But what should I read?

The number one email I get from friends and family members:

Hey, I know you read a lot. Do you have any book recommendations? I want to read something new, but I don’t have any ideas. I want something good… and not too weird.

So here are some things you could read. I am putting this here for myself as much as for the next few people who are curious about books. I can’t usually remember titles on the spot.

But know this: The more I read for reviews, the less I care about the labels good or bad. Those don’t have as much meaning to me anymore, and I’ll happily spend time with a book that’s outside of my own comfort zone because I’m interested in finding out who the right person is for that book. (Which is, my reading strategy, and probably should be the topic of another post.)

Also, a lot of what I read is weird. Part of that is by design–I like to read and review books from indie or small publishers, and often what gets published by those smaller places is content that’s not mainstream. So I know many of my reviews don’t appeal to a wide audience because those books wouldn’t (and those books are still valuable). But here’s an attempt to round up some recommendations for the masses. These are things I think most people would like, grouped by (sort of) their genre. Their HSP genre, that is… how I would describe them to you over a glass of wine and some delicious cheese.

An imperfect list in no particular order (with apologies to any book I forgot):

Weird, But Not Too Weird

So you want to read something outside the norm? Something artsy or dark? Something that will challenge your worldview a little? These books were so weirdly beautiful/tragic that I was completely drawn to them. All different subjects, all great writing, and all kind of bizarre.

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is a darkly comic book about three sisters trying to outlive a family curse. They descended from a Jewish chemist who invented Zyklon (a fictionalized Fritz Haber), and they spend their entire lives trying to pull together while dealing with a troubled family line. I reviewed it for the LA Times here.

Binary Star is a sad but alluring book by Sarah Gerard. I reviewed this one hereBinary Star is told from the point of view of a damaged anorexic on a cross-country journey with her (also) dysfunctional husband. Fun, right? I promise it’s good. Gerard’s language is beautiful and her characters see the world in terms of celestial bodies. It’s an amazing book.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is and end-of-the-world tale about a traveling band of musicians who roam around playing music and putting on Shakespeare’s plays for small towns in a post-apocalyptic America. A few of the characters are old enough to remember life before the event that took out most of the world’s population, and over the course of their journey they begin to solve a mystery from before things went south.

Tender Data by Monica McClure is a book of poetry. I reviewed it here for Electric Literature. McClure gets into issues of femininity and puts her speakers in direct confrontation with the world. It’s raw and sometimes messy, but the language is beautiful and you will be captivated by McClure’s honesty.

Stuff that Really Happened

There’s only one history writer for me, and it’s because I am totally, completely, hopelessly biased. Since I got to interview him last year, I’ve been blabbing to anyone who will listen about “best friend and National Treasure” David McCullough. But he can sure pen a historical tome. I promise I’ll get around to Doris Kearns Goodwin one day, but here are some recommendations of books I’ve read by BF/NTDM in the meantime. They won’t disappoint.

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John Adams, The Wright Brothers, and The Greater Journey all by David McCullough, all phenomenally rocking my socks.

What’s Happening Now

This is a book that provoked really strong feelings in me, which is why I think it’s important to read. As an educator in America, I really found it both moving and challenging. Coates doesn’t pull any punches.

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Based on Stuff That Really Happened

I’ve mentioned both of these books before, but (apparently?) I know a lot of people who are into historical fiction, so I will keep recommending them. Excellently researched and evocative works based on real women’s lives.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver is based on the life of Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph by Dorothea Lange. Silver writes in alternating perspectives of the photographer and the subject.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt tells a fictionalized story of a woman who dresses up like a man to fight in the Civil War (to spare her husband, who is too weak to fight). This really happened, and Hunt’s flair for the detail and language of the time bring his characters to life in an enjoyable, complex story.

When did we agree to call it Cali?

I have a bit of an obsession with books about California, something I can trace directly to the summer I spent reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Ever since, I’ve been captivated by authors who write California well, and these do:

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Sidewalking by David Ulin is nonfiction, a collection of essays about walking in LA. I interviewed Ulin here, and I loved this meandering book.

Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor is a gorgeous love letter to the Fresno Valley. I reviewed this book for LARB, and I am still so smitten with Taylor’s lush descriptions of fruit trees, wide open spaces, and grapevines. Fresno book? Yes please.

The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte is a small book about fog in San Francisco, and the author dealing with his brother’s suicide. It’s quiet, calm, and spellbinding. If you’ve ever sat on the beach and watched the fog consume the hills of the city, you will love this book. It haunted me.

