Book Recommendations!

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Recommending books is pretty much my favorite thing in the world.  As a kid I had my face buried in a book whenever I could, and had little bookplates and made up serial numbers (“ceral” numbers) for an elaborate lending system (mostly ignored) for my friends.  I was an English and Creative Writing major, which meant I got to read my way though college and graduate school.  I worked in bookstores for many years, and now I volunteer (almost) every Sunday at our local Friends of the Public Library Bookstore here in Oakland.  And, well, I’m a total book nerd.  When I find a book that I love, I shout it from the rooftops, post all over the internet, and am so socially awkward that sometimes I don’t even greet my friends before saying, “OH MY GOD, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.”

Not that I am terribly highbrow or intellectual, mind you.  I’m slogging through Ulysses which makes me sound much smarter than I actually am.  I read a lot of Young Adult fiction, and I can say that most of that is much better than a lot of the “adult” novels out there now.  But there are so many great adult novels, and books of essays, and memoirs, and history, and…  And..  And…  Sigh.  this year I signed up to do a reading challenge, and pledged to read 52 books this year.  This weekend I discovered I was 3 books behind, so I have to finish 20 books by December 31st.  Gulp!  But since I have about 40 unread books stacked on my bedside table and on the floor next to it, I’m not too worried.  (Except about slogging through Ulysses. It’s tough!)

Anyway, in the past 24 hours, I’ve had two lovely people ask me for book recommendations.  I wish I could be quick on the draw and say, “this one and this one and this one and this one,” but I never can.  Just like I can never remember what record or book I’m looking for in the store.  So I thought I’d pull together a quick reading round up of my favorite books I’ve read this year (or so), just to get things started.  (Previous ones are here and here and here!)

My favorite of the year so far:

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  Oh God, I loved this book, and have told everyone I know that they must read it.  I cried big, fat tears on an airplane while reading it, and hugged it when I was done.  That’s pretty much all you need to know.  It’s not often that I hug a book.

SHORT STORIES

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I’ve been on a short story kick lately — maybe it’s my attention span, but my admiration for short stories and poetry just keeps growing.  I am not a word economist, so clean and spare and short thrills me.  While I love Lorrie Moore (see other lists above), I read her new collection this year and didn’t really enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.  However, she is the editor of 100 years of The Best American Short Stories, which just came out and I highly recommend it.  Not to read all at once, mind you — it’s 709 pages of some of America’s most brilliant authors, grouped by decade — but it’s perfect for your nightstand or lunchtime reading, to pick up and set down again.

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I’ll bet you had to read The Lottery, Shirley Jackson’s chilling and brilliant short story, in high school English class.  And I’ll bet you still remember it.  (How much other classroom reading do you remember?  Probably not much.)  This year I picked up her collection as well as We Have Always Lived in the Castle (good refreshers for the new book that just came out!), and oh.  Oh.  I tried to describe what it was like reading these stories to my husband — that they are so remarkable, so simple yet so frightening and real and absurd and plausible yet fantastic — and couldn’t find the words.  Finally I just said, “This book is amazing.  You should read it, too.”

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Caveat:  I have not read A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, but it comes highly recommended by my dear friend and award winning author herself, Mimi Pond (more on her later), and I trust her implicitly.  I also love the cover.  It’s next on my list, at the ready.

MYSTERY/THRILLER

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Okay, I’m not one for mysteries and thrillers, which is kind of weird because I loved Nancy Drew more than anything.  I loved her roadster and titian hair and chums Bess and George and her emergency five dollars and department store charge plate and the fact that in every single book, she solved an exciting mystery and it was all neatly wrapped up at the end of 180 pages.  I loved the symmetry and glamour, and guessing who done it.  But as an adult it hasn’t been a genre I’ve really pursued, just a few here and there.  But my friend recommended Tana French’s books to me, and I’m hooked.  They are terrific, can’t-put-down and so smart.  You can start with any of them, really, but In the Woods is first so I’d go from there if you can.

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I know, this is the “it” book of the season, but if you want a fast read with twists and turns, and if you liked Gone Girl, you’ll like this.  Sometimes it’s the perfect thing when the world seems to be flying past and you just want to hunker down and not think too hard, but just enough to still feel clever.

