Currently Reading

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Some years ago, in a small red notebook, I started keeping a list of books I read. It’s become a fascinating, terse  diary of my interests, digressions and obsessions; I am only left to wish I had started this project the day I learned to read.

I do not record partly read books (as in Kindle samples, to which I’ve become devoted) unless there is some particular reason, like I might want to go back and read the whole, require the book for later reference, or felt a mixture of annoyance and regret at getting so far and giving up (I’m looking at you, “Preparation for the Next Life”).

March 2017

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt

This book, which uses data analysis to look at literature, is utterly fascinating and also very funny in places, like the chapter about cliches, which made me start laughing out loud in a crowded subway car. 

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

I fear this will get pigeonholed — LGBT fiction, but with Tamils! And that some people will seek it out because of that, and others avoid it for the same reason. But “Marriage” deserves to be read on its own terms, as a story about being human: specifically about the limbo of being in your late 20s, caught between adolescence and full maturity, between the demands of family and community, and the inconvenient imperatives of your own nature.

Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson

Something is amiss in a small coastal town in the Pacific Northwest, and the outside world is not in great shape either. Excellent for fans of magical realism,  gloomy law enforcement officers, 1980s nostalgia, and things furred with moss. However you think it ends, you are wrong.

February 2017

The Young Wives Club by Julie Pennell

Four friends in small-town Louisiana face romantic and other challenges and eventually find their way to happiness. Although the intersection of their lives is part of the story, in many ways this is four novels in one, each with a fully worked out narrative arc. The risk here is that plot will dominate character development, and to some extent that happens. Characters are consistent, and not cliched, yet the need to cover so much territory means an inevitable sacrifice of depth.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

To me this was enthralling in spots and uneven in others, but I give high marks for the difficulty of the undertaking. It’s hard to write fiction about something as horrific as slavery without it feeling exploitative or overdone. I found mixture of the historical and the allegorical both intriguing and challenging,  and I thought the book did a good job of touching on one of the more paradoxical aspects of slavery: the way that it degrades the owners as much as the owned.

Some Kind of Magic by Mary Ann Marlowe

Eden Sinclair, a music-loving research assistant in a New Jersey laboratory, meets a famous rock star  by chance (and doesn’t realize he’s famous). She’s wearing a perfume from her lab that might (or might not) make her irresistible. Improbability piles onto improbability as great sex is had, and had again, yet the whole thing makes a kind of mad emotional sense as a mediation on fame and the difficulties of intimacy. 

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi

Maddy, a seemingly  happy wife and mother, jumps off a roof to her death, and her husband, Bradley, and teenage daughter, Eve, are left to try to figure out why. The story explore questions of guilt and forgiveness  in an unusual first-person shifting between the Eve, Bradley and dead Maddy .

Strawberry Wine by Darly Jamison

Romance novels are not my usual fare, but for various reasons, I’ve resolved to read outside my comfort zone this year. Strawberry Wine is well outside my comfort zone. I’ve been challenged and amused by my own reactions to this tale of star-crossed lovers in a perfect Southern town. If you like your characters sweet and your love scenes spicy, this is your book . 

January 2017

Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld

The satire was hilarious and pitch-perfect in this tale of a well-meaning liberal: a wife, mother, and nonprofit employee. Karen Kipple’s social insecurity, contradictory feelings about class, and general lack of self-awareness felt real and convincing, but eventually inside her head began to feel like a claustrophobic place to be.

Fräulein M. by Caroline Woods

Two orphaned young sisters divided by circumstances beyond their control face hard times and harder moral choices in 1930s Germany, with a frame story in the American South of the early  1970s, where we learn what became of them. At points it is heart-poundingly suspenseful, with some  surprising twists.

Not Just Jane  Shelley DeWees

This was a fascinating look at seven 18th- and 19th-century female writers who are now largely forgotten and unread. Their tales of how brilliance and hard work triumphed over a suffocatingly sexist society are inspiring in themselves but also provide valuable context for better-known writers of the era. And I have lots of new ideas about what to read!  Thanks, Shelley DeWees.

The River at Night Erica Ferencik

Four thirty-something female friends light out for the deep wilderness of Maine with an inexperienced but sexy young guide. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything! I loved the descriptions of nature and found the plot engrossing. Note to self: do not go white-water rafting,

Tender Belinda McKeon

The story of an intelligent but insecure and self-absorbed college student and how she blows up her most important friendship through her crazy, jealous possessiveness. This was enthralling, well-written and psychologically spot-on. It was also funny, something I always appreciate. 

