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books for the bookish: my christmas wishlist

This will come as news to no man, but I am a bit of a “heavy reader.” Since I moved to Boston, books have slowly encroached upon all available physical and mental space that I will allow them. The Boy entertained a house-guest a few years back who had never visited our shared living situation. He was a well-educated, intellectual-type of a house-guest – a reader himself – and his first words upon entering our apartment? “Wow. So, you have a ton of books.” That was at least three years ago – the reading situation has not yet improved. It’s gotten to the point where my reputation precedes myself: there are plenty of The Boy’s coworkers who I have not yet met, folks who only know me from what information my dear husband decides to share. And they all know that I read. They wish they could read as much as me.

Brag brag brag. I’m a superhuman book demolishing machine. Moving along. I am an obviously superior being, but you know what? It also probably sucks to buy me – or any other heavy readers – a holiday gift. You probably want to buy them a book, but how in the world can you select a book for someone who reads 10 to 20 books a month? You can’t keep up with what they’ve read, they’ve probably become so choosy they will poo-poo your selection, or they are so caught up in their own reading agendas that they will never read the book you’ve so carefully chosen. I suffer so much from this last problem that some of my relatives have given up buying me books at all. This makes me sad, both because I love receiving new books and because I am a horrible, ungrateful gift receiver.

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So what do you buy the overly well-read? The library card wielder? The girl with the overstuffed bookshelves?

Well, for me, I have a few specific types of books that I would be happy to see under the tree this year. First off, there are The Long Books – the books that I could never hope to finish before their due date. My tastes are not particular here – mainstream literary fiction with a splash of series fantasy. Anything on a recent Best Fiction of the Year list that is over 500 pages will usually do – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are all on my mind this year.

Then we have The Slow Books – the books that don’t lend themselves to straight-through reading, the meaty books, the reference books. The books I’d rather savor, or mark up with pencil, or generally take my time with. Books I’ll likely never read unless they are sitting in my apartment, reminding me to revisit them. The come in a few breeds. The Essays: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The Creative-Life-Stories: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The Short Stories: Alice Munro’s, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The Children’s Lit-ish: Gail D. Nordstrom’s Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books, or Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.

And finally, there are The Collectibles. And by collectible I don’t mean anything precious, anything special or first-edition. I just mean those books that you wonder why on earth you don’t own. Last year, I received a beautiful Song of Ice and Fire box set that still delights me to gaze upon. This year, I’m wondering why on earth I don’t own a single Harry Potter book.

You see how I have cleverly packaged my holiday wishlist into a tasteful blog post? Sneaky. But really, it’s probably best if nobody bought me a book, ever. See those bookshelves up there? Do you see any available space? No. Will I be able to squeeze any of these books into my likewise jam-packed reading schedule? Probably not. Don’t buy me a book. Especially if it’s a mass-market paperback. Ick. I do prefer the trade paperback when possible. Ahem.

reading wishlist: re-reads

This morning, The Boy so kindly informed me that 2015 is almost over. Just what I like to think about before 7 a.m. Sixty-ish days remain in the calendar year – for the Internet-Bookish, this means a lot of talk about book awards, end of the year lists, Nanowrimo, and perhaps the meeting of one’s reading goals before the clock strikes 2015.

We are all trying to answer the same question: how, exactly, do you measure a reading year?

As y’all are probably aware, I dabble in most methods of book monitoring. I keep two Internet lists of books I have read, and more offline tally sheets than I’d prefer to admit to. I run my little Best Reads feature to celebrate the top X% of my reading year. Last year I dabbled with other quantitative measurements in chart form. I like keeping track of what I read – I’ve found the you manage what you measure axiom to hold true in my own life. But at the same time, I’m interested in reading like a professional. I want to avoid falling into ruts, be they spells of not reading, spells of reading only what I like and nothing that stretches my boundaries, or spells of reading without critical engagement.