Short on Time? Read in chunks.

I didn’t like short stories until grad school. In fact, other than whatever I was assigned at UC Davis as an undergrad, and whatever I prepped to teach, I hadn’t read a whole lot of short stories. But something happened when I started to read a lot of short story collections for reviews and my thesis in my last year of grad school–I fell in love. I really like short stories now, and I’m better at knowing how I should read them–I can’t sit down and devour them all at once like a novel. So here are some great things I’ve read in the last few years, and these are all good for picking up, putting down, and picking up again. They’ll transport you.

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The Color Master by Aimee Bender was the first book review I ever published. But it’s a wonderful book, and I had no trouble writing about how much I loved Bender’s work. A joyful, strange read.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin is a more recent read, and Berlin’s stories walk an amazing line between ordinary and macabre. Her protagonists write of real life without ever becoming self-indulgent. She gets to the heart of human emotion without ever sentimentalizing. She was a master of characterization in just a few words. I reviewed Cleaning Women for Las Vegas Weekly here, and I had trouble keeping my words short.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray is raw. Violent. Mysterious. And I loved it. Gray’s mind is dark and I couldn’t put these weird stories down. I reviewed this one for Ploughshares.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman isn’t too recent, but it bears mentioning because I love it so much. I read this one in grad school just before the author came to guest lecture. These are tragic, magical stories filled with love and awe.

Stories about Complicated Ladies

I don’t know what else to call these books. But they’re the kind of thing you can lose yourself in over a period of days, or use to transport yourself to another world of friendships, affairs, betrayal, and a whole host of issues about what it’s like to be a smart lady with all the feelings. I loved both of these, and they’re completely different from each other.

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is probably the book you’ve been overhearing your friends talk about. Go read it. It is the first of four books by Ferrante (a pen name, which somehow adds to the draw) about two friends in post-WWII Italy. I’m on the second one and it’s just as good. MBF follows the women through their girlhood and adolescence. It’s great.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum was the “it” book earlier this year. (It was touted as 50 Shades for the literary crowd). Jill was my poetry professor at UCR, but I promise you my fandom would be just as maniacal if I didn’t know her. This book felt like a rare treat–each sentence is beautifully constructed, and it’s a multi-layered story about a dangerous woman. Loved it.

What I’d Recommend to My Students

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I read Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet for a review at The LA Times, and I was really struck by how much this book carried a message that my AVID kids need to hear. It’s about a first-generation college student who doesn’t know how to handle college once she gets there. I would put it in any of my students’ hands in a heartbeat (and have already done so a couple of times).

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is the kind of book I’d recommend to my former AP kids. For some reason, Camus’ The Stranger really strikes a chord with a few students each year. Daoud’s masterful telling of the story from the perspective of the unnamed Arab’s (invented) brother is stunning.

Books Where Stuff Happens

A large portion of the conversations I have with my students about books have something to do with helping them find books “where things happen.” Many of them are impatient and don’t want to trudge slowly through a dry historical narrative to get to the good parts. If you’re looking for books where there is a lot going on all at once (and right away), these are some pretty good bets.

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Everyone and their mom has already read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. You might as well join the club. My sense is that you’ll either love it or hate it. (My two favorite emotions to have about a book!) I dug this book (and I stand by my review, even though I’ve talked to so many people who hated it). I think it’s a creative take on a crime novel. The main character doesn’t know if she did it.

All This Life by Joshua Mohr was a book I also reviewed, and it is one of the best constructed books I’ve read in a long time. Mohr weaves together the stories of many different people in San Francisco in this tale that examines how technology links us together–sometimes inextricably.

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg is another book where action takes center stage. Tod was my thesis advisor at UCR, and this book from last year shows what he does well–characters with complex inner narratives, often struggling to move forward in life. In this case, though, the guy struggling to move on is a criminal posing as a rabbi. It’s a fun book, and the main character’s deeper spiritual questions keep the work from being cliche. A fun read, but also thought-provoking.

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And there you go. Does that give you someplace to start? If you need more, you can find me over at Goodreads.

Doing and Not Doing

Mostly, it feels like I’ve been standing in line at Ulta.

Do you notice how there are always about fifteen people working there, yet there is always a line to the back of the store? Hate. Shout out to my new favorite eyebrow pencil, however: Anastasia Brow Wiz in Caramel.

But what I’ve been doing? Teaching. Cat snuggling. Books, and walking to podcasts. Oh, and a short Super-Bowl-avoidance shopping trip.

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What am I not doing? I think that’s more interesting–at least to me. Most of my worry time is devoted to it, anyway. Since December, I haven’t written any fiction. Zip. I tried once and all I got was two confused pages.

I feel like such a loser. Way to use your MFA, HSP. I sent my friend Faye a letter the other day, and I whined about this for about two pages (yep, I totally could have put that time to good use writing a damn story–or, you  know, this time I’m using right here to blog). But I’m struggling to get a story out. Really struggling. Anything.

Why is this? I have all kinds of excuses. The first is that I have been really busy with review work–a blessing, the best, happiest kind of blessing–but this is also a time of change. I haven’t found equilibrium yet. Damn if I’m not predictable about what sets me spinning.

Excuse #2: My whole family has been sick. Fortunately (and it’s just a teensy bit hard to admit this, but I will) I didn’t get as sick as the rest of them because I was the only one who had a flu shot. But one or another of us has been down for about three weeks. Lots of missed work for sickies. I’ve also had some ladyparts problems again, which has meant a shitton of doctors appointments of one kind or another. And a lot of laying down while they put me into giant tubes (nothing wrong, just a hassle, and time). While it’s been a time of gratitude about our double medical insurance, it hasn’t been my most productive moment for the written word.

Excuse #3: I’m trying to lose weight, which means I hate everything.

But so what, Whineypants. I know. None of that matters when it comes to what I want for myself. Do I want to be a writer of fiction? I do. And if I do, that means putting my money where my mouth is. Or maybe a more apt way to say it is that it means putting my butt into my chair. Making myself write the stories that I know I need to tell. Something. I haven’t figured it out yet. I like systems, and for this I don’t have one. Fiction feels like it needs space — in my head and in my day. I haven’t found that. Not that kind, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. Things are good. I have work. I have a routine. I have a way to make it work with my day job and my family. I have myself figured out when it comes to reviewing, and I just recently found my maximum capacity. That’s a strength, in a way, to know how much you can and cannot handle. Now I do.

But this is how it is: the job of critic will always come with crises of confidence. I go along fine, read-read-read, write-write-write, and then I get another wave of who am I to say what I think about a book? Nobody cares about you, English teacher who still lives in the town where she went to high school. That feeling is stronger from time to time and I know to ride it out — it eventually passes. But lately I wonder if I can be a critic if I’m not also walking the walk. If I’m not putting my words on the page, if I’m not sending out stories, do I even get to write about what other people have done? This is just a different kind of worry.

So that’s where I am this week. What I am doing? It’s not work. Not the right kind, at least.

10 ways to read more. Even if it’s boring.

UntitledIt’s not as difficult as you’d think to read more books. I’m not a particularly fast reader, and I certainly don’t have very much free time. But in 2014 I read 66 books, for a grand total of 18,863 pages. Best reading year ever.

I get asked pretty often about how I manage to read so much. Of course, I do like to read and chose two jobs for myself that necessitate reading. But I watch a shitload of bad TV, you guys. And liking to read doesn’t mean I’m predisposed to getting a lot of it done. Until a few years ago, I was pretty much only reading the novels I was teaching. I didn’t read for fun unless I was on vacation. When I started an MFA program, I realized that I needed to find a way to make reading work in my daily life. When I started working as a book critic, I needed even more strategies. And I’m not talking about the standard “stop reading if you find you hate a book” advice. Sometimes it’s worth knowing how to read even if you’re not feelin’ it.

How to Read More

1. Know how long it’s going to take.

This seems like it would make the task more daunting, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. This helps me so much. If I know how long a book will take, I’m more likely to know how (and if!) it will fit into my life. I am less likely to be surprised when I’m not finished. I realized in grad school that I needed to plan specific chunks of time for reading and writing if I was going to actually do them.  I’d spent my previous academic career in a state of constant worry: When I was I going to get my reading done? Why did I sometimes have extra time and sometimes run out of time? I spent a lot of time in college trying to stay up late to finish books and papers, which means I spent a lot of time crying while I half-assed things. I have two kids and an incredibly demanding day job that comes with its own homework. I couldn’t do that willy-nilly shit anymore.

