Tag Archives: Best American Essays

2014 Q1 Reading Report

Now that the first quarter of the reading year is firmly over, it’s time for a Quarterly Reading Report. This year, the reports will also serve as an index for the Re-Reading Project posts from the previous quarter. The Re-Reading Project is adding an extra dimension to my reading this year, as I am re-reading selected books from my childhood and early teen years. But it’s also making me want to re-read many more books (I’ve been hankering to re-read the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, which I only read last year). It’s making me think about the books I’m reading for the first time in a new way. And it’s making me want to catch up with series and authors I might have taken a break on lately. I’m not done reading memoirs and nonfiction by any means, but fiction is calling my name in a big way. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the year brings in terms of reading surprises and epiphanies.

January

The Boxcar Children, Gertrude Chandler Warner – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Bones, Cassandra Clare – This is another example of me seeing a movie and being intrigued by the source material. This time, I was intrigued because the movie was so spectacularly bad. It shouldn’t have been that bad, since it had good actors and decent visual effects. Without reading the books, I could feel that the story was off. It didn’t make any sense, the characters were inconsistent and the story logic betrayed itself several times. Once I read City of Bones, I was blown away by how much better the book was than its film adaptation (to be fair, this is particularly difficult book to adapt to film, partly because of subject material and partly because of length). I quickly got over my initial reason for reading (the intrigue about what went wrong with the film) and was completely hooked on the Mortal Instruments series. These books feel Biblical, like Shakespeare and all of the towering giants of canonical literature, but totally modern and relevant, juicy and funny.

Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sixth Grade Secrets, Louis Sachar – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Ashes, Cassandra Clare – About two chapters into City of Ashes, I requested the next two books in the series from the library. I could just tell that it was going to be one of those experiences where I wouldn’t be content with having just plowed through a massive 500+ page book. I was going to still want more. I was going to want to know what happened next, need to know, as quickly as possible.

Snot Stew, Bill Wallace – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Matilda, Roald Dahl – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Glass, Cassandra Clare – Just to torture me, the fourth book arrived at the library before the third one did, but the third one arrived right on time anyway, right as I was returning the second book. And here’s where I have to make a confession. I could’ve read a few more children’s books for the first month of The Re-Reading Project (I considered Harriet the Spy and The Secret Garden, among others), but between packing for my move and wanting to dive into this book, it just wasn’t going to happen. Plus, I felt like I’d covered enough ground with the eight books I read to justify getting absorbed in this book.

The 2013 Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed – As I did with the 2012 Best American Essays, I read one essay per day, every day (except for one day I missed), usually first thing in the morning. Even if I wanted to read more, I forced myself to read just one, so that I could think about it throughout the day. After I finished 2012, I couldn’t wait for 2013 and now that I’ve finished 2013, I feel the same way. I’ve collected 2011 and 2003 and I’ll probably do the same with them while I await 2014 later this year.

Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Some Nerve, Patty Chang Anker – This book came up in about a dozen conversations and magazines around the same time and it seemed like precisely the kind of book I needed to be reading as research for my memoir. I’ve gotten pretty good at listening to that “this is a book for you, now” voice. It’s a conversational book, based on experiences Anker wrote about on her blog, but for all the ease with which I sunk into the book, it was also one that challenged me, taught me a lot about voice and being honest.

Alice in Charge, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – I mentioned Alice in one of my re-reading posts and it made me go check to see how long it had been since I’d caught up with Alice, especially since I’d read recently that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor had published the last Alice book.  It was 2009, but I only had four books to catch up on, including the last one. So I checked them out from the library and dug in. Alice is such a strange mix between naïve and mature, a tiny bit sanctimonious but always well-intentioned. I think this is why readers have responded to her for so long, why I feel compelled to finish the series.

February

Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher, Wendelin van Draanen – Ditto with Sammy Keyes. I’d last read one of these titles in 2009 as well, around the same time as my last Alice book, and I also recently mentioned her in a re-reading post. One thing I really enjoyed about this book was seeing Sammy’s relationships change as she’s gotten older. Watching plucky, tomboyish Sammy with a boyfriend is really cool, because while she is growing up, the relationship isn’t changing her essential nature. She’s a younger, way less proper Nancy Drew, mixed with a bit of Harriet the Spy.

