Category Archives: Reading

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

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Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

 

 

 

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sunday salon/currently … need a little christmas now

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christmas-tree-2016

Our tree went up this afternoon, and you can see it there, above, tucked between the sofa and the old half-broken chair where I write this (and every other blog post) in our mismatched and oddly-configured living quarters.  I’m hoping the presence of the tree raises my spirits a bit and gets me more into a proper Christmas mindset, whatever and wherever that might be.  I’m just not feeling it this season.

It’s everything and not just one thing — there’s the election aftermath, of course, with its accompanying stew of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, and anger I feel on a daily, constant basis. I know — and I don’t really care — that I’m one of Those People whom others are frustrated with for what appears to be an inability to move on and accept this new reality. Believe me, I wish I could find some peace with this. I wish I could be all optimistic and hopeful but I can’t. I wish I didn’t give a damn.

I’m finding it hard to focus, which makes reading a bit of a challenge. I didn’t finish anything this week. However, November was a pretty decent reading month with six books read.

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I’m at 40 books read for the year, which is my lowest total since 2008 (when I read a measly 28 books!) and the year I started blogging.  I’ll be happy if I reach 45 books. We’ll see.

Not much else to say today.  Hope all is well in your world and that you have a good week.

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently …What I’ll Be Reading in These Uncertain Times

 

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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
James Baldwin

A week ago, when I titled my Sunday Salon post  “Welcome to the Last Week of America as We Know It”,  a line borrowed from Saturday Night Live, I was not expecting … well, this.

I speak, of course, of the election’s aftermath and what appears to be an unprecedented, dark, grave new world.

Lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, sarcastic or cavalier, let me assure you otherwise. I am deeply, deeply concerned about the path we are on as a country and the days ahead. In yesterday’s post (“Seeing Red”) I shared my initial thoughts on the horrific state of our union.

While my anger hasn’t abated — indeed, it’s likely to stay heightened in light of news of loathsome individuals en masse who are being appointed to the highest positions of power in the land and plans already in the works to deport 30 million people — it is being fueled by a desire to do whatever I can to be a strong voice and effect change.

I’ve been reflecting on how this unprecedented moment offers an opportunity for avid readers, especially book bloggers, to make a renewed, focused commitment to elevate and celebrate literature that is more diverse, that raises awareness, that focuses on the issues and the people who will need us as champions and advocates in these uncertain times.

I’d like to think I already do this — or, at least I try to. My literary diet already consists of ample helpings of literature with LGBTQ themes and issues impacting women, girls, and people with disabilities. That’s certainly not going to change. But I recognize that I need to step up my game in this area considerably by reading and blogging about books outside my comfort zone. 

These times require nothing less. 

I want to read more books by and about people of color and other ethnicities in order to deepen my understanding of history and race, of the lives and experiences of people whose background and circumstances don’t necessarily mirror mine.

I want to read more books about feminism and to get on a first name basis with the suffragettes and the pioneers of the women’s movement. I want to read more books about the process of creating “the old mechanisms of compensatory care and activism” from the past because I think the grassroots, underground movements that provided health care and services to people in crisis are going to be the models for the path forward.  (h/t to my friend Sarah Einstein, author of MOT and Remnants of Passion for letting me borrow some of her words)

I want to read more books from our library’s extensive World Fiction collection and seek out voices from other cultures besides this one.

I want to read more books to strengthen my knowledge of the issues that allowed someone like the President-elect to tap into the anger and frustration of so many people.

And above all, I want to read more books about ways that I can continue to cultivate a healthy and calm spirit with a strong mind and body, because these times are going to require all that we have to give to ourselves, those we love, and the changed world in which we now live.

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Read-a-thon 2016: Update Post

Readathon - Day and Night

Hour 15 update: Still going strong. Mind you, I started the Readathon at Hour 7 and have had several interruptions (grocery shopping, making dinner) along the way but I’m pleased with how this is going. Almost halfway through Love Warrior, which is a great Readathon book — it’s a fast read.

Currently Reading:

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Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

Books Read: 1

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You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, by Arisa White. It’s a poetry collection that I’ll be reviewing on the blog this Monday.

Short Stories: 2
“To the Moon and Back” by Etgar Keret
“Two Men Arrive in a Village” by Zadie Smith

Both of these were from The New Yorker podcast “The Author’s Voice” which features authors reading their short stories from that week’s issue.

Pages Read183

Time Spent Reading: 4.5 hours

Social Media: Twitter. That’s where most of my cheerleading seems to be happening. As usual, I’m going to need several days to go back and discover the new-to-me blogs and add them to my Feedly.

Food Consumption:
Breakfast – Toast, Strawberry/Banana Yogurt
Lunch – Hummus, tortilla chips and cheese stick
Dinner – Tomato Lentil Soup
Snacks – Dark Chocolate Square; Trail Mix
Beverages – Water, Coffee

Are you participating in the Readathon? How’s it going for you?

 

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Ready for the Readathon! (Kick Off Post)

Readathon - Day and Night

Today is one of my favorite days of the year — Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, an online community celebration of reading and connecting with others who love books. To quote the event description, “for 24 hours, we read books, post to our blogs, Twitters, Tumblrs, Goodreads and MORE about our reading, and visit other readers’ homes online. We also participate in mini-challenges throughout the day. It happens twice a year, in April and in October.”

