All posts in: best reads

31 Dec 2018

best reads of 2018

Tomorrow is 2019! Happy New Year’s Eve! While I have the opposite of a wild night planned, I think back to how I rang in 2018 a year ago… and I remembered that I went to bed at 9pm in my parents’ house with my 18-month-old who wouldn’t stop climbing out of his crib. At some point I ended up on the floor. I think we also had to wake up for a stupidly early flight. So this year really can’t be worse than that… especially since I am finishing! And! Posting! The Best Books I Read in 2018! Even though I have no time or energy to read anything of enough literary quality to end up on a Best of the Year post, it’s still a wonderful time of year.

Longtime readers (do  I even have another kind of reader at this point? Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) know the drill: these are my favorite reads of the year, regardless of audience, publication date, or literary merit. They are listed in order. I really did love them all – while most of the 132 books I read this year were somewhat forgettable, I really do have a tough time narrowing down the top 25 or so. Please add them to your 2019 To-Read lists. Please forgive me for incomplete and unoriginal sentences below. I have a 5 week old baby and a 2.5 year old in my house and we have all been here together for 10 consecutive days and I guess we all have to live together forever now. Good thing everyone likes to read.

 

10. My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Before that, she was a fairly normal young woman with one of those useless English degrees and a lifelong love of reading. As a fellow reader who considers charting and tracking her own reading life to be a worthwhile hobby, I was entranced by Paul’s essay about her Book of Books – a notebook where she documented her reading life starting when she was a teen. This memoir follows her fairly normal young adult and adulthood, with attention paid to the books and reading experiences that shaped her. Nothing too flashy here, but I found her life story to be so quietly engaging that I couldn’t put it down.

 

9. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Did you already read this book, when e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. was reading it, in 2017? Well, if you didn’t, I can tell you it was still a very good read in 2018, and will probably be a good read in 2019, too. And there’s good news! I bet your library’s holds list have finally died down! Set in an orderly Ohio suburb, this story is split between three very different families – the Richardsons, who have deep roots in the community but also four teenagers who are up to all sorts of behaviors their proper mother doesn’t want to know about; the Warrens, a single mother and teen daughter who rent a condo from the Richardson; a single, immigrant mother who must work full time to support herself and her infant daughter, and in the process has her daughter taken into state custody; and Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist with a murky past – and her teenaged daughter, who unintentionally weave between the stable suburban families. I like domestic literary fiction, and I like adult books starring teenagers, so I agree with the masses – a must read of whatever year it happens to be when you read this!

 

 

8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I heard about this book for years – so many rave reviews, plenty from people whose reading tastes I admire – but I never thought I’d want to read it. A book about people behaving badly on the Internet? I actually spend a decent amount of my time and energy trying to *avoid* people behaving badly on the Internet, so no thanks. Then I read Leila Sales’s If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say for a pro book review; it’s a realistic YA book about a girl who behaves badly on the Internet and the backlash that ensues, very clearly influenced by Ronson’s book , so I thought I might be a pro-pro reviewer and take a chance on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (read: Jessica wanted to procrastinate, so she found a somewhat acceptable avenue to avoid doing her work!) I was not any more interested in the subject than I ever have been, but DAMN Jon Ronson! I was not only sucked in, but entirely fascinated, and I give all the credit to Ronson’s writing: he’s a talented storyteller who also takes some unexpected narrative risks. So add my rave review to the mix, and I’ll add Ronson to my Definitely Check Out Their Next Book, No Matter What It’s About list.

 

7. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

In August, when I decided to play a little 2018 YA/MG catch up, The Poet X was my first choice. Why? Because it was short! And written in verse, so it reads even shorter! It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, so I would get (imaginary, meaningless) Literary Merit points. But external factors aside, I was so pleased with this book. Acevedo portrayed her main character, Xiomara, as a complex, sympathetic teen with a unique set of social challenges – she’s trying hard to balance her family’s staunch religiosity with her earnest desires for independence: to date, maybe have sex, write and perform slam poetry, to challenge some aspects of Catholicism. This felt like the best of old-school YA realism – a personal coming of age story driven by character and not melodrama – but with a modern perspective on race, class, and gender.

 

6. The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Another of my earnest Catch Up On The Best of 2018 YA/MG reads makes the list! Isn’t it great when you agree with the critics? I knew nothing about the plot or setting when I started reading, so it did take me a little time to get settled into the story, but the narrator’s voice drew me in right away. Little Charlie – the oversized twelve-year-old son of poor sharecroppers – starts the book extremely down on his luck: he witnesses his father dying of a freak accident, then finds out his father owes money to a nearby plantation owner; he and his mother are grieving and wondering how they will keep up with their work and make money when a goon arrives to collect on his father’s debt. The goon (“Cap’n”) convinces Charlie to join him on a journey to collect on someone else’s debt as a payment for his own, and a cross-country, international, consciousness-raising adventure ensues. I thought this was a perfectly middle-grade sized read – just meaty enough for a 4th-6th grader but without anything extra – and oh gosh, Little Charlie is just one of those endearingly naive but earnest narrators that you (aka, adult readers, probably; pregnant/hormonal readers, definitely) just want to hug.

 

5. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

A third 2018 YA/MG book – another (mostly) verse novel, interestingly enough. Also, another historical: this time, way more historical, going back to the 1600s in Italy, and based on actual people and actual events! The protagonist, Artemesia Gentileschi, is a seventeen-year-old living in Rome with her widower artist father. Out of financial necessity, her father trained her to paint, and at some point she became so talented he was better off handing his commissions to her – while signing his own name to them, of course. Artemesia is pissed off about this. She desperately wants to make her own name as an artist, and is passionate about painting women with the sensitivity and realism that the male artists of her time just can’t handle. Then, she comes across a successful artist who wants to tutor her – she’s elated… until her tutor’s untoward behavior threatens to destroy her and her family. Is this a work of relatively heavy-handed proto-feminist comeuppance? Yeah, probably. But Artemesia’s struggle to be honored for her own talents – and believed against the words of a more powerful man – reads like a story that could be making today’s headlines. This is a fairly devastating but extremely powerful read.

