Year in Review: Books of 2014

I’ve read 38 books this year, and I’m on track to read 40 (according to Goodreads, and my stab at tracking my reading there). Last year, I apparently only read 22 books, so I’m managing to read more. Good news for me!

I am currently reading Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, a memoir by Viv Albertine of The Slits. It is an excellent and unsentimental memoir of the U.K. punk scene of the late 1970s, and I’m really liking it. If you consider yourself a fan of punk at all, it’s a must-read.

Here are the other books that I liked most this year. They weren’t necessarily written this year, and I’m presenting them in no particular order.

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
I discovered Rowell this year, and I’ve read a bunch of her stuff: Landline, Eleanor & Park, and Attachments. I love her modern romantic sensibilities. Her books about relationships are sweet, and frantic, and hopeful. Of the ones I read this year, Attachments is my favorite. I would highly recommend Landlines as well.

Horns, by Joe Hill
A weird and extraordinary thing happens to an Average Joe. Told in a mix of flashback and present day, Hill captures the magic and innocence of childhood friendship and love, as well as the allegorical terror of being a nominally responsible adult.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
If you don’t know by now, Galbraith is the pen name of J.K. Rowling. This is her second book centering about the private detective Cormoran Strike. I’m not a huge fan of mystery books, but I’ve enjoyed the characters and stories spun around Strike. It’s clear that writing under a nom de plume is liberating for Rowling. Say what you will, but she’s a good storyteller. Her editors were definitely on for these books as well; there’s no word vomit, which is something even I, a fan, recognize Rowling has a propensity for. These books are brisk moving with enough twists to keep you guessing.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
This is probably my favorite read of 2014. It’s lyrical and fantastical, a love story, a story about grand rivals, and magic, and longing. It was recommended to me, and I’m so glad I remembered it next time I was checking out books for my Kindle.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s third novel is a beautiful use of the English language. Melancholic and (again) lyrical, the story of a lost boy who grows into a lost man, with one thing, the titular classical painting, anchoring him to his mortal coil (as well as hope and love).

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
A cracking good suspense novel from the King of Horror. This was definitely the summer read of 2014 for me. Three unforgettable characters team up to take down a twisted psychopath, and King gets into the internal motivations of all of them.

Read anything good this year?

The Night Circus cover

mr-mercedes

Book Ennui

I’ve said it before: I read a lot.

I always like to have a new book on deck, which is one reason we visit our local library so often. But the last couple of books I have read have left me rather flat.

First up was Jodie Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. I’ve read Picoult before, and while I’m not crazy about her narrative trick of writing each chapter from a different character’s point of view, it doesn’t bother me enough to give up on her. I actually picked up this novel because it was on my library’s “banned books” shelf for Banned Books Weeks.

I’m not 100 percent sure WHY My Sister’s Keeper was a challenged book. I’m still trying to track that down. (Anyone?) It deals with a family with three children, one of whom is very ill and one of whom who was deliberately conceived to help her sister with her illness. It was supposed to be a one-time thing — the second daughter was to provide umbilical cord blood to her older sister to put the latter into remission from her cancer. The book takes place with the younger daughter, now 13 years old, going to a lawyer to get medically emancipated from her parents so that she doesn’t have to donate a kidney to her sister.

It is a well-written book, and the language perfectly captures the agony of a parent (or parents) with a sick child. All the characters are compelling and fully realized, with complex reasons for doing what they are doing. I would recommend it.

BUT: If the book is hyped as having a “shocking twist of an ending” (or whatever the wording was), I have news for Ms. Picoult and her publishers: a savvy reader is going to figure it out. I saw a couple of “twists” coming MILES (chapters, I suppose) away from their actual revelation.

Has anyone else read this book? Did you have a similar reaction, or were you surprised?

The other book that pretty much left me feeling “meh” was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. (*SPOILER ALERT*!) I had heard so many amazing critiques about this book, about how moving and affective it was, how the ending was so devastating. As I was reading, I kept trying to guess what would happen, what would be revealed. Turns out: Nothing. There’s no big twist at the end; there’s no sudden change in course for any of the characters. I suspect this novel was supposed to outrage the reader because of what the central characters are (which I won’t give away here, but it’s no mystery in the book; they talk about their role in society quite openly).

