My favorite books of 2015

 

I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 12. This was a big year for finishing multi-volume works—by Knausgaard, Ferrante, and Smiley. It’s such a pleasure to be immersed in the world of a wonderful book and know that when you finish it, you can open another. Here are a few of my favorite books for the year, along with some that weren’t recently published, but I read this year, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

  1. Euphoria, by Lily King. Gorgeous book, story inspired by the work of Margaret Mead.
  2. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. Based on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, this book is a tour de force of perspective and voice. Wasn’t surprised when he won the Man Booker Award.
  3. A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. Incredible collection of near-autobiographical stories from a peripatetic life. Small, sharp, poignant tales of disappointments and small triumphs. Why wasn’t she famous during her lifetime?
  4. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald. This seems to me a perfect memoir, combining a truly original personality, her obsession, her observant nature, and her bird in an arc of loss and renewal.
  5. My Struggle, Parts I-IV, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I ripped through these four volumes of Knausgaard’s minute observations, fascinated, compelled to keep reading, and puzzling over how he keeps us in his thrall. By the fourth, I had Knausgaard fatigue, and the spell was over.
  6. Storia de la bambina perduta, (Story of the Lost Child) by Elena Ferrante. Fourth in the Naples series. I was an early adopter to these emotionally nuanced novels of female friendship—so much so that I read the second and fourth in translation before they came out in English. Well, I started them before the translations came out. The translator caught up with me; it was slow going. Interesting to see the difference between reading in Italian and English. The Italian seemed more direct, more flavorful, but Ann Goldstein is a wonderful translator.
  7. Some Luck, Early Warnings, and The Golden Age, by Jane Smiley. This fiction trilogy is about an Iowa farming town, starting with the small family, and fanning out over the generations, over 100 years, in a portrait of the United States over that time. Great American novel(s).
  8. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell, stories of rural, resilient women that dig down to the raw core of emotion.
  9. Purity, Jonathan Franzen. Great plot, and a lot to chew on in the milieu of computer hacking, online journalism, global warming, and other contemporary concerns that extend from a girl in California to the world.
  10. Cheating, on #10, with a few not published this year that I gave five stars, if you need a great read:

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Radetsky March, Joseph Roth

The Dancer, Colum McCann

American Romantic, Ward Just

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

On my bedside table:

Report From the Interior, Paul Auster

Enon, Paul Harding

All the Wild That Remains, David Gessner

The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

The First Bad Man, Miranda July

10:04, Ben Lerner

Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

 

One book that didn’t make my list is The M Train, by Patti Smith. I love her as an artist, and thought Just Kids was wonderful, but her meandering memoir seemed thin to me, and a bit of a rip-off of W. G. Sebold.

 

My favorite books, 2014

*I know and like these authors in real life, but I would have loved and recommended their books anyway.

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I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 12. (Yes, that is obsessive—but also a great personal document to have, much more enlightening then My Year in Facebook.) Here’s a list of the ten I most enjoyed this year—not all of which were published this year.

I read fewer books than most years because, as Editorial Director of Shebooks, I had lots of submissions to read and e-books to edit—and published 71 of amazing quality. You can read the rest of my list, this year and back to the 80s, on my website.

This year’s top books, in no particular order.

Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín

This book is on everyone’s top ten lists, as it should be. A memorable and complicated literary character, the Irish widow Nora Webster’s emotions simmer just under the surface as she rises to the challenges of grief, loss, and living fully again.

Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, by Elena Ferrante

I’m obsessed with Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume of an unknown Italian female writer from Naples. This is the third in her Naples trilogy, an epic chronicle of a complicated female friendship between two brilliant girls who grew up in a tough Naples neighborhood, who alternate in their successes and knocks. I am so obsessed with being immersed in her world that I read the second one in Italian (slowly!) and am about to start the fourth, since it isn’t translated yet.

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón*

Set in an unnamed Latin country a lot like Peru, a young actor joins a guerilla theatre troop in a revival play with one of the original leaders. Their tour of the country reveals political and emotional scars, as well as personal turmoil. A meditation on the consequences of actions and gestures–our own, and those we’ve come to believe are our own.