 

4. The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life if Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in the Store by Cait Flanders

Finding this book felt like a bit of divine intervention: I chanced upon a personal finance blog that, upon investigation, didn’t really seem like a personal finance blog. Then I forgot the URL, remembering only that it was the author’s name dot com. I remembered it (caitflanders.com, RIP) and was like “wow, this is better than a personal finance blog…” and then a few weeks later I heard about this book and put all of these connections together. I’m a bit of a personal finance hobbyist, but I do find many blogs and books on the subject to be repetitive, polemic, and fixated on one-size-fits all advice. How we deal with money is… well.. personal; Flanders’s memoir is the first personal finance book I’ve read that fully embraces that intersection. The premise is a little stunt-memoir-y – Flanders writes about her “year of no spending,” – but since she’s writing about her efforts to not do something, what she ends up writing about is the life she lives instead – and what perspective that experience brings to the life she lived before. This was a quietly endearing – and inspiring – read for me this year.

 

3. Circe by Madeline Miller

Unsurprising confession: everything I know about mythology I learned from video games and the episodes of Wishbone that retold The Odyssey and the story of Hercules. But even though I could only barely keep track of which god was related to which demigod, I was somehow totally into Madeline Miller’s latest work of… mythological fiction? I missed growing up in the Percy Jackson crazy by a few years (*cough* more like ten years *cough*), so I’m a little out of the loop; also, I don’t know exactly what aspects of this story Miller gathered from mythology and what is her own making. But previous mythological knowledge proved unnecessary, for me: I was taken in by the strange, petty culture of gods and goddesses Miller crafted, and by Circe’s rich characterization. She’s a lesser goddess, an unfavored child of the sun god, Helios – who spends most of her adult living alone, banished somewhat unfairly to a remote island; she’s also a singular female who, without much support from family or friends, finds her own power and self-worth.

 

2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I haven’t written much this year, but when I did, I wrote about this book . It falls under the category of nonfiction that isn’t necessarily more artful, profound, or revolutionary than anything else I read all year; instead, Deep Work simply explained a concept that I needed to understand at this point in my life, and it did so with simple engaging urgency. This is the book I thought about the most all year. While I took Newport’s message – do everything you can to do the kind of work that takes all of your concentration – to heart, putting it to practice has been a little more challenging. It’s no surprise that this is yet another self-help-y/productivity book that doesn’t mention caring for toddlers, pregnancy nausea, or breastfeeding… or chronic pain, mental illness, the economic/personal necessity of working multiple jobs, or any other everyday life situations that myself and people I know might find to be significant barriers to ever achieving Deep Work. But for me, I’ve found his ideas to serve as a gentle beacon that reminds me of what’s important: reading, writing, and caring for myself and my family, aka doing the things that only I can do. Doing that work with intention and as much brain power as I can muster is never going to be a bad idea, and the more time I spend on it the better. I definitely want to re-read this in 2019, and am looking forward to his next book, which looks like a good, old fashioned anti-technology manifesto.

 

1. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

I have read a great many books about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood over the years. In my experience, they tend to run in two directions: the slightly crunchy, softly-lit, “isn’t motherhood just GRAND” kind of book, or the Hey, Parenting sure SUCKS so you should feel totally empowered to complain about it – and sure, have another glass of wine. I don’t necessarily have a *problem* with either of these narratives… but neither of them have really spoken to me, either before I had kids or after. While my own experience of motherhood hasn’t been quite the same as O’Connell’s (she is a little more on the PARENTING SUCKS side of the spectrum than I am) there was just so, so much that she got right about the broader experience of the culture of motherhood RIGHT NOW. Millennial Motherhood, maybe? If that wasn’t so annoying? Of being a young, creative, hustling woman who also might want to procreate, even though it’s probably not a good idea and you have no good role models and nobody even TALKS about it. Of the bizarre, sourceless pressure put upon mothers to do everything right, before, during, and after birth that just permeates even your most private moments. Combine that with a fantastically wry voice and I’m-actually-laughing-out-loud-and-not-just-using-it-as-a-textual-interjection humor, and I’m ready to pick this one up again. For the third time. There’s a lot more I’m forgetting to say here, but it’s 8:15 p.m. and my 2.5 year old is at least somewhat silent in his hopefully dark bedroom and my five week old is waking herself up and it’s New Year’s Eve so I should probably at least see if my husband wants to share a glass of wine before I put on my flannel pajamas, so I’m just going to go ahead and push publish, and I’ll see you in 2019!

22 Jan 2018

best picturebooks of 2017. and also podcasts.

It is already the second fourth week of January. While New Year’s Resolution musings are fair game for at least another week, we are certainly coming up on the far reaches of the acceptable time to be writing about favorite media of the previous year.

Oh, how tiny and fleeting this window is! Does anyone still think about the best books and movies and such from 2007? I feel like one’s choices for comparative media analysis (and by that I mean: “Best of” Lists) are limited to The Previous Calendar Year or ALL TIME. How limiting.

Since the clock has already run out for 2017, I am going to sneak in just three final, semi-incongruous lists for you.

My Top Ten Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

Unlike my annual Best Reads lists, this list refers only to books *actually* published in 2017! They are also listed in no particular order, since, as I have mentioned, my window of relevance is narrowing oh so quickly. I have no time to think that critically!

The above list represents my own particular, adult tastes. You can tell because of all the browns and blues. Muted, adult-y books. What books do KIDS actually like? The timeworn question of children’s literature people. I cannot speak for all children, of course, but I did create one specific child recently. Here is what he loved this year:

My 6-18-month-old’s Favorite 2017 Picturebooks

 

I have to say… I’m a little surprised by his  tastes. Some of these books seemed, to me, a little “old,” a little wordy, a little… uh… philosophical for an under-two. I mean, except for What Does Baby Want. That’s just a book about boobs. But he seriously loved all of these books. I limited this list to those books I read so, so, so many times that I accidentally had to put them on the top bookshelf where he couldn’t reach or maybe lost them behind the couch for awhile. Maybe.

