Ten Authors I’ve Read the Most

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, gives me a chance to talk about my favorite authors.  When I thought about which authors I’ve read the most, I decided to eliminate authors from this list that write books in series, because I may have read a lot of those authors’ works but they aren’t necessarily my favorites. I looked for writers that I’ve been reading for years and who write in a variety of styles and genres.

Here’s the list I came up with, and a few authors I’ve only read a few works by, but mean to read a lot more.

Margaret Atwood: Atwood has written so many great books, and her books are all really different.  Many readers don’t realize the range of genres she writes in, from contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye) to historical fiction (Alias Grace) to science fiction (Oryx and Crake). A recent favorite, and completely different from her other works, was Hag-Seed, about a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Barbara Kingsolver: I’ve read nearly everything she’s written, and I’ve been reading her books since I fell in love with Animal Dreams in college.  Flight Behavior is a recent favorite, but if you haven’t read her early works, you’re missing out. 

Maggie O’Farrell: I began with O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone, and I’ve loved all of her books except This Must Be the Place. I especially liked I Am, I Am, I Am, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and Instructions for a Heatwave.

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Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

This is a debut novel that’s received quite a bit of praise, but it was not quite as good as I hoped it would be.  Author Phillips is an American who decided to write about a very remote area in Siberia called Kamchatka.  Phillips received a Fulbright fellowship to live there in 2011, and she wrote her story from the perspective of the white and native people who live there.  This is a book that feels a bit more like short stories, only the characters are all loosely connected to each other – a format I feel I’m seeing a lot of these days (Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other does this very well, and so does Elizabeth Strout).

This book has been marketed as sort of a mystery/thriller, and if you’re expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.  Nor is it about the environment, as some in my book club expected.  It’s more of a collection of short character studies where the area itself is the common thread. And the Kamchatkan peninsula is certainly a fascinating setting – it’s remote and isolated, threatening and at the same time beautiful.

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20 Books of Summer: My June Reading Wrap-up

I always read a lot in summer, because I like to sit outside and read, even in the heat, and thanks to audiobooks I can read while I garden. This was a really good reading month, mainly because of the diversity of authors and locations I read about, including China, Russia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and a fictional island in the Caribbean.

It was a difficult, tumultuous month for a lot of reasons, but there were also some positives that shone through, like the Supreme Court rulings on LGBTQ discrimination and DACA and the discussions that are happening around race and confederate memorials, police brutality, and how we teach black history. I know a lot of this is just talk, but I’d like to believe some progress will be made.

I continue to feel anger and embarrassment at what is happening in this country, making it nearly impossible to get into the spirit of the July 4th holiday. I feel fortunate in so many ways, but at the same time I’m sad about missing my usual July 4th with my sister’s family, and favorite summer activities like theater, movies, and wine tasting. But I feel good about staying home, taking care of the house and the cats, and focusing on things like gardening, reading and baking. In a normal time I’d feel terribly boring, but right now it feels like I have permission to just be. I understand, though, that this time is a lot harder for many people.

Thanks to Cathy at 746books.com for her annual 20 Books of Summer challenge. I read 8 books in June from my 20 Books of Summer List:

Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

If you’re a fan of gothic horror, you will love this book. I’m not a huge fan of the gothic novel, although I did enjoy Rebecca and I like seeing how other authors take on this genre. I read it mainly because it’s by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who wrote the fantastic Gods of Jade and Shadow. I want to read everything she’s written. 

Mexican Gothic is full of all the tropes of the gothic novel, — creaky mansion, forbidding housekeeper, wailing ghosts, even a decrepit old wedding gown.  As you can surmise from the title and the gorgeous cover, what makes this book a bit different is that it’s set in Mexico, and incorporates issues of race, poverty, class, and colonialism. 

