Top 10 Favorite Books

A top 10 list of favorite books: it’s a tricky little devil. I mean, what should the criteria actually be?

The options seem endless…

  • Books I’d be happiest to re-read
  • Books I’ve actually re-read and been glad about it
  • Books whose bindings have fallen apart due to repeated readings
  • Books that had the most impact on me
  • Books that represent who I’ve been at various phases of life
  • Books that represent who I am right now
  • Books that represent each of the genres and styles I love best
  • Books that spark the most joy
  • Books I’d want with me on a desert island
  • Books I keep recommending to others, over and over
  • Books that are my favorites of the past decade
  • Books that have been on my favorites list for more than a decade

You see my dilemma.

Depending on which of these sets of criteria I choose, the list is gonna shift. Some books will always be there because they’re my very top favorites (I’m looking at you, Young Men and Fire and Run), but others will appear or vanish, depending on the criteria.

So, after discussing this conundrum with the Dear Man and a good friend, I took their advice and went with:

  • Does it feel like a true representation of who I am?
  • Does it spark joy? (aka, Do I light up when I talk about these books?)

 

Based on those criteria, here’s my current list…

Young Men & Fire by Norman Maclean

Run by Ann Patchett

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

 

So now I’m wondering how you decide your favorites.

What criteria do you use? Which books always always ALWAYS make the list?

Brandi Carlile’s story

Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile

3 words: candid, reflective, engaging

“All of these lines across my face 
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am…”

—Brandi Carlile, The Story

Brandi Carlile keeps surprising me with her awesomeness. 

The first surprise: discovery of her existence 

Old friends at Old Crow Medicine Show / Brandi Carlile concert -- So Good!

A friend and I went to see Old Crow Medicine Show at a wicked cool outdoor music venue, cuz we both like some fine Americana music. And Brandi Carlile opened for them. My friend, who’s way more musically knowledgeable than I’ll ever be, knew who she was, but I didn’t. But about 30 second into her first song, I was like, “OMG, that voice.” I love strong, husky, vulnerable voices, and wow does she ever have one. 

The second surprise: the book 

When I saw that Brandi Carlile had written a memoir, I placed a hold right away. I know she’s got some serious songwriting skills, and I couldn’t wait to read her prose. And I was interested to read her personal story, which turned out to be way more fascinating, stirring, and inspiring than I’d expected. 

For example, who knew she’d been a country music prodigy who performed with her family when she was a wee young one? And who knew she had a hardscrabble early life? And of her heartbreak at being rejected by her church because she’s gay? (That seriously broke my heart.)

Carlile’s strength of spirit and honesty are present on every page. She’s frank and bighearted, and she tells her story in a way that is beautiful. I love memoirs of the creative life — authors, artists, musicians — because their stories so often are tales of overcoming the odds to pursue a dream.

The third surprise: more of her music 

While reading her memoir, I kept YouTubing the songs she mentioned. And each chapter ends with the lyrics of a song or two, which of course a person wants to hear. So I dove into her music as never before, and now three of her songs play on my inner jukebox on regular shuffle. And any day I’ve got Brandi as my interior soundtrack is a strong and gentle and thoughtful one.

I’ll leave you with one…

Are you a fan of musician memoirs? Or other stories of the creative life? Recommendations, please!

Currently: saying hello again

So this pandemic doesn’t seem to want to let up, and like everyone else, I’m tired and worried and drained and occasionally mildly despondent. Then I remind myself of all the good things in life, and then I feel peevish because I’m still tired and worried and drained. 

So that’s what’s happening here. 

(I’ve made it sound worse than it is. But a Chekhov quote that popped out at me last week felt oh-so-true: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.” Except this pandemic stuff is both.) 

So how are you doing these days? I’m interested to hear your adjectives. 

Here’s what’s been happening around here…

Reading | Currently reading:

  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
  • The Guide by Peter Heller
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
  • Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll by John Milward

More about reading | Trends in my reading life this year: books by authors of color, memoirs, books about anti-racism, essay collections, and cookbooks. And true crime. Which is truly the weirdest, because it’s always scared the daylights out of me. At book club (thank goodness for Zoom, even though I’m sick to tears of it), I announced, “I’m having The Year of True Crime.” And one of my friends said, “But you don’t read true crime.” And I said, “I know!” (As with everything else these days, I blame Covid.)

Watching | After waiting months upon months for HBO to release the documentary I’ll Be Gone in the Dark on DVD, I realized they’re holding out. So we subscribed to HBO Max for a month so I could watch it. Because I’m having The Year of True Crime. 

