top 10 books I read in 2013

top 10 books

I’m on track to read 29 books this year. Maybe a few more if I can sneak them in before the clock strikes 12. Not a huge amount–I do have a day job, which is coincidentally also reading–but I’ll take it. My top 10 favorite books this year, in no particular order, are:

Written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Fiona Staples, Saga was the first comic book I’ve read, and, man, was it a great introduction. The characters are sharp and funny, the art is gorgeous and modern, and the story focuses on relationships–that just happen to be during a war in space. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to try out graphic novels but isn’t sure of making the jump. It convinced me to dive into the medium, and I’m so glad it did…  [see saga related posts here]

The Sandman  
…because then I picked up Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s epic is a tremendously fun journey that I’m still reading–two volumes left to go. It’s not too late to pick this up. In fact, now might be a great time to get started because there are reports Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to make it into a movie.  [see sandman related posts here]

Where’d You Go Bernadette (Kindle here)
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple was a delight. It’s a funny, touching look at a family’s relationship with a struggling woman who disappears for a while–like I’m sure we’d all like to sometimes. It’s a compilation of (fictional) letters and documents that Bernadette’s daughter puts together to try to track her down, but it reads like a charming story from beginning to end.  [see bernadette related posts here]

The Gift of Fear (Kindle here)
I recommend this book to everyone. It is a brilliant read and it helps me understand and feel better about fears that I and most women (and men!) face every day. Each chapter showed me new ways to look at fears, process them, and live safer. It focuses on women’s safety but can be helpful for anyone–it has chapters on the workplace and schools, as well as regular scary places like parking garages. Gavin De Becker also shines a light on men’s actions that can be scary without them realizing it, which can promote more understanding and safer lives for everyone. Seriously, read this book.

Boy’s Life (Kindle here)
Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon, was possibly the best book I read this year. (But…so is this whole list.) It encapsulates feelings and the imagination of childhood and could connect with even the most hardened adult. I live as a grown up in a big city now, but reading about Cory’s life in a small southern town still resonates.  [see boy’s life related posts here]

The Revolution was Televised (Kindle here)
I have loved getting more into television. I am devouring show after show–most recently Orphan Black–and Alan Sepinwall’s book on some of the best shows from the past decade (or so) was excellent. Even for the shows I haven’t seen, hearing his analysis gave me a fuller picture of the medium and more appreciation for the storytelling that I am able to watch. He is passionate about the subject, and hearing his views on show after show was like talking to my friends about great shows I just saw–and that’s one of my favorite parts of watching TV.

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and Joyland was not as scary as the thrillers he is usually known for. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less quality. To me, Joyland was a perfect summer read about a young man’s summer love–with an amusement park. It has enough love and mystery to keep things interesting, but it’s not too scary or saccharine.

Never Let Me Go (Kindle here)
This novel, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is technically about a strange boarding school and a twisted reality I’m thankful we don’t live in. But it’s more about basic humanity than almost anything else I’ve read this year. This book touches on what makes us human and the importance of basic decency, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Its first-person narration was easy to read and felt so real and true to the young woman Kathy C. that I was shocked to remember it was written by a man.  [see never let me go related posts here]

Under the Dome (Kindle here)
Stephen King again. And a story about a small town again, like Boy’s Life, but this time in the Northeast. Although King often uses scary monsters in his books, the true horrors are what we face in real life: jealousy, anger, substance abuse, insecurity, power. These terrors can take hold of anyone, and they invade a small town that finds itself trapped under a dome.  [see under the dome related posts here]

Salvage the Bones (Kindle here)
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, was not what I was expecting. I heard this was a book about Hurricane Katrina, but the hurricane doesn’t make an appearance until the memorable closing scenes. This story follows a poor family as it prepares for a storm no one could prepare for while Esch, the only girl in the family with three brothers, faces a storm of her own. It’s touching and heartbreaking, and though they live a life very different from my own, Esch’s emotions are all recognizable.

(These books are my own choices, and I’m not paid for them. I am part of the Amazon affiliate program, so if you buy through my links I’ll receive a teeny bit of money for it.)

how to write short: word craft for fast times

how to write short

Reading How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark (Kindle here) gave me stage fright. Or, I suppose, blog fright. How could I live up to his excellent examples? Lucky for me, he includes clear advice on how to sharpen short writing, and I’m happy to follow it. Most everyday writing is 300 words or less–unless your job is, well, a writer. We text and tweet and email a lot more than we write novels. (Even those who write novels, I bet.)