It’s set in High Place, a creaky old mansion in the remote town of El Triunfo, an old British mining town.  It’s the 1950s, though I’m not sure I found that particularly relevant, since the house is completely out of time – they even use gas lamps.  Socialite and anthropology student Noemí has traveled from Mexico City to this remote house to check on her friend Catalina. Catalina married recently and sent Noemí’s father a most disturbing letter about hearing voices in the walls. Noemí finds her friend seriously ill in a house where the inhabitants couldn’t be creepier, and Noemí is treated more like a prisoner than a guest. 

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Review: Saint X by Alexis Schaitken

I had mixed feelings about this book, but I found the story and its characters really compelling.  Saint X is a fictional island in the Caribbean, a place where affluent white families go to soak up the sun and drink all day long.  The Thomas family arrives at the resort of Indigo Bay with their two daughters, 18-year-old Alison and 7-year-old Claire.  On their last night, Alison goes missing and is later found dead.  The story is told primarily through Claire’s eyes as she grows up, still mourning the sister she barely knew and wondering what happened to her.

What I really liked about this book was the slow exploration of the characters of Claire and Alison.  The book also explores the lives of those who live and work on the island, including Clive, a man who is accused of Allison’s murder.  This isn’t a mystery or a thriller in the usual sense, so readers looking for that will be disappointed. The book is much more an exploration of how we are shaped by money, privilege and race.  I loved Schaitken’s attention to detail, from the significance of clothing, to the color scheme of the resort, to the vivid scenery of the island compared to New York City.  The author also comments on the exploitation of murder as entertainment, from true crime shows to tours of crime sites.  Of course, this book itself is capitalizing on well-publicized murders like that of Natalee Holloway.

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Reading the Women’s Prize 2020 Nominees

Every year I put a lot of Women’s Prize nominees on my TBR list. Early in the calendar year, the Women’s Prize announces its longlist of 16 books. These are books written by women and published in the previous year. They must be written in English but they can be from any part of the world. In April, the Prize narrows down to a shortlist of six books, and then in June they announce a winner. This year, the prize determination has been postponed to September due to the pandemic.

I’m not always happy with the decisions on the shortlist or the winner, but I find a lot of great books by reading from the longlist. I also appreciate that the Prize has become more diverse in recent years, covering books from countries other than the U.K. and the U.S. Previous winners I loved include Home Fire, An American Marriage, The Power, and The Glorious Heresies. There are a couple I started but didn’t finish, like May We Be Forgiven and How to be both.

Here is this year’s longlist:

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz (shortlist)
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (shortlist)
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (shortlist)
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (shortlist)
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell (shortlist)
  • Weather by Jenny Offill (shortlist)
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

I’ve read six of these books, and of those only one made it to the shortlist (Booker award winner Girl, Woman, Other). So five of the books I read won’t have a chance of winning, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on each of them.

Girl, Woman, Other: This is a book written in a style I’m seeing a lot of these days – a loosely connected set of stories where the characters are connected across stories in some, often minor, way. This book introduces a lot of interesting characters and concepts, focusing on the lives of black women living in the London area. Some of the stories are told from the point of view of a daughter, and then her mother, so it’s also very much a book about family relationships. The women in these stories come from different places and have very different issues and life experiences, which kept it really interesting (compare this book to Disappearing Earth, which felt repetitive). A few stories fell a little flat but most of the characters were sympathetic and layered, and I found myself really interested in how they might pop up in the next chapter.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: I loved this book. For one thing, I really like books told from a child’s point of view. Don’t be put off by the strange title, this is a moving book and one you won’t want to put down. It’s not about djinns or anything paranormal. It’s about a poor community in India where children have started to go missing, but the police won’t take any action. A young boy decides to investigate, after one of his friends disappears. Because people are afraid and ignored by the authorities, the community begins to blame Muslim families, even though there’s no evidence to suggest it. My description isn’t very good but this is definitely worth a read.

Queenie: This book is funny, moving, and incisive. It took a little while to get into, because the title character makes such horrible decisions, and she’s so willfully obtuse, it’s hard to feel sympathetic at times. But I did come to like Queenie – a lot. This is the kind of award-nominee I love – it seems light but isn’t at all. Most interesting was the interplay between Queenie and her mother and grandmother – when Queenie decides to seek professional help to address some of her problems, her Jamaican family has some very strong feelings about therapy.

The Dutch House: I loved this book too, though part of that might be due to Tom Hanks’ excellent narration. I really need to read more Ann Patchett. This is such a thoughtful family drama. It doesn’t break new ground, but addresses a lot of really interesting themes and it’s a fascinating story about family relationships.

The Most Fun We Ever Had: Like The Dutch House, this is a family drama that covers many years and focuses on the relationships among four sisters and their parents. The interesting thing about this book is that unlike most family sagas, the parents are caring and attentive, and love each other and their kids deeply. This is the story that tells you that even really good parents can have screwed up kids, and kids that grow up with lots of advantages can still go down the wrong path. The writing is really strong, which is evidenced by the fact that this story is told from many different perspectives and cover a wide time frame, yet it’s almost never confusing. I found all of the characters sympathetic, even when they are terrible to each other.

Red at the Bone: This was a beautifully written story about three generations in a black family in Brooklyn. A sixteen year old girl, Melody, is preparing for her coming of age ceremony. Her parents and grandparents each tell the story of her birth from different perspectives. It’s a moving story that is very thoughtful about race, sexuality, and parenthood. I listened to it on audio, but I feel like it would benefit from a re-read, especially right now as we’re thinking so much about racial issues. The only downside is that it’s a short book, so you can’t get to know these characters as much as you’d like.

Weather: I started Weather and hated it. There’s no story, just rambling, pretentious-sounding observations. I didn’t get it.

I really want to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, I just haven’t been able to get it yet. How We Disappeared also looks really good.

Have you read any of the books on the Women’s Prize longlist? Do you have an opinion about which book should win the Prize in September?

Reading about Racism

The events of the last few weeks relating to racism, police brutality, and criminal justice have been horrifying; and yet, at the same time there’s something really uplifting about seeing so many people talking about racism and taking positive steps to do something about it. I have so much admiration for the people that are in the streets, risking their health and safety, to bring about positive change.  It feels like people are starting to see that racism isn’t just a series of incidents, but systemic: that housing, employment, education, and criminal justice are all part of a system that elevates some people and oppresses others.

Since last week I’ve felt a combination of: (1) horrified by police actions; (2) optimistic and inspired; (3) guilty for not doing enough; (4) inspired to do more; and (5) thoughtful about what doing more actually means (for one example, see this list of 75 things you can do).

I’ve read quite a few articles, blog posts and tweets on the subject of reading about racism and anti-racism. There’s genuine interest in the subject, which is great, but also a fair amount of criticism.  I realize that reading about racism is a luxury that white people have.  I was struck by this recent Washington Post editorial with the headline, “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.”   

Definitely something to think about.  Here are some of my thoughts (or the thoughts of others I’m hearing at this time):

  • If we don’t read authors of color regularly, but suddenly we’re picking up books on anti-racism, that’s hypocritical (although maybe, it’s a place to start).
  • If we think writers of color only write on the subject of race, that’s problematic.
  • If we see authors of color as having a responsibility to enlighten white people about racism, that’s a problem.
  • And if we fail to recognize that novels like Beloved or The Bluest Eye are not just books about racism, but are also amazing works of literary fiction, we’ve missed something really important (see this article in Vulture).

I admit, I’m a white person who’s terrified to talk about race because I’m sure I’ll say the wrong thing. A lot of these books that are so popular right now, like White Fragility,  are clearly aimed at people like me. I mean well, but I know I have biases that are based on race, that I benefit from systemic racism, and that I perpetuate that system. I also know how much I don’t know about what others have experienced.

