Norman's Best Books of 2015

My husband, Norman, reads up a storm, so I am handing over the blog today for his annual Best Books list. You can find good reading in his selections from previous years, too: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Thank you, Norman! (Note: these are books for grown-ups not kids.)

256px-Bouquinistesseine1As the year 2015 winds down, my wife, Susan, has once again allowed me to write about some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve months.

So, without further adieu, my top three novels were

· The Door, by Magda Szabó (translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix). I have to admit that I had never heard of Magda Szabó, the famed Hungarian author who passed away in 2007, or of her 1987 novel, The Door, but thanks to New York Review Books Classics, I and many others have come to discover this superb novel about the complex relationship between a writer and her elderly housekeeper. The book is set in postwar Hungary, but through the stories of the housekeeper, Emerence, we also learn about Hungary’s troubled political past. This book is fiction at its finest.

· Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, is a beautifully told story of friendship and love between Louis and Addie, widowed neighbors in their 70s, as they face not only small-town gossip but also disapproval from their adult children. Sadly, Mr. Haruf wrote this book while he was very ill, and in fact, he passed away six months before it was published. I highly recommend reading the article “Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter,” published in the Wall Street Journal on 5/14/15, as well as the wonderful books Plainsong (1999) and Benediction (2013) if you’ve not already done so.

· Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff, tells the story of the 24-year marriage of Lancelot (Lotto), an actor who comes from a prosperous family, and his “ice princess” wife, Mathilde. The first part of the book, "Fates," centers on Lotto, and "Furies" is Mathilde’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Fates," but I found "Furies" to be a page-turning shocker that I couldn’t put down.

Other outstanding novels that I highly recommend are Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham, Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont, History of the Rain, by Niall Williams, and Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg. On my list of books I didn’t get to in 2015 but plan to read next year are City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, and The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy.

219px-SteacieLibrary7My top three nonfiction books in 2015 were

· Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy. This is an extremely powerful and very informative book about race and the criminal justice system in America. It focuses on the murder of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, killed in South Central LA in 2007, and the dedicated detective who investigates the case. However, this is far more than a detective story as Leovy, who in 2007 started a blog on the Los Angeles Times site called "The Homicide Report" (which has the motto “a story for every victim”), brings forth the realities of living in and policing an economically disadvantaged, largely African American neighborhood where crime rates are too high and justice is difficult to find.

· Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is another exceptional book that addresses the inequality of black men in society in the past and continuing today, but unlike in Ghettoside, where Ms. Leovy takes an analytical and multifaceted approach, Between the World and Me is more a personal and emotionally charged accounting of the struggles faced by black men; Mr. Coates’s experiences and observations are told in the form of letters to his teenaged son. This book is both a memoir and social commentary that, in my opinion, was well-deserving of the National Book Award.

· Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, by Sally Mann. Ms. Mann is a very talented photographer who faced excessive media attention in the early nineties after gallery shows of the collection "Immediate Family," which included nude photos of her then-young children. Her new book, Hold Still, is a winning combination of personal memoir and explanation of what it’s like to view life as a photographer. I do have to admit that I found a good deal of the subject matter to be unconventional and strange, which only added to my appreciation of the book.

I would now like to mention three other books much worth reading:

· The first is Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann. The author of Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic does not disappoint in his newest collection, which consists of a marvelous novella and three strong short stories.

· The next book is Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton. I received this as a holiday present, and I loved it! The photographs are clear and crisp, and the stories, which range from one-sentence comments to a few pages long, cover the full emotional spectrum. What else would you expect from New Yawkas!

· And last, but certainly not least, is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris. Mary (whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting several times when Susan worked at the New Yorker) writes with humor, intelligence, and a pragmatic approach to grammar that make Between You & Me not only helpful but also enjoyable.

Happy reading to us all in 2016!


Image 1: "Bouquinistes au bord de la Seine à Paris," by Jebulon (own work). Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2:"SteacieLibrary7" by Raysonho. Steacie Science and Engineering Library, York University, Toronto. Public domain photograph, via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Norman's Best Books of 2014

It's a New Year's tradition to hand over the blog to my husband, Norman, for his annual list!

Thanks, Susan, for once again letting me tell your readers about the books I’ve enjoyed this past year. My favorite fiction books were, in no particular order, Redeployment, by Phil Klay; Family Life, by Akhil Sharma;  Euphoria, by Lily King; All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr; and Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. My top nonfiction books were Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast.

After winning the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, Phil Klay told the Guardian, “If I was going to write about war I had to be as rigorous and as honest as possible because that’s the only way I could justify it.” The twelve short stories in Klay’s phenomenal Redeployment are about as searing and honest as I can imagine in describing the toll that war takes on the men and women who serve in the military and on the people on whose soil they fight. In my 2012 year-end roundup, Kevin Powers’ novel, The Yellow Birds, made the top of my list, and now I’m glad to spread the word about another book that will become a classic in modern-day war literature.