You manage what you measure, yes, but how you measure your data implies your value system. Measuring your reading life by pages or books read can be fun or useful or harmless, but what does it say about how you value books and your reading time? If pages are constantly whipping by you, if you move straight from one book to the next, then do you have enough time to give that book your full consideration? What’s more important: finishing books or getting something out of them?

I’m still parsing all of this out in my own life. I’ve talked about slowing down my reading, I try to be intentional with the books I choose to give my time, and I always take into consideration the circumstances under which I read a book before I evaluate it. But my daily life and hobbies and side gigs do require a certain amount of speedy-ish reading, so that’s also a circumstance I have to get used to. Training myself to slow down might make me a better reader, but there’s a limit to how slow I can go.

I have been taking a few steps to engage my critical reading facilities. I don’t have the time or mental energy to write full-blown book reviews here with any regularity, but I do force myself to write a few sentences about most of the books I read on Goodreads. I’ve got a new book-notetaking habit that I’ll tell you about soon. I’m still taking my reading lunches, which seem simple and a little silly but have become a very important part of my schedule – the only time I step away from the rest of my life and make intentional time for close reading.

And maybe that is the difference between the kind of reader I am and the kind of reader I’d like to be: it’s not about reading this kind of book or that kind of book, not about making my Goodreads goal or finishing X book before Y happens. It’s about time. Putting in the hours versus the pages.

Carving out time for dedicated reading is one way to make your reading more about time and attention rather than accomplishment. Another, I think is one of my very favorite reading habits: re-reading. Re-reading nearly doubles the time you spend thinking about one single book. You pick up things you might have missed the first time. Since you know all of the plot turns ahead of time, your brain might begin to churn in new ways in order to entertain itself. It’s not the most obvious way to refocus your reading, but I think it’s an easy one and an important one.

And for me, it’s just downright enjoyable. If I had my druthers, I’d kick most of my reading list to the curb in favor of re-reading everything I’ve ever loved. So now that you’ve sat through me blathering on, here is a quick list of some books I’ve been meaning to revisit, either because I feel they might still have something to teach me or just for the pleasure of it. Or both.

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a rhythm, a schedule, a habit

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Last weekend, I finished reading an e-galley of Gretchen Rubin’s latest Type A masterpiece, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Life. If you liked Rubin’s previous books about achieving happiness through acts of everyday practicality then you will likely enjoy this third installment. Look out for it in March of 2015.

But this isn’t a book review. This is a warning: I’m thinking a lot about habits, so you’re probably going to hear all about it. But this isn’t really news. This blog is mostly about reading and writing and the various ways those two activities intertwine in my life. Developing and maintaining my reading and writing habits is what makes all of that happen. I have the life I have because of these habits. I am the person I am because of these habits.

I’ve written a few posts about how to read more, but not so much about writing. Writing about writing makes me feel tender. Like crawling into my bed and never leaving. But even if I’m not talking about it, I’m trying to do it. Or, more accurately, I’m always writing, just not always writing things that are ready to be read. I’m not doing it in public

I’ve been thinking about this balance for the past few months, and I wrote about it briefly in May. The broad strokes of that post are still true – I’m consciously pulling back from other writing endeavors (aka blogging) to spend more time writing for myself. But I still want to blog. I also don’t want to feel stressed out about frequency of posts, I don’t want to post writing here that I’m not proud of, and I don’t want to give it up.

The practical compromise I’ve worked out for myself since September is, of course, a habit. It’s a habit I feel quite good about, am happy to stick to, and I think helps me strike that balance between post quality, post frequency, and overall workload.

Let’s just pause for a moment while everyone who just read the phrase “overall workload” clicks rapidly away from this overwhelmingly exciting blog post. It’s okay, guys. I understand. See you later, once the mayhem dies down over here.

