Archives for posts with tag: Books

Here we are again at the end of December! I’ve been bookmarking 2014 best-of book lists for weeks now. I still love the sources that I mentioned last year, but you’ll also see some new ones amongst the links below.

NPR’s Book Concierge offers 250 titles that you can browse by genre. While great if you’re stumped for your next read, I find that number overwhelming. To make it bite size, I filter for the Staff Picks. That’s a nice list.

This year I loved Ron Charles’s piece “2014: A Good Year for Book Lovers” in the Washington Post. Instead of listing favorite titles (WP did that elsewhere), Charles gives a chronology of literary milestones for the year, from the award of the Newbery Medal to Kate DiCamillo on January 27 to Ursula LeGuin’s receipt of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on November 19 (not all of the news was about awards, though!).

I’ve also gathered lists from various genres this year. It seems some of the more controversial titles were nonfiction (Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, for example), but of course the most highly praised titles were fiction (although maybe it just seemed that way to me because I’m more plugged into the literary world). Titles I saw most often were The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (actually published in 2013), The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, and of course, Redeployment by Phil Klay. Various lists are linked below, in no particular order.

Christopher Atamian, in the Huffington Post. Six Books of the Year for 2014

Brad Stulberg, in the Huffington Post. The 10 Best Health Books in 2014

Leigh Buchanan, in Inc. 10 Books That Will Make You Smarter in 2015

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings. The Definitive Reading List of the 14 Best Books of 2014 Overall

Tracy Sherlock, in the Vancouver Sun. Ten Great Novels of 2014

The Editors, Atlantic Monthly. The Best Book I Read This Year

the New York Times. The 10 Best Books of 2014

the New York Times. 100 Notable Books of 2014

the Guardian. Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014: Part One

the Guardian. Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014: Part Two

the Telegraph. The 45 best young adult books of 2014

School Library Journal. Best Books 2014: Young Adult



Happy coincidence: I discovered that there’s a Symposium for African Writers in my town this week, just when I’ve finished the first African novel I’ve read in a long while. I love when an accidental theme develops in life! I’ll be able to attend at least the first session.

If you’re in Austin, you should try to go! Follow the link below for details.


arrow of godArrow of God is a subtle, weighty tale that portrays the dramatic shifts that occurred in West African society due to British colonization of the region in the 1800s and early 1900s. (The novel is set in the early 1900s.) Achebe reveals to readers a traditional culture that’s adjusting to the reality of the European presence in its homeland.

The novel follows the Igbo man Ezeulu, High Priest of the deity Ulu, who is the most important official of Umuaro, an association of six villages that have banded together for mutual protection. As Ezeulu struggles with strife between Umuaro and a neighboring Igbo power, Okperi, the British Administration in the region plans to appoint him Warrant Chief, part of a colonial strategy of indirect rule. But we see very little of the British officers for the first three-quarters of the novel, even though the narrator often refers to various incidents and histories of the white man and his actions. Instead, we are immersed in the life of the village.

The villages are ruled by a group of elders who make decisions together, but as priest of the highest deity, Ezeulu is responsible for certain critical decisions, such as when the villages’ yam crops can be harvested. The fundamentally different methods of rule employed by European and Igbo society is an important theme of the novel. It reveals the misunderstandings and other pressures that invade a society when two societies of uneven power collide. A good part of the novel is a commentary on how customs and cultures shift to accommodate new powers. It’s almost as though we see in the villages of Umuaro the last traditional Igbo villages: their society is becoming something new. This is even clear to some characters, who advocate for change of a tradition that they feel is no longer relevant to their time.

But the struggle for power is not limited to the interactions between the Africans and the white men. Most conflict in the novel is within the society of Umuaro itself. The elders and priests compete for loyalties and power; their interactions are an incessant tug of war. In families, wives and children compete for status and favor. But within these struggles are revealed strict codes of behavior and a strong belief system.

Achebe uses many Igbo terms in his story, many of which are used to name religious rituals, objects, or ideas. While the terms do not make the reading easier, they do make it more interesting and precise. After all, most of the Igbo terms used in the novel likely did not have precise English equivalents because many of the objects and concepts of traditional Igbo life did not exist for the English.

This is the second of Achebe’s novels that I’ve read. The other was Things Fall Apart. Both novels are classics; both are a sort of history of colonization from a Nigerian’s point of view.

If you’d like to read more about how Achebe became a writer and why he writes, there is an interview with him in the Paris Review.

I had so much fun reading Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, that I picked up her second, Astonish Me, the following month. I confess that I expected something very like Seating Arrangements–a perfect mix of humor and bad behavior. And this second novel is like Shipstead’s first in that her writing is technically just as good. The story itself, however, is less fresh.

The novel spans two decades, beginning  in the 70s in New York City, where we join a young ballet dancer and her friends as they navigate life in an elite dance company. Our heroine, Joan, falls in love with the world-famous Aslan, a Russian dancer who has just escaped his home country to join the ballet in New York. But it’s not a relationship that will stick, and Joan knows she will never be a soloist. So she moves on.

The story is told non-linearly, switching between Joan’s life dancing in New York and her life after she leaves the company. She marries, she moves away from New York, she has a child, she teaches ballet. Her son takes her classes and when, as a teenager, he moves to New York to dance, Joan’s old and new worlds collide. The results are intense, even melodramatic.

The problem with the novel is that the characters are a little empty, a little too stereotypical. They weren’t as engaging, as simultaneously likeable and flawed, as the characters in Seating Arrangements. And… I have to say that I didn’t care for the ending, which I found unsatisfying and even a touch distasteful. Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and I’ll probably read Shipstead’s next book, but this one doesn’t make it to my list of favorites.




This summer is my summer-of-trying-to-read-the-book-before-I-see-the-movie-based-on-the-book. The first book in that category (longest name of a category ever) was Gone Girl, which I read a few weeks ago while on vacation. That was perfect timing, really, because it’s a complete page turner and it was fine for me to keep reading till the wee morning hours. Seriously, I think I stayed up until 3 the first night.

The novel is a mystery-thriller, and I don’t often read mysteries or thrillers, but because this book was included in at least half a dozen summer reading lists back in May, I thought I’d give it a try. Also, the trailer didn’t hurt, seeing how the movie looks great. Also, Ben Affleck. But getting back to the book. There I was, a non-mystery reader, reading this mystery and gleefully–gleefully!–anticipating every little reveal in the plot. The pacing was so good and the plot so skillfully developed that I wished I could read the various drafts of the book that would show how it all took shape.

Gone Girl is about a wife who goes missing and how the public blames her husband. At least, that’s the top layer of the story. Really it’s the story of a marriage. By interspersing flashbacks with the novel’s current-day mystery, Flynn lets us get to know the characters and their story slowly, over time. The fact that I spent half of the book in denial (“No–he isn’t that stupid! He can’t be such a jerk! No way she’s smart enough to . . . “) is proof of the shifting tensions and the steady conflict in the novel. And the ending was a surprise (Me: What . . . ? No… What?). But no more about that; I must avoid spoilers.

I can’t say that I loved the characters. They were too imperfect for love, which is imperfect enough to be really interesting. And the novel didn’t have me contemplating heavy themes. (But there were heavy themes, believe me.) I was simply engrossed and entertained, which is, for me, more than good enough. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how Flynn adapted her novel for the screen.

Now that it’s June, I am catching up on some “Best of” reads from 2013 and 2012. I heard a lot about Seating Arrangements last year, and it popped up on more than a few “Best of” lists in December. I’ve been curious about the book–what could possibly deserve such praise?–but I also skeptical, having too often picked up a book because of stellar reviews only to find that it fell short of the hype. And, I admit, the beginning of this novel had me wondering if I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

And then I discovered that it’s clever. Very clever. And funny. Every character is a world. I finished the book a few days ago, and since then I have the delightful sense that I’ve just spent the weekend on the coast even though I’m stuck in central Texas, which is anything but refreshing at the moment. Although I’m grateful to never have been an attendee at a wedding of hilarity and tension such as the one in the novel, I couldn’t be more glad that it was the focus of my first fun read of the summer.