So I sat down one day to read for an hour just to see how far I’d get. I tried to pay attention for a while to see if I was close to an average number of pages per hour. What I discovered is that I read about 50 pages an hour, average. This can vary, of course, depending on the typesetting of the book, or how old the material is (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), but I am always close to that average. If a book is 200 pages, that’s a four-hour book. If a book is 300 pages, it’s a six-hour book. This helps me to choose things based on how they’ll fit into my life. (This is why I chose to read Middlemarch over the summer, not when I was in school.) I mean, I look at the length of a movie before I go. Why not figure out the run time of a book?

Once I know a book is going to take me six hours to read, it’s generally very easy to figure out when I can do that. It might be three hours a day on two weekend days. Or if I want to get it done during the week, four days of reading for an hour and a half. There’s something great about the word “only”–if I tell myself I only have to read for an hour and a half on a particular day to stay on schedule, I am free to quit and walk away when that time is up. And if I want to keep reading? Bonus.

Of course, most people don’t have to get through a book by a deadline. I still think it helps to have an idea of how long a book will take you, even if you only read for ten minutes a day. Are you willing to live with that particular story for the next three months?

2. Give yourself permission to be lame.

I have this post it note on my computer monitor at work: You don’t have to be great today. Just do your job. It works for reading, too. Many, many times the fear of not being perfect (or not getting a whole job done, or not doing something the “right” way) is enough to keep me from doing it at all. That’s stupid. I’m trying to be more forgiving with myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading for more than a half hour. Sometimes I can only read 5 pages before my kids interrupt. Sometimes I can’t really concentrate. Sometimes I read and I don’t understand what I read. Sometimes I have to read a chapter over and over just to get it. I used to only read when I could stay in bed for an entire day and binge. I can’t really do that now, but that’s no reason to avoid reading altogether. Nor are any of my other fears about not reading “right.” Reading a little, even inefficiently, is always going to be better than not reading at all.

3. Take your book with you.

Reading in boring situations is the best. My favorite thing to do is to avoid the task at hand. I’m awesome at not doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Carry your book. Avoid work. (This post on Zen Habits confirms that I’m not the only person who finds more time to read this way.) If I can make reading feel like avoidance behavior, like a cheat, it’s indulgent. If I’m at a meeting that’s running long, or if I’m stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, or if I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for my kids to get out of school, reading always seems like more fun than just sitting. I have to be there, anyway. Once I got used to carrying a book, I started to feel like something was missing if I forgot it. I know I could be playing solitaire or crushing candy or scrolling through the latest gossip headlines, but at the end of the day none of those leave me with anything to show for my efforts. If I read while I’m bored and waiting, I can at least get ahead. Little bits add up.

4. Think of reading like a treat.

This is a mental game I play with myself all the time. Do I love to read? Hells yeah. Does that mean I always want to read? NOPE. The minute I catch myself wanting to complain about having to read, I stop and change my mindset. Reading is definitely a “get to,” not a “have to.” As a literate, thoughtful person, it’s a privilege for me to read. It’s never a chore. (And when that doesn’t work because the reading still feels like work, I remind myself that I could be digging a ditch or having to smile at other humans for my job. That usually does the trick and I snuggle right back into my quilt and my book.).

Reading is relaxing. It’s good for your mental health. It’s wonderful to sit or lay still during a busy day, whether it’s at the beginning, middle, or end of it. Read outside. Read under a blanket. Read with a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy it, because it is a luxury.

5. Pay yourself first.

Procrastination is a losing battle. I read recently that procrastination is the hope that you’ll suddenly want to do something later that you don’t want to do now. That has never happened to me in my life. I hate the same things at the end of the week that I hate on Monday. Pushing a task off until later only makes me enjoy my free time less. If I have to read and I’m not particularly enthused about the book, I make myself get it over with. I jump right in. That way it doesn’t hold any power over me and as soon as I’m done with it, I’m free to goof off. You show yourself generosity by completing boring tasks quickly; you give yourself some truly free time after you’re done.

But that doesn’t address the idea of reading things you want to read, which is sometimes equally difficult to fit into your schedule. I think that comes down to priorities. Either you want to do something, or you don’t. If you want to read more, quit making excuses and just read more. I try to think of the hours in my day like money. I only get so much and then it’s all gone. This really makes me feel better when I “pay myself first” by doing the things that matter the most to me before I do anything else. I deserve to do the things that make me feel fulfilled, not just the things I have to do. Sometimes the only way to do that is to make sure I read before I do anything else. I’ve developed a habit of reading in the mornings before my family gets up.