9780802122551Family Life concerns a mother, father, and two young sons, who move from India to Queens; they have begun to build a new life when one of the boys suffers severe brain damage in a swimming-pool accident. This novel skillfully examines how everyone’s life changes after a tragedy, but, beyond that, the author does a superb job of showing how the family interacts with and is perceived by the local Indian community after the accident. Euphoria is a must-read novel set in the 1930s and inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. I must confess that (1) I know next to nothing about Margaret Mead, (2) I never heard of the other anthropologists fictionalized in the book (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson), and (3) I don’t know much about New Guinea or tribal people, but this work drew me in from the beginning and was difficult to put down until the very end. What more could one ask for in a book!

In All the Light We Cannot See, the combination of well-drawn characters, strong writing, and fine pacing makes Doerr’s WWII-era book, about a blind French girl and a German boy, a great read. Dept. of Speculation is a small and amazing novel about a wife, mother, and writer (all one person) in the throes of a troubled marriage. Ms. Offill’s novel was a standout in large part because of her unique and quirky storytelling.

Susan raved to me about Brown Girl Dreaming and for good reason. This winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature should be required reading for everyone from tweens on up. Through a series of poems, Ms. Woodson shares her experiences as an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the sixties and seventies. Some of the most poignant sections are about her roots as an artist; the Horn Book said, “…[W]e trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that ‘words are [her] brilliance.’”

The other nonfiction books I really liked was the cartoonist Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I found Ms. Chast’s graphic memoir to be many things–sad, funny, painful to read, and honest–in depicting both our willingness (or lack thereof) to face the reality of aging parents and our complex feelings about the folks who raised us.

Two good titles that fall into the category of laugh-out-loud funny are Spoiled Brats: Stories, by Simon Rich, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I am a big fan of David Sedaris, and I’d put most of Rich’s stories right up there with Sedaris’s essays in terms of humor and cleverness. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is filled with sharp lines and perceptions as the main character, a Manhattan dentist, grapples with identity theft, girlfriends and co-workers, religion, and loneliness.

9780804138789I can’t end my annual roundup without mentioning some titles that are too good not to pass along. Both Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín, and The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas, by Mary Gordon, showcase how exquisite writing can elevate a simple story; Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names stands out for its take on the immigrant experience. Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls, set in Mexico and Uganda, respectively, are important, rich stories about kidnapping and survival. 

Finally, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre, is a most-readable, true story about espionage and deceit.  

As always, I wish everyone happy reading in the new year.

My Favorite Books of 2014

My New Year's resolution is always Read More Books, and usually I end it there. In 2014 I was able to do a lot of reading. Yay! Meanwhile, Norman is working on his great list. Stay tuned.

In 2015 I am most looking forward to works by my friends Mary Norris and Emily Nunn. Mary's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton) is due out in April, and Emily's book, The Comfort Food Diaries (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster), hits the shelves in September. I can't wait!

If you have a book being published in 2015, please mention it in the comments. I don't want to miss a thing.

Here are some of my favorites from last year. Don't you love saying that on January 1st? I don't know how many books I read total; I always space out and forget to keep count. I do the same thing with swimming laps.

Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014) 

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books/ Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner (Random House, 1987)

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2014)

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (W.W. Norton, 2014)

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited and with an introduction by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 2013)

Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir, by Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch (Knopf, 2014)

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014)

Harumi's Japanese Cooking: More Than 75 Authentic and Contemporary Recipes from Japan's Most Popular Cooking Expert, by Harumi Kurihara (HP Trade, 2006)

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Professor X (Viking, 2011)

The Juggler's Children: A Journey Into Family, Legend, and the Genes That Bind Us, by Caroline Abraham (Random House Canada, 2013)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo; translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano (Ten Speed Press/Random House, 2014) 

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books, 2014)

Men We Reaped: A Memoir, by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, reprint edition, 2014; original hardback, 2013)

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead (Crown, 2014)

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014)

Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail, by Caroline Clarke (Harper, 2014)

The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco (Ecco, 2014)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs (Scribner, 2014)

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Viking, 2013)

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby (Believer Books/McSweeney's, 2013) 

Traveling Heavy: A Memoir Between Journeys, by Ruth Behar (Duke University Press Books 2013)

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2013)

Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, edited by Jennifer De Leon (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) 

Writing Is My Drink: A Writer's Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too), by Theo Pauline Nestor (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013)

Norman's Best Books of 2013

Today I'm turning over the space to my husband, Norman Trepner, an avid reader and an all-around good guy. Take it away, Norm. Susan

Once again Susan has asked me to share with her Chicken Spaghetti friends my favorite books I’ve read this past year, and once again I’m more than happy to comply!

