Our Year in Reading 2016

Rabih Alameddine, Christian Kracht, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Books we both read and loved

This was the year my husband read more—a lot more—than I did.

There were two simple reasons for this: He read more, and I read less.

He joined two book clubs in 2016, which explains, at least in part, his impressive list. He read so many books this year that he spent over an hour typing up and annotating his list. Then, after handing me the notebook where we record our completed books, he suddenly cried out, “Wait! I need that back. I skipped a whole page.”

Show-off.

I don’t have any excuse for my poorer showing. I read a couple of real tomes, and I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles, but I just didn’t read very many books.

So that’s one of my New Year’s resolutions: read more books. Especially poetry. I read shamefully little poetry this year.

I always highlight the few books Dan and I both read in the same calendar year. This year that distinction goes to a record three books, which, miracle of miracles, we both loved: Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History; Christian Kracht’s Imperium; and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.

Herewith, our lists:

Naomi’s list

  • Mary Volmer, Reliance, Illinois. Mary is a friend; I was honored to blurb the book too. An engaging historical novel about the lives of women in the 1870s.
  • Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies. I should have loved this. I expected to. But I didn’t.
  • Ben Lerner, 10:04. I was asked to describe this novel the other day at a dinner party, and I couldn’t. Not because I couldn’t remember it, but because it somehow defies summation. I loved it. I’d love to write a similarly description-defiant book one day.
  • Sara Majka, Cities I’ve Never Lived In. Beautiful debut collection of short stories.
  • Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan
    Weird, scary stories for a weird, scary year

    Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan. Hearn was a Greek-American writer who spent the last 14 years of his life in Japan and published several books that include, among other things, wonderful retellings of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales. I read a lot of Hearn this year for a new project of mine.

  • Anne Enright, The Gathering. A penetrating, gorgeous novel that reflects, in part, on how children with the same upbringing can end up with utterly different outcomes.
  • Matt Sumell, Making Nice. A hilarious, heartbreaking collection of linked stories. You all should read it.
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek . Reading Dillard is always simultaneously inspiring and humbling. I end up with a head full of writing ideas and a deep sense of my own limitations. This book, which somehow I’d never read before, did not disappoint in that regard.
  • Christian Kracht, Imperium. A marvelous literary romp that plays wantonly with history and narrative expectations.
  • John Keene, Counternarratives. A fascinating collection of stories that challenge everything—the reader, received histories, received narratives. Includes “Rivers,” a kind of sequel to Huck Finn.
  • Shawna Yang Ryan, Green Island. I love novels that teach me something. I did not know anything about the important history of 20th-century Taiwan before I read this riveting book.
  • Janis Cooke Newman, A Master Plan for Rescue. An engaging World War II novel set in both New York City and Berlin.
  • Hannah Kent, Burial Rites. Haunting novel set in Iceland in the early 19th century.
  • Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members. Light epistolary novel.
  • G. Rowley, Yosano Akiko and the Tale of Genji. Scholarly work read for another one of my current writing projects.
  • Lafcadio Hearn, In Ghostly Japan. More short stories and essays from late-Meiji Japan.
  • Lori Ostlund, After the Parade. A novel that broke my heart and made me laugh out loud over and over.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby. Unsettling modern fairy tales set in Soviet Russia.
  • Garrard Conley, Boy Erased. This timely memoir tells the story of the author’s experience with “gay conversion therapy.”
  • Brian Doyle, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World. I’ve been a fan of Doyle’s fiction and essays for years and was thrilled to be asked to blurb his new novel. It’s coming out in March.
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, translated by Edward Seidensticker. I have an intense love-hate relationship with this book, which I wrote about here when I finished Royall Tyler’s translation two years ago. I’m trying to read all of the major English-language translations. Two down, two to go.
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries. Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize. A book impressive for its length and complexity; I suspect it needs a second reading to really “get,” but I wasn’t willing to give the book even more time.
  • Kristi Abbott, Kernel of Truth. This “cozy mystery,” which was actually written by my friend Eileen Rendahl, got me through a terrible bout of insomnia in the unsettling weeks preceding the election.
  • Rabih Alammedine, The Angel of History. Astonishing.
  • Villanelles, ed. Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. A beautiful volume, part of Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Turns out really good villanelles are hard to write. Other than the famous villanelles I already loved and a few new examples, I was mostly disappointed.
  • Patricia MacLachlan, The Poet’s Dog. A lovely children’s book, ideal for the young dog- and poetry-lover in your life. Tied up a bit too neatly at the end for my taste.
  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. This fall I started listening to audiobooks at bedtime. The practice became a lifesaver after the catastrophe of the election.

Dan’s list (the comments are his, not mine)

  • Saadat Hasan Manto, Bombay Stories. Translated from the Urdu, a collection of Manto’s classic stories of 1930s Mumbai.
  • Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fun for a Davis resident, as most of the action takes place here.
  • Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. Read for book club, not a crowd-pleaser.
  • Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words. Something of a failure of a satire of the British book-award industry by the author of the much more gripping Patrick Melrose novels.
  • Sebastian Faulks, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Largely captured the original Wodehousian flavor.
  • Harry Matthews, Tlooth. I will read pretty much anything by Matthews, the first American member of Oulipo.

