One of the few upsides of quarantine living was the time for more reading. I’m sure many of you surpassed your reading goals quite by accident, others because as with everything else, reading has also become a competitive sport as has cooking, design, fashion, and other arts. I’m just hoping I never see a reality show called Torn or Ripped Out whose premise is you’re eliminated if you don’t read fast enough.
Aside from the usual book awards, there are many best of lists generated by websites, publishers, and other site book lovers frequent. Since the pandemic, there has been much more access to authors promoting their books through Facebook Live, Bookstores using Zoom and publishers’ websites. All this access has been a good thing for readers.
I’ve always kept a journal writing my impressions of the books I read. My kids always used to make fun of me demanding to know why any sane person would voluntarily do book reports. I like to, I would lamely retort. Helps me think about them. And I’ll be able to look back at them. Remember what I thought when I was reading them.
Then, Hurricane Irma hit and I was sure that my years of journals were swallowed up by the surge. Thankfully, they weren’t but I decided anyway to use Goodreads to keep track along with the old, once tried and true method. That’s how I know I read 92 books this year.
I am a fiction girl at heart. Nearly forty of the ninety plus books I read were contemporary, followed by almost thirty historical. To mix it up a bit, I read some short story collections, poetry books, memoirs, mysteries, nonfiction and I don’t mind a romance or two to listen to while I’m walking!
I don’t necessarily read the best sellers when they come out nor the short or long listed books. I sometimes catch up a few years later. I can’t imagine making up a best of list. What you enjoy is really a matter of personal taste.
So I’m going to give you a list of books that I really loved this year. It gives me pleasure to give them a shout out as we finish a read-a-thon year. (I’m not including the ones I’ve already talked about on previous blogs this year).
And like all people that have a mini platform, I’ll also have a bit of a say about books that I either didn’t enjoy, didn’t understand, and wonder why they are floating about. I’d welcome some comments on any of this! Tell me what I’ve missed. Please!
My Favorites Published This Year
Five of the books I thought were more than worthy of spending your time with:
Writers and Lovers by Lily King (Grove Press 2020)
This novel carries protagonist, Casey, through the agonizing end of a long journey into adulthood when every part of her life comes to crisis. It is a portrait of an artist as a young woman and is beautifully rendered. I have read everything Lily King has written and have never been disappointed.
Casey’s mother died, her boyfriend broke up with her, she can’t finish her novel, and she’s a waitress. When will things start coming together for her? This book has an array of characters—depicted with all their nuanced attributes and boldness when called for. Casey begins to see she really does have choices. She just has to decide whether she’s going to start making some that will get her where she wants to be.
Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout (Random House 2020)
Why more Olive Kitteredge you may ask? Like it or not we need her. She is a force of nature who seems to know just when a neighbor, a relative, a husband, or son has a big gaping hole in their lives. Even if it might blow up in her face, she intuitively knows when someone needs to talk, when loneliness is so acute even a small exchange will make all the difference.
She’s tough but she’s vulnerable. Still cantankerous and a bit ornery, but she’s learned enough through the years to start admitting what she needs. Maybe she will even take her own advice.
Elizabeth Strout is masterful at creating snapshots of people in situations we all can recognize and feel better for seeing them displayed in others. I, for one wish I had an Olive in my life. She’ll set you straight when you need it or give you a push or visit you when you think you’ve been totally forgotten.
Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland (Simon & Schuster 2020)
This is a quirky debut novel that is based on a loose family history. It is hard to imagine it being true but it is big hearted and gives you a historical perspective of an Atlantic City pre world war II, anti-Jewish sentiment at home, big dreams, and what imaginative lengths a mother will go to if she thinks it will protect her family.
Florence drowns while training to swim the English channel. (Don’t worry. This is no spoiler.) Her sister is in the hospital on bed rest trying not to lose another pregnancy and her mother thinks its in everyone’s best interest to keep the drowning a secret. There are a lot of people drawn into this, relationships budding and failing around this plot point and in its center both an iron willed Jewish mama and an immigrant girl living under her roof that has some connection to her husband but he is not telling her what. Are you intrigued yet?
The Last Train To Key West by Chanel Cleeton (Berkley 2020)
I might have been partial to this book because I love Key West but what a read! I was not a fan of Next Year in Havana but this one is riveting. No forced romance this time. The history laid the foundation for the book—the extreme destruction of the hurricane of 1935, the plight of women during that time period, the abysmal treatment of returning WWI vets, and the corruption in Cuba from all perspectives, especially American businessmen. The story is told from the perspective of three women whose problems are rooted in their different social and economic classes. Her depiction of the hurricane as it barreled through was stunning. How Key West has made it through so many hurricanes is mind boggling but to read it in context of the times makes it a great choice.
How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (Little Brown and Co 2020)
This was a real find. A wonderful short story collection. Each story was touching, unsentimental, straight out, yet you felt what was happening in your core. It is the story of Laotians but could be any immigrant group. The initial feeling of alienation and dislocation, the existing unseen until you begin your transition into this new, foreign place. The title story, as you might imagine, of a father and daughter learning to speak this complicated language of ours is extremely touching. I first became aware of her when I watched her on Zoom introducing an Ocean Vuong reading of his much acclaimed memoir On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The directness of Thammavongsa’s prose was much more meaningful to me than the literary gymnastics and magnificent prose of the other book. I was glad to have found her and urge you to read these stories.