Short writing is often overlooked for its novel-length counterpart. After all, tweets don’t win Nobel Prizes–at least, not yet. But short writing has value. And an aspiring writer can learn from every kind of writing, Clark says. Like the back of cereal boxes, or OKCupid profiles, or–my fave–fortune cookies.

For those quick to say texting, tweeting, and other short writing is ruining our language, we went through this recently with telegrams and turned out ok. People were charged by the word, so abbreviations and crafty cutting were the norm. And now we’re doing it again–but digitally in tweets and emails. (I used to scoff, but now I’ve embraced abbreviations. They can be useful, especially in a tweet, and they can also be sort of hilar.)

Some short writing is both storytelling and communication. After all, letters tell a story. Clark says early novels used letters to tell important parts of the tale. I just finished Where’d You Go Bernadette, composed almost entirely in messages–updated with emails and faxes, of course. Our current family book club book House of Leaves is made up of documents and journal entries. These long stories are told through short writing, just like much of our own life.

My friends and I have an ongoing group text. That communication, made up of bursts of texts, abbreviations and inside jokes, tells a beautiful story. Clark’s more serious example is of mom and daughter texting during a shooting. Those texts kept a family in touch, helped a girl stay safe, and later told a story to us with much more directness and immediacy than 30,000 of the killer’s own words from his manifesto.

Clark also talks about the newsworthiness of Twitter. Short, to the point, continuous updates can place us directly in a story. His example comes from tweets on the ground after an earthquake. An example in my own life comes from Hurricane Sandy. I learned so much more about what neighborhoods were safe and where damage occurred than I could have from more traditional (and longer) news sources. Tweets like “just saw the lights go out on Water St.” (a made up example based on a real event) are just a few words long but communicate critical information.

You don’t need a lot of words to create a powerful piece of writing. In fact there’s a genre of stories only six words long. You may remember Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” which I love not only for its emotional impact but also its clever use of punctuation. Larry Smith, editor and publisher of SMITH Magazine and founder of Six-Word Memoirs, championed these short stories. I think mine would be “Girl with plan finds new adventure.” (A close second was “Left-handed editor who writes alright.”)

To me, the why of writing matters much more than the length. Long or short–and long writing sprouts from short writing after all–good storytelling matters. Communication matters. Ideas matter. And all can be told with just a few words.


past favorites: unbroken by laura hillenbrand


I think I have recommended Unbroken to everyone, whether they were asking for a book recommendation or not (Kindle here). Even though I read this a few years ago, I often still think about it and the incredible spirit of Louis Zamperini.

Unbroken is a story of how Louie, an Olympic-qualifying runner, became lost at sea and a prisoner of war and lived to tell the horrific tale. His plane crashed, leaving him afloat on raft for 47 days before washing ashore a Japanese island, where he became imprisoned.

So, in case you thought being lost at sea for 47 days–with two other soldiers, no food, and man-hungry sharks–wasn’t bad enough, he was also captured, starved, and tortured in Japanese war camps. Just wanted to make sure you got all of that.

But the thing I remember most about this story isn’t the atrocities. It’s the spirit and love that Louie embodies in spite of everything he goes through (it is also the terrifying sharks). The vignettes of hope–like a duck the prisoners take on as their mascot, or Louie’s friendships in unbelievable circumstances, or the back-to-life party doctors throw for Louie–are what make this book one of my favorites.

I first glimpsed Louie’s strength when he was adrift on a raft after his plane crashed. Eight of 11 men on the plane died, and Louie and the other survivors were lost at sea for a very long time. There is an incident on the raft that I still cannot think of without getting knots in my stomach. And when they finally reach land and you think they might get some relief, the land is Japanese.

Louie experiences unspeakable cruelty when he is taken prisoner, especially from a guard they call the Bird. The Bird focuses on Louie, I think, because he couldn’t beat Louie’s spirit from him. But Louie and the men consistently fight back however they can: “To deprive the Bird of the pleasure of seeing them miserable, the men made a point of being jolly.”

