fiction

2017 Reading List #5: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

Another of my many reading goals in 2017 was to read something by Virginia Woolf, who I’ve never approached before. Though I also own Mrs. Dalloway, I decided to start with A Room of One’s Own because it’s a short read.

The length, though, doesn’t say much about the density of the text. A Room of One’s Own is a bit complex in terms of genre because it’s a nonfiction essay, but her narrator is fictional.

Regardless of whether we’re supposed to read the book as fact or fiction, Woolf’s arguments are pointed and complicated and compelling. I’m not sure I understood all of it, but there were moments when I loved her points about the relationship between women and fiction. Woolf takes a chronological historical approach to understanding female writers and has several revelations in the process.

This is the kind of book that will take a while to process, but reading it has given me confidence that I’ll be better prepared to tackle more of Woolf in the future.

With this, another reading goal is crossed off my list in 2017. Hopefully the rest of my winter break can be equally productive.

Favorite Books of 2016

I know there are many people in the world who rarely read, which is probably one of the most depressing things to know about our society. I feel no shame in the time I spend daily reading or thinking about reading or discussing reading with my roommate.

In 2016, I read 92 books and plays, which is a personal record (I was determined to out-do my 2014 total of 91, so congratulations from me to myself). Unlike past years, I set a few goals at the beginning of the year other than reading a total of 52 books, which included reading works by specific people. By Thanksgiving, I’d accomplished all of those goals, so I’m upping the ante for 2017 (see my new reading list in a day or two if you’re curious about how nerdy/obsessive I can be).

Below, in the order I read them, is a list of my favorite books I read in 2016, followed by some honorable mentions. This list contains books both new and old, some of which have even achieved favorite status. You can consult my full 2016 reading list here.

What books did you love in 2016? Maybe I’ll add them to my shelf.


Brooklyn, Colm Toíbín

Both as a book and a film, Brooklyn has taken deep root in my soul. I adore this coming-of-age story (they tend to be my favorites anyway, but this one is especially great). The novel, which tells the story of a young Irish immigrant Eilis who moves to New York City to start a new life in the 1950s, is just as profound and beautiful as its Oscar-nominated film adaptation. This is a perfect book to enjoy on a cozy winter afternoon.

Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

I grabbed this book at a used bookstore to help fill out my reading list for my master’s comprehensive exams in the spring and was fortunate enough to love it as a piece of literature. I quickly became obsessed with Edna St. Vincent Millay herself (this girl was crazy progressive and hip in the 1920s) and her poetry doesn’t make me feel like an idiot as most poetry does. She’s witty, hilarious, and heartbreaking in equal parts.

‘Night, Mother, Marsha Norman

It’s strange that I only read ‘Night, Mother earlier this year because the story feels deeply engrained in me already. My mom has loved this play for a long time, and I finally understood why when I read it myself this spring. Norman’s play is sparse and simple but still incredibly profound. It’s impossible as a reader not to share the characters’ anxiety as the story progresses in real time toward a potential suicide. I can’t wait to share this play with my students this spring.

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’m a fan of Hamilton (okay just kidding I haven’t listened to any other music in a year). Since annotating is one of my favorite pastimes, reading the annotated edition of the complete musical, accompanied by beautiful photographs and behind-the-scenes information, was a dream. Hamilton: The Revolution is a must-have for fans of the musical. Though it’s a little pricier than the Chernow biography upon which the show is based, it’s far less likely to sit untouched on your bookshelf.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

My only prior encounters with Cheryl Strayed came from seeing the film adaptation of Wild  and reading a few nonfiction essays in a writing workshop, but after my roommate loved this one and gave it to me as a graduation gift, I too fell in love. I intended to bring this as my reading material on a long drive to Nebraska over the summer, but I got so into it I breezed through the entire book before our departure. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s Dear Sugar letters, a column she wrote for The Rumpus. Strayed clearly answers each person with deep thought and tenderness, but she isn’t afraid to answer with honesty. Each entry makes you feel understood and valued. I have a feeling this book will be one I continue to share with friends and family.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

After solidifying my love for Amy Schumer in 2015, I of course had to read her memoir when it was released this summer. Schumer doesn’t disappoint in this book that is equally laugh-out-loud funny and sweetly sad. Though I read this book months ago, there are still stories here that I think of and laugh about often.

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

The Book of Other People is a collection of short stories written by several famous authors whose sole prompt was to create a character and write a story about them. As with many short story collections, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag, but the general feeling I had was a very pleasant one. When my roommate and I read this aloud together (now one of our favorite and cutest habits), we sometimes had difficulty stopping ourselves from reading indefinitely. Though many of the stories are great, see if you can get your hands on “Magda Mandela” by Hari Kunzru. It’s a quick read and you will not be disappointed.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

I haven’t even seen A Monster Calls yet but I’m already guessing this will be the #1 tearjerker of 2017. The book tells the story of a young English boy named Conor whose mother’s cancer is continually worsening. Conor is visited nightly by a tree monster, a clear manifestation of his frustration and grief as he watches his mother fade. This is a beautiful story about love and loss. Just maybe skip the eye makeup before reading.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