Never Let Me Go is beautifully written. That’s the highest praise I have for it. None of the characters is particularly compelling, although the relationship between the three central characters is interesting. And as to their purpose and their narrative… I guess there’s not much of an arc, and the language, while well-crafted, is never exciting or passionate. The whole story is related rather matter-of-factly, and there are no glimpses behind the curtain into the larger issues (medical ethics, for example). It is all very blah, frankly.

I was utterly unmoved and quite disappointed when I finished the book.

The other book I read recently was Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, which I liked just fine, but I then again, I like his writing style and characters. High Fidelity is probably still my favorite by him, although I really enjoyed About a Boy, too. I just like reading his novels. They certainly aren’t life changing.

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So, got anything really juicy for me? I am thinking about doing food books for November, the same way I did scary stories last October. (No more Michael Pollan, though, please.) Leave your suggestions in the comments! I’ve resorted to re-reading Sookie Stackhouse novels for the time being. And I’m thinking of re-reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I thought was excellent.

What I Am: The Hype Edition

I am usually pretty cautious when it comes to certain things in the realm of pop culture (see: Twilight). But I’m willing to give anything a go, especially when it comes to books. Less so with movies, but I watched such a great movie, that I’m offering a wholly unsolicited review this week.

The Blind Side
I stayed up until nearly midnight to watch all of this movie on a recent Saturday night. I’m not slavishly devoted to watching Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films. I tend to like my movies as entertainment, not vehicles that make me think a lot. While I am sure The Hurt Locker is an excellent examination of wartime psychology, it’s not going to be what I want to settle onto my couch to watch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

I had my doubts, too, about The Blind Side. Based on a True Story, rich white folks, poor black boy, high school football, etc., etc.

But I found The Blind Side to be quietly moving, and utterly compelling. Sandra Bullock earned every molecule of gold in that statuette for her portrayal as a woman who reached out to a boy in need. It’s far less about black and white than I expected (although it does touch on racial tensions and class differences), and it was not a huge, moving tear-jerker, which I really appreciated.

The story is rife with quiet moments that are affecting. There are no bombastic moments that ensure You Are Going To Feel Something! It’s touching and funny and sweet. Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) is a no-nonsense suburban mom and wife (with her own design business). Aside from Kathy Bates as Miss Sue, Michael Oher’s tutor, there are no big-name movie stars in the rest of the cast, but everyone is just excellent. And Quinton Aaron is quite a find as Oher — he was such a natural that when the real Michael Oher appeared at the end of the film, I had forgotten that I was watching an actor portray him as a high school student. I was like, “He looks so different!” Der.

Aside from the way Bullock captures Tuohy’s emotional moments (she prefers to walk into another room rather than let people see her get teary-eyed), I loved the college recruitment scenes. Anyone who loves college ball should watch this movie for these alone. S.J. (the son) is going to crack you up.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson

I checked this out of the library, started it, and had to take it back. I wasn’t encouraged by my first try. The book opens with the end of a libel trial in Sweden, and it didn’t seem that promising.

But then my mom left me her paperback copy, and I decided to try again.

And once I got past that opening scene, it’s a real page-turner, a locked-room mystery complete with sex, incest, murder, intrigue, and interesting characters (if not straight-forward hero-type protagonists). I was unsure about continuing after a rape scene (not graphically portrayed, but still unpleasant), but I’m glad I stuck it out, not only because of the karma boomerang, but because the suspense and mystery just keep ratcheting up.

I haven’t quite finished the book yet. It’s long and Larsson packs — er, excuse me, packed — a lot into its pages. I’m already looking forward to getting my hands on the other two in the series. Lisbeth Salander is fascinating, and I want to see what she gets up to next.

Classic

J. D. Salinger died yesterday. There was some talk in my Twitter stream about “the book”, and some people admitting they didn’t like it, or didn’t get it, or didn’t read it.

I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school as part of my English class. Required reading, but as I pretty much read anything I can get my hands on anyway, the ‘required’ part didn’t set me back much. I think I re-read it, at least once, in college on my own.

And both times, I got Holden Caulfield. I identified with his disaffected brand of angsty teenager-hood, with his disdain of the “phonies”. Plus, I loved the vulnerability in the vision for himself as the character that gives the novel its name.

