Month: January 2017

Books I loved in 2016


Looking for something to read? I have recommendations!


Die a Little (read twice), Dare Me (reread), Queenpin, and The Song is You by Megan Abbott—Abbott is one of my favorite suspense writers. She’s somewhat like Tana French, with plots that twist and turn right up until the end. Her gorgeous prose verges on the poetic. I’m pretty much obsessed with her novel Dare Me, a murder mystery involving high school cheerleaders.

Jurassic Park (reread), Prey (reread), and Disclosure by Michael Crichton—I can’t get enough of Crichton’s tales of sci-fi technology gone wrong.

The Privileges and A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee—Dee writes literary examinations of family life.  His novels are quietly gripping, the drama unfolding in well-contained jewels of sentences. The Privileges is a rarity—an entertaining, almost voyeuristic literary novel about a wealthy family involved in various suspicious exploits.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen—A humorous novel about a shallow, corrupt “biologist” and his failed attempt to murder his wife. This light read also has a surprising environmental component, with a plotline about an evil businessman who pollutes the Florida Everglades.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang—A Korean woman becomes a vegetarian, only to face social censure from friends and family. This short novel is at once weird, surreal, and moving. Definitely worth reading.

Euphoria by Lily King—A love triangle between anthropologists is a fascinating basis for a story, and King executes it perfectly. This book has it all: drama, sensuality, and keen observations. I also love that it features characters’ career ambitions, a topic that doesn’t occur much in fiction these days.

Pet Sematary (twice), The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, Revival, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – So, true confession, I’d never read Stephen King before this year. Perhaps because of my contrarian spirit, I often feel reluctant to read authors who seem universally popular. Since someone in my writing group always has one of his books in her purse, I figured I’d finally give him a try. Wow, was I missing out! He’s a fantastic storyteller. I’m particularly impressed with how easily he establishes characters. Some of the novels have lots of characters (It, especially). As a writer, I was skeptical about each new character introduction, only to find myself caring about the character and his/her world just a few pages later. He also has an uncanny knack for writing about children. His ideas for stories seem endless (obvious, but as a newcomer, I had fresh appreciation for it). The stories in Bazaar of Bad Dreams were so varied, ranging from the promised creepy stuff to morality tales to an unexpectedly hilarious story about a “Fourth of July arms race” in Maine.

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia—As a former way-too-stressed teenage overachiever, I love reading admissions novels. Usually they feature some good-hearted brainy kid trying to make it to the Ivy League. Kanakia’s novel is a refreshing take on this genre. Reshma is a scheming anti-heroine, willing to resort to various dubious methods for getting into Stanford. Not only does the novel entertain with her twisted exploits—it also features metafictional elements and, on top of it all, surprising, touching moments of revelation. This is a memorable debut novel.

Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel—Another excellent YA novel with an intelligent female protagonist… Teenage Sarah longs to break out of her role as an astronomy nerd. During a summer vacation to Cape Cod, she tries on a new identity and finds a boyfriend. Because he’s in college, she lies about her age. Eventually her lie spins out of control. Loved it for the characters, who are all memorable and lovable—especially Sarah, even when she makes bad decisions.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane—This fantastic debut novel follows the life of an elderly woman who lives alone. One day, a government worker unexpectedly arrives, claiming she was sent to care for her. The setting and the thin line between real/unreal make the story feel dreamlike. It’s a mesmerizing book, gorgeously written and unforgettable.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (reread)—This is one of my absolute favorite classics. Reading Melville feels like having an erudite, intelligent friend explain the world to you. This book is full of wisdom, play, and deep love for both man and nature. Do not let your life pass by without reading this.

The Love of a Good Woman and Dear Life by Alice Munro—What is there to say, really, besides that Munro is one of the great short story writers of our time.

Little Children, Nine Inches, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta—Perrotta writes engagingly about suburban life. The Abstinence Teacher follows a high school sex-ed teacher and a devout Christian convert—a juxtaposition that could easily become stereotyped and predictable, but which Perrotta handles with admirable care and sympathy. Little Children is a fantastic novel about an affair between parents of toddlers. Nine Inches is a story collection.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert—For those of us who tend toward literary snobbery, it might be tempting to write off the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t do it! This awesome novel reminded me somewhat of Euphoria (above) in its focus on a woman’s career in science. The main character is a 19th-century botanist. Full of ambition, adventure, and historical detail, this is a novel of great warmth and intelligence.

Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver—Despite its clickbaity title, this is a well-observed novel about urban women in the years after college graduation. Silver chronicles early-twenties life with care and humor, sadness and surprise.

