The year in review, part 1: Reading, featuring my Books of the Year

My Book Talk Master List, which is always linked in my sidebar, contains links to all the posts where I have reviewed books, and has been updated for 2008 year-to-date.

Strictly from a number-crunching perspective, 35 books works out to about 1.5 weeks per book or 0.6 books per week, which is probably not bad generally, but for someone who counts herself as a member of the book-blogging community, it’s just sad. If I were a resolution-making person, I’d definitely resolve to do better next year. (Not a chance I could do this, though – 400 books in one year!)

This was the first year that a significant portion of my reading didn’t come straight from my own shelves via one bookstore or another. Here’s the breakdown:

11 out of 35 books were offered or requested for review via author or publicist
3 out of 35 books were read for my off-line book club (which went into hibernation this fall)
2 out of 35 books were Advance Reader Copies (ARC) received through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

I read 18 of the 35 books this year just because I felt like it, and that’s actually more than I had thought; there were times when it felt like all I was reading were review books from one source or another, but I’m glad it’s really much closer to half-and-half. (Just to clarify: I “review” nearly every book I read no matter how I obtain it, but a “review book” is one that was sent to me for that specific purpose.)

In February, I received the first book I was ever “pitched” by a publicist and invited to review; as I’ve said before, I had been blogging for months before I even realized that book bloggers were frequently sought out and offered free books! Well, they aren’t entirely “free” – I do feel that if I accept a book through a publicist, and even more when it comes directly from the author, that I have a responsibility to read and review it in a reasonably timely manner, and I try to comply. Having said that, there are several “review books” currently waiting in a stack in my living room. If it’s not for a blog tour, online book club, or something similar with a specific deadline for posting my review, I’ve begun letting authors and publicists know it could be weeks before I get to their books, and that they should tell me if that’s a problem; so far, no one has said it is. While I appreciate the review offers I get and free books are nice for my wallet, I won’t accept any books that I wouldn’t be willing to spend my own money to read, and I have no wish to become primarily a “book reviewer;” I am, and always want to be, a READER first. I just happen to be a reader who blogs her impressions of what she reads.

And as a reader, I’m thinking about my best reading experiences of 2008. They weren’t always the books I gave the highest ratings, but they are books that introduced me to something new, resonated with me in one way or another, and have stuck with me over the course of the year. And for what it’s worth, all but one was “discretionary” reading, although two of them did lead to review offers of another book by the same author.

Book of the Year, Fiction:
The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. Coupled with her second novel, No One You Know, Richmond is also my “Must-read Author Discovery” of the year.

The Year of Fog somehow manages to be suspenseful and reflective at the same time. In the midst of the story of Abby’s search for Emma, the child who mysteriously disappeared while in her care, Michelle Richmond weaves case histories on the subject of memory and considerations of how the past shapes who we are.
When her fiancΓ©’s daughter disappears during the brief moment when Abby stops to consider how to photograph a seal pup on the beach, Abby’s guilt over her lack of constant attention is compounded by a sense that she has failed as a stepmother-to-be. That stepparent ambivalence particularly resonates with me; it’s far more than being a caretaker, but somehow not quite a “full” parent, no matter how strong your emotional investment in the child is. In Abby’s case, it almost seems to fuel a need to atone for Emma’s disappearance by completely immersing herself in efforts to find her.
This is definitely Abby’s story, told through her first-person narration, and I found her a very relatable and sympathetic character. Her self-awareness as she digs herself in deeper and deeper is one of the qualities that makes her painfully compelling.

The Ruins of California, by Martha Sherrill

I loved the writing here. The story is told through Inez’ first-person narration, and her voice is honest and convincing. The period descriptions and details sound and feel right. It’s a growing-up story, which by its nature makes it more episodic than plot-driven, but it’s the character development that really carries things along.
After the beginning, it feels like not much attention is given to Inez’ relationship with her mother, and that bothered me until I sorted out that it’s really not their story; following her divorce from Paul, Connie moved on from the Ruins, but Inez remains one, and so the focus here is on that side of her family – the not-everyday, complicated, come-and-go Ruins. Her grandmother Marguerite introduces her to horses and the rituals of a traditional county-club society that already seems to be out of date, but that isn’t quite as fascinating as her laid-back half-brother Whitman’s unrooted surfer lifestyle, and her father Paul overshadows them all. He’s a contradictory combination of brilliance and interpersonal obtuseness, generosity and self-absorption, strongly attractive (and attracted) to women while never fully investing, art and technology, and parenting habits that swing between devoted and inappropriate. It’s impressive that Inez comes through it all eventually with perspective and maturity, but there’s no question that her father is an endlessly intriguing character – to her, as well as to the reader.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

(E)ach chapter except the (first and) last is told twice – once as if Irina gives in to the impulse, and the kiss with Ramsey leads to an affair that ends her relationship with Lawrence, and then to Irina and Ramsey’s marriage; and once as if she doesn’t, and returns to her life with her partner Lawrence. In both versions, Irina frequently reflects on what she might be giving up with one man as her life moves forward with the other. It’s an excellent framing device, and Lionel Shriver employs it well. Exploring the characters through their actions and feelings in both scenarios, over a period of several years, develops different dimensions, and helped me feel more more connection to and sympathy for them.

I liked the way that each chapter essentially related a similar plot scenario, but with differing details and twists depending on which future it was talking about. For example, Irina writes and illustrates a children’s book. In one version, it’s a creatively assembled two stories in one that doesn’t make a lot of money, but is nominated for a major award. In the other, it’s a different story in a different style, more commercially successful, and it’s nominated for the same award. I also liked that I really had no idea which of the two versions of Irina’s future might be the “real” one; both have their positives and negatives, which makes either direction plausible, and I found it difficult to favor one over the other. The final chapter – which, like the first, is only told once – wraps things up while maintaining that ambiguity. I realize that this very attribute might annoy some readers, but for me, it’s what made The Post-Birthday World an involving, original, and memorable reading experience.

Book of the Year, Non-fiction:
But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went From Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet, by Jancee Dunn

There are some books that make you feel like you’re just hanging out with the writer – laughing, sharing stories, spending an enjoyable afternoon. For me, this was one of those books.
Jancee Dunn (class of ’84) has spent quite a few of those afternoons herself, but they were with people like Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera. She’s not a name-dropper, though. Her memoir of her years writing for various magazines, among them Rolling Stone, GQ (as a sex columnist), Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine, shifts between celebrity anecdotes – framed as proven recommendations for getting to the heart of an interview with a famous person – and her memoirs of making the big leap from New Jersey to Manhattan to pursue her writing ambitions. A lucky encounter with a Rolling Stone staffer at a party leads her out of the ad-agency job she landed after college and into the rock and roll lifestyle, starting as an editorial assistant and working her way up to the big cover-profile stories.
But the charm of this book is that Dunn never fully embraces that rock and roll lifestyle, even though she tries, and her most serious attempt to do so does not turn out well. She can’t – and doesn’t really want to – break out of the embrace of her friends outside “the business” or, more importantly, her close-knit New Jersey family, and as long as she has that, she stays just a bit too grounded, and a little too geeky, to be a true “Rock Chick.” Eventually, she comes to embrace that truth about herself.

So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson sets herself the task of reading a book a week every week for one year, and keeping a journal of her reading during the period. (This was back in the pre-blogging days of 2002.) She starts out with a plan and a reading list, but quickly finds that circumstances can send her reading choices in completely different directions. By the end of the year, she’s done a lot of reading, but not quite in the way she expected to. She’s read many unplanned books, and not read quite a few of the ones on her original list, particularly the books in the poetry and nonfiction categories; she had good intentions of expanding her reading horizons during the year, but fiction is her first literary love and just calls to her more often, particularly as she trolls her bookshelves at 3 AM, looking for her next victim.

While there’s plenty of discussion of particular books here…this is a memoir much more than a recommended-reading guide. It very much reflects Sara’s personal experiences with the books she read that year, in addition to some of her other experiences during the time. Her tastes in reading are informed but unpretentious – no literary snobbery here – and her discussions of the books she loved, the books she didn’t like, and the books she didn’t finish are accessible and often insightful.