Anywaaaay, this magical mysterious habit that I’ve been running is as follows:

I write blog posts five days a week, in the mornings. I start writing after I’m 100% dressed and 100% packed and ready to walk out the door. I stop when my little bus tracker app tells me it’s time to get up and go. I also write a little if I get to work early. Depending on the whims of public transportation, I can squeeze in 30-45 minutes of blogging every day without sacrificing anything I should be doing or want to be doing. If anything, I’m trading a bit of blogging for a bit of random-Internet-trawling-before-work time, or painting my nails time. Both of those activities make me miss my bus, by the way. Blogging doesn’t seem to have that effect.

That’s it. I write in the morning. According to Ms. Rubin’s new book, my habit relies on the Strategy of Scheduling – deciding ahead of time when/where/how to blog – and the Strategy of Pairing – choosing to blog during a specific window of time that is directly abutting my already established habit of Going to Work. Once I built this foundational morning habit, I’ve found that blog writing becomes a more desirable activity during other times of the day as well. If I’m having a lazy evening and find myself in front of a few episodes of Chopped I might do a little blogging at that point. Sometimes if I’m really close to finishing a post, I’ll mysteriously find other time during the day to get it done and up. Ideally I’d like to spend a couple hours on a Saturday or Sunday doing some blog writing as well, but this month my weekends have been jam-packed.

And there’s the big caveat of my plan – my life still moves in on my blogging time. If I’m out late being social and want to sleep in, or I’m trying to prep a dinner in the slow cooker, or if I’m on a book review deadline or if I need to stop at CVS on my way to work… well… there goes my 15-20 minutes. I can still go days or a week without a post, but that’s okay with me. I think that writing X posts per week isn’t as important to me as writing regularly. Because I’ve built a habit, I know where blogging will go once I’m back on the wagon. I’m here this morning, picking up where I left off sometime last week. It’s okay. I’ve been at this blogging game for so long that I always *want* to write here, it will always nag at me if I’m not doing it. I’d rather write for a short amount of time regularly than pretend like I have enough spare time to write 5 or 6 posts a week. If I do have spare time, I’d rather use it to further other projects than towards impossible blogging goals that lead to crappy posts and general anxiety.

So that’s where I’m at. I write a little most days, the posts come when they come, and I think I’m pretty okay with that.

what to listen to next – the desperate freak edition

It’s been just over a year since I resumed my semi-romantic dalliance with audiobooks. It’s really been a good year. I like having an audiobook to walk around with, to entertain me during long days of battling online databases and catalogs at work, to help me through my household chores, to put me to sleep at night.

I’m happy. But I’m also obsessed.

A few weeks ago, I finished listening to Dead End in Norvelt (FINALLY) and found myself with nothing on deck. Not a single book. I panicked. It wasn’t pretty. I’m accustomed to book overload. With my bad library habits and my unread books and my stash of galleys and my required reading, I am never without a printed book to read. Not so much with the audiobook. To snag a truly desirable book on Overdrive, one must play the Interminable Holds List game. I’ve found some ways to browse for Currently Available titles, but even once I string my searches properly I end up scrolling through page after page after page of stuff I wouldn’t listen to unless someone strapped headphones to my ears. Browsing online for books is never as pleasurable as… oh… any other way one might decide what to read. When you are a desperate freak hunting for her next fix, it can be downright painful.

Anyway. Somehow I managed to stave off madness and find a few things to listen to. My mental health has settled down, but now I am faced with a familiar reading problem – all my holds came in at once. Cue an entirely different breed of panic.

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Luckily, I’m done being Desperate Freak Jessica and have returned to Capable Strategist Jessica. I can conquer this small to-read stack in a timely fashion if I plan and persevere. I think I will first tackle 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino. Of my available choices, this is the book I may not think to seek out again – also, it has the most pressing due date (10/29), and it’s relatively short (6 parts).

Next, I think I must move on to American Gods. I’ve never read it! I’ve been on hold for eons! I feel as though this is the kind of book I will want to read but never find the time to pick up the physical book. I must strike while the opportunity is ripe, or some other conglomeration of metaphors! Caveat: I made all of these lusty decision before noticing that American Gods is TWENTY PARTS. Egads. I cannot recall ever making it through a 20 part audiobook within 14 days… and the more days I spend listening to 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas, the fewer I have left. Poor planning! Abort! Abort!