Incredibly Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – It was really interesting to read this book now, since the series is set in a suburb of DC and I knew I was visiting DC soon. In fact, I’m returning from my trip as I write this. The whole time I was visiting, I would occasionally think, “This is Alice’s stomping grounds. That could be her and her girlfriends over there walking down the street.” This was the first time I connected with Alice in quite that way, as a girl I might meet walking down the street, since I was already mostly grown by the time I started reading the books and didn’t grow up anywhere near DC.

Sammy Keyes and the Night of the Skulls, Wendelin van Draanen –This book dealt with the Day of the Dead and Sammy spends a significant amount of time in the cemetery, where both hijinks and healing occur. It makes me wonder if Sammy’s grandmother is going to survive many more books. Not that she’s sick or anything, but if she did die, it would completely destabilize Sammy’s existence. In this book, Sammy’s friendship with Marissa was further tested, as well as her relationship with Casey. It’s cool to see Sammy staying true to herself no matter what else changes.

City of Fallen Angels, Cassandra Clare – So… how to say this without spoiling anything? Something big went down in the last book that made me wonder how there was going to be another book in the series, let alone two more (I only knew there were five, the sixth book is published at the end of May). So I was intrigued to read this book, see how the story would continue after evil was pretty well vanquished in the last book (there’s a slight spoiler for you). I’m always impressed with series authors who can build a full and satisfying narrative arc in each book and find creative paths for the ongoing story.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh – While this book seems (on the surface) nothing like graphic novels like Maus and Allison Bechdel’s memoirs, I’d say that it’s not that far apart. The art is pretty basic and deceptively shallow, would be easy to dismiss except Brosh is a genius at pairing this simple art with universal themes and the perfect words and expression. In what seems like silly, funny comics (and are, on one level), Brosh tackles the curse of creativity, as well as mental health and depression. I enjoyed the webcomics and while I found the book very funny, I also found it a pretty painful read as well.

Dragon Sword & Wind Child, Noriko Ogiwara and translated by Cathy Hirano – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn DomingueReview in 225 Magazine.

March

The Priority List, David Menasche – I saw David Menasche speak at Words & Music last year and while the subject matter of his book (going on a road trip to visit his former students while dealing with the side effects and symptoms of a terminal brain tumor) is pretty grim, he was full of life and good humor. I doubt many people left the room without a desire to read this book. It’s a quick read, sometimes almost too light, considering the subject matter. I admire the instinct to be positive and inspire rather than dwell in negativity, and the book is very powerful.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Bookstore, Deborah Meyler – I saw this book while working at the bookstore, ironically enough, and liked the idea of a Cheers-like indie bookstore being the center of this book. At first, I thought it might be too silly to hold my interest, but that was mostly me judging a book by its cover. I was quickly absorbed and read this book so quickly, invested so much in the characters, that I was disappointed when it was over. I could have read another 100 pages, easily.

The Show Must Go On! and The Greatest Show on Earth, Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise – I got an ARC of the second book in this series from the bookstore, so I checked out the first one from the library and read them both in an afternoon. I’m always interested to see how the circus is depicted in popular culture, especially for kids. It was Hilary Knight’s The Circus is Coming!, a picture book, that probably first sparked my own lifelong fascination with the circus. These are charming books, preposterous and goofy, and perfect for kids. They’re  written and illustrated by a pair of sister, which I love too, because Aimee and I always said we’d write and illustrate books together.

Alice on Board, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – During the summer after they graduate high school, Alice and her gang of girlfriends all work on a cruise ship together. She’s still apart from Patrick, stressed out by the distance in their relationship and worried about their future, but having fun and adventures on the cruise ship. Sometimes, I really want Alice to be more assertive that that she’s older, but then I have to remind myself that just like any friend I have high expectations for, I have to let Alice just be herself. It’s not fair to expect her to be anything else.

Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack, Wendelin van Draanen – This book reminded me a little of the Kick Ass movies (I’d just watched the second one), because Sammy is confronted by an adult man trying to be a superhero, who is both inspired by her sleuthing and hoping to make her his sidekick. Sammy’s struggles, with other people and with her own conscience, feel very real to me and I think that’s something I really like about the books. Best of all, it’s amazing to see how far she’s come since the first book, when no one knew her secret living situation and she didn’t trust anybody. She’s brought together a community, a network of support for herself. Which really builds on my suspicion that her grandmother might die soon, or go into the hospital for a while. Something is going to happen that will force Sammy to count on the community around her. She’s resourceful, but the most amazing part of the books is when she lets others help her.

So that was my first quarter in reading for 2014. The second quarter is already pretty strong and I can’t wait to share the report with you. But first, I have to read all the books I’ll be reporting on, which is the best part of all.

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2013 Q3 Reading Report

As I mentioned in my Q2 Reading Report, I moved during the summer, which meant that not only was I late posting that Report, but I didn’t do as much reading. In fact, I gave away and sold about half of my book collection, amassed over a long period of time as a Graduate Student Teaching Assistant (free textbooks!), a bookseller at Barnes & Noble (discounted books!), a reviewer (free review copies!) and most recently, a volunteer for the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library book sales (free or cheap books!). I’ve gone through different phases, collecting lots of titles as “research” for projects I was working on (Y/A, fairy tales, novels about music/musicians, books about the circus). Some of these titles had to be culled. I still have more than 1,000 books, so don’t be too alarmed.

Since the move, I’m reading more mindfully than ever, mostly memoirs. I’ve eliminated almost all other books from my reading diet at the moment. But most of what I’m reading is rich and powerful.

July

Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl – I saw the movie, really liked it and was curious about the book. It’s a pretty fat book, so because of the move, this one book was most of my July. I was lucky if I could read a chapter each evening before falling asleep, after a hard day of moving my remaining books to the new place. I enjoyed reading it, especially gauging why the filmmakers changed what they changed, which is always a fascination of mine. In some ways, I think the film is better, but in others, the book was richer and more complex.

Confessions of a First Daughter, Cassidy Calloway – While culling books, I decided that I’d like to read this one quickly before I gave it away. It was a sweet, cute book, a quick read. Reminded me a lot of the period of my life when I loved the movies First Daughter and The Prince and Me. It’s probably not an accident that in all the tumult of the move, I turned to comforting and engrossing Y/A novels.

Seventh Grade Tango, Elizabeth Levy – I saw this one at the FONOPL book sales and was so curious about how tango would be presented for middle readers. I was pretty impressed and touched by this book. The characters reminded me a bit of Alice and Patrick in the books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (I just saw that the *last* Alice book was published a few days ago! It’s a 500 page book about Alice between the ages of 18-60! How weird is that?).

August

Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas – This is an anonymous memoir about a sociopath’s life and psychology, from the founder of www.sociopathworld.com. I was curious about anonymous memoirs and about a memoir that deals with a subject that is controversial, that people so easily judge. While this relatively slim book was highly repetitive and it often felt meandering, I did find it illuminating and fascinating. Sometimes, it felt like I was being conned as I read it, but I also found myself sympathizing quite a lot. When a phrase like “(s)he’s a sociopath/psychopath” is used in popular culture, it’s to describe someone violent, dangerous, or evil. This book has convinced me that that’s not always the case, that sociopathy is simply on the spectrum of personality types, that within the world of people with sociopathy, there is again a spectrum from the socially-functional to the violent. It’s another book that’s come up a lot in conversation.

The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne – I put this one on my to-read list earlier this year and requested it from the library. Then, I had the opportunity to interview Josh for a piece I wrote for 225 about the Louisiana Book Festival. Just when I was almost finished reading the book, I was invited to interview Josh at the Festival (in about two weeks!). So, I’ve had quite a journey with this book over the past few months. Like with Poser from Q2’s Report, the subtitle says it all: “A memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.” Whoo boy. Yes, he talks about all of that and knits it together to flesh out a very real, complex person who just happens to be himself. Whenever I think my memoir has too much going on in it, I’ll just have to re-read this book to figure out how to make it all make sense. Looking forward to our talk in the State Capitol building Nov. 2nd.

