Our Year in Reading 2018

Christian Kracht, The Dead
All I need: green tea, GF donut, riveting book.

What a lame blogger I’ve become! This is literally my only post for the year. But I had my reasons, chief of which was a breast cancer diagnosis this spring that proceeded to derail the entire year. I hope to write about the experience so won’t go into any detail here, but know that I’ve recovered pretty well from surgery and have gotten a clean bill of health for now. I share this, however, as it did affect some of my reading choices for the year.

The other thing that influenced my reading choices was my work with the Ashland University lo-res MFA program, where I started this summer. This fall semester I asked each of my students to choose one book for us to read together, with the marvelous result that I read four novels I’d never read before and had had no particular plans to read.

Reading our lists now right before I press “publish,” I’m dismayed by two things: First, I read no short story collections this year. What the hell? That was an oversight. Second, Dan has actually written that he read Daphne du Maurier’s classis Rebecca “waiting for something to happen.” Again: what the hell? Have I actually spent 31 years married to a man who finds Rebecca boring? Sigh.

As with our previous lists: All the books are novels unless otherwise noted, Dan’s reading list follows my own, we’ve included brief reading notes, and I’ve included links for the writers who are also friends. Dan and I read just one book in common this year, Swiss writer Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead, which has just come out in English and which we both agree is altogether excellent. Phew. Marriage saved!

Naomi’s list:

  • William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: Read in order to read Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, part of Hogarth’s series of Shakespeare novelizations. But then I never did get around to reading the Winterson.
  • Tyehimba Jess, Olio (poetry). Remarkable, inventive collection that takes as its subject early African-American musicians.
  • Janine Kovac, Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home (non-fiction). Wonderful memoir about author’s experience of having twin micro preemies.
  • Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. Very engaging.
  • Nayomi Munaweera, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I learned so much about the Sri Lankan Civil War in this haunting, beautiful novel.
  • Andy Jones, In the Almond Orchard: Coming Home from War (poetry). An excellent collection meditating on the experience of veterans.
  • Kristi Abbot, Pop Goes the Murder. Escapist cozy mystery fun, with popcorn recipes.
  • W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn. Lyrically stretches what fiction can be and do. Also made me want to take my own walking tour in England.
  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Slave, Ona Judge (non-fiction). One of those books that feels like a very good article stretched beyond its proper size.
  • Christian Kiefer, Phantoms (galley). Coming in April! Here’s my blurb for the book:Phantoms blurb
  • Sandra McPherson, Quicksilver, Cougars, and Quartz (poetry, galley). A wry, elegiac collection that I hope is out very soon.
  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Reread in order to teach it at UC Davis. God, what a great, creepy, wonderful tale.
  • Rob Davidson, What Some Would Call Lies (galley). Just out! I blurbed this one too, as follows: Rob Davidson blurb
  • Rebecca Makkai, The Hundred-Year House. I read this with so much enjoyment over the summer that I assigned it to my Ashland students this fall.
  • China Mieville, The City and the City. Another book I assigned at Ashland. My second-favorite detective novel of the year.
  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy. A student choice book. Compelling story set in Colonial America. Highly recommend.
  • Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think (NF). I thought reading this might help me negotiate the horror that was dealing with the medical profession. It didn’t, really, but was still an interesting, worthwhile read.
  • Imogen Binnie, Nevada. Another student choice book. By turns hilarious & sad, the novel follows a trans woman trying to figure out life, the universe, and everything.
  • Susan Love, Susan Love’s Breast Book (NF). I hope never to have to refer to this book again, but it’s sort of the Bible for breast problems.
  • Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts. Another student choice book. I really wanted to love this sci-fi novel set aboard a generation ship that’s preserved old racial hierarchies from Earth. Impressive, but needed better & more editing, IMO.
  • Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders. Nope, this was not my favorite detective novel of the year. But its story-within-story structure was pretty fun.
  • Katherine J. Chen, Mary B. This novel attempts to give poor, put-upon, unloved Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice her due, but does so in a somewhat ham-fisted & unlovely way. Much better, IMO: Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon’s stage play “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”
  • Gene Luen Yang, Saints (graphic novel). I now know more about the Boxer Rebellion than I used to & need to read the companion book, Boxers.
  • Christian Kracht, The Dead. A compact zinger of a novel that features Toraichi Kono, Charlie Chaplin’s chauffeur, a real-life figure I also fictionalized in one of my first short stories.The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_Tey
  • Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time. This was my favorite detective novel of the year. A reexamination of the case against Richard III. The whole thing takes place as a series of conversations with a bedridden detective. Brilliant and fun.

