Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Freedom to Read: A year in review

It seems like most of the posts I've written over the past year have been about recovering from the MFA program in some way or another, like going through grad school was some concussive whack to my head and ever since, I'm just trying to figure out how to live a normal life again. It probably sounds that way because, to a great extent, it felt that way. Everything went back to normal, but I was not the same. It wasn't getting the degree so much as just the overwhelming experience of it, the constant "on" of reading and writing that both energized and depleted me. Grad school was like meth: while on it I felt this incredible sense of ability to do huge amounts of things. After it, I crashed.

After turning in my last bibliography, I felt a sense of freedom I hadn't in a long time. I could read anything. Anything I wanted. Good stuff, bad stuff, YA, non-fiction. I found myself not reading books solely because I knew I should read them. I should read this because the author is a friend of a friend? Not reading that! I should read this because all good writers read this? Nope. Not reading that either.

I also had the freedom to not finish whatever I didn't like. Isn't it funny how you never care about a freedom until you don't have it? Before this year, I rarely started a book and didn't finish it. If I started something, I always felt obligated to finish, and always hopeful it would turn out to be better than the first 100 pages. At the very least, I'd be able to say I'd finished it. This year I probably stopped reading more books than I have in the rest of my life combined. I'd read three pages and think, "This is not that good. I'll try something else." I'd read 100 pages and think, "This is not getting any better. I have 25 other books I'm interested in." I have left a slew of discarded stories in my wake this year, and I don't even feel badly about it. 

But the ones I did read and finish... Wow. They are not the kind I'll read and forget. They are the kind that keep popping up in my head, stories and ideas and visuals and feelings they left me with that have become part of me. They are the ones I talk about, even a year later.

Here are some of my faves from this year:

Devil in the White City (Erik Larson). I think about this book all the time. I think about the history of the World Fair, the science of electricity, the horror of a serial killer. The details of it, the imagery it evoked, creep up on me in the weirdest of times. It's the kind of non-fiction that rearranges your brain, changes the way you see the world and think of history.

Flawless (Scott Andrew Selby). I listened to this one on tape as I walked last spring, so I don't know if reading would have the same power, but this one, like Devil in the White City, changed my brain, the way I see the world and history. It is a crime caper, a heist worthy of a movie crammed with stars, but it is real. It happened. And I think about it all the time, even nearly a year later.

Tenth of December (George Saunders). It's hard to believe I'd written off short stories as boring before last year. This is the most unique collection of stories I've ever read, and several of them still haunt me.

The Divergent Series (Veronica Roth). I didn't like it. I couldn't put it down. I thought it was derivative. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided if you can't stop thinking about something and can visualize it so completely when you close your eyes, it must be pretty good after all.

Spook (Mary Roach). I read several of her books, but this was my favorite. I can't imagine how I could have laughed more in a book about death. Every high schooler should be required to read her writing. She makes science fascinating and interesting and funny and relevant. I don't love biology, but I couldn't wait to read her book about the digestive system. You can't ask more of an author than that!

The best book I read, though, is one that isn't due to come out until later this year. I've read that one three or four times. It is the kind of fiction I wish I could write.

I don't know what this year will bring. I have about 100 books on my Nook and to-read shelf. I'm trying to be better now about finishing ones I start, mostly because I'm reading my son's AP English reading list with him, and I know he doesn't have the option of putting them down if he doesn't like them. In the last month we've read 1984 and Brave New World together. I love reading the same thing as him so we can talk about them. I've missed the talking-about-books aspect of grad school. :)

So tell me about what you've read this year that sticks out, or what you plan to read in 2014. Anything I should add to my list?


  1. In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell was the best book I read in '13, and I'm still chewing through it. I threw down so many books last year too! It's so hard to stick through a slog when you're excited about other writers and releases.

    1. I haven't heard of that book, Tabitha! I will have to look it up! A killer title! I admit to being a bit ADD when there is a string of authors I want to read. It's as if maybe the next will be just a bit better.

  2. I just found out that Mary Roach is coming here in April. I'm so excited! I loved her book, Packing for Mars.

    I made it through 1 and a half of the Divergent series. I'm not sure what stopped me on the second book, but I couldn't finish it.

    Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a book I really enjoyed. It was funny, I considered it a good book up until like the 3/4ths point, then WAM, it knocked me down and I was in love.

    A book called Every Day was a good one too, one that stuck with me. "Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl."


    1. I still haven't read Packing for Mars, although I have it and want to read it. I read a few others and then figured I needed a break from all that science. :) How very cool that she is going to be up in your neck of the woods!! Wish I could go!

      I have Ocean on my list to read. I haven't heard of Every Day but it sounds fantastic! Thanks for adding to my pile. :)

  3. You have an interesting list. A few weeks ago I tried a new author and couldn't put her down. The book was so good I gave it to my critique partner. No...I can't remember the title!!

    1. That happens sometimes to me, too, Terri! If you think of it, you'll have to let me know what it was!

  4. I read just Divergent.
    The last book was ruined for me, and honestly, I'm not for doing that in YA spec fic.
    It's fine. I hate series, so stopping w/ book #1 gives me space to make up my own ending for Tris and Four and their world ;-)

    Fracture and Hysteria by Megan Miranda were random books I picked up and ended up LOVING.
    Born Wicked by Jessica Scotswood was just...visually stunning and I found myself holding my breath more than once.
    I am a HUUUUUGE Fan of the Raven Boys series by Maggie Steifvater. You'd love her writing. It's gorgeous. Almost too much, but really really fantastic and SUCH a unique world. Also, I felt satisfied w/ the ending in both books, but I'm still dying for the third.
    When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney was fantastic.
    Tilt by Ellen Hopkins was raw and real and horrible but amazing.
    Under the Dusty Sky by Allie Brennan has perhaps one of my fav ever YA girls. It's not often you're in the head of someone truly spoiled - not in money but in getting away w/ everything. Loved it.
    Being Henry David by Cal Armistead - fantastic YA referencing Henry David Thoreau, which is a win
    Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley - gorgeous language, great story.
    Speechless by Hannah Harrington - GREAT YA contemp.
    Also I started the Partials series by Dan Wells (I know I said I hate series, but there are like 4 that I don't mind, and this is one of them. SUCH an interesting but complicated world).
    And those are my fav reads last year ;-)

  5. One that stood out for me this year was SACRE BLEU by Christopher Moore. Of course I'm a sucker for pretty packages and it's a great looking book, but it's that strange amalgamation of imaginative writing and extremely rude humour (he's got a dirty mind but makes me giggle despite my prudishness) and then a few surprise jolts of meaningfulness and human decency. And, art history! And, paranormal! And... cave people???? It's not for everybody but it kind of knocked me out.

    Also read THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers because I had to know what the big deal is. I think I get it.

    And GET SHORTY by Elmore Leonard. Not my usual kind of read. But wow. I have to read it again. It's not just the dialogue, it's what the characters don't say, and the plot is crazy.

    You've got a few on your list I need to check out. Isn't it wonderful having the freedom to read whatever the heck you want!!!!