2020: A Year in Review

Here comes my traditional year’s-end wrap-up post; you can see past years in review here. In case you missed it, check out as well my best of the year post from Monday. Welcome to 2021! Let’s hope it’s a better one.

In 2020, I read 103 books, and I cannot remember them all now – this year has been years long, hasn’t it? (Say it again.) My blog turned ten years old in October – that is certainly a milestone. In 2019, I read 88 books, so I’ve managed to go a little further this year, although it’s not my old average of 150!

Of the books I read this year:

  • Only 36% were nonfiction (last year I read 55% nonfiction). 6% were poetry, though, which is a small but significant (new) piece of the pie. I think my need for escape accounts for the unusually large proportion of fiction that I read in this extraordinary year.
  • 46% were written by female authors (41% last year); 51% were by men (59% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or other. I’m getting closer to evening out that number…
  • Of the fiction I read, I labeled 23% as contemporary, 23% historical, 18% mystery, and 10% thriller; I used that silly “misc fiction” genre for 23%. I also labeled a handful as alternative history, fantasy, horror, mythology, noir, romance, scifi, short stories, western, YA and/or LBGTQ. (I sometimes put a single book in multiple genres.) Last year, 25% were contemporary, 22% historical, 18% mysteries, and a whopping 23% were sci fi. (That was all The Expanse, which I did not indulge in so much this year – mostly because I’ve read most of them already.)
  • In 2020, 17% of the books I “read” were audiobooks. This is perhaps the most surprising number, because I spent nine months of 2019 in my van, and commute times have been infinitesimal in 2020 – I thought the audiobooks would have dropped off, but 2019’s number was just shy of 20%, so there’s been little change. I did drive to Texas and back this summer…
  • In perhaps the greatest victory, this year 58% of my reading was for pleasure! and just 40% for paid reviews. Last year it was 36% pleasure and 51% reviews. This is the first time since I started tracking reasons that ‘pleasure’ has made a majority of my reading – the largest chunk has always been either reviews or school. (And I do have a good deal of control, in both those cases. But *pure* pleasure is a different question.)
  • I checked out 13% of the books I read from the library (not much of that in 2019 – again, see vanlife). I purchased 45%, and 40% were sent to me for reviews. (Last year I was sent 54% for reviews, and purchased 24%.)
  • I reread three books this year – same number as last.
  • A new feature of 2020 was my foray into e-books, forced by the pandemic, which saw publishers all but cease sending out print galleys and ARCs. I bought a Kindle. This year, 37% of the books I read were e-books – a shocking and entirely new number. (Those were virtually all my reviews, plus a couple of library books. I haven’t purchased an e-book yet, and I hope not to.) There are some convenience factors (I like an e-book for reading in bed), but I really miss print ARCs, which I fear are gone for good.

Also new for this year I tracked authors’ race, because I hope to make an effort to not read all white dudes, and when they are (known to be) queer. These are imperfect measures (like the gender question), because I don’t always know, or it requires that I judge somebody’s race (which is a social construct), but it’s an effort that I can keep tweaking. So –

  • This year, 17% of the books I read were authored by Black writers; 9% I marked other or unknown, and fully 75% were white. I’ll have to work on this one.
  • And 10% of the books I read were authored by people who identify publicly as queer. Obviously I could be (probably am) missing some, but I chose not to go poking in their lives; instead I took the easily accessed public persona (generally involving back-of-book blurbs and/or related to the subject matter of their books).

How to track these things? Should we? (Clearly I am answering yes at present. Should we ever get to a place where access to the publishing world is completely independent of author identity, maybe we’ll stop.)

So, 2020 was a weird one, right? From my last year-in-review: “Heading into 2020, I can just imagine that we’ll have another drastically different year, with teaching a literature course – surely this will suck up much of my reading time? – and the at-present-total-unknown second half of that year… All I can say is stick around and we’ll all find out together what the heck I’m doing. Thanks for bearing with me through all the surprises!!” Ha ha ha… what a wild ride it’s been. I’m just glad we’ve made it this far.