In 2016, I began tracking the number of books I read by authors of color.  So far this year I’ve read 24 books by authors of color, out of 57.  Nearly half, which is definitely growth, considering that before I started tracking I barely read any.  Though I completely realize that congratulating myself for reading diversely is ridiculous when black people are being murdered in the streets and disproportionately dying from COVID. 

If I read a bunch of books just to make myself feel better, I’ve failed. I get that. But I have to think that this sudden interest in reading about racism must be a good thing — because it’s one thing to talk about race, but another thing to read a really informative, thoughtful book by someone who knows what they’re talking about, like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or Ta Nehisi-Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.  Reading helps us to make connections, to see the big picture, to understand that whatever ideas we internalized as children might not be right.

For example, I used to think civil rights in this country always moved on an upward slope, by which I mean that we get better over time. We went from slavery to the civil rights movement to a black president, right? But from many of the books I’ve read, I’ve seen a very different picture. Like how after emancipation, the criminal justice system found ways to put black people back into forced labor. Like how confederate memorials were erected not to honor war heroes but to remind black people of their oppression. Like how lynching increased after World War II because black men came home from military service feeling empowered.

I hope we’ll look back at this time and see that it was a turning point. I hope it means something that confederate statues are coming down and that institutions like NASCAR are banning confederate flags. I hope we’ll start, as a country, to connect the dots between our history and what is happening today. I know reading books is not enough. But I have to think it’s something.

For myself, I plan to come up with some concrete actions I can take to make things better, beginning with finding out more about my local police department.  I already give to organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, ACLU, and NAACP.  I already vote.   I’ll be thinking about other ways I can do something to address systemic racism in this country.  

The writer in the Post, Tre Johnson, says this: 

The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way — be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art. It starts, also, with reflection on the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life. It may have happened when you were 10, 16, 22, 36 or 42. Comforting as it may be to read and discuss the big questions about race and justice and America, making up for past wrongs means starting with the fact that you’ve done wrong in the past, perhaps without realizing it at the time: in the old workplace, neighborhood, classroom, softball field. 

I’ll admit I’m not sure how to do some of the things he’s asking for. I don’t have clear answers.  But I’m giving it a lot of thought, for what that’s worth.  

Review: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

I started reading this book a few months ago, and then decided I needed to wait until I was in the right frame of mind. This is a tough read that will take you right back to September 11, 2001. It’s a vast collection of eyewitness accounts of what people experienced that day in New York City, DC, and around the country.

Then I heard that the audiobook version had won the Audie award and had a full cast, and I decided audio would be a better way to process this daunting book. I think that was the right choice. The different voices made it feel even more real. There were days I listened to this on my walks, sobbing and thinking I must look ridiculous but also not caring. There were days I thought, I can’t hear any more. But I kept listening.

I wasn’t surprised that this was a tough, heartbreaking at times, read. On the positive side, this is a book told by the survivors. On the other hand, every one of those people was irrevocably changed by that day, and most of them lost friends, co-workers, and family.

I expected sad stories and I expected terror. I was surprised, however, by how much I learned about the political behind-the-scenes that day, and how little anyone knew at the time about what was going on. One of the first responders on that day comments that people watching their TVs at home knew way more than anyone actually “on the ground” and that includes the federal government. Our government that day was reacting to fragments of information and misinformation, all of it was colored by panic and confusion. I was struck by a comment by someone in the White House that everything they knew that morning came from CNN. It reminded me how very important our journalists are, and how sad it is that we’ve come to see them as politically biased rather than as credible sources of information.

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Review: Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery by Rosalie Knecht

I loved the first book by Knecht, Who is Vera Kelly? so I was very happy to receive a review copy of its sequel. These books combine a couple of things I really love – a complicated main character, a mystery, and the history and politics of other countries. In the first novel, heroine Vera was an undercover CIA agent in Argentina in the 1960s. In that book we learn a lot more about Vera’s own history, the trauma she went through as a teenager and how she ended up as an agent in a time when no one expects a woman to do this kind of work.