“‘Anyway, I keep picturing these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean, except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.'”
— Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

But the “conversation” on Twitter reminded me that sometimes books with teens as their central characters don’t do well (or sit well) with adults. Think about Bella in Twilight. If I had read Twilight when I was 15, I would have loved it (I think). I could barely finish the book when I first read it a couple years ago, and I didn’t read any other books in the saga. Of course, on the other side of that, there are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. If someone suggested to me that Potter were just a whingey teen, I would leap to his defense — because I loved the books (epic battle between good and evil, the power of love! yadda, yadda, yadda). Bella made me roll my eyes, and who is to say that Holden won’t do the same if I decide to re-read Catcher.

And as much I admired Salinger’s sparse fiction and realistic characters, I didn’t admire the man much. He was quite an oddball.

But he left a lasting legacy: Holden, the Glass family, Joyce Maynard. And that’s something to think about, at least.

RIP, J. D.

Straight Talk

While October was my month to read scary books (and that was FUN), November seems to be shaping up to be the month of non-fiction. I didn’t plan it that way (really, if I were going to plan something for November, it would be Food Books), but I do have a lot of non-fiction on my bedside table, so to speak.

I just started Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and hoo boy, am I going to have stuff to say about that.

In the meantime, though, I finished a book recently titled The Curse of the Good Girl, by Rachel Simmons. I picked it up on impulse at the library because, der, I’m the mom of two girls.

If you don’t know, Rachel Simmons wrote Odd Girl Out a few years back detailing the “hidden” aggression in girls’ behavior. I believe some of her research has lead to terms like “Mean Girls” and/or “Queen Bees”. I would have to check further into that.

But, if you’re like me, just think the movie Heathers, and you’ll pretty much get the gist.

I am happy to have daughters. Let me say that right up front. They delight and amaze me. I never wistfully wish for one of them to be a boy. I honestly don’t care. (My desire for a baby boy has nothing to do with raising only girls to this point.)

But the world of the teen girl is not something I am looking forward to navigating with my daughters. What I did not know was that some of this girl socialization (for good and ill) starts so dang early.

Flora has already come home complaining about so-and-so not wanting to be her friend. She told me about a day where everyone at her school called her stupid. This incident was later traced to one girl.

She’s 5.

My daughters say things to each other like, “I’m not your friend anymore” and “You’re mean”.

I don’t like it. Further, I am not going to accept it. But I need to find the language, the navigation skills, to nip it effectively in the bud. Without turning either of my daughters into doormats. Obviously.

So, The Curse of the Good Girl. At first I rolled my eyes reading it, I admit (how very… girl-y). The book talks about how the desire to be a Good Girl undermines our daughters in the Real World (Simmons’ capital letters). The Good Girl wants everyone to like her; she will do anything, including denying her own emotions, ideas, and values, to maintain relationships. She silences her voice and she doesn’t take risks, afraid of what people will think of her or that she will disappoint people. And by people, Simmons doesn’t just mean peers; she includes parents, teachers, coaches, and later in life, managers, employees, bosses, etc.

In short, the desire to be liked and to have ideal relationships with everyone overrides our girls’ decisions on how to behave and feel.

But as I continued to read, I saw the importance of what Simmons was saying. I even caught glimpses of myself both as a Good Girl and as a Real Girl — even now, as a working woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a friend — even as a “mommy” blogger in a community of other “mommy” [and other types of] bloggers. In general, I am not a Good Girl — I am not afraid to express my ideas or opinions (just ask Dan!), although I do still fall into Good Girl traps occasionally (again, ask Dan). For the most part, I don’t care what people think of me. I strive to be tactful (and I fail, often), but I’m going to say what’s on my mind. I promise to use I Statements.

Looking back to my pre-teen and teen years, I can see instances where the desire to be a Good Girl kept me quiet. But those instances are few and far between. And mostly took place at home, not with my friends or at school. It was most difficult for me to express my emotions with my parents. I was labeled a drama queen at home.

The irony is not lost on me.

I have to find a different way to let Flora express herself while also guiding her in appropriate and constructive ways to express her emotions. And I have to start now.

Last night, for the first time, I tried something. When I heard Flora say to Kate, “Kate, you’re mean,” I interrupted. “No. We are not going to talk like that.” Flora looked a little surprised. I continued, “If you are upset with Kate, you say, ‘Kate, it upset me when you took the marker out of my hand.’ You don’t just call her mean.”

