End of Year Book Report (#8)

I barely read anything in July, August, and September this year. Sometimes, I just need a brain break. But I found my love of books again at some point midway through October and started reading a ton, starting with some light and fluffy books first and then getting back into my real love, literary fiction.

Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Date Finished: 7/10
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Acquisition: I can’t remember how this got on my radar.
Notes: This was the perfect novel to get me through a long, long drive from Buffalo, NY to Banff, AB to Sandpoint, ID. It’s about a serial killer who is able to move through time and how his one surviving victim attempts to track him down. I was fully invested in the main story and liked how the author sprinkled in points of view of the other victims throughout.

Title: Last Seen
Author: Lucy Clarke
Date Finished: 8/8
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Acquisition: On bookshelf in my AirBnB
Notes: Judging this for what it is – a beach read – mission accomplished. The plot moved fast and kept me turning the pages. The number of twists and turns felt too soap-opera like though and had me rolling my eyes each time something unexpected was revealed. At the same time, I hadn’t been in a reading mood in a long, long time, so it was nice to have something easy to consume before going to sleep.

Title: Our Country Friends
Author: Gary Shteyngart
Date Finished: 9/7
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Acquisition: Library loan
Notes: I don’t have any interest in reading pandemic literature, but I love Shteyngart, so against my better judgment, I borrowed this book. I also really loved the premise – a Russian émigré building a bunch of cabins on his property for his friends to live at during the pandemic. Well, when you know a writer for one thing – in this case, Shteyngart and his humor (see Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) – and then the book turns out to be something else, you’re going to be disappointed. This was very literary and heavy. I guess there were humorous moments, but not really. Also, I’m not a fan of books that are too “of the time”, laying the zeitgeist on thick. This book had it all – facemasks and social distancing, obviously, but also Black Lives Matter and Karens and white privilege and cultural appropriation. It was too much. I’m living it all right now; I don’t want to read about it in my fiction choices. All that said, I still gave this a 5 because the plot is good and Shteyngart is an incredibly talented writer.

Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Date Finished: 9/13
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Acquisition: Received with the ticket I bought to see her speak live in North Carolina last year.
Notes: It pains me to give Lauren Groff a low rating because I love her work so much and think she’s brilliant. So to be clear, the rating is mostly because this isn’t my kind of book. First, it’s historical fiction, which I rarely read. But the bigger issue is that it covers too much in a small novel. It covers essentially the entire life of the protagonist, Marie, in epic style, which means all these monumental events in the book are covered so, so briefly. I found it impossible to connect with Marie or feel impressed by her because every event was so surface level. I just can’t read this style of book. I’d rather have a book cover a much smaller section of someone’s life, or, if it’s going to be about someone’s entire life, it would have to be at least twice as long. I still think Groff is brilliant – the research and exceedingly careful language choices in this book are clear evidence of that. Her power with words is incredible. It’s just that the story isn’t for me.

Title: Pulse
Author: Julian Barnes
Date Finished: 9/12
Finished: No
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Acquisition: Bought at Salida Books because I can’t resist buying books even though I have more than 40 with me to read at the moment.
Notes: Some of these stories were excellent, while others were nonsense. The collection has a recurring series of stories about two couples that get together to socialize, and these stories are written entirely without dialog tags. Somehow, the reader is supposed to following along with which of the four people said what in a conversation that I couldn’t care less about. I guess it’s literary? But don’t let that deter you. Short story collections almost always have some good and some bad stories. Skip the ones that don’t interest you and enjoy the rest.