I’m very rarely a reader of mysteries, especially contemporary ones. However, once I saw the trailer for the upcoming HBO miniseries adaptation of this novel, I was too intrigued not to read it before the February air date. Who knew I’d be such a fan? The book rounds out at over 500 pages, but I couldn’t put it down in the 2 days I spent reading it. I think Moriarty does a great job of telling a dramatic story in a way that still feels authentic (something I’m a little worried about based on the footage from the miniseries). It was refreshing to see a story about women who come from various backgrounds, aren’t all about competition, and keep cattiness to a minimum. Though this was my first encounter with Moriarty, I’ve already purchased her latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, and look forward to enjoying it early next year.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

2016 was a year of Ann Patchett for me. I’d never read her previously, but my roommate and I read Bel Canto together in the fall and I became a fan. Though I generally try not to be too easily distracted by my book purchases, when I bought State of Wonder in October, I couldn’t resist starting it almost immediately. The story is clearly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness, but differs in that it follows a woman sent to retrieve her female boss from the depths of the Amazon where she’s developing a fertility drug. Though I was—and still am—frustrated by the book’s conclusion, it features beautiful writing and some great twists that make for a worthwhile read.

The Penguin Arthur Miller

In my 92 books read this year, this one feels like the biggest accomplishment. In fact, it’s one book that contains 18—this is the complete canon of Arthur Miller’s dramatic works. Miller and I go way back at this point, but before 2016, I’d only read 3 of his plays. This edition isn’t exactly an easy one to travel with—note its comparative size to my cat in the featured photo—but now it has a stately position on my bookshelf made all the more grand by the fact that I’ve read all the words in it. Miller is an undeniable master of American drama, and I loved spending so much time with him this year. If you remember, think of him on February 10—the date not only of his death, but also the anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman.

Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling

My general relationship with Mindy Kaling over the past month has gone from casual fan to actively seeking friendship (so, Mindy, if you’re reading, let’s hang out!). When I bought this book in the airport a few weeks ago, I was just looking to be mildly entertained on my journey home, but many times I was made to laugh aloud. Then I watched the entirety of The Mindy Project in just a few days, and I became even more enamored. Though it would be wrong to call Why Not Me? a page-turner, it’s still the kind of book you have a hard time putting down.


Honorable Mentions: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, At Fault by Kate Chopin, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

2016 Reading List #68: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

I’ve been in a very changeable reading mood lately. This mostly is manifesting itself in my spur-of-the-moment decisions to read something I just bought, regardless of how many things I’m already reading.

This is how I ended up reading Big Little Lies.

I’ve been mildly interested in this book since finding out HBO was doing a miniseries adaptation, but once the show’s trailer was released a few weeks ago, my resistance lowered, and I ordered the book last week. And then, though I was already reading four other books, I started reading it, too.

As it turns out, Big Little Lies is the perfect kind of juicy page-turner for spending a few days as a hermit. I didn’t read much of the book until Friday night, and then I blazed through over 300 pages yesterday when I decided I didn’t want to have to wait any longer to unravel the mysteries.

Big Little Lies is set in a small, coastal town in Australia and tells the story of four mothers whose children are in the same kindergarten class. I was admittedly skeptical about this plot set-up, mostly because I didn’t want it to be about bitchy rich mothers and their annoying children. The miniseries stars so many people I like (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, etc.) that I put this in the back of my mind and jumped in.

Thankfully, the story isn’t that at all—Moriarty herself mentions in the book’s acknowledgements that it’s a story of friendship, and it really is. Though there’s certainly a feud or two among parents, the book is much more about the importance of female companionship, which I really appreciated.

The real fun of the story, though, is that you know a murder happens among the kindergarten parents, though you don’t know the victim or the perpetrator. I did kind of guess at the ending early on, but that may have been because I was flipping through the novel to see where it was headed and got some hints.

Big Little Lies is enormously fun and worthy of a binge-read if you’re so inclined. Since the TV adaptation is due in early 2017, I’d recommend this during some quiet time over the holidays. Nothing says family like a good murder mystery.

 

2016 Reading List #61: The Girls, by Emma Cline

I’ve been interested in reading The Girls since it was featured on every summer reading list in the past months, but my skepticism about contemporary literature made me hesitant to invest. In the end, I don’t really feel better or worse off for having read The Girls. But hey, sometimes a little ambivalence is better than hatred.

The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of a young girl involved with a group meant to resemble the Manson Family of the late 1960s. Evie Boyd is entranced by several girls who live on a ranch with Russell, our Charles Manson character, and quickly tries to enmesh herself in their culture.

The story is really set in the present-day, starring adult Evie, and though we know from early on that she wasn’t involved in the murder the group is famous for, we don’t really know how she avoided it. In 1969, Evie is a girl desperate to grow up and be given attention and love, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see her agreeing to some pretty terrible things if it means earning respect from her superiors.

