The End of Year Book Report (#5)

Here are the books I finished from July 1 through December 31 2019. I went back to some of my old favorites in the last six months, like Ann Patchett and Leslie Jamison. I got to meet Jamison in October, adding to my list of other favorite authors I got to meet this year, like Curtis Sittenfeld and Sloane Crosely. This has been a great year for getting to shake the hands of some of my literary idols. And a great year for discovering good literature!

Title: Sisterland

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld

Date Finished: 7/2

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: An excellent story about the nature of a sibling relationship, this one a bit different from most. I was engrossed in the story the whole time but there wasn’t any aspect of it that stood out as “whoa! everybody else has to read this!”.

 

Title: An American Marriage 

Author: Tayari Jones

Date Finished: 7/15

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9 

Notes: I whipped through this story in two days because I couldn’t stand not knowing what happened next. It only takes one chapter to realize the book is not going to be what you probably expected. I would define this as a quintessential American story, the core of  reality in this country for million of us. A very human story well worth reading.

 

Title: The Witch Elm

Author: Tana French

Date Finished: 7/19

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: This book is another example of my biggest pet peeve in fiction. Like John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River or Richard Wright’s Native Son, this book contains pages and pages and pages of an overt political message that doesn’t contribute to the narrative and doesn’t belong in the book. Fiction should be fiction and shouldn’t include a speech in the middle. I gave this a score of five because I was very much into the story up to the point where we find out whodunit. And then the book just kept going and going and going with the characters discussing the justification just so the author could rant about how she personally feels about the state of the world. I just stopped reading after a while.

 

Title: Last of the Mohicans

Author: James Fenimore Cooper

Date Finished: 7/19

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I’ve had some debates with people recently about whether kids should be forced to keep reading the classics. There are some epic stories out there, but the writing style is so incredibly unapproachable. This is an example. I love this story, I loved the movie and, in general, I love this genre. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get through it solely because of the writing. Do people rewrite classic stories the way they remake old movies? Might not be a bad idea.

 

Title: There Are No Grown-Ups

Author: Pamela Druckerman

Date Finished: 7/25

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7 

Notes: This was a very relatable book about what it’s like when the world around sees you as an established adult, but inside you still feel like you’re somewhat clueless and just starting out into adulthood, while simultaneously you can recognize changes inside yourself that make you a better and happier person as you get older. The end of each chapter had a list about things you know when you’re 40 and so many of them resonated with me. I enjoyed this read a lot.

There are stages of becoming a grown-up. First, you definitely aren’t one. Then you pretend to be one. Then you’re sure that there are no grown-ups; that they’re mythological and don’t really exist. And then finally, maybe one day in your forties, you just are one.

This doesn’t feel like anything you’d imagined. It’s not all-knowing, omnipotent, and large. It’s humble, solid, and small. But at long last, it feels like you. And you think, just then, that this is the best age of all.

 

Title: Dictionary of Failed Relationships

Author: Meredith Broussard (Editor)

Date Finished: 7/27

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: This is a collection of 26 short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, about…you guessed it – failed relationships. My favorite was Amy Sohn’s Call Hell. It veers from reality into fantasy in seamless way. You’re reading a normal short story and then, bam, you’re suddenly in the middle of something very unreal and you don’t know how you got there. So well done. I also really liked LDR, by Colleen Curran; Nightmare, by Pam Houston; Savage by Maggie Estep; Threesome, by Dana Johnson; and Worship, by Michele Serros.

 

Title: The Ash Family

Author: Molly Dektar

Date Finished: 8/6

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I wanted to like this story but it was lacking it too many ways. Most notably, it overlooked the glaringly obvious issue of not having anyone come looking for the main character when she disappears. Also, her experience in the commune was too superficial. She never really seemed to question what she was doing there and only focused on trying to fit in. I was fascinated by the details about life in the commune, though, and how the group was so self-sufficient and ran the farm and acquired cool skills. And I liked that it wasn’t just about a dude taking advantage of a bunch of women, although that was in there for a second.

