Monday, December 29, 2008

The List: 2008

I'm hesitant to post the list of the books I read this year, since technically I have three more days. I am confident that I'll finish listening to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer (even if I have to sit in the car in the garage to finish listening.) I am also almost finished with Clyde Edgerton's latest novel The Bible Salesman. I would have finished it long ago, but since he's the featured author in our spring Writer's Symposium and we'll be using the book in our classes, I wanted to read it more deliberately.

This is the list I have kept this year. I try to write the author and title of everybook I read (or listen to on CD) on my wall calendar. Occasionally, I may forget to jot one down, but at the end of the year, I feel a certain satisfaction, along with the frustration over the ones I haven't read yet. Here goes (with some brief annotation):

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This one is nonfiction, and it changed the way I shopped for groceries. My favorite story, however, is her account of breeding heirloom turkeys.

Uris, Leon. The Haj. I had read my first Uris novel, Exodus, in about the ninth grade. I still remember staying up late into the night reading. I had to read past the parts describing concentration camps or I would have nightmares. This book is the same part of the world overlapping time periods but with a focus on the Muslim people. It didn't give me much hope for peace in that part of the world, but I learned so much.

McCaig, Donald. Rhett Butler's People. I enjoyed the book, but I had a little of the same feeling I had when I watched First Knight: Wow! These people have the exact same names as the people in one of my favorite stories. They sure don't act the same thought.

Collins, James. Beginner's Greek. This is one I enjoyed yet haven't been able to discuss with anyone else. A young man always dreams of meeting the girl of his dreams on an airplane. He does, but when he gets to his hotel room, her phone number is missing from his pocket.

Gardner, Angela Davis. Plum Wine. A young North Carolina woman teaching English in a Tokyo University* during the Vietnam War era inherits a chest of plum wine from her Japanese neighbor and discovers secrets about the woman's past.

Groff, Lauren. The Monsters of Templeton. Set in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown, NY, a young woman returns to her hometown at the time the corpse of their Nessie cousin floats up in the lake.

Edgerton, Clyde. Killer Diller. Walking Across Egypt has long been my favorite Edgerton book, but I hadn't read this sequel yet. Listening on CD was wonderful. It was laugh-out-loud funny and touching all at the same time. Wesley falls in love.

Grisham, John. Playing for Pizza. I hadn't ready any Grisham in awhile, but this was available on CD at the library. It was nothing like his courtroom dramas, but was a much better book than his Painted House. The scenario--a failing third-string quarterback signing with an Italian pro football team--is entertaining. It also makes me wish to travel to Italy simply for the cuisine.

Allen, Sarah Addison. Garden Spells. This novel set in Asheville, NC, with mention of Hickory, could best be described as magical realism. The characters and their situations are intriguing, although sometimes improbably (more magical than real).

Follett, Ken. World Without End. I've been waiting on this one since I read Pillars of the Earth--and I'll admit that I read it late. I always enjoyed Follett's thrillers too, especially Key to Rebecca, but I couldn't wait to get back to this time period and the next generation of his earlier novel. He did not disappoint me!

Picoult, Jodi. My Sister's Keeper. This was a book club read. I knew lots of people who had read her stories and loved them. This one was heartbreaking and surprising. More than usual, I cast people I knew--in this case, former students--as the book's characters. She has a knack for adding an unexpected twist.

Konigsburg. E. L. Silent to the Bone. This is a YA novel I "read" on CD. A young boy is incapable of speech after an accident that gravely injures his baby sister. Naturally, he is accused of hurting her.

Hollaway, Kris. Monique and the Mango Rains. This nonfiction book is a Peace Corps workers story of her time in Mali working with a young woman trained as a midwife. The book has motivated many to help raise money for cliniques and midwifery training in the region. A moving story.

Young, William P. The Shack. I just read this week that this was one of the top seller for the year. What a shame it wasn't edited better. The story is intriguing, and it has touched many. I think the strong point is her metaphorical representation of the trinity (the Father, a black woman; the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman; and the son, typecast as a Jewish fisherman.) Since I have trouble sometimes visualizing God as something other than a Gandalf-type figure and Jesus as the pretty face in the Renaissance paintings, the book was helpful in that sense. I just wish someone had been attentive to the egregious grammar errors.

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. He makes me laugh out loud. Okay, sometimes I groan too. But David Sedaris has mastered the use of tone in the written word. My friend Amber saw him life recently and commented that she had laughed so much her face hurt. I understand.

