Friday, January 13, 2017

Water Street Bookstore's Bestselling Books of 2016

Check out Water Street Bookstore's bestselling books for 2016, broken out by category. #1 with a bullet goes to The Fireman by Joe Hill! Thanks Joe!

Fiction- Hardcover
1. The Fireman by Joe Hill*
2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 
3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
4. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
5. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
6. Storm Cell by Brendan DuBois*
7. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
8. LaRose by Louise Erdrich
9. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett 
10. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Fiction- Paperback    
1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante 
3. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
5. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman 
6. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
8. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 

Nonfiction- Hardcover
1. Belichick and Brady by Michael Holley
2. The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler*
3. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
4. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
5. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
7. Black Trumpet by Evan Mallett*
8. Tribe by Sebastian Junger
9. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo 
10. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

Nonfiction- Paperback
1. Waking Up White by Debby Irving
2. Glorify by Emily C. Heath*
3. The Old Farmer's Almanac 2017 
4. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
5. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
6. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
7. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
8. Hope and Healing for Transcending Loss by Ashley Davis Bush*
9. Exeter, Historically Speaking by Barbara Rimkunas*
10. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Children's- Hardcover
1. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne
2. The Luck Uglies #3: Rise of the Ragged Clover by Paul Durham*
3. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
4. Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins
5. The Thank You Book (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems 
6. Double Down (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #11) by Jeff Kinney
7. When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
8. The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems
9. The Trials of Apollo #1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan 
10. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

Children's- Paperback
1. Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
2. The Luck Uglies #1 by Paul Durham*
3. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
4. Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin
5. Apollo by George O'Connor
6. The Luck Uglies #2: Fork Tongued Charmers by Paul Durham*
7. Science Comics: Coral Reefs by Maris Wicks
8. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
9. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
10. Zeus by George O'Connor 

* connotes a local author (way to go local authors!)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

2017 Books to Anticipate! YAAAA!


So many great books are being published in 2017. These are just the ones I have ARCs for or have noticed in catalogs while ordering. So I know there are many more, many that I have missed. It's an embarrassment of riches, friends. Getting reading (and pre-ordering)! 


JANUARY
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran (Putnam) (Already read this one-- it's INCREDIBLE)
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan (Tin House)
Caraval by Stephanie Garber (Flatiron)
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin (Riverhead) (So good, so trippy)
The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe (Dey St.)
4321 by Paul Auster (Henry Holt)
A Word for Love by Emily Robbins (Riverhead)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Random House)
American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus by Lisa Wade (WW Norton)
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead by Chenelle Benz (Ecco)
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (Ecco)
The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley (Liveright)
Thirteen Shells by Nadia Bozak (House of Anansi)
Always Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller (Liveright)
Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton (Spiegel & Grau)
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (Simon & Schuster)
Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (Penguin)
What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America edited by Denis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House)

FEBRUARY 
300 Arguments: Essays by Sarah Manguso (Graywolf)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Pantheon)
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (Hogarth)
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (Tin House)
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (Dutton)
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill (Riverhead)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central) (Read it already-- WOW. It is magnificent.)
Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz (Random House)
Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby (New Press)
Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by Sunaura Taylor (New Press)



MARCH
Follow Me into the Dark by Felicia Sullivan (Feminist Press)
Edgar and Lucy by Victor Lodato (St. Martin's)
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (HMH)
Wait Till You See Me: Stories by Deb Olin Unferth (Graywolf)
The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo (Graywolf)

The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie (Viking)
Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi (Soho)
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (Random House)
Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin)
Ill Will by Dan Chaon (Ballantine)
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (Putnam)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead)
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler (Ecco)
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (Knopf)
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House)
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (Dial)
How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz (Nation Books) 
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion (Knopf)
The Vine That Ate the South by J.D. Wilkes (Two Dollar Radio)
For Love of the Dollar by J.M Servin (Unnamed Press)


APRIL
Kingdom of the Young: Stories  by Edie Meidav (Sarabande)
Underground Fugue by Margot Singer (Melville House)
The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan (Knopf)
Unreliable by Lee Irby (Doubleday)
Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas (Simon & Schuster) 
The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper)
Marlena by Julie Buntin (Henry Holt)
American War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf)
No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts (Ecco)
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead)
Sunshine State: Essays by Sarah Gerard (Harper Perennial)

MAY 
Fen: Stories by Daisy Johnson (Graywolf) 
Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (New Press) 
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki (Hogarth)
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (Knopf)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin)
Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead)
The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Keith Payne (Viking)
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Flatiron) (Reading it now--holy cow)
The Invisible Mile by David Conventry (Europa Editions)
Broken River by J. Robert Lennon (Graywolf)
My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir by Jessica B. Harris (Scribner)
Seeing People Off by Jana Benova (Two Dollar Radio)

JUNE
Wolf Whistle Politics: Feminists on the Most Misogynistic Presidential Election in American History edited by Sarah Burnes and Kera Bolonik (New Press)
Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy (Riverhead)
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (Harper)
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (Coffee House Press)
Perfect Conditions by Vanessa Blakeslee (Curbside Splendor)
Fingerprints of Previous Owners by Rebecca Entel (Unnamed Press)
Blue Money by Janet Capron (Unnamed Press)

JULY
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (Ecco)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (Viking)

AUGUST
Addicted to Reform: A Twelve Step Program to Rescue Public Education by John Merrow (New Press)
Infinite Things All at Once by Rachel Yoder (Curbside Splendor)

SEPTEMBER
The Twelve Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco) (reading it now--spectacular)

SOMEDAY...

