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These Books Happened to Me in 2016 Part 1

Every January, or every whenever, Goodreads lets its users set a reading goal for the year. A year ago I set a simple goal, something like 15. Yes, I think I could easily read 15 books in 2016. But then I was shamed into raising that number after I eavesdropped on my Goodreads friends goals. 50 books more than one of them said. Others aimed to read 75, 100, and 150(!?) I looked at their lofty goals and I looked at mine, and it seemed kindergarten by comparison. I nudged up my goal to a slim 25.

Apparently I am a slow reader. I didn’t know that.

But I did it. I thought about this goal all damn year. I tried to read two books a month, and one month I read three. That was my plan to reach 25. It was  kind of easy and kind of hard. Easy in that…books!  Yay! Leisure time! Hey- Look at me laying on the couch reading a YA book called Heartless. This is what goals look like. Hard in in that I had to actually make time to read. Which I always did anyway, but I had to make more time. Time that I would have spent doing other things, like writing, or researching, or fine-tuning my resumes, or playing games on my phone. That was hard. And honestly, those other things suffered. You should see how much neglect my Diner Dish has been subjected to.

So I’m not making a Goodreads goal this year. I’m not going to sprint to get my 25 books read. It doesn’t balance well into my life. Instead, I am pledging to myself, and to you, that I will read 10 classics this year, and whatever else looks interesting and fun, too.I have no idea what number that will translate to at the end of December 2017 and I don’t care. Numbers have always been slightly cruel and condescending to me anyway.

Here are 13 of the 25 titles. Some of them were really damn good. I hope you will read some of them or have already read some of them, and let me know what you think.

  1. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I had this book on my to-do list for a long time. Maybe it was because I had recently binged watched American Horror Story and one of the show’s characters was based off of H.H.Holmes. Or maybe it was because I read somewhere that they were turning this into a huge movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. Anway, this is a non-fiction book of history and architecture and politics and how the World’s Fair came to Chicago and beat out New York City, the invention of the Ferris Wheel, and how turn of the century event planning was probably the most stressful job ever;  all the while a serial killer was lurking in and out from under everyone’s noses. History mixed with murder usually makes for an entertaining read and this was no exception.

 

2. The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen

41akzx93q4l-_sx311_bo1204203200_I had the privilege of listening to Kate Christensen speak and read from her then just released autobiography, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. She was witty and personable and talked about food and correlating subjects like cannibalism. Afterwards, at the book signing, I saw only one of The Epicure’s Lament on the table because the rest had sold out. She had read a bit of the book to us and the protagonist, the salty and perverted Hugo Whittier, reminded me of another favorite protagonist, the equally over-seasoned, Humbert Humbert. And I wanted that damn book. But someone in front of me took it first. The last one. I reasoned with this person , made puppy-dog eyes and everything I had at her. She relented, I purchased the book, got it autographed, and then didn’t read it for over a year. No offense to Ms. Christensen, but there are lots of books on my shelf that I know will be great when I eventually read them. I’ve heard Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast doesn’t suck. The Epicure’s Lament was awesome. For real, it was one of my top 5 favorite books I read this year. It’s like Humbert went to culinary school and thoughtfully raised the nymphets age limit to a respectable barely-eighteen years old. If you love the unlikable protagonist phenomena, then this is right up your alley.

3. Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

51pqixxsdcl-_sx332_bo1204203200_This book, written by the wonderful Diane Les Becquets, is like The Call of the Wild for feminists. Set in the snowy and unforgiving winter terrain of Colorado, two women do their best to take on nature despite everything against them. One woman is lost after she trails a wounded elk, the other woman, a search and rescue ranger, tries to find her. What follows is two separate narratives where the protagonists have to battle with nature and their own inner demons to survive.

I met with Ms. Les Becquets on her book tour in Bellevue, Washington, where she read parts of her book and signed copies. The research it took to make this book come alive was thorough and enormous. The author didn’t spare any expert details when it came to how to field dress an elk, or proper protocol for handling a search and rescue dog team. A great read for wilderness buffs, or anyone who wants to sit in a warm house by a fire and thank goodness they haven’t been left to fend for themselves in the wild.

4. A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

51sh4xutrjl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Southern Gothic, I think that is the genre of A Land More Kind than Home. How many genres are there anyway? I didn’t even know this was a thing. So we’ve got tobacco fields and snakes and a creepy pastor/Jim Jones kinda thing going on, and a kid who saw something he shouldn’t have. It’s an intriguing combination with three narrators and colorful side characters set in a small southern town, because honestly, where else would this be? It’s suspense burning in a hot summer with small town secrets buzzing around like lightnin’ bugs. Read it on the porch in August with some sweet tea at the ready, and you’re right there with them. How’s that for southern gothic?

