2nd Annual Book Review Bonanza

Last year, I got a lot of feedback about my post that chronicled all the books I read during Olive’s first year of life.  I have had a lot of folks ask me for book suggestions, and some even joked about me having a Book Club a la Oprah, with books on my seal of approval list!

Well, I’m certainly not at cultural zeitgeist level, but I’m happy to oblige with a list of recommended reads.  I also enjoy telling you which books are crappy, to save you some vital reading time.  Finally, I’m curious to see if I beat last year’s tally, which was 71 books.  So, I’m re-adopting my rating system from last year, but substituting boring asteriks for Kit Cat Clocks, which are my daughter and I’s current neighborhood obsession (we walk by the store that sells them and say hello to them every day):

The measuring symbol of 2012: a feline clock whose eyes and tail twitch in time.

 = an instant classic, one I will recommend to anyone who will listen, a sure re-read.

 = a solid excellent book, well written and enjoyable.

= fun, but not life-changing.

 = either the equivalent of an US magazine — frivolous and poorly written, or inherently problematic.

 = drivel.

1.  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  A fantastical novel that I think anyone looking for an unconventional love story would enjoy.  I wrote a review of it on the blog, which is worth clicking through just to see the reader comments on that post, which are perhaps even better than the book!

2. Happy Chaos by Soleil Moon Frye.  In my post about all the celebrity memoirs I’d been reading, I called this “momoir” just one step up from spending an hour reading a Twitter feed.

3.  The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle is one of those books that make you feel so blessed to be a human, living on an earth once shared with a creature as wise, loving, and vulnerable as L’Engle.  I will return to this book again and again in this life.

4. The House in France by Gully Wells.  As I predicted at the end of my post last year, I did not get through this one.  It is very hard for me to relate to folks with ultra-privileged backgrounds, unless they are willing to deconstruct that upbringing a bit, and her memoir just sent it up.

5. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.  This book was really sad for me to read, as it was about two couples who were inseparable their whole lives, which is something Joel and I used to have, so it was hard to feel that loss as I read this lovely story.  It is incredibly well-written, so I do recommend it.

6. Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch.  This is one of the other books I reviewed in my post about celebrity memoirs.  A fun read if you’re into Jane, but not life changing.

7.  Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.  I could not get into this book at all: it just wasn’t for me.

8.  Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  I picked up this children’s novel because I love the movie by Hayao Miyazaki, and the book did not disappoint.  A sweet read, either alone for a less challenging week, or with your elementary schooler.  The magical tone is quite satisfying.

9.  The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  I did a full review of this book on the blog as well, in my post in which I compared it to the next book I read.  My re-read of this novel was enlightening, as Lewis appears to make a case for feeling real pain and real pleasure, which seems unlikely for a Christian but not for an Anglican, which he was!

10.  La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino.  I can’t seem to stop reading books about France, and with each one, my longing to go there only grows.  Check out my full review of this book in this post, which includes 8 ways you can try to be more French, based on Sciolino’s text.

11.  Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle.  Gorgeous portrait of a marriage of fidelity, mutual love and respect.

12.  State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  Breathtaking.  If you are reading this list looking for just one novel to pick up, let it be this one.  The way Patchett weaves this story together is masterful, and the ending is really satisfying.

13.  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.   I enjoyed this, for sure, but the style of telling something from one perspective and then going back and re-telling it from another character’s perspective was tedious to me. Also, there were some characters I loved and wanted more of, like Mitchell, and others that seemed hollow and devoid of an arc, like Madeleine and Leonard. It was a good read, but Mitchell’s spiritual growth was the most valuable part of the book, and I had really high expectations, after Middlesex.

14.  Out of Oz (The Wicked Years #4) by Gregory Maguire.  This book was good but all the constant traveling in it made me exhausted.

15.  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  This is a good novel for anyone wanting to learn more about foster children, and how attachment disorder pans out in adulthood.  I found the way she used flowers to tell an emotional story quite charming.

16.  Calling in “The One”: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life by Katherine Woodward Thomas.  I read this for work, to help a client go through the exercises to find a fulfilling love relationship.  It is a nice program for people who are pining for a relationship, and wanting to know what deeper underlying issues could be impeding that from happening.  As a therapist, it was a good way of moving that issue forward with a client, instead of letting the issue fester over time.

17.  Bright Young Things by Anna Godberson.  I just found this YA read so boring.

18.  Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling.  This memoir led me to write a post in which I list the reasons that Minds and I should be buds.  I think you should read it, especially since some of the problems I had with the memoir are also reflected in her new TV show, The Mindy Project: it’s hilarious, but all the cracks about her weight are just irritating.  Mindy, YOU’RE NOT FAT SO IT’S NOT FUNNY, IT’S JUST SAD.

19.  A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness.  I was so excited about this book: witches, vampires, alchemy, and history?  Count me in.  But I should have known it was too many buzz words to be well conceived.  Because she is a historian first, Harkness takes forever setting up the scene.  I don’t get any good witchiness until over a hundred pages in.  Once it gets going, the book is really interesting.  However, the very traditional love relationship between the two main characters made me angry.

20.  A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born To Do by Thomas Moore.  I read this in the throws of being laid off and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.  This book was a good read, but since I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life, I can only give it three kit cat clocks.

21.  Chocolat (Chocolat #1) by Joanne Harris.  A very enjoyable read, perfect to read before Lent, to remember not to take it too seriously. But I was left with so many questions!  I felt the need to get the sequel immediately.  A few things are very different than the movie, which for the most part was a fun diversion but could Harris have found a way to shrink Johnny Depp and make it so he pops out whenever you open the book, speaking in an Irish gypsy accent?  KThanksBai.

22.  Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on my Pajamas, and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning.  Another “I’m sad that I was laid off” book, but this one was horrible; boring and self-indulgent.  Maybe if I had been a rich middle-aged empty nester when I lost my job, I would have had more sympathy for her, but I could not relate.

23.  1Q84 by Hakuri Murakami.  Hated it. Couldn’t get into the cold female archetypes at all.  And yes, I am totally embarrassed that I don’t “get” Murakami.  True confessions!

24.  The Girl With No Shadow (Chocolat #2) by Joanne Harris.  This book built on Chocolat in a surprising and innovative way. It was totally satisfying, unlike its predecessor, which left me with one too many questions. There are so many gems in this book that I want to ponder further — the idea that people who try to help often do more harm than good, the mother-daughter themes, the re-awakening of who you really are. It was such a fun read, as well. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait for the last in the trilogy… will it ever come??

25.  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  This was a sad book in which for the first half, I was irritated with the main character, who seemed to be just attaching herself to other people’s dreams, and in the second half, I was irritated with everyone else, who just turned out to be terrible people. An interesting but depressing read.  Just read Hemmingway instead.

26.  A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel.  A sweet memoir, full of unconventional real-life characters and small town tidbits.

27.  Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris.  Every year I find a new author whose work I fall headlong into, and I always eventually find the one book that that disappoints, and stops me from filling up my to-read queue with every book they ever wrote.  This was the one that left me cold, as it was so disturbing I just wanted it to end.

28.  Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield.  This was a sad, beautiful story of a young marriage, told through the language of music.  I found a lot to relate to in this memoir.

29.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  What a fun combination of pictures and text!  Buy it for your favorite teenager and steal it once they’ve torn through it.  The movie is magically excellent, as well!

30.  The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel.  A really strong novel with themes of spirituality, trauma, and the interconnectedness of human lives.

31.  The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield.  This is a seminal Buddhist text, and I have actually not finished it yet.  I dip back in every time I need to shift my perspective.  It is where I found my Prayer of the Year, which I wrote about in my post about Radical Body Acceptance.

32.  Swamplandia by Karen Russell.  What hype around this terrible, way-too-dark novel!  Don’t believe it – must have been some publishing push.