Two lists for the price of one! What a great post! Why not make it better by throwing in a third, completely unrelated list? Good idea, Jessica. Just run with it. Don’t look back.

My passion for podcasts has really only grown since I ran out of This American Life so many years ago. I consume more podcasts than I do television, movies, or music. (I might consume more podcasts than I read books?? Egad… let’s not dwell on that thought for too long) The podcast scene is really booming lately, almost in the way that blogging was years and years ago – and finding a podcast with great hosts on a topic that I am interested gives me the same buzz as finding a similar blog.

So here’s what I’ve been loving this year; the podcasts that I feel excited to see posted and queue up immediately, again, in no particular order:

My Top Ten Favorite Podcasts of 2017

This is the list that certainly had the most runner-ups. I listen to just… entirely too many podcasts. I used to be such a completeist too, wanting to start at the beginning of every show and listen to each episode in order and never miss once I caught up. Ha. Now it’s all I can do to keep vaguely up to date with even these ten.

Okay. I’m done. You may all safely enter 2018 now.

 

02 Jan 2018

Best Reads of 2017

Sound the alarms! Trumpet your trumpets! I am posting my favorite reads of 2017 on the second day of the first month of the year! A somewhat delayed but altogether reasonable time to post such a list! Ta-da! Wow! Amazing! Let’s get to it!

10. Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Writer Shapiro recalls – and then contemplates, ruminates, and poeticizes – her long marriage to her reporter-turned-screenwriter husband. It’s a slim book told in brief, clipped vignettes, which is a form I enjoy and believe perfectly suited to Shapiro’s style; the intense, undiluted intimacy she creates is easier to handle in small doses.

 

9. The Disturbed Girls’ Dictionary by Noneiqa Ramos

Here’s a story about a teen who suffers a dozen or so of what us caring, white adults will call “traumatic childhood experiences,” but comes out of her trauma swinging. Wielding an attitude as big as a house, Macy Cashmere can’t acquiesce to the demands of her teachers, but she’ll move mountains for her best friend Alma and her baby brother, Zane. As a caring, white adult, this was an EXCEPTIONALLY difficult read, but the voice was just so raw and honest and blazingly good I have to recommend it.

 

 

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’m sure you don’t need one more recommendation for this book, but oh, I do just love it when the YA-buzz books are actually pretty good. In this one, Starr Carter witnesses a close friend’s murder by a police officer, which leads her into the politics of her gang-influenced neighborhood and the mass protests that disrupt it. There was a moment toward the end that was so tense and nerve-wracking that I cried. While listening to the audiobook. This really does not happen with me and YA…

 

7. Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman

Whenever I look for non-instructional books about pregnancy and birth, I am shocked by how few have been published… but of the few, Waiting for Birdy seems to be the most universally recommended. I finally read this (and its companion, Catastrophic Happiness), on my Kindle; I was so enamored with Newman’s honest but loving depiction of her family life and her humorous, easy-going voice that I probably let my little guy sleep-nurse longer than necessary while I read yet another essay.

 

6. The Fashion Committee by Susan Juby

Two Canadian teens compete in a fashion competition. Sartorial obsessed, Diana Vreeland-wannabe Charlie Dean is hilariously passionate about her art. Sardonic, lazy John Thomas just wants in to the fancy private school, so he – hilariously – turns his fashion ignorance into a mysterious and alluring “who cares about the rules of fashion” persona. Very fun, very moving, and very surprising; Susan Juby is doing such great work in realistic YA.

 

5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A richly imagined, provocative historical novel that follows a young enslaved woman’s escape from her captors. Also, a pop of magical realism. But it’s not the magical realism I remember, now; it’s Cora’s tenacity, the relentless brutality of the white men literally invested in Cora’s body as a piece of property, and the unbearable tension that she may be caught at any moment.

 

4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Sociologist Desmond spent eight years living alongside low-income renters in Milwaukee, chronicling their lives with specific attention paid to housing. As an 8-year renter in a large city known for its housing crunch, I can certainly sympathize with those facing the unexpected Perils of Renting. My expenses and inconveniences are nothing compared to those who are trapped in jaws of low-income renting; it’s a broken system that seems to only funnel government assistance money into the hands of predatory landlords at the massive expense of their systemically oppressed tenants. Desmond sheds much needed light on this particularly devastating cog in the cycle of poverty.

 

3. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

This collection of personal essays and recipes is a cult-classic for a reason. Colwin’s writing is warm, guileless, and welcoming. Unlike a lot of foodie memoirs, her tone is not sentimental, utilitarian, or professional: she’s just writing about the pleasures – and pratfalls – of preparing real food in your own home, for yourself or people you love.

 

2. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

A diary-style story about a plucky fourteen-year-old girl who abandons her family farm to seek her fortune – and independence from her family – in early 20th century America. Lengthy, tween-y, historical fiction tomes aren’t usually in my wheelhouse, but its praise was so universal: every person I talked to who had read it was just effusive. And now I am one of them. Joan is one of the most endearing, delightful narrators I’ve met in years.

 

1. Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence

Librarian Spence writes light-hearted effervescent “letters” to the books in her life. Gimmicky book-person bait? Perhaps, but oh, Spence’s intimate voice just charmed my socks off. This is a bit of a genre blender: each piece is part personal essay, part reading recommendation, and part ode to the act of reading. And all parts compulsively readable to a fellow millennial bookworm

I also just wanted to take a self-centered moment to mention that Spence and I are fellow CMU creative writing alumni, public librarians, and writers-who-write-about-books. So she is basically living my life, except significantly more awesome since she dreamed up this delightful book.

 

04 Feb 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Hey, look, it’s still January!

(Please let it still be January when I finish this post, please, please, please)

Oh, 2016. What a year. I read 106 books last year without much effort; yes, I met my annual “read 100 books” marker, but not by much. This is actually the fewest books I’ve read in a year since 2010, and a solid 50% were books read for review or other assorted Professional Book Person reasons.