 

A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava

Recommended by Daniel Alarcón, above. Usually I’m a big fan of minimalist writing, but in the right hands—William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, for one favorite, or David Foster Wallace—I love frenetic, maximalist books with manic stream-of-consciousness riffs and a fiesta of memorable characters. This book by De la Pava, whose bio charmingly reads, “A writer who does not live in Brooklyn,” is (by and) about a New York City public defender and the absurd world of the criminal courts he inhabits. Originally self-published in 2008.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

These are actually four novels in one volume–Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk–and a fifth in another, At Last. Acerbic, posh Englishman writes about his truly horrifying childhood with tremendous style and wit, with a devastating result.

 

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The witty, deeply-felt story of a Nigerian immigrant who comes to the U.S. on a college scholarship, whose experiences with culture shock and racism, from the hair-braiding salon to her romance with a wealthy white man, lead her to write an audacious blog on being a Non-American Black about Racial Disorder Syndrome.

 

Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, by Francine Prose

The title refers to a photograph taken at a cabaret club in 1932, and the book follows the subjects of the photo, including a memorable female villain, through personal treacheries and tragedies of World War II.

 

Abroad, by Katie Crouch*

A psychological thriller inspired by the university murders in Puglia, full of bad decisions, beautiful Italian scenery and history—an altogether irresistible read.

 

The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol*

Spare and emotional, these stories are about worlds and cultures colliding–Eastern Europe, Russia, the U.S., old worlds vs. the new–full of wisdom and humanity.

 

Whatever Doesn’t Kill You: Six Memoirs of Resilience, Strength, and Forgiveness, edited by Laura Fraser

Okay, as you can see, I edited this anthology, but it’s still the best, most moving collections of memoirs I’ve read. Gorgeous and inspiring memoirs on overcoming such challenges as war reporting, sexual abuse, disappointing birthmothers, medical problems and racist treatment in the doctor’s office, parental death, and alcoholism by Mary Jo McConahay (“Ricochet”), Barbara Graham (“Camp Paradox”), Susan Ito (“The Mouse Room”), Ethel Rohan (“Out of Dublin”), Faith Adiele (“The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems”) and Beth Kephart (“Nest, Flight. Sky.”)

 

*I know and like these authors in real life, but I would have loved and recommended their books anyway.

Random notes on other books I read this year: I will read anything by Ian McEwan, and liked The Children’s Hour almost as much as any; Solar, less. Getting tired of Murakami with his schematic Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As an American Studies major and feminist, I couldn’t have been more poised to like The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore; how could such great subject matter, story, and reporting be so dry and dull? Read the wonderful Home by Marilynne Robinson in anticipation of Lila. Why had I never read Women In Their Beds by Gina Berriault before? Fabulous stories—maybe the terrible title? Many honorable mentions: You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik; Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley; The Circle, by Dave Eggers; Transatlantic by Colum McCann. Also read Tinkers by Paul Harding; with a Pulitzer Prize, he doesn’t need my five stars, but wow, he has Faulkner written all over him, so gorgeous.

 

 

My favorite books of 2013

It’s been a fantastic year in books—not least because at the end of the year, my co-founders Peggy Northrop and Rachel Greenfield and I launched Shebooks.net, an e-publishing platform for short e-books by and for women. We have an amazing collection of short memoirs, fiction, and journalism by some incredibly talented writers…in March, we will launch a full site with a subscription service.

But back to my traditional list of 10 best books I read this year. In honor of Shebooks, this year, they’re all by women. These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. But I’ll try to keep it fresh. (By the way, here’s my complete booklist that I’ve kept for the last 40 years. Yes, I know I’m obsessive).

