Ten Books I Meant to Read in 2017 but Didn’t Get to (and Totallyyyy Plan to Get to in 2018!)

Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for the title and topic as part of their Top Ten Tuesdays!

As I’ve probably mentioned on this blog a few times already, time is at a premium in my life. I know, whose isn’t? But for real, I just don’t get a lot of time to read in an average day. Listening to audiobooks has helped with this a lot—I have at least an hour in my car a day when I can listen, and sometimes I can even get away with listening while I work—but still, in 2017, I just couldn’t manage to get to everything on my (lengthy) to-read list. Here are a few I didn’t read/listen to but totally plan to in 2018, in no particular order.

  1. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel. Dana Scully, the TV role for which Gillian Anderson will probably forever be best known, is my spirit animal: skeptical, stern, and takes no bullshit from anyone. And I went to a women’s college, so I’m definitely a feminist from way back. So how could I not want to read this book?
  2. Memoirs by Tennessee Williams. I have had a soft spot for Tennessee since my favorite English teacher/mentor in high school introduced me to his short stories, and I actually have two or three memoirs/bios of him on my to-read list. I actually started this one but just didn’t get to finish it yet. Bonus: a fantastic introduction by John Waters in which he says things like “Was Tennessee nuts when he wrote Memoirs, or just high?” As you read on, you see this is a legitimate question.
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Can you believe I made it through my seriously book-obsessed childhood without ever reading this one? Neither can I. Decided to give it a go now on Vicky’s recommendation.
  4. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. I was a latecomer to Becky’s awesome first book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but I finally read it and loved it. Looking forward to catching up with this one in 2018 and the Simon sequel due out in April, Leah on the Offbeat.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Everyone—everyone—loved this book, but I stayed away because (and I know this makes me a wuss) it seemed depressing, like “awful, terrible subject matter I can do nothing about and that makes me feel helpless” depressing. But Vicky says Angie Thomas is the next Toni Morrison, so now I’m in.
  6. From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Grohl. Yes, Dave Grohl’s mom. I like memoirs, and I like music, and I am a mom of a boy who wants to be a Skrillex/Deadmaus-style DJ when he grows up, so this one seems entertaining to me.
  7. Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner. I may be anti-NaNoWriMo, but a book of inspiration and motivation from its founder? That I can do. I need all the motivation and inspiration I can get, tbh.
  8. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. I generally give fiction written by actors the side eye, but come on, it’s Tom Hanks. You can’t side eye Tom Hanks. (Let’s just hope it’s not as painfully boring as fellow actor/my idol Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You.)
  9. Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay. Daphne du Maurier has been one of my favorite writers since I was assigned Rebecca for summer reading before my freshman year in high school, but I don’t know much about her life. Her own daughter said this is a good biography, so I’ll give it a try.
  10. Release by Patrick Ness. He got me with A Monster Calls. Also loved The Rest of Us Just Live Here. This one is supposedly inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever…—how could I possibly pass it up?

 

Goals for People Who Hate Making Goals (Namely, Me)

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 This quote pretty much sums up my relationship with goals of any sort—work-related, personal, deadlines, resolutions, all of it. I’ve never been good with them; I’ve always seen them more as loose guidelines that don’t necessarily have to be followed than hard-and-fast rules for how and when something needs to get done.

At least, that was how I was in my younger years. The older I get, the more respect I have for goals and deadlines. Not respect meaning I revere them, just that I understand why they’re sometimes necessary and can force myself to meet them when I have to. Which is more than I can say for my twentysomething did-forbearance-on-her-student-loans-six-times self. My current job, where I have daily and sometimes hourly deadlines, has done a lot to help me improve in this area. And in the coming year, I’ve decided, I’m going to try to let that bleed over into the rest of my life.

And that means…New Year’s resolutions. Not to go to the gym more (already working on that one from last year) or to spend less money (just to budget it better, thanks to You Need a Budget) but to do more things that I enjoy, because that’s what’s really missing from my life. And the two things I enjoy most are reading and writing, so I suppose it makes sense that the majority of my goals for 2018 relate to those two topics in some way.