33.  Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott.  I wrote a full review of this book as well, in which I complain, totally undeservedly, that I wish Anne were more evolved.  She has no commitment to the public to be less neurotic than she has always been!  It’s just that she comes out with so many gems here and there, that slogging through her neuroses to get to them is like panning for gold in a murky river.

34.  Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky But Authentic Spiritual Memoir by Susan E. Isaacs.  The premise of this book, which is that Isaacs takes God to couple’s therapy, was so appealing to me, but the exposition was terrible.  I think a more traditional, conservative Christian would like it, but I’m not interested in a “testimony” in memoir form.

35.  NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  Reading this book led me to write one of the posts I am most proud of, my piece about talking to your kids about race.  That piece has led me to more deep discussions with parents about how to present race relations to their kids than I ever imagined.  I am grateful to Bronson and Merryman for their reporting, and learned a lot from the entire book.

36.  Arcadia by Lauren Groff.  This novel about a utopian society turned cult just did not grab me.

37.  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson.  I was really, really excited about this memoir, and it did not disappoint.  I love The Bloggess, and I hoped this memoir would join the ranks of Tina Fey’s Bossypants in satisfying my curiosity and making me laugh my pants off.  Which, it totally did.  Unexpected bonus?  Through saying I liked the book on Goodreads, I somehow found an entire community of badass folks that love the bloggess WAY more than I do but are hilarious and vulnerable and brave and call themselves Lawsbians.  They let me join their Facebook page and I feel like I have 100 new best friends.  Which sounds like a lot of pressure but mostly it’s just awesome sauce.

38.  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.  If you only read one memoir from this list, let it be this one.  I have told almost everyone I know about this book, and I usually give it this synopis: coming off the heels of losing her mom, destroying her marriage, and having a tiny heroin addiction, the author decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  By herself.  Add to that drama the fact that it is written with such emotional depth that you find yourself gasping for air as you swim in the ocean of Strayed’s words, and you’ll be glad you picked up this one.

39.  Deadlocked (Sookie Stackhouse #12) by Charlaine Harris.  I think it was well established last year that no matter how many crappy books Harris writes in her Sookie Stackhouse series, which the television show True Blood is loosely based on, I am going to read them all.  This one was slightly less craptacular than the last one, but not enough that I feel it redeems my commitment to this terrible body of work.

40.  You’re Not Doing it Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and Other Humiliations by Michael Ian Black.  Funny man Black started this memoir strongly, with tales from the parenting ranks.  But when he backs up to tell how he got there, his misanthropy hijacks his writing in such a way that you want to give up on him.  I mean, if the writer doesn’t care about his life, why should we?

41.  Bitterblue (Graceling Realm #3) by Kristin Kashore.  The final book in this fantastical YA series was engaging and interesting, but flawed.  It is still worth reading, especially if you start with the first in the series, Graceling.

42. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be And Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown.  I’m sure everyone has seen Brene, as her TED Talk on vulnerability is now famous.  She is truly a remarkable person, and I look forward to reading her longer book on this topic.  However, this slender book felt more like a pamphlet than a developed argument for living life with an open heart.

43.  The Book of Salt by Monique Truong.  This is a well-written piece in which nothing really happens.  The words are beautiful, but the plot is non-existant, and when you write a historical novel about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, you best bring it.  It felt more like a wonderful poem than a novel.

44.  Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood: The Good, The Bad, and The Scary by Jill Smokler.  Smokler and I may not have much in common by way of parenting styles, but her Scary Mommy Manifesto that starts this book is effing brilliant.  I read the 12-step pledge aloud to my friends, who called out “Preach!”  However, you don’t have to get her book to read along with us, just click here.  I really can’t even pick my favorite one: they are all splendid and I wish I could hand out copies to all the mamas on the playground, before we even speak to each other.

45.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine #1) by Ransom Riggs.  This book was riveting and creepy, just what I wanted from it, but nothing more.

46.  The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. When I was less than 100 pages in, I wrote to a friend, “I started a new memoir, and I already know it is changing me.”  Lidia calls to me to write more boldly, more raw, more real.  This memoir does not pull any punches and I daresay I fell in love with Ms. Yuknavitch.  Her new novel came out this month and I can’t wait to read it!