Though I was immediately intrigued by the framework of this novel, I was never quite dazzled by the actual thing. Cline’s novel is a strong debut, but I felt a bit removed for the entire reading experience. The novel’s concluding chapters are chilling, but those 30 pages were the only time I was truly invested. Cline’s habit of writing in sentence fragments was also bothersome to me—though, to be fair, that might have more to do with my failed ability to turn off the English-teaching part of my brain during pleasure reading.

In hindsight, I can see why others would like The Girls, but it wasn’t something I’d add to my list of favorites. At least I can know rest happily knowing I gave it a fair shot and came out none the worse.

2016 Reading List #1: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

It’s really great to start my 2016 reading off with such an enjoyable novel. I fell in love with the movie adaptation of Brooklyn a few weeks ago and knew I needed to get my hands on the source text. It did not disappoint.

Apparently I’m in a bit of an Irish literary period, because my last read of 2015 was Martin McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan. So basically all I want is to go to Ireland (preferably if it can be the 1950s) and enjoy life.

Brooklyn tells the coming-of-age story of Eilis (pronounced “ay-lish”) Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small Irish town for a job in Brooklyn. Eilis is a kind and mature young woman who can’t quite decide between being homesick and loyal to her Irish roots and beginning a new life in America.

This book is charming in every way, just like the film adaptation shows. It’s a story of romance, love, loss, and courage, but more than anything, it’s the story of a young woman finding her own way in life.

After devouring this novel, I’m interested in reading more of Colm Toíbín’s writing, especially his 2014 novel, Nora Webster, which seems to have character overlap with Brooklyn. 

Brooklyn was a perfect opener to great reading in 2016, and a lovely novel for a quiet winter weekend at home.

Book #49: Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

If you’ve followed my blog at all, you’ll know I fell in love with the Starz series Outlander about this time last year. I started watching it after reading good reviews and was instantly hooked by the characters, drama, romance, and beautiful setting of the show.

Though I knew the series was based on Diana Gabaldon’s book series, I didn’t really pursue reading the books until this past spring when the first season of Outlander returned for the second half of its premiere season. I soon became too anxious to find out what would happen next, so I decided the only way to find out was to get to reading.

Since season two of Outlander (sadly) won’t premiere until the spring of 2016, I haven’t tried to rush through Dragonfly in Amber, the second installment in the book series. My copy of the book rounds out at just under 1,000 pages, so it doesn’t exactly make for quick reading. But after starting the book at the very end of June, I’m happy to say I finished it on this crisp fall afternoon.

Though the majority of the action in Dragonfly in Amber takes place in the 1740s like Outlander, the opening and conclusion of the novel are set in 1968, with Claire as a mother revisiting Scotland for the first time, hoping to share her story with her daughter, Brianna. This frame narrative was quite surprising for me, but worked in a way I really enjoyed; it kept things in perspective about the future for Claire, but didn’t skip over any of the story that I was so intrigued by in the previous novel.

In the most general sense, this novel sees Claire and Jamie doing what they can to keep the war between the Scottish highlanders and the English at bay, since Claire knows the Scots fight a losing battle. The story takes them on a journey to France where we meet several new characters. By the novel’s end, we’ve also seen the deaths of several familiar characters, all of which were surprising to me. It’s important to note that Gabaldon is the type of writer who isn’t afraid to kill off major characters.

There were times in the novel when I felt like the pace dragged a bit, but I love that it ended with some very tender moments between Claire and Jamie and a pretty fantastic cliffhanger (though I must say it was less surprising for me since I know a bit about where the series is headed). I’m especially interested to see how Gabaldon plays with the time changes throughout the rest of the series, and I’m curious to see if the TV adaptation follows this same structure.

At this moment, I’d love to dive into Voyager, book three of the series, but I know that my seriously heavy semester of coursework won’t allow it. Thankfully I haven’t bought the book so I won’t be too tempted to abandon my required reading just yet. For now, I’ll keep myself busy, but I’m hoping to journey back to the Outlander world sometime this winter. Here’s hoping!

Book #44: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Since I’ve finished my goal of reading three of my assigned books for the upcoming semester, I’ve got a bit more time to enjoy reading of my own choice. It’s a nice feeling, but it also leaves me with a crisis of deciding what to read next.

At the end of my spring semester I had to read the short story “The Things They Carried” that opens Tim O’Brien’s novel of the same name. I loved the story, so the book has been on my short list for things to read all summer, and now finally felt like the right time.

To be honest, I’m not sure I totally get everything from this book, largely because I’m fortunate enough to be unscathed by war. Add to that the fact that I’ve also been sick while reading this and fairly drugged on Mucinex, and you’ll realize that my views of the book aren’t necessarily totally clear. Much of O’Brien’s writing is poetic and harrowing, and I totally recommend to those interested, but I also have to say that I’ll probably need to revisit this later in life to get a clearer picture of it. It’s a book that’s bound to leave me thinking.

As for how I’m spending my last days of summer freedom: I’m still working my way through Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, which at 941 pages isn’t exactly a quick read. I’ve also had to leave it unopened periodically so I make sure I’m reading what I should be reading. Hopefully I also have time to squeeze in another play or novel or something before real life resumes. Which reminds me: is it really August already?