Adamson, Gil. The Outlander. This is one of my Lemuria First Editions books, and so far I've had no one to discuss the book with me. It's the story of a woman who has killed her husband and is heading west, pursued by his brothers.

Earley, Tony. The Blue Star. This is the sequel to Jim, the Boy, a simple little novel I loved. Earley is a native of Rutherfordton (Ru'f'ton), NC, now teaching at Vanderbilt. He has a way of telling a simple story without being simplistic. His protagonist Jim is young, flawed, and believable. I love the kid.

Patchett, Ann. What Now? I have loved her novels, especially Bel Canto, so when I saw this little book, just perfect for a graduation gift, I read it--and subsequently kept it. I had to buy other copies to give away.

Tyler, Anne. Digging to America. I'd meant to read this one for a long time. Having gone with my best friend Debbie and her family when they traveled to China to adopt Allie, I am always interested in similar stories of international adoption. This one traces the lives of two families whose only connection at first is their adopted daughters. The older generation, particularly the Iranian adoptive father's mother, are strong sympathetic characters.

Miles, Jonathan. Dear American Airline. Anyone who has flown much lately knows it's just not fun anymore--and it's not dependable. In this little book, a man is stuck in the airport missing his the rehearsal dinner, and potential the wedding, of his only daughter, from whom he has been long estranged. He passes the time writing a letter of complaint to the airline--and translating Polish fiction. It works--but don't expect nonstop belly laughs. It's a different kind of funny.

Wallace, Daniel. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. By the author of Big Fish, this is a quirky fascinating story with a interesting and odd array of characters.

Jackson, Joshilyn. Between, Georgia. Sometimes an author really can read her works better than anyone else. She knows her (my) South. This one and her next deal with some handicaps in interesting, almost educational ways.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide. I read this because we had chosen to add it to the list of texts for the Holocaust class at the college. Very concise and accessible.

Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I loved this little epistolary novel set just after WWII in England. I knew nothing about the German occupation of the Channel Islands until I read this book. But I enjoyed it for the characters.

Wroblewski, David. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This is probably my most memorable book of the year. People either love it or don't. I did. I think he makes his dogs as real as Richard Adams' rabbits in Watership Down, but the people remain central. The book broke my heart.

Rash, Ron. Eureka Mill. I went on a poetry binge for a few weeks. I heard Rash read from this and his upcoming novel Serena at CVCC in the spring. This series of poems was influenced by his grandfather, who left the farm to work in the mill. I like that in his poems, as in his fiction, Rash doesn't draw easy lines. This isn't a "mill owner--bad; millworker--downtrodden" dichotomy. Not at all.

Kooser, Ted. Flying at Night. If I'm going to read some recent poetry, Kooser's on my list. I have heard him a couple of times at NCTE. He is so genuine, and his poems touch a common nerve.

Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. I guess this was my summer of the bubonic plague. Not long after reading World Without End, I happened upon this tale of an English village struck by the plague. This one was fascinating and at times horrifying.

Byer, Kathryn S. Coming to Rest. Kay Byer is our state poet laureate--and she is just a fine human being. She takes her position seriously, encouraging poets and teachers and students. I recommend any of her collections. (I also have a link to her blog on my list.)

Lindsey, Sarah. Primate Behavior. Another NC poet I read duiring my month of heavy poetry reading. (Mind you, I read poetry all the time--just not always whole volumes).

McFee, Michael. Shinemaster. McFee teachers at UNC Chapel Hill, and the week before I met him in a poetry workshop in Winston-Salem, one of his poems was featured on Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac. I love his work.

Rash, Ron. Serena. I felt from the start that this would be Rash's breakout novel. I've loved everything he's written so far, but Southern writers tend to get pegged as regional writers. (Does that happen to writers from other parts of the country? If so, I wonder who's writing novels I'm missing?) In this book, there are allusions to Lady Macbeth, but it's not just another Shakespeare retelling. The story is set in 1929 in NC timber country. What I found interesting was that although Serena is not a nice woman, I still found myself in some way sympathetic. I've read books (recently even) that had protagonists I just couldn't care about. This was not the case. I also found her husband complicated and interesting. Her minor characters--the wronged woman, and the "Greek chorus" of timbermen--are fascinating as well.

Jackson, Joshilyn. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. This is another novel by the author of Gods in Alabama. Again, there are complicated family relationships and no easy answers.

