November Reading List: Dysfunctional Family Stories

November Cover

November is here! (Which is basically Christmas, right?) Time for family dinners and road trips and looking back on all the idyllic memories you’ve shared. Right. In my family, there have definitely been good times but we’ve also had our fair share of hilariously horrible times. Like the year my dad and I got into a giant fight at the Thanksgiving table about who would get to sit in the chair that had arms (I was an ADULT when this fight happened, you guys). Or how about the, um, creative insults my grandmother comes up with (I shave my forehead, apparently). And of course there’s always the one who brings up politics or makes a ridiculously inappropriate joke (um, that’s me. Every time). Every family has their kettle-callers and pot-stirrers. So this month, lets read about families that make ours look perfectly put together (and not, you know, how we normally are).

A book about families who don’t get along | The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor: This one has it all: custody battles, sordid histories, religious conflicts, and a fair amount of drinking problems. The novel centers on Francis Tarwater, who’d been raised by his uncle to be a religious prophet. When his uncle dies he goes to live with his cousin, Rayber, who tries to teach Tarwater how to be a logical, educated, not-superstitious member of civilization. Of course this doesn’t go well, and each character battles on with himself and everyone else from start to finish. The novel deals with questions of family, religion, community, and  destiny in a way that’s a little too close to home if you grew up in the South.

A book about families who REALLY don’t get along | August: Osage County, Tracy Letts: This is my favorite play. It centers around Beverly and Violet Weston’s family—their three daughters and Violet’s sister. Beverly has gone missing, and the family comes together under one roof in the aftermath of their father’s disappearance. But between sisters and daughters and mothers and husbands, it isn’t a peaceful house. Old tensions run high, new tensions run higher, and every twisted part of everyone’s life is brought to light. And everyone in this play has something twisted in them. But despite all the family’s darkness, there is a lot of humor in this play, too. It’s definitely worth seeing on the stage.

A book about trying to forget your family, and then remembering them instead | Wild, Cheryl Strayed: This is a book about what happens when you try to walk away from your family, literally. After the death of her mother, Cheryl’s life fell apart around her. In her attempt to make sense of it all and put grieving behind her, she took to the Pacific Crest Trail, with absolutely no experience hiking or being in the wilderness. It’s a travel narrative, a nature piece, and a memoir about self-discovery. It’s a family story, too, and Strayed honestly and simply details her relationship with her brother, ex-husband, and friends. It also is a beautiful examination of the mother-daughter relationship, in all its complicated, fraught, tender glory.

A book about finding family in unexpected places | It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini: This is a YA novel about anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and psychiatric wards. Ned is 15 when he attempts suicide, and his is thereafter admitted into a psychiatric hospital. He at first feels he doesn’t belong there, but eventually accepts and is accepted by the other patients in the hospital. From these other patients, he learns about himself and how to cope with his life in a healthier way. The novel is funny and quick to read, reminiscent a little of John Green and Rainbow Rowell. Some might find the novel’s end a little too happily-ever-after, but I’m okay with a novel about teen suicide ending well.

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October Reading List: Ghost Stories

October Reading List: 6 Ghost Stories for Halloween

October is the best month, shall we agree? The air turns cold, it’s finally breezy enough to open your windows at night; it’s the best time of year to snuggle up under a blanket and a bunch of cats to read and sip bourbon-y cocktails. Even better if your book is just a little bit creepy. This October, I’m all about the ghost stories. Here’s 3 I’ve read and recommend to you, and 3 new-to-me titles I’m going to read this month (with said blanket, cats, and bourbon-y cocktail).

What I’m Recommending:

October Reading List Individual Covers

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson: If you have not read this book yet, stop whatever you’re reading right now and read this instead. I finished this book in a weekend and had a hard time wanting to read anything else—it was so good it took up every available space in my brain and stayed there. Constance and Merricat live with their Uncle Julian in a large house on the outskirts of town. They are ostracized, believing that one of the sisters murdered the rest of the family. Their quiet lives are disturbed when a distant cousin comes to stay with them, believing they have money hidden in the house. The ghosts of the sisters’ past are brought out in haunting ways, unfolding into a darkly beautiful story of family, community, the natural world, and history. Merricat is a witchy character, and the novel unfolds in a mystery-meets-magic style. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is beautiful and compelling, dark and creepy.

Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol: I came to this book through Vera Brosgol’s illustrations (one of her prints hangs in my foyer, and she one time posted a sketch on her blog that looks exactly like skinny versions of my husband and I). She writes graphic novels, paints, and has worked on the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Anya’s Ghost is about a normal teenage girl, Anya, self-conscious about her body, her Russian mother, and pretty much everything else in her life. She falls into a deep pit one day and discovers the ghost of a young woman who died nearly 100 years ago. At first it’s all, “Cool, ghost friend!” but of course, Anya’s ghost becomes more and more manipulative and dangerous. The plot sounds a bit cheesy, but the pacing keeps this story fresh and the art is delicious.