Even I am a little overwhelmed by all these numbers; I wonder how many of my readers care! Thanks for sticking around, if you have. I find it useful and instructive to watch these figures change over the years, even if I write this yearly post just for myself. Monday we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Thanks so much for being here, folks. I wish you a safe, healthy, and rewarding 2021, in your reading and beyond.

best of 2020: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up on Friday, with reading stats. But first, as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

To state the obvious, this year has been different from those that have come before. Every year something’s different: I started an MFA program, finished an MFA program, moved across the country, back again, into a van and then to a new state, started teaching college, etc. This year has seen upheaval and pain and tragedy nationally and globally, and that probably skewed my preferences and ratings some: I gravitated somewhat toward fiction that took me away, even when that fiction handled heavy themes. It’s also worth noting that personally, while I saw some difficulties this year (a serious bike wreck, and the challenge of teaching online), I’m in a fairly good place. I’m still really in love with my new home in West Virginia. And the trails group I’m a part of here has had a banner year of fundraising, land acquisition, trail maintenance and the building of new trails. I’m thrilled to be riding and working with such a great group and in such a cool landscape. The larger world is distressing. My small one here has been fairly good. My reading feels like it reflects that dichotomy some.

With no further ado, back to the business at hand: some of my favorite reading of the year. I’ve divided these into a few tiers, and mentioned some narratives I encountered outside of books that I loved, too. And as is tradition, please also check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of-the-year list here, too (with a couple of titles in common with my own, naturally!).

My two favorite books this year were both novels, and both new publications:

First honorable mentions:

Next round honorable mentions:

Other special mentions outside the world of books:

  • The Wire – television series
  • Shameless – television series
  • The Red Line – television series
  • Orphan Black – television series
  • “Seeing White” on Scene on Radio – podcast
  • The Dark Divide – movie

And a few charities close to my heart just now:

  • the usual suspects: Planned Parenthood in TX and WV, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and various BLM chapters
  • BINC
  • Nuçi’s Space
  • and the Black Student Union at my own West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Whew. That was a lot of content. I think it’s a good thing that I had so much good stuff I appreciated to share with you. It’s always interesting putting this list together. While I give books a numerical rating when I review them, I don’t do this best-of-the-year list based off those numbers; I try and go back and review the ratings but observe which titles stuck with me over time. (So the books read in the last month or so don’t get the same kind of cooling-off period that earlier reads too. It’s not a perfect system.) I think it reflects patterns not only in my reading but in my thinking. These are the books (etc.) that have proved most memorable over time. I hope you find something here to appreciate, too.

See you Friday with those statistics. I hope you read something awesome this week.

*ten years later*

Ten years ago yesterday, I published my first post here.

Early in 2019, when I was on the road full-time in my van, I got a phone call from an old friend and we did some catching up. He was interested in the van travels, and said, “you know, if it were ten years ago, you’d have a blog to report on this whole trip.” Well, I’d missed the memo that blogs were no longer hip, and indeed did have a van-travel blog, as well as an alive-and-well book blog (that’s where you are now, for reference). Nobody had told me it wasn’t cool anymore. And yet here we still are, Brad.

This blog has brought me good things. I used a few of the reviews I’d written here to apply for my job at Shelf Awareness, which has been nothing short of life-changing. (I’ve written reviews for pay for a few other publications, as well, but the Shelf is my longest-standing employer, and I hold dear the relationships I’ve made there.) I’ve been privileged to interview famous authors and authors I greatly admire (frequently these are the same people), and I’ve been offered more review copies than I have time to accept. I’ve felt a part of something larger than myself, and my reading has taken turns I’m not at all sure it would have otherwise. I’ve kept track of every book I’ve read for ten years now, which is itself a feat.

I’ve also lived a life in these ten years. I’d been married a few years when the blog was born, and am now divorced. I was a newly minted librarian, and would later take different jobs in the library system, then move cross-country (away from my hometown for the first time) and leave the profession. I moved back to Texas, then took that van trip and earned a second master’s degree and started a new career, and a new life here in West Virginia.

