More Best Books of 2016 Lists

The King County Library System’s five top books of 2016

The King County Library System, one of the largest public library systems in America with a lot of avid readers among its patrons, has released its list of the five most popular books of 2016. The library measures popularity by the number of holds placed on a title.

King County Best Books: Librarians’ Choices

The top four entries in this listing are for the current year:

  • Best Books 2016 — Teen
  • Best Books 2016 — Kids
  • Best Books 2016 — Nonfiction
  • Best Books 2016 — Fiction

And, in case you missed the entries for previous years, there are links for those here as well.

The best books of 2016, from our critics

A list from book reviewers for The Seattle Times, divided into fiction and nonfiction sections.

The 10 Best Books of 2016

The editors of The New York Times Book Review offer their choices as the year’s 10 best books, five fiction and five nonfiction.

Notable Children’s Books of 2016

The best in picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction, selected by the children’s books editor of The New York Times Book Review.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books You Can Read in One Day

The countdown to year’s end has begun. If you’re behind on your reading challenge for 2016 or just want to pad your statistics, here are some books you can easily read in a day or less.

Fiction

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Dubliners by James Joyce

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Of the Farm by John Updike

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

The Plains by Gerald Murnane

The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

Nonfiction

Slow Reading by John Miedema

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

The Ancient Art of Tea by Warren Peltier

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865 by Sarah Raymond Herndon

The Tao of Psychology by Jean Shinoda Bolen

Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle by C.G. Jung, trans. R.F.C. Hull

Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky

Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life by Douglas Wilson

In Addition

19 Wonderful Short Books and Stories to Read Now

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

They’re Back: Best Books of the Year Lists

The best books of the year lists seem to appear earlier and earlier every year. Here’s a first look at some of the offerings.

100 Notable Books of 2016

The New York Times announces its choices in the following categories:

  • Fiction & Poetry
  • Nonfiction
BAFFLING OMISSIONS FROM THE NY TIMES’ 100 NOTABLE BOOKS LIST

Emily Temple isn’t satisfied with the New York Times list because it omits several books that she thinks it should include. She offers her list of notable omissions here.

Best books of 2016 – part one

A list from The Guardian, in which “writers choose their best reads of 2016.” Selections include fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

Best books of 2016 – part two

A companion to (or, rather, a continuation of) the entry above.

Best Philosophy Books of 2016

Philosophy raises fundamental questions about the world around us and how we should live our lives. Fortunately, a range of popular books now available mean you too can grapple with some of these issues. Philosopher and author Nigel Warburton picks his favourite philosophy books of 2016.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Literary Links

10 Best Whodunits

I love a good mystery! Here mystery novelist John Verdon (his latest book is Wolf Lake, featuring NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney) offers a list of “ten remarkable works, each of which has a special appeal to my whodunit mentality”:Cover: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

  1. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
  2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  3. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
  5. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
  6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
  7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
  8. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
  9. Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
  10. The Crossing by Michael Connelly

I love that he has included literary classics as well as classic mysteries. And since I’ve only read four of these books (numbers 1,2, 8, and 10), I have yet some more titles to add to my TBR list.

Where Lit-Fic and Horror Converge: Ten Literary Chillers

While researching horror literature I came across this article by writer Christopher Shultz. Shultz addresses the snobbish discrimination between literary fiction and genre fiction (such as horror) to end up with a chronological list of 10 novels and short stories that use horror elements (dark subject matter, entities of a sinister and often supernatural nature, a sense of dread and terror) while also achieving standard criteria of literary fiction (complex characters, existential questions, and elegant prose):

  1. ‘Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley
  2. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
  3. “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
  4. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  5. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin
  7. “The Companion” by Ramsey Campbell
  8. “The Paperhanger” by William Gay
  9. ‘Black Moon’ by Kenneth Calhoun
  10. ‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbot

I usually avoid horror, so I’ve only read three of these (numbers 1,2, and 4; and I’ve seen the film Rosemary’s Baby, if that counts). From Shultz’s descriptions I’m also thinking of adding numbers 5 and 10 to my TBR list.

