Reading is a huge part of my life. I often have to force myself to close a book so that I can do other important life things, like grocery shopping (which, incidentally, I am currently procrastinating on by writing this post).
I don't set reading goals at the beginning of the year; I just try to read as many books as possible. I don't use audiobooks or e-readers, though if I chose to use the former, I'd hopefully "read" many more books a year than I typically do.
At a market recently, a proud father told me his daughter reads 85 books a year. EIGHTY-FIVE. I asked if she ever slept. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. I don't think I'll ever reach that level, but I wish!
Books & Books & Books
Since it looks like I will write about books on this here blog pretty often, I figure some context will help you decide whether it'll be the right fit for you. First, a confession: I don't read poetry. It's a shame, I know, but when it comes to reading, I am attempting to replace entertainment previously gotten through movies or TV. In other words, I want to be entertained, and fiction tends to fit the bill more often than not.
In grad school, I consumed tons of nonfiction. (If I remembered everything I read, I'd be a much smarter person. But, alas.) It's a little surprising to me now to look at my bookshelves and see titles like Peter Elbow's Vernacular Eloquence or Aristotle's Poetics. I collected books from Michel Montaigne and Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. (Every male English major has had to come to terms with whether he'll read Infinite Jest, or whether he'll just say he's read it. I, for one, kept a copy on my shelf for years only to be totally annoyed when I opened the cover to see all those footnotes. I gave my copy away, which maybe means something "deep" that I'll never understand about myself.)
All that is to say: when it comes to entertainment, I turn to fiction. Big surprise. There's also room for narrative nonfiction, like Erik Larson, or autofiction, like Karl Ove Knausgaard. And we can narrow fiction down predominantly to realistic fiction (though I liked Dune so much, I read it twice--once before and once after the 2021 movie).
The Actual Point
I didn't mean for this to be such a meandering ramble through a subject as boring as GENRE. Good Lord, I am such an annoying English major! Initially, the goal was to list out some recent reads that might be worth picking up if you're looking for reading material to get you through the cold months ahead. Or to get you through next week, if you're like the girl who reads 85 books a year.
According to my notes (pushes glasses up bridge of nose), I've gotten through 25 books so far in 2023. I'll tell you about a few titles from October and November.
The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
I borrowed a copy of The Family Fang years ago, and every time I look at the book on my shelf, a pang of guilt runs through me. At this point, it's one of those things where you ask yourself: "Is it embarrassing to return the book when the person probably doesn't even remember I've had it since, what, 2017?" Then again...it's probably worth returning it. Because it's not mine. (That reminds me: I let a gal borrow a copy of Hamnet a couple years ago, and apparently I'll never see it again. Moral to the story: do NOT let someone borrow books...unless it's your mom maybe) ANYWAY. I pulled the book off my shelf in a fit of exasperation brought on by Nita Prose's book, The Maid--the only book I've read in recent memory that I'd describe as insufferable--and was pleasantly surprised at how weird and funny it was. The mom and dad are performance artists, and they basically decide that their children are a part of the art, not apart from it. The two kids, a brother and sister, are put into all these insane situations for the sake of "art," and, as adults, they are left a little...mentally scarred as a result. When your whole life is a performance, it's hard to know what's true. It's a book about coming to terms with (or not) what you're willing to give up to become a parent and how those choices affect your children. It's also about the bond between siblings, how relationships with your parents change into adulthood, finding autonomy outside of the family unit...etc. It's also hilarious and strange and very creative. Wilson uses a subplot, if you will, of The Family Fang in Nothing to See Here, which is about children who spontaneously combust but are immune to the disastrous effects this trait might have on "normal" people. I got a copy from the library and was pleasantly surprised that Wilson did not disappoint.
The Winners, by Fredrik Backman
Bored yet? No? Ok, let's move on to something more upbeat. Fredrik Backman is one of my favorites. He makes ordinary, daily life look anything but boring. He especially seems to understand how it feels to be a kid. I was skeptical of this book because I don't care about hockey, which the book's blurb mentions is a central subject. This is actually book three in Backman's Beartown series, and I haven't read the other two titles yet either. So, while at my favorite local bookstore deciding whether I should buy this, I read the first paragraph. I was hooked.
I should have known, after reading a half dozen other Backman books, that competing hockey teams--while a crucial plot point and what drives the narrative along--is actually the smallest concern in The Winners. It's, of course, more about the people who make up the teams in two small towns and how their decisions effect each other, for better or worse. Backman writes people incredibly well. His characters are believable and funny and quirky and annoying enough that I find it easy to connect with them as if they're real people.
Part of Backman's strength as a writer comes from his attention to detail. everything from a character's stance, to their breathing, to the way they sit or eat or drink their coffee--all those details create fascinating portraits of daily life, and he builds on those vignettes in short chapters that you find it's hard to pull yourself away from. It might be a matter of pacing, or expertly placed tension, or the fact that there is indeed a rivalry that serves as the undercurrent of the whole story that makes this book so easy to get swept away in. You know it's building up to something, but you're not sure what and you're not even sure you want to know, because even the "bad" guys are likable in some way (which again, makes it seem much more realistic)! I was taking this book everywhere with me so that I could read it. I got some weird stares in the sauna at the gym, but it was worth it.
That's all I have time for today, so I'll come back to Amy Tan on the next one. In the meantime, maybe I'll read some of her backlist. And I'm hoping to get Backman's other Beartown books for Christmas. Cross your fingers for me.