Best of 2015

Before we get too far into 2016, I’d like to post my best-of lists from last year. It was a year, once again, where I read a lot of great novels, but the books I thought about the most and remember the most fondly are nonfiction. I should, perhaps, take this as a sign to read more nonfiction in the future. But I wonder sometimes whether reading more nonfiction might make it less memorable. If I go on a memoir-reading binge, or personal-essay-reading binge, perhaps they will start to blur together as novels sometimes do. I don’t know. I think I’m mostly feeling dissatisfied these days with realistic fiction and need less of it in my reading diet. So bring on the experimental fiction and the unclassifiable nonfiction in 2016 (recommendations appreciated)!

Best fiction:

  • Elisa Albert, After Birth
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth
  • James Hanaham, Delicious Foods

Best nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
  • Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination: A Memoir (also wins for least-memorable title — I can’t keep it in my brain)
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Helen McDonald, H is for Hawk
  • Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

Books that frustrated me the most:

  • Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (Many people loved this but I thought it was sloppy)
  • Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (incoherent project, uninspiring writing)
  • Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (I liked the ideas but couldn’t stand the writing. This may be my most unpopular opinion of the year, but so be it.)

Books that made my head spin after reading what felt like thousands of conflicting opinions about them (although I enjoyed the experience of reading them very much):

  • Hanya Yanigihara, A Little Life
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book One

Here’s to great reads in 2016 for everyone!

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My 2015 in Reading

Time for the year-end stats post. Here’s my reading from 2015:

  • Books read: 88. I was hoping to get up to 90 — but in the end, who cares? 88 is a great number.
  • Audiobooks: 15. Up from the 10 I listened to last year. Using Scribd has made the difference here (although now they give you only one audiobook a month, so my number for next year may be only 12).
  • eBooks: 12. Down from the 18 I read last year. I’m discovering that I definitely prefer print, although I continue to read ebooks for various uninteresting reasons. I just read them more slowly than I used to.
  • From library: 14. All print books. Because of Scribd, I’ve stopped borrowing ebooks and audiobooks from the library.
  • Fiction: 60. About the same percentage of the whole as last year.
  • Nonfiction: 26
  • Poetry: 2. Same as last year.
  • Essay collections: 6
  • Biography/autobiography: 13
  • Theory/criticism: 4
  • Short story collections: 1 (that’s it?)
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 9 (up quite a bit — good!)
  • Books by writers of color: 30 (doubled what I did last year and reached more than 1/3 of total reading)

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 57
  • Men: 27
  • Collections with men and women: 4

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 56 (a lower percentage than last year — but still high)
  • British: 13
  • French: 3
  • Australian: 2
  • Indonesian: 2
  • One each by authors from Canada, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, and Portugal.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 1 (although I’m currently in the middle of Emma)
  • First half of 20th century: 1 (really??)
  • Second half of 20th century: 7
  • 2000-2009: 8
  • 2010-2015: 71

The number of recent releases has gone up steadily in recent years, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m reviewing more, so of course I read new releases for those reviews. I also participated in a Booker long-list read through this year, which added 13 new releases to the list. And I’m also currently reading new books for a Goodreads group that is doing an “alternative Tournament of Books” that will take place in January, in anticipation of the real one coming up in March (it’s been super fun — check it out if you want to). All of this reading has been great and I don’t regret it. I just wish I could also read older works as well. But until I figure out how to fit more reading in, that may not happen.

All in all, it was a good reading year, with lots of good books (more on that later!) and, in particular, lots of great bookish company, here on this blog, on Twitter, and on Goodreads. Thanks to everyone who reads here and chats with me in various places online. Happy new year!

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My 2015 in writing

It’s year-end wrap-up time, and I’ll be back, probably in early January, to write about my 2015 reading. But I thought I’d post on my writing as well, of which I have done a fair amount this year. I published 17 reviews in various places that aren’t this blog. That includes some pieces that I wrote in 2014, but I can’t remember what I wrote when, so I’ll just go with publication date. I’m happy with that number, but particularly with the fact that several of those pieces appeared in new-to-me publications, including Bookslut, Open Letters Monthly, and The Seattle Review of Books. I’m also happy that of those 17 pieces, 15 were reviews of books written by women and 7 were of books written by people of color, 6 of those by women of color. Vida won’t be counting anything I wrote, but my own personal Vida count looks pretty good. You can see my entire list of reviews here, but here are some of my favorites from the year:

As for writing on this blog? I managed to write something here almost every month! Ah, well. That’s good enough.

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Emma Read-along

Yesterday I pulled down my new copy of Jane Austen’s Emma in preparation for Bellezza’s read-along this December and read the introductory material. It’s the new Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells. The introduction itself is fine — basic information about Austen and the publication and reception of the novel aimed at a general reader — but that is followed by a section called “Tips for reading Emma” that I found most unsatisfactory. It seems to assume that readers would struggle with the novel, instead of assuming they would enjoy it. The section includes tips such as “Pace yourself,” “Read passages out loud,” and “Try an audiobook,” all of which is okay, I suppose, but condescending in the way it assumes the reader is inexperienced at … reading.

More troubling is the suggestion that “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are.” Why presuppose the reader is going to be bored? That feels insulting and it also very much undersells the novel. Perhaps Austen’s contemporaries noted the ordinary characters for reasons different than we might note them today — that novels in Austen’s time often contained characters anything but ordinary — but aren’t we used to characters who are like people we know in the world around us?

Worst, though, is this sentence: “Long novels such as Austen’s are a workout for our attention spans and memories.” Please. People read long, long novels all the time these days, not to mention entire series of long, long novels, and they seem to enjoy themselves greatly.

To be fair, I think a large of part of the audience the editor is writing for here is high school or college students who will be assigned this novel for a class and who may not be experienced readers. She says this is advice she gives to her students (as well as her friends), and it makes sense that Penguin would want to market this edition to schools and colleges.

But still, this strikes me as a great way to inspire dread and not eagerness in potential new readers of the novel. It implies the entire endeavor will be a chore, work instead of pleasure. I’m not entirely sure how I would write my own “tips” if I had to, but I think I would try my best to avoid the condescending tone I found here.

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Updates 10/21/2015

I’m very late following up with my response to the Man Booker news, but Marlon James won it for A Brief History of Seven Killings, and I’m thrilled for him! The judges made the right choice. I think it was the best book by far from the long list. It’s not the book everyone wanted to win, but many were rooting for him and it was fun to see the celebration happening on Twitter after the announcement was made.

Looking over my list of reviews published elsewhere, it appears that I have published seven (seven!) of them since I last blogged about my review writing, which was in June. I won’t mention them all here, because if you are curious you can hop over to the “Other Writing” section of this blog to see the full list. But I will highlight a few. I’m proud to have had my first review in the Seattle Review of Books where I wrote about Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I didn’t like the book much, but it was an enjoyable review to write and I include some thoughts about books that try to offer writing advice.

I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and also reviewed Margo Jefferson’s fantastic book Negroland over at Bookslut and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City at Open Letters Monthly. I also had fun participating in a Bestseller List feature at Open Letters Monthly, where OLM writers reviewed the fiction bestseller list from the New York Times. I tackled Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love. You can find the first part of the feature here and my piece is #8 on this page. I tried hard to review the book honestly (I didn’t love it) without getting snotty or snobby about it, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

As for recent (non-Booker) reading, here are some highlights:

  • I finally got around to reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. What took me so long? It was amazing.
  • Some other amazing — amazing!!!! — books I read over the summer before the Man Booker madness: Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Both books are innovative takes on diaries and I fell in love with the voices in both. I resonated with their material on motherhood the most, but they cover much else as well. Another great book as far as experiences of motherhood go is Elisa Albert’s After Birth. I loved the book’s fury. So good.
  • I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and was mesmerized. I’m eager to get to volume two (but you know how it is — it may be a while anyway). This is a book that should totally be boring, but it’s not.
  • Paul Beatty’s The Sellout — so good! Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk — so good!

I read some books that weren’t so good, but I’m going to dwell on the positive in this short post. I hope to be back before too long!

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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Shortlist

The results are in! We have argued and deliberated and made what compromises we had to, and it’s all over. Here is our (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel shortlist:

  1. Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family
  2. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  3. Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways
  4. Anuradha Roy, Sleeping on Jupiter
  5. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
  6. Marilynne Robinson, Lila

If you compare this list to my personal shortlist, you’ll see that they are almost the same. The one change is that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life isn’t there and Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter is. I would have liked to see A Little Life on our group shortlist, but Sleeping on Jupiter was my seventh choice and just barely didn’t make the cut, so at least there’s nothing on the group shortlist that I disliked. This isn’t true for everyone on the panel!