The Once and Future King by T.H. White (a re-read)

I loved, loved, loved this book when I was about 13 and obsessed with the Arthurian legend. To read it again decades later was fascinating. It is such a strange and unlikely mixture of the erudite and the silly, by turns epic, comic,  and tragic. It is hard to imagine a book like this being written today. I suppose it bears some kinship with “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” but unlike “Strange,” it does not shy away from the temptation to draw parallels between history and current events.

December 2016

A Twist in Time by Julie McElwain

I don’t read murder mysteries so much these days, though back when I was trying to write one I  read them all the time. This one would be a standard police procedural except the female sleuth has mysteriously time-traveled to, um, 1815 England. Has all the absurdities and all the pleasures of the genre.

How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

One generally reads nonfiction for information, not with the expectation of pleasure. Although I learned from this book, I also laughed out loud and reread paragraphs for the sheer joy they provided. Here is a writer who takes a deep delight in what she’s doing and learning, and with sharing it with others.

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James

A modern-day woman finds a lost manuscript, and complications ensue. Until now I had avoided this book, wary of finding my ideas anticipated, and my heart plunged into despair. Surprisingly,  much of “Missing Manuscript” is the manuscript itself — the frame story is  almost perfunctory. “The Stanhopes,” as it’s called, reads like Jane Austen fan-fiction as written by Oliver Goldsmith, which is to say, it’s hilarious. Whatever qualms one might have about the wisdom of this idea are swept away by the gleeful tide of Syrie James’s   enthusiasm.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

This covers the action of a single eventful day and fulfills the promise of its title, if not quite in the way the reader might have been led to expect. It starts  much in the manner of Semple’s earlier megahit “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” but takes many, many unexpected twists. At times hilarious and at others poignant, with almost too many ideas for the plot to handle.

Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King

Ever since studying Latin in high school I’ve been fascinated by the Romans, who seem so much like modern people in many ways, so strange and cruel in others. King’s story, narrated by a slave-chef in the household of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a fabulously wealthy man and an early foodie, gets at both these aspects of  Ancient Rome. Strongly researched, but also owing a lot to the imagination,  it is especially strong on gastronomic extravagance and the ingenious methods people had of killing each other.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

A short novel  that punches above its weight.  I felt quite carried away by this first-person narrator — I was on board with her and I believed her, even when she was evasive and incomplete. Sort of realistic, and sort of magical-realistic, with a very complex relationship to time. 

The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey

Magical realism with cruel, dysfunctional Irish islanders, lots of domestic abuse and consorting with faeries. I think I would have liked this book more when I was younger, but I found it atmospheric, and the ending unexpectedly redeeming.

November

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Pairing the distinctively good-hearted, witty, slightly dotty writing of McCall Smith with Austen’s most subtle and masterful novel was an interesting choice. It felt at times as if “Emma”: had been cross-sectioned and rotated in space, laid bare, with certain aspects that were always implicit in the original now made glaringly clear.

Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

A vivid and intelligent imagining of the life of the amazing Roger Casement — adventurer, humanitarian, Irish revolutionary and secretly gay — and his artist friend Herbert Ward. Time devours everything, but it does so with great panache here. My favorite kind of book, both sad and funny.

Tell Me How This Ends by Victoria de la O

It’s stimulating to read well outside your usual genre. This New Adult tale of a nursing student in California who finds herself attracted to two very different men — and then discovers they are actually brothers, orphaned no less, who have no one else in the world except each other –definitely qualifies as that for me.

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

I remember reading about this book of short stories when it came out, but got around to reading only now. Disturbing in the best possible way, expanding my ideas about what’s possible in fiction. Fantastic, and yet somehow true, in a way that reminded me of Kafka.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

I can see how this became a best-seller. Could be life-changing if actually put into practice as opposed to merely being read about. Will this be true in my case? I’ll find out soon.

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

This novel, which I enjoyed very much, was a fascinating lesson in how far an ingenuous architecture and a humorous, compassionate inquiry into the human condition can take you. In such a case, plot seems beside the point.

And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer

A woman inherits an old piece of hand-written music that turns out to be a hitherto-unknown Bach composition with a disturbingly anti-Semitic text. What chain of owners and events led it to end up stashed in a piano bench in Buffalo is the question that propels this well-researched and surprisingly suspenseful novel.

