Starting the Year with Smiley

Unlike what I wrote in the last post, my first book of the year was not by Rachel Cusk. That one turned out not to be the right book at the right time. My first three books of the year were the first three published by John Le Carré, an author I'd never read. Spy stories were just the ticket for the new year: A Call from the Dead, A Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, all collected in one volume, The First Three Novels. I got the idea from a Novel Readings post that mentioned Smiley's People, the last of the Smiley series. By the way, that's a great blog for Austen-ites and other literary people. It's written by Rohan Maitzen, an English professor in Canada, and she frequently writes about what is going on in her classes. 

Another fun blog that I stumbled upon is Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets. After taking Penn's Modern and Contemporary American Poetry* MOOC on Coursera last fall, I've become a fan of the poets Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, et al. Today at Locus Solus is a bit about O'Hara's influence on the young writer Garth Greenwell, whose new novel, Cleanness, waits for me at the library. Synchronicity!

In addition to the Penn course, David Lehman's book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets was very informative.

*Highly recommended


January 1, 2020

New year, new decade. Yeah! It looks like my first book of 2020 will be one I started in 2019: Rachel Cusk's Coventry. It's rawther bracing. In a review for the Toronto Star, Nathan Whitlock writes, "The twin literary prerogatives of truth and discomfort are the threads that unite the 17 essays collected here. Whether she is writing about her ongoing estrangement from her parents in the title essay, or analyzing cultural misconceptions about creative writing classes in 'How to Get There,' Cusk is constantly scratching away at default thinking, uninformed bigotry, and received wisdom in order to find whatever authenticity may lie beneath."


My Year in Reading 2019

AC238E24-7ED3-44CF-8F1E-757EBB88B9F7

Street art by Sara Fratini (@sara_fratini on Instagram), on the walls of La Libre, Calle de Argumosa, Madrid. Photo taken by me last summer. I'm on Instagram with lots of art at susanthomsen03.

Yesterday at the library I ran into Tricia Tierney, a friend and fellow blogger, and we each vowed to go home and write a blog post. Yay! Thanks, Tricia.

I'm still reading picture books, at a couple of public schools, to two classes of first graders and one of second graders, plus this year I was happy to add a small combined kindergarten/first-grade class. At a different school my husband reads to first graders, so between the two of us we still have lots of kids' books around the house. (Our own kiddo is a young adult! How did that happen? He was just a book-chewing baby yesterday.) So far the second graders' favorites are Alexis Roumanis's Dwarf Planets (nonfiction) and B.J. Novak's The Book with No Pictures (total silliness), and the first graders' fave is Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, written by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell and illustrated by Rafael López. For the K/1 class, it was the perennially popular Turkey Trouble, written by Wendy Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper. The conversations that follow the readings are still the best things ever. Everyone enjoys chiming in with an opinion, although occasionally some of us forget what we are going to say after we raise our hands. No matter!

My own list of favorite books of the year includes

The Carrying: Poems, by Ada Limón (Milkweed, 2018)

The Collected Schizophenias, essays by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf, 2019)

Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, by Stephanie Burt (Basic Books, 2019). I'm also a fan of her book The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard, 2016).

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, by Mary Norris (Norton, 2019). I had the great privilege of hearing Mary, a friend and former colleague, read from her book in the Parthenon—the one in Nashville.

How to Love a Country: Poems, by Richard Blanco (Beacon Press, 2019). Blanco's memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (Ecco, 2016), is also terrific.

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, essays by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed, 2019)

New Kid, a middle-grade graphic novel by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins, 2019)

Ordinary Light: A Memoir, by Tracy K. Smith (Knopf, 2015)


Audience Appeal

"The singer was Louise Lundy, a former soap opera star...She didn't have a pleasant or appealing voice but she was able to hit notes and had great costumes, and much of her appeal was probably due to the fact that audiences were so surprised she could carry a tune, they were willing to ignore something as insignificant as quality."