Title: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question
Author: Michael Schur
Date Finished: 10/3
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Acquisition: Libby (library app) recommendation
Notes: Despite the arrogant title, this book is a highly approachable discussion of various well-known philosophies with modern examples from internet shaming culture, Covid-19 behaviors, and whether we can enjoy the works of people like Bill Cosby and R Kelly when the creators themselves are so terrible. The author, Michael Schur, you might know as Mose from The Office, but he’s also a successful television show creator and producer, and his hit show The Good Place (which I watched a few episodes of but couldn’t get into) inspired him to write this book. What I appreciated most about the book is how real Schur is about that fact that all of us are perpetual walking contradictions, and it’s stupid of us to get all self-righteous and point out how “wrong” other people are when we are constantly acting in ways that go against our own stated beliefs. I also appreciated how willingly Schur examines his own behavior in situations where he initially thought he was making some shining, morally superior statement, only later to realize he was simply being an asshole. I tuned out at the Covid-19 stuff, mostly because I’m sick of hearing it but also because it was a bit too lecture-y, but overall this is a great book and fodder from some really interesting discussion. I had about an hour left when the loan expired but felt I’d gotten the big points and didn’t bother to renew.

Title: If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
Author: Neel Patel
Date Finished: 10/18
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Acquisition: Purchased from the Boulder Bookstore display at the Jaipur Lit Fest.
Notes: This short story collection was excellent! They were real and relatable, mostly about romantic relationships though from a variety of perspectives – male, female, queer, straight – and all with the overshadowing influence of growing up with Indian immigrant parents in America. That one linking factor is what brings the stories together and provides insight into an American experience that is so different from my own, yet love is love is complicated is messy is universal, so the stories spoke to me. I enjoyed this collection a lot.

Title: Harley Rustad
Author: Lost in the Valley of Death
Date Finished: 10/19
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Acquisition: I saw the author speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder in September.
Notes: The book is well written and well researched, so this is a 10. It covers a wide variety of facets about the type of people who go to India to “find themselves” and uncovers the ugly parts along with the romantic. The author doesn’t totally worship the subject of the book (until the end) and calls him out on some of his lies and hypocrisy. Some of the author’s own story and personal interest in the case is peppered throughout too, which adds to the story. So yes, objectively, this book is a 10. That said, the parts that were actually about Justin Alexander made me roll my eyes so hard. I detest people like him, like Christopher McCandless. Justin pretended to be so spiritual and above it all and better than (not wanting to hang out with other foreigners, looking down on anything touristy), all the while posting (sometimes irresponsible lies) on Instagram and being so concerned about having a following. If you’re constantly promoting yourself on social media, are you really legit in your quest to find yourself? Are you really that deep? I don’t understand why people idolize people like this. Go live your own life! I really don’t find him to be unique – he just understood personal branding. I lived in India for five months back in 2000 and it was truly life changing for me. But my experience was much more similar to that of this person (who knew Justin) who the author interviewed for the book. She said:

It was more unlearning all the things I had been taught, rather than going too deep into myself. It was more of a healing than an elevating experience.

Brianna Welsh (Canadian Backpacker)

Title: Before I Go To Sleep
Author: S J Watson
Date Finished: 10/23
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Acquisition: Selection for Bentonville Public Library book club in November.
Notes: I read this so fast, I think in three days. This type of psychological thriller is right up my alley. My only critique is that the end is a little too feel-good for me, but maybe that’s because it was published in 2008. I don’t know. Anyway, this is a good, fast, and engaging read. Also, I watched the movie as soon as I finished the book (literally streamed it when I finished the last word) and, as readers can predict, the movie was not good. You don’t get anywhere near the level of character and relationship development that the book provides. Also, they changed SO many details for seemingly no reason, big details and tiny details and whole timelines. I can’t really go into them without providing spoilers, but even little stuff like where the main character’s best friend supposedly went to they changed from New Zealand to Canada. Why??? Moral of the story – always read the book.