The 2012 Best American Essays, Ed. David Brooks – Reading this was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in a while. I read one essay each day, over 24 days, both forcing myself to read an essay on occasion and only allowing myself to read one sometimes. This gave me the space of an entire day to think about the essay I’d read and I found essays cropping up in conversations constantly. There were only one or two essays out of the 24 that I didn’t absolutely adore and even then, I was glad I’d read them. I discovered several books to add to my to-read list through this collection. When I was finished, I found myself going through withdrawal and desperate for the 2013 version, which is edited by my literary godmother (in my mind at least), Cheryl Strayed. Hurray!

Whip Smart, Melissa Febos – This was another book I read because I wanted to see how memoirists tackled hard or controversial topics. Jamey recommended this story about Febos’s years as a dominatrix and loaned me her signed copy, which I devoured. The bar for fierceness, for honesty and for bravery was raised so high here and whenever I’m scared to say something in my work, to really say it, I might have to open up this book again and read a few passages. Any passages will do.

September

This is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith – I really liked The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which I read last quarter, so I requested this book about a “normal girl” and a child star who fall in love. What I like about her books so far is that they start out with a gimmick (or “hook” as they say in Hollywood, since these are both so cinematic), then ranscend the gimmick by being so clever and cute. Essentially, a light-hearted, escapist Y/A book that I stayed up all night to finish before diving headlong into a loooong stretch of more memoirs.

Bootstrapper, Mardi Jo Link – The part of me that adored The Swiss Family Robinson and The Boxcar Children loved this book about a mother and her boys surviving and saving their farm. I love stories about hoarding for the winter, struggling and thriving against adversity.

Poser, Claire Dederer – While doing “book math” to work out the structure of this book, I ended up reading it all over again!

Smashed, Koren Zailckas – I saw the movie Smashed a few months ago and assumed it was based on this memoir. Turns out…not so much, though they do have alcohol issues in common. Once more, I was interested in reading a memoir that tackles difficult topics. In this case, girlhood drinking and alcoholism. Though I could relate to a lot of Zailckas’s experiences, I found her often very difficult to relate to. However, I can appreciate how influential this book was and continues to be on the topic of girls/women and alcohol abuse, binge drinking and the vulnerability of women under the influence. I’m interested to see that she’s written another memoir, Fury.

Turn Around Bright Eyes, Rob Sheffield – Turns out I bought Sheffield’s first book years ago in my “novels about music” phase, except it’s not a novel. It’s a memoir! And I’ve had it all this time. Turn Around Bright Eyes is his third memoir, and the first I’ve read. What amazes me is that there is some deep, dark stuff in this book (like depression, the death of his first wife and 9/11) and yet the book is mostly jovial and light-hearted. Which makes the deep, dark stuff somehow hit you harder, but also it helps you survive it as you read. No one writes about music like Sheffield. Also, I was tickled to discover he seems to share my weird obsession with Crossroads. Can’t wait to read the book I’ve had all along, Love is a Mixed Tape.

Losing My Faculties, Brendan Halpin – Put this one on my list to read after reading Halpin’s book with Emily Franklin, The Half-Life of Planets. Of course, it’s very different from that Y/A title, since it’s a memoir about a teacher’s experience surviving the bureaucracy and failures of the education system while trying not to fail his students. I was very impressed (and surprised) with what Halpin came out and said about schools and students and teachers. It’s horrifying to know from an inside perspective how likely our education is to fail so many, but the fact that there are teachers like Halpin out there, determined to teach, is hopeful. He’s written another memoir, It Takes a Worried Man, that I’m also interested to read, plus another Y/A novel with Emily Franklin!

Well, that’s it. Light in quantity, but certainly not light in quality or subject matter. As I suspected, the last month picked up. And I continue to read as much as possible. There are so many books I want to read!! And I have a mini reading project I want to do before the end of the year. Maybe in December, we’ll see how it goes. I hope you discovered some books you’d like to read here and I can’t wait to share Q4’s titles with you.

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