It's time for me to jump on my soapbox and spread the word about all the great books I read last year. In 2021, I read 61 books. In 2022, I read 108 books! A personal best - and a record I'm not going to sweat to break in 2023.
Yep, 61 to 108 is a serious jump. Some of that is the 15 poetry books I read in August for The Sealey Challenge (less than half of its lofty goal to read a collection each day!), and some is when I hit the skids with post-Covid malaise and read a lot from Kate DiCamillo's wonderful opus for children.
Part of what makes my annual reading challenge so fun is that I track all my books in StoryGraph. StoryGraph is terrific. It's free, created by an African-American woman, and it has really cool features like insightful stats and clear graphics about your reading habits. It also offers terrific recommendations and isn't owned by Amazon like Goodreads. (To move all your data from Goodreads to StoryGraph takes just a couple of easy clicks!)
At some point last year, I stumbled upon this great list of books by native and indigenous writers from Elissa Washuta, and enjoyed a lot of great reads - many of which are in this newsletter. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites recent reads that I highly recommend.
The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser, If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar, 1919 by Eve Ewing, Indigo by Ellen Bass, Girls are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi, Averno by Louise Gluck, A Line of Driftwood: The Ada Blackjack Story by Diane Glancy, Now Do You Know Where You Are by Dana Levin, and Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall. Perhaps the book that moved me the most was Prognosis by Minneapolis poet Jim Moore, written during quarantine and the efforts for justice after the murder of George Floyd.
My favorites: Safekeeping by Agibail Thomas is a gorgeous memoir that I wish I'd read years ago, as it opens up ways to tell the story of a life in small, pungent, often funny vignettes; her memoir A Three-Dog Life is great, too. The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger is so smart and lovely, with each essay investigating the "horrors inflicted on so-called "witches" of the past." These Precious Days by the wonderful Ann Patchett is a collection of essays rooted in Covid lockdown that offer comfort, deep wisdom, and humor.
A very strong and engaging collection of essays about gun violence and gun culture is Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones expands on the New York Times magazine initiative; each stand-alone chapter is written by a guest writer. If you need something smart and light, with moments of wry wisdom, there is Happy Go Lucky and A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003-2020) by David Sedaris.
Other good ones are Emily Bernard's essay collection, Black Is The Body and Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by the incomparable Claudia Rankine. I finally read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer and don't know why I waited - each stand-alone essay is fascinating! My favorites were about maple sugar trees, sweetgrass, cattails, and about how to make black ash baskets starting from choosing the tree.
The Art of Revision by Peter Ho Davies is a game-changer! (See my review.) For years, I've led writing workshops using the groundbreaking process of Liz Lerman. This year, she explores the process she created decades ago in Critique is Creative: The Critical Response Process in Theory and Action by Liz Lerman and John Borstel. Lerman's process is also referenced in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez, which is full of insight and practical advice.
Puzzled about reading poetry and want an easier way to appreciate poems? Then check out the latest book by Stephanie Burt: Don't Read Poetry: A Book about How to Read Poems. Burt "dispels preconceptions about poetry and explains how poems speak to one another - and how they can speak to our lives." With the simple comparison of poetry and music "she shows readers how to find more poems once they have some poems they like." You would never say "I don't get music" the way people say "I don't get poetry." With music, you might like jazz not hiphop, or prefer heavy metal to disco. Poetry is vast like music, too. So, Burt shows you how to find poems with which you'll connect and enjoy.
For a wonderful memoir/craft book, check out Melissa Febos' Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative in which she uses her profound thinking and usual badass candor to give us permission to tell our stories, write about sex and our bodies with courage and honesty. Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton is a great read and resource.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna may be one of my favorite novels of the past decade; Forna can write about the effects of war with such subtlety and insight (her book Happiness is terrific, too). As a lap swimmer at my local Y, I really enjoyed The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. The page-turner, The Break by Katherena Vermette, explored sexual violence and its aftermath, and included so many memorable female characters. Lauren Groff's short stories in Florida are sometimes grim but all pretty great. I also loved The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, Matrix by Lauren Groff, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, and Music for Wartime: stories by Rebecca Makkai.
Thank god for funny novels! I thoroughly enjoyed the funny and charming Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, The From-Aways by C.J. Hauser, and Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt - in which part of the story is told in the voice of an octopus! I also loved Now is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson (author of the absolutely awesome, Nothing to See Here about a set of combustible twins!)
There aren't enough superlatives for Kate DiCamillo. In 2022, I read a handful of her delightful books for young people. I especially loved The Magician's Elephant, Flora and Ulysses,(it's about a superhero pet squirrel who types poetry!) The Tiger Rising, and Because of Winn Dixie. If you don't know her work, I am sorry your life is so drab...so just go get them all, and let their awesome illustrations and hilarious and poignant stories do their work on you.
If you are giving books as gifts this year, I encourage you to buy them from your local independent bookstore when you're able to do so. What have you been reading?
I'm a writer, teacher and certified professional coach. I'm gonna see if writing an occasional blog post is a thing I like doing and want to continue doing.