In the sequel, Vera’s home from Argentina and quit the CIA. She’s trying to hold down a regular job and a relationship but loses both of them in the same day — first her girlfriend breaks up with her, and then she’s fired when her employer finds out she’s gay. Relying on her skills learned in the CIA, she sets up an office as a private investigator. Her first client is a couple looking for a boy who was sent to New York by parents imprisoned by the political regime in the Dominican Republic.

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My May Reading Wrap-up

May was a troubling month, I’m not going to lie about that. I’m deeply disturbed by the events of the last week, and I’m constantly disturbed by my country’s leadership and reactions to the pandemic. I had hoped (naively) that the pandemic might be something that unifies us, but instead it draw us farther apart, and I’m honestly stunned by people’s callous disregard for the well-being of others.

I’ve been struggling with how I can support those who are protesting. One thing we can do, especially those of us who are white, is to learn more about the history and events that have led to these protests. I can’t know what it means to be black in this country, to feel that your life is in jeopardy every day from the very people who are supposed to protect you. But I can listen and I can learn. So before I talk about the books I read this month, here are a few books about race and racism in the U.S. that I think are very worth reading.

  1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  2. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  3. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
  4. The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  6. March by John Lewis
  7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  9. White Tears by Hari Kunzru
  10. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Please share any recommendations you have in the comments!

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It’s the Tenth Anniversary of The Book Stop!

May 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of The Book Stop.  This kind of caught me by surprise, even though a year ago I was thinking what I might do to mark the big ten. What can I say, life is a little strange right now.  So much thanks to WordPress for the helpful reminder!

Since I kicked off the blog on May 18, 2010, I’ve apparently written 963 posts.  In lieu of balloons and cake (though Mr. CG did offer to bake a cake for the occasion), I gave some thought to how the blog has changed and what I’ve learned, and in general, what the blog has meant to me.  I’ll probably be repeating thoughts I’ve shared a few times before.

First of all, THANK YOU.  This blog has been my sanity over the last ten years, and while there have been times when it felt pointless or frustrating, or it felt like no one was listening, it’s always been a place I’m happy to come back to.  I’m so appreciative of the people who read and follow the blog, and especially those who comment.  You’ve made me feel part of a community, and that has meant a lot to me.  I’m also happy to have met some of my fellow bloggers in person, and I invite you all to reach out to me if you’re ever in the DC area (though sadly, my favorite meetup site, Kramerbooks, may be moving).

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20 Books of Summer

I’m so happy it’s finally summer! This year, I’ve been avoiding TBR lists and trying to take some of the pressure off of what and how I read.  But I’ll make an exception for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com, because it’s a pretty laid back challenge and summer feels like a good time to set some reading goals.

I enjoy this challenge because summer and reading have always felt intertwined.  As a child I loved the freedom of summer, the long hours spent reading on a sunny day or in a hammock under the trees in our backyard.  I loved tracking my books, trying out books that were too old for me, and summer reading challenges at the library.  I loved the longer days and not having to go to school.  As an adult (without kids), summer isn’t that different from the rest of the year, but it still feels different.  Summer is also for traveling, for outdoor movies, for beaches or pools, for grilling with friends — but this summer, not so much.  Maybe more this year than ever, summer is for reading. 

My list is a combination of book club reads (Vox, Troublesome Creek), ARCs (Mexican Gothic, Utopia Avenue), library holds, and physical books that are sitting on my shelf.  A few, like Queenie and Weather, are on the list because they are on the Women’s Prize longlist.  A few are new releases from favorite authors (Paulette Jiles, Elizabeth Acevedo, David Mitchell) and a few are science fiction novels I’ve been wanting to read (The City in the Middle of the Night, The City We Became).  And a few will count towards challenges, like Read Harder, Reading Nonfiction, Mount TBR, and Reading Around the World.

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