Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

The Santa Monica Review vs. The Pinch: A Tournament of Short Stories II Post

imageLast spring I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles where I was very impressed by the quantity and the quality of small literary journals in the exhibit hall.  There’s far more of them out there than you probably suspect.

I had nearly no money to spend, no cash that is, and very few of the small presses are actually big enough to accept plastic, so I didn’t get very many. But, I did buy a copy of The Pinch which is put out by the University of Memphis  and The Santa Monica Review which is put out by Santa Monica College.  I’ve a friend who worked for The Pinch while in graduate school and someone from The Santa Monica Review was giving away free copies as fast as people would take them.  So I took one.

For this round I read the first two pieces in each: Silver State by Ashley Farmer and Contact by Ryan Ridge in The Santa Monica Review and Homecoming by Justin Carroll and My Murderer’s Futon by Sarah Viren from The Pinch.

All four pieces were good.  The Santa Monica Review pieces were good but not great.  I liked Ms. Farmer’s a bit more than I did Mr. Ridges’s but Contact really was not my cup of tea, so I should disqualify myself a bit.  Since I’m the only judge for this little tournament, that’s not really an option.  I was struck that both stories featured abusive police officers.  Has this just become an accepted trope now?  Are we at the point where decent behavior from the police is just not believable in fiction anymore?

Ms. Farmer’s story is about a young woman whose relationship has just ended. She is driving east from Los Angeles towards the mountains where she hopes to join a group of women who are prospecting for silver in an abandoned mining town when she is pulled over by a police officer.  At first she things go along well, but when the young officer realizes she is going to join the all women’s mining camp, things turn a bit ugly.

Contact is about a young man who runs into an old acquaintance. The two spend the bulk of the story doing drugs and talking about stuff people who are doing drugs talk about.  It was well written, but I’m over this story.  Keep your drug induced ranting to yourself and stay off my lawn!!!  Here the bad police officer was just an off-the-cuff mention about a time on of the two young men was picked up by the cops who did not take kindly to his behavior to say the least.

I found the first piece in The Pinch to be more of the young men talking under the influence type stuff for the most part. Homecoming rises above this genre due to its setting, a small Montana town about to be overcome by an enormous wild-fire.  The people in town hang on as long as they can, have their annual Homecoming parade though ashes are falling all around them and the football team is wearing oxygen masks so they’ll still be in shape for the big game.

I can’t say how people would behave in Montana, but we’re no strangers to wild-fires here in California.  While I’m sure there are people who wait as long as they can before evacuating, no one would stay in town to be in a parade not with ashes falling all around them.  We’ve seen what can happen and we know what to do.  Get out of Dodge before the traffic gets really bad and while you can still get a cheap motel room.

But that aside, the story is well written, just too many young men doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I have to say, after reading two stories in a row like this I began to wonder why no one ever writes about the kids in high school who are working hard to get into the best colleges.  I know they’re out there. I know they read stories so there must be plenty of them who write them. Why do the bad students get so much press?

What put The Pinch into the win column for me was Sarah Viren’s non-fiction piece My Murderer’s Futon.  Through an odd fluke of events, Ms. Viren found herself living in a Galveston, Texas apartment with famed killer and cross-dresser Robert Durst’s old furniture.  While Robert Durst was eventually acquitted on self-defense grounds, most people who followed the case believe he was guilty of murder.  If only they could have found his victim’s head.  It’s kind of a long story.

When Ms. Viren moved to Galveston to take a job as a crime reporter for the local paper she rented an apartment from Robert Durst’s old landlord.  She didn’t rent his apartment, but she did need furniture and the old landlord happened to have all of Durst’s old furniture in a nearby garage.  Would she mind sleeping on a murderer’s futon?  No, she would not. Nor his television, his kitchen table and chairs, his VCR, his lamp, etc.

The mix of reportage about the Durst case and life with the murderer’s furniture made for amusing reading. It was creepy in an entertaining way.  Like a story just a little too dark for This American Life. I liked it a lot.

The Pinch advances to the next round.


The TBR Triple Dog Dare Comes to Its Final Close…So How Did You Do?

skylight booksToday marks the official end of the final TBR Triple Dog Dare.

How did you do?

Except for some reading I did for school, mostly YA stuff, I stuck to the challenge reading only books on my TBR shelves or the hold queue at my local library.

I did do some shopping, and a few books arrived in the mail, they have all been waiting for this day and will continue to wait a few more days while I finish City on Fire.

I’m down in Los Angeles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference for the weekend, so I’m checking out the area books shops where I’m finding all sorts of intriguing title to fill those open slots.  In the end, I except I’ll have a longer TBR list than I did December 31, even after I cull the shelves when I get back home.  Skylight Books, where the above picture was taken, is a wonderful, wonderful shop.  All sorts of books I never even knew I had to read.  Tomorrow I’m off to The Last Bookstore which I’m told has an entire floor of dollar books upstairs.  I’ve brought a lot of dollars with me, too.