How to be Both by Ali Smith—It’s sort of hard to describe this novel, which juxtaposes a teenage girl grieving her mother and a 14th-century artist. It’s weird and wonderful, experimental and moving.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reread) and The Finishing School by Muriel Spark—Spark writes with wit, warmth, and humor. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an incredible portrayal of that nebulous but defining influence, the elementary school teacher. The Finishing School is an amusing satire about private school and writers.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)—I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread this dark and twisted college novel. It’s an entertaining tale of intrigue and murder. Tartt is incredible at description, dialogue, and secondary characters. This book is made by all its of perfect little details–it feels like you’re reading in HD.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)—Wharton chronicles an illicit romance among late 19th-century New York City elite. That makes it sound shallow, but it’s actually a novel of great subtlety, sensitivity, and beauty. Wharton is a master of social commentary, humor, and tragedy.


Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America by Richard Brewer—This book covers the history of land trusts, which allow for private land conservation in the United States. It also includes substantial chapters on current practices in land trust administration. This is an important text for anyone hoping to join or volunteer for a land trust. Of particular interest is the chapter on urban sprawl, one of the biggest threats to open space in America.

Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen—A memoir about the author, written by her graduate school friend. Chang is best known for her book The Rape of Nanking, which exposed this wartime atrocity to western audiences. She was an ambitious writer who’d published three acclaimed books before she committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. Kamen’s biography is a sensitive portrait of a brilliant, complex woman.

A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim—Kim writes of her harrowing escape from North Korea into China and, eventually, South Korea.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo—I came to this book expecting to hate it. I heard about it through an essay on LitHub, which described KonMari’s barbaric attitudes toward books. As a book hoarder, I felt outraged, and I decided to learn more about this horrible person. Spoiler alert: two months later, I’d gotten rid of perhaps fifty bags and boxes of stuff, and everyone remarked on how amazing my room looked without the clutter. I still marvel at KonMari’s weirdly infectious spirit. I started out reading about her with full-on enmity, only to become a real “konvert.” It’s obvious she’s not much of a reader, from the callous way she describes maiming books to her assertion that thirty (thirty!!!) books is enough. Yet her guidance on how to deal with stuff is spot-on. Reading her book was a revelation. I suddenly realized I was surrounded by tons of stuff I didn’t use or even like that much. Once I got rid of it, my space felt so much better. Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with clutter!

Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang Lang—The autobiography of the famous pianist. The chapters about his childhood and his struggles with his father are fascinating.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold—Essential reading for any environmentalist/conservationist…Leopold originated the idea of a “land ethic”—treating land not as property, but as something with intrinsic value. We’re far from achieving this, but it’s an important concept and an eventual goal. Leopold also writes with reverence about spending time in nature and appreciating land.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis—I grew up in a Christian community where you were told to “just have faith.” I always hated that; it’s not an acceptable answer for “why.” Lewis’s book is one of the better intellectual arguments for Christian faith that I’ve come across. I particularly liked his discussion in the initial chapters of the origins of morality.

The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx—A cultural study of two traditional images in American writing: the machine and the garden. Marx traces these conflicting ideals from the founding of the country through the early twentieth century. There are some fascinating analyses of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald in relation to nature/machine imagery.

God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin—The author explores the interesting subculture of an evangelical college.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal—This is a shocking tale about a serial imposter. A German man managed to impersonate his way into the richest circles in America, eventually taking on the identity of a supposed Rockefeller. This true story wouldn’t translate well to fiction, simply because it’s so outlandish and utterly weird.

The Radioactive Boyscout by Ken Silverstein—Last year I read The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a biography of Taylor Wilson. That book repeatedly referenced this one, so I decided to read it. Unlike Wilson’s story, this is a tale of scientific talent gone wrong. It’s at once sad and fascinating.

Once Upon a Time by J. Randy Taraborrelli—As a Hitchcock fan, I became interested in Grace Kelly and saw this book in the library.  It’s about her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While her life is portrayed as a “fairy tale”* in popular culture, things weren’t really so happily-ever-after.

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink—This is a helpful book for those of us who feel like we could lose a few pounds. It talks about how much habit influences our eating, and offers concrete advice on how to reduce your food intake. The main (uplifting) takeaway is that even small changes can have a positive effect.

Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer—An expose about Adam Wheeler, the student who cheated his way into and through Harvard. He was discovered in 2010, when I was still in school, and it was a huge scandal across campus. Julie Zauzmer (formerly of The Crimson) does a great job investigated all the details of his intriguing case.


Our Town and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder—No one seems to talk about Wilder these days.  I hope that will change.  He was a major literary figure during his lifetime, winning three Pulitzers, two for plays and one for fiction. Our Town is old-timey and nostalgic, and the Matchmaker is a charming comedy. I’m curious to explore his fiction.

*I find it weird and sort of amusing that we use the term “fairy tale” to connote happy endings. Actually, most real fairy tales have horrific, gruesome endings.