Additionally, while I have always enjoyed the occasional parenting/baby related text, I never really let myself indulge in the genre… until, you know, I was actually pregnant. I really don’t recommend this tactic, by the way. There is WAY too much to read about for a 9-ish month span! At any rate, I chose to read a handful of pregnancy, birth, and baby books – and while informative, they were not necessarily groundbreaking pieces of literature.

And then, of course, there was the whole Miracle of Gestation thing hovering over my year. A baby in June means 6 months of preparation and becoming distractingly larger by the day and 6 months of new babydom. There goes your year. Add to that a heaping dose of political panic post November 8th (Which is actually still making me feel sick to be writing this. Like there is any tiny speck of importance to what books I read when our republic democracy is on its last legs.)

So, when I looked back over the books I’d read, I found myself not thinking about which books I liked more than other but which ones even remembered reading. Oof.

AT ANY RATE, I have gathered the top ten books of those that I can remember reading in 2016. An honorable list that I am happy to share with you at the dawn of this new year.

(Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February. Please let me finish writing these little blurbs before February…)

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  1. The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

A teenage boy comes to live with his surly grandfather – then he discovers a strange book containing a purportedly true account of two WWII soldiers from opposite sides and their supernatural experience stranded on a remote Pacific island. This was a pick for my book club, which usually means a book that is slightly out of my wheelhouse – I don’t usually seek out supernatural war stories? – but also a book that is excellently crafted. The story-within-a-story was expertly woven, and together the two narratives led up to a quietly moving conclusion.

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  1. The Romantics by Leah Konen

Gael, a high-strung semi-geek, is going through his first big break-up. Gael is distraught but Love, our narrator, isn’t worried. There’s a better girl out there for him, if only Gael could ignore his rebound – Cara the outdoorsy, hot sauce-loving college girl – long enough to figure out who it is. The silliest premise? Oh yes. But the writing is crisp, the characters fun and well-drawn, and funny. Funny! Actually made me laugh funny. I’ve read a lot of YA books that think they are funny over the past few years, but very very few that actually were. Just hardly any. This was a delightful exception.

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  1. Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

An essay collection by a Man Booker winning Irish author about – you guessed it – babies. This is probably the only book on this list that I really, honestly, actually don’t-remember-much-at-all, because I read it entirely with a sleeping lump of newborn on my chest. But of all the books about babies and motherhood that I read this year, this was my favorite. I found it to be an honest, absorbing, and raw attempt to elucidate the barely comprehensible experience of creating and caring for new life. I hope I have time to re-read this, now that my reading comprehension has (maybe?) returned.

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  1. American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

I probably would have liked this book if it were just a collection of contemporary short stories about women, tbh. However, this was a collection of sharp, satirical, frequently twisted contemporary short stories about women. All the better. Whenever I think about my decidedly non-sinister book club, I think about Ellis’s “Hello! Welcome to the Book Club,” where a meeting of literary women transforms slowly into something somewhat horrifying.

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  1. Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

As far as this fairly search-savvy librarian can tell, there’s not much out there in the way of “childbirth fiction.” Probably because the subset of people who love fiction and are also totally down with reading about childbirth is likely rather small. Or, perhaps because it’s a narratively tricky topic to tell stories about? Well, good news for childbirth/reader-types: Erens figured it out. This is the story of one woman’s childbirth experience (she’s a NYC schoolteacher, she wants a natural birth, she’s alone) and the pregnant nurse who stays by her side during her labor and delivery. A caveat: I checked this out when I was about 7 months along, but then I saw a Goodreads review that warned against reading this while pregnant with your first. I heeded the warning, and I’m glad I did.

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  1. Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

This is a novel-in-verse about the aftermath of a high school student’s decision to have an abortion. It’s a bold, sophisticated “issue book” that muddles around in the gray areas of religion, morality, sexual activity, sexual preference, and more. But even better: it’s a damn solid girl-narrated realistic fiction novel. I finished it with the same kind of feeling I get at the end of a Sarah Dessen book – like I was glad to get to know the characters and am kind of wishing I could see where they end up.

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  1. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson

In World War II, Nazi Germany took siege of Stalingrad and held it for five long months. While Stalingrad’s civilian inhabitants were lucky to survive the lack of food, supplies, and deplorable, dangerous conditions, composer Shostakovich survived AND wrote a symphony. How does that make you feel about how you spend your free time, hmmm? Although the first quarter or so is a bit dense, this is a historical piece that feels like a special story Anderson uncovered and scooped out himself, just for you. It’s also a disturbing account of one artist’s relationship with his own authoritarian government that feels unfortunately relevant for us pretty, privileged Americans these days.

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  1. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

The first of a trio of memoirs about Nurse Jenny and her adventures in mid-century British midwifery. In case you are one of the twelve people who haven’t seen the BBC television show (I was one of them until after reading this), Jenny was a nurse-midwife, working for a convent that provided healthcare for a working-class, high-poverty neighborhood of London in the 1950s; specifically providing in-home childbirth assistance. This memoir covers the details of her unique job, the intimate stories of individual patients and other idiosyncratic community members, and historical context. A great read for childbirth junkies (or is that just me?), but also a fascinating and warm painting of a singular time and place in history – and specifically, women’s lives and jobs within it.

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  1. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Faith, the daughter of a respected Reverend/natural scientist, wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, to uncover the mysteries of the world through science. Unfortunately, it’s 1860; Faith is valued for minding her younger brother, and perhaps as a future wife to someone with money and esteem, but not much else. Then her father dies, under questionable circumstances. And oh, Faith also discovers a bizarre, powerful, potentially mystical specimen that her father had been hiding in a creepy dark cave only accessible by rowboat. I loved Hardinge’s storytelling – the chapters were brief, but each one seemed to tumble on into the next – the genuine suspense, and the underlying commentary about a woman’s value and power in Victorian society. But most of all, I loved how I couldn’t figure out what the heck kind of book I was reading – historical fiction? Science fiction? A ghost story? A murder mystery? Hardinge dipped into all of these genres and their conventions, and what results is something entirely unique.