YOUNG ADULT

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I’m sure I’ve probably recommended this one before, but this is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read.  (I’m jealous I didn’t write it.)  But don’t let the fact that it’s YA fool you — it’s just fantastic, regardless of how old you are.  It will fill you with longing for your teen love, or the teen love you never had.  I finished this one and started it over again.

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I have fallen head over heels in love with Libba Bray’s the Diviners series.  It’s the cat’s pajamas!  Set in 1920s Jazz-Age New York, they are so much fun and actually gripping and scary.  But romantic and smart, and so well written, and I love love love that Libba Bray has done her homework and gets the 20s right with a terrific combination of history and sense of place, with slang and fashion and pop culture.  And they are fabulously thick — over 600 pages each, and I raced through both of them in about 2 days.  I was hooked, and can’t wait for the next two.  They really are, forgive my pun, divine.

HISTORY/MEMOIR/ESSAYS

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Here’s some more 20s love and history for you… What Fresh Hell is This?, the biography of Dorothy Parker by Marion Meade, is my absolute favorite biography of all time.  (Yes, partly because Dorothy Parker is my favorite writer of all time, but it’s overall fantastic.)  I was thrilled to find a newer book by Ms. Meade, all about my favorite subjects:  Mrs. Parker, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Zelda Fitzgerald, all between 1920 and 1930.  Oh, I LOVED this book.  It is so well done, and portrays these women with heart.  I was sad when the 1929 stock market crashed — not just because it was, well, a terrible thing, but because I knew the book would soon end.

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Simply put, Alice Bag RULES.  As a kid and teenager, I was so fascinated with the punk scene — I thought LA must have been the coolest place in the world, and I longed to be a part of it.  Alice Bag reaffirmed those feeling with this book, and her story of the early days of punk in LA.  And despite the title, she is so cool and likable and you wish you could be her roommate.  She genuinely loved that time, but the great thing about her is that there was so much more to her — to this day she’s still finding ways to do good in the world.   THAT is punk rock.

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Essays — especially memoir essays — are my favorite things to read and write. Jenny Lawson is a treat because not only does she write these books, but she writes posts that are basically essays on her fantastic website,  The Bloggess. Another caveat — I haven’t read this book yet.  HOWEVER, I feel that I can recommend it based on her previous book,  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, so if you haven’t read that one, you should.  She’s funny and real and sad and copes with genuine (and truly humorous!) humor, and like Laurie Notaro, I gobble up all the words they write.  (Plus I met Jenny Lawson once and she was sweet and charming and nice to booksellers, so that gives her a huge A+ in my book.)

MEMOIR/GRAPHIC NOVEL

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Okay, I’m bragging again — I’ve met Mimi Pond, too.  Several times.  Well, many times.  She even forced me to break into Norma Talmadge’s mansion once.  Oh, Norma was long dead — even Jimi Hendrix had lived there since then — but still.  It’s a really good story, isn’t it?  But a better story is this one, Over Easy, Mimi’s graphic novel/memoir about working at the famed “Imperial” (we Oaklanders know it’s Mama’s Royal) Cafe.  Mimi is witty and funny and a talented artist, so this whole package is truly a treasure and a delight.  Even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, you will still absolutely love this book with its sweet and hilarious coming-of-age stories.  And rejoice in the fact that the sequel is coming soon!

NOVELS

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I guess it’s been my year of 1920s reading, and I don’t mind at all.  Stewart o’Nan’s terrific West of Sunset is about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham, and his last years working in Hollywood.  And poor Zelda. I mean, I knew how it was going to end — but I was still sad.  So many books portray Fitzgerald as a crazy, reckless fool (and he was), but this book is sympathetic and respectful.  It will make you want to pick up Gatsby yet again.

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Saving pretty much the best for last…  I had a transcendental experience reading this book.  All throughout, the song Clair du Lune plays a part, so I cued it up on my iphone and it played, perfectly and hauntingly and beautifully, along with the final scenes of the book.  I sobbed.  So that’s my recommendation.  Oh, yeah.  it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I think some other people liked it, too.

So…  There are a few recommendations.  And I implore you — do not buy these from Amazon.  Please buy these from your wonderful local bookseller (who CAN and WILL order for you if they don’t have them in stock), or if you don’t have a local independent, order from an online bookseller, just not Amazon.  We need to keep bookstores around for a long, long time.

Okay then!  What are YOUR favorite reads?  Even though I have a huge stack, I’m always happy to hear about more!

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