2017 Resolutions & my 2016 book review

by vlevans

If you’ve followed this blog for even a little while, you might recall how much I love when we turn over to a new year. Starting fresh, setting goals, isolating new ways of simplifying, tidying, growing, challenging — I like the way January sounds. I set three goals for last year, and made good on two. I read 30 books and I returned to the discipline of waking early each day to write. As a result my writing life was very rich in 2016; another manuscript is well underway. Unfortunately, I bombed on untethering from my cell phone.

My three resolutions for 2017 are:

Organize my closets. We moved in and threw our stuff in all the corners of this old house, and we never went back to make sense of it all. I’ve got to get a handle on that this year. Thank the good Lord we have neither an attic nor a basement.

Ditch the phone. A few months ago we sat Jack down and apologized for showing him an example of treating our phones like a member of the family, and started putting them away when we were around the kids. I want to continue with this, so it becomes our lifestyle, not just around the kids but with each other and even in the silences. I’d like to make room for silence.

Try, really try my hardest, to find an agent for my new book.

My reading goal is 31, but that’s not really a resolution.

I’ve tried to be brief so I could include my reading list from 2016 (!!) Ratings are on a scale of 5; these are not in any particular order. I promised my 2015 list last year, but never made good on that. I will say, from my 2015 list, you should read All the Light We Cannot See, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Rosie Project, The English Patient, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bird by Bird and Still Writing.

So here you go, my thirty books of last year. Fives are best, fours are really good, threes are also good. I wouldn’t bother with twos. I might not bother with threes.

