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.

Vic’s 2017 Top Ten Books

Dah, dah, dah, dah!! Here is it, my annual list of the top ten best books I read this year. Not all of these were published in 2017, but they all made my year a little brighter.

As I look it over there are two takeaways for me. First, I was surprised I liked a fair number of these because they aren’t genres or descriptions I would normally gravitate to. This is a good push to more-than-occasionally dip my toe outside of my reading comfort zone. And second, if you asked me whether I preferred fiction to non-fiction, ten times out of ten I would say fiction. But my top ten list this year does not support that: it is dominated by non-fiction. Eight are true stories, five of those are memoir. I guess I can drop my perpetual goal to try to read more nonfiction. It seems to have finally worked.

Without further ado:

  1. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie:No one is more surprised than I am that this is on my best of list; I have a long-held dislike for Seattle’s favorite author. I find him smug and condescending and have, to my detriment, avoided reading him because of this. But my book club forced me to read this gorgeous memoir earlier in the year and I was literally stopped in my tracks by the beauty of Alexie’s elegy for his mother and by the way he just laid open his heart, imperfections and all. It is a beautiful book on grief and difficult relationships. I’m going to read the rest of Alexie’s back catalog next year.
  2. Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas: I found a small hardcover of this book in my library, took it home, and devoured it in one sitting. Then I read it again. And then I obsessed about stealing it from the library, partially because some reader before me had dog-eared pages and underlined great quotes — magically the same ones I would have if it’d been my own copy– and partially because it’s now sadly out of print. Thankfully someone thoughtful tracked one down (thanks, Brooke!) and gifted me a copy so the original one made it back to the library system. It’s so good. It reads like it was intended to be a how-to book for older people who want to write their memoirs (it’s published by the AARP) but, like all Thomas books, it is charming and sweet and much more than a writing manual.
  3. Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel: The story of Chris Knight and the 27 years he spent living alone in the Maine woods is sad and beautiful and complicated, as is the story of Michael Finkel, the journalist trying to track him down and tell his story. This book is fascinating and well-written and it belongs on a very exclusive list of the best nature books ever written, right next to Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and Walden.
  4. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear: A memoir of an ordinary year, one that finds the author preparing for the death of her father, managing her anxiety disorder, and learning about bird watching. This is a book meant to be read slowly, I think, and savored in bits and pieces. The writing is spectacularly beautiful and quotes from the pages fill my commonplace book. “Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.” “Every love story is a potential grief story.”
  5. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is my favorite kind of novel — a multi-generational family drama that pulls you into the details of a world you previously knew nothing about. The story takes place in Korea over four generations, starting in the early 1900s and served as a great introduction to Korean (and Japanese) history. It’s about the unpredictability of life and the quiet strength of women and how, even after terrible things happen, life always goes on.
  6. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: There’s nothing about the description of this book that would have led me to believe I’d like it. It’s an alternative history, where the Civil War never happened and in present-day America slavery is still legal in four Southern states. The story centers on a black man, Victor, who works for the government as a bounty hunter, and while the plot moves forward quickly, we also get a glimpse into how Victor arrived in this place. It’s shocking and brutal and makes for a great book club discussion.
  7. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang: I’d seen an episode of the truly terrible ABC sitcom based on this memoir and had no desire to read the book until I started obsessively watching Vice’s Huang’s World. I’m so glad I finally did read it — this is a fresh and really smart look at the modern immigrant story. It’s funny and touching and taught me about Taiwanese and Chinese culture–not to mention American hip hop, streetwear, and by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship.
  8. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: I wish that this book had been there two or three years ago when I was really struggling with a career change, but even so it’s an invaluable resource and I’m sure to go back to it next time I need to assess what I’m doing with my life. This also made me desperately want to attend Stanford’s
  9. Hunger by Roxane Gay: This book took longer for me to finish than any book in recent memory. It was beautiful, but filled with so much pain and a couple of scenes so intense I had to walk away and come back once I’d caught my breath. There are no epiphanies or easy resolutions to Gay’s story here; just an honest account of a complicated struggle that she’s faced for years and continues to chip away at one day at a time.
  10. How to be Champion by Sarah Millican: Right now go watch the YouTube clip where Sarah Millican, Vince Vaughn, and PDiddy are on the Graham Norton show. It is an awkward and hilarious few minutes where Millican shares a very personal story about farting. This is in a capsule Millican’s comedic genius. She is brutally honest, doesn’t care about looking good, and is brave in a way that warms the cockles of my feminist heart (ok maybe that last one doesn’t come through in the clip but it definitely does in the book). I listened to this on audio, mostly on a long plane ride, and I laughed out loud like a maniac for many hours. It’s good, and she’s a new favorite.