  1. My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This author, from Naples, writes under a pseudonym—partly because her depictions of live in Southern Italy are so raw and honest, she must need to protect herself in order to lead some semblance of normal life. This novel is the first in a trio about two smart, ambitious young women from a poor neighborhood in Naples, and the twists in their friendship as they confront jealousy, resentment, changes in circumstance and opportunities. This book was so good that I had to read:
  2. Il Nuovo Cognome, by Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t wait for Ann Goldstein of the New Yorker to translated Ferrante’s next book, so I read it in Italian. It’s finally out in English as The Story of a New Name. In this book, Lila and Elena reach young adulthood and the confusions that go with growing up as a lower-class woman in Southern Italy—personal, economic, cultural, educational. Goldstein is a terrific translator, never calling attention to the language, but it was worth it for some of the idiomatic expressions to read it in Italian, for the music and rawness of the dialogue. I also read Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment by Ferrante; both shorter and more intensely personal.
  3. The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan. This novel is about a young Scottish woman who has survived a series of foster homes and abuse to land in a facility for troubled adolescents, in the shame of the panopticon that Jeremy Benthem proposed as a model prison in the late 1700s, so that inmates would always be seen by an omnipresent eye. In his Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for the increased social visibility under authoritarian rule…an idea that has me eager to read Dave Egger’s The Circle. Anyway, Fagan is a terrific writer, and I can’t wait to read more from her.
  4. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I couldn’t put down Tartt’s sprawling, if flawed, novel about a young boy who survives an explosion in an art gallery, though his mother dies; he takes a priceless painting with him out the door and makes his way into adulthood living with various memorable characters. Scenes on the outskirts of Las Vegas with his estranged father are amazing, as is her depiction of upper-crust Manhattanites. The end is unsatisfying, but altogether entertaining.
  5. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of a young motorcyclist nicknamed Reno, because that’s where she’s from, who is briefly the fastest woman on earth. The book careens from the New York Art world to political turmoil in Italy. It’s concerned with art, love, sex, politics, class, speed—a heady read by a fresh, world-wary writer who is nevertheless full of heart.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies,  by Hilary Mantel. The story of Ann Boleyn never gets old, whether watching The Tudors or any of the movies made about Henry VIII, but Mantel takes the story to an entirely new psychological depth, with vivid historic detail.
  7. The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. This novel follows teenagers at art camp into middle age, as their connections are strained by changes in fortune, ambition, degrees of satisfaction, and the realization (or not) of their early talents. Definitely interesting. I had to read The Wife right afterwards, which I also enjoyed.
  8. The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. I will read anything by Claire Messud, whose themes are ambitious and deeply psychological. This probably isn’t my favorite of her books—The Last Life and The Emperor’s Children are—but still engaging. The main character, Nora, is a hum-drum teacher who builds little dollhouses—a direct nod to Ibsen’s The Dollhouse—and imagines a more interesting life of glamour, travel and intrigue. She is the opposite of the “woman upstairs,” the madwoman in the attic, but as this novel proceeds, her equilibrium and creativity are challenged, as is her sense of reality.
  9. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Katy Butler. The only nonfiction on my list this year—a fabulously written and reported tale of Butler’s years caretaking her parents, and all the flaws in the American medical system and costly avoidance of death that it exposed. Poetically written, meticulously researched—an important read for anyone who will ever have to face dying. Oh. I guess that’s all of us.
  10. 10. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. In the past, I’ve found Erdrich’s books to be sometimes heavy-handed, especially politically. This one, from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy whose mother was raped on a reservation, was much less so. It’s a coming-of-age story where the loss of innocence is layered with crime, dawning understanding of human evil, conflicts in reservation life and mores with Non-Native ones, and a wavering sense of justice.

Honorable MENtions

Not to leave the best books I read by male authors this year (in the order I read them):

1.The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

2. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

3. Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (also his The Financial Lives of Poets)

4. Enduring Love, by Ian Mcewan

5. Benediction, by Kent Haruf

6. Blasphemy, by Sherman Alexie

7. Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

8. Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster

9. Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner

10. Stay Up With Me, by Tom Barbash

 

I can’t wait to read:

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer

At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon

A Permanent Member of the Family, Russell Banks

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

Enon, Paul Harding

 

 

 

 

My favorite books of 2011

I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was about 13 years old. Below is the complete list of the books I read in 2011. You can read the rest of the list on my website.

