What’s on Your Book List?

There’s nothing quite like reading a few good books.

Books are portable, low cost and easily accessible.  And the best part? It comes at the end, when you can share your thoughts with friends. There’s a reason book clubs are popular, and it isn’t just the chance to get out of the house and share a few drinks with girlfriends. Reading inspires, provokes, divides and unites.  The hard part? Figuring out what to read next.

For several years now—each New Year’s Day—I’ve compiled a list of everything I read the year prior with a few thoughts on each book. It started as a way to prove to myself I was doing more than chasing after kids and cleaning the house, and, after emailing it to a few friends, has become an annual tradition and an extra gift over the holidays when suggestions start to fly and I have a new list of books to choose from.

So read this list and then tell me the books you enjoyed last year. Share your suggestions in the comments section below by the end of the day on Friday, January 14, and you’ll be entered into our drawing for a $25 gift card to The Book Stall. Also, check out our list of favorite independent bookstores and where to enjoy your new read with a cup of coffee.

A Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick

I started off the year with this, along with high hopes, because I had nothing but good about it. Hmm. Older man. Hates himself. Hates life. Angry son. Hates dad. Likes sex. Woman with a complicated past in the middle.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it — I thought Ralph Truitt was an incredibly well-written, yet flawed, character. And goodness knows I enjoy a few gratuitous sex scenes. I just don’t know if I really bought the ending — it seemed a bit TOO easily-wrapped up in an arsenic bow.

South of Broad
Pat Conroy

This ranks as one of my favorite reads of 2010. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a character as complicated and layered as Leo—I was drawn into the book and didn’t want to put it down. If I took each character separately—the wacko, once-was-a-nun mother, Steve Martin-esque “Parenthood” father, flamboyantly gay neighbor across the street with a harlot sister— it might all seem contrived, but together, they all work. The only part of the book that seems a chapter too long is the trip to San Francisco – if you can eek it out, the ending is SPECTACULAR. One of those, “Dangit, how did I miss that coming?” kind of endings.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment
A.J. Jacobs

A compilation of his articles for Esquire magazine. I laughed, laughed, laughed – not quite a David Sedaris laugh, but I love what A.J. is doing and only wish I had thought of it before him. I’m not sure if I would have had the stomach for his brutal truth experiment, though — while I love the concept of ditching any and all mental/social filters, my tendency not to want to hurt people’s feelings would completely get in the way. Ah, but to be able to tell people what you really think!

Secrets of Eden
Chris Bohjalian

I’m a HUGE Bohjalian fan, so I couldn’t wait to read his latest. This was the first time I was a little bummed —only because his stories almost seem a little formulaic now. I knew from the beginning who offed Alice Hayward, who offed scummy husband George, and I knew it wasn’t the Reverend Stephen Drew. And really? At the end of the day, there wasn’t much of a vindication for him, although I guess you could say that it was his penance for making poor choices, with people like Alice. I’m hoping Bohjalian takes a stranger twist with his next novel and brings me back into the fold. Still, overall, a really good book — very well-written and not a waste of anyone’s time.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
Jon Heilemann

A non-fiction entry. It was a good time to read about the 2008 campaign — just enough time to have decompressed from having to peel my eyeballs off MSNBC that year, and enough time before the next election cycle to not be burnt out for 2012. Loved it — love knowing anything that went on behind the scenes during that crazy insane year, and I’m sure this insight isn’t half the story in the end.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall

This book changed my entire view of running, and I am so thankful for it. Not only is it just a really good non-fiction read, it’s a real story, with real people that you care about, and root for in the end. I am quite certain there’s another nation of runners that think the theories about running put forth in this book are poppycock, and perhaps barefoot running isn’t for everyone (I’m not even sure I would try it, and it sounds fabulous), but I could totally embrace the concept of being happy when you run, and how that improves everything about the experience. I’m no longer really concerned about my time or distance, and am enjoying it more.

Letter to My Daughter: A Novel
George Bishop

Bah. It was an OK beach read, but it ended up feeling very superficial and not unlike a lot of teen angst novels. Good kid. Mean parents. “No one understands our love” boyfriend. Bad scene. Sent to boarding school. Mean nuns, except for the one with a heart of gold.  Blah, blah fishcakes, we’re turning a trick for the boys’ school students. Maybe at that point I was skimming, but I missed the leap in logic. My love of my life is in Vietnam, so I feel the need to mess around with the school newspaper photographer? Vietnam boyfriend bites it. Must mask pain with tattoo. It wasn’t that I couldn’t relate on some level, but it just didn’t resonate. I was also left wondering how it was she met her now-husband. The romantic in me hopes that we all marry the loves of our lives, so I just thought their courtship was worthy of a paragraph or two.