Nelson’s eager approach to reading, and her love for it, come through clearly. I liked her voice, and the way she relates to books and reading comes across very much like mine. When she talked about books that I’ve also read, I found myself wanting to discuss them with her, or at least be able to leave her a comment – this is what blogging does to a person!

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller

The context of social change and how it impacted women at that time, particularly the ones emerging into adulthood, gives the book substance, but the stories that it tells within that context are what make it a page-turner. Weller has done a lot of research and made good use of secondary sources in developing this parallel biography of three women who have more in common than you might have realized.

Weller does discuss each woman’s particular musical career in (mostly objective) detail. Carole was barely out of high school in Brooklyn when she started out as a professional songwriter and arranger, and was a seasoned pro when, ten years later, she became a hugely successful singer-songwriter. Canadian Joni was always driven toward artistic expression, both musically and visually, and on her own terms. Carly’s privileged Manhattan upbringing led to a relatively late start on her career, as it interfered with her being taken seriously. As Weller discussed the writing of various songs, quoting lyric passages here and there, I found that a lot of them were coming back to me, even if I hadn’t thought of them in years.

The context is enlightening and the work is interesting, but the book is also a biography, and it’s in these women’s personal stories that the real fascination – and fun – is. While I didn’t feel that Weller struck a gossipy tone at all, much of anyone’s biography involves their relationships, and these three women definitely have had many of them in their lives. Carole was a teenage working mother, and played a maternal role with many of her friends as well – and this tendency was probably also a factor in her attraction to younger men (she’s been married four times, and all except her first husband were younger). Both Carly and Joni were rarely without male companionship unless it was by their own choice, and both have been part of musical power couples at various times. Joni was the inspiration for Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s song “Our House” (she and Graham Nash were living together when he wrote it), and later was James Taylor’s girlfriend. James and Carole were platonic friends, but eventually Carly became his wife. The overlaps in all three women’s social and artistic circles are interesting, if a little confusing. I really felt like I’d gotten to know all of them pretty well by the time the book wrapped up, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to do so.

While I read all of these books in 2008, only one was actually published in first edition this year. However, the Weekly Geeks participants have selected their top books among 2008 publications, and you can find their picks in various genres in the Book Bloggers’ Top 10 of 2008 list posted at Literary Escapism.

What were the highs and lows of your reading experiences this year?

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  1. I loved No One You Know, and I just bought The Year of Fog and am very excited about it! The Post Birthday World was one of my favorites too.

  2. Great post, Florinda, and wonderful reviews. I have several of these on my TBR lists. Also, don’t feel bad about having read “only” 35 books. (I’m embarrassed about only reading 28, so I know how you feel.) Sounds like you’ve read some very good ones, so that’s all that matters, right?

  3. Lenore – It was a tough call between Michelle Richmond’s two books, honestly. I hope you like The Year of Fog too. And ratings-wise, I think The Post-Birthday World was actually my highest-rated book of the year (4.5/5).

    B&B's Mommy – Given the number of books the “average” American reads, I don’t think either of us should feel embarrassed to have read “only” 28, or 35, objectively speaking. It just looks low compared to high-volume (no pun intended) book-blogger standards :-).

  4. April – I love Anne Lamott, but I’ve never read that one. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is an all-time must-read, though.

  5. You read many more books than the average American, Florinda. πŸ™‚ I kind of wanted to get to 100 this year, but I did not make it, not even close really. Four hundred . . . Wow. I don’t know what to think about that. LOL

    I enjoyed reading the first part of your summary. I’m curious to know what my ARC and review request count will be. Probably very high this year since that’s the direction most of my reading ended up going. You make a good point about a difference between being a book reviewer and a reader. Like you, I truly am a reader first–the books I am sent in exchange for a review are always books I want to read and I would be interested in reading regardless of how a copy came my way. Sometimes though, it does feel like all I do is read review books. πŸ™

    All of your fiction favorites are ones I hope to read (and all because of you!).

  6. Wendy (Literary Feline) – It’s nice to know I’ve influenced some of your reading plans; that definitely goes both ways!

    I was very curious to see how the numbers went myself, and disappointed (although NOT surprised) to note that the total number of books I read this year was down from 2007. Better luck next year, I hope! πŸ™‚

    I’m looking forward to reading your year-end reading recap, Wendy.