Mortensen, Greg and David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. Now, after having heard Mortensen speak in San Antonio, I am more than ever intrigued by the dynamics in Afghanistan. I have alos learned that a young adult version of this book has been published, as well as a children's version Listen to the Wind. The book has inspired "Pennies for Peace," the efforts of school children to raise money for schools build through Mortensen's efforts. I suggest reading along with viewing Charlie Wilson's War. Mortensen enlightens viewers on Wilson's frustration voiced in the end of the film.

Garwood, Ken. Replay. I bought this book for about a dollar on because my sister mentioned it. It's a little sci-fi, not usually my genre-of-choice, but I liked the concept: A man dies of a heart attack in his thirties ( I think) and regains consciousness in his college dorm. He relives his life, with full awareness of his previous experiences, making some minor changes, only to drop dead again around the same time, then to start over. The book isn't new, so the terrorism references in one of his life were eerily foreboding.

Packer, Ann. Song Without Words. I had read Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier a few years ago. Similarly, this book deals with people suffering in complicated ways and not always able to express to those closest to them what they are feeling. The book was a little dark, but I enjoyed listening to it.

Gould, Steve. Jumper. I read this book at the insistence of a student. It reminds me a bit of Replay or even of The Time Traveller's Wife, though not as well written. In the story, a teenager who lives with an abusive father discovers an ability to jump to other places he has been. He hones the skill and tries to put wrongs to right, first in his life, then in the world.

Hill, Joe. Heart-Shaped Box. This is definitely not a book I would have picked up to read, but I had seen reviews and it was available at the library's Books on CD section when I needed something for a road trip. It was creepy and terrifying at times. I pictured the protagonist as Kris Kristofferson (which gets me through the book!) I'll admit: I couldn't quit listening. He's an aging rock star obsessed with death who buys a ghost over the Internet and learns that it is the stepfather of a former young groupie who committed suicide after he sent her home.

Pausch, Randy. Last Lecture. I also listened to this on CD. I'd read about the traditional last lecture given by this professor in his forties who knew he was dying. The book is expanded from the lecture but a gift to his children who must grow up without him.

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. I had to try one of these novels, since my neice and all the girls I teach in Sunday school are reading them. I can see, I guess, the attraction, but the comparison to the Harry Potter series is only applicable in sales figures. Rowling's novels will stand the test of time. I don't know about this series.

Berg, Elizabeth. The Art of Mending. I hadn't read any of her novels in awhile, but this was a sad story of a dysfunctional family in denial.

Hoffman, Alice. The Third Angel. The story is told in three overlapping parts. It was billed as the story of three women who loved the wrong men. Maybe, but that's like saying The Old Man and the Sea was about a bad fishing experiences. I think it goes a little deeper than that. The main setting is a London hotel with a ghost, whose story in some way touches all three women in three different decades. She starts in the present, then works back in time.

Draper, Sharon. Forged by Fire. I have a long story about first meeting Draper at an English conference in New Orleans and going on to dinner. Since she's continued to teach and to write. In fact, one day a few years back, I opened the newspaper and saw her picture with the announcement that she'd been named national teacher of the year. This is a young adult novel, a good book especially for boys--and I know teachers are always looking for books boys will read.

Picoult, Jodi. Nineteen Minutes. Our book club decided to read another Picoult book, so I had this one loaded on my Sony eBook for my Washington trip. I accidentally packed the charging cord for my camera, not my book, so I was horrified the whole trip that it would go dead before I finished the book. This one is the story of a school shooting, told from multiple perspectives. I think it would be a good work of fiction to use with a psychology class. Again Picoult throws curve balls at the end of her novels, and this one is no exception.

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. This was a re-read for me, but since we were reading the book in classes and I had heard Walls speaking at Appalachian State, I was intrigued to read again. Actually, I have a firm rule that when I assign a novel for a class, even if I've read it a dozen times or more, I read what I assign them to read. It keeps me honest and keeps it fresh. This book, nonfiction, amazes me.

Kingsbury, Karen and Gary Smalley. Redemption. I don't read a lot of the Christian fiction. My sister does, as do many friends I know. I decided to try this one when I found the CDs in the libray. I think I'll wait and read more of it when it quits sounding exactly like a romance novel without the sex. It was too predictable and unbelievable--not so much the scenarios as the dialogue. And the names! Eeek! Straight out of soap operas. If I'm missing something better, someone please tell me.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Wow! If you want a great listening experience, this is it. This book, read by the author, had me going right after something else by Alexie. Someone else please read it so I can talk about it!