SIX WRITERS ON THE GENIUS OF MARCEL PROUST

In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday on July 10, six current authors comment on why his work remains so important today. Contributing authors are Siri Hustvedt, Francine Prose, Edmund White, André Aciman, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn.

The Failure of Language and A Dream of the West: An Interview with Bonnie Nadzam

Bryan Hurt interviews his friend Bonnie Nadzam, whom he describes as “someone who felt a dis-ease with conventional fiction and who sought to experiment and push against the boundaries of expectation and form.”

Nadzam is the author of two novels, Lamb (2011) and Lions (2016). Here are some of her statements about how and why she writes:

knowing a character is as complex a process as knowing myself. Both seem to involve a process of patience and observation, and of allowing space for unexpected things/motivations/behaviors to arise.

with Lions in particular, I did try to make the reader a character in this story, to the extent that the reader is tracking signs and assembling and telling stories alongside everyone else in the book. And everyone is mistaken; and also, by the end, everyone is also peculiarly exactly right.

I can’t just write fiction as though language were functioning and reliable. I also, however, don’t want to write heady philosophical fiction. So that means experimenting to find ways to drop into stories that are as unreliable as the language in which they’re written.

I suppose when I write fiction, it’s because there’s something I feel the need to express that I can’t get at intellectually.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Nonfiction Big Books I Loved

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Since I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction, it’s not surprising that all of my earlier Big Books lists have included only novels. However, in looking over my reading lists of the past several years, I discovered five nonfiction works that qualify as Big Books.

I thought I’d find more, but many of the potential candidates I looked at checked in at around 450 pages. I even found one of 497 pages that I was tempted to include, but I finally decided that, since “500 pages or more” is my working definition of the term Big Book, I should stick to that definition here as well.


Truman by David McCullough
Hardcover, 1116 pages

trumanHow could I not love a man who taught himself Latin while driving a horse-drawn plow back and forth across the fields of his family’s farm?

The best writers of creative nonfiction use novelistic techniques to develop characters, create settings, interject background material, and pace action in service to telling a compelling story. David McCullough is one of those writers. I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read, but he is at his outstanding best in this biography of the simple man from Missouri who lead the United States through one of its most crucial periods. Here’s how Goodreads describes the subject of this biography:

The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.

Truman is both an outstanding historical document and a literary masterpiece.


Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
Hardcover, 640 pages

lindberghLike McCullough, Berg tells a masterful story of his subject’s life.

However, Charles Lindbergh isn’t as easy a subject to portray as Harry Truman. The same qualities that made Lindbergh a brilliant, dedicated, and persevering achiever also made him difficult to live with. For example, when he tried to play with his children, he developed games with such arduous and fussy rules that they were not games at all, but rather overwhelming tasks that the children dreaded and resented.

Nonetheless, Berg compellingly portrays what Goodreads calls “the life of one of the nation’s most legendary, controversial, and enigmatic figures.”


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Paperback, 500 pages

unbrokenHere’s yet another brilliant biography compellingly told. Laura Hillenbrand, whose earlier book Seabiscuit does not quite qualify as a Big Book, recounts the life of Louis Zamperini.

As a boy, Zamperini was a delinquent whose activities included breaking into houses, getting into fights, and running away from home to ride the freight rails. As a teenager, he channeled his rebellion into running and became successful enough to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he placed eighth in the 5000 m race.

When World War II arrived, Zamperini went off to fight. In 1943 he was the bombardier on a plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to survive in thousands of miles of open ocean by clinging to a tiny life raft. Later he bacame a prisoner of war, where he inspired his fellow prisoners with his refusal to give in to the brutal conditions and torture imposed by their captors.

Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97.


Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller
Hardcover, 584 pages

girls like usI grew up with the music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Although—or perhaps because—I never knew much about their lives, I was drawn to Weller’s book.

Here’s Goodreads’ description of the book’s content:

Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation – female version – but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliche. The history of the women of that generation has never been written – until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.

This eminently readable book helped me understand that pivotol decade, the 1960s, much better than I had while living through it.


The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Paperback, 592 pages

feminine mystiquePublished in 1963, this ground-breaking work described “the problem that has no name.” Without knowing exactly what to call it, Friedan had discovered that smothered feeling women felt because of unquestioned social beliefs that urged them to be content with home and family, and of institutions of higher learning that minimized their intellectual potential by turning homemaking into a glorified academic discipline.

 

Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and 60 percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives.

Source: Goodreads

I read this book back in college in the late 1960s, but I appreciated it much more when I reread it just a few years ago.


© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Finished in April

11_22_6311/22/63 by Stephen King
Recommended

Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high school English teacher in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. To earn some extra money, he also teaches English to adult GED students. The only other activity in his life is moping around and lamenting the recent divorce from his short-term alcoholic wife. At least he doesn’t have to track her down and go drag her home from some bar any more.

So when Al Templeton, owner of the local diner, asks Jake if he’s willing to take on a secret mission, Jake’s interest is piqued. Al confides to Jake that, at the rear of the diner, there’s a portal that leads to a day in 1958. Al himself has gone through the portal and back several times, so he knows that the passage through always leads to the same day. Also, no matter how long he has stayed in the past, when he returns he has always been gone from the present (2011) for exactly two minutes.

Al believes that the greatest disaster of modern history was the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When he discovered the time portal, he decided to go back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK. Al has spent years researching Oswald’s life and movements, but now he’s dying of lung cancer and can’t finish the job. Would Jake be willing to see the mission through?

After a few trial runs into the past and back, Jake agrees. Armed with Al’s notebook of information on Oswald, he goes back to 1958 with the plan of ending up in Dallas on 11/22/63. He drives through the land of Long Ago and settles down in a small town in Texas to make his preparations. There he becomes George Amberson, who begins substitute teaching at the local high school, falls in love with the new school librarian, and finds a life much more satisfying than the one Jake Epping left behind in Lisbon Falls.

Will George/Jake be able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if he succeeds, how will subsequent history unfold?

Stephen King excels at using details to create interesting characters and to build narrative worlds. 11/22/63 presents him at his storytelling best.


The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

gilded hourIt took me a while to figure out the provenance of this book.

First, Sara Donati is a pen name for Rosina Lippi, a former university professor. She writes historical fiction as Sara Donati. Under her own name she writes contemporary novels and academic work.

Second, the blurb on the inside fold of the dust jacket says “The Gilded Hour follows the story of the descendants of the characters from the Wilderness series.” I, apparently erroneously, took this to mean that this novel is the next installment of that series. According to Lippi’s web site, the Wilderness series comprises “six historical novels that follow the fortunes of the Bonner family in the vast forests in upstate New York, from about 1792–1825.” However, The Gilded Hour, also about the Bonner family, jumps forward to after the Civil War. It is the first book in a new series that will follow the Bonner granddaughters into the twentieth century.

For more information, see these sources:

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In New York City in 1883, two female physicians, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie Savard, graduates of the Woman’s Medical School, care for the city’s poor and immigrant inhabitants. They must contend not only with society’s expectations for women, which still looked down upon women in professions previously reserved for men, but also with Anthony Comstock, self-proclaimed upholder of Victorian morality and creator of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The 1873 Comstock Law, passed by the U.S. Congress, made illegal the production and distribution of any printed material explaining abortion or birth control. For more information about Anthony Comstock, see THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A TRUE AMERICAN MORAL HYSTERIC.