Last but not least, the book I actually planned on listening to before my glut of holds arrived – There’s A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom. It’s four parts, and I just renewed it for another 14 days. I should have plenty of time to spend a little time with Bradley Chalkers. If you don’t believe me, call my mom.

…. or at least that was my last option, until yet another book joined the fray while I was crafting this here blog post. Jonathan Tropper’s Book of Joe is probably a more reasonable choice than American Gods for my next read… but when was the last time you picked a book to read because it was “reasonable?” Oy. I’m not sure any Capable Strategies will help me at this point. Perhaps I should take a personal day? Stay home and sit in a meditative audiobook trance for 8 or 9 hours? Now that’s a reasonable plan if I’ve ever heard one!

Five Books Worth Mentioning: 2014 Q3

You guys all read Janssen over at Everyday Reading, I’m sure. I have always adored her quarterly reading updates.

I am a major-league voyeur – nosy to the max – so peeking into anyone’s reading life is a pleasure, but she also just has a way with the the two sentence book review. So pithy! So fun! I’ve tried to emulate these posts a few times, but I usually burn out after a few mini-reviews. But I’ve always wanted to play along, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack and tell you a bit about five books I read this quarter that are worth mentioning. Emphasis on books I haven’t already mentioned! Some of them are good, some of them are not so good, but all are – at the very least – worth mentioning.

181896061. Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Okay, okay. I’ve mentioned this one before. But I wanted to give Morgan Matson’s latest a quick shout out because I really liked it a lot. It was fun. Breezy. Light, but not fluffy. The obligatory romance wasn’t too easy or mushy, and the premise – girl performs a list of daring tasks left by her absentee best friend – didn’t dominate the story. I’ve tried a lot of “If you like Sarah Dessen, you’ll love…” books, and I have to say, Morgan Matson is one of very few who I have deemed worthy of the Dessen comparison. It’s not a perfect book – some of the conflict between Emily and her Desired Boy could have been, and eventually was, cleared up with a conversation, which is a plot device I’m not a fan of – but it was a smooth, enjoyable book that I wanted to keep reading. So I nominated it for the Cybils. Last year my nomination made it to the short list, so maybe I’ll get lucky again this year!

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2. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

This was a random audiobook pick for me this summer. It was available on Overdrive. I recognized it from Library Reads. The plot – scholarship student spends the summer at her wealthy (and dysfunctional) family’s summer estate – was directly up my alley. The story pulled me in within the first thirty minutes or so. We had a win.

So, not to get too spoiler-y, but what’s the fun of reading a book such as this one? Figuring out the how and the what and the why of this family’s particular breed of dysfunction, of course. I’m listening along while Mabel Dagmar swoons over the beautiful property and the beautiful family and their beautiful family, and then starts to dig into their family secrets… and I start to get a definite Ned Stark vibe. As in, watch your back, Mabel. Also incest.

I won’t tell you what the secret was. If you want to find out, there are plenty of spoiler-y Goodreads comments to be had, mine included.  But I will say this – after a few hundred pages, the fun was no longer “Oooh, what will the secret be? How will this work out,” but instead “WHEN WILL IT STOP WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS FAMILY.”

Unrelated/related: setting is huge in Bittersweet. I think the author was counting on the reader feeling so enamored by this idyllic, sprawling landscape that they might forgive a few of the heinous characters who hang out there. But as I was listening to the these lush descriptions of the family estate – cottages for all of your aunts and uncles and cousins, a family mess hall with a full-time cooking staff, etc – I became skeptical. Who truly lives like this? This environment is so over the top, so luxurious and exclusive and shabby chic that the whole book takes on a certain eau de soap opera.

And then, a few weeks ago, I spent the night at exactly such a family compound. We took a quick tour of the grounds before leaving. Here’s the Big House.

