2018 Reading List

I’m going to do my best to keep this post updated with all the books I read/finish in 2018! I’ve gotten to a slow start this year. It’s just so easy to get distracted, but I’m hoping this page will keep me accountable and increase my awareness of just how much available time I have to read! I’ll include whatever chapter books I read with my kiddos, too, but we read far too many picture books to keep track of here. I’m totally cool with their rooms always being at least a little bit messy because there are books all over the place. 🙂

What are you reading? Let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for new titles to add to my “to read” stack growing on my side of the bed.

Mother Of by Lauren Coffin

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (reread with my son)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (reread)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Haunted Mansion Mystery by Virginia Masterman-Smith – I read this as a kid and just finished reading it with my son ❤

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (reread with the kiddo)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

 

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An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

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An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

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I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.

Favorite Books: On Writing

If you know me, then, chances are, you’ve heard me make a Stephen King reference. I honestly love the man. While known for being horror royalty, there’s a depth and creativity in his writing that often gets overlooked. All of his stories have elements that are scary, but most of his work is not at all what I would classify as horror. Definitely weird, sometimes quite macabre, he’s the master of asking himself the question, “What if…?” and then taking his readers on the ride to find out.

Eight years ago, fresh off my first King novel, The Gunslinger, I found myself completely obsessed with finding out how in the world he came up with his ideas. Luckily, he wrote a book that answered my question and so many others I hadn’t yet realized I had about writing and the development of stories.

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This sounds dramatic, but reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was life-changing for me. This was before I had started writing again, before I took my first writing course, before I had written more than a few pages here and there of anything of substance at all. I was still firmly in a place where writing, though I loved it and ached for it, was so daunting that I didn’t even try. But every time I turned the page I felt a little more capable, the fire of passion burned a little brighter, the whole idea of writing for a living started to seem obtainable. It was exhilarating.

On Writing is the one and only book that I have ever read, and, upon completion, literally turned right back to the first page and started over immediately. It’s that good.

I’m sure some of you are like, “Really, Kelsey? A book about writing?”. YES! A book about writing. And let me tell you why. He tells his story from about three years old and onward and how life formed him into a writer. He explains how ideas and inspiration have happened for him, how two seemingly unrelated things can be pure story magic if you can see how they fit together. Only in the last third of the book does he cover any technical rules or tips for the mechanics of writing. The perfect amount to be helpful without feeling like reading a textbook. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves writing or appreciates the craft, anyone who loves reading, or anyone who is curious about the kooky guy who writes a shit ton of books that all seem to get made into movies.

Speaking of, if you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of his stuff, do yourself a favor and amend that. There couldn’t be a better example of books being better than the movies than almost the entire catalog of Stephen King films.

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I’m re-reading On Writing for the fifth time right now, and I’ve found that it’s become meaningful to me in a different way. When I first read it, my life was pretty chaotic. My marriage wasn’t doing very well, I was a new mom trying to figure out how that worked, I was preparing to move across the world from everyone I knew, and…, and…, and…etc. I was entirely overwhelmed by all of it. I felt like I was watching tiny, little bits of myself chip and fall off everywhere I went and the rest of me was starting to crack under the pressure. Something about reading this book when I did helped to ground me. Change was a hurricane, and I was still along for the ride, but rediscovering my love for writing kept me tethered to something real and something completely my own. When I was reminded that I had the capability to do something special with my talents, even if it seemed like a dream far off into the distance, I felt powerful again. Well, maybe not quite yet, but I remembered I could be powerful. And when you’re in the middle of an upheaval of that magnitude, just knowing something like strength exists within you is enough to get you through.

Because of this book, and the dozens of others I’ve read since, Stephen King will always be my writing spirit guide. When I find myself feeling wobbly or in serious doubt about my work, I look to him…and to the tattered pages of this book.

The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

Food, Gloriously Written Food!

Turkish delight, butterbeer, fried green tomatoes, lembas bread. Oh, the world of literary foodstuffs. I’m a sucker for a good book and a good meal, so when I stumble on some food so well written that I can’t help but pout about what I’m missing being stuck on the reality side of the page…my friends, that is heaven. I’m sure if you thought about it right now, you could easily reflect on some kind of snack or feast referred to in a book that made you salivate.

I didn’t have a clue what Turkish delight was until I was an adult (a rosewater flavored gummy sweet), but Edmond’s anticipation, and, let’s face it, his willingness to betray his siblings for another taste, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe had more than piqued my curiosity at this treasured tasty.

As an American, I had many a moment reading Harry Potter as a child where I wondered which foods served at Hogwarts were English traditions or Rowling’s own magical creations, but please bring on the pumpkin pasties and the butterbeer!

I’m sure I’m not alone in this particular sensation. Where the imagined becomes real. The words have triggered an incredible physical reaction that wakens longing, hunger. There should be a word for that particular feeling. If you know it, please share!

My best friend ensured that my first encounter with raw oysters included a glass of champagne because…well, Hemingway:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

 

It is no surprise to me that a common term for someone with a deep, unrelenting, desire to read is “voracious”, an adjective which means – wanting or devouring great quantities of food. Books and food are kindred spirits. They each nourish and feed the mind, body, soul. Good food, like a good book, inspires and satiates all at once. You are left feeling deeply satisfied and equally wanting more. You feel genuine sadness that it is over, but grateful for the experience…one that never really ends because now it’s part of you. That food will turn into energy for your body, and the memory of flavor will linger, subtly altering your tastes and desires for food in the future. That book and its words will sit in your skull until leaping forward to be remembered and questioned and needle its way back into your subconscious, evolving self.

I’ll keep it short and sweet today, this last day of the year, and leave you with a bit of sweetness. As a young girl, maybe eight or so, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved books. It was winter, and I had just finished the first volume, Little House in the Big Woods. When Texas got a rare treat of snow that stuck and a scant few inches blanketed our yard, I begged my mother to make Maple Syrup Snow Candy, just like Laura did in the book. I can still picture the small, plastic blue bowl that she helped me fill with the clean top layer of snow we delicately scooped up, not wanting to collect the dirt and grass hiding millimeters below. Mom warmed some syrup up on the stove, then helped me drizzle it in my precious bowl of snow. The magic and sheer delight I felt will live with me forever. Something from a cherished book had come to life before my eyes and I could almost smell the wood smoke from the stove in Grandmother Ingalls’ cabin.

If you’re lucky enough to have snow on the ground, here’s a recipe I found that you can try. She even has a few quotes from the book. 

Happy New Year, my friends. I hope it’s filled with delicious food and delightful books. ❤