I was drawn to this novel because I wrote my dissertation on the life stories of five nineteenth-century U.S. women physicians. The first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. was Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849. Women of that era knew that they had to be self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned to succeed, but they also knew that they could not overtly flout society’s expectations about the proper behavior of women. Most early women physicians therefore worked to expand the role of women to include health care rather than to denounce social expectations altogether.

And this is where I become uncomfortable with Sara Donati’s portrayal of Dr. Anna Savard, who quickly becomes the central focus of the novel when her cousin Sophie departs for Switzerland. Anna is self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned, but too aggressively so. She is always eager for an argument. A more realistic portrayal of a female physician of the time would have been someone who was less confrontational and more willing to work around challenges instead of charging straight into the middle of them.

There is also a lot more sex in this book than necessary. Of course sex is an apt area for characterization, but the encounters in this novel are as explicit as those in a typical romance novel. Anna and her love interest, detective Jack Mezzanotte, also engage in a lot more subtle sexual communication in public than would have been natural at this time period. For example, Jack often unbuttons Anna’s cuff and rubs his finger along her wrist and down into her palm. It’s hard to imagine much of this actually going on in public among polite nineteenth-century society.

Despite these criticisms, I found much to like in The Gilded Hour. At 732 pages, it’s a Big Book that exhibits many of the positive characteristics its size permits. There’s a large cast of characters who have the room to reveal themselves amply. Donati/Lippi’s eye for detail creates a fascinating picture of New York City in 1883 and reveals that the author has done an enormous amount of research. And, as some readers lamented on Goodreads, even at 732 pages, this novel leaves several storylines unresolved. But that’s all right, since The Gilded Hour is the first novel in a new series.


no join book clubNo! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

About three months before her sixtieth birthday, Marie Sharp decides to keep a diary to record her passage into old age. She begins with comments on the usual complaints of this age: aching knees, bunions, HRT (that’s hormone replacement therapy for the uninitiated), and receding gums. However, she gradually begins to appreciate some of life’s larger aspects: love, death, and personal relationships.

There’s a lot of humor in this book, but it’s humor based on stereotypes. Even when Marie Sharp turns those stereotypes on their heads, she does so in a completely expected way. For example, the woman who can’t imagine why grandmothers go so ga-ga over their grandchildren goes completely ga-ga over her own grandson.

There’s nothing new in this novel. I’m 67, and while I was sometimes amused by this book, I certainly didn’t learn anything from it.


Year-to-date total of books read: 13

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

2 Big Books That Disappointed Me

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I’ve been writing a lot about Big Books lately. Since I no longer continue to slog through books that don’t engage me (although I’ll give a Big Book, one of more than 500 pages, 100 pages to win me over), I don’t have a long list of Big Books I didn’t like. I don’t review books I don’t finish and only seldom report on books that I gave up on.

However, here are two Big Books that I did finish and didn’t like.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
Paperback, 768 pages

hour first believedI picked up this book really wanting and expecting to like it because I was so taken with I Know This Much is True. However, there’s so much wrong with this novel that it’s hard to know where to begin discussing it.

The book centers around a married couple, high school English teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen, a nurse. When Caelum discovers that Maureen is cheating on him, he attacks the other guy with a pipe wrench. In an effort to repair their lives, the Quirks move to Littleton, Colorado, where Maureen gets a job as school nurse at Columbine High School. And if you think you can see where this story is going, you’re right.

A few people I know said they refused to read this book because they didn’t want to revisit the terrible massacre at Columbine. In fact, in remarks at the end of the book Wally Lamb apologetically addresses his decision to use that event as a plot point. I don’t object to his use of this event. What I object to is the point of view he chose with which to narrate it. In the book Caelum has returned to his family home in Connecticut to check on an aging family member when the attack occurs. He tries to reach Maureen by phone while she covers in a closed cabinet listening to the gunfire. Afterwards, we learn more about the massacre as Caelum researches it to help himself understand Maureen’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once Lamb had chosen to write about Columbine, I felt that, to do the issue justice, he should approach it in first person, through the eyes of the person who experiences it in the book, rather than obliquely, through someone reporting on the event and on his wife’s reaction to it.