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This is not to malign the owners of said estate, of course. While most families boast at least some domestic drama, I hope against hopes that the heights of scandal Beverly-Whittemore weaves Bittersweet is only found in fiction.

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3. Warp by Lev Grossman

I’ve been a bit of a shameless Lev Grossman fangirl this year. I will accept any arguments you might have against his Magicians series; while I might not agree with your opinions and will likely argue against them, I don’t hold the books themselves on some sort of literary pedestal. But for the humor, the finely woven literary references, and the audacity of big ideas he tackles within a fairly traditional set of fantasy structures, and his career and worldview in general… I do revere the author.

Anyway, I’m trying to tell you that I’ve read a lot of Lev Grossman interviews in 2014, and I became intrigued by his first novel – Warp. The way Grossman tells it, Warp was a bit of a fluke, a lark, a Right Place, Right Time-in-the-Publishing-Landscape kind of book; a book published by luck rather than by merit. When The Magicians came out, his publishers inadvertently left it off his “Also written by” sheet, further shoving this debut effort into supposedly deserved, out of print obscurity.

But of course, my behemoth of a library system still held a circulating copy of this supposedly lost text. And of course I checked it out. It was Lev Grossman, it was weird and obscure, and it takes place in post-collegiate Boston – of course, I wanted to read it. But you guys know how I operate: just because I’m interested in a book and even check it out and take it home doesn’t mean that I will actually read a book.

But then one Saturday afternoon, I plucked it off of my library book shelf and I just couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t a hidden masterpiece, but it was a good read. So interesting to see the very beginnings of literary talent beginning to take root – certain turns of phrase and characterization. The talent is there. I can see it. An editor saw it. Tracing themes through an author’s long-ago backlist is an entertaining way to spend one’s reading hours; for those of us struggling with our own first written creations, it’s can be comforting. Everyone starts somewhere.

 

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4. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

In the latest episode of Jessica Finally Reads Fantasy, I present to you Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. All of my formerly anti-fantasy tendencies aside, I do feel a twinge of shame not to have read a single book by a prolific, much-beloved and honored children’s author such as Tamora Pierce. Lucky for me, I needed an audiobook on the quick a few weeks ago and found Alanna was ready for me – and I was finally ready for her.

I expected to find a well-crafted medieval-fantasy story with a distinctly feminist bent, and that is what I found. Alanna is a high-born girl who wants to become a knight; with buckets of perserverence, skill, and pluck, she disguises her developing woman’s body and kicks all the boys’ butts. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was the sometimes forgotten charms of a good, old-fashioned episodic school story. See: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Or even Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Each chapter is a vignette, a trial or a triumph that doesn’t necessarily weave a grander plot but when read in succession implies Alanna’s growth and progress. A larger mystery begins to unfold as the stories progress, leading to a climactic confrontation where the heroine must test out those newly acquired skills.

It’s a pattern, it’s a trope, but in the hands of a skilled writer it can be a pleasure. And it’s a pleasure I’m particularly inclined to enjoy, even though I’m no longer 10 years old. Perhaps because I’m no longer 10 years old.

 

160689495. The Boy I Love by Nina de Gramont

Look guys. I really try not to trash books on the Internet if I can possibly avoid it. Do I express negative opinions about certain books or certain aspects of books? Yes. Do I cast an intentionally rosy glow over every book I read? No. I attempt to talk honestly about the books I’ve read, and of course everything I write about books obviously carries some sort of personal bias, but I am a Professional Book Person. I try not to wield my opinion like a weapon. I try not to poke fun, to mock, to employ hyperbolic gifs, to deliberately read books I know I will dislike. In most cases, I feel this is the responsible way to talk about books on the internet.

Buuuut will you guys look at this book cover for a minute? Are your eyes rolling? Would you read this while riding public transportation? Can you imagine a more ridiculous stock photo/book title combination?