From the moving new novel by Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life (Flatiron Books, 2018), which made me burst out laughing a number of times. You can read a longer excerpt here.


My Year in Reading

NYC_Public_Library_postcard_1920

I really like "A Year in Reading," the Millions' year-end series where authors talk about their favorite books of the year, and also admire Largehearted Boy's "Book Notes" series in which "authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book." Of course, I LOVE all the Best Books of the Year lists that Largehearted Boy curates as well. Inspired by all of those, I rounded up some of the best books I read in 2018.

Best picture book. The only criterion for the superlative was that it was the only one that made the second graders scream with laughter. Granted, they were wound up.

  • Knock, Knock!, by Saxton Freeman, et al. (Dial, 2007) Knock-knock jokes with a different illustrator for each page.

Most powerful nonfiction title

  • Heavy: An American Memoir, by fellow Jacksonian Kiese Laymon (Scribner, 2018). I could hear the various people in these pages talking to me, and found Heavy to be the best work since Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi for better understanding my hometown. (Speaking of Jackson, I also recommend Black Boy, by Richard Wright; Civil Wars, by Rosellen Brown; A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever, by Lorian Hemingway; and Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders, by Eric Etheridge.)

¡Buenos libros! Translations from Spanish

  • The Body Where I Was Born, written by Guadalupe Nettel and translated by J.T. Lichtenstein (Seven Stories Press, 2017), and The Farm, written by Héctor Abad and translated by Anne McLean (Archipelago, 2018). How I wish my Spanish were good enough to read books in the original language. I'm working up to it slowly. I can now get through some articles in the New York Times en Español and in the more rhetorically dense El País.

Books that piqued an interest in classical music

  • The Ensemble, a novel by Aja Gabel (Riverhead, 2018)
  • Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung, a memoir by Min Kym (Crown, 2017).

Books that reminded me to Read More Poetry

  • Citizen Illegal, by José Olivarez (Haymarket Books, 2018)
  • Monument: Poems New and Selected, by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Novels that touched my heart

  • Everything Here Is Beautiful, by Mira T. Lee (Penguin Random House, 2018)
  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016)
  • The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2018). As good as everyone says it is.
  • The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2018). Same.

Favorite Connecticut story

  • Brass, by Xhenet Aliu (Random House, 2018). Set in Waterbury.

Books that evoked the "I wish I could write like this" sentiment. (Well, this applies to everything here, but...)

  • You Think It, I'll Say It, short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2018)
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

Consider the Peacock

9781476510323Recently I read the book Peacocks to the second graders, and they had a lot to say about it. The local zoo has some of these beautiful birds, and many of the kids have seen them there. Second graders are less fanciful than first graders, but every year there is someone in the class who chimes in with a tall tale during discussion time. This week not one but two children told us about peacocks who had gotten into cars with them. Logistically such a scenario seems unlikely, considering six-foot tails and all, but who I am to quibble? I usually just say something like, "Wow!" and move on.

I asked the class what other animals they would like to read about, and various students mentioned puppies, kittens, dinosaurs, and sharks. There was a lot of enthusiasm for puppies. Then, beaming, one girl added, "Tarantulas!"


Norman's Best Books of 2017

9781455563913Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has written about his favorite books of the year.  Here is the 2017 edition. (With one exception, these are books for adults.) –Susan

I was aiming to complete this roundup of my favorite books for the year back in December, but I have a good reason for being late…I was reading!

The book that had me reading into the new year was Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. This engrossing novel tells the story of one Korean family over four generations, beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s up to Japan itself in the late 1980s. After finishing Pachinko, I looked at several reviews, and I found Tash Aw’s review in the Guardian to best describe this wonderful book. 

Pachinko wasn’t the only culprit for my list being late; I then went on to read two other books that I highly recommend, Ghachar Ghochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag and translated by Srinath Perur; and So Much Blue, by Percival Everett. Mr. Shanbhag has written eight works of fiction and two plays in the South Indian language Kannada, and Ghachar Ghochar (a nonsense phrase said by one of the characters and meaning knotted or tangled up) is the author’s first work to be translated into English. Set in Bangalore, this slim novel is about how a small, close-knit family changes after one of the members founds a successful spice company.