The couple decide to get away from the scene of the trauma and move back to Caelum’s Connecticut home. Eventually Maureen, unable to overcome her demons, goes to prison for vehicular homicide. And here the story pivots into sole focus on Caelum. SPOILER ALERT: In an obvious deus ex machina move, Lamb eliminates Maureen from further consideration.

In this second half of the novel, Caelum discovers a cache of letters from the 19th century that sets him a crusade to discover his now deceased mother’s true identity and background. He lets a feminist scholar use the letters for her dissertation, a long portion of which appears in the novel. Either half of the book could have been a novel in its own right, but jamming the two together makes this novel a structural nightmare, even though the two parts deal with some of the same themes. Add a few wobbly, far-fetched attempts at symbolism—praying mantis, butterfly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—and you have a book that never would have been published if its author were not already a well established figure.

This book looks like an attempt to apply the formula that worked so well in I Know This Much is True to another novel for which the formula is inappropriate. I would have given up on this book long before I reached the end if it hadn’t been a selection for one of my book clubs. I wasn’t surprised when just about everyone else in the club said they also didn’t like it.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
Hardcover, 742 pages

man in fullAuthor Tom Wolfe is a Big Figure: Goodreads describes him as “our prime fictional chronicler of America at its most outrageous and alive.” Big Figures write Big Books, such as this one that deals with a number of contemporary themes: real estate development, boom vs. bust, shady deals, the politics of college sports, the life of the corporate elite, and racism in the U.S.

The book features Charles Croker, a former college football star who now, in late middle age, owns a large quail-shooting plantation where he schmoozes with the corporate and political elite. Croker also owns a huge but half-empty new office tower and the load of debt associated with it. As real estate tanks in Atlanta, Croker attempts to juggle his enterprise to keep himself afloat.

This is the book that taught me the lesson of not passing judgment until I’ve finished a book. Wolfe’s writing is so vivid and clever that he kept me interested in these characters and the situations they dig themselves into for most of the book. However, most of those situations are so complex and definitive that there really is no way out of them. Wolfe painted himself into a corner and could not find a suitable ending: the book runs out of steam and peters out. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s enough for an author like Wolfe to point out society’s problems without having to suggest solutions to them, but Wolfe is such a good storyteller that the failure to provide an adequate ending here irritated me. After I had told a few people that I was enjoying the book as I was reading it, I then had to tell them that I was disappointed in the way it ended. Now I wait until I’ve finished a book to recommend it.

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What Big Books (of 500 or more pages) have you read that disappointed you?

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Finished in March

Because I had jury duty for the entire month of March, I did not get as much reading done as I would have liked. I usually finish one book before starting another, but I decided to set aside the book I was reading, on which I wanted to take notes, for one that I could more easily pick up and put back down as necessary. As a result, I finished out March with two Big Books each half finished.

Here are the three—all rather short—that I did finish reading in March.

Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark

where are the childrenLong before Mary Higgins Clark took over as the reigning queen of romantic suspense, she concentrated on the suspense part. From childhood she had loved suspense stories, first books featuring girl detectives like Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew, and later books by authors including Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Daphne du Maurier. Clark’s first published book was a collection of stories. Her second book, published in 1975, was Where Are the Children?, her first novel.

Years ago Nancy Harmon had suffered through the disappearance and deaths of her two young children in California. Her husband also died of an apparent suicide. Nancy was charged with the murders of her children but was freed on a technicality. She dyed her hair, changed her name, and traveled to Cape Cod, where she remarried and had two children.