My friend Liz said recently, “change never doesn’t come,” and I’ve been thinking about that. In another conversation with Liz, we talked about how difficult it is to judge something like, say, a book at two different readings. There are too many uncontrolled variables in the experiment that is life. The world changes (The Stand doesn’t hit the same in 2020 as it did in 2010); we change as people. I have been many versions of myself in the last ten years. Certainly, these are the best-documented years of my life, thanks to this blog (and Facebook), for better and for worse.

I’ve published 2,282 blog posts and reviewed 1,250 books, 111 movies, 59 plays, and a smattering of readings, television shows, and performances of various kinds. (I’ve also occasionally told personal stories or waxed on about bicycles, etc., and you’ve been very patient with me.) It’s overwhelming to think about. I am both proud and humbled that anyone reads this blog at all.

Thanks so much for being here. I guess we’ll just keep going and see if blogs survive another ten years. Books and reading, at least, I’m not the least bit concerned about. Cheers, y’all.

best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

Short Fiction

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the reading I’ll be doing this semester, for an other-than-usual reason: I am teaching the undergraduate lit course Short Fiction (ENGL 165) to a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I’m very excited about it. My students will read something like 50 stories this semester, and we’ll discuss elements of fiction (like plot, setting, character, point of view, style, and theme) in context of those stories. I cannot imagine that I’ll be writing about each one for you all here! (Although I suppose it’s possible that I’ll be moved to write about a few standouts. And some are already covered, of course.) But I thought at least you might appreciate a list of what stories I have in mind.

I’m using an anthology as a textbook: The Story and Its Writer, which also includes pretty good text on those elements of fiction, and supplementary materials such as analyses and author commentaries. I’ll also use Jon Corcoran’s The Rope Swing – we’ll discuss how it functions as a whole as well as in each individual story. And there will be a few “extra” stories that I’ll scan for my students. So, the list – in no particular order for now.

  • “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
  • “Crazy They Call Me,” Zadie Smith
  • “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
  • “Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • “Samuel,” Grace Paley
  • “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros
  • “The Blood Bay,” Annie Proulx
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
  • “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Richard Wright
  • “Yellow Woman,” Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata
  • “Journey to the Seed,” Alejo Carpentier
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” Art Spiegelman
  • “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
  • “A Continuity of Parks,” Julio Cortázar
  • “Looking for a Rain-God,” Bessie Head
  • “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver
  • excerpt from Persepolis: “The Veil,” Marjane Satrapi
  • “The Moths,” Helena María Viramontes
  • “Dimensions,” Alice Munro
  • “Brownies,” ZZ Packer
  • excerpt from Palestine: “Refugeeland,” Joe Sacco
  • “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” Luisa Valenzuela
  • “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché
  • “The Fellowship,” Alison Bechdel
  • “The Swimmer,” John Cheever
  • “Barbie-Q,” Sandra Cisneros
  • excerpt from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa
  • “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien
  • “Appalachian Swan Song,” Jonathan Corcoran, from The Rope Swing (RS)
  • “The Rope Swing” (RS)
  • “Pauly’s Girl” (RS)
  • “Through the Still Hours” (RS)
  • “Felicitations” (RS)
  • “Corporeal” (RS)
  • “Hank the King” (RS)
  • “Excavation” (RS)
  • “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” (RS)
  • “A Touch” (RS)
  • “Pea Madness,” Amy Leach, from Things That Are
  • “Four Boston Basketball Stories,” Brian Doyle, from The Mighty Currawongs
  • “The Pull,” Lidia Yuknavitch, from Verge
  • Any Other,” Jac Jemc
  • The Little Mermaid,” (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg
  • Who Will Greet You At Home,” Lesley Nneka Arimah

This list includes writers of various ethnicities and national backgrounds, gay and trans writers, Westerners and non-Westerners, graphic stories, recent and historic ones. It is probably a few stories too long – definitely subject to some change, but not much. I meet my students in just a few days, and I want us to more or less have a plan.

