Our Year in Reading 2017

Can’t lie: I love my Kindle

For the eighth consecutive December 31, I’m seeing out the old year by reporting what my husband Dan and I read over the past year.

A few comments about this year’s lists:

One big change to my reading habits: I started reading on a Kindle. Dan gave me one before my big round-the-world trip, and wow, was I ever glad to have it. I still love and buy and read paper books. But now I read more because of my Kindle. Please admire the pretty orange case.

Unusually, Dan didn’t read more than one book by anyone this year. The only author I read more than once was my friend Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Her novel, A Thin Bright Line, was the first book I finished in 2017, and then I had the entertaining privilege of reading a galley copy of her forthcoming novel, The Evolution of Love.

As always, I’m impressed by how much Dan reads in translation. I tried to read more this year that was both not originally in English and not The Tale of Genji. This year’s list includes translator credits for the first time.

Marie Darrieussecq books

Dan and I read three books in common: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s searing Between the World and Me; Geoff Dyer’s Zona; and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. We both discovered the French author Marie Darrieussecq, who was at a Freeman’s reading we attended in Paris this summer. But Dan read her novel Pig Tales, while I read Being Here, her very literary biography of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Naomi’s list (novels unless otherwise indicated):

  • Lucy Jane Bledsoe, A Thin Bright Line. Poignant, entertaining novel about closeted but not-at-all somber urban lesbians during the Cold War.
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (short stories). My second or third time through this hypnotic collection of fairy tale retellings, of which I read many this year.
  • John Berger, Ways of Seeing (non-fiction). Re-read in memoriam.
  • Paulette Jiles, News of the World. A Western with a difference.
  • Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants (short stories). Some of this is wildly wonderful, some wildly annoying for its casual sexism.
  • Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan and Other Tales (short stories). Beautiful fairy tale retellings accompanied by lovely illustrations.

    Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan, cover & illo
  • Sara Nović, Girl at War. Sara is a friend, and this book about the Yugoslav civil war is wrenching and memorable.
  • Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning (short stories). Also part of fairy tales reading project. Some terrific, some a bit “phoned-in.”
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout. Hilarious and disturbing.
  • Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (short stories). More fairy-tale-ish reading. Love the first story, “Summer People.” Mixed feelings about the rest.
  • Edward Thomas, The Works of Edward Thomas (poetry). My favorite is “The Gallows.”
  • David Greene, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (non-fiction). A good read while I rode the Trans-Siberian this summer.
  • Shion Miura, The Great Passage (tr. from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter). Engaging enough novel about dictionary editors.
  • Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (non-fiction). Related to new novel research. I had never been particularly interested in Rilke before I read this, and now I am.
  • Virginia Johnson, Honeysuckle Drift. A novel about 1950s Birmingham, Alabama, by my friend Ginny Johnson.
  • Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (non-fiction, tr. from French by Penny Hueston). Wonderful biography of early 20th-c. painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, a friend of Rilke’s.
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird. Luminous and distinctly odd, in a good way.
  • Rob Davidson, Spectators (short stories). A great collection of short-shorts.
  • Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen. Also distinctly odd. And quite compellingly so.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (non-fiction). Should be assigned reading in American high schools.
  • Adrian Tomine, Shortcomings (graphic novel). A serendipitous find in a used book store.
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (non-fiction). Finally read this must-read for writers who love Paris.
  • Christian Wolmar, To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railroad (non-fiction). Exhaustively researched & well-written history of the Trans-Sib. The footnotes gave me an idea for what might be another novel one day.
  • Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (tr. from Polish by Celina Wieniewska). Haunting and haunted. One of my favorite opening lines in any book anywhere:

In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.

 

  • Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (non-fiction). Dan & I sat through all three pointless hours of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Dyer’s book about the film is very engaging and light years better than the movie. See below for Dan’s take; he also read Roadside Picnic, the novel that supposedly inspired Stalker.
  • K. M. Peyton, Flambards. Lovely to revisit this favorite from my adolescence, but struck by how easy Peyton is on the Russell men, who were jackasses. Sometimes even my teenage fictional crush Will.
  • Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. Read in memoriam.
  • Anne Sexton, Transformation (poetry). More fairy tale retellings, these in verse. Occasional distressing casual racism, but many of the poems are amazing.
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. I admired this book but did not love it. So sue me.
  • Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (poetry). Wow. Did not understand a lot of this, but mesmerized all the same.
  • Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (non-fiction). Read this in one four-hour sitting in the middle of the night.
  • Kate Bernheimer, ed. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales (short stories). A must-have for fairy tale aficionados.
  • Susanna J. Mishler, Termination Dust (poetry). Susanna is a friend, but even if she weren’t, this would have been my favorite poetry collection of the year.
  • Antonio Muñiz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow (tr. from Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez). Really inventive novel that juxtaposes what reads like memoir with account of James Earl Ray’s flight after assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (poetry). Read the Nook version on my phone. Deserves to be read on real page, I think.
  • H. Auden, Poems (poetry). Auden astonishes over & over & over.
  • Lucy Jane Bledsoe, The Evolution of Love. Lucky me—I got to read the galley proof! The rest of you can read this page-turner when it comes out in May.
  • Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad. Totally deserving of hype & accolades.
  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (non-fiction). A must-read—if you’re into Heian-period Japanese literature.
  • Kimiko Hahn, Toxic Flora (poetry). Appreciated the juxtaposition of science & the personal, but generally enjoyed the science more than the personal.
  • Shanthi Sekaran, Lucky Boy. A taut, intense tale about immigration and belonging that’s very relevant today.
  • Naomi Alderman, The Power. While not bowled over by the prose, really glad I read this dark vision of world where women are stronger than men.
Other Slavery, Andres Resendez; Susanna J. Mishler, Termination Dust
Two totally different great books that also just look really nice next to each other

