Reading – My Year in Review

I can’t believe it’s already time for end-of-year reviews! 2013 was the fastest year of my life to date – when I was paying bills last weekend I told Ian I had just become used to writing 2013 in the dateline. I’m looking forward to 2014 mightily, however – with it comes the birth of our baby boy and the completion of our family. As his birthday draws closer I am growing more and more eager to meet him, so bring on the end of year bloggage!

This year I felt like I was ALWAYS engrossed in a great book, so I was surprised to find, looking back, that I’ve only read nineteen books this year – my lowest by far since I started blogging and, I imagine, my lowest probably in my lifetime. It’s a good thing I’m not solely a book blogger! The year began with Justin Cronin’s trilogy and hours of time on the couch in January as Ian, Grace and I all convalesced from bad winter colds, and I’m ending it fully immersed in Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto, although it’s probable I’ll finish it and move on to something else prior to the start of 2014. At any rate, here is my 2013 Year in Reading Review:

Book That Kept me up Far too Late At Night – The Passage, Justin Cronin
I’ve been glad to see Justin Cronin remain fairly silent on twitter – I hope that means he’s writing away, completing the final novel in his post-Apocalypse, vampiresque trilogy. I read the first two books at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and am now eagerly awaiting the conclusion. While his vampire-like creations that have taken over most of humanity are the stuff of nightmares, the underlying heart of Cronin’s books carries them forward, and the characters he has created stay with the reader. I’m so anxious to find out what happens to Amy and Peter and Sarah, and all the rest. I imagine a quick skimming of the first two books will be necessary in order to prep for the final read!

Novel that Made Me Realize How Little I Know – Book of the People, Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks continues to amaze me with her ability to combine historical research with a powerful, fictional narrative. I was constantly making notes about subjects I need to learn more about as I read, including Judaism and the Bosnian War (which I thought I was fairly well-versed in until I read this book!). The narrative structure was perhaps a little pat (a criticism I’ve read in other places) but I didn’t care because each story that combined to create the larger narrative was so exquisitely written.

Books That Left Me Wanting More – The Girl Who…Stieg Larsson

I read the final two books in this trilogy earlier this year and found myself so disappointed that they concluded the way they did. Well, not actually sad at the actual ending, but I could have easily followed these characters for another book or two, at least. I want to know what happens with Erika Berger and Mikael and Lisbeth. I suppose their stories could have gone on ad infinitum, and I think it’s really sad Mr.Larsson died so prematurely, never able to enjoy becoming a successful novelist as well as journalist!

Best Book for Better Understanding Obsession – Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling

Unlike Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which was a veritable hit among so many of my friends and family, Kaling’s book was hit or miss. I, however, loved it, and while at first I thought maybe it was because she and I are closer in age than Tina Fey and I are, in actuality I think I enjoyed it so much because of the way it delves into her obsession with comedy from the time she was a young girl. I think I can say I’ve been truly obsessed by two things in my life – theater and writing – but my level of obsession never reached the level of Kaling’s with comedy. The way she began examining how comedy works, from a young age, and followed that obsession through years at Dartmouth and then New York City, is really incredible. She always, always managed to follow what she thought was funny and that obsession has turned into a brilliant career. I’m absolutely in love with her television program “The Mindy Project” which I’ll write about in my next post.

Biggest Surprise of the Year – Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

I have Andi from Estella’s Revenge entirely to thank for discovering this series (although I have yet to get my hands on the second in the trilogy!)- I never would have picked up this time-traveling adventure that BEGINS immediately after WWII and then goes BACK in time if it weren’t for her, but I have to admit this is one of the greatest love and adventure stories I have ever read. I don’t really know how to talk about this book without giving away key details, but if you like historical fiction and/or time travel I think I can guarantee you will love this book. I intend to read the next one very soon

Oh Wait I Take it Back – THIS Might Have Been the Biggest Surprise of the Year – The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
My brother gave me both this book and Freedom during my last pregnancy. He was worried I was “losing my smarts” – as it turns out, if you fall down the morass that is Teen Mom 2 on MTV, nobody cuts you any slack, pregnant or not. I can’t explain why it took me so long to start it but once I did I was blown away by this portrait of the Lambert family. I found this novel terribly funny in spots – heartbreaking in others – but most of all I fell into the lives of Franzen’s characters utterly and completely. Essentially one overriding question drives the entire narrative – will all of the Lambert children make it home for “one last Christmas”? But within that narrative, so much is contained – I am greatly looking forward to reading Freedomin the new year.

Best First Novel – The Dog Stars, Jonathan Heller
I think this novel is a wonderful example of what more first novels should strive to be – thematic, straight-forward story, beautifully written…about halfway in I wanted to quit the book, not because it wasn’t gorgeous or suspenseful, but because of a very specific thing that happens…but it HAD to happen for the narrative to move forward and I quickly came to peace with it. In many ways, I dread a post-Apocalyptic world like the one Heller creates more than I dread the kind Cronin creates, simply because the idea of humanity turning so drastically on one another almost doesn’t feel realistic to me – or maybe it just scares me, who knows – but ultimately this book is a powerful story about what keeps us living against all reason, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a great way to start their reading off in 2014.

As I noted, I read several other books and magazine articles over the course of the year, but these are the books that really stood out to me in 2013. I’ve long since ceased making any sort of reading resolutions since I rarely am able to keep them – I am looking forward to the quietude of January and the time it allows for reading, and I hope after the first several months with my son I’ll hit my reading stride again! I also should have thought to include some of the most successful books G and I have read together over the last year – if I can find time before the year is out I’ll make a top-ten toddler book as well! (Upon re-reading this, it has become terribly clear why I don’t do a ton of book blogging – I basically use the word “love” and an exclamation point and that’s about it. Literary criticism has never been my juggernaut.)

