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January 2018

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

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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)