Rather than give you a synopsis, I’ll link to the first review that I heard of the novel, which was by Maureen Corrigan on NPR. The novel is extremely well written, light without being farcical, and worth every word.

I finished this book weeks ago, but I delayed writing my review because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. I can’t rave; it didn’t capture me in that way. I can’t dismiss it or offer criticism; it is too good, too well written for either or those reactions. What it is, perhaps more than anything, is real. The writing is understated and powerfully descriptive, conveying the steady pace of life in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado where the novel is set. The characters are skillfully depicted; each of them seemed like someone I know, or once knew—a pregnant teenager, a high school teacher, a pair of elderly farmers, two young brothers. Likewise, the setting is vivid and realistic.

Plainsong was a finalist for the National Book Award (NBA) and won other prestigious awards. Critics loved it. I tried to, but I kept wishing that something would happen. I was impatient. Each chapter follows one character, so that first you learn what is happening with the young girl, then the two little boys, then the teacher, and so on. It takes some time for the reader to see the threads coming together. But as the characters’ lives become more and more intertwined over the course of a year, we see a community growing together, a family being created. The story, then, is that of the quiet acts of bravery, kindness, and generosity of the characters, who each seek to connect to others.

There is something very lovely and powerful about this book. There is the truth that to truly connect with others, one must become vulnerable. One must show need, expose the self. There is also a profound sense that everything will be okay, that people’s capacity to love is abiding, and that everyone can find a home.



Now that Christmas is over, I’ve been catching up on the 2013 “Best of” lists that I’ve been bookmarking throughout December. People love to groan at these lists, but I really like them—I’m always curious about what I missed during the year, and recommendations from trusted sources are a great thing.

I always start with NPR’s recommendations. This year they’ve created the Book Concierge, which is a bit different from their usual approach (lists!). The new format is great, though. It makes it easy to browse through a variety of titles across genres or to focus on your favorite genres.

I also really appreciated the lists at Brain Pickings. This blog by Maria Popova is chock full of fascinating ideas and wonderful books and profound advice from people who’ve lived amazing lives. Maria posted about her favorite 13 books of 2013 here. Do explore her blog, though, because she’s also posted lists of favorites within specific genres or types of books.

And one of my other favorite sources is Publisher’s Weekly. From that link you can also access the lists from previous years. Naturally, the New York Times and The New Yorker and Huffington Post all have their lists, and they’re all worth a look.

The titles that I saw again and again? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, among others.

Perhaps my favorite list of all is from Flavorwire. It’s not a Best of 2013 list; it’s a list of syllabi by famous authors, including Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. That is a compilation of lists worth studying!

This year the Texas Book Festival is on October 26 and 27.  I just went through the author list and schedule and made a list of everything (and everyone) I’d like to see.  I’m especially excited about Sherman Alexie, who will be speaking on Sunday. I also saw that three National Book Award finalists will be at the festival! This event is always great—well organized, well attended, and full of interesting panels and authors. And it’s free!

The Ice Palace was, without a doubt, one of my favorite reads of this summer. Written by the celebrated Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, it was first published in English in 1966. In this novel, Vesaas, who is both a poet and a novelist, uses sparse, poetic language to tell the story of two young girls and their powerful friendship.

Unn is an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved to a new school. Shy and reserved, she keeps to herself even though the other girls in her class have repeatedly invited her to play. But one day she finally approaches Siss, the most popular girl in the class, and invites her to her house. They have one visit together and develop an extraordinary connection. The next day, overwhelmed, Unn goes for a walk in the woods instead of going to school. When she doesn’t return home, the townspeople begin an extended search ranging over the harsh winter landscape near the town. It’s no use; Unn is not seen again.

Vesaas explores the complexities of human connection, loss and grief, and the impersonal beauty and power of nature. The real journey of the novel is Siss’s; we first follow her as she heads through the dark of a late autumn afternoon to Unn’s house for their visit. Then we watch as she realizes, incredibly, heartbreakingly, that Unn will not be seen again; that her friend, only just found, is already lost. We watch as she struggles with memory and loyalty–how best can she honor her friend? Wouldn’t it be disloyal to continue without her?

This is a novel that, though simple, rings with truth, stunningly beautiful.