As for the absence of A Little Life, well, it’s a controversial book. My guess is that it will make it on the official shortlist and may have a chance at winning (although I don’t think it should win). But this whole exercise has shown just how personal reading is. Some readers bought into the world of the book and others didn’t, and that was true for just about every book on the list. I’m not implying that there aren’t solid, logical arguments to make about why one book is better than another, but inevitably there are arguments to be made on both sides — or several sides — and people from all the different sides will think their solid, logical arguments are the most convincing. Before you even get to those solid, logical arguments, though, there is the reader’s immediate response, and there’s no arguing about that. A lot of our conversations were about trying to account for those immediate responses and to try to understand why they varied so much.

And the conversations were so fun! It was a great pleasure to participate on this panel, and I want to thank Frances profusely for organizing it. Thank you, Frances!

And now to see what the official judges have to say. I’ll try to come back and write up my thoughts on their list. I can’t wait to see.

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My Personal Shortlist for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has finished its deliberations and reached a verdict — which we will share tomorrow! Today, I will give my own personal shortlist. I didn’t quite finish all the reading, although I was very close. I finished 11 of the 13 longlisted books, and I made it over 50 pages into the last two before it was time to decide on my list. I am very happy with this, considering that I was trying to do all this reading while also writing three reviews of non-Booker books, reading for my book group, getting ready for school, caring for a toddler, and generally living life. I finished all the long books, too, including two books around 700 pages and one that was nearly 500. And, as it turns out, my two unfinished books are not ones I would want on my shortlist. Even if they both end much better than they begin, that won’t be enough, as I’m not getting on with them very well.

As I wrote in my previous post, I was much quicker to want to shortlist books that experimented in some way and that did something other than realistic family drama. But the longlist was heavy on realistic family dramas. If I had been responsible for creating a longlist, I’m sure mine would have looked very different from the one we ended up with. Many of the books were very good, but too many of them were just okay, not really different or new. I was glad to be able to listen to two of the just-okay ones on audio (Anne Tyler and Anne Enright), which probably made me enjoy them more.

SO, here is my personal shortlist, roughly in order of preference:

  1. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. This is my choice for the overall winner. It was … well, bring out all your reviewer cliches: stunning, a tour-de-force, etc., etc. The language was amazing, the ambition impressive. The characters, the voices, the historical insights, everything about it worked.
  2. Marilynne Robinson’s LilaThis book couldn’t be much more different from the James, but I still loved it. It’s much shorter and smaller in scope. But Lila is a lively character, and I loved looking at the world through her eyes. And the book is large in scope when you consider all the spiritual and existential questions it considers. And the writing is beautiful.
  3. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little LifeSome members of our group very much did not like this one, but it worked for me. I was caught up in the story; I loved diving deep into the characters and their lives. The story, extreme as it was, felt real to me. Yes, there were infelicities of language, but I didn’t even notice until others pointed them out to me. Yes, it was long, but I didn’t want it to end. The book, for me, was powerful.
  4. Tom McCarthy’s Satin IslandI love a philosophical novel where nothing happens, and this one is exactly that. It’s a meditation on work, on technology, on the shadowy forces that shape our lives, and on how art and creativity can fit in this world. The atmosphere of the book is cold, but this fits its ideas perfectly. It’s not a fun book, exactly, but it’s exactly right for our times.
  5. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. I was caught up in this novel’s story about immigrants from India into England, each with uncertain or questionable immigration status. Their never-ending quest for work was tense, and reading about them as their hopes for a better life took beating after beating was sometimes heartbreaking. I felt like I got a glimpse of a world I don’t know much about, and I’m glad I did.
  6. Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family. This is the only straight-forward family drama I included on my list. I could have exchanged it for one or two others, but this is the one that moved me the most. It also covered the most territory with the most emotional heft of all the family dramas while being the shortest of the group. I liked its suggestiveness.

So that’s it. A close runner-up was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, which got better and better the more I thought about it, but didn’t make my list because I didn’t enjoy the reading experience as much as I did with Bill Clegg’s book. Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was better by the end of the novel but didn’t make the list because it wasn’t doing much that was new or interesting. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen didn’t stand out to me — I don’t remember much from it, in fact. Anne Enright’s The Green Road was a structural mess, and I found Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account not particularly new and not particularly exciting to read. I’m still in the middle of the last two: Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. Both of these books, although very different each other, are uninspiring, and, frankly, a little boring. But I want to finish the entire list, so I’m going to keep plugging along.

So, stay tuned for the announcement tomorrow, Monday, September 14th, of the Shadow Panel shortlist, and then Tuesday the 15th, for the official shortlist (but should those people really have the final say? I’m not sure. I think our Shadow Panel should get the deciding vote, to be honest).

Lists from the other Shadow Panel participants: Teresa at Shelf Love, Frances at Nonsuch Book, and Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza.

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