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)

 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Stef's Favorite Books of 2016

AKA The only thing I ever put on this blog! Go me!

I read so many great books this year. 2016 may have been a dumpster fire of a year in some ways, but it was a fantastic year for books, friends. I was so obsessed with reading these books that I neglected to read any parenting books, and now my child is a wild animal. Oh, well. At least he has a good reading role model, right?

Fiction:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf)
This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that when I finished I felt like it had been an honor to read it. Even thinking that sentence to myself felt a little stuffy, formal even. Books are everywhere, hundreds of thousands of copies of this book will be in bookshelves across the country. We read books everyday. What made this book different? Not only did it feel like (here comes another stuffy cliché) a “labor of love,” an intricate working-out of lineage and history and ancestral lore and a true delight for anyone who loves a book written in exceptionally careful detail, but it also felt like someone trying to tell a True story. Not true in details necessarily but true in the big T sense. Reading it felt like being allowed to take a peek into someone else’s history, someone else’s life story, a story we don’t hear everyday but should hear everyday, over and over. And that’s a gift.

The Mothers by Britt Bennett (Riverhead)
The Mothers, a crazy-impressive debut novel, is heavy with the secrets we don't tell each other, the expectations we hold each other to, both low and high, the weight of love and youth, responsibility and shame. It's a story of fidelity and infidelity, of first love and lasting love, of families that stick together and that fall apart. It's just beautiful. Britt Bennett's characters, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, the titular Mothers, become so real to the reader-- like they are your neighbors, kids from your high school or church, the nosy, caring old ladies on your block. You will enter this world and you won't leave it. What happens in The Mothers isn't new, but Bennett's telling is so fresh, so wise, so tender, you'll feel like you're hearing heartbreak for the first time.  

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
This book is absolutely spectacular. It’s definitely a contender for best book of the year. I’ve never read a contemporary slave narrative that so powerfully captured the slave experience--both in the breadth of details and in the gut punch of the emotions (to be fair-- I need to read more slave narratives). It’s such an important book for this reason alone--we as a country need to be constantly reminded of what we did during slavery. We can’t ever get complacent or move on. It’s too big of a sin. That said, this book is not a polemic or morally didactic--it’s an intense page turner, a beautiful character study of a complex woman, Cora, and some of the best prose I’ve ever read. Don’t be turned off by the literal railroad either--I was a bit hesitant at first, but I found a way that it made sense to me as a device. Come talk to me after you’ve read it and we can compare notes!


News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Wm Morrow)
I just adored this little book. It’s an old-fashioned story, with a True Grit feel to it (without most of the violence and mayhem). Capt. Kidd and Johanna are the loveliest characters I’ve encountered in a while. This book manages to be both wonderfully familiar, with the trope of the older man, alone in the world, and the young child, needing protection (think Punky and Harold, my 90s-era-TV-watching friends)-- they both think they want independence, but they both just need each other-- while also being a wholly original story. If I ever learned about “traveling news readers” in the time of the Wild West, I don’t recall it now. Capt. Kidd goes from town to town with his passel of newspapers, reading stories of news from around the world to groups of townspeople, for 10 cents a person. People listen, rapt. It’s all the news they have of the world outside their small towns. There are bandits in this story, and daring escapes. But the friendship, companionship, and trust that build between these two lonely souls, the sweet warmth of it, is just perfect.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
This book absolutely gutted me. Her writing is exquisite and perfect, her characters are big-hearted and unforgettable, and the stories she tells are of people experiencing their worst moment, their lowest ebb, the time in their life that refracts back on everything else, coloring it, deepening it. It's also a vital read-- we don't have nearly enough Native American writers being published by the big houses, and their stories are so important to our national memory and identity. In LaRose, one of the story lines is about the Indian boarding schools that countless Native American children were sent to in the 1800 and 1900s, where their hair was cut, their language was forced out of their mouths, and their true selves shamed and lost. It's heartbreaking, and it's an atrocity we cannot forget or wipe away. This book has several incredible story lines happening at once and they are each so true and so powerful-- read it slowly, save it.

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Flatiron)
This is a captivating, old-fashioned novel that reminded me a bit of John Irving in its storytelling--the richness of the back stories, the traditions of the church and unconventional families, the beautiful back and forth of a well timed story. This is the story of four girls, inexplicably all named Guinevere, who live in a convent with other girls--some orphans, some whose parents write them letters and visit, and some like them, girls whose parents or parent are alive, but don’t, or can’t, want them. Each girl has a story and a secret, the details of which are meted out throughout the book with perfect timing. Though never explicitly stated, it feels like it takes place during WWII--the convent takes in wounded, comatose soldiers, four of whom the girls end up taking care of as part of their duties. Their “Boys,” as they call them, become the vehicles for the girls’ hopes and dreams outside the convent--dreams of being rescued, of being wanted, of being loved.
 
