on the Tartt train because the Las Vegas scenes of protagonist Theo Decker and his shady friend Boris are some of the most powerful in all of contemporary literature.  It won the Pulitzer for a reason.

3. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Set in rural Montana, this book is a bit of a downer.  Lots of relationships falling apart, people failing the people they love, missed connections.  What does it say about me that I love to read about that? The New York Times says this is a novel about the “moral limits of freedom.”  If you like to contemplate those limits, especially against the backdrop of Reaganomics and the spectacular ruggedness of rural Montana, take this for a spin.

4. We Are Not Ourselves by Michael Thomas: Chilling portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease.  Just thinking back to some of the passages depicting the fraying of the father’s mind and its effect on his family makes me want to run out and do a couple of brain exercises.  Debut novel that reminds me to have compassion for my deep, complex, often-burdened Irish heart.

5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: I know you’re sick of hearing about Reese, and Wild, and hiking boots.  I get that.  That’s not what this book is.  There’s no REI, no blisters, no mountaineering or would-be rapists here.  What there is is Strayed’s heart on a platter via her immense compassion and brutal honesty for people in pain who’ve reached out for her hand.  That she offers it back along with so much more makes this book bigger than simply a collection of advice columns.  Don’t skip this.  I cried three times while reading this.

6. Men We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward: Speaking of crying, I cried on the bus while reading the last chapter of this book.  It’s a brutal memoir, linking race, poverty, father-less families and systematic injustice on the Mississippi gulf coast.  Ward leads us through the lives she loved and lost.  After reading this book I realized: I’d follow her anywhere.

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer:  Moving.  That’s the word for this book.  Yes, it’s another Holocaust book, and like all good Holocaust books there are scenes of ghastly cruelty and unspeakable horror.  But there’s also this shining light from the two young people who are surviving the war inspite of the starvation, cruelty, death and destruction all around them.  All the chapters are short too, so it feels like you are reading fast.

8. Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Each chapter is another year in the life of this Midwestern family.  Nothing super dramatic really happens, yet I kept turning the page.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and all of the books will follow the chapter-as-year pattern.  It’s like an unexpected trip to Iowa– it’s relaxing, scenic, and the people are friendly and likeable.


This year I also read some really amazing, well done “lighter” books.  These gems are worth your time and money.

Literary Aperitif / LIGHTER FARE

9.  I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum:  This is a light read about a heavy subject: a marriage unraveling.  It’s Maum’s debut novel and I loved the memorable characters and the good sex scenes.  Maum is very funny.  Like Jonathan Tropper funny. Check this one out.

10. I’m Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Memoir): Let’s see…. an alcoholic drag queen falls madly and sincerely in love with a crack-addicted man-whore.   Underneath the glitz of the gay NYC lifestyle bankrolled by male escort money, there’s a story about what it’s like to care about someone who’s in the thrall of addiction.  This book carefully threads the line between glitz and the bottomless darkness that is active drug addiction.  Outrageous, moving and dark– just like I like my books.


11. The Removers by Andrew Meredith (Memoir):  Meredith is forced into the family business as a “remover,” someone who carts away the bodies of people who expire at home.  While working with his father in these somewhat horrific job, Meredith comes to see his father, who was heretofore disgraced by a sexual misconduct scandal, with compassion and empathy.  Bonus: interesting details about crematoria.

12. Heartburn by Nora Ephron: This was my first Ephron book.  I liked it, though there’s so much gushing over Ephron, especially since her death in 2012, that I was worried my expectations were too high.  They weren’t.  This book reads like her rom-coms (think Sleepless In Seattle), there’s just enough humor, truth, intelligence and wit to make it fun in a breezy, Meg Ryan sort of way.

13. Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner: Meh. This portrayal of a woman’s fall into addiction (prescription drugs) was entirely too sanitized for my taste.  It was like going on a date with a really hot guy you’re sure loves REM records and first edition Ezra Pound works, but it turns out he watches Real Housewives and loves Nickelback.

14. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: Does anyone else think it’s funny that the author’s last name is Miles?  This book, structured as a long complaint letter to American Airlines, is both funny and tragic as the epic fuck-ups of the protagonist’s life come to light in his discursive side bars.  He’s stuck in O’Hare, which has been the sight of more than one of my epic meltdowns.  It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever been an outraged Davey to the airlines’ Goliath, which is pretty much EVERYONE who’s ever flown anywhere.