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An Open Letter To My Family, in Advance of Christmas

all the easier to write since my family doesn’t read this blog

Dear Family –
Early last week, prior to Thanksgiving but not terribly so, I was listening to the radio as I made a last-minute run to the grocery store for cranberries and cinnamon, and The Little Drummer Boy came on. Now, I know this song is reviled the world over, but I happen to love it for its solemnity, humility and story. A sense of calm came over me and I remembered that yes, of course. It’s time to prepare our hearts for the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

Let’s face it – the holidays can be enormously difficult, emotionally-speaking. We all bring our own baggage to Christmas and, in the case of our family, we don’t see each other very often and so emotions are further heightened because of the distances traveled to see one another. This has resulted, in years past, in some highly combustible situations on all sides that have made many of us Christmas-wary and reluctant to see one another. Since Ian and I are hosting this year, and have hosted for the last several, I thought a few ground rules might help us release some of our issues and embrace the love, instead.

(1.) To both of our mothers: Yes, I know about the loss of cattle in a freak snow storm in one of the Dakotas but I can still afford the price of prime rib for Christmas dinner. Yes, really. No, seriously, I promise. I have a second child on the way for God’s sake – I wouldn’t buy beef if I thought it was going to us in the poor house – I’d whip up a lasagna so fast it would make your head spin. So really, it’s okay. And yes, I realize it might be the last beef any of us eat, ever. Grocery prices these days…

(2.) Which, yes, dad. I realize grocery prices these days are at least in some way related to the clearing of too many forests for ethanol production, or something like that, and while I can’t precisely remember whether or not said ethanol production was supposed to be a positive thing for the environment or not, maybe we should just stay away from this conversation at the dinner table. Heck, for this Christmas, maybe we should avoid topics like whether we really need to see another Clinton in the White House, the haplessness of the Republican House of Representatives, and, I don’t know, gay marriage and abortion altogether. Just at dinner time. Deal?

(3.) On Christmas Eve, the daughter of the house and I will be going to church. Our going to church is not a reflection of what we think of you for NOT going to church – I realize there is a new Hobbit movie out and last minute presents to wrap, and etcetera. See, we generally go to church so Christmas Eve? Sort of a big deal, for us. There is absolutely no need to hem and haw and worry about whether or not you should attend with us – we aren’t judging. And for those of you who we know will definitely be coming with us? Our cathedral is HUGE – we don’t need to arrive an hour in advance for a seat. I promise.)

(4.)These things WILL happen, so we might as well accept them as fait accompli and move on: I WILL cry during Silent Night during Christmas Eve service – this is not a bad thing. My dad WILL get emotional recalling the Christmases he spent in Vietnam – not only is this not a thing, it’s one of the healthier things he does all year. Someone WILL drink too much – one person always, always does. Instead of crying intervention, let’s just chalk it up to exhaustion from travel and/or heightened emotion, and put him or her to bed with love.

(5.) No, I’m not getting rid of alcohol because of the above. Are you completely out of your mind?

(6.) Ian and I are the only children on both sides of the family to have children – our sisters and brothers have chosen to pursue entirely different kinds of lives. We are fully supportive of this because, please, having children is NOT for everyone – I say this with love and earnestness and as someone in the midst of potty-training a toddler who ended up with poop on her face last night and a toddler laughing hysterically at the fact. kids. not for everyone. This situation, however, has created a sort of weird family dynamic wherein G is sort of expected to fulfill the role of sole perfect grandchild at everyone else’s convenience, without significant change on the habits of those around her. Look, I’m not blaming anyone here – but Ian and I have observed far too many high expectations set for her without any real concessions made to the fact that she is a child, a YOUNG child, so the next few items shall be about her – here we go:

(7.) If you want to witness the best your grandchild/niece has to offer, you have to wake up sort of early in the morning – no later than 8:00 or so. Do not come down for breakfast around 11:30 – immediately prior to her lunch and nap time – and expect to be blown away by her sparkling personality and general wit.

(8.) Christmas breakfast will be at 8:30 – present opening will commence immediately afterward. For those of you that have bemoaned this as much “too early,” please see above. Christmas dinner will be at 7, which is our dinnertime, and not at some odd hour like 4 in the afternoon, because, again, schedule + toddler.

(9.) Do you remember that Christmas we all spent in New Orleans, eating and drinking our way through the city? I do too – it was absolutely fantastic and I can’t wait to do it again someday. For now, though, we are more about stockings and Santa and snow and magic so let’s keep the shot-taking in the kitchen. For the younger set – I get it. I wanted to party over the vacation when I was your age as well. You are welcome to do so in our home if you can keep it to the dullest of roars – otherwise, Pittsburgh offers a dazzling array of affordable bars you could relocate to – cab information is on our fridge. Oh, how I miss/don’t miss my twenties!

(10.) Foodies of the family – it is five weeks before I am due to deliver this little boy. I relinquish my kitchen to you without argument. Stir and fret and compete to your hearts’ content – just don’t mess with my grandmother’s tomato pudding recipe or the prime rib. Go forth and be fabulous!

(11.) Our families are flawed, but also full of love. Christmas gives us the opportunity to open our hearts, not only for the miracle of the birth of Jesus, but to love each other better than we have in the past. Let’s concentrate on the love, instead of on our flaws. And, once again, yes, I can afford the price of beef. For now.