 

Title: The Ones That Got Away

Author: Stephen Graham Jones

Date Finished: 8/15

Finished: No

Format: Hard Cover

Ranking Out of 10: 4

Notes: I did not understand most of the stories in this collection. What was really happening was too subtle or vague, and I didn’t understand what the characters were talking about half the time. I picked this up specifically for the story “Crawlspace” which was really good right until the end, and then same thing – I didn’t get what happened. And I think I’m a pretty savvy reader.

 

Title: Newcomer: A Mystery

Author: Keigo Higashino

Date Finished: 9/3

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 4

Notes: I read this for my monthly book club. I never would have picked it up otherwise. It’s a mystery in the classic sense of a mystery: everything was too convenient, chapters wrapped up too neatly, characters were too cliche, and the writing was terrible. In defense of the writing, though, I don’t actually know if it was the fault of the author or the translator. The translator was not experienced in literary translation, which is a whole different ballgame from scientific or technical translation. And if it was the author, it may just be a cultural disconnect because this author is a runaway success in Japan. However, as always, I came out of book club with a much greater appreciation for the book. Gary never steers us wrong. I always learn a lot from our group and find value in reading something that is not in my typical reading list.

 

Title: Outlaw Tales of Colorado

Author: Jan Elizabeth Murphy

Date Finished: 9/8

Finished: No

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: These sorts of books—the kinds you find on your nightstand in bed and breakfasts or in national park gift shops—are never very well written but I always have high hopes for them because I know the fundamentals of the stories they want to tell are exciting. But they read more like an encyclopedia than creative non-fiction. This one contained some interesting stories and I enjoyed hearing the history behind some names that are known to me from living here, but I ended up skimming lots of this because the writing didn’t draw me in.

 

Title: Off Main Street

Author: Michael Perry

Date Finished: 9/15

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9 

Notes: I love Michael Perry. That’s all. Okay, I’ll offer you a bit more. If you like Bill Bryson, you’ll like Michael Perry. I’d say Perry’s essay are ever so slightly less comical and more serious, but he has the same general style. And Perry’s subjects are very American. He’s so great. He’s next on my list of authors I want to meet. But looks like I have to go to Wisconsin for that.

 

Title: Skylight

Author: Jose Saramago

Date Finished: 9/16

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: This book was good enough that I read the whole thing, but it didn’t seem to have a point. It told the story of several different families all living in an apartment building, their separate issues, and how their lives intertwined. There wasn’t enough of a plot to be engaging to most people, though it was well written and the characters were interesting.

 

Title: Serve It Forth

Author: MFK Fisher

Date Finished: 9/21

Finished: No

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 4 

Notes: I have no idea where or how I decided to pick this up. It’s a book of food writing from mid-1900s. The writing style was too stuffy for me to get into a lot of this. There were some gems and some funny moments, but I skimmed a lot of this.

 

Title: Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

Author: Michael Perry

Date Finished: 9/22

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: I love Michael Perry. See my comments above. These essays made me laugh, cry, and everything in between.

 

Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Author: Gail Honeyman

Date Finished: 9/26

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: All right, I confess. I refused to read this for the longest time because it was talked about and raved about for so long everywhere I looked, and I was sick of it. I realize this is a terrible attitude because, as an aspiring author, I would want everyone to read my work too. I’d want it be so popular. But Gary McBride made me read it for book club and holy shit am I glad he picked it. I devoured it in just three days. Is it possible to be in love with a book? The main character was unique character, I was in stitches the whole time, and it was masterfully plotted and well-written, straddling that line between mainstream fiction and literary fiction. Read this.

 

Title: Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

Author: Caitlin Doughty

Date Finished: 9/27

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: Caitlin Doughty is always funny and smart. I got to see her in Denver when she toured to promote her first book and would definitely go see her speak again. This book, like her YouTube channel, answers all your burning questions about dying and funerals and dead bodies. But no, it’s not morbid or depressing. Her style is approachable, realistic, and compassionate.

 

Title: The Dutch House

Author: Ann Patchett

Date Finished: 

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: I love Ann Patchett. Always. Yes, there’s a lot of author love in this book report. But I’m more likely to go to Tennessee to meet Patchett than to Wisconsin to meet Perry. Because music and barbeque and the Great Smoky Mountains. In this book, Patchett channels her inner du Maurier and hones in on a house. At least for the first part. I was dying to know what happens next and next and next the whole way through and read this very fast. I got incredibly angry at the book at some points because Patchett let the characters get away with bad things. I was too invested, which is a mark of an incredible story. Overall, this story has tons of emotion. It’s not a light read by any means, but Patchett never is.

