Tag Archives: Celeste Ng

Sunday Salon/Currently: Reflecting on a Year of Reading

Books Transform in Hourglass

Books Transform in Hourglass – courtesy of Getty Images

Here we are … the first Sunday Salon/Currently post of 2016!  As I’ve mentioned before, I am all too happy to welcome a new year and a fresh start, even if not much has actually changed.

I thought I would use this post to reflect on and recap my 2015 reading year.  I would categorize this as a pretty good year, quality-wise.  In terms of quantity, though, not so much. I read a total of 52 books, compared to 75 in 2014. (This is still rather respectable, especially when you consider that this averages to be one book per week).  I try not to fall into the book blogger trap of comparing my totals to others; the reality is that I always am most critical of myself.

I attribute the decrease to two factors: 1) more time spent listening to podcasts in the car  (I listened to 22 audiobooks last year, compared to only 10 this year) and 2) being ruthless in abandoning books that weren’t working for me. At the same time, I have quite a few books in progress. Finishing books was a bit of an issue this year, probably because of reading multiple books at once.

(What can I say? I work for an organization that has five million items available free for the borrowing — and most of them are books. It is hard not to be tempted by the shiny and new. Or the old and classic.  Or, whatever.)

So, we’re not really going to focus much on the amounts. It’s all about the experience, right? And there were some great literary experiences in 2015.

Before we get to the Best Of selections, some stats for my fellow book geeks who love this sort of thing.  (You know who you are.)

2015

Number of Books Read = 52
Number of Pages Read = 10,001
Longest Book:  The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (564 pages)
Shortest Book: Remnants of Passion by Sarah Einstein (37 pages)
Number of Audiobooks Listened To = 10
Number of Hours Spent Listening to Audiobooks = 87.31
How Many Days of Listening That Equals = 3.6
Average Number of Days It Took Me to Finish a Book = 7
My Average Rating of a Book = 3.9
Authors Who Were New to Me = 36
Authors Who I’d Read Previously = 16
Female Authors Read = 33
Male Authors Read = 19
Oldest Book Read = The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (published in 1890)
Second Oldest Book Read = The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (published in 1892)

And now, without further ado, here are my favorite books in Fiction, Short Stories, Memoir, and Nonfiction.  Links take you to my reviews, if I’ve written one. (Writing reviews was also a bit of a challenge this year.) As you’ll note by the years in parenthesis, these include my favorite books I read in 2015, regardless of the publication date.

Best Fiction

Thirteen Ways of Looking

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (2015)

None of the Above

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

“But once you understood what you were … how could someone not want to be fixed? I couldn’t conceive of a world in which I wasn’t broken.” (pg. 146)  Debut novelist I.W. Gregorio has given her readers a story that explores identity and acceptance through the perspective of a main character who just learned she was born intersex. This is one of those books that I appreciated on a highly personal level and for the sensitive way the author handles a subject matter that’s considered by some to be taboo. Because of books like None of the Above and authors like I.W. Gregorio, there exists the hope for a more caring, sensitive, and accepting world. ~ from my review, 6/22/2015.

Tampa - 2

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Honorable Mentions for Fiction:

The Edible WomanThe MiniaturistZLike FamilyOur Souls at NightEverything I Never Told YouWest of SunsetMy Sunshine Away

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (1969)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler (2013)

Like Family by Paolo Giordano (2015)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

Our Souls at Night is a quiet, understated novel about love and grief, family and community.  It challenges the reader to view older people as still having desires and needs rather than individuals who should renounce all vestiges of intimacy the minute their AARP card arrives in the mail.  It is a gorgeous finale for author Kent Haruf.  (From my review 9/22/2015)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014)

Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, the Lee family is one full of secrets, of regrets, of unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. Of letters never sent nor received, of tchkotches stolen, of misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts. And sometimes – yes, oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better. (Reviewed 5/4/2015)

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (2015)

Stewart O’Nan, a Pittsburgh author, more than succeeds in capturing legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald during the legendary author’s final troubled three years.  At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, Scott is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out.  (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)  Reviewed 2/5/2015.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (2015)

Best Short Stories

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Best Memoirs

Dear Mr. You

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)

Whatever ...Love Is Love

Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves by Maria Bello (2015)

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (2015)

M Train

M Train by Patti Smith (2015)

Best Nonfiction

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This book’s moment in the spotlight comes at precisely the right time, given the current racial climate and rhetoric in our country. Between the World and Me is an important book, a classic of our era that deserves to be widely-read and taught in schools long after the accolades and the “best of” lists fade into the New Year and the ether of the Internet. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that he “would have [his son] be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”  Reading this book and talking with others about it is one small way we can do the same.  Reviewed 12/29/2015.

Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

You may be thinking that Big Magic is just another gimmicky book about creativity and following your passion, the likes of which you’ve probably read before. And you also may be judging this based on perhaps a negative impression of Eat Pray Love or any other of Gilbert’s work. And you would be wrong on both counts.  (I can say that because I did both of those things.)

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t advocating that we creative types go into the office tomorrow and quit our jobs or commit to waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to write The Best Novel Ever or build a wing onto our house for the studio of our dreams. If you are able to do those things, more power to you. That’s not reality for most of us, however. And if we’re looking to our creativity to solve the bigger questions of our lives, we might be missing the point altogether.

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir — something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.” (pg. 172)

I really enjoyed this book and Elizabeth Gilbert’s direct and down-to-earth approach to creativity was exactly what I needed at the time.  Reviewed 11/3/2015.

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke (1929)

As I said, this was a wonderful year. Thanks so much for reading my reviews and bookish banter. Looking forward to another fun year here together in 2016!