What Becomes Us by Micah Perks (Outpost19)
This book is lovely and strange. I’ll start by saying it’s narrated by Evie’s unborn twin babies. It might sound gimmicky, but it’s not--most of the time I didn’t notice, until they started talking about being squished into a uterus together. But for this book, it works. Evie, their mother, escapes an emotionally abusive husband and perfectly nice life on the West Coast for a small, backwater town in upstate New York, where she finds a house to rent and a substitute English teacher job at the local high school. (And I do mean she escapes, literally, out of a window.) She meets an unusual cast of characters living on Lonely Rincon Road, and quickly becomes enveloped in their lives, including their fascination with the colonial woman Mary Rowlandson, kidnapped by Native Americans in 1676. But everything is not as it seems and Evie quickly gets pulled into the web of secrets, lies, and forbidden love. It’s odd and beautiful, uncovering both the dark and the light in life.

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Harper)
I firmly believe that Tessa Hadley is one of our great underappreciated writers. Her writing is quiet and gorgeous, conveying profound, thoughtful musings on life--the mysteries of family, the entanglements of love, the lost innocence of growing up, and the strangeness of growing old. "Not a lot happens" would be a fair assessment of this book, but like with the deeply perceptive writing of Anne Enright, it doesn't matter. You're not here for a boisterous plot, break-neck pace, or a suspenseful finish. You read Hadley for the sentences, for the characters, and for the insight. The Past is no different. A set of siblings head to their family cottage for a several week-long holiday. Their separate lives come together. Sparks fly. Read it slowly and savor.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories by Helen Oyemei (Riverhead)
Like everything Helen Oyeyemi writes, this short story collection sparkles with magic and delight, romantic entanglements, bizarre characters and circumstances (I'm talking a whole story on puppetry, and she pulls it off too), and lovely, profound musings on love and belonging. It's strange and wonderful, sometimes dark and odd, but always bursting with intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom. "Presence" is the best story (well, it's hard to say because they are all so different), about a woman, unsure of her marriage, who begins a strange psychological study with her husband. I felt myself almost holding my breath as I read it, waiting for the other strange shoe to drop. (It drops.) 


The Gloaming by Melanie Finn (Two Dollar Radio)
This book is so, so good. The writing is truly wonderful (copious underlining of beautifully crafted sentences), and the story is deep and surprising and profound. Finn’s plotting is excellent too--the story skips back and forth between dates that are only a few months apart. How much could happen in a few months? A world. This is the story of Pilgrim Jones, a wife, a traveler, a woman whose life is both spontaneous and planned out, and how that perfect life falls apart in so many ways. It’s about love, lost and found, about grief, about passion and loyalty and fear and discovery. I don’t want to give away any of the story’s reveals by summarizing-- just know, it’s really something.

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House)
The Manson story is nothing new but reading Cline's reinvention of it felt like peeking in through a curtain, through the life of a bored 1960s California girl. Our girl is Evie Boyd, whose parents' fractured marriage leaves a crack for her to fall through, and discover life on the other side of it. Lonely and out of place, Evie meets a group of girls in a park in San Francisco and falls headlong for their wild and free lives. She spends increasing time with them and soon meets Russell, the enigmatic and dynamic leader of the group. But Evie isn't drawn to Russell so much as Suzanne, the leader of the girls. Their relationship is complex and difficult-- Evie wants more than anything an older girl to love her unconditionally, but Suzanne is too far gone. Looking at the story from an outside perspective makes it easy to see the allure of what we today know is a completely insane cult-- it was a family, a haven, a place for these young girls to find themselves apart from their families of origin. Cline's writing is effervescent and strong, and her story pulls you along like a speeding car, knowing full well that it will all fly off a cliff at some point soon.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet (WW Norton)
This book was an odd little duck but I couldn't stop reading it. On one hand it's a straightforward suspense novel-- woman leaves husband, husband hunts her down. Definitely read that story before. But in this novel, not only is there of course a crazy ass twist but there is also Millet's completely gorgeous writing, some downright strange moments that we just go along with because that is what you do in a Millet novel, and her beautiful musings on life and the limitations of existence. This passage has stuck with me:

"Because if you're the kind of person who wants to know what's at the end of the universe, what's at the edge of being, and you grow older and older and comprehension settles on you that you'll never know, despair can well up. The question of what we don't see, what's beyond our capacity-- in the space where the answers should be, in the knowledge that nothing will ever give us that answer-- we have to pass through all the dark nights we live until we die. Never to see what's at the end of infinity, never to see the future of what we love, even the hidden lives of our children-- the knowledge breaks our hearts. It nearly cracks us open as we walk."

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (WW Norton)
This is a spectacular book, even more so for being Dennis-Benn's first. Her characters absolutely pop on the page-- especially the four women at the heart of the story, Margot, her sister Thandie, their mother Deloros, and Margot's lover, Verdene. These are complex women-- fighting their past, motivated by a desire to survive and get out, to do better than the generation before. Set in Jamaica, this novel shows another side to the island than what you would see if you stayed within the bounds of your beach resort. These are the people who work at the hotels but aren't paid enough to get by. The communities whose villages will be bulldozed to build more resorts. This is a tough book and the characters are not always likeable, but it's such an indelible portrait of a family, of a community, that I couldn't stop reading, and I couldn't forget it when I was done.


Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht (Tin House)
This is a story of sixteen year old Livy, a girl who lives in a small blue collar town in Pennsylvania, and the summer that changed her life, a beginning and an end. A fugitive from the Republic of Georgia is believed to be hiding in their small town and the FBI quickly moves in and shuts down the roads and cuts the power to the town. There's a tight lens drawn on their lives, and the feeling Knecht creates is almost claustrophobic-- the heat, the fear, the barricades. When Livy encounters the man, she has to decide what to do and who she can trust. It's a coming of age story about Livy, but it's also a coming to terms story for one small town when faced with the idea of terrorism and outsiders. The fear and mistrust the townspeople feel is increasingly relevant now.
 
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Amistad)
What a gorgeous book. Woodson often writes in verse, and that writing style, the restraint, the careful choices, the lyricism, comes through in her prose here. It's thoughtful and quiet and beautiful. This is the story of four girls-- a fierce group of friends who find each other in their neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1970s, just when they need one another the most. One of the girls, August, lives with her father and brother, having moved to New York from the south after a family tragedy. There are moments of joy and of heartbreak in their stories, as they navigate their very different families, expectations, and the sometimes harsh realities that come alongside growing up and becoming women. Woodson circles back to the tragedy that broke August's family apart, the hurt that changed her forever. It's tough and sweet and just beautiful. 

Marrow Island by Alexis Smith (HMH)
This is a beautiful quiet story, a story of lost friendship, new love, and an ecological mystery. Lucie, a fledgling journalist, grew up on an island, located off the coast of Oregon, once the site of an oil refinery explosion that made the place uninhabitable. She left when her father died in the accident, and never returned-- until she receives a mysterious letter from her best childhood girlfriend, revealing that a commune has sprung up on the island, and that people are living there and thriving. Lucie can’t resist finding out what on earth is happening there, but delving into the past is never simple. This story is rife with the healing power and mythology of the earth, secrets and lies between friends and lovers, a mysterious death, and the hope and belief that places can be reborn, that people can change, that the truth matters, above all. The writing is really good--worth the read.


Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Little Brown)
This book is a delight. It is a little zany, very funny, suspenseful, romantic, abundantly clever, and perfect for fans of language and literature. And it has one of the best first pages I’ve ever read. Go on, read it. It’s delightful. When Beatriz Yagoda, a famous Brazilian novelist, goes missing in her home country, her American translator, Emma, feels pulled to go to Brazil and search for her. (Part of it is wanting to get away from her boyfriend.) When she arrives, she meets Beatriz’s children and the adventure begins. 
 
Nonfiction:
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
I don’t think I can overstate how important this book is. The housing crisis in this country is REAL-- many people are spending way more than the typically recommended 30% of income on housing, and what many of them are paying for is substandard conditions. Inner-city slumlords are getting away with charging outsized rents for falling-down properties because there are no good alternatives for people who have been evicted or have bad credit. Evictions affect millions of people a year, but disproportionately poor, black women, for a variety of reasons. An eviction is like the first domino falling--after that, it can be hard to find another place, keep a job if you have to go to court or relocate, keep kids in the same school, and keep yourself together mentally and emotionally. Desmond did years of research for this book, living in the very places he describes. He also offers practical solutions-- if only the right people would read it! Or maybe if we all read it, we can make the change our country so desperately needs. Anyway, read it.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (Hachette)
Do you know about Lindy West? If, A: you do, then you know she is hilarious and honest and genuine and doesn’t take a single iota of bullshit. If, B: you don’t know her, refer to A. She wrote for the Stranger, the Seattle-based alt-newspaper, and came to even wider acclaim as a writer for the website Jezebel. She has loudly proclaimed that she doesn’t mind that she’s fat, that she isn’t ashamed she had an abortion, that she doesn’t think rape jokes are funny, and that she has zero tolerance for internet trolls. She is THE BEST. She is ALL OF US. Talk about “voice of our generation.” Ladies, and all people, we are so lucky that Lindy is speaking for us. I laughed, I cried, I cringed. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finally did, I, in full Millennial fashion, tweeted at her that I loved the book. And she, in full bad-ass amazing-lady fashion, tweeted me back how much she loved to hear it.

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good by Chuck Collins (Chelsea Green)
This book is fantastic. Collins grew up in the 1%, inherited more money than he realized he needed, and decided to give most of it away. But that’s not what this book is about. It’s not an inspiring story you read and say, “Wow, I don’t know if I could do that,” then go back to your life. It’s a blueprint for how we can bring the wealthy back into the fold of our communities by encouraging them to give back. It’s about not vilifying the 1% but about working with them--figuring out how we can sensibly fix tax laws so everyone pays their share and use the structure of our government to solve our social problems. It’s about recognizing privilege and figuring out how to communicate that to the wealthy so it’s not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps but about how we can help each other. It’s full of practical ideas and solutions--from the local level to the federal, from personal change to widespread revolution.

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs (Graywolf)
I was floored by The Art of Waiting. It contains so much-- Boggs' personal experience with infertility and assisted reproduction, but also her research into motherhood in animals, adoption, race, forced sterilization, and society's views and expectations of motherhood. It is compelling in its curiosity and brimming with the generous spirit of someone who truly wants to break open the idea of motherhood, making it less opaque in a world that so often sees families in only black and white. Belle is a gifted writer and definitely one to watch.



Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here by Angela Palm (Graywolf)
It sounds so trite to say, but I just fell in love with this book. And with Angela Palm, the Every Girl at the center of the story​, with her observations on family and the stickiness of your hometown and neighborhood-- you want so bad to leave, but when you do, you can't stop thinking about what's missing. About what you left behind. The boy you left behind. The boy who left you. Without spoiling it, Angela's journey towards and away from and eventually back to Corey, the love of her young girl's heart, honestly brought me to tears. It's one of those memoirs that brings your own memories, your own past, up to the surface as you read her recollections, her regrets, sorrow, and the joy. God, it just broke my heart over and over again. I loved it. Loved. 

Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge (Nation Books)
Such a powerful, important book. It needs to be read. Younge is a black, British journalist who, while living in America, decided to look at gun violence through the lens of the children shot and killed on one single day. He writes moving and heartbreaking portraits of ten such children, all killed on November 23rd, 2013. Some are accidental, some are homicides, some are collateral damage of wider violence. Their stories are haunting and infuriating, but Younge remains respectful and compassionate, even when he’s frustrated. Some of the families want to talk; some don’t. Some see the bigger picture; some understandably, do not. It’s a really tough read. He intersperses the human drama with statistics about gun violence, activism against it, journalists who cover it. He paints a full picture. It’s shocking, but also not once you read the book, see the stats, meet the kids. These kids’ stories need to be shared-- their deaths deserve some meaning.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (Doubleday)
Well, this book is f***ing terrifying. The influence of money in politics is far-reaching, invasive, incredibly powerful, and often invisible. Mayer looks at the influence of the ultra-conservative, radical right, people intent on lifting environmental and financial regulations for their own financial benefit, and clearly shows how they, led by the infamous Koch brothers, have strategically infiltrated every level of politics and government. The stories she tells about the Koch brothers' businesses putting workers, and the public's, safety on the line in the name of profits made my blood boil. The lengths they will go to to save a buck are shocking and sickening. She profiles many other conservative bigwigs, most of whom no one outside their circle has even heard of, and shows how their money has influenced policy and political opinion in this country. The writing is clear and the research is thorough-- this is an important book that needs to be read. We can't allow this to continue.


Picture Books
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye Books)
There were many wonderful picture books that came out this year, but this one is something truly special and one I haven't been able to get out of my mind. It tells the story of a nameless family, in a nameless country that is beset by war-- the father is taken, and the mother and children must flee. Sanna uses fairy tale imagery and larger than life illustrations to portray the family's journey as fleeing refugees. They arrive at a wall only to be confronted by what appears to be a twenty foot tall guard chasing them away; they take a ferry boat across a body of water filled with terrible creatures that want to eat them; a looming dark shadow of a man finally deposits them over the fence. They watch the birds flying above them, migrating seamlessly across invisible border lines. They seek safety and belonging. It just broke my heart.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Stef's Favorite Books of 2015.

In which I discover that I overuse the words lovely and wonderful and beautiful! 

Favorite Favorites:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fates and Furies opens with Lotto and Mathilde, young and newly married and drunk on love and attraction, before spooling back the story of their meeting, their falling in love and getting married, first from Lotto's perspective, then from Mathilde's. The marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, two of the most compelling fictional characters I've read in ages, is the madly beating heart at the center of this gorgeous novel. Groff has plotted this very character-driven novel with a masterful hand-- the careful meting out of the secret lives of a book's characters is always a joy to read, being able to look back and see the currents shifting underneath the story, the way the truth affects your reading, the way a perfectly placed detail can make or break a novel, but never has it been done so elegantly, so truly, as in this book. It's really extraordinary. And it's not a gimmick-- the way the story falls open into two equal halves, his and hers, feels completely natural, not a device. The longer you look at something, and from every angle, the more you understand it. If that wasn't enough, Groff's lush prose is a delight to read.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara
So much has been written about this book already. Some reviewers found it to be "too much"-- Jude's pain and anguish were just too much, and the otherwise perfect lives of the other characters (all professionally successful in a way that would be fairly unlikely in a set of four friends, though they are Ivy-Leaguers, aren't they?), completely unrealistic. I get that charge. I did remotely feel annoyed that all four men were so successful, as I don't tend to love reading about the lives of the rich and powerful, especially men. It annoys me. BUT I definitely don't think Yanigihara went over the top with Jude's life story and suffering. You know what? People are raped, pedophiles are out there taking advantage of children, and aspects of the foster care system in this country are appalling. People are cruel. I think having to take a close look at someone else's pain is something we should all do now and again to remind ourselves what life is like, the seesaw imbalance of the human experience. And what friendships she created in this book, what rich and full characters! I was bowled over by it. I think it's absolutely a masterpiece. (Look up her interviews too-- after reading that she saw the story as fairy-tale-esque made the larger than life aspects of it justified, and it clarified how I read the book too.) 

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins (who is a dynamite writer—check out her short story collection, Battleborn) has created a terrifying dystopian world that feels like a frightening possibility. California has run out of water. Most of the Southwest has been evacuated, but Luz and Ray, two young drifters who are desperately in love, have decided to stay. They hole up in an abandoned mansion, because, why not. They scavenge for food and drink cans of Coke. One day, when they are out in a big group of people, they see a baby being abused. Before they realize what they’ve done, they take the baby home and care for her, name her Ig. The walls of their life are closing in though— Ig’s people are coming for her, life isn’t sustainable, and Ray can’t legally cross the border. They have to set out on their own, through the desert. There are two parts to this story, and the transition between them is absolutely devastating. But keep reading. Watkins’ writing is electric and beautiful, unique and eminently underline-able. And jeez, look at that gorgeous cover!

