The End of Year Book Report (#6)

Every six months when I post this, I think I’ve read more books than ever before, but when I look back, I think the numbers are fairly consistent. Possibly this time around I started more books and ditched them quickly than ever before, but that’s all. (By the way, if you haven’t learned to toss aside a book that bores you and still feel compelled to read every one you pick up, you’ve got to master this skill. It’s so freeing. Life is too short to waste it on bad books.) You might start to see some older or unusual titles in my book reports because halfway through this reading period, I hit the road. Now that I’m away from the public library, I might actually read some of the books I bought years ago and let languish on my shelf as I was constantly distracted by newer literary interests. Or maybe not. I brought twenty books with me but the places I stay also have their own collections of books. So far, I’ve gotten rid of six of mine but acquired four new ones. So I’m slightly ahead, but I’m also still enjoying audiobooks off the Libby app too. Here are the books I finished from July 1 through December 31, 2020.

Title: Paris Trout
Author: Pete Dexter
Date Finished: 7/14
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: I’m not sure what I think about this book. I thought about it for days after I finished it but still couldn’t decide if I liked it. It’s yet another book that takes place in the south and revolves around a trial with racial implications, but it’s different. It deals with a lot of issues…and yet somehow doesn’t deal with them at all. Aside from race, spousal abuse features prominently in this story too, which makes my feelings even more muddled because I’m not sure if the author’s portrayal of women was part of the characterizations or a sexist writing style. I had a problem with how he portrayed all the characters, really. They are simultaneously very complicated yet lacking depth. Sorry, this is the worst book report ever but I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I read it to the end, so that counts for something, right?

Title: The Monk of Mokha
Author: Dave Eggers
Date Finished: 
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This is a fascinating real life story about how a Yemeni immigrant in America rose up out of poverty, while simultaneously improving the situation of many people (largely poor women and farmers) back in his homeland. Have you ever heard of Yemeni coffee? I hadn’t, but apparently it’s a thing and it’s expensive. Did you know the test for being a coffee “sommelier” is even more difficult than the one for wine? I didn’t give this a 10 mainly because some of it felt hard to believe. How did Eggers verify everything Alkhanshali told him? I don’t know. I hope the story doesn’t end up embroiled in some kind of Greg Mortenson / John Krakauer fiasco someday because the protagonist really is admirable and I want the whole story to be true.

Title: Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba
Author: Elena Schwolsky
Date Finished: 8/6
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I went to Cuba back in January of this year (remember international travel???) and shortly after I got back, Schwolsky did a talk in the Boulder Bookstore. It turns out that Boulder is a sister city to Yateras, Cuba. Who knew? The author did a bunch of volunteer work with AIDS patients down in Cuba and the book was about her experiences and in general how differently AIDS patients were dealt with in Cuba (much, much better) than they were here during the first decades. I wanted to know more, so I borrowed the book. The writing was fine, simple but fine, and the story is quite good.

Title: Weather
Author: Jenny Offill
Date Finished: 8/11
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: I loved Department of Speculation, and I waited a long, long time for Offill to come out with another book, just like I waited for Amity Gaige’s newest release. And also like with Gaige’s book, Trump infiltrated this one too, though much more subtly. In fact, Offill wrote so obliquely, I wonder if people years from now will even understand her references. I liked that she included this lovely link at the end of the book for encouragement in this polarized and hateful time. This book was written the same way as her other book – in vignettes that don’t make sense by themselves, but when you read a lot of them, you get the threads. They are there. It’s not disjointed. It’s interesting that she would write two books successfully in this same way because it is such a unique style, but it works for her. I marked it a 9 only because I wasn’t totally satisfied with the way the book wrapped up. It felt a little empty to me, but don’t let that be a deterrent. Her writing is excellent.

He has an odd side gig: taking kids out for wilderness trips. “No set line between lost and not lost,” he tells me, and I write this down on a napkin.

Title: The Last American Man
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Date Finished: 8/15
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This book is a fascinating profile of a rugged, individualistic man (with whom the author has a friendship) who has an extraordinary gift for living and loving life. He has lived as one with nature, as much as possible, but Gilbert does an excellent job of showing the struggle he has with being his authentic self while still having to live in this world to some degree and all the bureaucracy and bullshit that entails. She paints an impressive picture of his gifts and skills and passion and incredible dedication to nature and hard work, while not shying away from also enumerating his flaws and how those lead to his frustrations and even delusions. I hope to visit Conway’s nature preserve, Turtle Island, someday before Eustace passes on, although I’ll also admit that I’d be afraid to volunteer there after everything I read in this book.