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  1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

This is an older title that has been on the edges of my reading radar for quite some time. It caught my attention most recently when I was working at my college’s writing center – it seemed the many, many first-year nursing students who came in seeking my essay help had all read the book for assignment. After reading a variety of short reflections on the book over the course of a few months, I could glean enough about it to tell it would be something I like. A family story. A medical story. Nonfiction where the author doesn’t distance herself from herself from the narrative (think Jon Krakauer). Jessica-bait.

It was all of those things, yes, but even better, it was the kind of adult nonfiction I love the most: a small but powerful personal story, elevated to a grander, more universal scale by an author’s careful research and accessible presentation of the social and political context. While the narrative follows a unique family who struggle with finding help for their sick child, it’s also a story about the Hmong people – both their strong cultural identity and traumatic history. It’s a story about that family’s heritage and what it means to be Hmong in America. It’s a story about the limits and blind spots of Western medicine. And it’s also a story about finding common ground and avenues of trust between those who are different from you – and what a difficult but crucially divine part of human being that task is.

I read this mostly with a sleeping baby on my chest, thinking about what a vast, complex, and fuzzy-gray world we live in – him, my little baby, whose health was so newly mine to watch over, to safeguard. Me, feeling suddenly connected to the mothers of the world, of all cultures and languages, who only want the same. This was a fascinating, deep, and moving read that I won’t soon forget.

 

aaaaaaaand it’s February. Crap.

24 Mar 2016

Best Reads of 2015

Hello again, friends! It’s the end of 2015, and time to talk about the Best Books of the Year!

Or maybe just the verrrrry beginning of 2016? When 2015 is still pretty fresh on your mind?

Okay fine. It’s damn near April. But, by gum, I’m posting this freaking top ten list if it kills me.

As is traditional here in the Jessica’s-various-historical-blog-o-sphere, what follows is a list of books that I loved this year, ranked from ten to one. We have books of fiction and nonfiction. Books for kids, teens AND adults. Books that I read as galleys, hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks and audiobooks. Books I read in January and books I read in December. (This year, maybe some books I read in… ahem… 2014)

No picturebooks, though. How discriminatory of me! The poor picturebook. Maybe next year I’ll rectify this situation.

At any rate, this is, as per usual, a personal list that has 100% to do with my reading enjoyment and not with any standards of literary merit. My annotations are similarly… um… not objective or professional. Perhaps more-so than ever. Because it’s damn near April.

Would you like to see my favorite books of years past, so you can see how far such a fine tradition has fallen? Here are some links to click on:

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010

I am hoping that this post serves as a symbolic literary purging of the old year, leaving me feeling free to start writing about The Books of the New Year. I am also hoping that I never write a sentence that includes the phrase “symbolic literary purging” ever again.

Okay. Without further ado. Here. Read. Enjoy! See you soon!

 

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10. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola

A literary memoir that is also an addiction memoir. Classic Jessica-bait. What impressed me about Hepola’s particular narrative? It’s compact and easy to read, but also dense with emotional insight and sentences that made me grab for a pen and notebook. And while I’ve read a lot of addiction memoirs, I can’t say I’ve ever read one written by a woman – much less by a woman close to my own age. The older I get, the more I value reading personal narratives written by other women bungling through whatever period of their late twenties/early thirties I’m also inhabiting – there really aren’t that many out there, and even fewer that match Hepola’s insight, talent, and humility.

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9. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

I picked up this book on the recommendation/praise of many. I was fresh off months of imposed reading; months of making reading selections based on what book could be of higher quality than the last one I read without thinking much at all my personal reading preferences. I was even starting to wonder if I *had* any reading preferences anymore, or if maybe I’d read myself into a critical stupor. Thankfully, this delightful book was just a perfect slice of what I’ve always loved in YA – a good old-fashioned contemporary girl story, with a little romance. I loved Lara Jean, loved how her story was about romance but was really just about her, and I love-love-loved the world of the Song family. It was the kind of YA book that makes me want to give it a hug; treating myself to that experience felt really nice.

 

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8. Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

One weekend in November, I took a break from my normal reading schedule and worked through a hulking pile of graphic novels. I read a lot of really great ones, but Dan Brown’s Drowned City knocked me flat. It’s one thing to hear the news and to read the stories. We even visited New Orleans a year or so afterwards – it was easy to tell that something traumatic had happened, but harder to grasp exactly what. Brown’s spare, informative narrative and dark, evocative illustrations felt like a rare, frightening close-up of the emotional and physical trials the victims of this disaster incurred. It was painful

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7. Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

It feels a bit strange to say so, but in terms of consistent reading satisfaction, I think Raina Telgemeier might me one of my favorite authors. Smile was great. Loved Drama. Haven’t read the BSC series, but… uh… it’s BSC w/ Telgemeier’s art. I really can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be enjoyable. Sisters, however, impressed the hell out of me. This is a companion to Smile – another slice of Telgemeier’s middle grade years – but this time Telgemeier draws the focus out from her own experience just a touch to explore her family’s unique dynamic. The book is structured around Telgemeier’s fraught relationship with Amara – a younger sister who’s independent, surly, and refuses to play the role of quiet companion that Telgemeier imagined she would. The main storyline is a small one – a road trip to visit family in a jankety VW bus. But with these brilliantly composed full page panels throughout, Telgemeier slows the reader down and reveals what the story is really about – it’s about family struggles that are just a little bit too big for young kids to grasp, and how even if you don’t get along in the day to day, your siblings will be the ones who understand. Telgemeier isn’t just a graphic novelist – she’s a memoirist.

 

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6. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Creepy ghost books? Not really my thing. Juvenile detention books? Meh. Ballerina books? I always *want* to like them, but I think I might just like Center Stage and that’s it. Creepy ghost ballerina books set partially in a juvenile prison? Hands down Top Ten Read of 2015. Nice job, Suma. What did draw me in was the dueling narrators. Violet is the ballerina, an uptight rich girl on her way to Juilliard – her story has a familiar, contemporary YA feel but with tense, angry edges. Amber is the detainee; she tells her own story of life before and during her incarceration, but she also speaks in this downright creepy third person omniscient voice that seems to speak for all of the girls who live at Aurora Hills. Their stories pivot around the life of a third girl – Orianna, “The Bloody Ballerina” – and these spiraling, intertwining story lines just get creepier and more intense the longer the book goes on. This was a book I read for review – you can read it here! – and probably the review book I was happiest to see starred and get some critical love at the end of the year. It was even cited in an editorial as “the book that has me excited about YA publishing all over again.” Nothing but love for this creepy-ass gem of a book.