The protagonist in So Much Blue is Kevin Pace, a 56-year-old painter, and the book’s chapters alternate between Kevin’s present-day family life in New England, a harrowing trip taken to El Salvador in 1979 as civil war is breaking out, and a Parisian love affair some ten years ago. The three segments stand on their own and make for good reading, but it is the author’s sharp and often funny writing that made this one of my favorite books of late.

Sing-unburied-sing-9781501126062_hrMy other favorite novels over the past year were Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward; A Horse Walks into a Bar, written by David Grossman and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen; Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid; and Autumn, by Ali Smith. Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, and the book definitely deserved the award. In relating the story of a poor Mississippi family, Ms. Ward manages to include a wild road trip, spirits from beyond, and a most touching relationship between a thirteen-year-old boy and his grandfather. I didn’t think Ms. Ward could top her 2011 National Book Award-winner, Salvage the Bones, but she has done so with her latest book.

In A Horse Walks into a Bar, a middle-aged stand-up comic crashes, burns, and breaks down in front of a live audience as he tells the story of his youth. This is a gut-wrenching and profoundly sad book that also happens to contains some much-needed bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. Exit West is the tale of two young adults that begins in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The characters’ complex relationship and their travels are described in a sparse and haunting manner, with beautiful writing. This story captures what refugees leave behind, as well as what they face once they have migrated. It is also a warning about the global refugee crisis and today’s economic disparity.

There is so much to like in Autumn, but my favorite aspects of the book were, first, the friendship between a girl named Elisabeth and her much older neighbor, Daniel, and, second, the relationship between the grown-up Elisabeth and her mother. Autumn is the initial book in a planned four-volume series, and I am looking forward to reading Ms. Smith’s Winter, released earlier this month.

Several other novels that I recommend are as follows:

  • Transit, by Rachel Cusk–This is the second novel in a trilogy (Outline was the first), and Ms. Cusk once again engages the reader through a series of vignettes about Faye, a writer and divorced mother now living in London, and the different people she encounters. Ms. Cusk’s unique style and the book’s construction make this largely plotless story a joy to read and savor.
  • 9780525509714Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue–Published in 2016 and selected for Oprah’s Book Club, this is a fine debut novel about the difficulties faced by a married couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, after they immigrate to America from Cameroon. Also very well-told is the story of Jende’s employer, Clark Edwards, and his family.
  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman–Slow-paced, but well worth the read is Ms. Batuman’s first novel, which is set in 1995 and is about an eighteen-year-old, Turkish-American Harvard student named Selin Karadag. Selin’s college classes, her roommates, her romantic crush, and her summer in Hungary are all quirky, and in this book Ms. Batuman’s intelligence and sense of humor both shine through.
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander–Employing multiple time periods and settings, and with different central characters, Mr. Englander has written an intriguing and creative book about Israeli-Palestinian relations. As noted in an NPR book review by Lizzie Skurnick,  “…this is not a novel of historical accuracy, but of historical intimacy…”.
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper–This page-turner mystery is set in a small Australian town that lacks water and prosperity, but is not short on questionable characters.
  • Night of Fire, by Colin Thubron–The fate of the six tenants and the superintendent in an old Victorian house is known from the beginning, but Mr. Thubron delivers a rewarding and thought-provoking book as he delves into the lives of the building’s occupants.

Moving away from novels, I’d like to mention two top-rate memoirs and a couple of other good books.