 

5) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

51ettpwhyfl-_sx309_bo1204203200_Not sure why it took me nearly twenty years to read this, but when you’re trying to double the books you read in a year, you need to dip into your  “want to read someday” list.

I won’t spend a lot of time on this, because basically everyone has already read it, but the genre here is Dystopian Fiction. (And the answer the previous question of the number of genres available: About a million.)

The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty  much a horror story, and the feminist’s cautionary tale of what will happen if Planned Parenthood gets their funding pulled.

6) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

51-qq2tbipl-_sx323_bo1204203200_I guess I was really into this Dystopian stuff last winter. Can someone recommend a book set in the future where life as we know it isn’t complete shit? What a pessimistic species we are.

Anyway, there’s a massive plague and most of the world’s population dies and the few survivors are wandering thhe earth setting up camps à la The Walking Dead, except without zombies, thank goodness. Except the lack of walkers doesn’t make this environment any less dangerous.  Also there is a Shakespere theatre troupe that travels the county offering what little spark of light and entertainment they can in this dim and hopeless new world.

 

7) My Story by Marilyn Monroe and Ben Hecht

41thrcshacl-_sx356_bo1204203200_-2This book–well, it was lovely, and kind of strange, and weirdly written, and a partial glimpse of the inner thoughts of Marilyn Monroe all jumbled together into a sort-of-autobiography. Maybe. Apparently, there was some controversy over the book, which is a pretty interesting story on its own. No one is sure who actually wrote it, how much Marilyn really contributed, and why someone felt it should be published ten years after her death, and why publish it at all? Because it isn’t written with any kind of cohesion, just a patchwork of random thoughts, and musings, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Unfinished for sure, because the book ends when she meets Joe DiMaggio, so she was something like 26 or 27 years old. She only lived about another decade, but man, I bet she really had some stories to tell about those missing ten years. Some people claim it was only a cash grab. Which is probably true. Still, any Marilyn fan would be interested in this, despite it’s weird structure, and, let’s face it, not great writing. I think there really is a glimpse of the true Marilyn in there somewhere. You just have to wade through a lot muck to find it.

 

8) Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

61jqd8qhxll-_sx322_bo1204203200_This is a psychological who-done-it thriller cashing in on the “if you loved Gone Girl, then you’ll love this” marketing strategy, because there’s probably one or two more years left to milk the ever loving last drop out of Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster. So. I don’t remember every detail about this book, but I do remember lots of twists and turns, childhood friendships, flashbacks galore, and a character who was so scared she literally went blind.

 

 

9) Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood

negotiatingwiththedead I was so excited to see this book. I mean, when you are a struggling writer and someone like Atwood wants to bend your ear and give you a few thoughts about it, you let her. I thought  it might be like sitting in on Margaret Atwood, the professor, college lectures.

Sadly, with much respect to Ms. Atwood, this was a tough book to get through. I will simply say that much of the problem was mine and not hers; it was over my head and I probably couldn’t appreciate the genius of it. I’m much too simplistic. However, I will say this book was a great remedy for insomnia.

 

10) Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

51lxesr0v9l-_sx304_bo1204203200_Fun, wonderful Neil Gaiman. If you loved The Graveyard Book and Coraline and any of his other weird Alice-in-Wonderland-on-acid style of writing, you will love this one too.

I guess there was a Neverwhere TV series also. I don’t know if the book came before or after the show, or as a companion, but this reminds me that I need to check it out on Netflix. I know it’s a real-life action series, and I think his stuff is usually better suited for animated works, but who knows. Maybe someone can tell me if it’s any good and how it compares.

 

 

 

11) Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

51dma25v-7l-_sx339_bo1204203200_This book! I get a serious adrenaline rush when ever I talk about this book. First of all, when I read it, I stayed up until 3 AM finishing it, because I HAD TO KNOW what was going to happen, and then I stayed up another two hours trying to come down from it. I felt like hungover hell the next day. And I couldn’t stop thinking about this damn book. I gave it out as Christmas presents because nothing says “the birth of Christ” like a book that mimics a scary-ass drug trip. It was disturbing and a little bit sexy and totally effed up and I loved it. What’s it about? The scariest creatures on the face of the earth: teenage girls. Shiver… 

 

 

12) Tommy Red by Charlie Stella

51c8vuepo8l-_sx322_bo1204203200_Hey you, read this friggin’ book! Reading a Charlie Stella good guys book is like having a seat in the middle of one of Carmela Soprano’s Sunday dinners. Never mind that Tommy Red is actually a Bernie Sanders loving wiseguy of Irish decent. Forgetaboutit. The story has lots of action, bad cops, undercover cops, wise guys, not-so-wise guys, Atlantic city, and a brief appearance of a location called Star Island. Pass the cannoli.