Show up for your own life. Don’t pass your days in a stupor, content to swallow whatever watery ideas modern society may bottle-feed you through the media, satisfied to slumber through life in an instant-gratification sugar coma. The most extraordinary gift you’ve been given is your own humanity, which is about consciousness, so honor that consciousness. (Eustace Conway)

Title: So You Want to Talk About Race
Author: Ijeoma Oluo
Date Finished: 8/19
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I read this to try to better myself by learning about other perspectives. As with most social opinion books, some points the author made I learned from and appreciated being exposed to, while others I had to roll my eyes at. However, because of the current cancel culture we are living in and extreme leftist intolerance and penchant for taking comments out of context and forcing them into an irrational dichotomy of “you’re with me or you’re against me,” I, as a white person, do not feel free to discuss openly the points a black person makes about race relations that I disagree with. And since I don’t feel free to discuss the negatives of the book, I will also decline to discuss the positives in detail because I believe that presenting a one-sided review is harmful to healthy dialogue, free speech, and fostering people’s ability to think critically. But you should read it for yourself and make your own opinions.

Title: Olive, Again
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Date Finished: 8/20
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 2
Notes: Holy crap this book is SO BORING. SO, SO BORING. I only finished it because it was a book club selection. I would have quit less than a quarter of the way through otherwise. It’s everything you’re not supposed to do in writing, describing every little minute detail of the characters’ lives, instead of only details that move the plot forward. There was no plot. It was just snippets of people’s lives in a small town in Maine with literally no purpose to writing their stories down whatsoever. Terrible. Die, Olive, Die. I won’t tell you if she does or not, but that’s all I was thinking the last quarter of the book. I wanted her to die so it would be over. Also, side note, this book also contained some Trump references. He’s inescapable in literature right now! One more note, a friend of mine (who I wouldn’t think would enjoy this genre) says that the HBO mini-series about Olive is very good.

Title: The Glass Hotel
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Date Finished: 8/23
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: So…I read this whole novel in less than 24 hours. It was that good. It’s sort of multiple stories wound into one, with a few minor characters making random appearances and even the major characters appearing randomly at disparate points in their lives, and yet it all fits together perfectly. And it’s largely about finance and big money, yet it doesn’t feel at all like a book about those themes at all. It gives you an underlying feeling of unease, wariness but also a desperate need to know what happens next. I couldn’t stop reading. I knew I wanted more from Mandel after reading Station Eleven and this was more. Much more. I would love to pick her brain about the thought and writing processes that went into this book.

Title: Born to Run
Author: Christopher McDougall
Date Finished: 8/25
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: This is one of those books like Kitchen Confidential (which I previously rated) that multiple people recommended to me for quite some time. And I’m glad I finally read it. It wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be, probably because I never read the book jacket or bothered to look into it in any way. The whole book was fascinating – the Leadville race, the Tarahumara history, the race in the Copper Canyon, the science, Caballo Blanco and the whole cast of characters. Anyone who is interested in great feats of humanity and our biological development would enjoy this book, not just runners.

Title: The Beauty in Breaking
Author: Michele Harper
Date Finished: 8/23
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: So, let me say that I enjoyed this book a lot and, if she didn’t have a ghost writer, I’m really impressed given that she’s a doctor and not a writer. But if she did have a ghost writer, that person could have done better. The takeaways felt heavy-handed, as in each chapter was structured like “this happened” and “then I learned this.” I also didn’t really see a common thread in what she was healing from. The book is generically about how being a doctor has made her a better person, but the chapters are all loosely connected events. They are universally relatable though, which is why I enjoyed it. You don’t have to be doctor to understand what the author was going through. And she has some wild stories about working with patients, which were the parts I enjoyed most. Those were more engaging than her personal journey.

But I knew that someday, in a future I could feel but not yet see, I wouldn’t want [my ex] back. It didn’t matter where I lived or whether I was with someone else or alone: I knew myself well enough to know that when I leave, I leave for better and I leave for good.

Title: Amy and Isabelle
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Date Finished: 9/14
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: Yes, for as much as I hated Olive, I had to give Elizabeth Strout another chance, just like I did with Susan Choi in the first half of this year. My book club leader doesn’t select bad authors, so even if one book doesn’t resonate with me, another might. I enjoyed this Strout book so much more than that stupid Olive book. I listened to it in less than a week because I was engrossed and wanted to know more and more. There were some commonalities with the Olive book – little other character view points popping up here and there and sharing some random experiences and observations. But I actually liked the main characters in this book and was invested in what was happening to them, and that made all the difference in how I perceived the rest of the book. Strout certainly does have a style though – a very particular way of writing that is all her own. It’s what writing teachers are talking about when they talk about an author’s style. Because of that though, I can’t say I’ll read any more of her works. I think it would grow tiresome fast.

Title: The Dog Stars
Author: Peter Heller
Date Finished: 9/13
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Notes: And continuing my streak of trying to actually read the books that people keep telling me I will like, I made a third attempt at reading The Dog Stars. But this was was a failure. This book was terrible, even though I stuck with it despite my general practice to ditch bad stories. I rarely like post-apocalyptic anyway, so I knew this would be an uphill battle. For more than half the book, there appears to be no plot. I didn’t like the writing style of the weird half sentences that don’t need to be. Feels forced. And there was a some real sexist writing, like when the main characters girlfriend asks him to go down on her and he tells her “Really? You don’t want that.” and when she insists, “Okay. Big exhale. Duty calls.” Seriously? WTF. I suppose that’s main character’s voice, but part of me thinks it’s the author’s voice too. I only skimmed the last 100 pages or so because I stopped caring.

Title: Breath
Author: James Nestor
Date Finished: 9/24
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: This book is mostly chock full of really great information about how the food we eat and the way we chew has affected the shape of our jaws and faces and led to all kinds of problems with our teeth and breathing. And about posture and oxygen intake and sleeping issues and all sorts of modern ailments and how they related to breathing habits. At times, the content veers slightly into some new-agey hooey, but mostly the science behind the recommendations sounds solid. And I’ve heard it before from multiple people – creative writing teachers and gym coaches, for example. I’ve been doing some of the deep breathing before bed but trying to breathe through my nose while working out just isn’t a thing. I suppose that’s all the more reason to keep working at it, but it’s hard. You can get a taste of the content here, and try to overlook the author’s insistence on calling himself Mr James Nestor, which I find incredibly pretentious and off-putting, because the content is really interesting.

Title: Monkey Wrench Gang
Author: Edward Abbey
Date Finished: 10/11
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Notes: It pains me slightly to write this, but I’m done trying Edward Abbey. He has been recommended to me several times over the years, and I tried Desert Solitaire, but just couldn’t get into it. So I thought I’d try his fiction instead of memoir, but same deal. This book feels like some weird mix of Jack Kerouac and a rebel handbook. It feels like a book for boys. The most interesting part was listening to the introduction that talked about Abbey’s life. I have immense respect for him and find him fascinating, but I just don’t care for his writing. Funny that the introduction to the book said the same thing – the literary community was bothered by the fact that his books were so successful because they aren’t that good as books. I guess that means I’m really literary because as much as I want to like his work, I just don’t, and that’s because of the style of writing.

Title: The Silence is the Noise
Author: Bart Schaneman
Date Finished: 10/21
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: Keeping with Abbey’s counter-revolutionary vein, this book I did manage to make it through because it was barely even long enough to classify as a novella. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have finished. I got this in a grab bag from Trident Bookstore during the early days of the pandemic – $50 for 3-5 randomly selected books and a bag of really good coffee. The book has an overtly politically message, this time anti-fracking. Regardless of whether I agree, I hate overt politics shoved down my face in fiction, as I’ve mentioned several times before for different books I’ve read and commented on in my blog. A look at Schaneman’s Tumblr reveals that this book, though fiction, is probably largely autobiographical too. I spent some time going through his published articles and quite like his writing, just not this book. Also, I’m confused about why this book was so short. The ending suddenly skipped massive amount of time and the book just stopped, leaving a lot of threads hanging, despite his efforts to wrap them up. It was very unsatisfying to get us involved in his world and then just cut off in the middle of these stories, even though I might not have stuck with it if it had been longer. But do check out some of his other writing, like his travel pieces.

Title: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living
Author: Karen Auvinen
Date Finished: 10/29
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: I loved it this book, partly because it was close to home (it’s an autobiography that takes place mostly in a small mountain town outside Boulder) but partly just for her story. I saw a lot of myself in her, with her independence and life of books and her dog. She is way more hard core than I could ever be, for example, she’s not bothered by living without hot water or electricity, but I understand her spirit. I did feel let down that it ended with her falling in love and ending up in a relationship. All her strength and moxie reduced to that? That’s what compelled her to wrap up her life into a memoir? Hrmph. Sorry to tell you the ending, but it’s not like The Sixth Sense or something. Knowing what happens in the last chapter doesn’t at all detract from enjoyment of the two dozen other crazy stories in this memoir.

Lonely is a word that describes what it means to live profoundly. Moving deeply in the world, you let the thousand distractions fall away and you become more authentic, more who you really are.

Title: Tinkers
Author: Paul Harding
Date Finished: 11/7
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Notes: Ah, another book that received great accolades and does all the things they tell writers not to do. There’s a reason they tell us to not do these things. I loved the first two chapters. I was totally into the story. Then, I don’t have a clue what the third chapter was about. It was so weird. The fourth chapter got back into the main story but with all these other weird elements. It was like the author put a bunch of random things in that chapter because he was in love with his own writing and just want to put that stuff in some writing somewhere. A review on the back cover said “the real star is Harding’s language” and that I agree with. Like so many literary novels, it’s less about the story and more about the writer showing off their literary talents. His writing is masterful. The kind of paragraphs you have to read over and over because they are so beautiful. But the story? Blah.

Title: The Hunting Party
Author: Lucy Foley
Date Finished: 11/9
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I saw this book described as Agatha Christie-esque and I totally agree. A solid old-fashioned mystery, though with a modern take. The book had a tight cast of characters and Foley did a good job of giving each one a reason to be the murder and keep the reader guessing. I enjoyed it, though I don’t see myself suddenly reading tons of mysteries, but if I wanted this type of book again, I’d try another Lucy Foley.

Title: Lost and Wanted
Author: Nell Freudenberger
Date Finished: 11/19
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book me a really long time to read (it was the selection for was for August book club) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I really did. It was just a slow burner. Some books just require you to be in a particular mood to read them and that mood didn’t come often, but I never doubted that I wanted to finish it. The story and writing were both good, but not extraordinary. yet there was something about the author brought all the disparate elements (love, ghosts, physics, sexism, racism, children) together that was masterful. that’s what kept me reading, albeit with a clear lack of urgency.

Title: Abandon Me
Author: Melissa Febos
Date Finished: 11/19
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This book is painfully raw. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir that was so quite like a diary. I really felt like she poured every single painful thought onto the page with no hint of embarrassment. Every terrible moment, internal doubt, bit of insanity, but not in a way that’s annoying to read. I was drawn in to every word because I’ve felt them all before. She’s so intensely emotional. There are a few smaller essays first (I’ve blended two in the quote below) so there’s some repetition with the main piece of the book, which takes half the page count, but that’s fine because the smaller essays give you some background to the characters. Febos is also masterful with words. This book is about both the writing and the intensity. She draws heavily on literary and pop culture references and seamlessly threads them into her narrative. I can’t say enough how much I loved this book, but you’ve been warned, it’s intense.

Throughout [Labyrinth] Jareth promises [Sarah] that happiness is in succumbing to his fantasy and abandoning her quest to solve the labyrinth. “I ask for so little,” he pleads. “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” When Sarah finally reaches the castle at the center of the labyrinth, Jareth makes his final plea to her: “Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.” It is the song of every seductive captor, every addiction, every fearful lover, every shadowed history. Sarah finally knows that it is she who will be the slave, and his power only exists if she believes it. “You have no power over me,” Sarah says, and the labyrinth breaks into pieces.

When I say that I lost myself in love I don’t mean that my lover took something from me. I betrayed myself. It is true that every love is an angel of the abyss. Every lover is a destroyer. I had to be destroyed to become something else. To become more myself. But this freedom? It is worth it. It is worth everything. If this is what it means to be abandoned, then let me be left. Abandon me.

Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Coulson Whitehead
Date Finished: 11/24
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: This is a must-read book. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on a horrific true story. I’ve written many times on this blog about how fiction brings you into someone else’s world and I think this novel might make you understand the nightmares of the Dozier School for Boys better than reading a newspaper article about it would. The novel takes you beyond the atrocities of the school and reveals the full implication of what is lost to the world when young boys are tormented and abused and tossed aside like garbage. The book is well-plotted and the writing is top notch. I will say at first I was annoyed by the seeming bait-and-switch beginning to the novel, but when I read the whole thing, I understood perfectly why the author structured it as he did.

Title: The Book of Delights: Essays
Author: Ross Gay
Date Finished: 12/2
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I really like this author. I saw him speak at Lighthouse Lit Fest two years when I had never heard of him. And what a great discovery. He’s personable and relatable and thoughtful and funny and intelligent. So of course I bought one of his books. I didn’t like his writing as much as I liked listening to him talk though. The idea of the book is brilliant, but I think the problem was that too many of these short essays were too personal and not generalizable. The details were too specific to his life and I couldn’t relate. There were a dozen or so that I found wonderful, but I skimmed a lot too.

Title: Wild Ginger
Author: Anchee Min
Date Finished: 12/13
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: The story is good but it’s hard to tell if I don’t like the style because it’s a Chinese style of writing or because it was published in 2002 and industry trends were different then. Basically, everything happens too fast and I didn’t get enough insight into the characters to find it believable. Character motivation was missing and there was so much line, line, line, back-and-forth dialogue with no description in between, which makes it very difficult to put yourself in the characters’ shoes and get into the story. But I finished it because the bones were good. It’s a gripping tale. But to succeed in a 2020 market, this book would have to be 100 pages longer and offer much more character development. It’s only 217 pages. I’m also annoyed that the biggest question about the title character actually never seems to be answered. I guess it can’t be because the book isn’t in the title character’s point of view, but it’s super annoying.

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Date Finished: 12/21
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I had to read this because it was one of those books that I heard about every time I turned around. Inescapable. And for good reason! I feel a little unfair ranking this only a 7. The book is very, very good and if you like gothic horror/gothic supernatural, you will love this book. I like the atmosphere/aesthetic of gothic literature, but I don’t like when it veers into horror. For example, I love du Maurier’s Rebecca because it’s just eerie and unsettling. So I was super into this novel for well more than half of it, but when it got to the gory stuff, I started tuning out a bit. Not completely – I still wanted to know what happened and I finished it very quickly, but it wasn’t really my style anymore. Coincidentally, the day after this library loan became available to me, Moreno-Garcia did a talk with the Author’s Guild From Manuscript to Marketplace series. If you’re a writer, this is well-worth a listen, as are all the events in this series. She has an interesting career and it’s awesome for her that she’s been able to follow the Kazuo Ishiguro career path of constantly changing genres and writing whatever she damn well feels like!

Title: Faithful Place
Author: Tana French
Date Finished: 12/26
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: This is another murder/mystery book, similar to the Lucy Foley book I read this time around. I’ve read Tana French (The Witch Elm) before and enjoyed the story enough to give another one a go. So when I saw this book in a cottage in Maine – in a take a book, leave a book kind of deal – I took it with me. Like I said before, I’m not super into murder mysteries (and yet here I am reading another), but the story keeps you reading and the plotting is well done, which interests me from a writing standpoint. If you are need of a little fiction escapism, Tana French is a good choice.

Title: Red Pill
Author: Hari Kunzru
Date Finished: 12/28
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book is excellent. It’s well plotted and well thought out and extremely clever in the literary and other references, but you have to be in the mood for this. It’s a lot to deal with. Politics, dystopia, alt-right, mind control, Trump. It’s fiction, definitely fiction, but feels too real with everything that’s happened in America the last few years. I was really into the first third of the book but then sort of lost it as the story veered off into large tangents of minor characters. Then it came back to the main character but in a different way and I got back into it. I identified with the way main character felt at the end, with a lot of the statements he made, but that made it a little too real and difficult to read at some points.

Books I Started But Didn’t Get Far Enough Into to Rate Before I Quit: The Lure of Long Distances (Robin Harvie), Sole Survivor (Ruthanne Lum McCunn), How To Be Less Stupid About Race (Crystal M Fleming), Life of a Klansman (Edward Ball), Future Home of the Living God (Louise Erdrich), Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (eds. Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney), Homewreckers (Aaron Glantz), How Much of These Hills Is Gold (C Pam Zhang), Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (Scott McClanahan)

Books I Read for Professional Development: Indistractable (Nir Eyal), Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (Jeff Howe), All Hat and No Cattle (Chris Turner)

YA Novels for Research: We Used to Be Friends (Amy Spalding), When You Were Everything (Ashley Woodfolk), The Beginning of Everything (Robyn Schneider), Like Water (Rebecca Podos), Sanctuary (Paola Mendoza)

Books I ReRead Because I Love Them: Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill)

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