On the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of her first two children, the nightmare begins all over again when
Nancy discovers that her two preschoolers have disappeared from the back yard. As the search for the children begins, spearheaded by a retired detective turned writer, Nancy’s past gradually comes to light. She must endure the scrutiny of a small community naturally suspicious of outsiders along with the anguish over the fate of her children. Will the children be found, or will Nancy once again be haunted by, and accused of, a mother’s worst nightmare?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Recommended

bell jarSylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel was first published in England in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath died by suicide a month after that publication. The novel was first published under Plath’s own name in 1967. Through the influence of her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and her mother, the book was not published in the United States until 1971.

Set in 1953, “summer the Rosenbergs were executed,” the novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood as she begins a prestigious summer internship at a woman’s magazine in New York City. Greenwood, from the suburbs around Boston, has attended a nearby woman’s college on a scholarship awarded because of her outstanding writing ability. Unable to find any joy or meaning in the life she encounters in the city and in the gender identity society expects of her, Greenwood becomes increasingly depressed and unable to sleep. At the end of the internship she returns home, but her mental health declines rapidly and she receives treatment from a number of doctors and institutions.

This novel, which provides insight into the gender expectations and the mental health attitudes of the 1950’s, was the March selection of my in-person classics book club.

Of the Farm by John Updike
Recommended

of the farmPublished in 1965, this short novel provides an image of American life at that time. Joey Robinson, age 35 and a resident of New York City, brings his second wife, Peggy, and his 11-year-old stepson, Richard, to visit his mother on the rural Pennsylvania farm where Joey spent his adolescence. The farm belongs to Joey’s mother; his father, recently dead, was never happy here. His mother is aging and can no longer care for the farm on her own.

Over the three days of their visit, Joey is haunted by memories not only of his parents and life on the farm, but also of his first wife, Joan, whose large portrait has been moved from the living room to a small upstairs bedroom, and thoughts of his three children, who now live in Canada with their mother and stepfather.

With heavy-handed symbolism, the farm becomes the Garden of Eden: Peggy unexpectedly begins menstruating, to intensify the fertility/Garden of Eden motif, and Joey frequently thinks of her body as a field to plow. On Sunday they all attend the local church, where the minister preaches a sermon expounding on the biblical description of the Garden of Eden:

What do these assertions tell us abut men and women today? First, is not Woman’s problem that she was taken out of Man, and is therefore a subspecies, less than equal to Man, a part of the world? … Second, she was made after Man. Think of God as a workman who learns as he goes. Man is the rougher and stronger artifact; Woman the finer and more efficient. (p. 112)

Over the course of the visit, the child, Richard, becomes a mediator between the three adults as they debate the choices they have made and the ways in which they define their lives.

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Year-to-date total of books read: 10

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Big Books on My Reading List

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Like most of you, I have big, ambitious plans for my future reading. Here are the Big Books that currently reside on my TBR shelves.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
paperback, 1392 pages

war and peace

 

Isn’t this book on just about everybody’s lifetime reading list? It seems to be one of the titles that separates the true book lovers from the wanna-bes.

 

 

 


Ulysses by James Joyce
paperback, 732 pages

ulysses

The comments from War and Peace also apply here.

This is the cover of the copy I bought for myself in Dublin, in the hopes that having a real Irish copy would make me more likely to actually read the book. Someday I hope to return to Dublin and walk Leopold Bloom’s journey around the city.

 

 


The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
hardcover edition, 567 pages

golden notebook

 

This book has been on my TBR shelf for so long that I no longer remember where I picked it up. But it’s a classic work of feminism, and I’m determined to get through it.

 

 


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
hardcover, 562 pages

freedom

After reading Franzen’s The Corrections, one of the 6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread, I eagerly bought the hardcover of this novel soon after it came out.

Alas, life intervened, and I still haven’t read it. But I’m going to. I’m definitely going to. Some time soon.

 

 


Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
hardcover, 1168 pages

atlas shrugged

I hear so much about Ayn Rand that I think I should read at least one of her works. A lot of people I know read either this book or The Fountainhead in college, but I guess I didn’t take the right course.

