The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sadly, I read fewer books in 2016 than in years past, and I did not meet my Goodreads challenge of 45 books for 2016.  I took up knitting a little over a year ago, and it’s a pastime that has definitely cut into my reading.  However, because of knitting, I listened to more audiobooks (13) this past year than ever before.  Still, I read/listened to a total of 33 books in 2016, which isn’t too shabby.

Here’s a rundown of my faves:


The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins: a restrained, quietly told story about a college student trying to escape family dysfunction, a dying Vietnam vet convicted of a heinous crime, and an unlikely friendship.  Suspenseful and moving.  Read my review in its entirety here.





In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick: historical non-fiction that reads like a novel as only Philbrick can deliver it.  This book centers around the whaling industry and way of life for early nineteenth-century Nantucketers, and specifically the destruction of the whaleship Essex and the survival at sea of its crew.  Better than the movie; a stand-out adventure/survival story.  Read my review in its entirety here.




Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling): in this latest installment of the Cormoran Strike crime novels, Det. Cormoran Strike’s trusty assistant is mailed a human leg, setting the duo on a harrowing hunt for a killer.  The characters of Robin and Cormoran continue to develop, as does the complicated relationship between them.  Each novel in this ongoing series gets better; I’m eagerly awaiting the next one.  Read my review in its entirety here.




The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena: a riveting psychological thriller of the caliber of The Girl On the Train and Gone Girl, this suspenseful novel centers around a young couple who leave their baby unattended and every parent’s worst nightmare becomes a reality: their baby disappears.  Lots of twists and turns that keep the reader on the edge of her seat.  Read my review in its entirety here.




Women Beyond Belief by Karen Garst: an anthology of personal essays written by women from all backgrounds and walks of life who have left religion in favor of personal discovery and liberation.  This book is a study of how religion has always, and continues to subjugate and oppress women and girls.  If I could get everyone I know – male and female alike – to read this book, I would.  Read my review in its entirety here.



For what it’s worth, the worst book 911Xmhn9+rLI read in 2016 was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  As a devoted but late-blooming Harry Potter fan, I despised this book with the heat of a thousand suns.  I reviewed it here.

I’m going to challenge myself to read 35 books in 2017.  Read with me!

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


My Name is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

Ack.  This is one of those books that I just didn’t get.  Apparently, it’s longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named one of the best books of the year by all sorts of prestigious publications.  I didn’t feel it.

The story is told in the first person.  Lucy Barton, now past her prime, recounts a time many years ago when she was a young mother and became very ill and spent nine weeks in the hospital.  During that time, her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, comes to visit her and stays for five days and nights, sitting at Lucy’s bedside.  During those five days and nights, mother and daughter warily try to heal old wounds, without actually facing them head on.  Lucy also revisits scenes from her childhood, many of which were painful (there is a scene in which she was repeatedly locked in a truck for hours by her parents when she was very small, that was quite unsettling).  Lucy comes to understand her mother perhaps a little better (though her mother is stubbornly enigmatic and closed off), and perhaps herself a little better, but there really is never any resolution, and her mother ends her visit as suddenly as she showed up.

I think what bugged me is that Lucy very much seems like a victim, and she never really rises above that.  She reverts to behaving like a little girl in her mother’s presence and is never able to stand up to her mother.  I’m drawn to stories about fraught mother-daughter relationships because they often resonate with me, but this one fell a little flat.  I finished the story wondering “What was the point of that?”

Elizabeth Strout is a gifted novelist, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx


by Annie Proulx

Best known for having written Brokeback Mountain, Proulx has now written an epic novel spanning several hundred years.  In a nutshell, it is about the deforestation of North America (and secondarily, the destruction of forest land in Europe and New Zealand, and of the rain forests of South America).  But of course, it is about more than that.