Well, don’t worry guys. It’s nothing like you are imagining. Well, it’s a little like you are imagining, but what I found underneath this book cover was a pretty solid piece of girl-centric YA realism. In the vein of Sarah Dessen, even. And lest you think the book will be too swoony for you, here’s a big fat second chapter spoiler: the boy that she loves? he’s gay.

Not to say that the book is flawless, or even in the top 50% of books I’ve read this year – specifically, some severely wacky third-act plot events lowered my general appraisal – but I just wanted to use my Professional Book Person powers to tell you not to judge this book by its ridiculous cover.

 

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Checked Out

On Hold

a book club

A year ago I was invited to join a book club. I’d never really joined a book club before.

This might seem unusual, but I’ve rarely lacked for people to talk books with. Growing up in a large-ish family with a librarian for a mother? Pretty much a constant book club. Also, studying children’s literature at a Master’s level? Three years of an academic book club. Most of my friends in Boston are readers, my coworkers are readers, and I have perfected the art of tricking my husband into reading the books I love so we can talk about them. My life = big fat book club.

I was a little nervous about it at first – because I am a little nervous about… oh… EVERYTHING at first – but then I showed up and all my grad school friends were already there. My book club is a bunch of ChL survivors, now working in libraries, for review journals, for publishing houses and in schools. We read children’s and YA. We talk about the book for at least fifteen minutes before digressing, usually to other industry-gossip.

It’s a good time, good to keep in touch with folks who aren’t related to me or married to me or who are contractually or financially obliged to show up and work in the same office as me. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to meet Children’s Lit People in real life, but a vast majority of those I know are exceptionally bright, funny, and not afraid to dig deep into a book. They make for excellent company. I also appreciate the opportunity to inject a little variety into my reading life, especially during the months when my reading life is a bit less out of my hands. Here’s a short list of our book club picks so far for 2014.

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2014 or gtfo

As much as I aspire to be content in the present moment, focused entirely on the work at hand today, this morning, this minute, I just really am not a zen meditation lady by nature. This lends a certain “TIME. IS STILL MARCHING ON” tone about this blog, I know. But heaven help me, there are just too many books to read and ideas to discuss and places to visit and things to do and blargh did I mention I’m turning 30 in less than six months? I’m turning 30. So there’s that.

This morning I am thinking about December. I am thinking about December of 2014, when I will be busy writing blog posts and book reviews and Christmas shopping and traveling and what have you, and then all of these magazines and newspapers will start publishing those juicy “Best of 2014″ lists. I will be left, yet again – year after year – wondering how I could have missed so many great books and wondering what the heck I was even reading this year and wondering if I will die without having read The Best Books of 2014.

So maybe a preemptive strike is in order.

Like my big fat Printz posts, the following lists are pure gut instinct and baseless speculation. I asked myself what young adult-ish books I’d be remiss to not have read this year. What books are the must-reads, not because they are better than any other books, but because they have been at the heart of the 2014 reading conversation? I’ve narrowed it down to two lists – the Everyone Must-Reads and the If You’re Into YA Realism Like I Am Must-Reads. Some I’ve read, some I haven’t. Along with the National Book Awards long list, I’ll probably try to squeeze a few more of these into the last quarter of the year, lest 2014 go to complete and utter reading waste.

Alos, leave me suggestions if you have them!!

 The Must List

- read these in 2014 or gtfo -

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1) Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

2) I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

3) The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

4) We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

5) The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

6) This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

7) Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

8) The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

 

 The YA Realism Must List

- if realism is your genre of choice, then you should read these -

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1) Noggin by John Corey Whaley

2) Pointe by Brandy Colbert

3) Far From You by Tess Sharpe

4) Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

5) Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

6) Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

7) 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

8) The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

9) The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

 

(I promise to stop making lists of the same 20 books in a different order soon. I really promise!)

the last five memoirs

I have a reading success story for you guys.