 

October

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I first read this update of “Sense & Sensibility” a few years ago. Even better than I remembered, funny yet  moving. Schine finds the essence of character and situation in the Austen novel and  craftily reworks them for this tale of contemporary New Yorkers.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine

This book nails the tragicomedy of getting old, and how it plays out in each generation: the old people, their middle-aged children, the grandchildren. It was so brutally true it was hard to read at times, but redeemed by its dark humor and complete refusal to be sentimental.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Such an odd mixture of humor & pathos & cheesy futurism & satire that I was not sure for a while what to think. By the end, though I was bowled over. This was amazing.

After Birth by Elisa Albert

Fighting postpartum depression and the patriarchy in depressed Upstate New York. This modern answer to “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not a book I will soon forget. Nor want to.

September

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

Marketed as a psychological thriller, but is more like a cautionary tale about the isolating effects of extreme wealth. The self-absorbed yet painfully sad narrator is like a train wreck you can’t turn away from.

The Particular Charm of Miss Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

Bath, Jane Austen, time travel, and a magical topaz cross. This one was a little too cozy for me. Did I feel it had too maybe many similarities to my own work, like looking in an unflattering fun house mirror? If I must be honest, yes.

A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamill

For someone who supposedly doesn’t really care for memoirs, I’m reading a lot of them this year. Yet this one was good too, starting out with a heavy dose of Irish alcoholic gloom but then taking a turn for the more insightful and zesty.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Initially seemed flat and affectless despite its air of  candor, but gathered force as it went along. I was intrigued by its performative quality, by the “I” that both is, and is not, Dunham. How do you live your life this way, is the implicit question; the book never quite answers, but is itself the answer, I suppose.

August

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

First in a trilogy, billed as Harry Potter for grown-ups, this cleverly plays with the tropes of fantasy classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and of course, Harry Potter. I found the beginning entrancing and the ending satisfyingly conclusive without sewing everything up (or there could be no sequel). The in-between was a bit of muddle.

Amid the Flowers: A Year at Minimum Wage by Anne Saker

I worked with Anne at my former newspaper in Raleigh and remember her as a wonderful human being and a fine writer, so I was not surprised to find these same qualities on display in her memoir about working in the floral department in a Cincinnati Kroger.  Her sense of humor, curiosity about the human condition and passion for justice all shine through in this book, which starts modestly but gathers strength. 

The Yid by Paul Goldberg

“Master and Margarita” meets “Inglourious Basterds” in a caper about a motley group conspiring to assassinate Stalin. Good premise, didn’t quite cohere for me.

The Kite and the String by Alice Mattison

This is the best book about writing I’ve read in a long time. Possibly ever, although I do have a soft spot for Ann Patchett’s “Getaway Car.” Mattison is reassuring while still being tough-minded, and is wonderfully practical about things like time, money, and fear.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The language is amazing, the characters complete low-lifes that the author manages to make you care about nonetheless and the plot a smoking, shaggy mess. What I loved  most about this book was how fearless it was. She swings for the fences, and while she doesn’t entirely succeed, it’s still a triumph.

Where I’m Reading From Tim Parks

Lately I seem to accidentally stumble into exactly what I need to be reading at any particular moment, and so it was with this collection of musings about life, novels and translation. The  bookstarted as a series of articles, and it reads more like that than a sustained argument. But still, very enjoyable.

July

Why Be Jewish? A Testament

Why indeed? Edgar Brofman, scion of the Seagram beverage empire and noted philanthropist, makes a good case as anyone here in a book written shortly before his death. 

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

A fast read, recommended by a friend. “Sliding Doors” set in early 1960s Denver, imagining two alternate lives that forked at a single decisive instant. I kept thinking that the premise was better than the execution.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

An accurate and beautifully written novel about the hedonistic, outsiderly life of working in a restaurant. Stronger on atmosphere and beauty of sentences than on plot or character.

Run by Ann Patchett

Patchett again uses her amazing superpowers to take elements that would seem cliched or improbable in most writer’s hands and turn them into a powerfu,  gripping story.

June

Strumpet City by James Plunkett

The strumpet city is Dublin, and the action takes place in the early part of the 20th century — the same period covered by “A Star Called Henry “and “Ulysses.” Strange to think of them all occupying the same fictional space:  of Leopold Bloom bestowing a coin on Rashers Tierney, say. Despite its lapses into a kind of modernism that feels oddly dated now,  I liked this. It teeters on the brink of melodrama but doesn’t quite  fall in.