This is another one that’s been on my shelf for so long that I can’t remember where or when I bought it. I plan to take it with me on my next long, leisurely vacation.

 


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
paperback, 636 pages

kavalier and clay

 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet read anything by Michael Chabon. This is a shortcoming that I plan to correct someday soon with this Big Book.

 

 

 


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which ones do you especially recommend? Or do you have other Big Books to recommend?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Books That I Finished in February

In an effort to reach my reading goal of 40 books this year, I’m going to start keeping track here of the books I finish each month. Although I keep this information in a database program, it will be easier for me to see if I make each month’s quota.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Recommended

lucy bartonMany years later, first-person narrator Lucy Barton recalls the time her mother visited her in the hospital. Lucy spent nine weeks hospitalized after an appendectomy because of a fever the doctor couldn’t figure out and couldn’t eliminate. Up until that time Lucy had had little contact with her mother since leaving home as a young woman.

Her mother stays for five days, during which the two women gossip about the lives of several people in Lucy’s small, rural hometown. These stories provide a round-about way of discussing what life is all about and how people treat each other. Lucy never does confront her mother with the question she most needs an answer to—why her mother allowed some unspecified “thing” (suggestions of physical and/or sexual abuse)—happen. Yet before her mother unceremoniously leaves to return home, Lucy has come to terms with the insatiable desire for a mother’s love and the fragile nature of memory.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Highly Recommended

house-of-mirthThis was the February selection of my in-person classics book club. Published in 1905, it was Wharton’s first novel. It portrays New York high-society life at the turn of the twentieth century.

The novel tells the story of beautiful Lily Bart. At age 29, 11 years after she made her debut into society, Lily is well past the time when she should have found a suitable, meaning rich, husband. Born into society but forced to its margins by her father’s financial ruin, Lily must find a husband to provide the dresses, jewels, houses, prestige, and power she needs to maintain her place in society.

A life outside of the social circuit is something Lily cannot even consider. As her finances dwindle, so do her opportunities and her reputation. This novel deftly portrays the lives of people for whom appearance is everything, and the fate of people, like Lily, who are unable to play the game successfully.

Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Connor

writing-down-your-soulAnyone interested in journal writing will appreciate Janet Connor’s story of how, at the darkest point of her life, she discovered a way to tap into her own inner strength through writing.

Although her practice involves writing in a journal, she insists that it differs from standard journal writing because of these four characteristics: intention, purpose, process, and commitment. Connor mines the scientific literature of mind-body medicine to explain how writing that combines these four elements can put us in touch with our own inner wisdom by shifting our consciousness and realigning the brain’s neural pathways. She then lays out a four-step approach for accessing that wisdom.

I felt that the book contained much repetition and padding. Nonetheless, it does offer detailed instructions—even though perhaps, in places, too detailed—for anyone interested in giving Connor’s system a try.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Highly Recommended

a little lifeThis big-hearted book contains so much humanity that I’m going to be thinking about it for a while before attempting to write a review. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read. As much as I love literature, I can’t remember the last time a book actually brought me to tears.

If you’re going to read only one novel this year, make it this one. It’s long at 800+ pages, but spend the time to read it slowly and savor it.

Slow Reading by John Miedema

slow readingMiedema put this book together from research for a graduate course in library and information science. He defines slow reading as a voluntary practice done to increase enjoyment and comprehension of a text, a process that some people describe as “getting lost in a book.”

Miedema is discussing the reading of fiction here. Here are a few quotations:

“A fictional work provides a sand box for imagining other identities and choices”(p. 56).

“Children can use fiction as a testing ground for their future selves. Is there any reason to stop this process when we reach adulthood? It is sad and a bit creepy to watch those adults who cease to imagine. It is as if their inner landscape is withering” (p. 57).

”Slow readers have a particular capacity to open up to new ideas, and allow the sense of self to be transformed” (p. 62).

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Year-to date total of books read: 7

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown