Tag Archives: books

My Spring Reading List 2016

 Spring 2016

I’ve been meaning to post my Spring Reading List for weeks — in reality, I’ve done so much reading in the past year, it’s ironic that I slacked off sharing my reading lists.

Shaming me into it just the littlest bit today is one of my favorite activities with writing friends. A group of writers with Writer Unboxed meet via Facebook every other month to discuss the craft details that led to a breakout novel’s success. While I posted today’s questions and waited for discussion to start, well, there was just no excuse for not getting this post ready to go live.

So first off, shout out to my WU Breakout Novel Dissection group who are, as I type, in the throes of some really interesting analysis of everything from tittle to time structure.

And then, here’s to great reading. Let us know the best titles you’ve read lately, or releases you’re looking forward to.

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Adult Fiction

  • Julianna Baggott, Harriett Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders (Aug. 2015). Julianna is one of the most forthright, witty, magical and generous writers I’ve met, over the years, and I have been really looking forward to reading this novel, which, itself, serves as essentially the missing 7th book in an imagined series. This book is full of surprises, and one of the few books I’ve given as a gift lately.
  • 51CCPq9tcEL__SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Anthony Marra, The Tsar of Love and Techno (Oct. 2015). Anthony Marra has become one of my favorite writers –his Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2014) is the only book I have ever reviewed on this site, and makes my favorite read of year list — so I was excited to see this release. While identified as “stories,” this collection reads like a novel that is handed from one story to the next. I don’t want to oversell it… but it was new and smart and funny and… yeah, great.
  • Tana French, In the Woods (2008). Something about workshopping with Ben Percy last year has had me in a mind of getting back to my reading roots: honoring the kinds of stories that first inspired me as a reader. I crave the mental puzzle of a good mystery — equally despising poorly written ones — so have been glad to discover French’s rich & flawless writing in her Dublin mystery series. Next up: Likeness. Next up after that: Faithful Place. Hooked.
  • Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (2015).  Keeping with the mystery thread, this one finally made my reading list when it was selected by the group of writers I mentioned in the intro (Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Book Dissection group). If you’d been holding out to read this once the paperback came out, it just released last week.
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013). This novel has been in my almost-read pile for more than a year, and I’m only adding it here again because I actually read it this time. Incredible writing, great detail, my kind of topic. But the kind of over-writing where you got to each “reveal” about a hundred pages ahead of her. Really turned it tedious.
  • 51CGEPIpYqL__SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Emily Carpenter, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls (April 26, 2016). I have really been looking forward to this debut novel, which uncovers the multigenerational mystery behind the disintegration of women in one Alabama family. Emily delivers a page-turning thriller with a bit of wit and magic. I look forward to more from her.
  • Alexander Chee, Queen of the Night (Feb. 2016). Having followed Alexander online for years, I’ve been really excited to see the acclaim that has arisen around the release of this novel this year. Already a bestseller, a New York Times pick, and rising on numerous reading lists, it’s been described as a mesmerizing work, something like opera. I’ve read the opening chapter and look forward to more.
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (2015). You may be the same: this one came home from the book store with me because so many people kept reporting what an emotional read it is. It was a Man Booker Prize Finalist, and made the “best book of the year” lists for more than 20 major publications.
  • 61MBasfoH0L__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Sara Novic, Girl at War (May 2015). I’m really looking forward to this novel, a coming of age debut that has been an award winner and finalist internationally, with comparisons to two of my favorite novels: Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See.
  • Nicole Krauss, The History of Love (2005). I came to this one as a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer, Anthony Doerr, and Nathan Englander. Everything, from a starred Publishers Weekly review to excerpts and recommendations, has me looking forward to an unexpected point of view on love.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).  I previously read this author’s acclaimed Americanah (2013), but had several friends recommend her Orange Award winning earlier novel, so Half a Yellow Sun made my list. (If you prefer audiobooks, Julianne Stirling highly recommends Americanah via Audible, as she says the narrator, Adjoa Andoh, brings the African dialects to life.)

Middle Grade/Young Adult Fiction

  •  Kwame Alexander, Crossover (2014). I’m excited to be able to add not only a diverse voice into my sons’/students’ reading this spring… but it’s a highly awarded novel in verse.


  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). I keep forgetting to order this collection, but have heard it consistently recommended.


