2016: A Year in Review

This is a traditional annual post; you can see my past few years in review here: 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.


This is an interesting review, since things will be changing quite a bit in 2016. Actually, I can see them changing as I look back, too. Of the 121 books I read in 2016:

  • 54% were nonfiction (50% last year)
  • 54% were written by male authors (not the same 54%, though!); 40% were by women, with a handful being collections or by authors of unknown genders. (last year, 51% were by men)
  • of the 55 novels I read, 27% were historical fiction, 18% were contemporary, and 11% were thrillers. Other categories included short stories, noir, classics and mysteries. (Last year 24% were historical fiction, 19% were mysteries, and a whopping 40% I classified as “misc fiction.” This year I tried to do away with that nebulous “misc,” and you see contemporary fiction showing up as a big one.)
  • only 5 books out of 121 were audiobooks (about the same percentage from last year)
  • 80% of the books I read, I read for paid reviews. another 11% I owned, and just a handful were borrowed or gifted to me, or taken from the library. (Last year, 12% of the books I read came from the library, 9% I owned, and 79% were for assigned reviews. I borrowed one.)
  • I read 121 books this year, compared to 150 last year.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see yesterday’s post, best of 2016.

So, what’s changed? I read fewer books this year by a noticeable margin. That’s a little misleading, though, since I also reviewed 8 lit journals (and read more that I didn’t bother to write up), as well as some miscellaneous essays, short stories and poems; and perhaps most significantly, I did more of my own writing, including taking two university courses in creative writing. My energies were a little divided. And gosh knows that’s the trend that we’ll see continue in 2017. My tastes in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction haven’t changed: I lean slightly towards nonfiction, as I should since that’s what I’m trying to write. The steady decline in audiobooks & books from the library reflects the shift I made two years ago toward more and more paid reviews.

I expect you’ll see me read even fewer books in 2017, but hopefully with greater focus. I’ll still be reviewing for the Shelf, but far less often. What else the future holds I can’t see from here; but I hope you’ll stick around with me so we can find out together.

I know we will all be glad to see the back side of 2016 tomorrow night. I wish you the happiest of new years.

best of 2016: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up tomorrow. But first… I always like to list my favorite books I’ve read in the closing year. As in the past, these are not necessarily new publications, although several are. Without further ado:

I rated just one book with a 10, so the best book that I read in 2016 was

I gave several a rating of 9:

There were, happily, as ever, lots of 8’s. Special mentions go to:

I also voted this year for The National Book Critics Circle Awards. Five for fiction: Smoke, Lily and the Octopus, The Wangs vs. the World, A Robot in the Garden, and The Throwback Special; and five for nonfiction: Joe Gould’s Teeth, Bellevue, Detroit Hustle, Gods, Wasps & Stranglers… and, for that final slot, I struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the categories for poetry, criticism, biography, and autobiography, where I didn’t feel I’d read much.

Finally, I wouldn’t want you to miss Shelf Awareness’s best of list. You’ll notice one nonfiction and four fiction titles that cross over from that list to this blog post (or vice versa).

It’s been another amazing year, and I can’t wait to see what 2017 holds. Thanks for coming around again, friends.

movie: Be Here to Love Me (2004)

Husband and I finally got around to this documentary about the life and music of Townes Van Zandt, and it was totally worth it.

be-here-to-love-meTownes and my mother share a hometown in Fort Worth, Texas, and although he lived in Montana, Colorado, Tennessee and elsewhere in bits and chunks, Texas certainly has a claim on him. Austin was at least a seasonal home in the 70’s and early 80’s, during which time my aunt & uncle lived in the same part of town there. My parents remember him as part of the Houston music scene. These are some of the reasons that his story feels close to me.

You can do your own search if you’re unfamiliar, but – Townes was born in 1944 into a family with money; had issues with drugs and alcohol, was institutionalized and given insulin shock therapy, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; had three marriages and three children; and died at age 52 of complications of his lifestyle, to put it simply. He was a country/folk singer/songwriter with limited commercial success or coverage in his lifetime. He was not unknown but neither was he a sensation on the charts. His peers regarded him very highly, though, as we see in this film in interviews with Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, and others.

This documentary reminded me some of Montage of Heck, last year’s documentary about Kurt Cobain, for its focus on the heartbreaking genius, illness and ill luck of a musical hero. It more than reminded me of Heartworn Highways, the 1976 documentary about outlaw country, as the two movies share several minutes of footage. Like those, this one is an edited bunch of home videos, television clips, and interviews with people who knew Townes. I found it hard to watch for its poignancy: I have long observed some sort of connection between genius and madness, or illness, or struggle, and Townes is another good example of that tradition (see also Hemingway, Abbey, Cobain, pick your hero). An older Townes speaks slowly and in fits and starts, seeming to forget what he’s talking about mid-sentence. It’s hard to watch a gifted and singular mind fried that way.

But it’s also amazing to get to see this special man & musician in video clips that show him laughing, chatting, performing, musing, and just being with his family. That’s a rare chance, and for that opportunity, this film is worth tracking down. Also Townes’s music: check it out. For a start, you can hear a song here that featured on my definingplace page. That’s synchronicity for you.


Rating: 8 lost pages.

two listening opportunities

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit)

One of my favorite things I’ve read for the start of school coming up is an essay by Scott Russell Sanders titled “Buckeye.” Terrain.org offers a full-text version here, and I hope you’ll go read it and enjoy it, too. It’s short. Or, perhaps even better: on that same page, you can click to hear Sanders himself read it aloud for you. It’s a little under 20 minutes that way.

I am also still a little entranced over his essay “The Inheritance of Tools,” which I have not been able to find in a free full-text form that is not cluttered with one professor or another’s question-and-answer. (Best not to color your first reading, you know.) If you can track it down, do. I guess I might be in the market for one of his collections one of these days.

Amy Leach (photo credit)

Amy Leach (photo credit)

While I’m thinking of excellent essays read aloud by the author, I can’t help but mention Amy Leach, again. You recall that I loved her book Things That Are. I’ll just remind you again that you can hear her read “God” to a bluegrass accompaniment here. Under 5 minutes, that one.

Enjoy.

And while we’re here: any read-by-the-author clips you love and would like to share? Reading one’s work is such a different skill, I think, than writing it. I think immediately of Barbara Kingsolver, whose Flight Behavior and The Lacuna were such breathtaking performances, completely aside from the excellent books.

National Theatre Live presents War Horse (2014)

National Theatre Live does it again with War Horse, an encore edition of a performance from 2014. Husband and I saw this live-filmed play at a San Antonio movie theatre on December 8, 2016. I am again going to rave about a stellar story, staging and performance (as well as the NT Live delivery system which I love more and more).

war-horseThe story, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, involves a horse and a boy. The year is 1912. Boy’s drunken father unwisely obtains horse while drunk, and boy is tasked with training and racing horse til it becomes saleable at a profit. The boy, Albert, names his horse Joey, and the two become very close; then World War I breaks out, and drunken dad sells Joey to the army. This is an evil thing for him to do, although he does point out later that the army would eventually have come for the horse under anyway. Joey sees battle and various masters. Albert runs away to lie about his age and join the army, in search of his beloved and noble friend.

It is a striking story with all the right emotional notes. Elements of Black Beauty and White Fang, etc., but that’s really to say that the best animal stories contain the same elements, not that anyone is copying anyone else. I cried twice (no spoilers here); but I will say that in the proverbial sense, when librarians (etc.) talk about books and ask “does the dog die?” – here, the dog does not die. This is a figurative dog, y’all. Added to the classic beloved and noble animal story is war; youth and innocence; friendship, loyalty and reconciliation; even some family dynamics. Very thorough and appealing, theme-wise.

But how does this great story with so much potential make it to the stage? Well, the first problem is working with animals, right? So the smart folks at NT Live worked with a South African puppet company, and the results are mindblowing. The horses are life-size (at least), operated by three puppeteers. As a colt, Joey is worked by three people moving alongside; but as an adult, two puppeteers stand inside the body of the puppet, and one outside operates the head. No efforts are made to hide the puppeteers. The show opened with a few lines of monologue and a song while colt-Joey explores the stage, as (I interpret) the audience gets a chance to get used to this set-up. In these moments, I concentrated on seeing the horse and not his three operators; but I quickly turned to watching the operators themselves, because what an interesting job! Immediately, this choice became a non-issue: the horses were astonishingly lifelike. They articulate complexly: every joint of the legs, the full curve of the neck, tail and ears, accompanied by the snorts and breathing provided by the puppeteer actors, as well as full-body shivers or heaving breaths – all of this absolutely brought a convincing, living horse to the stage. The actors who occasionally appear to the eye nearby (they’re there all along, but only occasionally did they appear to me, so absorbed was I in the horse himself) only add to the impression of artistry.

On top of the complicated and inspired puppetry, the company used lighting, projection and sound effects to bring a whole world to an extremely simple stage design. As we’ve seen before most notably in A View From the Bridge, the settings and props were minimal, but very effective. I won’t say too much about this part. But I think it’s fascinating how very much can be done with so little, with the not insignificant contribution of lighting effects; and here the light & sound helped to emphasize another thread of the plot, in a neat trick that I’ll leave for your viewing pleasure, because you’ll want to rush out and find this performance near you.

Of course the acting was superb, blah blah… one expects that from National Theatre Live, and they absolutely meet expectations. I’ve said it before, but the beauty is that this unique format – the live-filmed stage play on a movie theatre screen – really takes advantage of the best of both worlds. I get to see some of the world’s finest actors close-up, more cheaply than flying to London, with a pack of peanut butter M&Ms I snuck into the theatre. This is certainly one of the finest NT Live plays I’ve gotten to see, and I feel so lucky.

I don’t think the cinematography necessarily did as much as in some shows I’ve seen – fewer close-ups than I remember, that sort of thing – or maybe it just disappeared in the richness of the whole experience. This is certainly not a weakness. The shots varied and moved with the action, and it was all perfectly effective. I’m not sure I can think of a way to improve upon this performance and the way it was delivered to me in central Texas.

Perhaps the best part of all of this for me was that Husband really enjoyed it, too. Frankly I was a little worried he’d find it slow; but the emotional impact of the story, and the wild achievements of the creativity of staging & the puppets themselves, impressed him as they did me. There you go, folks, the highest praise: pleases all audiences.

I always recommend NT Live highly. This might just be the best I’ve seen (I don’t know, who can choose, don’t miss A View From the Bridge or Jane Eyre either). It’s playing in a number of theatres; please do yourself a favor and see if you can find a showing. Enjoy.


Rating: 10 collars.

movie: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is based on the novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins. I have not read the book, and knew nothing of it when I was invited with a group of friends to go see it in the theatre. For a total unknown like that, I found it quite enjoyable. One of my dates who had read the book reported some changes in adaptation, and it sounds like the book was better; but what else is knew. I think the real issue is that books don’t become movies and still resemble their book-selves. This is natural. Perhaps we should stop expecting bookishness from film.

girl-on-the-trainRachel is divorced, and having some trouble moving on. She takes the train to work everyday past her former home, where her ex-husband lives with new wife and baby. She obsesses. Then she shifts her obsession, just slightly, to the couple who live a few doors down from her ex. She watches them; she imagines them the perfect couple. She sees something; and things spin out of control.

Suspense and surprise are a big part of this movie’s thrill, so I’ll leave it at that. There is a major plot turn I’m afraid to even hint at, but it’s a good one. Another big part of this movie’s thrill are blood and violence: not a great quantity of it, but what there is is fairly graphic, so be warned (or teased). As some critics have noted, there is not enormous character development (this was the main departure from the book, according to my memory of my movie date’s report). But the acting is more than fair, in my opinion, and I would call this story – at least the movie version of it – plot-driven rather than character-driven, so it still worked out okay for me. I enjoyed the mystery, the twists and surprises, and the bloody denouement. This was an entertaining thriller. Not mind-blowing, but worth the price of entry. I’m even interested in the book now – even though I know its secrets – and that may be the nicest part of all.


Rating: 7 wine bottles opened.

movie: The Finest Hours (2016)

Our very first television event in the new home. Hops (the littler dog) was so grateful to see a couch again!


finest-hoursI think I can sum this one up briefly. Good: astounding story (based on a true one), fine acting, very fine action & cinematography; exciting, suspenseful, moving. Bad: weak romance, lack of character nuance, laughably unrealistic action & technical details.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue of much of the crew of the SS Pendleton tanker in 1952 – a true event – is an impressive story, and that was captured here. The broadest details of the rescue are hard to believe, but they are a part of recorded history. This action/drama is both an appropriate recognition of this event, and a little bit of a sullying, because it made such a mess of it in smaller ways.

The romance between hero Bernie Webber (who piloted the rescue craft) and Miriam is a little flat, and both characters are caricatures. The evolution Miriam experiences in the course of the movie is predictable and therefore less moving than it might have been, if the characters had been more complex and realized. I’m not sure the romance was necessary to make the movie work, although Miriam is of course a character in real life and so perhaps did deserve to be there… in which case I wish they’d either done more with her (let us see a multifaceted human), or done less (show that the man had a girlfriend who worried when he did his dangerous job; we can all extrapolate from that).

The technical details of the action scenes were flawed. In a huge storm, the rescue boat repeatedly goes under big waves – waves ten times its height – with two crew members sort of hanging on its deck. They remain there; one even keeps his hat. C’mon, guys. Could that little boat really submarine like that?? Lights on and everything, like it was meant for underwater use. I don’t know the answer to this question. But it looks implausible to this laywoman; and if indeed this was a true capability of a little teeny boat in the 1950’s, I wish they’d explicated that fact, because wow. The precise dropping of crew members from big tanker into teeny boat in high seas was wildly implausible as well. It’s very cold, but rarely does anyone’s breath show foggy, and repeated dousings do no harm to our rescue crew. Oh, and when their compass was swept overboard, I admit I laughed out loud at the notion that the Coast Guard wouldn’t have known to strap its compass down somehow (not to mention the 36 eventual passengers on this small vessel, seamen all, none of whom carries a compass in his pocket). Add to this goofs like the pipe wrench being used backwards… that’s the sort of small-scale mistake that wouldn’t have shown up or bothered this viewer much, if it weren’t for the bigger things. How about Bernie’s magical ability to steer straight towards the tanker, and then again straight back toward the docks of home, with no visibility or compass? Movies are about some suspension of disbelief. But the movie has to earn that, or confess itself a fantasy, and this one fell a little short.

Again: great story, great scenery, action and acting. Poor technical execution of a true history that probably deserved better. For entertainment, I do recommend it as an exciting ride. But if you’re as persnickety as I am, you may have some problems.


Rating: 6 or 7 knit hats on the boat, depending on your personal preferences.
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