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Podcast of the Week: Episode #2

A new feature here on the blog where I share the podcasts I’ve listened to during the past week and make a selection for Podcast of the Week. This helps me keep track of what I’ve enjoyed and hopefully gives other podcast junkies some new possibilities for listening. 

This week, I’ve been dividing my commuting time between podcasts and the all-James Taylor station on Sirius XM17. To promote his new album “Beyond this World,” the “Love” channel has gone all JT until June 22 and it is fantastic. If you have satellite radio and are a James Taylor fan, you need to be listening to this.

School ended this week but that didn’t stop me from entertaining my kids every morning at the bus stop by playing the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day podcast. You can imagine how popular this made me as a mom.

Podcasts I Listened to This Week

Inside the New York Times Book Review (5/29/2015)
Interview with Judy Blume about her new novel, In the Unlikely Event

The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor
– 5/24/2015 –  Birthday of Michael Chabon and Joseph Brodsky; “On This Date,” by Annie Lightheart
– 5/31/2015 – Birthday of Walt Whitman; “all that” by Charles Bukowski 
– 6/1/2015  – Birthday of poet John Masefield, linguist Charles Kay Ogden, and writer Colleen McCullough. Loved the poem “Grandfather’s Cars” by Robert Phillips that was included on today’s episode. 

Reading Lives
Episode #27 (5/13/2015) – Celeste Ng

Beyond Your Blog
BYB 042: Practical Submission Advice from Bustle Features Editor, Rachel Krantz (5/31/2015)

Slate’s Poetry Podcast (6/10/2013)
Robert Pinsky reads William Carlos Williams’ poem “Dedication for a Plot of Ground”

BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (this was our church when we lived in the Philadelphia suburbs)
“Wake Up!” Sermon from Easter Sunday, 4/20/2014
This was our church when we lived in the Philadelphia suburbs. Even though this sermon is more than a year old, it was delightful to hear our former reverend. Doesn’t seem like there have been any new podcasts since April 2014, but there are quite a few archived that I obviously haven’t heard yet, so that’s fine. 

New York Magazine’s Sex Lives:
“Introducing the Threesome Matchmaker” (6/3/2015)
Interview with the entrepreneurs behind “Threeway Dating Club,” and a glimpse into the marketing strategies that makes their site able to charge as much as $15,000 for a client with certain specifications for his desired arrangement. This seems to be a new podcast, as there are only a few episodes so far.

Fresh Air with Terry Gross: WHYY Philadelphia
Best and Worst of Cannes/ Maria Bello
I’ll confess: I skipped the segment about Cannes and went straight to the interview with Maria Bello, whose new book Whatever … Love Is Love is one I can’t get enough of.

Podcast of the Week:

Reading Lives - Celeste Ng

The Reading Lives interview with Celeste Ng. Perhaps I’m biased, but I listened to the majority of this on Monday, which happened to be when I had the chance to hear Celeste Ng speak at the library.  This in-depth interview was a nice complement to her talk here in Pittsburgh.

What podcasts did you listen to this week?

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What I Want to Tell You About Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng 
Penguin Press 
2014 
297 pages 

Winner of the ALA/YALSA Alex Award 2015, given to one of ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year’s publishing. 

In Everything I Never Told You, so much is  left unspoken. Not to you, the reader; you’re smart enough to understand the price that will be paid for the silence surrounding all five members of the Lee family.

Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, this is a family full of secrets, of regrets, of unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. Of letters never sent nor received, of tchkotches stolen, of misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts.

Part of this is  possible because of the time period in which Celeste Ng sets this, her debut novel. (And may I interject and say that this is one hell of a debut novel.)  This is one of those stories where the setting and time period is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. Ng  flawlessly captures every detail of life in the groovy 70s: sunbathing while coated in baby oil, the National Anthem coming on TV when the late-night station goes off the air, dialing a rotary phone and listening in on another person’s conversation.

Back then, in many ways society’s norms almost demanded us to capitulate to others’ needs, to project one’s unfulfilled ambitions onto one’s children.  The idea that women could pursue a career in the sciences – or have any life beyond the kitchen – was still revolutionary.

“You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.” (pg. 246)

The central event in Everything I Never Told You happens in the very first sentence.  “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.” Lydia is the 16-year-old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, who we learn within the first few pages has been found dead in a nearby lake. From there, Ng expertly unravels for her reader how James and Marilyn met (professor falls in love with student), married and became parents to Lydia, Nathan and – oh, surprise! – Hannah.

Everything I Never Told You was incredibly well-written and suspenseful enough to hold my attention. (And may I say that I typically shy away from a) books that have gotten a lot of buzz and are on everyone’s favorite list and b) novels with dead or dying children. I chose this because Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh and I have tickets for her appearance here on June 1.)

My only issues with this (and the reason this is a 4 star rating for me instead of 5), were with the character of Hannah and a plot development that comes toward the very end of the novel.  On the latter, I’m not mentioning this for spoiler reasons, and while I think I understand why it was there – another example of the cultural and societal norms of things unspoken – it felt gratuitous and somewhat unnecessary because the rest of the novel was so strong. And while I also understand why the character of Hannah was included in the story, at times she seemed extraneous and – true to her character – in the way. I’m not convinced that she was necessary for the reader to understand the theme of the novel.

Which can be summed up in a few lines found toward the novel’s conclusion, when the events leading up to May 3 (yes, once again I find myself reading a novel at the exact time of year it takes place) unfold for the reader’s full understanding.

“Instead, they will dissect this last evening for years to come. What had they missed that they should have seen? What small gesture, forgotten, might have changed everything? They will pick it down to the bones, wondering how this had gone so wrong, and they will never be sure.” (pg. 271)

Sometimes – oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better.

4 stars out of 5

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