What do you think? A class you’d be interested in??

2019: A Year in Review

Happy New Year, friends! The other day you saw my best of the year post, and here we are today with another traditional annual post. (You can see my past years in review here: 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.) I’m always glad to put these numbers together and see what’s changed, and in writing this post, I knew the numbers would be very different. I finished 2018 by finishing an MFA program; I spent the bulk of 2019 living in a van, with no day job except the book reviews.

In 2019, I read 88 books, compared to 66 in 2018. While not up to my good-old-days numbers nearing 150 books per year, this increase definitely reflects some change. A season for all things…

Of the books I read this year:

  • 55% were nonfiction (last year I read 70% nonfiction).
  • 41% were written by female authors (53% last year); 59% were by men (41% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or “other” – this was a negligible category this year, although it made a larger proportion in 2018.
  • Of the fiction I read, 25% were contemporary (a growing number), 22% historical, 18% mysteries, and a whopping 23% were sci fi (that would all be The Expanse). Last year I mostly read fiction I was categorizing as “misc,” which seems to indicate I need better categories, although I didn’t so much change my classification scheme as read more in the categories I’d already established (like sci fi!).
  • In perhaps the most notable (and most predictable) change this year, nearly 20% of what I “read” I listened to as audiobooks. This is all about the van travel, of course. In 2018 I listened to just one audiobook, although in previous years I’ve been as high as 25%, back when I was a commuter.
  • Another big and predictable change: reading for school. Combined reading as student and as teacher this year amounted to just 6% of the books I read; while I was an MFA student my years were 49-70% schoolwork. Happily, 36% of my reading was purely for pleasure, plus a handful marked with the reason “travel” (which can be counted as pleasure: researching places I was headed). 51% were read for reviews. I think I need to make it a life goal to get out from under that majority, much as I love my work.
  • I was sent 54% of my reading by authors and organizations seeking reviews (which means I marked several as read for pleasure; sorry if that’s confusing). Another 24% I purchased (down from 64% last year!), and the remaining 22% were gifts, loans, or library books – sources not much in evidence these last few years.
  • I found time to reread three books this year. I thought it was more than that! With just one in 2018, this remains a negligible category, but I’m glad for each and every one (hello, Brian Doyle).

Some of these numbers changed less than I thought they would – total books read, and rereads, for example. Overall, I’m pleased to see the increased variety in what I read. I’m very grateful to the Shelf for being so flexible with me while I’m on the road, and for being my only employer for most of the year; but I confess I wish I were choosing a few more books for myself and purely for pleasure. (It’s true that the Shelf sent me almost every favorite book of the year. But you know, there’s so much more out there, too…) And now heading into 2020, I can just imagine that we’ll have another drastically different year, with teaching a literature course – surely this will suck up much of my reading time? – and the at-present-total-unknown second half of that year… All I can say is stick around and we’ll all find out together what the heck I’m doing. Thanks for bearing with me through all the surprises!!

How did 2019 treat you as readers? What do you hope the new year – and decade – holds?

best of 2019: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up Wednesday, as per usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

The short best-of-the-best list:

Honorable mentions:

Note that these are overwhelmingly new releases, which bodes well for the publishing industry in general (and probably reflects my reading habits) (and credit to my lovely editor Dave who sends me such great books to review).

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link. It includes none of my choices but that’s okay – more to choose from! Bonus-bonus: their Best Children’s and Teen Books.

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back Wednesday to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2019.

From the Shelf: “Memoir: Commonalities in Differences”

This column ran on October 22, 2019 in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I love reading: stories, novels, poetry, magazine articles, listicles, all sorts of things. But the genre that strikes closest to my heart is memoir. I love finding commonalities among differences, noting the ways we’re all tied together.