 

Title: The Gin Closet

Author: Leslie Jamison

Date Finished: 10/2

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I knew Jamison first as a essayist and didn’t know she wrote a novel before that. Well, turns out she’s multi-talented. Her style has some similarities to Curtis Sittenfeld’s style, which is probably why I like both of them. This novel deals with family drama, much like Sisterland does, but the plots are worlds apart. I was very much into the story the whole way through.

 

Title: The Friend 

Author: Sigrid Nunez

Date Finished: 10/8

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: Despite wining the National Book Award, this was still saccharine nonsense, though not quite as bad Marley and Me. It is literary, but I guess I shouldn’t have expected to like it since it’s described as a “mediation on loss.” What I really didn’t like about it is that it’s one of those books that trying too hard. The author pulls in too many elements that are part of the culture at this exact moment: shitting on white male authors, bratty millennials, the sham of emotional support animals, etc. And it also felt like the author was simply showing off her vast literary knowledge with references to at least 30 well known authors. I did finish it, but that’s primarily because it was short and easy. Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. Everyone loves a sappy doggy tale.

 

Title: Kitchen Confidential

Author: Anthony Bourdain

Date Finished: 10/10

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 10 

Notes: It seems like every dude in America is obsessed with Bourdain, so much like my attitude toward the Eleanor Oliphant book, I’ve long eschewed anything linked to him. Oh my god was I missing out. This book is insane. This is a rare occasion in which I highly recommend the audio book over reading because the onomatopoeia and the frenetic pace of his reading and blurring or sounds and words are an essential part of the experience of this book. The details will amaze and enthrall you. Even if you don’t care at all about him or his cooking or tv shows or anything, if you love good writing and the way it can immerse you in a different world, you will truly enjoy this book.

 

Title: Girl Logic

Author: Iliza Schlesinger

Date Finished: 10/19

Finished: No

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I love (yep, I’m saying love again) Iliza’s comedy, so I was extra disappointed in this book. It was kind of advice, kind of memoir, and too cheeky and trying too hard to be hip. I wish it had been written in more of an adult tone because some of my friends adore Iliza too and this could have made a good gift. But no. Better to get tickets to her show instead. I skimmed through the last 50 pages or so because I lost interest, even though there were some highlights.

 

Title: Suicide Woods

Author: Benjamin Percy

Date Finished: 10/29

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: This is a solid collection of short stories, good for reading at Halloween. It’s billed as horror, but the stories aren’t really gory. Many of them have a strong psychological element. Some, like “Writs of Possession”, weren’t horror at all. I most enjoyed “The Cold Boy”, “Heart of a Bear”, and “The Uncharted”. I did think some were a little predictable and hokey, like “The Dummy”.

 

Title: American Spy

Author: Lauren Wilkenson

Date Finished: 10/31

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: Gary McBride’s book club strikes again and makes me pick up a book I never would otherwise. I was interested for the first half because there were a lot of elements to the story. But when the real spy portion of the story began, I didn’t care anymore. The structure of the book is odd, not having the spy part start until well more than halfway through. I put it down with 50 pages left because I didn’t care how it finished, and then forced myself to finish since it was a book club book. The “twist” felt too predictable.

It is humbling to have your social fluency, your sense of yourself as a competent, independent person, upended by a foreign city.

 

Title: Conversations with Friends

Author: Sally Rooney

Date Finished: 11/10

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 5 

Notes: This book couldn’t decide it if wanted to be literary or chick lit, and in the end it was kind of neither. As the title implies, there was a lot of talking and not a lot of action in the book. It wasn’t literary enough for me to really care about the characters and I wanted more action. I can understand why this was recommended to me, why my friends would think I’d like it, but it didn’t quite get the job done.

