Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 best fiction

I'm back with my favorite fiction of the year. I just looked over the list and there's no way I can keep it to six. I really hit on some good books this year. The biggest disappointment was "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles. I read it because I enjoyed his "A Gentleman in Moscow" so much (see below), but with scarcely a character I liked, it left me pretty cold.

Here we go, as always, in no particular order:

1.  "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles. Quite simply, I loved this one. The story of a person formerly of a noble class sentenced by the new Soviet regime to house arrest in a posh hotel, the characters are charming and interesting, and there is so much depth in the main character I had to go back and re-read certain passages to make sure I caught everything.

2.  "Before We Were Yours" by Lisa Wingate.  This was one of Wife's book club selections and she told me very little about it other than I really needed to read it. She tells me that about most of her book club books, so I didn't think that much about it. But, oh my, when I was not far into it, I told her she failed to tell me it was disturbing!  It's a fictionalized account of a black market baby market that took place in Memphis, Tennessee. If you like historical fiction, I can't recommend this one enough. You'll want to do your own research into the real-life events around which this story is built.

3. "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles. Another of Wife's book club picks, she shared with me more of the story line in this one before insisting I move it to the top of my TBRs. It's a post-civil war story of an aging "news reader" who gives live news readings to paying audiences. During his travels through north Texas, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan girl to relatives in San Antonio. Before being rescued by the U.S. Army, she was being raised by Kiowa Indians. The interaction between the two, and the encounters they have during their journey, make for compelling reading.

4.  "Look Homeward, Angel" by Thomas Wolfe. This was my nod toward more classical literature this year, and it did not disappoint. Written in 1929, it was Wolfe's first novel and considered by many to be autobiographical, covering the main character's life from his birth to age 19. Although at times dark and depressing, I quickly lost myself in the story and characters.

5.  "Funny Girl" by Nick Hornby. By the author of "About a Boy" and "High Fidelity," this one is set against the backdrop of English television. I've long been a fan of Hornby and find his characters both charming and hilarious. This is more of the same.

6. "Camino Island" and "Rooster Bar" by John Grisham. I know, I know, Grisham turns out novels like running water, but call him my guilty pleasure author. Criticism notwithstanding, I think he's an outstanding story teller. I am lumping these together because both came out this year, but I'm partial to "Rooster Bar" because it's about the for-profit law school industry, a subject I find immensely interesting. He spoke of this one when I saw him last June here in Nashville (he had just sent it to the publisher), and I knew when he shared about the subject matter that I would be drawn in. ("Camino Island" isn't half bad either).

7.  "The Pecan Man" by Cassie Dandridge Selleck. A beautiful southern narrative with elements of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a widow sets out to clear up misunderstandings from more then 25 years earlier regarding a homeless black man she hired to cut her grass. In so doing she learns as much about herself as any of the others involved.

8. "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng. I learned about this one on the podcast I mentioned in my post on non-fiction, and then happened to see it on Older Son and DIL's bookshelf and borrowed it from them. Older Son told me he picked it up on a sale table (in an airport, I believe). He warned me that "it's weird," and it is. But it is also a page turner and I read it over the course of a few days. It traces the life of a female college student who marries her Asian professor and goes on to have three children with him. A tragic event provides the overall backdrop. It's not exactly a happy book to read, but there are encouraging moments, and it's extremely well written.

9. "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. This book made waves in 2016 for the youth of its author (born in 1989!). It's the story of two half-sisters, born in 18th-century Ghana, and the different tracks their respective lives take, one sold into slavery and one married to a wealthy businessman, and their descendants.

Considering the combined Grisham books, this is a total of ten, so I'll stop there. I will give Honorable Mention to "The Nightingale" by Kristen Hannah and "Small Great Things" by Jodi Pecoult. I will also mention that I just finished "To Kill a Mockingbird" for, I am estimating, the fifth time in my life, on my new Kindle, and my gosh, what a beautiful book. For many reasons, I refuse to read "Go Set a Watchman" which was supposedly also written by Harper Lee and released only last year. There was way too much drama and controversy surrounding its release and way too many questions about why it was published some 50 years after "Mockingbird," that I don't want to read it and set myself up for disappointment. It's kind of like what my late mother said about "Gone With the Wind" -- there is no sequel.

Happy reading to all in 2018. (And Happy New Year in general).




Friday, December 29, 2017

Favorite non-fiction of 2017

It's time for the year-end reading favorites. Today I'll list my six favorite non-fiction books for 2017.

I read 36 books this year. For me, that is very good, certainly a record for recent years. As always, I never set out to read a certain number of books, nor do I participate in any reading challenges. I just read them as they come, often based on recommendations from Wife (I read almost all of her book club selections), and some based on recommendations from friends. And no, there is never enough time to read all of them, which is why my TBR list is very long.

Also this year I started listening to a podcast called "What Shall I Read Next?" (For details see modernmrsdarcy.com). It's a great little show narrated by an energetic reader in Louisville, Kentucky named Anne Bogel. She has many recommendations that are now on my TBR list. The problem with the podcast is that, almost always, I'm in my car when I'm listening to it and I can't always remember the titles she talks about. The website has show notes and a summary of each episode, including the titles, but I'm not always faithful to follow up.