In one of many instances where Louie shows he is stronger than this cruelty, the Bird forces Louie to hold a heavy beam of wood and tells Louie that he cannot let it fall.

“He felt his consciousness slipping, his mind losing adhesion, until all he knew was a single thought: He cannot break me. Across the compound, the Bird had stopped laughing.”

Louie was beaten as he was holding the beam, and then he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Louie had held the beam for 37 minutes.

That spirit and holding onto his dignity are what keep Louie alive during his time at sea and his imprisonment.

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.”

And when the war ends, and Louie can begin his trek home (not a spoiler guys, he is alive and interviewed for the book), he keeps that spirit–though not without difficulties and dark days.

“Seeing a table stacked with K rations, he began cramming the boxes under his shirt, brushing off an attendant who tried to assure him that he didn’t have to hoard them, as no one was going to starve him anymore.”

When Louie was given orders to fly out, he asked the doctors to keep him longer so his mother wouldn’t see him so thin. The doctor agreed, and also threw Louie “a welcome-back-to-life bash, complete with a five-gallon barrel of “bourbon””–a hodge podge of Coke syrup, water and whatever booze they could find.

These bright spots alone are worth the read. But Laura Hillenbrand’s voice and research are fantastic. Unbroken is beautifully written and easy to read–save for the horrific subject matter at times. And Hillenbrand’s extensive research includes even documenting newspaper interviews of prison guards years after they were assumed dead and then resurfaced. She interviews Louie and his family and treats the material with the same dignity Louie himself exhibits. Her footnotes are a good read in and of themselves, but the heroism throughout Unbroken is what makes it truly amazing.

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy through my links on Amazon, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.)

in cold blood

in cold blood

Our book club book this month was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Have you read it? It’s a really amazing, in-depth account of a horrible murder of a family in Western Kansas in 1959.

I’m an editor, and I actually interned at the Kansas City Star, which comes up often in this book. I can’t seem to ever turn off my editor brain, especially when I’m reading nonfiction. And after some recent controversy came up doubting some of Capote’s claims, my editor brain was all over this novel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. The amount of research that went into this book is astounding. I am confident 95% of it is right on the money and expertly and beautifully presented. It’s the other 5%–the nonexistent attribution for conversations Capote couldn’t have been present for, or describing expressions when he wasn’t in the room–that sparks a teeny tiny bit of skepticism from me. These details probably won’t matter to most people. He makes his claims based on days–months probably–of interviews and years of research. So even if he was assuming how someone’s face looked when they got bad news, he likely assumed correctly. But if you’re claiming your novel is 100% accurate, then I think you should be able to clearly say how you know these things are true, even the little moments and expressions that don’t matter much to the whole tale.

We talked about this in book club, and most of the people who weren’t journalists didn’t sweat this small stuff. But we did talk about how he got his information, and journalistic standards and ethics. My book cub notes are here:

in cold blood notes

Like how close is too close? Did his relationships with his subjects color his account? My issue isn’t with the writing (how could it be, it’s incredible), it’s with transparency. Having more transparency may not have made this book a better story. But I do think it would have made it a stronger journalistic piece. And if you don’t want that–if you’d rather it be a gorgeous piece of writing that’s 95% accurate and blurs the lines of truth here and there–then I’m totally cool with that. Really. As long as you tell me that’s what’s happening so I can read it with that in mind.

The structure of this novel is brilliant. He twists the victims’ and the killers’ stories so that they really only meet toward the end–once Dick and Perry are caught and are telling their tale. I read that Capote was one of the first to do this kind of nonfiction novel. He made it popular, and, when he was writing, footnotes and strict record-keeping weren’t really a thing yet. I understand, but I do wish they were there. Because I’m a big nerd, and I like to read them. And also because if they were there, it would be easier to dispute/support others’ claims of inaccuracy.

One of my favorite themes in the book is perceptions versus reality. The killers eventually confess, but do you believe every word in their confessions? Their personalities can seem sweet or callous, depending on circumstances, so who are they really? Sensitive and charming? Or manipulative, cold-blooded killers? The Clutter family was well-off and lived in a big house and took care of big business. The killers believed they were rich, but found next to no cash in their house. What’s real? Does reality or perception even matter when the end result is a dead family?

What do you guys think?

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. I am not affiliated with Word; I’m just a fan.)