  • Dying: A Memoir, by the late Australian writer Cory Taylor, has been called remarkable, electrifying, and a testament to life. In my opinion, it is all these things and more.
  • The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn, is an excellent “how to” book: how to pick yourself up, how to move forward, and how to make some incredible-sounding meals and treats. I had the pleasure of meeting Emily a few times when she and Susan worked together at the New Yorker, and I hope that Emily will (a) keep turning out good books and (b) have me over for dinner some time.
  • Just the title of Ottessa Moshfegh’s short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, made me want to read this, and I was not disappointed in the least. Unlike many collections where some stories are very good, some are okay, and one or two are not worth the read, each of these dark, unsettling, and outright strange stories is a winner.
  • My last recommendation is a children’s book called Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing. Written by the artist’s younger sister Kay A. Haring, and full of wonderful illustrations by Robert Neubecker, this picture-book biography of the late artist should be given to youngsters and owned by people of all ages. I read this book to a first-grade class in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it was a big hit! Bravo, Ms. Haring and Mr. Neubecker.

Happy reading to all in 2018!

*****

Links to Norman's previous best-book lists: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016


Reading 2017: Fiction Recommendations (Most for Grown-Ups, Some for Kids)

IMG_2237

A shout-out to the fiction that kept me sane this year. I am especially happy that four of 2017's best are by writers from Mississippi, my home state. They are

Always Happy Hour: Stories, by Mary Miller (Liveright, 2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen, 2017). Young-adult novel.

Midnight Without a Moon, by Linda W. Jackson. Middle-grade novel. (Houghton Mifflin, 2017)

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2017)

 

These novels round out my list of favorites:

A Country Road, A Tree, by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2016)

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman (Penguin Putnam, 2017)

Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett (Little Brown, 2016)

The Makioka Sisters, written by Junichiro Tanizaki and translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker (First serialized in Japan, 1943-1948. Seidensticker's translation was published by Knopf in 1957. I read the Vintage International/Penguin Random House edition from 1995.)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell (McSweeney's, 2017. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Nancy Wu and produced by Blackstone Audiobooks.)

Photo: Street scene, Biloxi, Mississippi.


Reading 2017: Nonfiction Recommendations (For Grown-Ups)

What a year! Thank goodness for books. A shout-out to the following:

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn (Atria, 2017).

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A, by Danielle Allen (Liveright, 2017)

Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, by Kat Kinsman (HarperCollins, 2016)

How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, written by Andrés Neuman and translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Lawrence (Restless Books, 2016)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt, 2017)

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, by Jessica Abel (Broadway Books, 2015)

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, by Michelle Kuo (Random House, 2017)

Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For, by Rebecca Schuman (Flatiron Books, 2017)

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Essays, by Samantha Irby (Vintage Books, 2017)

When in French: Love in a Second Language, by Lauren Collins (Penguin, 2016)


Favorite Picture Books, 1st and 2nd Grade Edition, Fall 2017

9780763690359
I love being a volunteer reader, and have the good fortunate to stop in weekly at a couple of first- and second-grade classes in a nearby city. At its heart, literacy is about connection. "They're reading a book, and so are we!" one first grader observed about an illustration in Windows. Yes!

This fall I bought a bunch of new books, following the suggestions of others. (See a source list, below.) 

Here are some titles, including a few older ones, that the children were especially fond of. I am linking them to Powell's so you can see them; I'm not a sales affiliate. All will work with either grade.

After the Fall, by Dan Santat (Roaring Brook, 2017). Humpty Dumpty brilliantly re-imagined.

The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak (Dial Books, 2014) Hysterically hilarious. Recommendation to the adult reader: give in to the comic anarchy.

Dragons Love Tacos, written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri (Dial Books, 2012). But don't give them spicy salsa–or else...

Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall (Candlewick, 2017). Summoning up bravery.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, written by Kay Haring and illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Dial Books, 2017). A sister's loving account of the boyhood of a famous artist.

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, written by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell and illustrated by Rafael López (Penguin Random House, 2016). Everyone pitches in.

Mr. Huff, by Ana Walker (Penguin Random House Australia, 2015). Dealing with a bad mood. (Book Depository link)

No Kimchi for Me, by Aram Kim (Holiday House, 2017). Trying something new.