The novel opens in the seventeenth century with two young and illiterate Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, following a feudal lord through the vast, dense, and seemingly infinite forest of “New France” (Canada).  Sel and Duquet are indentured servants, charged with the hard labor of cutting down trees for their cruel seigneur for three years in exchange for small plots of land they can call their own.  Duquet is wily, however, and soon runs away and becomes a fur trader.  Ever ambitious and determined, he eventually marries well and sets up a timber business.  Meanwhile, Sel is forced by his seigneur to marry an Indian woman, for whom he actually develops a genuine affection.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, the lives of Rene Sel’s and Charles Duquet’s descendants intersect and diverge.  Meanwhile, both families’ lives are dependent in one way or another on the forests, and the forests diminish by degrees until the modern day when the world is in a state of ecological crisis.

Not only is this a story of disappearing trees and the impact on the earth, but it’s also a story of adventure, violence, endurance, greed, family, and cultural annihilation.

It’s a hefty tome, but well worth the read.




Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

51e0beCjILLOur Souls At Night

by Kent Haruf

One spring evening, Addie Moore makes a surprise visit to Louis Waters.  She is a seventy-year old widow who has been alone for twenty years; he is around the same age, and also a widower of many years.  Addie and Louis have been neighbors for over forty years, although they’ve never known each other very well.  But on this particular May evening, Addie makes a proposal to Louis –

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him.

Louis, of course, is taken by surprise and is not sure what to say.  Finally, he agrees to think about it.  Gathering his nerve, he goes to Addie’s house the following evening.  And so begins a tender budding relationship.  It wasn’t about sex – sex isn’t even what either of them was after.  It was about having suffered loneliness for far too long – and loneliness is always worse at night.  Addie’s and Louis’s sleeping together was about companionship, about not being alone.

Their first few nights together are hesitant and tentative, but as they lie in the dark together talking and getting to know one another, sharing old sorrows and regrets and hopes, they grow more at ease with each other, and an intimate friendship and affection takes root.

In the small town of Holt, Colorado, the fictional setting of all of Kent Haruf’s novels, word gets around quickly that Louis is visiting Addie at night.  Some of the townspeople disapprove, and some approve wholeheartedly.  Complicating matters further, Addie’s son Gene, who is in an unstable marriage of his own, dumps his six-year old son on Addie for the summer.  Addie adores her grandson, and Louis and the young boy become quite attached to each other over the summer as well.  But when Gene discovers the relationship between Louis and Addie – which has grown past the point of furtive nighttime visits, and into a friendship that is carried on in broad daylight, and which is teetering on the precipice of romantic love – he is determined to put a stop to it.

Like all of Haruf’s other novels, Our Souls At Night is short in pages but long in heart.  This is a very poignant and tender story of loneliness, loss, and second chances.  I can’t say that I found the ending satisfying, but the story overall is a jewel.  It’s certainly worth the read in its own right, but especially if you’re a Kent Haruf fan, it’s a must read.  I was very sad to learn that Mr. Haruf died, and that I’ve now read everything he will ever write.

The Best Books I Read In 2015

I had a goal of reading 50 books in 2015, and fell short by 5 books, but I still consider that a great year of reading.  I rated a lot of books with 4 and 5 stars on Goodreads, but I’m going to narrow it down here to the books I read in 2015 that especially stood out:

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 1.53.20 PMLonesome Dove: A Novel by Larry McMurtry – I re-read this after about 20 years, thereby confirming that it’s the best book I’ve ever read in my life.  An epic tale of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the later part of the nineteenth century, Lonesome Dove is about life, love, loss, friendship, loyalty, adventure, good guys, bad guys, and the harsh beauty of life.  I remain utterly in love with this story.  This fall, I received a Fed-Ex package.  Inside was a first edition hard cover of Lonesome Dove which my husband had procured and sent to Larry McMurtry with a heartfelt note explaining what the book means to his wife, and Mr. McMurtry signed the book and sent it on to me.  A gift I will treasure always.



This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t by Augusten Burroughs – If ever there was an instruction manual for life, this is it.  Told in Burroughs’s witty, no-bullshit style, he offers advice on everything from dealing with shitty people to overcoming trauma, to accepting our limitations and being okay with them.  I’m not a fan of inspirational self-help books, but this one stands apart – probably because it’s not inspirational, just the damn truth.