Learning | After years of failed attempts to bake bread, I’ve figured it out. The trick: create a proofing box by putting a bowl of super hot water on the bottom rack of the oven, then put the dough on the top rack. The oven (even though it’s off) creates a nice warm environment for the dough to rise. Magic, my friends! Also, all that kneading can be seriously soothing. 

 

 

Working on | Things got so rough during Covid that I started meditating. This is a serious feat, my friends.  I’d tried to convince myself to begin a meditation practice years ago (I knew it would be good for me), and I never followed through. The resistance was strong. But when the Ten Percent Happier app (which I’m too cheap to subscribe to) offered a free meditation challenge last summer, I dove at it. Now the new goal is to meditate at least 5 times a week. I’m working on it, and I’m a better human when I stick to it. (And, frugal friends, there are lots of free meditation options available via your smartphone, including the weekly Friday meditation from the Ten Percent Happier podcast.)

 

Loving | Our little family of three — the Dear Man, the cat, and I — have hunkered down together, and I’m so grateful that we’re a family. The Dear Man makes me laugh on the regular, and that’s a serious gift in rough times. And due to all the togetherness during the stay-at-home era, the cat and I have reached a new place in our relationship — and it gives me great joy to be welcomed as a full member of her family. My heart grew three sizes this year.

 

Celebrating | When my extended family and I were all fully vaccinated, we got to see each other again during the summer, and I don’t think I’ll forget the quiet jubilation of being in their presence for the first time in over 18 months. Being safely together again was better than any holiday.

I’d love to hear how you’re doing — and I hope the answer for you and your loved ones is “Quite well.” What wonderful and weird and difficult things have happened lately? And what’s most surprised you about all of it?

Finally… so glad we’re all here. Hello again, friends.

Narrative nonfiction for book bingo

Narrative nonfiction… the mere words create happiness.

This is my natural reading place, and I’ve delayed posting a list of five (only five!) narrative nonfiction books because paring down my list of favorites? Not so very easy.

If you ask me on a different day, you’re likely going to get a completely different list of books.

But these five are seriously solid choices for any nonfiction reader.

My fellow narrative nonfiction fanatics…
What titles would you put on your list of 5 sure-bet narrative nonfiction books?

(Can you tell I’m wanting to increase my TBR?)

The Cookbook Reading Extravaganza

Anyone else reading cookbooks all the time for the sheer comfort of it? Same here.

I’ve never in my life been a cookbook reader, and suddenly, mid-pandemic, it’s like someone flipped a switch and suddenly I’m checking out every readerly cookbook I can get my hands on.

I hold Molly Yeh and Deb Perelman and Priya Krishna and Melissa Coleman fully responsible. Their cookbooks are beautiful and full of friendly and relatable stories, and I feel like they’re my kitchen friends (the kind of friend who’s way smarter than me about everything involving food and photography and writing and every other useful life skill — and I adore ’em anyway).

And since I’ve been in the kitchen a lot over the past year (we’ve been “traveling” by making recipes related to places we’ve actually visited in the past), it’s been a quiet little victory to expand my cooking horizons and really fall into the rhythm of cooking.

 

Now I wouldn’t say this new habit is a problem, but one of the challenges is when library holds on multiple cookbooks arrive on the same day. And cookbooks — the pretty ones filled with photos — are heavy monsters to carry. So there are days I feel like a pack mule just getting the library books home. (Such problems!)  And then I have a stack of cookbooks distracting me from other reading. (Again, not an actual problem)

 

And truly, some of the cookbooks are just for browsing… I’ll flip through and look at every recipe, mark a few that I’d like to try, and that’s that.

 

But other cookbooks are so much more than that. My most recent cookbook reading delight was Molly Yeh’s Molly on the Range, which describes her life as a Chinese American/Jewish food blogger (and Juilliard-trained percussionist), transplanted to the rural Midwest — to an actual farm, because of love. Her voice is original and funny, and her recipes are creative yet approachable. And she makes me really want to try to bake challah. She gives me faith that it might not be a total flop if I attempt it. (Stay tuned… I’m probably gonna flop. At least at first.)

 

And I actually bought a copy of Melissa Coleman’s The Minimalist Kitchen, which cleared my very high bar for cookbook purchases (more than 75% of the recipes are things I actually want to cook — and feel capable of cooking).

All those bookmarks!

 

So I’m asking everyone — I’m definitely asking you

What are the readable cookbooks you love best?

Books by Black Authors for book bingo

Books by Black authors is our next book bingo category, and once again: way too many great suggestions come to mind.

But the goal with these posts is to suggest 5 books per category. So, after endless consideration, we’ve got a very short list of amazing titles. Today’s list features classics, contemporary fiction, and memoirs.

What book by a Black author do you plan to read for book bingo this year? And what books by Black authors are your all-time favorites to suggest to other readers?

Breezy books for book bingo

When we’re talking breezy books, I think: romance. And then I think: cheeky narratives. And then I think: fun-to-read cookbooks full of sunshine. Here we have some examples of each…

  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  • Frost on My Moustache by Tim Moore
  • The Wedding Dateby Jasmine Guillory 
  • Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie
  • Indian-ish by Priya Krishna

So what’s your favorite type of breezy book? Any contrarians who want to offer up some grim titles for this category?

Unconventional Books for Book Bingo

My readerly friends would tell you I’m a total sucker for unconventional books. 

Is it a memoir in the form of an encyclopedia? I’m there. 

Is it a philosophical essay in multiple choice test form? Sign me up. 

A series of personal essays, some of which are 3 sentences in length (and powerful as all heck)? One of my favorite books ever.

So I’ve got 5 books for us today, and I fervently want you to tell me about the unconventional books you’ve loved (or hated — I know they’re not for everyone). 

Here are 5 unconventional books to consider for Book Bingo:

  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
  • Gmorning, Gnight! Little Pep Talks for Me & You by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
  • Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
  • Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
  • The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon by Sei Shonagon

These books are surprising and delightful, and often they go down easy and then leave a lasting impression. Sure, they look simple and sprightly, but I’m convinced there’s more wisdom per word in these books that turn the usual narrative structure upside down. 

 

So I’m seriously yearning for you to leave a comment that contains the title (let’s be honest: I want multiple titles) of your favorite unconventional books. Titles… please!

Great book discussion book: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s face it: usually most book clubs only discuss the book for about 20 minutes, then we’re off to weekend plans and family updates and discussions of the world’s problems.

Am I right?

But recently when my book club met via Zoom to discuss Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, we talked about the book for more than an hour

This is extremely noteworthy.

So let’s talk about why this book generated so much conversation.

First, this book deals with hard topics. It’s set during the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s, and anytime bad things happen to children, that’s some rough subject matter. One of my friends said she had a difficult time sleeping one night, after finishing the second section of the book — and I understand why; much about these characters’ stories is heartbreaking. 

So that was another topic we discussed — the way fiction has the power to create empathy. 

Through Jones’s pitch-perfect dialogue and insights into the minds of children, we found that she captured much that is universal about childhood, while also providing a window into the lives of Black children living with economic insecurity and fear of a predator. 

This novel is divided into three sections, with each one focusing on a different child’s point of view. The three children attend school together, so like any multiple-viewpoint novel, we get to see characters from different angles. (I love that.)

The other thing that’s wonderful about this book is that Jones uses a close third-person viewpoint for the first two sections, and a first-person narrative for the final section. We talked about the genius of this choice, which allows Jones’s lyrical descriptions to permeate the first two sections. Her writing is gorgeous; by the time I finished reading the first page of the book, I was humming with pleasure because her writing is so evocative. 

Then, with the final section, we hear the voice of a character coming through — so the emotional power of the book is brought home in that final section, as we walk with young Octavia through her experience.

Our group had an in-depth discussion of the situation at the end of the second section — discussing the character’s mindset. Like I said, it’s an agonizing thing to read and to ponder, but it’s important and it invites us to face our shared humanity, even in the worst moments. It’s one of the most heart-felt discussions we’ve ever had as a group.

Tayari Jones provides discussion questions on her website, which we looked up partway through our discussion to make sure we didn’t overlook anything. (It’s a pdf, which I can’t figure out how to link — so you can find it by Googling: Leaving Atlanta Tayari Jones questions)

We cannot recommend this book more highly.

If your book club has read it, or decides to read it, please tell us about your discussion. It’s always fascinating to hear about book discussions and how they approach a book.

Quest books for Book Bingo

Hello! It’s time for our next installment of Book Bingo categories… Quest.

It’s one of those words that wants to be said with emphasis, isn’t it?

So here, we’re not just talking about a small “I want” — we’re going big.

We’re going fairytale-size quest, we’re going to the moon.

Here are 5 books of people on a serious quest…

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
  • Robbergirl by S.T. Gibson
  • You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
  • Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

So what amazingly quest-filled book are you going to read for this category? And what are the favorite quest books you’ve read earlier?

We could all use a little more quest in our lives…