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best of semester 1

Today I am traveling north and east to West Virginia for the residency that begins my second semester in WVWC’s MFA program. All semester, I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read for school (along with the odd Shelf Awareness review). So, you’ve been seeing these books as they come; but I wanted to make a note, for your information and my own records, of what I loved most this semester. As always, these are only my personal reactions.

The best (and most useful to me) craft books I read were

I had less success with The Art of Subtext, The Situation and the Story, and The Art of Attention (which I did not finish and therefore did not review). In fact, I’m beginning to fear that Graywolf’s The Art of series is not for me (recall also The Art of History), which is a shame, because I’m generally a fan of Graywolf Press, and I love the idea of these succinct pocket-sized craft books.

The memoirs/essay collections I loved most, and found most useful, were

I hadn’t realized until I made this list that five of these six books were written by women. Interesting, and perhaps not surprising.

What I am able to take from these talented writers and make my own is another question. Having reviewed books for a number of years now (see my first review for Shelf Awareness!), I feel fairly comfortable pointing to what I appreciate, and articulating why. (Most of the time.) But making it my own, that’s a newer challenge I’m still working to master.

And so, into semester 2.

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.

best movies of 2015

I am as surprised as anyone to see that I reviewed fifteen movies in 2015. For me, this is a lot. We are not a big movie-watching family: Husband can’t sit still that long. So I thought I’d put up a new kind of best-of post, in honor of some great films I saw this year.

I gave one movie a 10 this year, although it is sort of a mixed-media piece, if you will: the Young Vic’s A View From the Bridge, which is a live-filmed stage production. I am going to count it, because it’s done cinematically, not just with a stationary camera in the audience. As I am learning, any National Theatre Live productions are worth making time for.

I gave several ratings of 9:

And, I can’t help but mention the National Theatre Live offering of Treasure Island, which I rated an 8 at the time but still think fondly of.

Funnily, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a one of these was a Hollywood new release (although several documentaries were new).

It’s been a great year for movies for me; I feel privileged. Here’s to some quality screen time in 2016.

2015: A Year in Review

I’ve reviewed a few years now (2014; 2013; 2012; 2011), so plenty of comparisons are available to us. Maybe I’m a nerd. I like lists.

This year should be expected to be a little different than years past, because of some changes that have taken place in my life. Let’s jump right in:

Of the 150 books I read in 2015:

  • precisely 50% were nonfiction (44% last year)
  • 51% were by female authors (44% last year)
  • of the 75 novels I read, 24% were historical fiction, 19% were mysteries, and a whopping 40% I classified as “misc fiction.” I guess I need to come up with better tags for that category. Contemporary fiction? Other categories included true crime, drama, fantasy, and short stories. (Last year 33% were historical fiction, 20% were mysteries or thrillers, 24% were miscellaneous fiction, and 15% were fantasy.)
  • only 7 books out of 150, or about 5%, were audiobooks. (13% last year)
  • 12% of the books I read came from the library; 9% I owned (or purchased); 79% were for assigned reviews. I borrowed one. (Last year, 20% of the books I read came from the library, and a whopping 71% were review copies; the few remainders were either ones I already owned or were gifts.)
  • I read 150 books this year – my most ever – compared to 135 last year.

As always, for the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see New Year’s Eve’s post.

So, what’s changed? Well, this is my highest count yet – although not by a huge margin. 150 books in 52 weeks is a rate just a bare fraction less than 3 books a week, and I don’t think I can do any more. Reviewing has been the backbone of my reading & writing work this year, and I’ve quit my day job to do (this and other forms of) reading and writing. So it’s not a big surprise that I set a new record. And I don’t think I can do many more! I now turn away lots of reviews – including 99.9% of those offered without pay. Sorry, and thanks for your understanding.

That’s why my books read for review numbered the highest yet also, at 79%, and I’m a little surprised it wasn’t higher. (This is also why the audiobooks are becoming a negligible category: I don’t review those for pay. Also, as I’ve noted before, I no longer commute! so that’s listening time lost.) Frankly, I’m pleased I got to read as many books “just for me” as I did.

As far as I can tell, 2016 should be a continuation down the same sort of path; but the future is always unknown. What about you? How has 2015 stood up to your reading years in the past, or to your expectations? And what do you hope for in 2016?

best of 2015: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up tomorrow, of course, as usual. But first, as the year ends, I always like to review the very BEST books I read in the last year. As ever, these were not necessarily published in 2015 (although many were).

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

There were, as always, lots of 8’s. I won’t list them all here for fear of exhausting you, although a search on this page for “Rating: 8” should take you there, if you’re that interested. I need to note just a few here, though. Honorable mention goes to Paul Kingsnorth’s strange and singular debut novel, The Wake. I can’t stop thinking about Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. And, cheers to Rick Bragg, whose name appears twice on the lists above.

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

still grasping for a definition of “classics”: a list

I get an excellent email, five days per week, from A.Word.A.Day. Occasionally there is an ad, and I think I’ve seen this one before, but was just recently interested enough to click through. “Listen to the 100 Greatest Books of All Time,” it cries! Well, you know my question: what on earth are the 100 greatest books of all time?? (I’ve wondered before.) I always have to refer back to that BBC list. I think it’s fun to look at what rates, and how it changes. Of course we shall never all agree. But listing books we love is an inherent pleasure, I think. As I’ve done before, I’ve marked up this list:

Bold = I’ve read it
Underlined = I’ve started the book, but never finished
neither = I haven’t picked it up.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux
The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
The Odyssey, Homer
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen
White Fang, Jack London
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Paradise Lost, John Milton
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Daisy Miller, Henry James
The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry
Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Beowulf, unknown
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Beatrix Potter
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Art of War, Sun Tzu
The Masque of Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe
The Indiscreet Letter, Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
Adrift in New York, Horatio Alger, Jr.
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
King Lear, William Shakespeare
The Ransom of Red Chief, O. Henry
The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
A Prisoner of Morro, Upton Sinclair
Euthyphro, Plato
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting
The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
A Haunted House, Virginia Woolf
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift
The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Othello, William Shakespeare
The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Common Sense, Thomas Paine
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling
The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allan Poe
Candide, Voltaire
Politics, Aristotle
In Defense of Women, H.L. Mencken
McTeague, Frank Norris
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Lew Wallace
The Apology of Socrates, Plato
A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke
A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
The Five White Mice, Stephen Crane
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Idyl of Red Gulch, Bret Harte
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane

I’m surprised to see the blocks of books I have or haven’t read showing up together, rather than sort of equally dispersed down the list. I wonder what ordered these selections and what that means.

It quickly becomes clear that this list employs a heavy cultural bias toward the usual Dead White Guys (hat tip to an excellent blog by that name). Of 100 books, only 12 are by women (11 different women, with Beatrix Potter’s delightful anthropomorphizing children’s books represented twice). At a glance, I’m pretty sure that none of these authors are living. And overwhelmingly Western: Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Crane, Kipling and Stevenson all recur; Sun Tzu is the only non-Western name of the bunch. Plenty of Greeks, no Romans. Only one Fitzgerald (but no Gatsby!), and no Hemingway: and yes, you know I’m biased, but really I think few of the anointed minds who rate “great literature” – academics, professors, professional writers and reviewers – would leave Hemingway off a list of Greats. He’s not for everyone, but I think his talent and achievements are relatively inarguable. He won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel. Actually, that would be another interesting way to look at this list: to cross-check it with prizewinners. Hm.

I’m not overwhelmed by the originality or diversity of this list.

You’ll notice I took the liberty of linking to my reviews, where I’ve written them. These are relatively few, I think because I read many “classics” in school, which is to say pre-blog. There is also a large overlap between this list and the Great Illustrated Classics I remember as a kid (and yes, I gave myself credit for a few I know only from that format [very few], just as an indication of my familiarity with the story). They were my introduction to many classics: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Frankenstein, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Gulliver’s Travels, The Invisible Man (Wells, not Ellison), The Swiss Family Robinson. Some of these I would later read in their unabridged versions, but some, not. I treasured those books. I don’t know what happened to them.

I researched this series later, as a professional librarian, and was dismayed at their reputation. It left me wondering what misconceptions I have, what I missed. Of course the very definition of abridgment is missing things, but these are said to be especially extreme. Here I am with my whole experience of Oliver Twist defined by those illustrations I can still see clearly in my mind: the orphan as interpreted by Great Illustrated Classics had lovely, long eyelashes. On the other hand, I happily read many of the same stories in their full and unabridged versions later on. And I recommend doing so.

The “100 best books of all time” list appears to have been compiled with Dead White Guys in mind, and by more or less the same folks who chose the Great Illustrated Classics. These, at least, are unabridged. And, hey, they’ve got a point: at $99, this is indeed a hell of a deal for all these books pre-loaded onto a player for you. But just don’t forget to survey some women and writers of color and those born in the last 100 years or so, too. There is always my list in progress if you need some tips.

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