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The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman: Pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. Another YA title but written in that distinctly-Gaiman voice that is captivating and a little disconcerting. Bod, whose family is dead, is being raised in a graveyard by an assortment of ghosts. Bod grows up learning ghostly skills (how to haunt, be invisible, and enter others’ dreams), and learns that the man who murdered his parents is still out for him. The novel twists and turns a bit before ending in this showdown, but every moment along the way is Gaiman-y fun. If you’re not into YA, try The Ocean at the End of the Lane, one of Gaiman’s most recent novellas, about a man who revisits his childhood home and rediscovers its magical, ghostly past. I love every Neil Gaiman book I’ve ever read, but this one is a particular favorite.

What I’m Reading:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip vanWinkle,” Washington Irving: America’s first and most well-known short stories. I have read these both before, but hello, when you see a copy at a used bookstore for $2 you pretty much have to reread them. I will be pairing this 80 page read with Tim Burton’s version of Sleepy Hollow.

The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury: As much as I love Ray Bradbury, I am seriously under-read in his titles. The Halloween Tree has just been re-released with a fresh batch of illustrations by Gris Grimly, and if you order directly from the author he will personalize your copy with a clever little pumpkin on the title page. (Hat tip to JW Ocker from Odd Things I’ve Seen for an excellently-curated Halloween blog and this edition of the book). I actually don’t have much of a clue as to what this book is about, but I’m excited to read it with that lack of knowledge.

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll: Another graphic novel, but this one is a collection of graphic short stories (is that a thing? It is now.) All the stories are eerie and otherworldly, and I want to paste her illustrations to the inside of my eyelids, they are gorgeous and rich and creepy as hell.

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I thought long and hard about putting some Steven King on this list because, confession time, I have never read one of his scary stories. And I’ve heard they’re doozies. What are you reading this October? What spooky stories would you recommend?

September Reading List: Required Reading Favorites

September Reading List

Every September I turn a little nostalgic for the start of school, fresh paper, and the thrill of a new reading list. Wasn’t it the greatest?—getting a new syllabus and knowing a whole semester of good books was ahead. I’m out of school now, but I’m still reminiscing of my days in school and all the books I was introduced to. Here are my 10 favorite books that were originally assigned to me as required reading, but turned into stories I’ve read over and over again.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: I was assigned this one as a freshman in high school, and I loved every page of it then. I’ve read it several times since then, and am due for another re-read having recently finished Go Set a Watchman. Favorite moments: Scout as a ham, Walter and the molasses.

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque: This one I read as a junior in high school, several times on my own, and again in a war literature class. My copy is falling apart at all seams and there are very few pages that don’t have something written in the margins. This is a book that if published today would be criticized as being too heavy-handed, but my teenage self adored every idealistic word. Most heartbreaking moments: Detering’s grief over the horses, Paul’s detachment from his family while home on leave.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: Okay, this one wasn’t technically assigned to me in a class. But it should have been! My favorite high school English teacher (Mr. Davis, I think of you often!) loved dystopian literature but Fahrenheit 451 was one I read on my own over the summer. It also sparked a binge-reading of Bradbury’s short stories and a full week of feeling totally not of this world. Sorry about your house, Mr. Bradbury. Favorite quote: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: I was assigned this one in a Honors course about science fiction and the future of human identity. We talked a lot about the idea of the singularity and I wrote my final paper on Halo (sadly, this move did not get me a date with any of the nerd guys in class. Major bummer). Ender’s Game was the first text we read in that class and it became the book all others were compared to the entire semester. It’s one I’ve re-read a million times, and one I recommend to anyone who says they don’t like sci-fi. In fact, there’s a reason I had to use a sequel to Ender’s Game in the photo above—my copy is out on loan… again. Most tense moment: when Ender beats the crap out of Bonzo but goes too far.

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien: It was a hard choice between this one and another Tim O’Brien title, Going After Cacciato. The Things They Carried is one of those books I can read and re-read and re-read again and still find something new in it. It’s very firmly a Vietnam story, but remains timeless and perpetually applicable to our current political climate. I tried teaching this one once, it’s really hard to teach this one, I learned. Favorite image: Mary Anne and her white culottes and sexy pink sweater.

September Reading Pull Quote

The Poems of Wilfred Owen, Wilfred Owen: I read this volume in a war literature course in undergrad. I’d always enjoyed reading poetry but this was the first time I’d seriously absorbed a writer’s entire body of work. I was kind of obsessed with all WWI literature at this point in my life, and Wilfred Owen was a pretty central figure in my reading. Favorite poem: “Dulce et Decorum Est,” for the way “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues – / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” sounds when you read it out loud.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: Amazing how I can go from such an obsession with war literature to something that’s usually read as a love story, huh? I think I was a freshman in college when I read this for the first time, and I used it again in grad school in a course about the blues and literature. Best transformation: when Janie lets down her hair after controlling Jody dies.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: I don’t think we have a better writer alive than Toni Morrison. I stand in awe of nearly everything she writes, but Beloved holds an especially large portion of my heart. This novel is full of story and full of characters so big and so real it’s hard to think of them as fiction. This is a book you talk about. Best line: “Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” (I once broke up with a guy who said he didn’t like those lines because they weren’t grammatically correct. There were other reasons to dump him but this was the big one).

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: You almost can’t say you like this book, because it’s so filled with horrible, scary, sad things. But Dorothy Allison is a great storyteller, and years later her characters and what happens to them have stayed with me. Favorite character: Aunt Raylene, the former carnie and lesbian (probably) who lives kind of a weird life on the outskirts of town, but who is kind to Bone.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: This novel has cropped up in my classes so many times I’ve lost count, but I’ve always enjoyed it (except for the ending, Twain could not write an ending for anything). There are so many rich moments in this story, no wonder it’s taught over and over again. Most powerful moment: when Huck decides to help Jim escape to freedom, even knowing to do so is considered a grievous sin, and he declares “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

What are your favorite books from your required reading lists? Have you re-read any of them since school?

2011 Books

What I read in 2011. 55 books. Here’s to 60 in 2012!
  1. (Jan. 1) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Trenton Lee Stewart
  2. (Jan. 2) American Girls: Kirsten (Meet Kirsten, Kirsten Learns a Lesson, Kirsten’s Surprise, Happy Birthday Kirsten!, Kirsten Saves the Day, Changes for Kirsten)
  3. (Jan. 2) It’s A Book, Lane Smith
  4. (Jan. 3) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson
  5. (Jan. 5) Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes
  6. (Jan. 5) A Patient’s Guide to PCOS, Walter Dutterweit, MD with George Ryan
  7. (Jan. 7) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain
  8. (Jan. 22) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  9. (Jan. 23) Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
  10. (Feb. 6) American Girls: Molly (Meet Molly, Molly Learns a Lesson, Molly’s Surprise, Happy Birthday Molly!, Molly Saves the Day, Changes for Molly)
  11. (Feb. 10) Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
  12. (Feb. 18) Copper Sun, Sharon M. Draper
  13. (Mar. 10) The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler
  14. (Mar. ?) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning (#1), Lemony Snicket
  15. (Mar. 26) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room (#2), Lemony Snicket
  16. (Mar. ?) The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  17. (Mar. 27) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window (#3), Lemony Snicket
  18. (Mar. 28) Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Bryan Lee O’Malley
     
  19. (Apr. 3) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill (#4), Lemony Snicket
  20. (Apr. 5) Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

  21. (Apr. 7) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
  22. (Apr. 10) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy (#5), Lemony Snicket
  23. (Apr. 14) Beloved, Toni Morrison
  24. (Apr. 26) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Ersatz Elevator (#6), Lemony Snicket
  25. (May 1) Bossypants, Tina Fey
  26. (May 2) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village (#7), Lemony Snicket
  27. (May 3) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Hostile Hospital (#8), Lemony Snicket
  28. (May 4) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival (#9), Lemony Snicket
  29. (May 8) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope (#10), Lemony Snicket
  30. (May 11) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto (#11), Lemony Snicket
  31. (May 25) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril (#12), Lemony Snicket
  32. (May 25) A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  33. (June 7) Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol
  34. (June 11) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Year 7), J.K. Rowling
  35. (June 23) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End (#13), Lemony Snicket
  36. (June 28) Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  37. (July ?) The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  38. (July 12) I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit Sethi
  39. (July 14) The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis
  40. (Aug. 8) Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson
  41. (Aug. 25) Forge, Laurie Halse Anderson
  42. (Aug. 26) Go Ask Alice, Anonymous (Beatrice Sparks)
  43. (Aug. 27) Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell, ill. Ted Lewin
  44. (Sep. 9) It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Ned Vizzini
  45. (Sep. 10) Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  46. (Oct. 26) The Story of Mankind, Hendrick Willem van Loon
  47. (Nov. 22) The Golden Fleece and the Heroes that Lived Before Achilles, Padraic Collum
  48. (Nov. 23) The Windy Hill, Cornelia Meigs
  49. (Dec. 7) The Walking Dead: Volume 1, Robert Kirkman, ill. Tony Moore
  50. (Dec. 15) Keeper, Kathy Appelt
  51. (Dec. 23) Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
  52. (Dec. 25) Olivia, Ian Falconer
  53. (Dec. 27) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs
  54. (Dec. 29) The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins