Tag Archives: Stewart O’Nan

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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Readin’at: West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of SunsetWest of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
Viking
2015
289 pages

“He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?”

Luck was in short supply during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years. Instead, the famous writer best known for The Great Gatsby had an abundance of misfortune and difficulties that are brilliantly rendered in West of Sunset by Pittsburgh author Stewart O’Nan.

“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West,” writes O’Nan in his essay “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset” and posted on his website. “I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.”

Indeed you do.

And with his writing, O’Nan more than succeeds in capturing this aspect of Scott during these last 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, he is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Nonetheless, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be rising but where his is uncertain. He’d answered California’s call before. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”)  Those early Hollywood years and what, exactly, transpired that made Scott so full of self-doubt remain a bit fuzzy to the reader, but that’s all right; West of Sunset stays in 1937-1940.

As the novel progresses, Scott’s own health and emotional well-being becomes more precarious as his battle with alcoholism becomes more prominent. He’s in the midst of an on-again, off-again affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who has her own demons to conquer. And when his passive-aggressive egocentric co-worker isn’t being an editorial pain in the ass, his writing career is beholden to the whimsy of the studio powers-that-be who kill any scintilla of hope and motivation (and the possibility of a credit and continued paycheck) with each cancelled movie.  Money is a constant source of uncertainty, and every writer will be able to empathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustration on his stories being rejected by the popular magazines of the day – most of which adored him once upon a time.

To be sure, West of Sunset has some bright moments. The reader gets to hang out by the pool and at the studio commissary with the likes of Fitzgerald BFF’s Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart – not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, George Oppenheimer and more than a few others making cameo appearances.  Quite a cast of characters, this novel has. If you’re a literary and/or film bub, this one’s for you.

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.”)

This is a 5 out of 5 stars novel. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that West of Sunset – the first Stewart O’Nan book I’ve read – is likely going to be one of my favorite novels of this year.

(Are you local to the Pittsburgh area? Come hear Stewart O’Nan tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) when East End Book Exchange hosts the author for his final stop of his West of Sunset book tour. Event begins at 7 p.m.)

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town and I wanted a way to emphasize this.  As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” an occasional feature here focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works, events, and the writers who call this awesome city home. 

 

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sunday salon: emerging from the flu’s grip, waving one of the best novels of 2015 (yes, 2015)

The Sunday Salon

At my desk Wednesday morning, I felt a bit colder than usual but didn’t think anything of it. By lunchtime, I was still chilled to the bone while wearing my heavy winter coat indoors and I had a fever of 103.5. Classic signs that the flu likely had a hold on me, which indeed it did.

Aside from going to the doctor on Thursday morning, today is the first time I’ve been out of bed in nearly four days. This flu is no joke, folks. But, thankfully, Tamiflu and copious amounts of tea, rest, and TLC from The Husband have done wonders. I have a slight lingering cough and the fatigue is still overwhelming at times, but I am much better than I was even 24 hours ago.

Anyway, a horrendous headache prevented me from doing much reading while bedridden (I managed to read about half of this week’s New Yorker) but I started making up for it yesterday with West of Sunset, the new novel by Stewart O’Nan.

West of Sunset

You guys. This book. I cannot put it down. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that this is likely going to be one of my favorite novels  of this year.

West of Sunset is about the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life. At 40, his literary success is well in the past, his wife Zelda is institutionalized, his own health is precarious, and he has no money.  To pay for Zelda’s care, Scott is “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be still rising but where his is uncertain. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”) This is 1937 and West of Sunset transports its reader back in time to hang with Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich … basically, this is a name dropper’s paradise of anyone who was anyone during that time. So far, it’s a fantastic literary experience that I am loving.

(East End Book Exchange here in Pittsburgh is hosting the launch party for West of Sunset on February 7 at 7 p.m. It’s open to the open to the public, so I’ve signed myself up to go.)

Hope this Sunday finds you healthy (or, at least healthier than I am!) and enjoying a good book!

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