Needless to say, I love everything about the Read-a-thon. I love discovering new-to-me blogs, seeing what other people are reading (and adding those books to my Goodreads), sharing bookish conversation on Twitter and (new for me this year) Instagram and Litsy, and cheering on others who are among the hundreds (thousands?) of readers engaged in the love of all things literary.

Most of all, I love that it honors Dewey, a beloved book blogger who passed away in fall of 2008.  She was passionate about books and connecting people.  She  was (and still is) very special to many of us in the book blogging community. It’s a gift to be able to carry her legacy on and celebrate her life through things like the Read-a-thon, which she started and which was one of the ways I was first introduced to the book blogging world back when I started blogging eight years ago in August 2008, shortly before Dewey passed away.

Read-a-Thon, Fall 2016 Edition
I’m getting a late start on participating today; as I write this, the Read-a-thon is heading into Hour 6 and besides this post, I’ve done nothing but sleep in a bit (storing up energy for the later hours), eat breakfast and read the newspaper (that counts as Read-a-thon reading, right?) and check in with Read-a-thon happenings online.

Weather-wise, it’s cloudy and cooler than usual here in Pittsburgh, a perfect day to be curled up inside reading. At some point today I’ll need to take a break to do this week’s meal planning and grocery shopping.  (There are much more organized Read-a-thoners who get that sort of nonsense out of the way days before Read-a-thon.  I’m not one of those people and most likely never will be.)

So, without further ado, here’s my smallish pile of books that I plan to read from during today’s festivities:

readathon-fall-2016

 

You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, by Arisa White (not pictured, as this is an online poetry collection I’m reviewing)

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales (I’m on page 187 of this; I’d like to finish it today)

A Want of Kindness, by Joanne Limburg (may not get to this as this is a book I’m reviewing and I typically don’t read review books during Read-a-thons, but this one has a looming deadline so it might be a necessity ….)

Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton

Springtime, by Michelle De Kretser

Shut Up and Run, by Robin Arzon

I’ll do another post later today that will serve as a one-stop for updates, etc.

Happy Read-a-thoning to all who are participating!

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently … First Weekend of Fall

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Currently …
Just finished watching the Eagles vs. Steelers and we’re quite happy in this house tonight, thanks to our hometown team’s win. It’s not easy being a Philly fan in these parts (especially when it comes to hockey) and I tend to root for the Steelers … when they’re not playing or in direct competition with my Eagles, that is.

Reading
No books finished last week, but I’m hoping to finish one tonight. I have deadlines this week for three freelance reviews.

Listening
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My audiobook this week has been This Old Man by Roger Angell, who just turned 96 and is still writing great pieces for The New Yorker like the one he published this week (“My Eighteenth Presidential Election and the Most Important“). His essay “This Old Man” is one I’ve read at least twice, which is what made me interested in this collection of New Yorker pieces and other writings of Angell’s.

Running
Finished Week 2 of Couch to 5K this morning!  I thought I’d change things up a little by trying a different park and it was a challenge — definitely more hills than I expected. (I know, I know … this is Pittsburgh. Hills are everywhere.) Total distance was 1.95 miles, with .71 of those running. People tell me my pace is good (12:31 per mile) so I’ll take it.  I’ve been reading a lot of running blogs since this a whole new world for me.

Blogging
Maybe I needed some sort of mental break after 99 Days of Summer Blogging because my productivity here has nearly screeched to a big halt. I think it has more to do with being a very busy couple of weeks at work; after spending my days immersed in words, I’ve found myself needing a breather. I feel my mojo coming back, which is good.

Related to blogging, I was certain my life was complete without yet another social media whirligig, but apparently Litsy became available as an Android app this week and all the cool kids seem to be playing.  So, I’ve caved and now I’m MelissaF in case you want to follow whatever I’ll be doing over there.

Have a great week!

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friday randomness

Sky - 9-2-2016Orange-pink puffs dotting the sky tonight, brighter and more vivid than my cell phone photo above.

It’s been a busy week — a big project at work that required much focus and attention to detail combined with a stress test — and now I’m more than ready for a three-day weekend. As usual, we don’t have much planned. The Husband has been getting into watching old movies and we just finished watching Bonnie and Clyde. Like most people, I knew the basic premise of the story but never saw the movie. (A bonus: the late Gene Wilder is in this one.)

What I am planning is as much reading as I can pack into these few days. I just received a review book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A few more are on their way for another freelance assignment which I just landed this week and am thrilled about.

Also hoping to get at least one walk/run in. I’m attempting to do Couch to 5K, which deserves its own post.  I walked for a half hour on Thursday, including several very short (like 30 second) intervals of running.

One of my coworkers bought our entire office Chipotle for lunch today and I am now officially addicted to their burrito bowl and guacamole, which I’m sure I could live on for the rest of my life. Yes, I had never had Chipotle before today’s lunch. I live a very boring life.

Forget Donald Trump’s prognostication of taco trucks on every corner — just bring me Chipotle every single day.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #96 of 99 of my 99 Days of Summer Blogging posts. Almost there!

 

 

 

 

– I am hooked on The Piano Guys, whose music my cousin introduced to via Spotify. Most of my week at work was consumed by a pretty intense project and they were perfect

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