it’s time for another book list!

Every December, I go over my favorite reads of the year and then buy those books for my friends & family. Sometimes everyone gets the same book (last year, I bought five copies of Louise Erdrich’s LaRose). Sometimes I tailor it to what I think each person will love. Of course, some people on my list don’t like to read. So I buy them chocolate as a consolation.

Here are three of the most compelling books I read this year—the ones I’ll be pushing into the hands of my reading loved-ones this year:

The Overstory by Richard Powers: A book that will turn even the mildest of nature admirers into full-blown tree huggers. Powers interweaves short story-esque chapters to unfold a powerful narrative where trees feel like the main characters. I loved everything about it. If you’re a person swayed by accolades, it also won the Pulitzer Prize (not that that’s always a clincher—Less won last year, which seemed like a strange choice).

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro:  I’m pretty sure this is Shapiro’s, like, 5th memoir—most of which center around her beloved father, whose identity comes up for question in this latest book. She’s got an incredible talent for dramatic storytelling. I couldn’t put it down.

Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson: She’s actually got a newer book out this year, Red at the Bone, which I liked, but not as well as Another Brooklyn. At under 200 pages, it’s incredibly short, so it’s perfect for people will no time to read (I’m giving it to my sister busy with grad school). A story about a girl looking back on her childhood in Brooklyn—the different trajectories her close friends took and her yearning for her lost mother. Her words are like beautiful knives that will cut you on the page. If you’re into that kind of thing. But who isn’t?

And because I can never limit myself when making book lists, here are some others I absolutely LOVED this year:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Always read anything by Patchett. Always.)

Outline by Rachel Cusk (A writer’s writer.)

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (A feminist/philosophical/underrated classic)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (How have I only now come to know what a powerful writer Anne was?)

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (Middle grade but I loved it WAY more than my kids. I’m a bit of a DiCamillo groupie.)

Pure Land: A True Story of Three Lives, Three Cultures, And the Search for Heaven on Earth by Annette McGivney (Without question the best non-fiction book I read this year. Well-researched, compassionate, heartbreaking.)

What were your favorite books read in 2019? Please comment & let me know! I’m always looking to stock my TBR list for next year…

writing about writing

Because no one asked, here’s a list of my top five books about writing–the ones I go to when I need encouragement or advice (or just want to procrastinate and feel productive about it). They are my comfort foods for writer’s block worry. And it is high season for comfort foods.

1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Once I attended a Bernie Sanders rally and the women standing to the right and left of me–one 70 and one 17–became wildly unhinged, crying and swooning in his presence as he came through to shake our hands like he was Mick Jagger. Or Elvis. Or Justin Beiber. It was disturbing. I liked the man’s message, but I wasn’t going to put up a full-sized poster in my room, you know? But I think that’s exactly how I would act if I ever got to meet Annie Dillard. She is a literary goddess and I worship at the altar of her sentences. Is that too much? Oh well. Sometimes we are all a little much. Her book on writing is poetry and truth and quite frankly, a classic.

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was a prolific delight. He basically merged the literary and sci-fi genres into his own, new genre. His exuberance is catching and makes me remember that writing can be wildly fun.

But how did I begin?…I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen….If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.

3. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I think the only way to obtain this small, self-published book is to track down the author and buy a copy with cash. It is the single best condensed practical guide to writing fiction I’ve ever read. It always snaps me back on track. Bonus: Almond is hilarious.

When I really admire an author, someone like Bellow or Austen or Toni Morrison, I don’t think of them having a style. They’re not writing to impress the reader, but to implicate them. They’re not throwing beautiful words at the page and hoping to produce truth. That’s not how it works. That’s the exact opposite of how it works. The effort to capture complex and painful feeling states is what lifts the language into beauty. Style, in other words, is the redidue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.

4. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro has written four or five memoirs, all of them spectacular. This book on writing, for me, reads like yet another angle of memoir. Her insights are rich and I paced myself on purpose the first time I read it, savoring the delight, not wanting it to end.

The page–if you spend your life in deep engagement with it–will force you to surrender your skepticism. It will keep you open and undefended. It doesn’t promise comfort. But if you hurl yourself at it, give it everything you’ve got, if you wake up each morning–bruised, bloody, aching–ready to throw yourself at it again, I’ll make you a promise: it will keep you alive to what you see and hear and taste and touch.

5. The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett

This is not a book; it’s an essay. But it’s “everything [Patchett] knows about writing”, and it is dynamite.

If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.

Please add to my list! What are some of your favorite writers on writing?