The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools? by Dale Russakoff

This is a fascinating account of the Newark, NJ school system and the attempts made by both public officials and private donors to turn it around. With a dismal graduation rate, poor test scores, crumbling school buildings, and teachers and administration with the bad habit of advancing students who haven’t learned basic skills, the Newark school system is a mess. Newark mayor, Cory Booker, along with NJ governor Chris Christie, enlisted Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg to donate $100 million to fix the city’s schools. Can you imagine what happened when buckets and buckets of money were thrown at a problem? Well, it’s complicated, but at the end of the day it didn’t work. This book is about more than just Newark, NJ. It’s about the systemic problems in America’s urban schools, and the challenge involved in “fixing” them. Lots of teachers and administrators are doing good work in these schools. We need to figure out how to help them. 

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
This is such an important book. Edin and Shaeffer’s concept is that there are millions of people in America who are “cash poor”--they have access to SNAP (food stamps), housing/heat assistance, EITC, and other forms of assistance, but so many of people’s daily needs can only be satisfied with cash. Things like a new outfit or haircut for a job interview, school supplies for children, the electric bill, and gas to get to work. This group of people get stuck in a rut of poverty, sometimes going from homeless shelter to staying with family, often as unstable as they are. When you don’t have a stable address, it makes it that much harder to get and keep a job. Everything is harder. This book tells the stories of several people who are stuck in this situation, and those stories are heartbreaking. Even sadder? The fact that all of the workable, realistic solutions the authors present would just be *too much* for our current crop of all-star politicians to take on. 

Fiction:
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
This is a beautiful, quiet book about friendship and love, aging and dying, holding on and letting go. It’s quite lovely. Otto and Etta are married and have been for decades--one day, Otto discovers that Etta has left their home. She has decided to walk across Canada, quite a feat for a woman in her 80s. Luckily (for her and us), she finds James, possibly the most wonderful and magical dog of all time, who accompanies her and takes care of her on her journey. Otto is left behind and must find out how to survive on his own--just what Etta had to do when Otto was overseas during the war. Part of that is reconnecting with Russell, his childhood best friend and neighbor. This book doesn’t sound like much when it’s described, but it’s just a perfect little specimen of a book--sweet and sad, with lovely, lyrical prose, and just the most wonderful characters you'll ever met on the page.

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora
This stellar collection of stories is one of my favorite books of 2015. All set around a fictional Connecticut town just north of New York, these stories navigate issues like relationships, affairs, parenthood, appearances, expectations, work, and how we all manage life in the suburbs. It’s funny, quirky, and often quite profound. The first story, “Ground Fault,” introduces you to the community, through a day in the life of John, a home inspector. The stories just get more complex and richer as the book goes on-- the characters get a bit stranger, their lives more sordid and complicated. If you’re not a fan of the abruptness of leaving a short story, have no fear-- these interconnected stories circle back and return you to previous characters. It’s a bit like life--I found myself saying, “That person sounds familiar--have I met her yet or just heard someone else gossiping about her?” as you do.

The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski
When teenaged Frances returns pregnant from a mission trip to Mexico, insisting that an angel impregnated her for the glory of god, her father sends her to live alone in a farmhouse on the edge of town. It’s the 1970s in Idaho and their family belongs to a strict evangelical church—Frances can’t be seen pregnant in town. She can’t be alone, so her younger sister Jory is sent with her. Their parents are loving, but distracted. They think they are doing the best for their daughters. Meanwhile, Frances and Jory make friends with the older woman who owns the farmhouse and lives nearby and a young man who drives the ice cream truck. Jory starts school and tries to fit in, all the while trying to get Frances to tell her the truth about what really happened to her in Mexico. It’s funny and sad and surprising, and the writing is great. I loved it.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
What a completely wonderful book. A companion to her Life After Life, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel ground-breaking like that book did, but it feels like it fits Teddy, Ursula’s brother and the protagonist of A God in Ruins. He’s an unassuming guy, a bit of a troublemaker as a boy (like the boy in the Augustus book series his aunt based after him), but an unsure man--wandering around Europe, glad for the outbreak of the war as an escape for him from the life of a boring banker. We watch him return from his missions flying bombers over Germany, marry, and have a daughter. We watch his daughter, Viola, grow up, and her two children, Sunny and Bertie. Atkinson jumps back and forth, as if Teddy is reflecting on the life he led. It is a profound look at the way each of our lives touch one another’s, how no person lives their life in a vacuum, and why that’s difficult sometimes, but ultimately the only way worth living. I loved every page. 

Infinite Home by Kate Alcott
This is a really beautiful story about a group of people living in a Brooklyn brownstone. When the aging landlady’s son arrives one day and hangs eviction letters on their apartment doors, intent on taking over and remodeling so he can jack the rent up, the results could mean the end of something big for each of them. The characters are just lovely— there’s Adeleine, the beautiful agoraphobic woman, surrounded by antiques and the dusty knickknacks of someone else’s life, who hasn’t really left her apartment in years. Thomas, the artist whose recent stroke left him unable to paint. Edward, the formerly successful stand up comedian whose life went off the rails when his great love left him. Paulie, suffering from a condition that left him bright and happy but stunted, and his sister Claudia, whose only joy comes from caring for him. And lovely Edith, their landlady, whose friendship and need holds them all together. It’s just dear.

Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
This book is truly wonderful. It’s sad and hopeful at the same time, literary yet accessible. Isabel is happily married, a teacher with a young daughter, when her best friend is killed in a car accident late one winter night. As with most things in life, it’s not just the accident and her friend’s death. It’s everything that came before. As the details of their friendship are spooled out through the book, you get a closer look at the complexities of a close relationship—men, work, life—all the expectations and disappointments that friendships are full of.  Meanwhile, Isabel and her husband, Chris, have decided to separate. As you can imagine, she feels her life spiraling a bit. Luckily, she has her mother to ground her (their relationship is hilarious and so, so true), and the support group her mother drags her to. This is a story about saying goodbye—to her friend who died, to her husband and their life together, to the person she was before, and the person her grief has made her. It’s not all doom and gloom though—there is humor and awkwardness and romance, too. It really stayed with me.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
This is an incredible story, sparely and beautifully told, best read in just a sitting or two. The night before her daughter is to get married, tragedy strikes June Reid when a house fire kills her daughter, future son-in-law, ex-husband, and boyfriend. She survives, but her grief forces her out of town and on the road, still wearing the same clothes she wore that night. Meanwhile, we learn about the small Connecticut town where she lived, divided among “weekenders” and “townies,” from other people in her life--most notably, her boyfriend Luke’s mother, the town pariah. It’s a terribly sad, lonely book, but there is hope in the end, and the message of the power of friendship and the promise of a new day radiate from the book once the final page has been turned. It’s quite the book.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Noel is living a happy, if somewhat unconventional, life with his elderly godmother, Mattie, in London during WWII. When Mattie suddenly dies, and the bombing begins, Noel is evacuated to the countryside.  He’s a funny kid, intellectual and not afraid to say what’s on his mind. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly blend in well with the villagers. The woman who takes him in, Vee, has her own problems. Quickly though, they team up and begin collecting donations for various war-related causes and pocketing the cash. It’s a different look at England during WWII than we usually get, with memorable characters, witty dialogue, and a lovely story of friendship and family. 

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

This book is fantastic, especially if you have an interest in Arctic/Antarctic exploration or survival stories. (But even if you don't! Still good!) This is the story of two Antarctic explorations of the same island-- one in 1913, when the island, Everland, is first discovered, and the other in 2012, when a group returns to the island for a 100th anniversary expedition. Both groups are of three people, and their components are eerily similar--one veteran, one cocky, self-assured workhorse, and one newbie. The 1913 expedition did not end well, and though the 2012 expedition is fully prepared for every possible issue they might encounter, the specter of the earlier expedition hangs over them. The stories are told in alternating chapters, and the details are meted out in such a way that you can’t put the book down when you finish a chapter. 

Nonfiction:

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer is a fantastic investigative journalist, and in Missoula, he has set his sights on the campus rape crisis by looking at it through the lens of one large, well regarded state school in Montana. He lays out the experiences of several women who were raped on campus by fellow students, from their experiences with the men, to dealings with campus security, the local police, and school administration. Because this school, like many large state schools, is bankrolled in part by its successful sports programs, student athletes are given special treatment. Women who accuse these men of rape were frequently not believed and belittled by authority figures, bullied by defense attorneys, and torn apart in the local media and by sports boosters. Krakauer provides national statistics as well as the details of this specific school and lays out the cases from every angle. The treatment of these women, and the regularity of the crimes made me spitting mad. Worth the read.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander wrote the poem for President Obama's first inauguration, "Praise Song for the Day." I love this poem dearly. (I also love the heck out of the picture book version, illustrated by David Diaz.) Her memoir is just as beautiful, her writing is clear, clean, uncluttered, and perfectly spaced as only a poet can do. It reminded me of The Year of Magical Thinking, but with more passion, more crazy love. Alexander's husband Ficre died so young, so unfairly young, that you feel that theft beating in each page of this book. They had so much life left to love. But this book is more than just a grief memoir, it's a beautifully written account of a talented artist, a man so interesting and with such a fascinating life journey from his home country of Eritrea to America, he honestly ought to have had a book written about him anyway. And with Alexander's gorgeous prose, he got such a beautiful, heart-thumping, genuine tribute. 

Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates
So much has been said about this book already too. I will just add that Coates' story really opened my eyes to this other America, the America inhabited by people for whom the "dream" is not attainable. And it's not about education, or "culture," or even poverty or reform. It's about what our country was built on, how it was built. Who built it. He sums it up here: "And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies." It's such powerful writing, that packs a punch with both emotional truth and the brilliant argument he makes for how we're looking at the core of race the wrong way. It really should be required reading. Absolutely deserving of all the acclaim Coates received for it. 

The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Human Resilience in an American Town by Ryan D'Agastino
This was a great portrait of a man whose life was torn apart by a violent crime done to his family, basically the worst thing that could ever happen to your family. Really, the very, very worst. I appreciated that D'Agastino didn't go into detail about the horrific crimes, as most "true crime" books do, but instead focused on Bill Petit's life after-- how he survived, how he turned his life into something good, something meaningful. Not schmaltzy at all, but actually inspiring. Makes you question the BS you find yourself complaining about. I loved the writing too--conversational, colloquial, like a friend telling you about a friend. It's hard to describe without making it sound like a Lifetime movie, but I promise, it's worth the read.
 