After a few years of succumbing to August Reading Doldrums, I think I have finally discovered the secret. I finally reached far enough down into the depths of my psyche and found the inner fortitude, perseverance, and stick-to-it-iveness I needed to keep reading all through the month and into September.

Just kidding. I just reached down into the considerable depths of my self-indulgent nature and said “To hell with all of the books I am supposed to read. Bring on all the trashy memoirs.”

Okay. Only some of the memoirs I read were trashy. And I don’t even know what I mean by the term “trashy.” Low-brow? Confessional? Not-literary? Whatever. I actively sought out a lot of memoirs in August – most of them on audio – and it was the kind of indulgent, impulsive reading that this professionalbookperson doesn’t often get anymore.

 

The Last Five – Memoirs

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I started my memoir streak with Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, which I just found so compulsively listen-able that I went out seeking other confessional memoirs. Drugs. Sex. Disease. This was the kind of tawdry stuff August-Jessica was looking for. But I accidentally found Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life instead. Wolff’s memoir had a fair share of dishy moments, but it was definitely a Literary Memoir. No matter. I was sucked right in. Mr. Wolff’s childhood would be unique in these modern times – when his mother divorced, she left Tobias’s brother with her ex-husband and carted young Tobias across the country to make money mining uranium….. but this was the 1950s. Tobias’s story is a really intriguing counterpoint to the narratives of 1950s childhood we usually see in the media. It is definitely a “dysfunctional childhood” memoir – Wolff’s has an understandably complex relationship with his parents, especially after his mother marries an emotionally abusive man – but in Wolff’s hands it’s also a treatise on identity, maturity, and masculinity.

So, not trashy. But very good.

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Speaking of testosterone….. so I read a lot of memoirs in August. But I also read a lot of manly man books. This Boy’s Life, yes, also The Magician King and The Magician’s Land (at least moderately man-centric). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. 700 pages of fantastical boyhood and adolescence in The Name of the Wind. Grasshopper Jungle. Freaking Rabbit Angstrom.

That’s a lot of… um… man hours. Or something.

Enter, a pair of lady memoirs. Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece is a memoir about divorce. Delancey is a memoir about marriage, and how opening a restaurant together with your new husband may put you at risk for divorce. Delancey: ultimately uplifting. Falling Apart in One Piece: utterly terrifying. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin spends a chapter or so talking about how you can increase your daily feelings of happiness by reminding yourself of how good you have it, and she presents reading super-depressing memoirs as a quick way to do so. I find this particular happiness tip completely questionable (especially coming from privileged white ladies), but I have never felt so horrified and humbled as when I read Falling Apart in One Piece. Morrison met her partner young, had a long and happy relationship, plenty of career success, and finally a baby and a new house. Six months later, her husband asks for a divorce.

MY NIGHTMARE.

Like I said, Delancey was much more uplifting. I loved Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, and Delancey was just as good. Also, the recipes. Buy the book for the recipes alone. I made her sriracha shrimp and tomato and corn salad twice in two weeks it was so fliiiiipppping good I want to eat some now.

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Longtime readers might know that I have a preeeeeettty significant weak spot for sappy, consumable pop-memoirs. I liked The Last Lecture and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I count Animal Vegetable Miracle and Eat Pray Love as two of my forever favorites. I have a bizarre, enduring affection for Marley & Me. Basically, I’ve got emotions, and if you want to use your sappy life story to twist them, I’m down.

No surprise then that I enjoyed Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It’s a sappy memoir, AND it’s about books. I also enjoyed listened to About Alice earlier this year, and between these two memoirs I discovered yet another memoir sub-genre that I enjoy – the “Men Eulogizing the Extraordinary Women in Their Lives” memoir. Schmaltz city, guys. I’m totally okay with that.