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5. Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother by Beth Ann Fennelly

Here is another personal lady narrative, this one told in letters. Fennelly is a writing professor with a toddler; when a former student is facing an unexpected pregnancy, Fennelly promises to write her often. To reveal what secrets of gestation and motherhood that she can; to generally provide her company, solace, and insight during a scary/exciting/tumultuous time. This is only Fennelly’s side of the correspondence, which is strange and intimate peek into her life, her history, and her values; and how all of that relates to her feelings on child-bearing, children, family, and art.

If you can find a better book on pregnancy out there, bring it to me and I will bake you a chocolate cake.

Edit: well, that cat’s certainly out of the bag. That is what I get for taking MONTHS to write a post. Anyway, the chocolate cake sentiment still stands.

 

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4. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

We are now entering a brief interlude of cheats. I didn’t read this book for the first time in 2015. Nope. In 2014, I went to BEA and came home with a galley, and then I read it on my beach vacation.

And it was good. It was just so, so good.

I feel like I do not need to tell you about this book because this book has just been all over the place. It took home a National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King, a Sibert Honor, probably some awards I’m forgetting or never heard of. It’s a memoir in verse. It’s about growing up black in North Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s lovely. It’s thought-provoking. It’s a must read.

(And, to be fair, I did read it in 2015. More than once. And I’d read it again in a heartbeat)

 

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3. The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Cheat #2: I first read this book in the fall of 2014. It took me a few weeks to work through; I’d read a chunk of short segments here and there, in between other fiction reading. But the longer I read, the longer the chunks – just like fiction, the longer I read, the deeper into the Romanov’s epic/bizarre/tragic story I fell. As this enigmatic, isolated family marched steadily toward their end, the faster the pages whipped by.

To be completely honest, this was really my first experience with the Romanovs. I knew very little about this notorious family. But wow, what an introduction. Fleming is an ideal guide for a first-timer; her narrative voice is warm, steady, informative. She weaves sparkling aesthetic details into her scenes – decadent bits of scenery, costume, and personality that drew me into the Romanov’s lives in that leery but indulgent, voyeuristic, reality show kind of way. But in the next chapter, Fleming turns the focus toward individuals in the peasant class; pulling from primary sources, Fleming reminds the reader that the Romanovs were one family in a country of millions, and that their power and choices led many, many of their citizens to impossible poverty or death… and eventually the dissolution of a steady government.

Alright, I feel like I am getting a little *too* passionate here about history. I am going to lose my fun-book street-cred. But nonetheless, this boring history book was one of the best and most engaging read I encountered.

In either 2014 or 2015. Take your pick. Or maybe both!

 

 

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2. Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories by Rebecca Barry

I read this  book over the summer. Just a few chapters in, I immediately imagined sitting on my bookshelf, part of my permanent collection. It was just one of those heart-clutching, “yes, yes,” books that just… struck a personal/sentimental/this-is-life/cliche-inspiring chord in me. Every few years, they come along.

A collection of short personal essays – stories, maybe, or sketches – this is the perfect book for dipping in and out of. Barry begins with a big move; after much deliberation, she and her husband decide to disrupt their writing and publishing careers – to leave New York City and move upstate, and oh, then maybe it’s a good idea to buy a gorgeous but dilapidated apartment building and then renovate? And then maybe have a couple of small children? Her stories are brief. Clipped, out of necessity. They barely leave the scope of her small town, her family and friends, or the walls of her apartment. The moments she captures are personal – naval-gazing, maybe – sometimes messy, sometimes fractured, sometimes self-pitying, but then there’s just a bit of joy, tucked away, too. It’s exactly the way I like to think about life and families and the way I strive to write.

And for the record, I did not make it through those two paragraphs without putting it on hold again. Oops.

 

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  1. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

I have to say, it’s a bit of a strange experience thinking about books that I’ve loved when so much time as passed since we first “met.” So much has happened, Challenger Deep, since I first cracked you open. I seem to recall it was a warm-ish evening, late April early May, and I was reading on my bed with the windows open. I picked it out from my overflowing bookshelves on the merit of a starred professional review, I believe. I had no idea what it was about. I started reading and had no idea what was going on, but not in a “you’ve lost me, Shusterman” kind of way.

It was more like a “Wow, this book is smarter than me.” So I started paddling hard to keep up, and while I’m not sure I did 100%, I was left feeling like I’d experienced something damn special.

This book came out last May. It got a zillion starred reviews, won some awards, and I’m sure you’ve heard all about it by now. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you that it’s about a teenage boy, and it’s about schizoaffective disorder. There are at least two separate story-lines, neither of which feels quite… real. It’s narratively impressive, narratively challenging, but if you can hang on long enough, it will also hit you in the guts at least once or twice.

Not an easy read. Not a pleasant read. Not a heart-clutching “yes, yes” book, but a “wow, wow, WOW” kind of book – maybe the only WOW book I read all year.

 

24 Dec 2014

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

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#1 The Magicians series by Lev Grossman

Oh boy. Here’s a review that has been a long time coming. Almost an entire calendar year coming!

I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians at the tail end of December, just as I was finishing up my end-of-the-year book awards, my Cybils reading, a spate of professional reviews. I was also coming off my second listen-through of Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. This is all to say: I was busy and doing a lot of required reading…. but despite having read through the series twice in 2014, I was sorely tempted to jump right back into Westeros, just because it was a comfortable place to be.

I resisted the urge for a number of reasons – instead, I was just an angry little reading thing. Nothing seemed fun. Nothing suited. It was a very slumpy time, and while I’ve come to accept the fact that, oh, human life does not always adhere to whatever superhuman standards I set for myself, it still unsettles me, to feel so adrift. Like a habitual, every day runner slowed down by an injury. Rest is good. Necessary. But also distressing.