  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle {a book I enjoyed, read too fast and probably missed many nuances; surprised I hadn’t read previously, though the reception of this novel was mixed throughout the past fifty years due to references to magic, fantasy, etc.}  Rating: 4, would recommend.
  2. City of Thieves by David Benioff {I’ll read anything set in Russia, and I gravitate to WW2, but this story, though compelling, was overwrought with violence and felt excessively ‘masculine’} Rating: 2, would recommend for men, action gluts.
  3. The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan {an exhausting story set in old communist China, largely hopeless, but beautifully written; and the garlic theme is so potent, coming to the precipice of the right balance—I’ll never forget this story} Rating: 4, would recommend but it’s not easy.
  4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King {this is a re-read, it gets better every time; SK is an intelligent, witty weirdo, but his thoughts on writing are my buoys} Rating: 5, would recommend to anyone, even if you don’t write.
  5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling {ha! too funny, laughed a lot; sometimes the humor got tired} Rating: 3/4, would recommend for a long flight
  6. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson {fascinating historical expose on the cluster that came to a climaxx with this tragedy; slightly long-winded} Rating: 3/4, would recommend
  7. The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key {yes, yes, yes! pick up THIS book and read it NOW, to laugh and cry and laugh and laugh and cry; exploration of a quirky father/son relationship with such incredible humor} Rating: 5, would recommend to literally anyone.
  8. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal {unique story, obviously food-focused (anyone know what lutefisk is?), told through several speakers and witnesses with a focus on the midwest, which I found charming / you do sort of lose track of Eva, Stradal’s main character, which creates a deficit in the story} Rating: 3, no strong feelings
  9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra {one of my books of the year – a gorgeous, thoughtful, lovely, poetic, concrete novel set during the 1990s war in Chechnya with a story that somehow manages to explain the situation of an entire nation while following the small scale of a handful of fascinating people} Rating: 5, can’t recommend more emphatically.
  10. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain {the sterilization movement in our very own NC is shocking, and the greatest value of this book was in drawing this local history to my attention} Rating: 2, can’t really recommend.
  11. The World Below by Sue Miller {everything by Sue Miller is beautifully written, which is my kryptonite; the story is simple, contains no great twists, but is still somehow moving; the first few chapters weren’t necessary} Rating: 4, but not sure if I’d recommend to everyman.
  12. Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home by Amber C. Haines {this memoir was interesting, honest, somewhat sensational, but by the end I was rooting for Amber to find some comfortability in her own skin} Rating: 3, would recommend to anyone who likes a woman’s personal story
  13. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline {this book is about video games—I wish I’d realized that before reading; it doesn’t have gaming themes, the entire thing is based on gaming *now I know about gaming*  alright, the story got sort of interesting eventually} Rating: 3, would recommend to gamers!
  14. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah {multiple 2016 lists have put this at the top for good reason—it’s beautiful and absolutely compelling; this is a story story, driven by events; wee complaint – some things ‘fell in line’ i.e. predictable? I didn’t mind} Rating: 5, would recommend to anyone.
  15. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman {took me by complete surprise! FB is a surly looking Swedish man, but he wrote this hilarious, complex and meaningful story that moved me; a grouchy widower becoming the heartthrob—that’s not something I read every day} Rating: 5, READ IT
  16. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout {ES has a similar effect on me as Sue Miller, that narrative voice is hypnosis; a sepia-toned story about siblings, all grown, and the misery they shoulder, all returning to their hometown in Maine} Rating: 4, would recommend, but prep for consternation
  17. The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin {love learning new things; I didn’t know much about the Lindberghs, but this got me started on a trail of researching them} Rating: 3, would not much recommend
  18. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh {book came to me at the right moment, so meaningful to me as a woman, as a mother, as a friend and as a wife, addressing each of those roles specifically, in short but dense sections} Rating: 5, would recommend to every gal
  19. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates {words escape me; how refreshing, how surprising, how unsettling to see unknown stories and suffering through someone else’s eyes —the most thought-provoking book of the year, on the subject of racism in America} Rating: 4, would recommend, but it is a very specific flavor.
  20. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell {did you love Bernadette? I did! step right up. celebrity mystery meets interesting landscapes meets a few pages with drawings and photos — loved this book.} Rating: 5, would recommend, esp on vacation.
  21. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren {what do you get when a tree scientist writes her memoirs using tree growth and life as a metaphor woven throughout? this book has been incredibly well-received by critics and as a reading pauper, I have to agree—unlike anything I’ve read before} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  22. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett {the best book I’ve read in at least five years, a masterful take on my belief that the simplest lives of people are the most fascinating stories – beautiful beautiful beautiful in so many ways} Rating: 5, READ IT.
  23. White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse {set in Botswana, which is where my in-laws were on safari, my reason for reading; story was odd and meandering with a sense of ‘how did we get here?’ — and when it was over, i missed it} Rating: 3/4, wouldn’t necessarily recommend.
  24. The Dream Life of Astronauts: Stories by Patrick Ryan {short stories, the first collection I’ve read in years, on the recommendation of my fave Ann Patchett; the writing was stunning, some of the stories were good, others I could have done without; the collection as a whole did create a comprehensive flavor of a region and brand of people} Rating: 3 for material, 4 for the telling, would not recommend liberally
  25. Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani {the predictability of this story was its greatest flaw; people fitting into stereotypes} Rating: 2, wouldn’t really recommend
  26. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini {Kite Runner blew me away, this one falls in line, but behind; worth the read, but buckle up for the a big does of sad} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  27. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman {only author I read twice this year, very similar feel to Ove, similar relational plays between children and the older generation, humor as a cloak for sorrow, and warm fuzzy throughout; this one was a bit fantastical} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  28. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot {a WW1 era mystery, heavily French, with a web of names and dates that make it a bit tricky to follow; overall I was enthralled, and loved it, but had to focus focus} Rating: 4, would recommend in winter.
  29. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd {American slavery-era story based on the life of one of the first female abolitionists; told alternatively through the eyes of that upper-class woman, and her personal slave – one of the best books I’ve read on the topic; toward the end brilliant story-telling gives way to an effort to get the facts straight, but that’s only a slight detraction} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  30. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante {look up the story of this author, fascinating! Loved the story telling, loved the picture of Naples and life there in the fifties; narration is dark, and the story offers little resolution because it’s #1 of 4 in the Neapolitan Series} Rating: 5, would recommend.

This year, hoping to read The Orphan Master’s Son, A Gentleman in Moscow, & Underground Airlines. If I ever have as good a year reading as I did in 2016, I’ll count myself lucky.

Happy New Year, friends!