Another example is: I’m sorry. Flora starts with the “I’m sorry”s as soon as she senses she has done something wrong. If I continue to scold her, she exclaims, “But I said I’m sorry!” I have to explain to her that “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean that the thing for which she is apologizing didn’t happen. “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean that she didn’t make a mistake. She needs to recognize and express true remorse, not just cover her tracks.

I know that my daughters are young for this — I’m going to hear a lot more “you’re mean”s and “I’m not your friend”s and empty “I’m sorry”s. But if I give my girls the tools now, maybe by the time they really need them, they will be second nature.

I can hope, anyway. And I have to lead by example. Wish me luck. Tell me how you are doing it with your girls or boys. And I am open to further reading suggestions, too, regarding raising girls and/or confident children in general.

What I Am: Thematic Indulgence

Theme for the month: Spooky

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
Colin Meloy is either brilliant or really, really creepy. Probably a little bit of both. But if you want a soundtrack to October or just the week or two before Halloween, you would do well to listen to the latest from The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.

It’s got everything: an overbearing mother, a rake, a rape, dead babies, ghosts of dead babies, pining, lust, revenge, and a wicked guitar part. I cannot wait to see this thing staged as a rock opera, ala Tommy by The Who.

The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
I found the movie version of this book to be fantastic — an ending I didn’t see coming, plus Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (and Michael Caine and David Bowie). Oh, my. And they ACT.

The book is even better, albeit different. The ending is much, much spookier. I am still getting chills thinking about it, two days after finishing it. Very satisfying.

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks
I should not read zombie books. I simply should not. (Or see zombie movies.)

My mind churns into overdrive. I wonder if I could survive a zombie attack; I wonder how I will (WILL, mind you) protect my daughters. I think about stocking up on water, canned goods, and toilet paper (Kate is going to have to get potty trained, and fast), and consider what kind of gun or guns I am going to buy.

I despair a little bit. My basement is barely defensible — and Brooks says to forget about the basement in any case; go upstairs and destroy the staircase. I do have a machete, although it’s not very sharp. My pantry is stocked with lots of soap, paper towels, and lunch snacks. (And about 24 cans of chicken-type soups for Dan. When the zombies come, we will no longer be vegetarians I guess. And we will have very clean hands.) It’s been some years since I used a gun.

In other words, I turn into a crazed, militant-minded nut job. What the government is to a guy in a militia, zombies are to me. To my credit, I don’t own a gun (yet). (As far as you know.)

Reading The Zombie Survival Guide, most of me recognizes that it is satire. Yet it is so well done, that part of me — the militant minded, “this could really happen” part of my brain or gut — thinks, “I gotta go get me one of those. And learn how to use it. Because WHAT IF.” The tone is serious; the tips are practical; and Brooks peppers his advice with just enough “real-life” examples and scenarios, that I think, “See, now, that’s good to know.”

I am seriously considering ordering this book. In hard cover. And learning how to shoot flaming arrows.

Because, WHAT IF?

What I Am: In Brief

I finished Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Very satisfying, and well set up for the final book in the trilogy. Now I am stuck for a book until I order Inkspell from Amazon. I think I will try to time that so it arrives before our Cape Cod vacation. In the meantime, I’m open to book suggestions again.

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I had to choose between Green Day and the Decemberists as my concert for the year. (Hey, I get to actually go to one this year, so I figure I’m ahead of the game.) I decided on Green Day, primarily because I harbor inside of me (and always will) my black-leather-jacket-and-mini-skirt-wearing 22-year-old self.

I’m very fond of my younger, punker, rock chick persona. I’d love to go tell her a few things — like leaving well enough alone after the first breakup with the Ex — but all-in-all, we survived the 20s. And we ended up in a really good place.

In preparation for the upcoming concert in July, I downloaded the new album 21st Century Breakdown. I haven’t listened to it in depth, but my cursory review would be: Lives up to the promise of American Idiot. Green Day is moving toward more of a power pop/punk sound. When I give it a few more spins (can I still say that??), I’ll have more to add.

Also, when I told DearDR I had thought about buying Decemberists tickets instead (I believe I mentioned it at the Black Keys show), he said, “You made the right choice. I wouldn’t have gone to the Decemberists with you.”