 

Title: House of Broken Angels

Author: Luis Alberto Urrea

Date Finished: 12/1

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7 

Notes: This book is not at all what you expect when someone tells you it’s about Mexican immigrants. It lacks any of the themes and tropes that come to mind with that genre. The author’s take on the lives of immigrants is fresh and unexpected. He masterfully takes a very large cast of characters and manages to make them all full, complete, well-rounded characters. No one fell flat for me and I was fully absorbed in the story for a long time. But once I got to the third section, there wasn’t enough happening anymore. The novel was too much in the heads and worries of all these people and the bit of action there was seemed secondary and almost trite. I had to force myself to finish it for…yep, you guessed it…book club.

 

Title: Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems

Author: Brendan Leonard

Date Finished: 12/10

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 8 

Notes: These short essays, pulled from the author’s blog, are very funny, especially for me the ones about hiking, camping, dating, running. So many of these describe my life.

 

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon

Author: David Grann

Date Finished: 12/11

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: The historical aspects of this book are fascinating. I enjoy books that can weave facts into a narrative, and all the more so if they involve the American West and early settlers and Native Americans. This book holds a lot of critical information about our country. But the writing got too dry as the story went on and I really only half-listened to the last third of it.

 

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing

Author: Delia Owens

Date Finished: 12/16

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9 

Notes: This story is so ridiculously good that, like the Bourdain book, when I was listening I would suddenly find myself frozen in space. As in, I’d be doing the dishes or some other chore while listening, but I’d become so engrossed in the story that I would stop whatever is was I was doing and just stand there, without even realizing. Good thing I wasn’t listening while driving. The only reason I didn’t give this a perfect score is because a large chunk of the story involves a trial in the south that’s marred by prejudice. There are so many novels like that (most obviously, To Kill a Mockingbird), that it felt like too easy a plot line, despite the many unique aspects of it that kept me intrigued.

 

Title: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Author: Maya Angelou

Date Finished: 12/21

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that up until this moment, at age 40, I’d never read any Maya Angelou. And I never knew this book was true life. I always thought it was fiction. Finding out it was memoir just a few months ago really made me want to read it, though I can’t understand why. Parts of this were interesting, but like I mentioned before, writing style has changed so drastically, it’s hard for me to read anything not modern now. It’s interesting that this book is classified as autobiography and not memoir. I never though about the difference, but it really is autobiography. A recounting of many events that happened over a period of time, rather than a carefully selected group of anecdotes retold in support of a specific theme. That also makes it less gripping and harder to read.

I decided I wouldn’t pee on her if her heart was on fire.

 

Title: Our Souls at Night

Author: Kent Haruf

Date Finished: 12/30

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: A sweet, short, uplifting novella about the human spirit and love. I knew I’d enjoy it since I enjoyed Plainsong. It also reminded me of the Amity Gaige short novels I read a while back – very touching stories about relationships. Interestingly, I have zero interest in seeing the movie. I can’t see how two super stars like Redford and Fonda could accurately represent the wholesome, all American couple in the book. I only gave it an 8 though because I felt the character of the son was undeveloped and cliche, and led to an ending to the story that I didn’t care for at all.

 

Books I Started But Didn’t Get Far Enough Into to Rate Before I Quit: The Phoenix Project (Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford), The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories (Franz Kafka), The Beauties: Essential Stories (Anton Chekhov), No One Belongs Here More than You (Mirando July), Essential Stories (VS Pritchett), Florida (Lauren Groff), The High Mountains of Portugal (Yann Martel), Buzz, Sting, Bite (Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson), Hit Makers (Derek Thompson), The World Without Us (Alan Weisman), The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Denis Johnson), The Trauma Cleaner (Sarah Krasnostein), Where Good Ideas Come From (Steven Johnson)

Books I Read for YA Research: Whale Talk (Chris Crutcher), Winger (Andrew Smith), Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (Mariko Tamaki), The Liars of Mariposa Island (Jennifer Mathieu), This Might Hurt a Bit (Doogie Horner)

Books of Poetry: Rime of the Modern Mariner (Nick Hayes)

Books I Read for Professional Development: The Year Without Pants (Scott Berkun), Remote: Office Not Required (Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson), Smart People Should Build Things (Andrew Yang)

3 thoughts on “The End of Year Book Report (#5)

  1. A great list. I wish I had written down the ones that interested me as I was reading… now I have to go back and read everything again! P.S. Wisconsin is not too far from me – maybe I’ll go meet Michael Perry! 😉

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