Why There Is No God: Simple Responses to 20 Common Arguments for the Existence of God by Armin Navabi – Straightforward, well written responses to the most common arguments for the existence of God.  Obviously not up everyone’s alley, but a must read for anyone interested in looking at both sides of the God debate.  Leaves one wondering how it is that any rational person can cling to such archaic myths.





by Kent Haruf – a beautiful novel about living and dying.  I love everything by Kent Haruf.





Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray – written by a Boston professor, this non-fiction deconstructs conventional wisdom about schooling children and makes a strong, research-based case for child-directed, play-based learning.  This book turned a lot of my ingrained beliefs about school and how children best learn upside down, and has challenged me to approach homeschooling in different ways than I ever thought I would.



To Be a Slave by Julius Lester – A collection of interviews with the last of the living former slaves, conducted in the 1930s by the Federal Writing Project, this book, more than any other I’ve read about slavery, depicts the heinous crimes committed against black people by America for hundreds of years.  Although aimed at middle-school aged children, this book is entirely appropriate for anyone in that age group through adulthood.  This should be required reading by every American.





The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild – An examination of dual-income couples and the fact that women, even when holding full-time jobs, carry the burden of housework and childcare.  Written 30 years ago, unfortunately, not much has changed.






Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles – A well-researched examination of how the current state of education and our obsession with performance and achievement is harming children, and a plea for change.



I guess I leaned towards non-fiction this past year.

Would love to hear what your favorite books were in 2015.

Here’s to another year of great books!



Little Free Library

You may have noticed the photo in the sidebar of “My Little Free Library” and wondered what the heck it is.  If you’ve never heard of Little Free Library, check out, where you can get the lowdown on a very cool idea that is turning into a movement around the world.  In a nutshell, Little Free Libraries are community book sharing depots.  Most of them can be found in people’s yards, but they can also be found on public property in some areas.  Little Free Library is a non-profit organization whose aim is to promote literacy and a love of books for people of all ages, from all walks of life, around the world.  Similar book sharing boxes not affiliated with the official Little Free Library organization are also scattered here and there, and are just as cool.

I had never heard of a Little Free Library until last spring when a friend of mine on Facebook in another state happened to post something on FB about her Little Free Library.  I was intrigued, then enthralled.  I honestly thought it was the most brilliant idea I had stumbled across in a long time.  I had to have one, being a book lover, chronic book buyer, and serial book sharer anyway.  So I ordered one of my own Little Free Libraries from the official LFL org, and waited all summer for it to arrive (if you’re handy, you can, of course, build your own, or you can buy a kit, or an assembled but unfinished library, or a fully assembled, finished, and painted one like I did, not being handy or patient – the latter is not cheap, I must say, but the craftsmanship is top of the line).  It took nine weeks to get mine, and when it arrived, I swear it was the most exciting thing to get since my last baby.

My husband spent a weekend installing it in front of our house, and it’s now been up since August I think.  I had been saving all the books I read over the summer to fill it with, and although right away people in the neighborhood would stop to check it out, it seemed to take a little while for people to actually get comfortable taking books from it, and even longer to start leaving books of their own in it.  These days, it seems to get quite a bit of use; although I don’t always see people visiting it, there are books taken and new books left pretty frequently.

A couple of weeks ago, a reporter from our local newspaper contacted me and said she was doing an article about Little Free Libraries, and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed.  Yes!  So she came over with a photographer the following morning and spent the better part of an hour talking to me and my girls about our LFL, about books, and taking photos.  It was a lot of fun.  The article appeared on the front page of last Friday’s paper.  Here’s the online version: OC Register: Take a Book, Leave a Book


The Best Books I Read in 2014

For the last few years, I’ve done a “Best and Worst” books list at the end of the year, but this year I’m going to focus on the best books I read.  These are books that made a lasting impression on me through exceptional writing and/or a story that struck something deep in my reader’s heart.