Dan’s list:

  • Michael Krasny, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means. The jokes were funny enough, but the annotations were kind of superfluous.
  • Lucia Berlin, Angels Laundromat (short stories). Lovely, small collection of some of her early work.
  • Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Sight. Who knew a novel about Somalis could be alienating because the characters are too wealthy.
  • Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (non-fiction). Fascinating, well-written look at the title subject.
  • Lyndsay Faye, Jane Steele. Not particularly good, but reasonably fun, reimagining of Jane Eyre as a serial killer.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (non-fiction). Almost as brilliant as everyone says.
  • Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (non-fiction). Worth re-reading every five years or so, especially for a water lawyer.
  • Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity. Decent YA spy thriller.
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (SF). Disappointing Lovecraft pastiche.
  • Yukio Mishima (tr. from Japanese by Ivan Morris), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A classic for a reason.
  • Laszlo Bock, Work Rules, Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. (NF). Still not clear why I read this self-congratulatory business book.
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (non-fiction). One of the best books I read in college, and still amazing on re-reading.
  • Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky (SF). Loved the first 2/3.
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (tr. from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky). Read all 1000+ pages on my phone. The whole thing is a satire, right?
  • Marie Darrieusecq, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation (tr. from French by Linda Coverdale). Brilliant short novel with some fantastical elements.
  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (non-fiction). Goes some distance toward explaining how we got where we are today. A bit too detailed, especially toward the end.
  • Jonathan Sun (aka “Jomny Sun”), everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. Hippy-happy coloring book from the Twitter sensation.
  • Saladin Ahmed, Engraved on the Eye (SF short stories). Wishing he would finally write that sequel to Throne of the Crescent Moon.
  • Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (non-fiction). Interesting analysis/lionization of The Great Transformation.
  • Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain (SF). Somewhat disappointing alternative history—really three novels in one, so none of the three was adequately developed.
  • Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown, Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods (non-fiction). Rational, scientific approach to the debate.
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (SF, tr. from Russian by Olena Bormashenko). Re-read this classic, then watched the Tarkovsky adaptation, then read the Dyer book about the movie inspired by this book. This was the best of the three.
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Searing polyphonic Booker-prize winner.
  • Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (non-fiction). See above.
  • Monica Hesse, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land (non-fiction). Started as a newspaper article, and probably could have stayed that way.
  • Krasznahorkai, Herman and The Last Wolf
    Cool book you flip over to go from one story to other

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai, The Last Wolf and Herman (tr. from Hungarian by John Batki and George Szirtes). Three novellas by the modern Hungarian writer of despair. Brilliant and amazing as always.

  • N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (SF). Finale of the multiple-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. She’s just so good.
  • Henry James, Daisy Miller. Embarrassed to admit I’ve never read any James before, and this novella seems like a good entrée.
  • Eka Kurniawan, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (tr. from Indonesian by Annie Tucker). Quite liked this glimpse into Indonesia’s gangster underworld.
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. Long-time Saunders fan. Though this one was pretty good too, it wasn’t quite up to his short-fiction standard.
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (non-fiction). Wow. Hard to say how many different ways this book was impressive.
  • Annalee Newitz, Autonomous (SF). Classic SF in the sense that potentially interesting ideas were handled less adroitly than they could have been.
  • Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage. This classic narrating the early life of club-footed Philip Carey left me wondering what all the fuss was about.

So that was our year in reading. How was yours?

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. Continue reading

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

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

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

Our Year in Reading 2014

A long, mesmerizing read about a really dysfunctional society.
A long, mesmerizing read about a really dysfunctional society.

This was the year of long books for me and my spouse. Dan read Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov. I read The Goldfinch and The Tale of Genji.

Needless to say — but I’ll say it anyway — those books not originally written in English, we read in translation. In fact, most of Dan’s reading for the year was work in translation. I actually attempted to read Genji in a modern Japanese version, an attempt that lasted two hours and one paragraph.

This year my family did a new thing, which was reading a summer book that all four of us agreed to read. We selected One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was, needless to say — but I’ll say it anyway — an inspired choice, and a fitting tribute to the author, who died in April.

Another new thing: I’m giving Goodreads a try. Continue reading

Our Year in Reading 2013

book lists notebook
Our “Book of Books”

Whenever we reach year’s end, my husband Dan bemoans how short his book list is. Actually, he reads a ton for someone who works as hard as he does at a regular day job (which often requires his evenings as well) and is as involved as he is in the running of our household.

He also does this thing I really admire but don’t tend to do with my own reading, which is find a writer he likes, then read several books by the same person. Continue reading