9780670026630LThree of my top ten books were stories about teens and tweens. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, is the story of a 16 year old Japanese girl who writes in her diary about her 104-year old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, and the book also tells of a woman in a remote British Columbian island who finds the diary. At times laugh-out-loud funny and at times disturbing, this book, which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a must read. Another powerful book that was short listed for the Man Booker Prize is We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. This excellent debut novel follows the protagonist, named Darling, from her life as a 10 year old in Zimbabwe to her teen years living in Michigan. The third book, Brewster, by Mark Slouka, is the story of two teenage boys from troubled homes who become close friends. Set in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in working class Brewster, New York, this hard-to-put down book is storytelling at its finest. 

Continue reading "Norman's Best Books of 2013" »

Thank You, Readers

J10062In the book What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (Princeton University Press, 2013), Alexander McCall Smith writes,  "[The poet W.H.] Auden reminds us to be grateful, and that is something that we increasingly need to be reminded of in a culture of expectations and entitlement."

McCall laments a consumerist culture in which we're pushed to complain rather than express gratitude. But "Why not say thank you?" McCall Smith asks.

He goes on to say that Auden's work points us in a appreciative direction because the poems after 1940 "tend to be poems of celebration, written with great charity and with love for the ordinary pleasures of life." 

McCall Smith's lovely book is a good one for this season, and reminds me to say thank you, readers, for continuing to visit Chicken Spaghetti. I hope your holidays are grand.

Alice Munro, Nobel Prize Winner. Yeah!

Don't you love that Twitter announcement! 

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Alice Munro, "master of the contemporary short story." As a fan of Munro's writing, I am marking the following To Read:

"Alice Munro, LLD'76, wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature." Jason Winders at the Western News. Good local angle from the University of Western Ontario, which Munro attended. Later she was the writer in residence at the school.

"Editing Alice Munro." Deborah Treisman, at the New Yorker.

"Alice Munro, Our Chekhov." Critic James Wood, at the New Yorker.

"Margaret Atwood: Alice Munro's Road to Nobel Literature Was Not Easy," at the Guardian.

"Alice Munro: AS Byatt, Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín hail the Nobel laureate," at the Guardian.

"Why Alice Munro Won the Nobel Prize in Literature," by Jens Hansegard. Remarks from the press conference following yesterday's announcement, at the Wall Street Journal.

"Alice Munro, Nobel Winner and a Writer's Peerless Teacher." Hector Tobar, at the Los Angeles Times 

"A Beginner's Guide to Alice Munro." A timely re-run of an older piece, by Ben Dolnick, at the Millions.

"The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap"

Although we take satisfaction in being a safe place for people to tell their stories, please don't get the impression that running a bookshop is all bittersweetness and light. Much of it is dusting and heavy lifting. 

from The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, by Wendy Welch (St. Martin's Press, 2012)

A charming tale of "friendship, community, and the uncommon pleasure of a good book," this memoir is about two newcomers to a small Appalachian town who open a used book shop. Wendy Welch writes with compassion and smart-ass humor as she describes her and her husband Jack's adventures in "being independent booksellers in the face of big-box stores and e-readers." I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Bookstore, and had to finish it in a hurry as my eightysomething mother had already asked me twice to borrow the book.

Norman's Best Books of 2012

Note from Susan: For the fourth year in a row, my husband, Norman, has written about his favorite books of the year. He's the reading-est guy I know, so seeing him hard at work on his list always makes me happy, knowing that I'm about to read—and sharesome great recommendations. Hit it, Norm.

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I am happy to share with Susan’s readers my list of the best books that I’ve read over the last 12 months. The three most powerful were The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. These books were so well-written and engrossing that they were hard to put down and stayed with me long after I finished them, despite the difficult topics (the effects of war in The Yellow Birds; the devastating poverty of people living in an Indian slum in Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and the hard life of a young girl growing up in a trailer park outside of Reno, Nevada, in Girlchild). The Yellow Birds and Behind the Beautiful Forevers received the wide critical acclaim and recognition they deserved; one was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction and the other was the nonfiction winner. I hope that over time more people will read and appreciate the excellent writing and unique storytelling in Ms. Hassman’s book.

Adding two more to come up with my top 5 reads of the year is easy: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz and The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Díaz’s collection of stories about love and family is at times moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but always smart and entertaining. And Colm Tóibín is just a beautiful storyteller, and this novella about Jesus’ mother is both courageous and thought-provoking.

Continue reading "Norman's Best Books of 2012" »

Junot Diaz, Short Stories, and Such

Junot Diaz's latest book is This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, released in September by Riverhead. Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual awards, the so-called "genius" grants, one of which went to Diaz. $500,000, no strings attached.

9780802133991On the day before the grants were announced, the New York Times Magazine ran a short interview with the author, focusing on short fiction. I was intrigued by the collections Diaz cited as influential; I have not read any of them. He mentioned

Aha! Books to look for on the next trip to the library. Walking the dog in the rain this afternoon, I coped with the downpour by coming up with a roster of short story collections I admire. Everyone's lists are so different! Here's mine. What's yours?

Image borrowed from Powell's Books. Links go to Powell's, also. I do not get any money from the store for linking. I have had good experiences ordering books there.