best of 2015, to date

I’ve had several requests lately for recommended reads, and I always try to have those ready for my friends & readers! As you know, I’ll always do an end-of-year best-of list, but maybe it’s time for an interim selection. Not all of these will make the final 2015 list, I’m sure, but some will: my first entry is still the only 10 rating I’ve given this year. Now with a few annotations… click the links for the full review, and in the cases where it hasn’t yet posted, I’ll do my best to come back and add those links when they become available.

This is a fairly varied list, which I always feel good about: something for everyone, I hope.

Best of 2015 to date! Thanks for caring, y’all.

  • Martin Marten, Brian Doyle – fiction. A novel of two young creatures, a boy and a marten, showcasing outrageously fine writing and a unique sensitivity to the fact that we humans are not the only ones living and breathing on this planet.
  • Of Things Gone Astray, Janina Matthewson – fiction. A whimsical novel of lost things and what they mean, and the stories of the people who lose them, and sometimes find them again.
  • Travels in Vermeer, Michael White – nonfiction. A lyrical memoir of recovery and art appreciation; the best writing about the visual arts that I’ve encountered.
  • Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction. Memoir of a young female carpenter, about everything entailed in that life, and the balance between the mental and the physical.
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander – nonfiction. Memoir of loss of a beloved husband by an excellent poet; lovely glimpses of global cultures.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction. Writing advice and wit from a respected mind, with a fun and singular voice.
  • Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction. Quirky novel of mixed-up relationships with a strong sense of place (set in the South).
  • Wondering Who You Are, Sonya Lea – nonfiction. Memoir of a spouse’s traumatic brain injury: sex, love, art, identity.
  • Station Eleven*, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction. Imaginative post-apocalyptic novel of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre company in a changed United States. Emphasis on character and story rather than sensationalism of collapse.
  • Old Heart, Peter Ferry – fiction. Brief, sweet, feeling novel of old age and end-of-life autonomy with impulses toward romance, but not an idealized version.
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk & White – nonfiction. Still an outstanding style guide, and surprising funny, enjoyable reading.
  • The Anger Meridian, Kaylie Jones – fiction. Novel of a traumatized widow seeking direction in vividly evoked San Miguel de Allende, with a little puzzle for the reader to work out.
  • Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante – fiction. Somewhat distressing, compelling novel well summarized by its title.
  • The Writing Life*, Annie Dillard – nonfiction. Lovely essays about Dillard’s writing life: glimpses into places and experiences and challenges.
  • South Toward Home, Margaret Eby – nonfiction. A review of one Alabama woman’s literary icons that resonated especially with me.
  • Dakota, Kathleen Norris – nonfiction. Lovely evocations of sense of place in essay form.
  • My Southern Journey, Rick Bragg – nonfiction. Funny, moving, evocative, beautifully crafted, very short true stories from the Deep South.

(* are audiobooks.)

Honorable mention goes as well to Paul Kingsnorth’s singular debut novel, The Wake, which tells a great story, a historical post-apocalypse set in England following the Norman Invasion. Kingsnorth makes the gutsy decision to tell the story in a modified version of Old English, making it quite hard to read: I fear he will lose readers by challenging them so greatly, but really, it’s a worthwhile book if you can struggle through. It gets better after 50 pages, I promise!

If you try any of these fine books out, I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

best books of 2014

My year-in-review post is coming, but first, as the year ends, let’s take a look at the very BEST books I read in 2014. As usual, these were not necessarily published in 2014 (although several were).

(* are audiobooks.)

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

There were lots of 8s, too – it’s been a great year. I had a very hard time choosing a short list of examples for you, so please be satisfied with The Drunken Botanist*, Euphoria, Wayfaring Stranger, The Fish in the Forest, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Kind Worth Killing (by Peter Swanson, review to come)…

What did YOU read this year that’s blown you away?

to date: best books of 2014

I was trying to hold off til the end of this calendar year, but I’ve been asked several times recently for book recommendations, and have sent this list privately to a few friends. So why not share? Below you will find the best books I’ve read this year, so far. Hopefully there will be more in these last few months!

Some reviews haven’t even posted yet, but here you are, getting a sneak peek at my ratings.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

* = audiobooks.

There have been lots of 8s, too, including for example the latest from Stephen King and James Lee Burke; this lovely novel; a little literary history (oh and here’s another); some plants*; and two that are still to come: We Make Beer, and Older, Faster, Stronger.