Favorites published in other years
The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (Harper 2018)
Although this is a sequel to an earlier novel (The Space Between Us -Harper 2007), it can easily stand alone. It is an intergenerational novel of modern India that addresses impossible questions— who are we despite what has been done to us, who can we become and what waits for us on this on the other side of our becoming. It is a powerful story of friendship, loss, abandonment, and redemption in an India that is changing for some but not for others. Despite modern changes and globalization, the class system is still very much intact. The characters are so strong and complicated you imagine them walking in front of you. Oftentimes, it is difficult to know if you’ve done a book justice by listening to the audio version but in this case, it was so well done, I felt I truly was there with them. As much as I loved the first book, and it did stay with me all these years, this later novel is a triumph. Highly recommend.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Random House 2016)
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, his wife Neni, and their young son have come to Harlem with the big American dream clearly intact. It is the fall of 2007 and Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. But unfortunately, the reader knows what’s coming. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. In the quiet of those car rides, they begin to form a relationship. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at their summer home in the Hamptons.
With these opportunities, Jende and Neni believe they can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future. But as you can imagine, some dreams can turn dark very quickly. I loved the Cameroonian culture and spirit sprinkled throughout this story, how the intensity of a dream can propel us forward, and the different reactions people can have when the earth beneath their feet shifts. Amazing characterization.
A new book by this author, How Beautiful We Were, will be released this year. Looking forward to it.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing 2017)
I really had no interest in reading this tome of a book nominated for a National Book Award until I saw the author at a writing conference. She was so lively, outspoken, and down to earth, I thought this has to be more readable that one might think. And she worked tirelessly on it, rewriting many times to get it right. I had read her first book, Free Food for Millionaires, a long time ago and really liked it. So on that basis, I undertook the 500 page read and it was worth it. A good story and education about a history I knew nothing about.
It’s a four generation family saga set throughout the 20th century. It follows a Korean family through the political turmoil of Japanese colonization, wartime, the necessity of moving to Japan for work, and the tragedy of the home they left become divided into two countries they hardly recognize.
Koreans were considered second class citizens in Japan. It was in Pachinko parlors (a Japanese arcade game) that they were able to find work to support their families but this was looked down upon in Japanese culture. It was another sad story of how racism and ethnicity has plagued the planet. Definitely a worthwhile read.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories I by Annie Proulx Scribner 1999
I’ve started another novel and might have Wyoming as an integral part of the setting so I thought I should start reading some Wyoming stories. Where better to start than with Annie Proulx? She is the absolute master of speaking volumes with as spare language as possible. Whether the story was about failed rodeo riders, ranchers living out lifetimes of disappointment, or the life of a lonely woman among rough men, your heart breaks. The landscape is gorgeous and hard and will break you if you let it. I can see why Brokeback Mountain had enough in it for a full length film. It was all there. Both in the spare dialogue and between the lines. Even if you aren’t a short story lover, you should try her.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Picador 2014)
I’ve read this book twice. Once before I became personally involved with the issues raised in the book and once after. As a doctor trained to medically extend a patient’s life at any cost, this is a thoughtful reevaluation of how life ends in our complex, technological, corporate world. The first time I read it, I dwelled on the innovative, happier examples of how people can live out their lives. And then, after having parents who lived in assisted living, a father who died in a hospital, and a mother who is in a nursing home, the book took on completely different shades. There is so much we need to do to turn around how we treat end of life. This is an important book and I would recommend it to everyone. It’s not a critical book. It’s an eye opener written by a doctor who writes with compassion and honesty.
Books that left me with questions….
The books that I either found impossible to read, understand its rave reviews, or the characters’ motivations were:
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. This book was reviewed extremely well. I welcome anyone to explain it to me. It is a story of students in a performing arts high school who are expected to do these trust exercises in class with a highly enigmatic, yet charismatic teacher. The students are unkind to one another. The professor plays games with them. Taunts them, really. The book is divided into three parts in which roles change. I didn’t understand how the third part fit. Is the point there is no trust? Help me on this one.
A Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. A Columbia graduate who works in a trendy art gallery needs a time out from life. She decided to hibernate for a year in her apartment. She finds a disreputable therapist to prescribe drugs that will help her sleep. These drugs also help her go to parties that she blanks out about. She also has a friend that checks up on her that this woman doesn’t like. The point?
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is a story of the life of a very spoiled and selfish woman who never really changes. It is a long book in the form of a letter. A woman has asked her what her relationship was with her father. So she does. But for some reason, this letter starts when she’s eighteen and goes on for many hundred of pages , decades before she even meets this woman’s father. I rest my case.
Friends and Strangers by Courtney Sullivan and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Are rich white women so pathetic that they have to make friends with their babysitters? A coincidence that two of this year’s books had the same general theme. Such a Fun Age began with some potential. Or maybe could have had some substance. An employer calls her babysitter on a Friday night to take her child out of the house for her and when she does so, is accused at the neighborhood bodega of kidnapping the child. So it could have been a book that might have touched on race and class but instead to me was a book about a smart young black woman having to put up with an idiotic privileged employer. The other book was much the same. I would have enjoyed a book about the two young girls. They were much more interesting characters. As for these young mothers who can’t seem to get their lives together, I’ll take a pass on making them leading ladies. Not to say these aren’t good writers. I’ve read all of Sullivan’s other books and would give them thumbs up!
I invite you to comment on any of my opinions. Lively book discussion is sorely missed these days.
I also hope that if you haven’t already read them, you will give one of my novels a try and let me know what you think. http://www.jantramontano.com/standingonthecorneroflostandfound
Have a happy, healthy New Year. May this be one in which the nightmare of 2020 fades in memory and we continue to read to our heart’s delight!