  • Richard Engel, And Then All Hell Broke Loose (Feb. 2016). From elsewhere on the blog, you may be aware of the thread about dangers to conflict zone reporters that influences part of my novel draft. While researching and tracking one missing journalist, I was sorry to hear of the capture of Engel and his crew. If you’ve seen him report, he’s the real thing, honest to goodness, diehard reporter, and I look forward to his insights.
  • Robert Young Pelton, The World’s Most Dangerous Places (1995, 2000, 2003). I first read the 1995 edition when writing Breathing Water, and returned to it, over the years, in writing about characters working in hot spots around the world. I tracked down the 2000 version this spring, as a resource a character in Never Said would have consulted before heading overseas. I got a kick out of the deadpa61MV8ZtI4JL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_n, gravedigger wit of this first time around — but the advice rings much more somber, post 9/11.
  • Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me (Oct. 18, 2016). Yes, this one’s not coming out until October, although I’d love to get ahold of a galley to review. Of everyone I’ve workshopped with, Ben’s advice on fiction has been the most like rocket fuel.

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What About You?

What is on your current must-read list, or what books have you read recently that you highly recommend?  How do you usually get your reading recommendations — suggestions from a friend? lists in the news? books on shelves in the store?

If you post your own reading list, feel free to share your link in the comments below. If you would like to join in a reading blog hop, let me know.

Or, click to connect on Goodreads.

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Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click book titles for their link on Amazon — or find them at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

What’s my “VIDA Count”?

Equity or diversity in voices is an issue many of us are working on improving — some from the publication-end, and I’ve addressed it with curriculum in classrooms. The VIDA count is a done by a group that evaluates representation of gender and identity within publications each year. I’m not a part of their counting, but thought it was positive to see the number of women (11 out of 18) and marginalized voices (7) that coincidentally populate my reading list this time around.

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March Reading Challenge: The Books You Always Meant to Read

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.


One of my favorite books is Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Except I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it. I love it because I loved To the Lighthouse. I loved the brave stubborn trust of Virginia Woolf’s sentences. I loved The Hours. I loved film adaptations of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours.

That counts, right?

Not so much!

When I spotted the poster above — a vintage Chicago literacy promotion from 1936-41, shared by the Library of Congress — on Pinterest, I knew the March Challenge was on.

It’s time to challenge our reading resumes.

March is the month to read the books we’ve always meant to read.

Let’s kick this off, in proper spirit, with a shout out to McSweeney’s for sharing this post: “Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop.” Kudos to an imaginary beta reader brave enough to advise Joyce, “Think you accidentally stapled in something from your playwriting workshop for Ch. 15.”

No doubt, for many of us, Ulysses is poster child of a certain category of “books we’ve always meant to read.”

In my polldaddy survey (click this link to the survey ) over the past month, most readers indicated two reasons for a book they haven’t gotten around to reading:

  1. so many books, so little time – other books took priority; or
  2. the unread book was ominously challenging – like Ulysses.

I have 2 copies of Ulysses, including a completely annoted version, meant to explain all those vexing inside references. Still not sure I ever finished reading.

How About You — What books have you always meant to read?

My challenge this month is just to read Mrs Dalloway. Off to a great start: it’s in my reading stack. Next, if I finish that, might be IQ84.

And what about you?

Is there a book most kids read in high school, except you changed schools that year and missed it? Is there one (be honest…) you read Cliff’s Notes for instead of the real thing?

Is there a famous book you’ve seen several film adaptations of but never read the actual book? All those great Jane Austen flicks, but never read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibilities? (My favorite is actually Persuasion.) Or Dracula or Frankenstein, or Anna Karenina, all of which lose their subtlety in film.

Or, just as likely, is there a guilty-pleasure book everyone else read and you never did? Bridget Jones? Harry Potter?

If It Helps Get You Thinking:

My books-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read fall into these categories:

  • classics or famous authors I’ve always meant to read: Brothers Karamozov, Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton or one of his older works, Updike.
  • books I’ve seen the movie of but wanted to read the book: Mrs. Dalloway, Life of Pi, The Help, Hunger Games.
  • new-ish books that had to wait in line when I bought other books: see My Winter Reading List for these.
  • books everyone else was talking about but I didn’t read: Swamplandia.
  • writers I love and want to read their newer work: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Michael Ondaatje
  • the great wall of literary intimidation — one or two that seem like daunting reads, for their complexity or sheer size: Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 ; Ulysses; Middlemarch.

What is your obstacle to getting your book read?

Joining the Challenge:

Where? Post in the comments below to let us know the book or author that has always stumped you (and why, if that’s interesting). If you want, share this as a post on your blog (include link to this challenge), and then post the link to your blog in the comments so we can visit your site.

What? No rules about what the book should be. Maybe this is a great excuse for tackling a classic, but there’s no reason you can’t make it the month you read Gone Girl (because it’s your turn for a sleepless night) or Tiger’s Wife (because you didn’t really mean to fake it through the book club chat).

How many? The challenge is to read one, but it’s up to you if you want to read more, or even raise the bar and aim for one each week, or one each month for the rest of the year (honestly, how many books have you been avoiding?).

When? The goal is to post the title of the book you plan to read, then post again to say you’ve finished it by the end of the month. Then we all clink glasses, confetti falls, we cheer and books everywhere sigh.

Can I get fancy? If you want to get festive on your site, you can use the badge for this challenge, which was adapted from a poster in the Library of Congress.

Books You’re Allowed to Give Up On (We Say It’s Okay)

  • If it’s on your list because it’s “a book everyone is supposed to read,” consider why. If you write short stories and it’s a collection by an author whose work became the foundation of story writing, sure, give it a go. If it’s a classic of Southern Lit and you teach literature at Ole Miss, get on it. But if Dante’s Inferno or Madame Bovary aren’t your thing, we say you’re off the hook.
  • Is it a book you bought and never read? Free pass to be fickle: the fact it grabbed you in the aisles doesn’t mean you have to read it now.

This is the month to take on a book you’ve always meant to read.  Let us know what challenge you’ll take on!

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Remembering Ray Bradbury

Falling jet trails & rocket boosters, lit by sunset, after Discovery launch 3-15-09. copyright Elissa Field

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  – Ray Bradbury

To Ray Bradbury, I say thank you. Reading Martian Chronicles in Mrs. Ruebens’ sophomore English class in high school, I learned what it was to capture the ethereal without losing sight of intellect, of logic. You captured dream state, with your words. You captured imagination.


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Living With Books 02: Dreamt into Our Travels, Too

paris, at home with books, home library, writer

My parents recently confessed a sort of “escape plan” they’ve been hatching as they edge near the idea of retirement.  If they’d spoken in Mandarin and confessed a double life, I could not have been more startled and impressed!

Their nearby Manhattan is involved, as is Charleston (don’t get me started on how I love Charleston), but most ambitious is their plan to live in Paris for six months.  Considering Paris real estate costs, I have teased that they could find themselves folded sideways into a 100 square foot atelier with a limited glimpse of daylight, if one were to climb a ladder and peek out beneath attic rafters. But, between you and me, I like to imagine them here, in this lovely flat I found for rent (at book-a-flat.com) during my continued hunt for rooms that epitomize this spirit we share, of Living With Books.

For the book lovers among us, don’t you love the authenticity of the books in the flat – as elegant as the room is, they look read, don’t they?

While my parents led us on tours of elegant plantations in the South, or castles and country houses in Ireland and Scotland, I must confess my  spot for the elegance of decay.  Look at the image on my novel project page and you will see how Havana has had its hooks in me for some years, tracking the neighborhoods a friend once had to leave. There were no books in the mildew and hurricane dampened pictures I have of current-day Cuba, but I can’t help be inspired by this iconic picture, below, of Hemingway’s home outside Havana.

hemingway at home in havana, living with books

Hemingway’s home in Havana – Living with Books

You might notice that, in picking great pictures of “living with books,” I love a room where books are clearly important to the inhabitants, but that doesn’t have to mean endless walls of books.  In these rooms, as in the bookshelves my mom includes in each bedroom she designs, the importance of a little library is clear without overwhelming the room.

In my last house, I found that trying to display all of my books in one place went beyond celebrating the pleasure I felt in them. Instead, they became a weighty presence in the room. In concepts of feng shui, it is important to not have things stacked high and towering in a room — as they symbolize and affect your spirit as “things hanging over you.”

Viceroy Hotel, Kelly Wearstler

Viceroy Hotel, Kelly Wearstler

If a collection seems burdensome, especially consider thinning books on higher shelves. No reader’s pride is lost to spread your collection between more than one room!

To read the first installment of this series, click here. Or, I’d love to hear your own experiences or suggestions for the next installment in the comments below!

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Living with Books

Monkeys reading. copyright Elissa Field no repro w-out permission

Monkeys reading. c. Elissa Field

When asked about designing bedrooms, my mother (Connecticut ASID designer, Julianne Stirling) once said that she makes sure to put a little bookcase in every room.

In my parents’ 230 year-old house off the village green in Fairfield, Connecticut, my boys’ favorite room has African-carved giraffes and a porcelain elephant hiding among the books on a carved case that also features a portrait of my grandparents when they still lived in North Africa at the end of World War II. Monkey prints parody my boys’ personalities as they read in bed. It is a room Kipling or Hemingway might have brought keepsakes home to.

At the back of the house, the girls’ room, where my nieces stay and where I stayed the night before my wedding, is more delicate, its curtains gathered high as if the empire waistlines of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibilities. A copy of Austen is likely tucked among the books held on an antique latticework shelf above the bed.

Long before my mom was an accomplished interior designer, back in the first house I remember, with the 70s lemon yellow shag carpet and turquoise leather chair, there were books in every room. Coffee table books of famous artists, designers and photographers. Picasso, the impressionists. Biographies of dignitaries, inventors, trendsetters. Henry Ford, Marilyn Monroe. And fiction. A leatherbound set of Fitzgerald. Updike. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Moveable Feast, Finca Vigia collected stories. Henry Miller. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And the fodder of avid readers: the bent-spined, inch-thick paperbacks whose pages aged brown by the time it was my turn to read them.

Coveted, to this day, are the found books. The hand-me-downs. There is a threadbare, heavy volume of fairy tales my Grandma Aho read to us from her childhood in Michigan’s upper peninsula, whose line drawings had been painted in watercolors by herself and her sisters as girls. I have pictures of the same girls straddling the shoulders of a draft horse, patting his neck to warn his heavy hooves from stomping cabbages as he navigated the garden. Equally loved: question arose over the holidays as to who last had the dozen original clothbound Nancy Drews, printed in the 30s and 40s, that had been passed from one cousin to another, then down to my cousins and myself.  Less lovely, but equally treasured, were the horse books left by my college-age aunt for me to discover at the cottage we all shared in the summer. Or the James Bonds my brother and I traded, or the military training guides he found in family footlockers. There was the elicit, always denied, hairy-armpit copy of The Joy of Sex that finally disappeared altogether. And there are the Bibles, passed down from the last-living members of various branches of the family, with patchy recording of births and deaths and marriages written inside the covers.

We were a family who lived with books.

I carried this with me as I set up my first houses. In college, novels advanced in a line along the baseboards around the wood floor in my Richmond rowhouse, arranged by country, by year of publication. In Florida, waiting for a hurricane, books were one of three things I protected with plastic bags and packed into a sheltered closet. Along with photographs, the few things I could not bear losing to a storm.

It hadn’t occurred to me this is idiosyncratic. I’d never lived in a house without books and never took time to think of it as unusual — a joy some of us share, in surrounding ourselves with the magical worlds we’ve discovered in those pages, loving the undulating ribbon of color and texture formed by a line of spines.

Coming across interior design photographs of great rooms with books has made me aware of this kindred reality some of us share: living with books. This new column will share some of my favorite Living With Books images, in monthly editions.

Here is the first:

I have always loved a dining room with books.

A dining room with books, featured at www.atticmag.com.

Fabulous photographer chotda (santos) has photographed a number of versions of a hue-spectrumed bookcase, most notably this one below.

I love this picture, by author, photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji, of a bookseller’s stall at Kolkata’s Annual Book Fair.

In this Chicago living room, featured by Architectural Digest, books hold their own against dramatic artwork. As much as I love books, the room’s balance is crucial, as a library should reflect the owner’s pleasure in books, and not feel a weighty burden.

And what about you? I’d love to hear your favorite experiences or memories, living with books.

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Filed under Living With Books, Reading, Setting Place Roots, Writing Life

A Fellow Writer Posed the Question: “How Do You Arrange Your Books?”

It is a question as personal, sultry and unexamined as asking how one gets ready for a date — asking a writer (or reader), “How do you arrange your books?”

In my first real house, I had all my books organized by the author’s country, then, within countries, by the year/period published. Within England and the US, I also had them subdivided by some trends, as might be done for lit classes, like Southern Writers, or classics vs. contemporary short story authors. I traded rare books at the time and had special parts of the book case for special and first editions, and had the books stacked so you could see pretty covers or large and small books made patterns. I LOVED it. You could stand back, look at the wall of books and see whole trends and eras unfold and evolve, and then new guys take over. I love foreign fiction and it felt like playing that old board game Risk to be able to see which countries I’d tackled (and countries or even whole continents still needing exploring).

It all ended when my son learned to walk. There were a couple new parent photos taken where I thought it was so cute to see him rifling through the pages of books he’d pulled off in piles, tumbled broken-backed onto the floor. Then a few pages went missing. Two moves later and my books are now securely — and without fanfare — stashed on shelving I put in the closet of my office. My boys are just getting old enough I might think to rearrange them again one day. On the other hand, I’ve gotten more pragmatic over the years and am more likely to make a book really fight to justify keeping its shelf space — I purge a lot more often than I used to.

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