47.  A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.  Disappointing, but perhaps just may not have been for me.  I was not drawn in by the main character of a sad, ineffectual middle aged white dude.

48.  The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray.  This book was too confused about whether it’s a novel or historical text. I love historical fiction, but you actually have to write some prose in order for it to be considered fiction! You can’t just paste in letters and retelling of battles.  Skip it.

49.  Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2) by Deborah Harkness.  This novel, like the first one in the series, took a REALLY long time to get good. Once it did, it was riveting, but I was already mad that the exposition took forever, so I can only give it 3 Kit Cat Clocks. I think it is because the writer is a historian, so she wants to add all those history tidbits in there non-stop, but I read for the alchemy-witchy-lore stuff, not name-dropping of 16th century greats. The traditional love relationship between the two main characters continued to bother me. However, she does such lovely work on the smaller characters — Mr. Proctor, Gallowglass, Phoebe — it’s worth the struggle, I believe. The final book will be the verdict-maker.

50.  Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson.  Raw, real, and so eloquent. The ending was a cliffhanger, but it was a wonderful read all around.  It gave me my favorite quote of the year so far, which I have been sharing left and right: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence.  The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven.  He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”

51.  Gold by Chris Cleave.   I heartily enjoyed this novel. First of all, I read it at the perfect time, during my London Olympics obsession, and it got me thinking about the possible back stories for all the champions I was following on TV. Secondly, it was a great mix of tragedy and triumph, written with a quick wit and a remarkable depth. However, I found the character of Zoe difficult to relate to. Cleave wrote her as if she were male, but she does some things that no male could do, and responds as no female would. I’m trying not to give anything away — read the book and let me know if you agree!

52.  The Diary, Vol. 1: 1915-1919 by Virginia Woolf.  With great excitement, I purchased 5 volumes of Woolf’s diary at a used bookstore, only to find the first one a boring retelling of who was marrying whom and her quest to find the right place to live.  I have heard these volumes heat up, though, and I hope I’ll find the time to dive back in.

53.  In One Person by John Irving.  Like the main character in this novel, I grew up in New England having crushes on the wrong people, sublimating my desires in literature.  That is basically where our similarities end, but it was enough to keep me fully engrossed in this story, even when it takes it’s predictable Irving turn into disturbing despair.

53.  Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn.  This was the big hit book of the summer, but novels in which I hate all the characters are not fun for me. The only person I was rooting for in this novel was Go, a minor character. It certainly has a riveting plot, but that’s about all there is to love in this one.

54.  How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights by Ariel Gore.  Gore gives extremely practical, non-judgmental advice about writing, in a funny, approachable tone.  This book led me to the Lit Kitchen, where I am getting hands-on instruction from Ms. Gore and other amazing writers!

55. Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson.  Samuelsson is such a fascinating person: Ethiopian born, Swedish adopted, highly ambitious and talented.  I really appreciated his perspectives on diversity – being an outsider gave him a really thoughtful platform to analyze race relations in several different countries.  All of the details about cooking were hard for me to follow, but I love that he doesn’t leave out his mistakes and failures in this book.  It is more than a celebrity memoir, more along the lines of the excellent Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.

56.  The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  Recommitting to this program, in which you learn to nurture your creativity in practical and emotional ways, has totally transformed my life this summer.  I feel so connected to my art, my family, and my creative spirit, which is at the soul of my being.  I recommend this 12-week adventure for anyone interested in making a commitment to their art, and willing to follow wherever that takes you … which is not always to easy places!

57.     The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  I’ve known about this book for a long time, because my friend from college Dana raves about it, and since I think she’s pretty smart I knew I wanted to check it out.  It took seeing the trailer for the movie to finally get it in front of my face.  This book was so sweet, honest, and captures that time in life when you’re trying to figure out your place in the world so well.  I’m going to give a copy to my favorite High School Freshmen.