15. Symptoms of Withdrawal by Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Confession– I “borrowed” this book from my therapist’s book shelf so I could take it on a trip home. I haven’t returned it. The inside cover has an inscription to him that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read. Must amend that ASAP. The book itself might have been good research for Ms. Weiner as it details Lawford’s (nephew of JFK, son of Peter Lawford) mighty struggle with addiction along with his endless grappling with his place in the venerable Kennedy clan (Camelot blah blah blah).  As someone who grew up 5 miles from the grassy knoll, I appreciated the “insider” stories about the Kennedys and all their Hyannis Port, east coast rollicking. Lawford, however, is completely full of himself, which was distracting, especially when he’s telling us how great his recovery/sobriety is. Pretty sure bragging about how humble and sober you are (vis-a-vis your sick-fuck family) violates the humility portion of the recovery program I’m familiar with.

16. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: Ya’ll, holy shit.  Hording is no joke.  I’ve laughed at hording and had the show on as “background music” while cleaning the kitchen.  Now, I feel like a giant asshole because this story enlightened me to what a serious disorder/disease/pathology it is that drives people to bury themselves in filth.  Think about it– it’s one of the most un-funny things I can think of.  This book was a portal into the world where your house could be so packed that a homeless person could be living in your attic and you wouldn’t even know it.  Chilling.

17. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander: These are short stories and now’s a good time to mention that I don’t like short stories.  I find it jarring to read them when I am used to the cohesion and flow of novels.  I enjoyed Englander’s exploration of Big Questions.  The first one was my favorite so download a sample and see if it’s your thing.

18. Diary of the Fall, Michael Laub & Margaret Jull Costa: This is one of the only experimental novels I read this year.  This book is a mind-blower.  Thematically, it explores how subsequent generations deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It focuses on three generations of men: the youngest is searching for forgiveness for a childhood prank that went horribly awry, the father is descending into Alzheimer’s, and the grandfather survived Auschwitz.  Ultimately the story weaves together survival, forgiveness and memory and shows how the Holocaust fucks with all three of those and will affect generations of survivors.

19. Bear, Claire Cameron: My friends were concerned when I mentioned I was reading this book.  Rightfully so.  It’s told from the perspective of a child who, along with her little brother, has survived a bear attack that killed their parents.  So, there they are, little innocents out in the Canadian woods, and their parents have been mauled TO DEATH and they must get help.  She’s five and her little brother is three.  It’s weird to recommend this book, but I do.  It’s awful to contemplate your kids seeing a bear gnawing in your vitals, and I will never EVER go camping again.  If that’s okay with you, read this.

20. Chasing Daylight, Eugene O’Kelly & Corrine O’Kelly: He’s a bigwig at a global accounting firm– the type of guy who flies to Singapore one day and Sydney the next, all while dealing with a “crisis” in a German sub (-sidiary not marine).  He’s a big fucking deal.  Then he gets an inoperable brain tumor and BAM! he has less than 4 months to live.  He decides to go all accountant-y and chart the best way to live his dwindling days.  He’s Type-A to the complete, pedal-to-the-metal max.  Some of that bugged me, but his quest was urgent and earnest.  How, on his death-bed, he still found time to write this book, I hope I’ll never know.  But his stories of reaching out for closures in relationships was incredibly moving.

21. Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch:  The protagonist was a compete ass. Someone I would “unfriend” and not socialize with.  And not particularly smart like a Kevin Spacey character (think Frank Underwood).  If one of my friends was married to him, we would never do couple stuff.  The whole thing gave me the creeps, and not in a good way.  I’m told his book The Dinner is the better of the two, so next year I’ll have better things to say about Koch.


22. An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken.  This memoir depicts the stillbirth of McCracken’s first child, a son whom she and her husband affectionately called “Pudding.”  Thank God, she tells us early on that although Pudding didn’t make it, she went on to have another healthy child. Reading this reminds me of how I had to read Lolita— the subject matter is fraught with so much emotion (judgment and fear and disgust– in the case of Lolita, but sadness, terror and grief here) that you have to really sink into the beautiful language to cope with the emotional heft.  McCracken is humorous, compassionate, human and utterly un-self-pitying (how did she do that???) and this book is a beautiful gem.

23. Hannah Delivered, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew.  This book also concerns births– home births and midwifery.  The character arc of the protagonist who sets out on a journey to become a midwife is realistic and hopeful.   There’s a memorable case of characters– specifically, the gay male midwife who goes off to Mexico to find his birthing-assistance bliss.

24. Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez. This may have been my favorite book of the year. The voice. The violence. The Texas landscape. The poverty. The border town restlessness and “justice”. The lineage of addiction. The burden of racism.  The generational resentments and the things people do to survive dire circumstances.  I’m gushy about this book, as a reader and a writer.  Martinez often breaks down the Fourth Wall and addresses the reader directly– very Frank Underwood and Shakespearean.  His musical references are perfect.  I can totally picture his British Knight shoes and I can taste the tamales he and his family make on Christmas day.  God.  Please read this book.  It feels important to me that you do.


25. Where the Red Fern Grow, Wilson Rawls.  This summer, I ended up on a Facebook discussion loop where this book came up. I made the mistake of saying, “I’ve never read that.”  The chorus of “no way!” “I loved that book!” deafened me.  So I read it.  It’s a great middle-grade story if you like bawling your fucking eyes out over dogs. (I don’t even like animals.)  I’m glad I can cross it off my list of American Classics I Should Read.  If you’re a writer, check out Rawls’ bio– no fancy MFA for him.  Just a life time of enjoying stories.

26. The Third Son, Julie Wu.  Allow me to sum up this book: A Taiwanese boy is not the favorite son. Bad things happen to him.  Then more bad things happen.  Then some really bad things happen in and to his country.  A girl falls for him, but he spends most of his life trying to earn money in American instead of being with her and their son.  Too much of a dream deferred.  Cup of tea, not mine.

27. The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about Liane Moriarity.  I saw her books everywhere. I was positive I wouldn’t like it, but you know what, I rather enjoyed large parts of it.  The ending got a little absurd for my taste, and I missed the satisfaction of vengeance.  The opening riff about the Berlin Wall as a way into the story about the woman who finds her husband’s confession on a bookshelf (which she wasn’t supposed to find until he died) worked for me.  That he actually murdered someone and basically gets away with it, didn’t work as well.


28. Wonder, R. J. Palacio.  The same thing happened with this book.  All over my Facebook feed mothers were extolling the virtues of this book and its message: People who look different should be treated with love and allowed to come into your life as friends.  A fiercely honest friend PM’ed me saying she saw it differently and I decided I had to see for myself.  I liked the multiple viewpoints and thought it captured some of the angst of middle school/high school with some freshness.  My least favorite narrator was the kid who has the facial deformity that functions as the lightening rod in the story.  I had sympathy for him and his plight as a child who gets stared at everywhere he goes, but I thought his level of self-absorption was a turn-off.  I would have liked to see a little bit more nuance around the subject of being an object, being stared at, looking different than everyone else, navigating people’s curiosity.  As it was, I found myself annoyed that he was so obsessed with people staring at him.  Does that make me a bad person? Judging by my Facebook feed, yes.

29. Early Decision, Lacy Crawford.  Because kindergarten and nursery school aren’t stressful enough, I decided to read a “based on real life experience” story about a woman who helps high-achieving (and rich) kids polish their college essays so they can get into their dream schools.  I found the interactions between the college application sherpa and the rich parents who hired her entertaining.  But like The Husband’s Secret, the ending took this absurd turn and involved a coincidence that did not ring remotely plausible so my warm fuzzy feelings soured.

Other Randos

30. Big Brother, Lionel Shriver.  I wanted to like this.  The story: a wildly codependent sister who tries to “save” her morbidly obese/depressed/washed-up brother from himself by leaving her family and going on a crash diet with him.  For me, there wasn’t enough spark here.  And the brother’s vernacular– calling things “hip” and talking like someone from the 70’s was distracting and incredible to me.  There’s also a plot trick at the end, which, as an aspiring novelist struggling with plot structure, infuriated me.  I have a distaste for short cuts or cute tricks.  This book has that, so beware.

31. Defending Jacob, William Landay.  I was 357 pages into this book when I finally realized it was fiction, not a memoir.  After that, I lost steam because the father’s saga of defending his son against murder charges in light of an avalanche of evidence against him seemed much more urgent when it was real.  It’s a great read, but let me be clear: IT IS FICTION.

32. Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin.  Don’t ask me why I read a 320-page bio of Johnny Carson; I have no good answers.  But it was an enjoyable read.  What I remember about Johnny Carson, whom I only saw when I was allowed to stay up late, was that he was skinny, wry, and had that pencil he was always tapping.  That he was actually a petty, ruthless, tyrannical alcoholic with intimacy issues does not surprise me.  The fact that I liked reading all about it from his personal lawyer’s point of view probably says a lot about me.  None of it very good.

33. Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin.  I wrote a review here this summer.  I’m still pissed she shafted Willie Nelson in her big old Texas book, but maybe in time I will forgive her. (No I won’t.)


Footnote 1: Other stats for the year: I spent $349.00 on books, a number I predict will go down now that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the Chicago public library.

Total number of pages read: approx. 13, 549.  That that, illiteracy!


Literary Synchronicity: Jesmyn Ward and Domingo Martinez

My final wrap-up for the 52 (and counting) books I read this year is in the works, but before I unveil that let’s talk about synchronicity.

Literary synchronicity.

I read at least 2 books at a time: one hard copy, one digital.  Typically, my e-book is from the library and is something I put on hold months before, thus the books I end up reading at any given time are pretty random, usually selected months in advance.  (Ping me if you have tips on how to game the Chicago Public Library system.)


Currently, the e-book I’m reading is the 2012 memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2012.  It’s a spectacular glimpse at life in a poor Texas border town (Brownsville) chock full of unforgettable scenes depicting harsh poverty, brute violence, and poses unflinching questions about race, identity, class and American culture.

Last night I read a passage in BKOT about how the families in Martinez’s community would often pass babies from family to family.  As in, bartering human life.  Martinez writes, “[c]hildren here are a commodity slightly more precious than livestock.”  He calls it a “biological ‘regifting’ program” whereby unwanted babies born into indigent families that cannot feed another mouth are “exchanged” for something more valuable.  Thus, a childless couple might take another family’s little one and swap it for something the indigent family needs– a car, a cow, a bag of jewels, a gun.

Nothing I have ever read about poverty makes the point so clearly: the value of human life is inexorably degraded when you live on the fringes of subsistence.  If you’re starving and your community has gone to seed, then your babies have a different value than they do to someone with ample FMLA leave and full medical coverage.

I’m blessed that I have no idea what this is like.  (This is part of the privilege that I routinely take for granted.)  But this isn’t a political post (not overtly anyway).  This is about the weird shit that happens when you read too much.

So.  Less than 12 hours later, I’m on the bus reading Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped, her 2013 memoir of growing up in rural Mississippi and the four years in which she lost five young men beloved to her and her community.  Every fifth page is a punch in the gut as she links her personal story of struggle and loss to the systematic racism that finds its roots in slavery.


Hard read, ya’ll, but pretty timely given the deplorable events of late.

Like Martinez, Ward writes how the children in her community “moved from family to family … through the decades: women in [her] great-grandmother’s generation would sometimes give newborn children to childless couples after having five or ten or fourteen, and when children were older, they would often move out of the family home and live with different relatives.”  Ward writes that “[h]ere, family has always been a mutable concept.”

Right now I can’t tell if I’m more shocked by the cultural, economic, and emotional circumstances that force desperate families to treat their children like milk cows or by the fact that despite having never read about this, I’m now reading about it in TWO books in less than 24 hours.

If you’ve ever read this blog, you should not be shocked that I am making this all about me.  Fatal flaw: self-absorption.

I’m not a superstitious woman, but I can’t help but think that somehow the universe is telling/showing/illuminating something for me.  I would like for you to read these two books and then we can have long, on-line discussions about them.

But wait, get this: This happened last week too!  Last week I was reading David Nicholls’ new novel, Us, wherein there’s a story line about a child named Jane who died.  Sad, right?  Poor Jane and her poor parents.   The same night I read about Nicholls’ Jane, I also pick up Laine Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, which concerns the death of a young girl named, of course, J-A-N-I-E.  (Her given name was Jane.)

Are you kidding me? I haven’t (and will never) read the DaVinci Code, but was it like this? Clues littered through seemingly random literary choices?  Am I about to be murdered in the Louvre?  Am I supposed to be solving a mystery right now?

Could this synchronicity mean something? If so, what?