 

 

13) Dare Me- Megan Abbott

untitledCheerleaders are scary as hell, that’s the moral of this story. I can tell you that after reading this, the debate of whether cheerleading is a sport or not is over. The intensity of their complex gymnastic routines mixed with an Olympic-level-on-crack competitiveness should qualify it for any sport requirement. It’s like mixed martial arts but less polite. These uber-cheerleaders would scare the living shit out of me if I had to go high school with them. And I haven’t even mentioned the parts where they try to kill you, or sabotage your routines so that you are mortally wounded and have to give up your spot in the human pyramid. Yikes. I think I’ll put my daughters into a nice less competitive and bitchy sport, like Australian rugby.

 

Coming Next Week, These Books Happened to me Part 2. featuring Heartless by Marissa Meyer, The Girls by Emma Cline, and Rabbit at Rest by John Updike.

-Avy Packard

What I’m Reading Now: The Dinner by Herman Koch

 

 


What Doesn’t Scare Me

dark-1936954_1280Yesterday, I applied for a writing job on one of those “creepy content organizations. The job list description was filled with SEO heavy words like: ghosts, jack the ripper, exorcisms, clowns, toy box killer (wtf?), bog bodies (wtf x2). And then, sort of a celebrity ghoul roster that applicants should be familiar with: Jeff the Killer (never heard of him), Eyeless Jack (saw a picture of him once), and Slender Man (heard of him, but what? I don’t get it.)

The job post went on to say that the kinds of stories they were looking to publish were of the “truly creepy and macabre variety” and that if you weren’t comfortable with that, then you might want to see if Chicken Soup for the Soul is hiring.

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How to Survive Being a Trump Supporter for the Next Four Years

 

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photo: pixabay

If you voted for Trump, you may have engaged in one or two real-life arguments about the elections by now. If you’re into social media, then go ahead and triple that number. After Thanksgiving, double that number again. It’s tough to defend your reasons for voting The Donald to one of the most influential positions in the world when you’re engaging with people who are not merely annoyed, but are downright seething with hostility.

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Your One Good Dress by Brenda Shaughnessy

I’ve been picking up poetry books lately, and remembering how much I used to enjoy reading them and that I would like to again. Poetry, at its best, is the careful practice of the ‘economy of language,’ a back-to-school lesson in this season of back-to-school that all writers should return to now and then.

Here’s a poem I read, flipping through one of my old anthologies on the shelf, that ran a spark up the wire, a spark that said, “You must share this. It’s  good.”

Here’s part one of a new segment entitled, Other People’s Poetry that is Really Damn Good and You should Read It: So without Further Ado…

 

Your One Good Dress

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Not So Very Worst Weekend

 

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This is not an original blog topic. I am not the first person to know someone who has unexpectedly passed away. Still, I am shaken by it, and every menial task I do has a little extra weight pushing back at me today.

But let me back up.

We went to our lake cabin this weekend, which on any given weekend in July, is usually a safe bet for summer heat and water play activity. We had a lot of water, but not of the playing kind. It drizzled, and then it poured. We couldn’t get dry and we couldn’t get warm. We burned through our propane heater fuel within a few hours and we couldn’t get a campfire to flame anything past a sickly wet smolder. As you can imagine, our sleep quality was cold, damp, and intermittent.

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Don’t Come In – being alone doesn’t have to be a bad thing

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“When I’m in here, it means I’m working. That means don’t come in.”     The Shining/Warner Bros.

 

One is always warned about the dangers of being a wannabe writer. It’s hard. You will face constant rejection.  It’s hard. You will starve. Being good isn’t good enough. The criticism is brutal.  It’s isolating. Oh, and it’s hard.

Of all of these, the isolating part is by far the least daunting to me.  In a recent Huff Post article, “Balancing the Loneliness of the Writing Life,” Sara Paretsky is quoted as saying the worst part about writing is, “You have to be alone to write…Being alone is very painful. An unsolvable conundrum.”

Besides being eloquently worded, and my admiration for using the word “conundrum,” I have to respectfully disagree.

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Googling Yourself: It’s Obscene

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Mr. March/Evan Peters/American Horror Story/FX/#googlethereference

I got a text from Ma today. It said something like That short story you posted last week? It’s had over 7,000 downloads!

It was early this morning when I read this. She wrote it late last night. There was obviously something lost in our sleep deprived information exchange. Kindly, she attached a screen shot of the web page she was investigating. There was a file name with the title, “After Sunrise, Full Ahead” on it and file options to “download.” Also: a file ID, a status: Available ( I don’t even know what that means. Available for what?), and a ticker that claimed it had been downloaded “7, 714 times.”

I texted her back. Huh??? What are you talking about? Send me that link.

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“‘The Promise of Water’ is as graceful as it is powerful — a bracing and heart-breaking plunge into the mystery of identity, the boundlessness of love.” Richard Adams Carey, author of IN THE EVIL DAY, THE PHILOSOPHER FISH, AGAINST THE TIDE, and RAVEN'S CHILDREN

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