From this list–which this year, ended up being about a book a week–I’ve picked my ten of my favorites. Not all of these were published this year, but I just encountered them this year. I left out old favorites that I read again–Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though reading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish was an entirely new experience). I have also left out Paul Auster, because I love everything Paul Auster writes, so why go over old territory. Here, in no particular order:

1. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

This book was over 900 pages, but I flew through it. It was a gripping thriller, with the spare language and quirky details I love in Murakami. This book deals with cults and all the fake realities we live with all the time, and how we try to sort them out. Plus, it was a love story with a very satisfying ending. Maybe what I love about Murakami is that he can write such a traditional story with so many metaphysical twists and high and low cultural references casually thrown in, without announcing themselves.

2. Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

This book, about a young sex offender trying to make his way in the margins, was simply amazing. Just read it.

3. The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Maybe I loved this book so much because I have three sisters, so a lot of the themes and interactions were familiar. But I found her descriptions of human relationships to be nuanced and fresh; I felt as if I were living in that weird family for a few days.

4. The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

The Plague, by Albert Camus, is one of my favorite books, and I’ve had a fascination with books about the plague since. Geraldine Brooks came across a plaque near an English village describing how it had quarantined itself during the time of the plague in the 16th century; she imagined the rest. She did such a wonderful job with the history and language that I immediately got two other historical fictions she did–Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American at Harvard, and March, about the imagined life of the March girls in Little Women, who went to the Civil War and was pals with the transcendentalists and abolitionists of the day (including my ancestory, John Brown). Impeccably researched novels.

5. Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

I guess every MFA teacher around has read Jo Ann Beard’s essays, each one a little gem. I hadn’t read them, and was amazed at their economy of language, structure, and ability to say so much so profoundly in so little space.

6. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres

This book is essential reading for San Franciscans, telling the tale of one of the darkest chapters of our history from a humane point of view. Scheeres did meticulous research from FBI files and survivors to tell the story of Jonestown from the perspective of the people who were drawn into that world because of their ideals. A tale of 60s idealism going very, very wrong. Reads like a novel.

7. Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner

Like One Thousand Lives, this novel is written by a fellow member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, but trust me that I’m not biased when I say this is a wonderfully-written book. Through vignettes scattered in time, we learn about generations of a Chicago family and the themes of love and loss and shame that run through them. Lovely.

8. Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

This wasn’t written this year, but it’s an earlier novel by the author of the Glass Castle, and worth a read. What I loved about the book was that she wrote a kind of memoir of her grandmother, who was quite a character–a tough, independent woman of the West.

9. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Of course, I get this book mixed up with The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which I also loved, and which is completely different. But this tale of a lower-caste Indian’s rise in the world of entrepreneurship was funny, revealing, and a heartbreaking portrait of two Indias. I think you can read anything published recently with a tiger in its title. Except–wait–the Tiger Mother? Forget that one. Stick to the novels and you’ll be safe.

10. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

I can’t believe I’m already at 10. I was going to mention Great House by Nicole Krauss, and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. But this spot is for The Privileges, which is a lively, funny, sarcastic novel about ethics and amorality among the wealthy insider trading set. Completely entertaining.

I’m happy that Santa et al brought me a big stack of books from the Booksmith, which gives me a great start to 2012 with The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie; Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon; Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga; Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, and In One Person, by John Irving.

 

 

My 2011 booklist:

I’m starting a five-star rating system this  year (before the books on the list were either starred or not)

Man in the Dark****
Paul Auster

The Cookbook Collector***
Allegra Goodman***

Celeste Ascending***
Kaylie Jones

La Bella Lingua***
Dianne Hales

Boys of My Youth*****
Jo Ann Beard

Cakewalk****
Kate Moses

The Flaming Corsage***
William Kennedy

Cleopatra****
Stacy Schiff

The Widower’s Tale****
Julia Glass

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents****
Julia Alvarez

By Nightfall****
Michael Cunningham

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks***
Rebecca Skloot

The Toughest Indian in the World*****
Sherman Alexie

Orange is the New Black*****
Piper Kerman

Don’t Cry***
Mary Gaitskill

Sunset Park****
Paul Auster

Empty Family****
Colm Toibin

Persuasion*****
Jane Austen

The Privileges****
Jonathan Dee

The Believers****
Zoe Heller

The White Tiger****
Aravind Adiga

Northanger Abbey****
Jane Austen

Half Broke Horses****
Jeannette Walls

Bite Me***
Fabio Parasecoli

The Year of Wonders****
Geraldine Brooks

The Tiger’s Wife****
Tea Obreht

Pride and Prejudice*****
Jane Austen

Before Night Falls***
Reinaldo Arenas

Emma****
Jane Austen

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures**
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