First, for my reading goals. I tried to keep them simple but still ended up with quite a few. Common sense tells me I should cut some out, but what the hell. I’ve never been one for subtlety; if I’m going to do something, I’m going all in. So, they are:

Read/listen to four books per month. In 2017 I read forty-three (out of a goal of forty, go me!) books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge; this year I’ve upped it to forty-eight.

Read more new releases. Despite my recent declaration to the contrary, I think it’s time to at least try to start keeping up with the times.

Reread at least three favorite books. I already have a list of seven contenders, so we’ll see how this one goes.

Read all the unread books on my to-read shelves/in my Kindle library. This one is steep—there’s a lot of titles there—but I’ve already jumped in with a 495-page novel. Feeling ambitious.

Read more print books. The previous goal is going to help with this one.

Read more motivational books and actually do what they say! Not like cheesy self-help books, but books about positivity, mindfulness, and how to live a better life. I am a negative person by nature, and that’s gotta stop. (Short version of this goal: This year I will stop rolling my eyes at Brene Brown.)

And my writing goals. For most of my writing life—and it’s been a long one—I’ve written because I enjoy it, with the thought of publication only a “maybe someday” thing in the back of my mind. That changes this year. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s time to get serious about this craft I’ve been working on since I had braces. This year I will:

Finish a first draft of a book. I have a few ideas, some I’m working on, some not yet. I’m not sure which I’ll go with yet.

Get something published. A short story, a chapter of my memoir I’ve been working on, even a flash fiction piece. Something.

Try out a writing group. I know of a local one that meets weekly; I’ll try for once a month if it seems like a good fit. I just need to network. I need to know other writers.

Write more than once a week (which doesn’t even happen regularly now). I’m aiming for three times a week, hoping realistically for two.

Write in a journal every day. Inspired by Vicky’s recent post, I pulled out a new blank journal and started on it today—a week late, but hopefully I’ll keep up with it every day until December 31.

 That’s all I got. And it’s quite a bit, to be honest. I feel like I’m going from zero to sixty in about a second here, but it’s gotta happen. I’m going to make it happen. This is the year I start taking goals seriously, starting with reading and writing. Wish me luck!

 

Literary Karma (the good kind)

Two Great Memoirs

I’ve read a lot of books about cancer lately, and two of my favorites are When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour. Both memoirs were published after the authors died, both authors left spouses behind. Those widowed spouses? They just made public the fact that two years later, they are now in love. It is the sweetest story. Here’s the piece in the Washington Post.

365 Days of Memories

I’ve tried to keep a diary my whole life. I have boxes and boxes of notebooks in my closet to prove it, dating as far back as grade school. None of them more than a quarter full. I start out strong and then drop off quickly. Maybe ten or twelve entries. But not 2017. 2017 is the first time I’ve ever successfully started and kept a daily diary for an entire year. I’m so proud of it I could throw up.

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I knew last year was going to be different and that helped motivate me. My husband was diagnosed with cancer on December 31, 2016 — happy fucking new year — and we immediately braced ourselves for a year of intensive treatment. One of the most consistent pieces of advice I got was to write about what was happening. People recommended it as a way to communicate to loved ones who couldn’t be with us, to help me process everything that was going on, and to keep a record of what would likely be a dark and difficult time. I really wanted to, but for some reason I couldn’t get myself comfortable with it. I tried to start a dozen times, different platforms, different styles. How much information should I be sharing? Was it ok to sound as sad and pessimistic as I sometimes was, or did I have to pretend to be one of those endlessly optimistic cancer warriors? Did I have to write even when I felt terrible? I was too overwhelmed to figure it out. I might write about it all someday, but I couldn’t get it done this year.

I ended up with a paper solution, almost by default.

I had ordered a Moleskine daily planner (like this) at the beginning of December, before I had any inclination K was sick, in one of my overly optimistic, slightly manic One-Click moments (I would be mortified if anyone saw the length and variety of my Amazon order history), so it was already sitting on my desk ready when I thought that I might give the diary thing another shot. I started on January 1 and wrote an entry for almost every single day, right up to December 31. Because I wasn’t going to share it with anyone, I could be honest about how I was feeling and what was going on. There was no thinking required, I could just document my days.