Currently reading, not yet done:

Dan’s list:

  • Naomi Alderman, The Power: Kind of predictable.
  • Brandy Colbert, Little & Lion: Covered all the bases for a YA novel
  • Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing: Way too much vomiting
  • Jane Austen, Emma: I think I should have just watched Clueless again
  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Read to better understand Infinite Jest. It didn’t really add that much, but it was worth reading anyway—actually, enjoyed it more than watching the play.
  • Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (non-fiction): Author had one point—that the folks who ran the transcontinental railroads were bad at their jobs—and made it many times.
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout: Got that he was making jokes; just didn’t think they were funny.
  • Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca: Kept waiting for something to happen.
  • Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion: Super bad—all the characters were cardboard, and none of the emotions were earned.
  • Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism (non-fiction): Inspirational.
  • Neil de Grasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (non-fiction): In the middle ground between a fun survey and an in-depth treatment. Attempts at humor were pretty weak.
  • Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (non-fiction): As good as everyone says.
  • Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad: Not quite as good as everyone says. As an escape narrative, it worked well, but the sf conceit was unnecessary and underdeveloped.
  • Samantha Hunt, The Dark Dark (short stories): Mostly entertaining short stories
  • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (non-fiction): Long past time I read some Baldwin.NotesOfANativeSon
  • Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Pretty good YA, but would have worked better as a short story or longer novel.
  • Marc Silver, Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond: Pretty heteronormative (I mean, look at the title), but useful if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing this kind of advice.
  • Christian Kracht, The Dead: Brilliant
  • Manuel Pastor, State of resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (non-fiction): As with a lot of non-fiction books, would have made (and probably was at some point) a pretty good magazine article.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint (short stories): Can’t quite figure out if Eugenides is a misogynist or just a misanthrope. Maybe both?
  • Katherine Dunn, Geek Love: Started strong, but kind of petered out at the end.
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (IV). Some parts are better on re-reading, some worse, but I still plan to do it again in a couple of years. [Naomi’s note: Dan insists I label this with that parenthetical Roman numeral IV. It is apparently an inside joke. Hope someone out there gets it.]
  • Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth: Complex, beautiful/terrifying novel
  • C. Sellar & R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (humor): The classic
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita: Laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also a little horrifying considering it’s a satire of Stalinism.

Currently reading, not yet done:

  • Magda Szabo, The Door

Wishing everyone a happy new year and a 2019 filled with good books!



A Trip Around the World, Part 4

Writing on train. (Photo by Chris)

It’s Sunday, July 2, as I begin this new entry, and my friend Chris and I are back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, having traveled from Vladivostok to Irkutsk and spent a day and a half in the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

It seems like we’ve been traveling for days, yet we’re not even halfway between Vladivostok and Moscow. We’ll pass that milestone sometime this afternoon.

Akiko didn’t write that many poems about her train trip from Vladivostok to Moscow. But we do know about her Trans-Siberian journey from her account Pari made [パリまで、To Paris], which was published in four installments in the Asahi shimbun newspaper.*

And I’m really struck by the differences between our two journeys. Continue reading

Around the World in 35 Days, Part 2

Yosano Akiko birthplace, Sakai, Japan

By the time you read this, I will likely already be in Russia. But I started drafting this post in Japan, on the shinkansen (bullet train) after leaving Osaka on Thursday, June 22, to wend my way north and west toward the port town of Sakaiminato.

I included Osaka on my itinerary because Yosano Akiko, the subject of my next novel, was from the nearby city of Sakai. The house where she was born in 1878 is no longer there, but there’s a site on one of the main thoroughfares in the city that indicates where it used to be. I paid my respects on a rainy afternoon. 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

Moby-Dick Blackout Poems

Moby-Dick blackout poem
Blackout poem in progress

My novel Landfalls came out in North America yesterday (!!!), and I want to share a quirky project I’ve been working on in anticipation of its launch.

The idea came from Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems. Kleon’s technique entails “finding” short poems in a newspaper page and inking out everything else. They’re really cool. Here’s one example:

Austin Kleon, newspaper blackout poems
Austin Kleon newspaper blackout poetry

I first stumbled across Kleon’s work four or five years ago. I was teaching at Sacramento City College and looking for an engaging and approachable in-class writing exercise for the poetry unit of my Intro to Creative Writing class. Many of my students had signed up to write short stories or personal essays. The prospect of writing a poem daunted them. Indeed, their instructor had not written a poem in many years and wasn’t undaunted herself. Continue reading