    Vikram Seth, Golden Gate
    Worth reading again — and again
  • Vikram Seth, Golden Gate. Rewards re-reading. This was my third go-through.
  • Viet Than Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Perhaps I was not as bowled over by this as everyone else (including the Pulitzer committee) because I am so accustomed to reading work told from the perspective of someone not from the U.S.
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Met expectations—which were high.
  • Julian Barnes, Arthur and George. Pretty good, except for the ending.
  • Cory Doctorow, Little Brother. A lot of YA fiction is great. This was not in that category.
  • Steve Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Fascinating, especially the early history of Asperger’s work.
  • Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life. I’ve been meaning to read this history of 1980s punk forever, and it was a lot of fun.
  • Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. Regretfully, could not enjoy this alternative-universe novel of California drought.
  • Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking. Non-fiction. A revelation.
  • Phil LaMarche, American Youth
    Dan’s pick for best underrated book

    Phil LaMarche, American Youth. Plucked from a list of novels recommended by other writers, a taut, naturalistic story deserving of more attention.

  • David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. This slim volume collects four essays on bureaucracy, which probably could have been edited down into one.
  • Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Felt like the author couldn’t quite decide if she wanted to write a straight-up intellectual history or something more entertaining.
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Also worth re-reading every decade or so.
  • Christian Kracht, Imperium. A small, delightful, but ultimately tragic story of obsession and paranoia.
  • Gabriel García Márquez, Collected Novellas. Any opportunity to read García Márquez should be seized.
  • David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years. Non-fiction. Deservedly a classic.
  • David James Duncan, The Brothers K. Too long and much too much about baseball.
  • Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys. I see why she won the Nobel.
  • Roald Dahl, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar & Six More. Dahl needs no explanation.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. Totally deserved the 2016 Hugo it won.
  • Janette Sadik-Khan & Seth Solomonov, Streetfight. Non-fiction. Lessons for improving cities.
  • Albertine Sarrazin, Astragale. Not great, but tremendously interesting. And a brilliant ending.
  • Hope Jahren, Lab Girl. Non-fiction. A story of a scientist and a friendship.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate. This sequel to the Fifth Season is if anything even better.
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. I’ve tried to read Faulkner before and given up. Could it be that I’ve matured enough to read him?
  • Ursula K. LeGuin, Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences. Not the best work by the American who really should have won this year’s Nobel.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby. Surreal short stories.
  • Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Another book that would have succeeded better as an article in the Atlantic.

    Clarice Lispector
    Everyone’s favorite Jewish-Ukrainian-Brazilian writer
  • Ogden Nash, Versus. A nice break from the previous two.
  • William Gibson, Spook Country. Started kind of weak, but improved as it went along.
  • Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories. Everyone’s favorite Jewish-Ukrainian-Brazilian writer. Fascinating to follow her work from her late teens to her late 50s.
  • Rabih Alammedine, The Angel of History. What more can be said about this amazing, funny, sad book.
  • Ben Winters, Underground Airlines. Not Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, but that’s up soon.

And the Nobel goes to…

Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016
Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016

When the Swedish Academy announced this morning that Bob Dylan was their choice for this year’s Literature Prize, people went crazy in exactly the ways you’d expect: his die-hard fans were jubilant; many writers and literature-lovers expressed open dismay; and others jumped into the fray to defend the award and call out the naysayers for snobbery and narrow-mindedness.

I think one can be nonplussed or even disappointed by this decision and remain innocent of elitism or parochialism or of suggesting Dylan is anything less than awesome. Sure, song lyrics are poetry, which makes it literature. Still, I don’t think the expectation that the award go to people who’ve spent their lives making, you know, books, as their principal occupation, is necessarily misplaced or snobby. Continue reading

On Writering

Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)
Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)

See the end of this post for details about the Landfalls audiobook giveaway. It ends July 14, 2016.
[This giveaway has ended. Congratulations to Sandra G. of Woodland, CA, for winning an audiobook!]

Before my book came out, I was a writer who spent a lot of time writing. Now I’m a published author, and I spend a lot of time doing things connected to writing or to my life as a writer but that don’t involve actual writing. If I wanted to, I could easily spend all of my time doing writerly stuff instead of writing. I call it “writering.” Continue reading

On Sleepiness and Writing

Naomi falling asleep over keyboardAm I the only writer out there who regularly falls asleep over her keyboard? Please tell me I’m not.

It goes like this: I’ve carved out a precious hour or two to write, but as soon as I hit a point where I need to stop and think for a moment, which is often very early on because I’m an incredibly painstaking writer and slow thinker, I start nodding off. I may stave off the drowsiness for a while, but eventually I flop face-down on my bed or couch and conk out. Continue reading

Our Year in Reading 2015

2015 booksIn under the wire, my annual round-up of the books my husband and I read over the year.

My book-loving guy and I read two books in common this year: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which we both loved (a rare event for us), and Alice McDermott’s Someone, which I loved and warned him he wouldn’t. I was right, alas.

The other thing I’ll say about Dan’s list is that he’s shown his usual penchant, both for reading work in translation and for finding an author he loves and reading a lot of their work. Continue reading

Tall Ship Bounty

IMG_2159It’s October 29, 2015, the third anniversary of the sinking of the Tall Ship Bounty.

Bounty, built in 1960 as a replica of the famous HMS Bounty, sank off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy. A daring and dangerous US Coast Guard rescue operation saved 14 people from the ship. But two were lost, the ship’s beloved long-time captain, Robin Walbridge, and crew member Claudene Christian.

I’m obviously drawn to this story because it concerns shipwreck — an altogether human and heartbreaking story of adventure, hard work, camaraderie, survival, and loss. Continue reading