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Swinging wildly in the other direction, the last memoir I read this summer was the not-so-schmaltzy Kristin Newman’s What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding. Newman is a television writer, so this memoir has all of the playful punch-line-iness of Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? But unlike these two memoirs, Newman skips most of the childhood and career biography bits in order to focus in on her late 20s and 30s – a time during which she was a working Hollywood writer for 9 months of the year and a romantically-open world traveler for the remaining 3. She falls in love in Argentina, hooks up in Amsterdam and Russia… and Brazil… and Australia… Any How I Met Your Mother fans in the house? Remember Robin’s trip to Argentina? Newman wrote that storyline. There are  moments of pathos as Newman faces family strife and career challenges and begins to examine what exactly she’s trying to accomplish with her jet-setting life, but ultimately, this is a fun travel+dating memoir that sits in the sweet spot between poignant and lighthearted. Definitely enjoyable.

2014 National Book Awards

This summer was a bit of a warped time situation for me. I went on two vacations and slept in five different states. The Boy was home… a lot. I wore the same five dresses every single week. This summer went on forever. But last week it got cold and I had to wear pants and it’s dark out after work and there are freaking pumpkin spice lattes and how is summer actually over??!?

Maybe this is a side effect of going social media dark in August. I missed out on everyone saying goodbye to the summer, so I forgot to say goodbye to the summer. Instead, I’m just gobsmacked by mother nature and having to wear pants. Ugh.

What I’m trying to say is, BOOK AWARDS SEASON IS UPON US and I forgot to get pre-excited about it, so now I am just extra regular-excited. The longlist for the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature category has arrived, and I really like it a lot.

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I’m going to brag about having read a grand old TWO of these titles before Monday’s announcement. This is big, guys. How many did I read in 2013? 2012? 2011? Zero, Zero, and Zero. I have turned over a new leaf. I am now the queen of books.

Laurie Halse Anderson puts out a new contemporary YA book, oh, every half a millennium, so OF COURSE I read The Impossible Knife of Memory. I liked it. As I revealed in my Printz Prediction mega-post, I didn’t think it was the Best Thing Ever, but I liked it just fine. I was much more impressed by Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming… sorry, LHA, but if I’m betting on you or Jackie Woodson in an authorial cage match? My money’s on Woodson.

I was not surprised to see Steve Sheinkin’s new YA, The Port Chicago 50 on the list – the NBA YPL committee always seems to have a soft spot for nonfiction. A tiny soft spot. One book per year. I was also not surprised to see Eliot Schrefer’s Threatened on the list, since he earned a nod not too long ago for Endangered. Also, critical darling (and winner of the NBC’s 5 under 35), John Corey Whaley? You are also no big freaking surprise here. Also, while I didn’t read it yet, I would like credit for renewing Noggin over and over again for five entire months. It basically lived at my house. That should count for something.

Deborah Wiles’s Revolution and Kate Milford’s Greenglass House are both getting great reviews, so no surprises here. There’s a lot of YA/MG crossover on this list (the Woodson, Sheinkin, Schrefer, and Hiaasen sit in that 12-14 neck of the woods), but to me, Revolution and Greenglass House are the reps from Team Middle Grade. And I think you could argue that Team Middle Grade has taken the NBA gold for the last five years, so neither of these are to be ignored.

So. The last three. Skink: No Surrender. I do love me some Carl Hiaasen, but nothing about his adult work screams “GIVE ME A MAJOR LITERARY AWARD.” (edit: except for the part where he got a Newbery honor for Hoot… oops) But good to see some comedy/mystery on the list either way, lest we forget how powerful and difficult and important comedy writing. Super happy to see Girls Like Us on the list – woohoo for quiet(er) girly YA realism, and woohoo for Candlewick! And last but not least – Andrew Smith. Mr. Smith, you are having quite the year! I checked out 100 Sideways Miles immediately after finishing Grasshopper Jungle a few weekends ago, which meant I read the NBA longlist knowing that a nominee was sitting on my desk WAITING FOR ME TO READ IT and that’s when you feel a little bit like a literary rockstar.

Yes, I’m just very, overly excited to have read two books out of ten from a fundamentally arbitrary list. Small, nerdy pleasures.