That Old Cape Magic
Richard Russo

Classic Russo. Enough said. OK—well, one thing. Trying to picture on old man taking a dive off a boardwalk, falling after him when trying to help, and getting punched in the face for it? Trust me, it really was funny.

The Space Between Us
Thrity Umrigar

Loved, loved, loved this book. It was like a combination of “The Help” and “a Fine Balance” in one. The stories of Bhima and her friend/employer Sera were mesmerizing and once I got past the first 50 pages or so, I couldn’t put it down. Despite the fictional tale, it’s not hard to conclude the authenticity of the lives these women led—the culture which sets the classes apart and the gender that makes their lives that much more difficult. Depressing? Yes. We’re talking class stratification in Bombay. But it’s beautifully written, and the stories are intriguing. My only gripe, and this comes up with any book set in India, it seems. The author’s characters have a gazillion nicknames, so it can be a challenge to follow at first. I would also think twice about reading this if you’re in a man-hating phase, because the story will only make you want to punch one in the throat.

Freedom
Jonathan Franzen

Wow. Franzen’s writing can be tedious—you have to read through multiple pages of what seems to be mundane details of a life to get to a whallop in the stomach. But to imagine those pages gone would be a detriment to the character development Franzen is so damn good at. It’s the portrait of a family — husband, wife, daughter, son — plus a rocker and a neighbor or two — and how they came to be the people they are. I think I enjoyed Freedom more than The Corrections, and that Franzen really is the voice of a generation, though I suppose he would really hate being called that.

True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World
Lisa Birnbach

I have an original copy of The Preppy Handbook that I treated as if it were my personal bible when I was a pre-teen (had the Pappagallo wooden handle purse and Sperry Topsiders!) and had to have the follow-up. I’ll cop to being a dunderhead at one thing with Ms. Birnbach. I still fail to grasp whether she is a humorist or a sociologist. Maybe both. The book details the prep life of today, and she hits the nail on the head.

Killing Floor
Lee Child

I’ll say this—I didn’t want to put it down. So, from a suspense perspective, I was hooked. Jack Reacher is, indeed, intriguing. However, I wouldn’t say Lee Child’s writing style is one I could never get enough of — one book is plenty for now, and I know that if I am trapped somewhere I can’t get WiFi, like jury duty, I can grab another from the series and keep myself entertained. I just need a bit more realism to go along with my murder mystery. I know this—if I was a police officer and some guy was brought in and charged for a brutal murder, I wouldn’t be bedding him 48 hours later—no matter how innocent the guy was. Or good looking. It appears Child spends a lot of time fleshing out his main character, but doesn’t let common sense get in the way or making sure Reacher gets to have sex, and lots of it.

A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness–and a Trove of Letters–Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression
Ted Gup

Another non-fiction tale. Gup wrote a book several years back that I found fascinating — Wall of Honor, which detailed the stories behind the stars on the wall at CIA headquarters. This book came about when Gup discovered his grandfather was an anonymous benefactor during a Depression Christmas in Canton, Ohio. His grandfather took out an ad and told people if they sent him a request he deemed worthy, he would give them $5. Gup’s grandfather had saved the letters, and the author painstakingly fleshes out the story behind them, in most cases tracing families to modern times. It’s a dry read, for certain, but if you like sociology, it paints a depressing but heartfelt portrait of what the Depression was truly like, and not something we hear about that often, given that generation is fading away.

Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People
Amy Sedaris

Oh my. A dinner with the Sedaris clan is on my bucket list. Amy Sedaris is just as damn funny as David. Who knew sex was a craft? Hilarious — just don’t leave it around where your 9-year-old, Girl Scout crafting daughter may find it and think it’s an actual, you know — craft book.

A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore

The story of a Midwestern college student named Tassie as she comes into her own, coming from a not-quite-a-farm and into a nanny/sitter position for an oddly complicated restaurant owner, Sarah, and her husband, Edward. Wait for the sad, tragic twist. Ironically, I think the parts I liked best were mentioned the least – her interactions with her brother and her college roommate, Murph. Overall, it’s a really good read, but not all that happy happy. Bring the Prozac.

Little Bee: A Novel
Chris Cleave

How is it possible this book was published in 2008 and I only heard about it now? Wow. What a great way to finish out the year. I read this in less than 24 hours. I still get a little misty thinking about it. Told from the points of view of a Nigerian refugee in London and the lifestyle magazine editor that she tracks down, their story is mesmerizing, sad, joyful and overwhelming at times.  The characters are intricate, complicated, endearing and so human. I was so drawn in that when I got to the end, I read the last page five times hoping I could make it change. Absolutely loved it and highly recommend. Bring a box of tissue to the couch and make sure the kids know how to make their own Easy Mac, because you won’t want to put it down.