Winfield, Jess. My Name Is Will. This is a clever little novel intertwining the life of the real William Shakespeare with that of a grad student, whose mother gave him the first and middle name William Shakespeare, trying to complete his thesis.

Brooks, Geraldine. March. Little Women by Lousia Mae Alcott is one of those books from my childhood that I can't separate from my childhood. It's one of the first novels I remember reading--and re-reading. This novel by Brooks, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of the father of those girls and his experiences as a chaplain during the Civil War. He is at times homelessly naive and idealistic. Her research on the period, the author, her father, and the novel help to weave together a novel worth reading.

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This novel was first recommended by Carol Jago at NCTE in San Antonio. I also noticed that the woman next to me on the plane (also on the way to the conference) was reading it. Her comment--a little too raw for the classroom but a great read. My out-of-town reading group chose it as the January read, so I started--and read quickly on the trip to Alabama. I love a book that weaves different perspectives so well.

That's it: the list so far. When I finish the other two, I'll probably edit and add a postscript. For now, I'd love to see others' lists.
* I stand corrected.

P.S. I finished one more:
Foer, Jonathan Safron. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This is one of those books I want to recommend to just the right people. Since I listened to it as an audiobook, I must add that the readers were excellent. Sometimes I don't like to have more than one person providing the voices, but in this case, the two provided the voices for Oscar's grandmother and grandfather, both with slight German accents. It was perfect.


John said...

The Peace Corps has never had Volunteers in Japan. John Coyne, Editor:

Gardner, Angela Davis. Plum Wine. A young North Carolina woman teaching for the Peace Corps in Japan during the Vietnam War era inherits a chest of plum wine from her Japanese neighbor and discovers secrets about the woman's past.

Amber O said...

Mind if I just slap my 2008 list up here as a comment? We have a good bit of overlap, thanks to your blog and your always spot-on recommendations. Highlights…new offerings from my two favorite funny folks, David Sedaris and Laurie Notaro, and unexpected favorites in Khaled Hosseini’s two novels. But really, there were lots of good ones, many that I have chosen to keep even with my new stricter rules on book retention. Only a few this year didn’t quite do it for me. Refrigerator Door was cute but hardly counts as a book—should have just stood in the aisle at BAM and read it. I could have spent my time better than Away and also Rise and Shine, and it turns out I’m not really a big fan of Sylvia Plath.

The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
Run (Ann Patchet)
Life on the Refrigerator Door (Alice Kuipers)
Between, Georgia (Joshilyn Jackson)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
Mudhouse Sabbath (Lauren Winner)
Girls in Trucks (Katie Crouch)
Belong to Me (Marisa de los Santos)
Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
The Friday Night Knitting Club (Kate Jacobs)
The Book Thief (Markus Kusak)
The Double Bind (Chris Bohjalian)
Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway)
When You are Engulfed in Flames (David Sedaris)
Rise and Shine (Anna Quindlen)
The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death (Laurie Notaro)
The Last Time I Was Me (Cathy Lamb)
The Buffalo Soldier (Chris Bohjalian)
Blue Like Jazz (Donald Miller)—does the third time still count?
Persuasion (Jane Austen)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wrobleski)
The Shack (William Young)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt)
Replay (Ken Grimwood)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Shaffer and Barrows)
Excellent Women (Barbara Pym)
One Foot in Eden (Ron Rash)
The Magician’s Assistant (Ann Patchett)
The Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier)
Away (Amy Bloom)
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)
Serena (Ron Rash)
A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Hi Nancy, thanks for putting some poetry on the list. I appreciate the notice. I'll probably be posting my own list, but it won't be as long as yours. I'm becoming more persnickety in my old age. But that's not the real reason. I just haven't had much time to settle in with a book. 09 is going to be different. K.

susanv said...

Thanks for the list! Check out my list here.

Author Tony Peters said...

A great list of books. I am particularly interested in reading the book 19 Minutes, and some of the books on poetry. May I recommend that you try my first book for your list this year. It's called Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping. It is available on, and other book sites, also through my author website
I hope you read and enjoy it.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Nancy said...

Tony, I'll definitely check out your book. Thanks.
Amber and Susan, I'm enjoying your lists too.
Kay, I wish you an '09 free of injury and filled with good reading and writing.
John, Thanks for the correction. I edited my post.
Happy New Year all.