Category Archives: books

my best books of 2015

I’m that person who scours the best-of book lists all year long, and, in doing so, I like to find personal blogs with lists of favorites, too, such as on Elephantine. Rachel is an aspiring writer/blogger in Seattle who offers monthly book recommendations, and they usually resonate.

Among my friends, I often get texts or emails in that vein. Last month, I received an email from a close friend in Michigan: “Any suggestions for feel good short stories? Reminders that there are happy, good people in the world? To help me get back to reading more??”

The text came about a week after the San Bernardino shootings. My friend, stretched thin lately, is a mother to two under 3 years old, works full-time, recently moved houses and her husband travels to the West Coast frequently.

I shot her a few suggestions, and she wrote back, “Thanks, I knew I was consulting the expert.”

I love feeling like I can help. So, hopefully this list will inspire someone who needs a good book recommendation (and yes, I know these lists usually come out in December, but better late to the game than never). Many of these — including “Our Souls at Night,” “Still Alice,” “Nightingale” — brought me to tears. I was drawn into all of them, often neglecting my husband in the evenings: “I’m going to go read.” I also read a few blockbusters, like “Girl on a Train,” but to me, the writing wasn’t strong enough to merit this list.

Here are my top nine books that I read in 2015, in no particular order:

  • “Our Souls at Night” by Kent Haruf
  • “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
  • “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova
  • “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “Circling the Sun” by Paula McClain
  • “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah
  • “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
  • “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas
  • “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante (I have book no. 2 on my nightstand)

Happy reading!

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toddler books, revisited

A year ago I wrote about how I was desperately tired of our collection of toddler books. And I needed recommendations. Several of you came through with awesome suggestions (like “Giraffes Can’t Dance” and “Little Blue Truck”) — some of you even sent us books (thank you!) — and now I can’t imagine running out of book ideas.

duck-on-a-bikeAlso, I love the library and have misgivings for calling it shabby. I’ve since decided that shabby is charming. The librarians are kind (is that a given?) and are smitten with CM. It’s now open on Fridays. And the online system — where I can literally “order” any book I want — is amazing.

Anyway, for those of you seeking book recommendations because your little ones often demand you read a book over and over and over again and you don’t want to read the same books over and over and over again and the thought of going through the same books with baby no. 2 is torture, here are some more suggestions. What we love about these books are the creativity, the illustrations and the rhythm and rhyme (some of them you can almost sing).

PenguinChaCha3DCover

  • “Kiss Good Night” by Amy Hest
  • “Bear Says Thanks,” “Bear’s New Friend” (and others in the series) by Karma Wilson
  • “Barnyard Song” by Rhonda Gowler Greene and Robert M. Bender
  • “Ladybug Girl and the Big Snow” (and others in the series) by Jackie Davis and David Soman
  • “And Then It’s Spring” by Julie Folgiano
  • “The Pencil” by Allan Ahlberg
  • “The Penguin Cha-Cha” by Kristi Valient
  • “To Market To Market” by Anne Miranda and Janet Stevens
  • “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
  • “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon
  • “Penguin and Pinecone” by Salina Yoon

Also, a friend told me that Dolly Parton has a foundation called Imagination Library that will send your little ones books every month (depending on where you live). I never knew Dolly Parton was so cool.

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my favorite books this year

goldfinch

The house is quiet. My in-laws took C. to Lake Isabella before flying back to NC tomorrow.

I’m catching up on book news (the New York Times’ 100 most notable books of the year, the Good Read’s picks and NPR’s new book concierge) and excitedly picking what to read next, including Edwidge Danicat’s Claire of the Sea Light, Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

snowchildThis year, I’ve spent countless hours engrossed in gripping stories that transport me to another place. My favorites? Jumpha Lahiri’s Lowland about brothers from India who take drastically different paths; Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones about a young teen who’s secretly pregnant, poor and faces a hurricane; Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch about a young boy who survives a terrorist attack in a museum and steals a famous piece of art; Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, a mystical story about a couple in Alaska in their 50s who wanted kids but couldn’t have them and then a girl visits them with the snow.

