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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I Failed My New Years' Resolution

Not to be hard on myself or anything. 

A year ago I declared that my New Year's resolution wasn't going to be about eating right or exercise. It was more like a goal. I was going to read 25 novels by December 31st. That's only one book every two weeks or so. More than enough time! This is a resolution I can STICK to! 

But here I am on New Year's Eve Eve, staring at my library copy of The Grapes of Wrath with the flimsy bookmark sticking out stubbornly only about 1/8 of the book. This was supposed to be the golden number 25. So close, yet so far!

My White Whale. It's taunting me.

I figure that since I read the 1,000-pager The Pillars of the Earth, that can count for two books. Right?

But just in case it doesn't, I'll make up for the 7/8th of a book by sharing my top ten favorite reads this year, and hoping that maybe I can inspire someone to pick up one of them and maybe even enjoy it as much as I did. Or maybe you can hate it, and we can talk about it and have some sort of post-2015 blogger book club. But there I go asking for too much again.

In any case, here's my top 10!

10. Naked (David Sedaris) -- Reading this in early January on the train from NYC to CT, I remember flipping to the back of the book to read the excerpt again. Is this guy for real? Is this some sort of satire on American culture? But then you realize that you just need to get a feel for the guy's sarcastic sense of humor because it is, in fact, a memoir. Once he lets you in, his stories resonate deeper. I think he saved his serious, but haunting, stories for those who hung in there til the end.

9. The PIllars of the Earth (Ken Follett) -- The great de-railer of my 2015 goals, this kitty-crushing 1,000-pager was totally worth the journey into 12th C. England. I guess it's sort of comforting to know that corruption ruled even harder in those days, when politics was deeply entangled with the Church. And don't you just love to hate that smug little William Hamleigh!

8. Big Brother (Lionel Shriver) -- I love Shriver's writing style, but I didn't love this book right away. The characters were all just a tad too removed for me to care much about them. But the subject matter (one family member trying to save another from their eating disorder) hit me for some reason. This is a fabulous exploration of the question: How much can one person do for another person who is headed for self destruction? The ending, which I know many people find disappointing, answers that question with a sharpness that might take your breath away.

7. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) -- This book was just pure joy. A clever chick-lit romance novel written by a man, and told from the hilarious perspective of an Aussie with Asperger's. Read it at the beach. Read the funny parts out loud. Just read it. (But you can easily skip the sequel, The Rosie Effect).

6. Compassionate Carnivore (Catherine Friend) -- I thought this book would be a pretentious study about why I'm a terrible person eating factory farmed meat and a did-you-know? diatribe about slaughterhouses. It's not that. There are no guilt trips here. I found myself nodding and smiling and wishing I had a highlighter to highlight the honest and humble words on every single page. Her writing has changed the way I've thought about (and practiced) eating meat, permanently. 

5. Zeitoun (Dave Eggers) -- I guess I got my fair share of nonfiction, and this one is a one-two punch about sad realities in America: both acts of God (Hurricane Katrina) and of man (post 9/11 racism). I'd never considered how close 2005 was to 2001 until it's ten years later and did they seriously treat this poor Syrian -- who stayed in New Orleans to HELP -- with such awful disregard? How do we keep fear from driving humans to do awful things? Unlike Shriver, the answer is not at the back of the book. 

4. Wild (Cheryl Strayed) -- It is absolute and pure coincidence that I finished this book while staying in a cabin alongside the Columbia River on the Washington side, when Cheryl finishes her long journey on the PCT to the Oregon side of the river, just a few miles away from me. I'd meant to read it for so many years, and after three people recommended it in succession, I finally gave in. While I can't say I understand all her choices, the drive to get away and challenge herself in isolation resonated with me deeply.

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) -- Ohh Shriver, my absolute favorite writer this year. She explores such big topics with such a cutting writing style that actually keeps you hooked all the way through. I'd first heard of this title when at the Nite Hawk movie theater in Brooklyn, and feeling lonely and homesick in Pullman, I grabbed it off the shelf of the library when I saw it. The school-shooting material reminds me of Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, which I read 5 years ago, but it's so much sharper, darker, less Columbine-cliche. I guess she's had a few more years of these events to draw on. Regardless, the perspective of the mother of the killer is just so brilliant I can't even attempt to do it justice with my own words. The ending is so dark and haunting and somehow unexpected that it will follow you around for months!

2. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) -- More dark novel stuff. Why do I enjoy books where every character is just horrible? This isn't the place to answer that question, so instead I'll say that yes, this book was similar to Gone Girl, and yes, I'm a sucker for good suspense-thriller-mysteries when it's written in a compelling manner like this one.

1. The Wonder Garden (Lauren Acampora) -- Oh, the darkest of them all and no wonder it's my favorite! I'll admit that I only picked this up because the author's name is Lauren and the setting is Connecticut (cringe) but you know what? Sometimes you fall onto amazing books in mysterious ways. This collection of short stories -- tied loosely together by connections in overlapping characters -- looks at the sad underbelly of the lives lived behind closed doors in a make-believe town not unlike Greenwich. There are the expected themes of lies, marital issues, drugs and disgruntled teenagers, covered over with truly bizarre scenarios: spending the night stuck at a stop sign. Metal creatures affixed to a wealthy home's exterior. Secret brain touching and following the call of Spirit animals. It's bizarre and creepy and I was left wanting so much more from this new author. More, more, more short stories! Or even a true novel would be nice, though it's obvious that she thrives in the short story format. This one's a winner for sure.

If there are any book recommendations you'd like to share, I would love to hear them! Maybe 2016 will be the year I can actually meet my 25 goal!

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