So, without further ado, here are the standout books from my own reading shelf for 2014:

hpcoversHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


by J.K. Rowling

In these, the fifth, sixth, and final installments of the Harry Potter series, Harry and his friends grow up, have adventures, and ultimately fight the ultimate battle.  As someone who for years had no interest in delving into this series, I say now without reservation that it is one of the best stories I have ever read, and months after finishing it, I still miss Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Hagrid, and Hogwarts.  I hope that one day I make the time to read the series again.




by Elizabeth Heineman

This searing memoir about a homebirth that ends in tragedy faces taboos surrounding death and grief head-on.  Heineman’s gift with words paints so vivid a picture that I could almost see the film of the events in my head.  Ultimately a story about birth, motherhood, loss, and resilience.



Empire of the Summer Moon


by S.C. Gwynne

A raw and beautifully told historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches.  Yet another chapter of American history that isn’t generally taught in school.  Epic and moving.



Me Before You


by Jojo Moyes

An unlikely love story that takes on tough issues: disability, self-determination, and assisted suicide.  Written with humor and a great deal of heart.


WUWcoverFINAL-200x300Waking Up White


by Debby Irving

A woman who could not be any whiter has a racial awakening; what ensues is the deconstruction of almost everything she thought she understood about race, class, privilege and equity in American society.  This book made such a deep impact on me.  Lessons for all of us white people, and especially relevant now among the current racial tensions.


61OX2ZRLqYL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


by Mark Twain

This classic tells the story, as narrated by Huck Finn himself, of his adventures escaping his abusive, drunken, no good “Pap” and hooking up with a runaway slave by the name of Jim.  Full of danger, high adventure, and colorful characters, it’s a story for the ages.  I’m only sorry that I never read it until this year.


The Orchardist


by Amanda Coplin

A gorgeous and heart-wrenching story about an old man, three young girls, love, loss, and what it means to be family.  One of those stories that keeps you awake at night, pondering and feeling really deep stuff.


And there you have it.  May 2015 be full of wonderful books!



One Good Year by Laura Brodie

51k9ql9RGhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One Good Year: A Mother and Daughter’s Educational Adventure

by Laura Brodie

I was eager to read this memoir about homeschooling, being that I have recently waded into the homeschooling waters myself.

Ten years ago, Laura Brodie decided to pull her ten-year old daughter, Julia, from public school in order to homeschool her.  The decision was made after much contemplation, and was based on Julia’s social, academic, and emotional difficulties with what seemed to be the institutionalized school setting itself.  A free spirit who related to animals better than humans, who bristled at the confinement of school, and whose mind tended to withdraw and wander to such an extent that focusing on schoolwork was a real problem, Laura decided to give her daughter a respite for her fifth grade year.  She hoped that a change of scenery for a year would give Julia a chance to regroup, refuel, and prepare for middle school.

There were certainly things in Brodie’s contemplation of homeschooling that I could relate to.

“Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness . . . . And there’s nothing like homework to squash a child’s joy.  In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day, the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.”

This very much sums up my decision to pull my own daughter from public school in order to homeschool her; the misery school was causing her wasn’t worth whatever benefits she was supposedly getting from the experience, and I finally decided to take matters into my own hands in the hope that I could turn things around for her.

I didn’t get very far into the book, however, before I found myself irritated with the author.  She scoffs at the propensity of parents to “grasp at straws of genius” in their children, but seems oblivious to her own tendency to do the same.  All three of her daughters are above average, apparently – at least in the author’s eyes.

Clearly, Julia had a unique intelligence churning inside her head . . .”

“I never did worry very much about Rachel, largely because of her intellectual gifts . . .”

And although I can’t locate the quote now, I believe her other daughter, Kathryn, was deemed “bored” with the academic aspect of school because she was so bright.

And, of course, Julia is a better violinist than any of her peers taking violin lessons.

This, too, rankled:

“The thought that in forty-nine states any parent who’d scraped through high school with a D average could then teach high school to their own children struck me as setting the bar very low.”