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Finally, after several days with sick children, and playing the role of SAHM again, I have declared Friday RPM’s day off. I will be out and about in the Robinson area, and if you care to join me, I will be watching the Pens game at a fine establishment later that evening. Go, Pens!

Random Thoughts: Thursday Quickies

Look for Lost thoughts tomorrow. I have to write a little bit about “Some Like It Hoth” from two weeks ago along with last night’s episode.

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Dear Bun, Please stop getting sick. Or, conversely, if you’re not really sick, please stop that yellowish goo from coming out of your nose. You have no fever, you are sleeping great, eating well, and… your energy is certainly not diminished. To put it mildly. So you’ve got ear tubes now, which is great, although it seems to mean that all that crap that got trapped behind your eardrums now is free to flow copiously out of your left nostril.

It’s really disgusting, honey. Please clear up. Thanks. Love, Mommy

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Dear Monkey, I know: you want Daddy. I know. I cannot provide Daddy at my whim, or yours — oh, would that I could. And I know that my inability to produce Daddy at your whim, along with my being such a hardliner about meals and baths and bedtimes makes me a mean mommy, but having you tell me that with tears standing in your pretty baby blues really hurts my feelings. I don’t get to spend much time with you these days, and I would like our time together to be more pleasant and less frustrating for both of us. Let’s work on it, okay? Thanks. Love, Mommy.

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I started The Thirteenth Tale, and I joined Goodreads (both at the suggestion of Kelly at Peace, Love and Flowers). I’m excited about these developments, which pretty much goes to prove what a literary geek I am.

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Still looking for a babysitter for May 1 so DearDR and I can go see the premiere of Wolverine. Any takers?

And yes, DearDR knows I have a thing for Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine). That’s why we’re going — correction, trying to go — to the premiere. Because DearDR loves me very much and wants to see me happy. Heck, he even brought me the Entertainment Weekly magazine with Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine) on the cover. In Wolverine’s signature wife beater. Be still my heart.

I may be a literary geek, but I’m still a flesh-and-blood woman. Hear me *rowr*.

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I know there’s been a lot of fist-shaking at the media about all this Swine Flu reporting — oh, sorry, H1N1 — but this image has been making me laugh for days now. Thanks to Brandon at thinkoutsidethepun.blogspot.com.

And look at it this way: If it were something truly serious, wouldn’t you want this level of alert? The government and the media are just trying to do their jobs, and inspire confidence in the systems used to warn people about this stuff. It sucks that it can raise anxiety levels for a disease that’s just like the regular flu, pretty much, but what’s that old saying?

Better safe than sorry.

Random Thoughts: Short and Bittersweet

I had my crankypants on last night for no good reason — oh, I had reasons, primarily too much to do in too little time, the perpetual problem — and so I really struggled with something to post.

But I got a wake-up call at the news that someone I know knows parents whose two sons have Batten Disease. I didn’t fully succeed in getting uncranky, but I sure got a cold dash of perspective.

In lieu of the struggle to write anything relevant, I’ll send you over to Slate for two (funny, I promise) articles regarding a unique parenting perspective. The upshot of the first is that saying yes to your kids is a good thing because they will learn that they can depend on you, and as a result they will leave you alone to do your own thing. The upshot of the second is that staying home is okay — forced fun is no fun.

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I haven’t gotten to the library in ages, which is why I haven’t had anything new for What I Am. I just reread Inkheart from my personal library, and I discovered I liked it far more this time around. I am rereading for the 150th time The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I’m currently enjoying the beats of M.I.A.’s Arular, but I don’t have a critic’s perspective on it.

I need some book ideas: send your favorite five my way, and I’ll put them on my library list!

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Cook Forest Countdown: Two Days. So not ready.

And Now for Something Completely Different (II)

Because I don’t feel like talking about my cough, or the girls’ ears, or Bun’s ENT visit, or DearDR’s non-surgical procedure (he’s fine).

Yesterday was the 50th birthday of one of my favorite books ever, The Elements of Style, also known as Strunk & White. If you aspire at all to be a better writer, this is an invaluable little style manual. And very entertainingly written.

Speaking of entertaining, here’s an NPR commentator’s take on Strunk & White (funnier to listen to than to read).

And that’s all I got today, folks. Thanks for stopping by. If you feel like it, tell me what has helped you be a better writer — or a better whatever-your-passion-is, or even a better parent. Was it a book? A person? A web site? Share!