What have you read so far this year that’s blown you away?

the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.


That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

best of 2013: year’s end

My year-in-review post is coming, but first, as the year ends, let’s take a look at the very BEST books I read in 2013. Not necessarily published in 2013, you understand, although several were that, as well. Others were quite old. And while we’re at it, do check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of list, which has three books in common with mine. The Shelf and I, we continue simpatico.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

There were lots of 8s, too – it’s been a great year. For example, late in the year I’ve discovered a love for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which hasn’t gotten a 9 on an individual book lately – but I wonder why, because I’m certainly enjoying the series that much! My, I’ve read so many books that it’s difficult to think back this far; but this list helps me remember the very best of my reading year.

What did YOU read this year that’s blown you away?

the books I’ve listened to that simply must be audio

It has taken me weeks to post this – sorry! But I did have some interest, in the comments on a past post, in those books I’ve listened to that I feel really must be experienced as audiobooks. Here’s a briefly annotated list.

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, and read by the author: surely this will be obvious? Tina Fey is hilarious and you should let her tell you her story. Qualification: there are images in the book that you miss on the audio version.
  • The Likeness by Tana French: I’ve enjoyed some of hers in print and in audio, but this is my favorite and I feel strongly about the audio. For one thing, they’re set in Dublin and the Irish accents are amazing. For another, the plot of this novel involves faking someone else’s identity, and to hear how her voice changes when she’s in character is really something. Well done, narrator Heather O’Neill.
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: also read by the author, and what an amazing feat, for her to be such an artist both of literature and of voice acting! Characters include Russians, Mexicans (of different social castes), a New York Jew, back-woods Appalachians, and a young man raised in between cultures; the importance of all those accents couldn’t be overstated, and Kingsolver executes them beautifully. It’s a magical audiobook and I wouldn’t let anybody I liked read this in print.
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: a memoir, read by the author, and she sings her chapter titles, operatically. That should be all I have to say.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King: also read by the author, as it happens, and I enjoyed knowing that I was hearing King’s own impression of things. He does a great job. (If you’re noting how many on this list are author-read: I’m as surprised as you are.)
  • Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende: this is a historical novel of the founding of Chile, and thus another one with accents done gorgeously by narrator Blair Brown.
  • all of the P.G. Wodehouse novels read by Jonathan Cecil: I love Cecil’s voices for the very very silly Bertie Wooster and all the rest; I now am opposed to the print versions, and wary of the non-Cecil-narrated audio version. What can I say, I’ve found the Wooster I like.
  • The Dorothy Parker Audio Collection: a collection of stories and articles read by a handful of different women, who more than narrate; they act out Parker’s caustic wit.
  • all the Lee Child books read by Dick Hill: I really like Hill’s expression of Jack Reacher. (He also narrates a few of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which I also recommend. In other words, I like Dick Hill.)
  • bonus: I have it on good authority – although I have not listened yet (it’s in line!) – that the audio version of the new novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is not to be missed, for the southern accents.

Further, I would recommend the following books in their audio format, although I would stop short of saying they must by heard rather than read.

  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: New York of the 1930’s and 40’s perfectly evoked via Rebecca Lowman’s lovely narration.
  • Crossing the Borders of Time by Leslie Maitland: the author reads this work of nonfiction herself, and because it’s the story of her own family, I think that’s important (and it is well done). Her voice is warm, she clearly cares for her subject, and she executes the French and German accents (and words) well.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: Robin Miles narrates this work of history in a beautiful, warm voice that I found helpful to the subject.
  • The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger: read by Richard M. Davidson, it has all the taut, tense action it needs without ever feeling over-dramatized. Bonus: at the end, it includes a recording of the author speaking about the making of the book, which was awesome.
  • Loving Frank by Nancy Horan: Joyce Bean’s narration immersed me in a time and place and helped me learn to care very much about the characters.
  • Touch by Alexi Zentner: a magical, otherworldly, immersive feel to this novel is helped along by Norman Dietz’s wondering performance.
  • Left Neglected by Lisa Genova: I felt intimately close to the female lead character in this story thanks to Sarah Paulson’s reading.

I’m sure there are more out there, and I can’t wait to discover them! Do share – are there any books you’ve listened to that you would say have to be heard?

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