(As if letter grades are the only – or even the best – indication of ability and intelligence; as if there aren’t a million factors that might play into low grades in high school – from depression, to poverty, to various traumas, to illness, to instability of family life, and the list goes on and on – none of which are indicative of one’s ability to teach one’s own children.  This struck me as appallingly narrow-minded, and even elitist.  The author’s elitism continued to bother me; a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D., she clearly saw herself as more qualified to homeschool than the “average” parent, and had no qualms throwing around terms like “idiot” and “spelling moron,” and even calling her daughter a “dumbass” in a fit of temper – which she admittedly regretted, but, it seemed to me, more because name-calling isn’t nice and not because her terminology is disparaging to certain sectors of the population.  There was also a remark by her husband about the stigma of being held back a grade: “Being held back is one step above wearing a helmet.”)

It seemed to me that trouble started brewing as soon as Brodie and her daughter began that year of homeschooling.  When she describes how, “She and I had agreed that if her sisters were going to attend school from 8:30 to 3:00 every day, she would follow a similar routine . . . For the sake of sibling equality, we would find activities to fill six and a half hours each day,” it struck me how oblivious she seemed to the utter arbitrariness of a six-and-a-half hour school day, and the fact that much of that time is spent on classroom management and paper shuffling in “regular” school, and not on actual learning.  And what about meeting each child’s individual needs?  If she was going to base their school days on “sibling equality,” it seemed to me something important would be lost – namely, the meeting of Julia’s unique needs.

From the very beginning, Brodie sets stringent expectations for Julia, and from almost the beginning, tempers flare and mother and daughter clash again and again.  I wanted so badly to see Brodie just stop and take a deep breath and change tack – and eventually she does, sort of, but not until the spring when their year together is already drawing to a close.

I don’t know . . . I know myself to be an anal-retentive control freak, but Brodie made me feel like a lamb.  In the end, I don’t think that their year of homeschooling was any sort of “respite” for Julia.  Brodie acknowledges this when she says,

“Still, part of my goal in homeschooling had been to reduce Julia’s misery, and it seemed that over the past few months I had only managed to give her misery a new name.  I had granted her a break from traditional schooling, but not a respite from oppressive expectations.”


“In the end, our version of homeschooling had not escaped the worst aspects of school: the pressures of daily work, the crush of high expectations.”

Ten years later, I wonder what Julia would say about her homeschooling experience; I wonder how she feels that it benefited her, how it impacted her return to public school through her completion of high school, and how she feels it affected her relationship with her mother.

Brodie knows how to write (she’s an English Professor, after all), and thus her book is very readable, though I didn’t find it very relatable.  She makes a lot of good points:

On conventional school –

“The division of children’s attention into arbitrary time slots is an artifice established for the convenience of schools, and is not designed to match the development of the human brain.”

On motherhood and anger –

“There’s plenty of anger in American society, and some of it might require therapy, but if all moms had to consult a psychologist every time they blew their tops, most U.S. households would be bankrupt . . . Mothers were supposed to be endlessly loving and encouraging.  We were supposed to resemble Carol Brady or Shirley Partridge or June Cleaver, unfailingly good humored in the face of enormous exasperation.  Now, in the new millennium, I find those saccharine maternal stereotypes to be as unhealthy as Barbie’s grotesquely arched and tiptoed body.”

Still, the writing and the author seem to lack a measure of warmth, and that kept me at arm’s length.

Ultimately, I thought the title of this book to be misleading, because it doesn’t seem like their year of homeschooling was good; in the end, I see it as more a cautionary tale than anything else.

The North Side of Down by Nancy Bailey and Amanda Bailey

Unknown The North Side of Down: A True Story of Two Sisters

by Nancy Bailey and Amanda Bailey

Memoirs written by parents about raising children with Down syndrome are not hard to come by. This memoir offers a unique perspective, as it’s written by a sibling rather than a parent, and it centers around an adult with Down syndrome rather than the usual stories about babies and kids with Down syndrome . . .

Read more here.