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

McCann is dazzling on the sentence and paragraph level, but it’s the structure of his books that impresses me most. This one moves, seemingly effortless, between History — a pioneering transatlantic  air journey, Frederic Douglass in the 1840s, George Mitchell in 1998  trying to wrangle a Northern Ireland peace deal — and people’s ordinary lives. Themes and motifs  appear and reappear with a studied ease. Is this book more like a building, or like a piece of music?  Can’t decide.

A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923 by Diamaid Ferriter

It took me months to finish this, between other things. Dense and meaty, in the best possible way. 

Modern Girls: A Novel by Jennifer S. Brown

A 42-year-old mother and her 19-year-old unmarried daughter living on the Lower East  Side in 1935 both find themselves unwantedly pregnant. Great premise. The rapidly alternating third-person viewpoints of mother and daughter kept me reading fast, but I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment, that this somehow could have been better than it was.

May

On Another Man’s Wounds by Ernie O’Malley

A terrible title for a well-written memoir of a young man’s experiences in the IRA during the Irish war of independence.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Such varying reviews that I was extremely curious. I enjoyed it a lot, with some caveats.

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle

This read like a novelized version of Ernie O’Malley’s memoir, sprinkled with magical-realist leprechaun dust.  Somehow it just wasn’t working for me, despite a great sex scene amid the chaos of the Easter Rising.

April

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

This hilarious story of love and ecclesiastical  disputes made me get a crush on Anthony Trollope all over again, not that I needed much help doing that.  This according to Wikipedia : “Pray know that when a man begins writing a book he never gives over,” he wrote in a letter during this period. “The evil with which he is beset is as inveterate as drinking – as exciting as gambling.”  Yes, yes, yes!

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Last days of the Irish Ascendancy rendered in an ominous, subtle, Woolf-y style with lots of descriptions of light and shadow.

Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley

The undertaker for my father’s funeral recommended this. “It’s hilarious!” he said. “And I’m in it!” Both  true. It was exactly the right book to read at that moment.

Undertaking Love by Kitty French

I felt I should read a real romance instead of just making fun of them from a distance, so I did. As competently executed and crisp as a Cool Ranch Dorito,  just as unsatisfying. 

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

About urban isolation, and possible artistic responses. I feel like I’m reading too many memoirs, but I can’t regret any of them. Certainly not this one.

March

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

I read this when it came out several years ago. I remembered liking it but not exactly why. A few weeks ago Ms. Harman gave a talk at in front of my Jane Austen Society chapter, which I enjoyed it so much that I bought the book and read it again.  It’s fantastic: so clever, so wide-ranging in its learning, so full of subtle wit. I also had not realized how much of this book I had internalized in thinking about how to characterize people in my novel.

March was an even worse month for reading than I thought. I did read lots of Kindle samples, however. And people’s short stories.

February

Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong

Another review copy found at the office. I did a manuscript workshop with Lynn five years ago. Now it’s a book! Fascinating to see how the story changed and evolved from what I remember.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

Once, for a fairly long stretch of time, I was trying to write a novel (although mine was a murder mystery) about finding a lost masterpiece looted by the Nazis. I’m really happy Hannah Rothschild did it, and much better.

A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

A murder mystery by someone who knows how to write them. 1920 Cork, with nuns, girl revolutionaries, civil unrest, social stratification and flooding. Fun.

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman

I read this one previously a few years ago. Still full of useful advice.

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between by Judy Batalion

I’ve never been (nor contemplate being) a daughter of a hoarder, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, a mother or a student of interior design. But this did what all good books do: took me to an experience outside my own and made it convincing, sympathetic and real. Extra points because it made me laugh.

January

Displaced Persons by Joseph Berger

I used to work with Joe Berger. I loved his memoir of growing up in New York as the child of Holocaust survivors.

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray

I enjoyed the mashup of literary satire, global financial wonkery and exploration of modern Ireland. I love how Murray mingles wit and yearning.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I started this one months ago but finally made myself finish it in January. What can I say that hasn’t already been? A curiously mixed reading experience.

God Is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Found a review copy at the office.  I started reading it because one of the main character was named Liam. Foster’s Liam, unlike mine, was a complete asshole, though  I kept reading in the illogical hope he would reform. He didn’t.

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick

Two memoirs in one month is a lot for me. I loved the randomness and the honesty of this account of being, as Muriel Spark would say, “an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.”

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