Some people run marathons. Some people read marathons.

Anyway, I chanced upon The Magicians through my beloved Overdrive app, and my slump dissolved. It was one of those reading experiences that Reader Me (and probably Reader You) lives for – the complete immersion, the instant investment, the can’t-stop-reading feeling.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s better than almost anything.

Quentin Coldwater is a high achieving 17-year-old with a tendency toward angst. Or clinical depression. One of the two. His life’s primary joy is reading fantasy novels, specifically the series Fillory and Further… which is really just an alternate imagining of The Chronicles of Narnia. Quentin’s ennui is lifted temporarily when he is tapped to enroll in a secret college. A college for magicians. The boy who wanted nothing more than to live in a fantasy novel… gets to live in a fantasy novel.

Yes. It’s Harry Potter in college.

But probably not in the ways you think.

Lately, I have been attracted to books that blur genre lines. I’ve been a bit of a genre-nerd for some time now – all of my favorite literary questions are about narrative structure, reader expectations, and canonicity. What books do we get to call “literary” and what books do we not? Why do so many YA books have bad parents? What is the difference between an adult book about teens and a YA book about teens? What is the difference between a book teens like and a book adults like?

Genre-bending books, by their very nature, present these genre questions on a platter, almost requiring that you consider them as you read. The Magicians straddles the line between fantasy and realism. The narrative sticks closely to Quentin’s perspective – the book is missing that charming storytelling narrative distance that fantasy-lovers (like Quentin) adore. The result is a book that feels very different than a fantasy novel (especially a children’s fantasy), which may put off those actually looking for a “Harry Potter in college” reading experience.

What’s left is a very realistic coming of age novel about fantastic events.

As a girl who loves realism and is dipping her toes into fantasy, this combination basically flipped my lid. I was tickled. 100% delighted. I loved how awkward and unfocused and stumbling Quentin was, how he makes friends in an organic but occasionally painful way that took me right back to college. He whines. He pouts. He makes bad choices. He doesn’t quite know what he wants from the world. But really – who does?

But I was also quite taken by… well… all the magic. In the world of The Magicians, bagic isn’t a mystical ability, bestowed upon you at birth. Magic is an academic discipline and practice. A science. An art. Only the best and brightest can hope to practice it well and safely, but even the best and brightest college students are still college students. Quentin and his friends are intoxicated by the prestige and the secrecy and the endless possibilities that their field presents. Magic big and deep and encompassing and so, so powerful – Quentin and his friends learn just how powerful in some seriously painful ways.

This is also the rare fantasy series that doesn’t lose a bit of steam as the trilogy rolls along. I loved The Magicians, but then The Magician King introduces a second narrator whose story I found even more compelling than Quentin’s. The Magician’s Land was a bit slower – not quite as electrifying – but the conclusion was just so, so satisfying to me.

So yes, I’m glad I stopped reading Game of Thrones for a few minutes – long enough to find a new series to love. The surface parallels between the two series are pretty nonexistent. I’m definitely not claiming that fans of GoT will love this, but I found Grossman’s world-building just as thorough and inventive, his characters just as tortured and complex, and the Big Fat Ideas just as free-flying and immersive and wonderful. Like GoT, this series just transports me. Like GoT, I’ll be re-reading The Magicians for a long time.

~ You made it! The end! Merry Christmas! I’m officially On Vacation until January, but I will be back in the New Year! ~

24 Dec 2014

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

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#2 Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Here’s a book I really, really, really don’t need to tell you about. It needs no introduction. No signal boost. I have no information that you haven’t already gathered, either from reading the book yourself or just from existing on the BookInternet for more than a few minutes in 2014.

I could tell you that the library copy I read had bright yellow pages – on the edges. When our copies arrived at the library, I spotted them in the sorting bins from all the way across our large tech services area. Quite the dramatic entrance, book.

I could also tell you that I really couldn’t put this one down – Andrew Smith works some serious storytelling magic here. Yes, this is a book about some teen boys who accidentally trigger the apocalypse and sic gigantic, man-eating grasshoppers on their sleepy Iowa hometown. And the narration is fairly audacious – Austin not only chronicles the events that lead to this disaster but also a family history, a local history, and the history of the other citizens of Earling. It’s definitely a weird book that takes some big narrative risks – but if you can stomach giant insects and keep up with the somewhat disjointed narration, the pay-offs are big. This book reads a little like a twisted textbook. Austin is writing a history here, and like any history, the telling belies the narrator’s biases, blind-spots, and priorities. It’s tough, at times, to tell what is more unbelievable and horrific: the events that Austin unleashes in Earling or his worldview. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that history, here, is written by a teenage boy. The stories Austin tells aren’t always nuanced or fair or appealing, but as a whole, the book raised some exceptionally interesting questions about who gets to write history, why they are allowed to take this privilege, and to what consequence. What does it mean when men get to tell the stories of all of civilization? At what point – if any – do the history writers stop being horny teenage boys and become authorities?

But for me, that’s all set dressing. Behind the sci-fi-ishness and the voicey-ness and the ambition is just the juiciest realism I’ve read in quite some time. The scenes between Austin and his girlfriend and is best friend are just bubbling with tension as Austin seems to subconsciously test the limits of each relationship. I’m a realism-loving gal. Even giant grasshoppers can’t scare me away from a good teen love story – especially when it’s the kind of love story that reveals just how huge and scary and delicate teen relationships can be. As the apocalypse grows imminent, Smith masterfully raises the stakes for Austin’s relationships, too – by the conclusion, how Austin reconciles his relationships with Shan and Robbie is just as important as how they can save the world. Maybe those two tasks are intimately connected. Maybe everything is.

 

 

 

23 Dec 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

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#3 Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Well, I’m having trouble figuring out how to talk about this book. I came in with few expectations – I haven’t read Salvage the Bones yet, this wasn’t a required read, and it wasn’t a big “buzz book” that I’d heard tons of opinions on. I thought it sounded interesting. I like memoirs. I had a copy at the ready.