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
I read this book after reading Between the World and Me and it just knocked my socks off. Debby Irving has written a really interesting book about coming to understand race as a white person. She explains that many white people don't even see themselves as having a race, that they are the "default" or "normal" and all the other people are the different ones. She talks about her discovery that her life, in an upper middle class white family from a nice suburb in Massachusetts, wasn't just a result of her ancestors "working hard" and "getting ahead." She explains that systemic racism is the way of life in America that gives advantages to white people that people of other races don't get. Every single chapter had huge revelations for me, someone who considered herself progressive, an "ally," and maybe even "colorblind" (ugh I was such an idiot). It's a great book to read alongside or after reading a memoir from a person of color-- get an understanding of their perspective and journey, then try to change your own. 

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
Wow, just wow. Quinones convincingly explains the explosion in America's opiate/opioid addiction in this compassionate, heavily-researched yet very readable book. He traces the two sources of the addiction, black tar heroin from Mexico and prescription painkillers, mostly in the form of Oxycontin, and how they each crossed the country creating a network of supply and demand addiction. Addicts hooked on Oxy were primed for the introduction of heroin into their communities, it was cheap and easy to get, delivered directly to their door by a network of ever-replaceable Mexican farm kids. Sales reps for Purdue Pharmaceutical, the company that created Oxycontin, intentionally misled doctors into believing that it wasn't addictive. Prescriptions went through the roof, and people got hooked. Quinones looks at specific communities that were deeply affected by the heroin crisis, getting a close and personal look at their troubles and tragedies. It's a respectful book, one that recognizes that addiction is a disease and that no one solution will be the answer to this crisis. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to understand how these drugs became so ubiquitous.  

YA:
Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
I love this book, and you will too. Willowdean is just the best main character. So, as you’ve probably surmised, this is a book about a girl who is not a size 2. Here’s the refreshing part though-- for the most part, she’s happy with her body. Sure, it’s annoying when people giver her looks or when her mom suggests crash diet after crash diet, but she’s not praying for liposuction or the approval of her peers. She’s a cool chick, with a great best friend, Ellen, with whom she shares a mutual love of Dolly Parton. Things are strained with her mom since her live-in aunt died, but things are also kind of interesting with the boy she works with at a local fast food restaurant. Then one day, she decides to enter the local beauty pageant, sort of like an F you to the establishment. Only problem? Her mom runs the pageant. Lots of girl power, positive body image, but also a cute romance, hilarious dialogue, and great characters.

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyne
I loved this series. It’s a great mix of funny, realistic characters in the vein of John Green, with a splash of the requisite adorable romance angle, with a quirky world-on-the-edge-of-apocalypse storyline. I liked it because it sounds vaguely like something that could maybe happen (A fringe church declares the coming Rapture, causing people to join the church en masse. Eventually the church becomes so powerful that takes over parts of the government including schools and police--very sketchy.), but it also is a bit wacky and outlandish and even pretty funny. Add in some action and suspense, and you, my friend, have it all. The sequel continues the story in a satisfying and interesting way-- and I don’t think it will be a trilogy, imagine that!

Audio:
The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
This lovely novel tells the story of the Blair family, an All-American family living in California in the second half of the 20th century. It starts with Bill, a GI just home from the war, who finds first a beautiful tract of land (in what would one day be Silicon Valley), and then a beautiful wife. Though she’s a bit mysterious and inward, they fall in love and start a family. He becomes a busy family physician, and Penny is left to be a homemaker with four children, a job she is neither suited for nor enjoys. Each chapter is a different character, and the story is unspoiled through their varied perspectives. Packer masterfully demonstrates how small experiences, party preparations, the searching for a key, everyday hurt feelings, can so profoundly affect a life. It’s a beautiful story, sad sometimes, but ultimately redemptive. The audio was AMAZING. Each character is a different voice actor, and one of them is Thomas Sadowski, who I just adore.

Coming in 2016:

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Jan)
Such a funny, quirky, lovely novel! I adored Veblen, an unusual woman in a relationship with a straight-laced doctor working at a university hospital in Palo Alto, California. Veblen translates obscure Norwegian authors and temps for a living. She's a free spirit who talks to squirrels. He's a neurotic researcher being courted by the DoD for a piece of medical equipment. They're an odd match. Veblen spends the book trying to figure out her relationship. What's the most important thing-- animal attraction? Perfectly symmetrical values and beliefs? Or something else all together? Great, snappy, unique writing with unusual and thoughtful vocabulary. My favorite: "tuneful"!


Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Feb)
I loved this slim novel with the lovely and intriguing first paragraph. Though not a long novel, it captures a moment of transition for a woman--sometimes you just realize you aren't so sure about your boyfriend anymore, and sometimes the author you translate goes missing after climbing into an almond tree and you have to fly to Brazil to help find her. And then you realize you aren't actually in love at all. Life's complicated sometimes.

What is Not Your Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Mar)
Like everything Helen Oyeyemi writes, this short story collection sparkles with magic and delight, romantic entanglements, bizarre characters and circumstances (I'm talking a whole story on puppetry, and she pulls it off too), and lovely, profound musings on love and belonging. It's strange and wonderful and bursting with intelligence and warmth.