The One Day House, written by Julia Durango and illustrated by Bianca Diaz (Charlesbridge, 2017). Helping others.

Pecan Pie Baby, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (G.P. Putnam, 2010). New baby on the way and a sibling's conflicting emotions, perfectly captured.

Windows, written by Julia Denos and illustrated by E.B. Goodale (Candlewick, 2017). Seeing the neighborhood in a new light.

 

Some good book-finding resources, just to name a few:

We're the People lists from 2015, 2016, and 2017. Recommendations from a diverse group of authors and reading professionals. 

American Indians in Children's Literature.

Crystal Brunelle's Twitter feed. Teacher/librarian and co-blogger at the site Rich in Color.

The Horn Book's Calling Caldecott blog. Considerations of picture book art.

International Latino Book Awards. Via La Bloga.

Jama Rattigan's blog Jama's Alphabet Soup. Kids' books about food.

New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Book Award

Tomás Rivera Book Award. Books celebrating the Mexican American experience.

A big list of resources on the "Where to Find Diverse Books" page at We Need Diverse Books

If you haven't read it already, do see Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's important 1990 essay "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors," available in a PDF file and posted by Reading Is Fundamental here.


1, 2 Read

This year I am a weekly volunteer reader in two first-grade classes in addition to my usual second-grade gig. All three classes of eager learners bring joy to my morning. The city where I read offers a well-organized program for school volunteers, and reading aloud is such a fun thing to do if you have the time.

I read only one book in each class, and that works out well. Even first graders have a lot of tasks to get through in a day! Their wonderful teachers also read aloud to them, with the goal of getting the kiddos as much exposure to books and stories—and literacy—we can. All the classrooms have Smart Boards, and sometimes a read-aloud is projected there. Plus, the children have access to online books and laptops at school. The teachers maintain classroom libraries, too, and one of the first graders has insisted that I visit his school library because he thinks I would like it. I hope to next week!

The last book I read to the first graders was Saturn, by J.P. Bloom, part of a planet series from Abdo Kids. The children recognized it as nonfiction right away. We learned a lot, even though the text is relatively short. Saturn has some sixty moons, you cannot stand on Saturn because it is made of gas, and more. Several folks had questions about the sun, so that will be the topic of the next read-aloud. Another title they liked was James Marshall's Red Riding Hood. During the part where RRH goes into the scary woods, which Marshall renders pitch-black, one little girl on the front row reached out to hold her friend's hand. Just the sweetest thing in the world, right? Once we got through that, and laughed in relief at the huge hairy feet of the wolf pretending to be Grandma, we talked for a bit before wrapping up. You can't forget about the tender feelings of little people.

The second graders, who are less wiggly but equally chatty, especially enjoyed Dan Santat's Caldecott-winning picture book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. We reminisced about imaginary friends, and I told them about mine (Mary Mércedes, accent on the first syllable, a big demander of extra place settings) when I was a little girl. On my way out of the class that day, one of the children asked, "Do you still have your imaginary friend?" I had to think about that a minute. Do I? Well, yes, I do. I think she's in here, I told the class, pointing to my head. Such a great question. This group also got a kick out of Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes, which gleefully turns the monster stereotype on its head. Making predictions during a crucial scene was fun.


Norman's Best Books of 2016

Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has been compiling his favorite books of the year. Here is his list for 2016.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked to have this year (do any of us?), but, on the positive side, I managed to find time to read some truly outstanding fiction and nonfiction. My favorite novel was Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett. This book is about love and loss in a family dealing with a father’s and son’s depression and anxiety. It is told from the viewpoints of all the family members, with characters that are so well-drawn and writing that is so sharp that even though the end was not a surprise, it still managed to take my breath away.