I just got a Kindle for Christmas. I resisted this for a long time because I get most of my books from the library or used books sales, but now I can also check out ebooks from the library. I will not use it exclusively, but I think I'll enjoy it on occasion. I have already downloaded "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the library and I am more than 50 percent through it. I would estimate this is the fifth time I have read it and I'm loving every word -- which makes sense, since it's in my top five all-time favorites.

Without further adieu, here are my favorite non-fiction books for 2017, in no particular order:

1. "A Lowcountry Heart" by Pat Conroy. This is a collection of Conroy's communications with his readers, with commentary on some of his own favorite authors and books and a foreword by his widow, Cassandra King. I had the privilege of seeing Conroy in 2015, just a few months before he died, and will always consider myself the richer for it. Reading these essays was like having a conversation with him and if you are a fan of his books (e.g. "Prince of Tides," "Lords of Discipline," "Beach Music") as I am, you are sure to love this.

2.  "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. As the title suggests, this is an exhaustive instruction manual for living as an introvert, with case studies and real-life examples of successful people (including the author) who have embraced their introvert characteristics.  Even though it's a little cerebral, it is not dull, and I suspect this is especially true if you are an introvert yourself, as I am. I highly recommend.

3.  "Hillbilly Elegy" by J. D. Vance. Although non-fiction, this reads a lot like a novel written in first person. The author writes in great detail about growing up in the Rust Belt, with descriptions of family members that at once amuse, shock and anger. Vance, in his early 30s, has become a minor celebrity on the talk-show circuit, and an unintended consequence of the book is how it has been used to explain Donald Trump's election to the presidency. Read it and you'll see why, and look up some of his interviews, especially the one with Terry Gross on NPR.

4. "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is one of those rare books that I read AFTER seeing the movie (it's usually the other way around). Written about African American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA and had a hand in writing code for the Gemini Space Program, it is great reading. Although both the book and movie were excellent, the movie used composite characters to tell the story. The book is, as usual, more detailed, and, in my view, a bit better than the movie. But I liked both.

5. "Love Lives Here" by Maria Goff. Maria is the wife of Bob Goff, whose bestseller, "Love Does," was one of my favorites a few years back. In some ways, Maria fills in blanks of Bob's book, with details of his work in Africa and the human trafficking trade there. Like "Love Does," she advocates for loving one's neighbor in a radical, sometimes uncomfortable way. When I finished "Love Does," I wanted to go have dinner with Bob Goff. After reading "Love Lives Here," I wanted to add another seat at the table.

6.  "What Happened" by Hillary Clinton. I mentioned this in a previous post, and some of you have already advised you will give this a pass, thank you very much, and I get it. I am NOT a fan of the author, and I am the first one to tell you this book is completely self-serving and she blames everyone but herself for her loss to Donald Trump. But it's also an interesting retrospective and if you simply enjoy reading about politics in general, and can put aside your leanings if you don't like her, it's a great read. I really didn't want it to be on my favorites list, but if I'm being honest with myself, it makes the list.

I read a total of 11 non-fiction books this year and, after just looking over the list, I can say there was not one I did not enjoy. I do want to mention a couple of others:

"The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman is, technically, fiction, and I guess it would be considered historical fiction. It's the story of a couple in Warsaw, Poland during World War II who owned a zoo and how the zoo was transformed during the war into a hiding place for Jews and others opposing the Nazi movement. To me, because Ackerman bases the story on the diaries of one of the principal characters, interviews with others and/or their descendants, and exhaustive research, it is more non-fiction than fiction, which is why I mention it here.

"Jewels in the Junkyard" was written by my high school and college friend, Warren Ludwig, and it is the poignant and moving story of how he picked up the pieces and moved on after his wife took her own life. I had completely lost touch with Warren, but when I heard about the book, I ordered a copy and read it, then sent him an email at the address given at the end of the book. I later reviewed it in the weekly column I write. I did not want to list it as a favorite since I am biased, but I did want to tell you about it.

I hope some of you might find something of interest here, perhaps something you'll add to your own TBR list. I'll be back with my favorite fiction picks in a few days.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Crazy stuff

Since Younger Son has been living in northern Indiana, he has dealt with weather conditions in the winter to which he is not accustomed. This week they had their first big snow.

But the funny thing about the snow that hit where he lives this week is that he was scheduled to fly out yesterday (Friday) to come home for the weekend to attend a wedding of a close friend tonight. In the early afternoon yesterday he called to tell us his flight had been canceled, not because of snow in Mishawaka where he lives, or South Bend, where he would be flying from, but Atlanta, which would be the location of his connecting flight.

That's right, the south was hit with a band of snow on Friday that went across Alabama and Georgia. Some parts of Atlanta got as much as eight inches! As I have previously written, I have ten folks in Birmingham who report to me, and they got a snow day yesterday. Two and a half hours to the north, here in Nashville, it was cold, but we had not one flake of snow. Crazy.

Younger Son made a strategic decision and drove home. Thankfully, the airline gave him a full refund. They were going to reroute him this morning through Detroit but with snow forecast there as well, he told him that wouldn't work. He arrived home a little before 10 last night and made it to the wedding tonight.

***************************************

And speaking of crazy stuff, look at what walked through my backyard this morning.

We have plenty of wildlife around here and an abundance of deer, but it's rare we see a buck like this one. He was as still as a statue. The photo is a bit blurry as I took it on my iPhone and expanded the range a bit. But you get the idea. This guy is a big one.