I was completely blown away. What Ward does here is so genius: she writes a memoir, but also the life stories of five young men in Ward’s life who died in a five year spa – including her own brother. Ward starts from her most recent loss and moves backwards in time, recalling the details of each young man’s life while also detailing her own. Ward really could have written a memoir about her life alone – the vividness of her childhood memories is impressive and her journey out of her impoverished hometown is compelling enough.

But lives don’t exist in a vacuum. Every human on this planet has a full, rich life that is tethered to other lives. Although Ward isn’t terrible close to all of the young men she writes about, her stories illustrate how connected they were through the bonds of their community. Which are the same kind of bonds that bring together any group of people. If you had a student die at your high school, think about how that rippled through the school and your town. When a kid dies, there is grief. Young deaths rock communities. When systemic racism and class disparities contribute to a higher rate of premature deaths in a certain community, that is just blow after blow. As Ward writes it, the second death of a loved once doesn’t hurt any less than the first. Neither does the fifth.

 

It’s easy to think about severely impoverished parts of the country as far away from whatever kind of life you – reader who can afford a computer to read this blog post and also maybe buy a book once in awhile – are leading. Books like Ward’s help me to feel tethered to the lives of others I might not otherwise relate to – that might stereotype or dismiss.

I found this memoir powerful, personal, exceptionally readable, and important. Oh goodness, important. After months of watching the horrors of what is happening in Ferguson this summer, I wish I could gift this book to every person in my country. Police violence is just one of the many ways that young, Black men can die, and Ward’s memoir explores just how harrowing and haunting each of those lives can be. Highly, highly recommended.

23 Dec 2014

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

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#4 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Allow me to direct your attention back to a Best Reads post I wrote way back in 2011 about a little book called Charlotte’s Web. I’m not quite as anti-Western Canon as I used to be in my younger years, probably because A) I’ve liked a lot of the so called “classics” that I read in this latter portion of my life and B) I don’t actually have to read any classics anymore. I am free to design my reading life around my own priorities (which, actually, is probably why I balked at so many reading assignments in my lifetime), so when you read 100 contemporary YA and middle grade novels in a year, a handful of classics doesn’t feel so bad. Also, I can handpick whichever classics suit my fancy! It’s a win-win-win. Life after a few English degrees can be grand.

Anyway. I’m talking about Harriet M. Welsch today. Harriet the m-f-ing spy. She is just such a very, very awesome character – completely individual, independent, and somewhat irascible. She’s a free-wheeling city kid who gets to walk around Manhattan so unsupervised that she manages to spend a significant amount of time hanging out in her neighbor’s dumbwaiter. So awesome.

Since this is my Best Reads list, I am free to talk about how Adult Jessica read this particular work of children’s literature rather than think about any potential child readers. I say this because I am pretty sure I read this book as a child, and unlike many other books I read before my 12th birthday it seemed to have come into my head and left promptly – it left no impression. I’m guessing that I found Harriet a little too aggressive for my liking – back then, I was all about Alice and Margaret – the awkward heroines, the shy ones, the girls as prone to embarrassment as I was. Not to besmirch Alice or Margaret in the least, but I’m pretty sure Harriet would have had some nasty things to say about them in her notebook.

Now, Adult Jessica sees just how uniquely independent, richly developed, and kind of subversive Harriet’s character is. I can also see just how ingeniously Fitzhugh marries this maturity with a sense of conflict in a child’s life. Harriet can get herself into and out of trouble, she can traipse around city streets alone, and she’s smarter than nearly everyone she knows, but at the same time she just can’t handle the idea of change in her life in the way that most 11-year-olds can’t. Like Eleven-year-old Jessica couldn’t. It melted my sappy, grown-up heart a little. I said this yesterday, but I sure am glad books don’t expire, and that great children’s books in particular seem to endure long beyond the average publishing lifespan. I’m glad that they are still around for their intended audience, but for us sappy grown-ups too.

 

22 Dec 2014

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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 #5 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Hey! Back to the countdown! Woohoo!

Thinking about Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding this morning has me yet again questioning what I value in a book; or, more specifically, what I value in a reading experience. There is a difference between the two measures. To me, evaluating a book as a book is all about gathering evidence and building a case. You can point to places in the text that support your opinions or challenge them. It requires clear thinking and an active engagement with one’s own book-biases. Evaluating a reading experience is different. A reading experience is subjective and highly personal. It’s not impossible to evaluate a book based on the reading experience is provides – in fact, this is a large portion of the essential task we librarians like to call Reader’s Advisory – but it definitely flexes different critical muscles. It’s less about the quantifiable and more about story elements, appeal factors, and other less tangible qualities.

When it comes to my personal reading, I tend to unconsciously value certain types of reading experiences. One thing I like is for a book to surprise me. I think this is why I accidentally write a lot of “Well, I thought this book would suck BUUUUTTTT….” kind of reviews. I like broadening my reading tastes and learning about new things, yes – I’m not the kind of reader who likes to read the same kind of book over and over and over. And I especially love it when a novel lures me with great writing and storytelling, showing me the fascinating inner-workings of parts of life I’d have zero interest in otherwise. Like birds. Or mountain climbing. Or baseball.

Yes, this is yet another Best Book Of Many Years Ago, just now arriving on Jessica’s radar. It’s a good things books don’t expire at the end of the year, eh? So what to say about this book that you haven’t heard before? Probably not much. This is a book about baseball, yes, but also a book about what it’s like to live and work in a small college town.  There’s a professor turned college president with a strange relationship with Herman Melville. There’s a freshman baseball recruit with unprecedented skill as a shortstop but who struggles with… you know… the other parts about being human and existing in this world. Other characters flit in between these two protagonists – the president’s wayward daughter, the baseball player’s rarefied roommate, the older guy on the baseball team responsible for summoning team spirit and keeping everyone in line. It’s a well-paced, character-driven novel with a lot to say about goal-setting and goal-achieving, about the perils and joys of pointing your life in one single direction, and about failure.

But yes, baseball. Harbach writes with such a charming, engaging tone that even I started to find baseball interesting. I was surprised and delighted, and ready to read anything else Harbach might deign to write about in the future.