The Weird Sisters*****
Eleanor Brown

Lola, California****
Edie Meidev

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater***
Frank Bruni

The Ask***
Sam Lipsyte

Amor en los Tiempos del Colera*****
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Nowhere City****
Alison Lurie

Blood, Bones, and Butter***
Gabrielle Hamilton

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America***
Laura Shapiro

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts***
Louis de Bernieres

Great House****
Nicole Krauss

Food is Culture***
Massimo Montanari

Lost Memory of Skin*****
Russell Banks

A Short History of Women****
Kate Walbert

Indignation****
Philip Roth

March****
Geraldine Brooks

Caleb’s Crossing****
Geraldine Brooks

Love and Shame and Love****
Peter Orner

The Voyage of the Rose City****
John Moynihan (dear departed friend)

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown****
Julia Scheeres

Stone Arabia****
Dana Spiotta

The Custom of the Country****
Edith Wharton

Bossypants***
Tina Fey

1Q84****
Haruki Murakami

All Over the Paperback

All Over the Map is out in paperback! Even though I love the hardback as an object–the cover is beautiful–it’s probably best as a paperback, a great read to take along on a summer trip to the beach (or to the couch).

I’ve been delighted and humbled by all of the responses I’ve gotten from readers. One recently told me that the book has a quality of euphoria that is hard to find in life–and that it swept him away.

Another fan wrote: “I stayed up later than I should have night after night, eating each chapter like a chocolate truffle. I loved the way you expressed, in words I’ve never been able to formulate, why I travel (to discover something that I didn’t even know I was looking for). And the reason that I love learning languages (because to speak Spanish, I have to be a little bit Mexican, or Castillian, or Argentine…). Your book was everything I love in a memoir: brave, honest, insightful.”

A doctor from Florida wrote: Finished your latest book this morning and it was a wonderful experience. I probably should say right off the bat that I haven’t read any of your work before. The other day I was in the library with my children, while they were looking for books I was glancing through the new arrivals section. Your book “All Over the Map” caught my eye and I checked it out (I promise I will buy “An Italian Affair”). Reading the jacket sleeve I was hooked by the words romance and adventure. You see my wife and I have travelled to Mexico and climbed Iztaccihuatl and exchanged wedding vows on the top of Temple 2 in Tikal Guatemala. We love those countries as well as Portugal and Greece. We have been toying with the idea of taking our children this summer to a Spanish language immersion program. What better way to instill a passion for travel and a tolerance and understanding for other peoples cultures then to travel to foreign lands. Once again I want to say how much I enjoyed your book and thank you for sharing your experiences. It reinvigorated and reenergized me in my determination to open different paths to different cultures for my kids.”

From a reader in Maryland: “I just finished All Over the Map and I was sorry to reach the end of the book.  Another 100 pages, and I would have been your house guest in San Miguel de Allende, say maybe tomorrow?  My life has taken a different course but I’ve arrived at an age and a time where I could see myself standing where you are. I was inspired.  Thank you.”

I love it when people take the time to drop me a note, like this one: “Hi Laura, I am reading All Over the Map and I love it.  I hope it never ends.”

And I’m so touched when people send notes like this: “I’ve loved many books but never taken time to send the author a fan letter in gratitude for
the lovely experience. All Over The Map was so delicious that I had to get An Italian Affair because I needed to know how your  story began…Your books woke me up from a two year funk after hubby died.  All my pleasures kind of
froze and then while in my favorite book store [ Capitola book cafe ] I  was drawn to Map because of the graphics . What an absolute treat ! I was so taken away  . . . . . thank you for your story, dear lady. Just what my shrink should have ordered !”

Thanks to all of you who took the time to write to me! Please recommend All Over the Map to your book group. There’s a reading guide here from O, the Oprah Magazine.

I am also available to chat with book groups via Skype or phone.