9780143109273The next two books that I highly recommend have been widely recognized this past year—The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, and The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan. Whitehead’s fast-paced and brutal story—about an escaped slave, the activists that try to help her, and the people who attempt to capture her—won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, and it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Mahajan’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. It joined The Underground Railroad on the New York Times’ top ten books of the year list, and it made many other “best of year” lists as well. The Association of Small Bombs follows two families whose lives are forever changed after a bomb goes off in a market in Delhi, India, but what made this intense and tragic novel stand out for me were its explorations of the relationships between Hindus and Muslims, victims and terrorists, husbands and wives, and parents and children. Both books are, in my opinion, great reads.

I became a big fan of Jacqueline Woodson after her middle-grade novel Brown Girl Dreaming came out in 2014, and her newest book for adults, Another Brooklyn, did not disappoint me. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of a young girl who moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to Brooklyn, leaving behind her mother and a life that was vastly different from what she experiences up north. Woodson’s elegant and beautiful writing succeeds not only in its telling of friendship and adolescence, but also in capturing the Brooklyn of yesteryear. This one was also a National Book Award finalist.

9781631492334_198Two books that I found to be quirky, well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable were Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, and The Red Car, by Marcy Dermansky. The narrator in Nutshell is a smart and opinionated unborn baby whose mother is plotting to kill his father. Need I say more about quirky? The Red Car is page-turning, surreal tale of a woman who leaves her unhappy marriage and dull life in Queens to attend the funeral of a former boss and take possession of the red sports car that her ex-boss left her. Both of these books are short (about 200 pages each), funny, and good, fast reads.

The last three fiction recommendations I’d like to pass along are High Dive, by Jonathan Lee, Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. High Dive examines the lives of the people working at an English hotel and an IRA explosives expert who attempts to blow up the place when Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative Party members are there for a meeting. Set in 1984 in Brighton, this work of fiction is based on a true event. Sweetbitter is a more contemporary story about a woman who moves to New York and works at a restaurant in Manhattan. I think anyone who enjoys fine dining will find the storyline about working in the “front of the house” of a high-end and unnamed restaurant (the Union Square Café, oops!) to be engrossing, and this aspect of the book more than compensates for a less than fully believable love triangle that unfolds over the course (no pun intended) of the novel. I didn’t think that Commonwealth got off to a strong start, but Patchett’s book, which spans five decades, four parents, six children, and multiple states, grew on me and ended up being a very satisfying and solid read.

9780812994827I can’t complete my year-end roundup without mentioning three extraordinary nonfiction works. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (also a New York Times top ten pick), the author Matthew Desmond explores the impact of eviction in the US by focusing on the toll it takes on poverty-stricken families in Milwaukee, and in City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, former Human Rights Watch worker Ben Rawlence shows us the devastating conditions in the U.N.–administered refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, a place that is home to almost half a million people, most of whom came from Somalia to escape the civil war that began in the 1990s. Both of these books are important for students (upper-grade high school and college) and adults to read in order fully understand how fortunate we are and how critical it is for us to help those in need, both within and beyond our borders. Rounding out my list is The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar. When he was twelve, Matar and his family left Libya because of his father’s criticism of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. Eight years later, the author’s father, Jaballa Matar, was kidnapped, sent to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, and never seen again by his son. In this haunting and powerful book, the author searches to learn what happened and to try to close a gap in his life and in his heart.  


Favorite Books I Read in 2016

IMG-20161226-01947

After a fun trip to Mexico City, I am ushering out 2016 reading Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer and partially set in the Ciudad de México. A wild ride of a book, for sure! I started studying Spanish again, too, this year.

Here are some of the favorite books that I read in 2016, some published this year, others not.

Barefoot Dogs, by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, by Paul Lisicky

Peas and Carrots, by Tanita S. Davis

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

The Dark Back of Time, by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany, by Thomas Harding

I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Angie Rozelaar

The Vanishing Velásquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming

How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

One of the best bookish things I did was taking the free online course "Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing," offered through the UK's Warwick University on the FutureLearn platform.  The six-week course repeats on January 30, 2017; I recommend it highly, as well as FutureLearn's class on Much Ado about Nothing, presented by the University of Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Photograph: Calle Madero, Mexico City. Photo by Norman Trepner.


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.