And, last but not least, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline about two foster girls — one modern-day and one from Ireland who rode on the so-called orphan train in the late 1920s — and how their lives intersect. I couldn’t put it down — and, I confess, I’ve been reading about the author and how she researched the novel.

orphantrain

I’ve discovered short-story masters like George Saunders, Shirley Jackson and Charles Baxter. I’ve studied the craft, and I wrote my first short story — and have realized just how far I have to go to be a better writer.

I was an English major, but not knowing what to do with that degree, I got my master’s in journalism and worked in news for years. I loved the people, the challenge, the excitement — but I always suspected that my heart lies with books. And now that I’m away from the working world, I have confirmed this suspicion.

What are the best books you’ve read this year?

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a toddler, books and … tears?

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One of the wonderful things — and curses — of living in the desert is the quiet. So much quiet. The wind is fierce, the air is dry and the summers are hot. This week, the temperatures are pushing 100 degrees — a hint of what’s to come. Our swamp cooler kicks on at random times during the day and I have to park under trees and stretch a shade across the windshield.

There aren’t many toddler classes in town, the city is shutting down its only public pool for lack of resources and it’s getting too hot to go to the park.

That means that C. and I are spending most of our time at home or at the library. At home, we don’t watch TV — and so we read. A lot.

The tiny, shabby desert library is open Tuesday-Thursday and the kids’ section is meager. We’ve run across gems like Jim Aylesworth’s “Little Bitty Mousie” and Pamela Edwards’ “Warthogs Paint” about colors (C. still calls everything “bue”), but I feel like in a few weeks we’ll have picked over the stock.

As I skim through books, I notice that many of them have characters behaving badly, and I gently close them and return them to the shelves. A. and I have read that what you read to kids can influence them in ways you might not realize. Kids don’t have the staying power or ability to comprehend a resolution. They just pick up the bad behavior.

What we didn’t expect was for a book to make C. cry. This is new for our almost 17-month-old: His chin wobbles and he tears up when a book ends with a “goodbye.” He has no problem saying bye to A. in the morning, or bye to me if A. takes him to Home Depot. But a book about a mouse leaving a museum had him crying over the weekend. And a book about boats had him in hysterics yesterday evening.

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the magic of fiction

When I was little, I found my magic in books. I always wished I had a secret garden I could escape to where no one would find me. I imagined myself curling up on a blanket under willow trees and reading stories like A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis for hours and hours until the sun set.

But because I didn’t have a secret garden, I’d find other places to read. For a few summers, I’d climb up the fence in our backyard onto a tree and step onto my parent’s garage with a pillow and book and hand. Up on the black-top roof, I specifically remember reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8. It had a yellow, hard cover.

As I got older — a pre-teen — I fell in love with books like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith — I wanted to be the main character Katie because I romanticized her life in New York City — poor, but newly-wed and madly in love. I also read cheesy series like the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High and edgy ones like V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic.

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my best books of the year

I picked up quite a few books this year that I couldn’t put down, if I do say so myself [breathes warm air on knuckles, rubs knuckles against chest]. So I wanted to share. These books both delighted me and made me think. A few of them I read while literally walking down D.C. streets during rush hour [I noticed those dirty looks, you fellow pedestrians, but I couldn’t help myself!]

half-of-a-yellow-sun-uesiqg

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This soars because you can’t help but love the characters — Aibilene, Minny and Skeeter — and worry about what will happen to them during the height of racial unrest. And it transports you to the South.

  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is historical fiction about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s — also known as the Biafran war — a war I knew nothing about. It’s a bit gruesome, but also surprising and so rich in detail that I got over the war scenes.

  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I was recently told that this has become required reading for incoming freshman at Georgetown University. It’s the kind of book that makes you ponder your perceptions and instincts. I actually might read it again. It’s the perfect book club book.

Honorable mentions (because no list is complete without some honorable mentions): The Shadow in the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

Also, in the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to clean out my New Yorkers all the way back to 2008, which is proving impossible. I say to myself: “What if someone mentions an article [at some way-down-the-road future date that will never happen] that I want to read and I’ve tossed it?”

So, my deal with myself is to read the fiction and then toss it. I’ve been *trying* [cough cough] to read one a day. This idea all started with a short story by E.L. Doctorow called “Wakefield.” Two Saturdays ago, I sat on my carpet thinking I’d read a page or two and I kept reading and reading. Even though I had to go the bathroom and my stomach was grumbling and I really wanted some coffee, I couldn’t stop until I finished it. Making me ignore my basic needs — now that’s talent Mr. Doctorow.

Enjoy!

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a humiliating mistake: inviting the world to join shelfari

The emails started coming in nearly every 20 seconds on an August morning. All of them had the same subject line: “Do we like the same books?”

“What the…” I thought as I cocked my head. Then it registered.

By mistake, I had invited friends, colleagues, former bosses, professors, volleyball teammates, ex-boyfriends – everyone I had ever known or met once in my life — to join a book sharing Web site called Shelfari.

When I sent out the invite that morning — that fateful click to 925 email addresses (because gmail saves every address you ever write to) — I knew nothing about the website. A former coworker who had leant me some books like Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” invited me to join it. I thought I was adding one friend and instead I accidentally urged people who live in D.C., London, India, Germany and Hong Kong to join.

I was a marketer on behalf of a company I knew nothing about. It was like campaigning for a politician I had met once. In fact, if Shelfari were to ever turn profitable, I would think I would have every right to go to the board meeting, stand up, raise my hand and suggest I share in the profits.

Here are some of the responses I got (and I would like to add that I had no hand in the excessive punctuation):

•Is this some kind of sex website???

•I only watch movies. HAHAHAHAHHA!

•i don’t read.

•ERIN!!! You know I can’t read….

•Very nice. I joined as well. You know you are supporting Amazon’s takeover of all commerce don’t you.

•You probably ought remove me from your distribution list. Unless you want me influencing your selection of books, which could be a dangerous thing (wink) (from a guy who asked me out whom i had ignored on email two months earlier)

•This is cool. You better go add my book!!!!!

•I LOVE THIS!!!!! I’m in. How are you doing??? We need to dine together and catch up.

•Only YOU could be the best at timing!!! I kid you not, I was just on the website of my local public library looking up to see if they had some books for which I am hoping to read!!!! I didn’t even look up your site yet because I was just excited to see your name on my e-mail screen! HOW THE HECK ARE YOU GIRL!???

And, from a guy I still can’t place – even after googling him and trying to figure out how I might know him:

•Hey there! Thanks for the invite to your book group. It’s a neat concept. I’m actually in Berlin and on my way to Moscow tomorrow for work (to brag a bit). I think I picked a good time to be out of DC — it’s much cooler here!

Over the next few days, I felt nervous every time I checked my email. Who else was going to respond to my haphazard, not-so-thoughtful message. “We haven’t talked in years, but uh, want to join a book sharing website?” “Hey, I know that I didn’t return your messages because I wasn’t interested in dating you, but uh, how about you join Shelfari?”

I got messages from a former college soccer teammate whom I haven’t seen in five years and my former college roommate, who now lives in India, with whom I had lost touch. There was a long message from a friend from London whom I last saw in 2000 on the El in Chicago and from a guy I knew when I interned at Time Magazine in Hong Kong in 2001. He’s still in Hong Kong.

I have to admit, I enjoyed reconnecting with people — although it was exhausting to connect with dozens of people I hadn’t talked with in years all at the same time. When I heard from people, I quickly wrote up a standard apology and explanation, and it mostly elicited laughs. But two weeks later, Shelfari sent out a reminder to those who didn’t sign up the first time.

There was nothing I could do about it – and it started to piss people off. Or make them feel bad.

•Yes, this is your second e-mail. I’ll be blunt: Do I know you?

•How desperate are you to have me on this thing? I’m too techno-challenged with these things ie: linked in etc. How are things anyway?

•Thanks for inviting me to join. I honestly don’t have the time right now to join-but if I do get some time, I will definitely look at it.

I continued to apologize and explain and apologize. I now have 80 friends who signed up to the site, and I put my photograph up and added my favorite books. I figured since I invited everyone I know, I might as well embrace it. I bought my last three books from Amazon, all on recommendations from Shelfari.

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