Mostly I wrote brief notes about what was going on and how I felt about it. Sometimes it was just a laundry list of things about my day (“Hospital. Coffee. Brenda. Walked the dogs”). Sometimes I sketched, sometimes I painted, sometimes I printed out cheesy little photos on my inkjet printer. I wrote down a lot of quotes as I came across them, making it a little bit of an old-fashioned hand-written commonplace book.

Yesterday my 2018 planner arrived. Same format, different color. I hope this year is easier, and I hope I can keep up with the writing.

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Top Seven Books Elise Read (and/or Listened to) in 2017

Because ten reviews was just too damn long. 

As we already know, I don’t keep up with the latest books. Hence my reading list this year has been all over the map, a mishmash of older and newer titles in genres from memoirs to YA LGBT fantasy/sci fi (it’s a thing, and I love it). In fact memoirs were what I seemed to have read the most of, and that’s great because it was my goal for the year to start reading memoirs, a genre I never explored before. 

That said, here’s my list, in no particular order, accompanied by a quote I liked from each:

1. Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.  

It’s hard to explain how much that feeling of the bottom potentially falling out at any moment takes its toll. It makes you anxious, of course, and constant anxiety is impossible for the body to handle. So you develop a coping mechanism, and for us that meant shutting down. Everything we liked or wanted or felt joy in had to be hidden or suppressed. I’m sad to say that this method works. 

I’ve been a fan of Alan since seeing him in the ’90s in Cabaret on Broadway and have always admired his versatility as an actor. I have to admit the subject matter of his memoir—his abusive childhood—gave me pause, as it’s a difficult one for me personally. But the writing is so well done, so thoughtful, it even gave me new insights into my own life. And isn’t that what good memoirs are supposed to do?

2. In the Pleasure Groove by John Taylor.  

So I had been working on a new concept of God, with the intention of creating something that I would feel comfortable praying to, conversing with, trusting. Which had seemed heretical to the old Catholic in me, but the truth was, the old ideas had only been able to get me so far…. I chose to turn to a higher power that was filled with the generosity of spirit and unconditional love that my parents always had for me and was as supportive as my family now were. As loving as my wife, and as goodhearted as my bandmates. This God was on my side, had my back, and wanted the best for me.  

Full disclosure: I have a tattoo of the cover of Rio on my arm. So just know that I went into this one with a bit of a bias.  

If you were not as obsessed with Duran Duran in the ’80s as I was (okay, and as I continue to be to this day), John Taylor is the band’s bass player, and this is the story of his life. And while this might sound pretty yawn-worthy to someone who isn’t a fan, it honestly is just a good solid memoir. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s got ups and downs and the obligatory addiction and recovery yet maintains an overall optimistic tone throughout. Mostly I was pleased to hear that he and his bandmates seem to be nice people.  

PS, if you are a fan, listen to the audiobook. Hearing John talk for almost eight hours straight is swoon-worthy.  

3. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. 

As a mother, this was the most difficult prayer I had ever spoken in the silence of my thoughts, but in that instant I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not my son’s safety, but for his death. 

Sue Klebold comes across as an intelligent, strong, and caring woman – none of which she really gets credit for as the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters in the Columbine school massacre. As evidenced in many reviews of this book, she is often seen simply as a bad mother who is culpable for what her son did. This, we find out here, is not truly the case. The truth is a whole lot more complicated than that, and I applaud Sue for allowing us to peer into her life and see who she really is beyond the news coverage, to witness her own struggle to come to terms with what her son did while also grieving for his death and for the violent, sudden loss of the son she knew. 

4. Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak. 

The teller shapes the story. If you don’t tell it, the story shapes you. 

I listened to the audiobook of this one, and let me tell you: The story, the writing, the narration by Michael Crouch. A perfect trifecta of perfection. The main character’s coming-of-age story is beautiful, translatable from the microcosm of his life to the macrocosm of society and the culture he lives in. He faces his vulnerabilities without fear and works to accept the people in his life and himself as they and he are. He doesn’t know how strong he is until he’s really tested, and then he finds out he’s stronger than he ever knew possible (a trope I generally hate when it’s included in a book’s description, but it works so well here). 