And I haven’t even begun to explore the books for sale at the conference.

So, how did you do?

Hope you had fun.

TBR Triple Dog Dare – Just 11 Days To Go. You Can Do It!

TBR Final DareIt’s so tempting to fall off the wagon at this point.  Just eleven days left in the TBR Triple Dog Dare, but if you’re like me, then you already have a small stack of books you bought surreptitiously somewhere in your house tempting you to stray.


I confess that I have been to the bookstore twice already and that I do have a small pile of books almost as high as the stack off books I’m passing along to the Friends of the Library Book Sale when the TBR Triple Dog Dare ends.  I won’t list them all but among them is my first Hap and Leonard book thanks in large part to a review over at Book Chase.  Thanks, Sam.  That’s probably what I’ll read first come April.

April Fool’s Day, when the TBR Triple Dog Dare comes to its final close, I’ll be in Los Angeles at the Association of  Writers and Writing Programs annual conference listening to four days worth of author panels. I plan on skipping a couple to check out The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.  I hear the entire second floor is dollar books so I’m bringing along an extra suitcase.   The Last Bookstore is the largest bookstore in California; many conference goers will be skipping out to visit at some point.

Anyone else going to the AWP? Want to meet up for lunch?

Today I’ll be reading The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick which I picked out from the far reaches of my TBR pile and my very first Mike Lupica book–I forget the title but it’s about basketball.  I brought in a selection of sports books for my 7th graders this week–we’re playing book bingo and many of us need to cross off the book about sports square.  The librarian selected several Tim Green and quite a few Mike Lupica books.  Never having read either author, I asked my students which one I should read; they said Lupica so I’ll be giving him a go later today.

The librarian gave me just over twenty books about sports, mostly novels, only two of which were about girls.  When I asked her about this she said she’s had a very tough time finding sports books about girls which surprised me.  We have the Shark Girl books along with non-fiction about the true story they are based on and a couple of Girls Play to Win books–Girls Play to Win Lacrosse did get taken this week as did the Shark Girl books–but not much more.  The only sports related series books for girls we have are books for reluctant readers.  There does not seem to be a Tim Green, Mike Lupica, Matt Christopher equivalent for girls.  If you know of one or any single titles, please let me know in a comment.  We’re looking for middle school level books.

It’s supposed to rain all day today, so I should be able to complete Mr. Lupica’s book, maybe Mr. Dick’s book as well.  Then I’ll reach over Bad Chili for another title from my TBR stack.

Just eleven more days.  I can do that.


TBR Triple Dog Dare Temptations

I was sorely tempted this week, but I resisted.

Over the many years now that I’ve run the TBR Dare, it’s gotten much easier to do.  The first year was tough, very tough, but now sticking to my own TBR shelves for the first three months of the year has become kind of a habit.

But February is still a difficult month.  Six plus weeks into the TBR Triple Dog Dare new titles can be very tempting.  And it’s just about impossible for me to stay out of bookstores after three or four weeks.

And I had this past week off, which did not help things.

I spent the week reading four books at a time, which I sometimes do.  I’m currently reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, book three in Elena Ferrente’s (Not her read name) Neapolitan Quartet;  A Man’s Head by Georges Simenon; The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones and still working my what through The World Rushed In  by J.S. Holliday.  I read each in 50 page chunks, two or three books a day.

So, I’ve no business thinking about getting more books to read.  I do have over 200 in the TBR bookcase in my studio downstairs.

But we found this Ace Double in an antique store up in Santa Rosa and I had to have it.  Read The Martian Missile then flip the book over and read  The Atlantic Abomination.  Two books in one.  I have a very small collection of these Double books, some Ace and some Tor.  I think they are a great idea that kids today would love.  And I really wanted to dive right in to The Martian Missile.  But I resisted.  It will have to wait until April 1.

As will Walt Longmire.  My local bookshop, Bookshop Benicia, has the complete Walt Longmire series on the shelves, tempting me.  I’m a big fan of the television show but I’ve never read any of the books.  Up in Santa Rosa yesterday, I visited Paperbacks Unlimited, where once again I found Walt Longmire sitting on the shelves, the first book in the series, too, at half price.  I resisted again.

To add to this temptation, Melville House sent me two more novellas, I subscribe to their The Art of the Novella series.  All of these went into the basement where they wait in a special pile until April 1 when it’s open season.

I did get Michel Houellebecq’s new book Submission from the library but this was a very late addition to my hold’s list, made late December 31, 2016, so it does not break the official TBR Triple Dog Dare rules.  Of course, you are allowed to break the rules when needed and to make your own.

So I’m sticking to my TBR stack for five more weeks.

March is actually much easier than February.  In March you can see the end approaching so putting off that new title you just have to start on is easier to do the closer you get to April 1.  For many years I celebrated April 1 with a trip to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  City Lights always managed to have lots of books I’ve never heard of that I absolutely must have.  That’s what makes a great bookstore in my opinion.  This year, I will be in Los Angeles at a conference on April 1, so I’m going to go to The Last Bookstore which I’ve read so much about.  Apparently, they have an enormous second floor full of one dollar books.

And, I’ve found my first TBR treasure, The Promised Land by Grace Ogot.  An old paperback, yellowed quite a bit, that I have no memory of buying.  Probably sat on my TBR stack for years.  I also loved Flaubert’s A Simple Heart  much more than I expected.

So keep the faith, people.  Just six more weeks to go.  The next two are toughest, but if you can get through those 14 days, you’ll just slide in to home.

We can do it.

Sunday Salon: The TBR Triple Dog Dare Month One Check In

TBR Final DareDid you dare?  How are you doing?

It’s been a month, one-third of the way through, how is everyone doing with the TBR Triple Dog Dare?

So far it’s been pretty easy for me this time around–probably a result of doing it for so many years now I’ve lost count. I’ve developed something of a taste for my own TBR shelves lately anyway; I’m not all that interested in what’s new and current these days.  I do still find quite a few books that are “new to me” from reading book blogs, but I don’t have the same sense of urgency about keeping up with current titles that I used to have.

So, I’ve been reading from my own TBR shelves, four books at a time currently, having a great time.  I’ve not found anything really wonderful yet, but I have been enjoying myself quite a bit.  Right now I’m reading The Visitor by Sheri Tepper, a post-apocalyptic fantasy that is good escapist fun so far; The Man Who Watched Trains Go By by Simenon which is dark, very dark, creepy and suspenseful; the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Series which is sadly not as good as the first two were so far; and The World Rushed In a massive first hand account of the California Gold Rush.

I just finished Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich which was not funny at all.  The other Russian classic’s I’ve read have all be pretty funny, at least at times, but Tolstoy seems to have no sense of humor at all.

All of the books but the Ferrante one have been gathering dust on my TBR stacks for some time now, at least a couple of years each.  It’s good to finally get to them.  I’m doing 100 to 150 pages a night which has really cut back on my Netflix/Hulu addiction.  Good for me but bad for Hulu I guess.  They’ll get over it.

I’m cheating a little in that I am reading YA books for school.  I picked up two books from my school library and had my students vote on which one I should read.  It was a very close vote but I’ll be reading something called The Boys of Fire and Ash by Meagan McIssac later today.  Having my students vote on what I should read really got them interested in the books.  The “loser” is in a students hands as we speak.

We’re doing Book Bingo this semester, too, which is also paying off.  I’m doing it along with them which has been making them much more aware of reading.  No one has a bingo yet but a few students are very close.  I had them do a little assignment about reading where they calculated how many books they could read in a semester if they only read 20 minutes a night on school nights only.  Turns out, they were very surprised by how much they could read and  by how much more that would be than what many of them usually read.  That and Book Bingo has already got a few of them reading much more than they did last fall.

And no one has to take an Accelerated Reader quiz either.

So what have you found in your TBR stacks?

Sunday Salon: Did You Dare? How Are You Doing?

TBR Final DareSo, how’s it going?

I’m hoping to get a chance to go out for coffee and book review writing later today, but I thought I’d put up a post just to see how everyone is doing with The TBR Triple Dog Dare so far.

It’s been a week?  Having fun yet?

I’ve removed two books from my TBR shelves forever.  While neither will make it onto my list of favorite reads for 2016, I enjoyed them both.

I’m also working through my short story anthologies, which is kind of a surprise.  I used to do the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge quite often, but stopped sometime this past summer for no good reason.  So I’ve switched to reading batches of four stories, two from one book, two from another, in a sort of tournament of books fashion.  That’s been kind of fun so far.

I am also reading YA stuff again for work.  Since it’s for work it’s a TBR Dare exception.   I haven’t found anything to sing about yet, but the fact that I’m reading their books has my students intrigued.  Friday, I had my English classes vote on which of the two books I’d picked out I should read this weekend.  The kids got into it.  The book that wasn’t selected is already in demand.  I’ve read 80 pages of the one they chose, Texting the Underworld, but I may skip ahead to the final chapters.  Reading the first and last chapters is a well-respected children’s librarian strategy.  You can read just about everything that comes in if you just read the first and last chapters.

So, what have you found on your TBR shelf this week?