6. Don’t give your time to stupid stuff–unless you choose it.

AKA, don’t watch anyone read the internet to you on TV. Gretchen Rubin calls this “potato chip news.”  You know what she means. Just watch local news one day and pay attention to how much anchors talk just to fill time. I catch myself gobbling up potato chip news when I’m waiting for the forecast, or waiting for a story that’s teased before a commercial. That’s ridiculous. It’s 2015. I have a device in my pocket that tells me the weather. It also will tell me who was nominated for an Academy Award, or what the latest study says about eating beets, or what I’m supposed to be terrified of this week. I don’t have to ever watch a commercial again. There is no reason to sit and watch any show that regurgitates the internet. (Watch a morning show, and note how desperately they read things from Twitter in attempt to be relevant.) Get your own Twitter account. Scroll fast and skip the potato chips.

The point is, if I catch myself falling down the rabbit hole of stupid news (or re-runs of reality TV, just “watching whatever is on,” etc), I try to at least think about whether or not I could be spending my time more efficiently. This is not to say that I don’t waste hours of my life doing things that most people would find ridiculous. But I’m happy to spend my time on inane things when I choose them.

7. Get into audio books.

Ignore the voice (real or imagined) that tells you audio books aren’t real books. Is it a different act to listen than to read words on a page? Sure. Do you hear the words? Do they go into your head? Yep. You read that. If it isn’t “real,” so WHAT? I listened to Anna Karenina while I trained for a marathon, and I have amazing memories of running with Vronsky and Anna. Last year I listened to The Goldfinch on long walks through my neighborhood, and I was just as moved by antique furniture restoration as I would have been holding the book. I’ve loved some of the stories I’ve heard more than the ones I’ve read with my eyes. Enjoy the words however they get into your brain.

8. Get a buddy.

I’ve never been in a book club, but I’m desperate to talk to people about stories. I find writing reviews scratches this itch. Maybe all it takes for you is having a friend read the same book at the same time. Everything is better when it’s shared. I love when my husband or a close friend read a book with me. Try to find a reason for reading, and you’re more likely to stick to it.

9. Have a goal.

I like to see my little ticker go up on Goodreads. Set a goal for yourself, even if it’s small. It feels good to make progress.

10. Give yourself permission to hate what you read. Read anyway.

I firmly believe this: If you can make yourself read things that are challenging (even if these things are boring), you are going to have more opportunities in your life. Let me say this another way: If you only ever read things that feel easy, good, or exciting, you’re limiting yourself.

I read things all the time that are hard to get through. Sometimes this is for work, sure. But sometimes it’s because I need to learn. Sometimes I want to read an opinion that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I read bad writing so I know how I don’t want to write. Many times I read about people who are not like me. Sometimes I read things that are beyond my reading or comprehension level and I work so hard just to understand. Not always. God no. I read a lot of fluff. But if you tell yourself you only have to read things  you like, after a while you will run out of books. Reading will get tedious. I guarantee it. If you give up on every book that doesn’t feel just right, you might not ever discover something really great that’s different. Maybe the book is about to get SO good, and you missed it by putting it down. Maybe you are about to get so good as a result of reading it.

I know that’s not popular advice. And this is not sexy, but here’s how you read more. Even when it’s boring: You keep going, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I ran a marathon that way: slow as hell. If you keep reading, and if you don’t stop, you will make progress. And the more you read, the more you’ll want to.

Monday Links

Morning, world!

Looks like today the literary scene is back in business. Or at least, my little corner of the scene in Smalltown, USA. I have a review up this morning in the January issue of Bookslut:

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Characters in Thomas Pierce’s new collection of short stories, Hall of Small Mammals, are observers. Pierce juxtaposes science and faith, and his stories show how they share a desire to explain and label the world. Seeing truth is central to his characters’ understanding of life around them — obliteration of fear, faith in humanity (or man’s ability to thrive), and the order of the animal kingdom are ideas that bleed from one story to the next. Pierce’s characters live in the overlap of a science-faith Venn diagram.

Click here to read the rest.

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It’s also a good morning for me because The Millions’ Great 2015 Book Preview is up. I get asked all the time how I choose books to review. This is how.

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And while you’re poking around the interwebs, take a gander at this interview with one of my favorite authors, Megan Mayhew Bergman. Her book, Almost Famous Women, is out tomorrow.

I am happy in the New Year.