5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. 

I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming or I’d have cleaned up a little more. My life, I mean, not just the apartment. 

This was a reread for me—the third or fourth, I believe; it’s one of my favorite books—but this time I listened to the audiobook, which did not disappoint. Excellent narration by Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole, and even with my familiarity with the story, I was still moved by Henry’s inevitable, unstoppable downward spiral and his and Clare’s inability to do anything about it. Tragic love story at its finest. I can guarantee this won’t be the last time I read or listen to it.  

6. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. 

It took me a long time, but I prefer victim to survivor now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred. 

One of the most honest memoirs I’ve read (well, listened to the audiobook of). There’s a level of candidness you don’t often see in memoirs, where the story generally revolves around the hardships the author has endured and how she overcame them. Instead this is an examination of one woman’s trials throughout her life and up through the present day; the ways in which trauma can shape a life; and the problematic ways our culture, our families and friends, and ourselves deal with those who are different or imperfect.   

7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 

“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?” 

Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.” 

Another reread, this one for the fourth or maybe fifth time. Another of my favorite books. Donna Tartt’s world building is extraordinary, as is her talent for taking extraordinary circumstances and making them completely believable. With anyone else, the kind of insane characters in this book might have fallen flat, but she makes them deep and real, even sympathetic despite the vile situation they’re in. This review is sort of vague, but I don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read it. If you haven’t, be sure to put it on your list for 2018. 

 

My 2018 Reading Goals

This time of year I am obsessed with goals. Personal, professional, you name it. It really brings out the Type A in my personality, not something I’m overly proud of, but it makes me more productive so I don’t try to curtail it. Dreaming up and writing out these goals satisfies an itch way down in my soul.

Since this is The Common Place, let me tell you about my reading goals.

  1. Read all of Sherman Alexie’s novels: This is atonement for refusing to read anything from him in the past. As I mentioned in my last post, I have a long-held dislike for Alexie and because of that I’ve never actually read anything by him. But his memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me was my favorite book of this entire year, so I am promising myself that I’ll read all four of his novels to make up for it.
  2. Read the entire Harry Potter series. Have you ever resisted something just because it’s so damn popular? That’s what happened to me with Harry Potter. I worked in books throughout the entire Harry Potter mania and if you didn’t, let me tell you that those midlight lines at bookstores were nothing compared to the Harry Potter war rooms we had at Amazon. Harry Potter was ALL we talked about for months at a time, practically 24/7. Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter. I am so pleased that it kicked off a love of reading for so many people, but I was sick to death of Harry Potter by the time each book came out and the last thing I wanted to do was read the damn thing. But it’s been 20 years since the first one came out now and I finally feel like I’ve missed out on something. It’s time.
  3. Do the readings for David Foster Wallace’s Literary Analysis Class. I’d love to take a great college-level literature class, especially one taught by a prodigy–but until the stars align to make that happen I’m going to try to DIY it. In 1994 David Foster Wallace taught a class on Literary Analysis using very popular mass market novels to show students how “to read fiction more deeply” and I’m going to read my way through the syllabus. There are eight novels, including Lonesome Dove, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere.
  4. Read books by people I disagree with. These are strange times in America and lately I’ve become more and more aware of how biased the information we consume is. This year I made myself read Fox News every time I read the New York Times and I feel like it helped me understand why there’s such a divide on what we believe — the information we get is vastly different depending on where you go to get it. Next year I’m also going to force myself to read books written by people who think differently than I do and hope that I can learn even more from that.
  5. Read 75 books: I don’t think anything has increased the number of books I read more than simply signing up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The simple fact that I have to set a number goal inspires me to keep pushing ahead on my TBR pile, especially when I start to go through periods where I’m not finding anything I love. My reading goal for 2017 was 75 books and I hope to make it, but it will be by the skin of my teeth. I need to crank through six more books in the next 17 days. I considered ratcheting down my goals for next year but I like having it be a little bit of a stretch so I will keep it at 75 for 2018.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh…… It’s so satisfying to have some nice, interesting, and aggressive goals laid out in front of me. Next I want to think about some goals for writing. More on that soon.