In The Wild Boy (Atria, $16.99), Paolo Cognetti recounts the year, at age 30, in which he returned to the Italian Alps with a sense of yearning for something earlier, simpler, purer. In these circumstances and in its literary cast, Cognetti’s memoir recalls Phillip Connors’s transcendent Fire Season (Ecco, $14.99), about a summer spent working as fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors’s slim, moving book considers the history of fire management, family ties, solitude and so much more. That season became a career for Connors, and readers can follow his lovely, lyric writing, tender storytelling and heartbreak for the natural world in his sequel, A Song for the River (Cinco Puntos, $16.95).

Following numerous essays and novels (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, The Wake, Beast [all Graywolf, $16]), Paul Kingsnorth offers a vulnerable core of himself in Savage Gods (Two Dollar Radio, $14.99), a memoir in part of writer’s block and in part of the more general frustration, stagnation and despair brought about by years of fighting for the Earth and her nonhuman inhabitants. Only Kingsnorth could express anguish so beautifully–in the midst of a claimed inability to write.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press, $28) is a stunning, layered memoir, with photos, that reveals a passionate fascination with language as well as the story of two sisters, their devotion and devastation. It is a stylistic masterpiece, a narrative puzzle and an intelligent book to get lost in. In its elegiac consideration of family, it is cousin to fine work like Kelly Grey Carlisle’s We Are All Shipwrecks (Sourcebooks, $15.99) and Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye (Tin House, $15.95).

2018: A Year in Review

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


Happy New Year, friends! Last week you saw my best of the year post, and here we are today with another traditional annual post. (You can see my past years in review here: 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.)


In 2018, I read a mere 66 books (about on track with last year at 70). This feels like so few! compared to years in which I did more than twice that many. But school, man. It’s hard to do all that reading when I’m schooling as hard as I can too!

Here are the rest of the stats. Of the books I read this year:

  • 70% were nonfiction , 30% fiction. (Last year I read 76% nonfiction.)
  • 53% were written by female authors (50% last year); 41% were by men (40% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or “other.” I am pleased with this subtle shift.
  • I normally analyze the novels I read by genre, but that fiction category is getting slim enough that these numbers get a little less interesting. This year, more than half the fiction I read I categorized as “misc” (plus a handful of short story collections, historical fiction, and thrillers).
  • I listened to a single audiobook this year, and it was a reread. Last year, none. Audiobooks used to be such a big part of my reading life, but again, school. 2019 will be different, though! Especially with all the driving.
  • 49% of my reading this year was assigned for school, which, again, goes toward explaining everything else I see here. There’s a change, though, from last year when 70% of my reading was school! Hm. Progress?
  • I purchased 64% of the books I read, and was sent the rest for review (mostly by the Shelf). This is another change, since I used to take books out from the library and receive them as gifts. I’ve more recently been living in a place without great library service, though, and I have mostly nixed the book gifts! So kind, but so many books and so little time (and space)!

The two years of my MFA program, then, have been rather alike: a much smaller volume of reading than I was accustomed to, and unsurprisingly, largely driven by school. The coming year will be one of great change, though. I expect to be reading more; to be choosing what I get to read (!); and to be reviewing more for Shelf Awareness, for which I am eternally grateful. (For one thing, my new life on the road makes it quite a bit harder for them to get me the galleys I need, and I am so very pleased and humbled that they’re willing to work with me on this.) I expect to be listening to more audiobooks. In many ways, I don’t know what to expect, but I’m so looking forward to it.

Thanks for continuing this journey with me, friends and followers. Here’s to an amazing reading year to come.

What was 2018 like for you as readers? What do you hope the new year holds?

best of 2018: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.) None of these were audiobooks, but a few were new releases, so I’ve marked those with *.

These three books and one essay got a rating of 10.

And while I gave rather a lot of 9’s this year, I’ve chosen my favorites (from today’s perspective, at least) for you here, for a shorter list.

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link, and includes two that I had the good luck to review (Everything Under* and Convenience Store Woman*).

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2018.

%d bloggers like this: