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)


Brown Girl Dreaming

9780399252518HI usually have a couple of books going at once, and I love it when they talk to each other.

 

Virginia Woolf asks, in Hours in a Library, a series of questions about contemporary authors’ works, issues that make their work appeal to us as much as the classics. “...What do they see of the surrounding world, and what is the dream that fills the spaces of their active lives? They tell us all these things in their books.”

 

It’s as if Woolf knew I was reading the memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, 2014), a children’s title by Jacqueline Woodson. Her dream, from childhood on, was to be a writer. Indeed, she is the author of many books for kids, including Locomotion, Each Kindness, After Tupac and D Foster, and Pecan Pie Baby. Brown Girl Dreaming takes readers about up to Woodson’s adolescence.

 

Born in the mid-sixties, Jacqueline Woodson, an African American, spends her youngest years in Ohio and a still-segregated South Carolina (“I am born as the South explodes,” she writes), the latter with her loving maternal grandparents. She later moves with her mother and her siblings to Brooklyn. Told in blank verse, the memoir is very much a middle-grade book, and grown-ups will find plenty to enjoy, too. NPR’s Terry Gross complemented Woodson for using poems to convey the story, which allows space around the words and makes the book easy to read. I finished the book in one sitting!

 

Children will relate to young Jackie's loving family, her best friend, childhood games, and her love of pop music. Kids may be surprised at—and reassured by—the National Book Award-winning author’s struggles at school, where she took a long time to learn to read and write because of an unnamed learning difference (“the words twist/twirl across the page”). If, like me, they are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’ll learn a little something about that religion; Woodson’s grandmother, an ardent believer, got the grandkids involved. (“I thought I was saving lives,” Woodson told Terry Gross.) Above all, the transformative power of words and stories shines through.

 

One of my favorite passages is the poem “On the Bus to Dannemora.” Jackie and members of her family are travelling upstate, from NYC, to visit a favorite uncle in prison. Needless to say, it’s a long, draining trip. The poem, however, takes its cues from the beckoning universalism of the seventies hit “Love Train”; bits of the O’Jays’ lyrics weave through a daydream Jackie has. As the scenery flashes by, she imagines the bus occupants and their loved ones are instead aboard “a whole train filled/with love and now the people on it/aren’t in prison but are free to dance/and sing and hug their families whenever they want.” We readers feel Jackie’s heartbreak, and we sense her spirit and strength, too.

 

That’s just what Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming: she turns a few hours of our day—the time it takes to read her book—into an unforgettable journey.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming, a strong contender for the 2015 Newbery Medal, won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.


The Best Children's Books of 2014: A List of Lists and Awards

A roundup of the year-end "best of" lists and children's literature prizes. Most of the books on these lists were published in 2014; a few lists include titles from prior years, too. I will update this page regularly, so if you see something not mentioned here, give me a holler in the comments or on Twitter @Susan_Thomsen. Comments are open but moderated, due to spam woes.

See also the lists for 2013, 2012201120102009, and 2008

©Susan Thomsen, 2014.

The blog Largehearted Boy maintains a huge list of all the online "best books" lists. The English department at St. Columba's College, Dublin, keeps a good annotated list of book lists. Also, Confessions of a Science Librarian collects lists of best science books (for adults). Don't miss librarian Travis Jonker's smart and funny "Children's Literature 2014: The Year in Miscellanea," at School Library Journal's 100 Scope Notes blog. Holiday shoppers will want to peruse the great suggestions at MotherReader's list of "150 Ways to Give a Book." Betsy Bird, of the New York Public Library, makes her Caldecott and Newbery predictions at another School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production.

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100 Scope Notes (School Library Journal blog). Top 20.

A

AAAS Science Books & Film. Gift guide. (AAAS = American Association for the Advancement of Science)

AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books

Air & Space Magazine (Smithsonian). Aviation- and space-themed books.

Alex Award, for adult books with teen appeal (PDF)

Amazon

American Booksellers Association

American Indians in Children's Literature

Americas Award

Arab American Book Award. Several categories, including books for children.

Audible. Teens.

Continue reading "The Best Children's Books of 2014: A List of Lists and Awards" »


Libraries, Peanut Butter, and Bears

School has started, and with it, I'm back in the classroom once a week, reading to second graders. So far we have read these picture books:

Tomás and the Library Lady, written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raul Colón. A friendly bookseller at Manhattan's charming La Casa Azul recommended this one, which is sprinkled with Spanish words. Tomás, the child of migrant Texas farm workers, find a place of refuge in an Iowa library and enjoys the attention of two mentors in the "library lady" and his grandfather. It's based on the childhood experiences of Tomás Rivera, who went on to become a university chancellor.

Peanut Butter and Homework Sandwiches, written by Leslie Broadie Cook and illustrated by Jack E. Davis. A silly tale of a kid who just can't get it right, homework-wise, through no fault of his own.

The Three Bears, written and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Before hearing Mo Willems' parody Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, the second graders needed some familiarity with the fairy tale, and Galdone's is a straight-forward rendering. Of course some knew the story already, but the discussion afterward was our longest so far. Among the kids' contributions were Destiny's keen observations about the illustrations and Miguel's announcement of his birthday. Oh, and Huynh will soon have a baby brother or sister.

Some years ago I found Galdone's work through the recommendations in Esmé Raji Codell's How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. Along with Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook, Codell's guide is a must-have resource for people who share books with young children.


Second Grade: Thumbs Up for "The Incredible Book Eating Boy"

Another June, another school year coming to a close. Up here in New England we keep 'em in class until almost the end of the month. I've been a volunteer classroom reader for a while now, and I love it, even the unpredictable nature of the last few weeks of the academic year. I read in the afternoon, and sometimes the second graders are almost sleeping, exhausted from the heat (no a.c. at this school) and other times they are buzzing around the room like bees in a hive. They are always ready to listen to a read-aloud, though.

Earlier this week I shared Oliver Jeffers' picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy because the kids asked to hear something funny. Until it dawns on him to read books, the protagonist, Henry, eats them. Things get out of hand, naturally, before Henry's epiphany. The back cover and last few pages are missing a bit-sized chunk, and we readers talked a lot about that. I had to walk around the room and show everyone. Henry really bit it! Or did he? I'm going to buy one for the class so that the kids can pore over all the fun details. (I had to return my copy to the library.)

Other books that the group enjoyed include Harry Allard and James Marshall's Miss Nelson Is Missing!, Meg Medina and Claudio Muñoz's Tia Isa Wants a Car, Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri's Dragons Love Tacos, and Dav Pilkey's wacky Dogzilla and Kat Kong. Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin's Giggle, Giggle, Quack garnered the most guffaws.

I run into alumni—third, fourth, fifth graders—all the time at the school. "Remember when you used to read with us?" they ask. The kids grow up so quickly. What a gift I've been given to be able to spend time with them and talk about books.

June 26, 2014. Edited to add: I forgot to mention Peter Brown's subversive Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, another big favorite.


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.