58.  The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.  This is an easy read, an interesting story that unfolds in a timely manner.  Kind of a safe book.  I felt that it could have ended when she stopped being “the chaperone” – it was the case of an author not wanting to let go of her characters and let us guess about what could have happened to them.  But it was a nice story, and leaves me wanting to know more about the real Louise Brooks.

In Progress:

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein.  Now that my house has 100% more pink stuff in it after Olive’s birthday, I am feeling really ready to read this book.  I feel that the Princess Craze is right around the corner, and I want to be prepared for it when it hits.

On Deck:

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling.  In exactly one week, I will be uploading Rowling’s new book, which I have pre-ordered to my Nook, and finding out if our Harry Potter darling has still got it.  I CANNOT WAIT!

Breakdown (not including in-progress):

Novels: 32

Memoirs: 19

Non Fiction: Self-Help/How-To/Spirituality/Psychology:  8

So, the verdict is out.  I read 13 more books in my first year of parenting than in my second.  But it makes sense — once my daughter was down to one nap, and running around all the time instead of hanging on my boob, there was no time to have my nose in a book during the day.  I did, however, read about 1,455,678 children’s books, and at least 1,000 of those readings were of Where The Wild Things Are.

Reading to the tots at Rare Device, Olive front and center.

What are your favorite books you read this year, that I should put on next year’s list?  What books from this list piqued your interest?  Happy reading!

13 thoughts on “2nd Annual Book Review Bonanza

  1. Ooo, love this list, especially the conciseness of the reviews. And I was going back and forth as to whether or not to read Cheryl Strayed’s book, but based on your review I’ll give it a shot (I’m not usually a memoirs fan, but there are exceptions.)

    • I’m glad you liked the conciseness – I wondered if I should give synopses but it felt like overkill so I just got straight to the point. And yes, Strayed’s book is worth it. I felt like it gave me strength to meet challenges in my life. I’d think, “Okay, this is hard right now, but Strayed trekked with so much weight on her back in the heat and survived! I can do this.”

  2. Enjoyed your list. I love Stegner, L’Engle (Did you know she is the mother-in-law of the former Dean of Grace Cathedral?) Or was. Dean Jones divorced his wife–L/Engles daughter but stayed close to L/Engle. She, L’Engle is a wonderful writer. I also like Ann Patchett and have read all of her. I was interested in your comment about pain and feeling and Christians showing that emotion—I think that is what you said—I didn’t print out the list. I will do that and then ask more questions. But one is—-do you buy these books–especially the new ones are usually not in used book stores or in libraries. My one passion that I spend money on was books—now I am more careful but still can’t resist when I go in a book store. Now that Border’s is not five blocks away I do better. I love to shop at small book stores too. I have a kindle and have to be very careful of the ease of ordering books and they appear in 5 seconds. Have you started a book club or are you in one? Interesting about Ann Lamont. I heard her speak about her latest book and I agree she does seem to have some os the same issues, but she does have a grandchild now and I have found it is far to easy to revisit all your neurosis as you try once again to form a perfect human being in your image. My kids have effectively blocked me from doing this but still like that I share love with them and stories and family. Love you Rhea. And I love your book lists. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Genie. I absolutely do not buy these books! I would be broke and my bookshelves are overflowing as we speak. I request them online from the library and sometimes have to wait months to read the ones I want. The library saves my life!

  3. I have never read a Thomas More book straight through and not sure I like him. Jack Kornfield is another thing. But still I don’t read these straight through. Reminds me too much of seminary—in some ways. I like good fiction and some non-fiction and have spiritual books I refer to again and again. What to do with all these books I have? Love you.

  4. ~~Thank You~~ for this list 🙂 I love it and it helps me, fuels me and inspires me. You are a gifted giver and I totally support you being you ♥ Keep writing♥ There’s somethin’ special about you girl!

  5. Pingback: What Are You Reading (offline, that is?)

  6. Pingback: Being Two (The Blog, Not the Kid) | thirty threadbare mercies

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