Title: Fresh Off the Boat
Author: Eddie Huang
Date Finished: 10/26
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Acquisition: Some kind of newsletter recommendation for when Kindle books go on deep sale.
Notes: I bought this because I really enjoy immigrant memoirs. The American experience is so fast and I love learning what it means to other people. I don’t know who Eddie Huang is, but he does have quite the interesting background. His entire extended family immigrated from Taiwan, he grew up mostly in Florida, and he’s had a lot of experiences from having a degree in law to doing stand-up comedy to running a restaurant in New York City. He does a great job in the book of evaluating his unique immigrant experience and how he relates to the Asian-American community, immigrants from other countries, and his own family. The one big thing I didn’t like about the book is the writing style. It’s so colloquial and too slangy and sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard to be…I don’t know, not formal writing? I’ve read a few books in this style before and it really bothers me. But this is just personal preference – I’m sure it doesn’t bother other people at all.

Title: The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Date Finished: 10/26
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Acquisition: General interest because my approach to writing is similar to hers and because she grew up where I did
Notes: This is a collection of memoir pieces about Oates’s life. Although I don’t like all her books – several I didn’t finish – I really like her style in general and I admire her. So, naturally I’m curious about her life, especially because I know the areas she mentions. The book covers everything from her earliest childhood until late age. If you are also an Oates fan, this is worth a read.

Title: The Widow’s House
Author: Carol Goodman
Date Finished: 11/5
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Acquisition: On the shelf in my Arkansas AirBnB.
Notes: A solid, mass market mystery for pleasure reading. I don’t have much more to say about this book. If you’re looking for a fun, easy mystery read with a bit of ghost action, this is a solid choice.

Title: The Last Original Wife
Author: Dorothea Benton Frank
Date Finished: 11/13
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Acquisition: On the shelf in my AirBnB in Rogers, Arkansas
Notes: Continuing my beach reads / books I would never pick up on my own, I read through this southern rich housewives fluff novel in just a few days. I had to take the book jacket off because I would have felt embarrassed to be seen reading this, even somewhere no one knows me. But I read it. Sometimes you just need something that’s bad for you. It has a good cast of characters and moves fast, so it made for good escapism even if there are a lot of tropes.

Title: Silence in the Garden
Author: JC Crumpton
Date Finished: 11/20
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Acquisition: On the shelf in my AirBnB in Rogers, Arkansas
Notes: I’ve been loving the short novels this year and read quite a few that come in around 100 pages under what is standard now, but this one needed to be longer. Everything happened a bit too fast and without enough time to develop the character and plot, I had a hard time buying into a lot what happened. It’s hard to buy into anyway since the story deal with the supernatural, so that need for development became even more important. The other reason I ranked this low is personal preference – I don’t like stories within stories. You know – where the first chapter is one set of characters and one sits the other down to tell her a story. That structure irks me, especially if I’m interested in the opening characters and then I learn that the core story has nothing to do with them. This was true for this book.

Title: If I Survive You
Author: Jonathan Escoffery
Date Finished: 12/1
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Acquisition: Library loan. Can’t remember how this was recommended to me.
Notes: I love this type of short story collection where each story is a standalone, but they also all work together in a bigger narrative. The stories are all about one Jamaican family and their experiences living in the United States, so the same characters appear over and over and some plot lines and events circle back to each other in different stories. But you don’t miss anything if you only read one or two stories. Most of the book is in American English, but there is a fair amount of Jamaican patios as well, which makes audio format perfect for this book. I’ve tried to read Marlon James before and just couldn’t because the patios is so hard for me to get on paper. I struggle to sound out the phonetic interpretation. But listening to it, I can easily understand everything. I enjoyed some of the stories in this collection more than others, but that’s always how it goes. All of them are great, though.

Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Date Finished: 12/5
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Acquisition: On the shelf in my AirBnB in Rogers, Arkansas
Notes: Niffenegger is known for the writing The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I enjoyed. So even though I found the title of this book off-putting, I decided to read it and I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed this. It’s a ghost story and ever so slightly a horror story, but mostly it’s a human story. The characters are well developed and intriguing and the plot kept me turning the pages, but it’s not a difficult read. As with The Time Traveler’s Wife, I’d definitely watch this if it were made into a movie.

Title: Sigh, Gone
Author: Phuc Tran
Date Finished: 12/11
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Acquisition: Library loan
Notes: Although this is about a Vietnamese immigrant to America, I still got it as part of my prep for traveling to Vietnam. Also, as you’ve probably noticed, I love immigrant memoirs, and this one with the subtitle “A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In” was definitely for me. I identified with Phuc so much because, as a teen, I also had a strong love of punk rock and a desire to be bad, but I was simultaneously a huge book nerd and never forget about the importance of doing well academically for my future. The book is funny while relaying serious experiences of racism and the difficulty of being a foreigner moving to Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of emotion in this book but it’s not heavy. It’s very enjoyable and good window into one of the millions of experiences of what it’s like to American.

Title: Fallen: A Short Story Collection
Author: JB Hogan
Date Finished: 12/22
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Acquisition: Pearl’s Books, an independent bookstore in Fayetteville, Arkansas at an event for local authors where I got to chat with author for a while.
Notes: Like any short story collection, some are hits and some are misses. And some of that is personal preference, like me not being into stories about war. What I especially liked about this collection was that the depth of the author’s life experience was made clear. Even though these are works of fiction, you get a clear sense that every setting was chosen based on somewhere the author really lived or visited. What I didn’t like so much was that in the parts involving sex or romance, I could clearly tell the stories were written by a man. They weren’t offensive – it’s just a certain recognizable style that men over 50 seem to have when writing that type of content.

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Date Finished: 12/24
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Acquisition: Library
Notes: I’ve heard this book mentioned and recommended and praised so many times since it came out, but I never picked it up because I don’t like the title. I know that seems ridiculous but it’s true. Titles and cover art matter. Well, I finally read (more than half of) it, but I really didn’t need to. Books with multiple stories within them are difficult for me because I’m often not interested in some of the stories and this was true here. I was really engaged with Sasha’s present day story right off the bat, and when the narrative shifted, I was annoyed. I faded in and out of caring for a bit, but then Stephanie’s story drew me back in. But then once we got to La Doll and the General and Kitty Jackson, I could not have cared less and I stopped listening. Maybe I’m missing something – because this book was highly acclaimed and twelve years later still has a waitlist to check out from the library – but I’m just not into it.

Title: Devotion
Author: Madeline Stevens
Date Finished: 12/26
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Acquisition: I took a short story workshop facilitated by Madeline and read a number of her essays and other short fiction works from her website.
Notes: This was great reading material for a 12-hour flight across the Pacific. It’s part literary, part thriller, part unclear. It wasn’t quite what I expected based on plot synopses and Madeline’s own description, but that’s okay. It kept me turning the pages. I wasn’t a fan of was the stories within the story, but I never like those.

Title: The Panama Hat Trail
Author: Tom Miller
Date Finished: 12/31
Finished: No
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Acquisition: When I was in Cuenca, Ecuador at the beginning of January and learned that Panama hats come from Ecuador, I had to find out a little more.
Notes: This is one of those books I have on my Kindle app on my phone that I dip into whenever I’m stuck waiting places. Maybe I need to try to read it in a more focused manner, but it failed to keep my attention. I started it back in January and only made it 31 percent in by the end of the year, so I’m going to say I’ll probably never finish it. It has a ton of great praise on Amazon, it’s written by a highly accomplished travel writer, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it that I can say. It just wasn’t for me.

Books I Started But Didn’t Get Far Enough Into to Rate Before I Quit: The Henna Wars (Adiba Jaigirdar), Better than the Movies (Lynn Painter), Once There Were Wolves (Charlotte Mcconaghy), Before the Coffee Gets Cold (Toshikazu Kawaguchi)

Books I Read for Professional Development: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), You Look Like a Thing and I Love You (Janelle Shane)

YA Books I Read for Research: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

2 thoughts on “End of Year Book Report (#8)

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