 

My favorite books: 2010

I keep a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 13 years old. It’s a document I cherish, because it’s a great way to remember who I was at different ages, and the books I was reading then. Plus, as my memory gets worse, I can figure out whether or not I’ve read a book already. This year, I thought I’d make a list from the list, and share my favorite books of 2010. They’re in no particular order, except those published in 2010 and those published earlier that I happened to read this year.

P.S., I hope my book, All Over the Map, made your reading list this year! Thank you if it did.

Favorite pre-2010 books I read this year:

1. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman (2008)

This is a marvelous non-fiction book based on the diary of a zookeeper’s wife who helped shelter Jews who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. It’s a perfect vehicle for Ackerman, who is a naturalist, and an acute observer of animal and human nature.

2. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (2006)

A novel about contemporary Egypt. The author uses the device of different levels of an apartment building to tell stories of people from different social classes. Humane, richly descriptive, reminded me of a kind of contemporary Naguib Mahfouz.

3. Under the Volcano, by
Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Drunk in Mexico. Stream of consciousness. Fabulous description. Drunk again.

4. The Company She Keeps, by 
Mary McCarthy (1942)

First novel by Mary McCarthy, originally published as a series of short stories. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get this far in life without reading McCarthy’s thoroughly modern (and autobiographical) stories about a young woman in literary/political New York in the 1930s. “The Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt” is an amazing portrait.

5. The Desert,
JMG LeClezio (1980 in French, 2009 in English)

LeClezio won the Nobel Prize in 1980, but few of his novels are available in English. This is a tale of two Algerian desert peoples, a boy many years ago, and a contemporary girl of his tribe, and their struggles to exist against the forces first of colonialism and then globalization. Lovely.

6. Death with Interruptions, Jose Saramago, 2008

It was strange to be reading Death with Interruptions just when Saramago died–made it seem like a trick, like I was in his world reading that story about his death while reading a story about his death. Another one of Saramago’s books where he takes one aspect of reality and shows how people react to it–in this case, death takes a vacation for two weeks. I loved the first half of the book, liked less the part where Death falls in love with a cellist. RIP, Saramago.

7. Home,
Marilynne Robinson, 2008

My mom read this and said she felt like she was a member of the family while she was reading, which is how I felt. Robinson draws the most amazing, intimate portraits of family relations. Classic, like all her books.

8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,
Junot Diaz, 2007

This book just made me happy. Ghetto nerd from the Dominican Republic seeks true love despite all.

9. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro, 2009

Alice Munro is always a joy to read, with her intimate and emotionally complex characters. Title story here is a bit of a departure for her, about  Sophia Kovalevski, a talented 19th-century mathematician and novelist who struggles with the success, gender, and the politics of the age.

10. Timbuktu, Paul Auster, 2000

I don’t love all of Paul Auster’s books. Well, almost all. Including this one. It’s the tale of Mr. Bones, “a mutt of no particular worth or distinction,” and his master, Willy G. Christmas, a middle-aged schizophrenic who has been on the streets since the death of his mother four years before.

Favorite books published in 2010:

1. Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

All those people who loved The Help should run out and buy Wench. It’s more authentic, more literary, more chilling. Based on a real place, it’s about a summer resort where Southern slaveowners brought their slave “mistresses,” or “wenches,” told in the voice of one of those women.

2. Pictures at an Exhibition, by
Sara Houghteling

This is a wonderful debut by a young woman who teaches high school English about the looting of art in Paris during World War II. Houghteling has an amazing grasp of history, art, and the human heart.

3. Boys and Girls Like You and Me, by
Aryn Kyle

Aryn Kyle’s stories are full of a lot of troubled young women in painful situations, which is probably why I liked it. Full of humor, loneliness, longing, mean girls, bad boyfriends, worse dads. Writing occasionally has that predictable MFA style, but I’m a fan.

4. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by
Jennifer Egan

Mish-mash of  story relating to rock and roll and aging. Unlikeable characters, but very likeable book.

5. Anthropology of an American Girl, by
Hilary Thayer Hamann

This huge tome is a coming-of-age tale with a memorable character. It could’ve used some editing, but I was still sad to finish it.

6. Just Kids, by
Patti Smith

I thoroughly enjoyed punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her 20s in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe. But a National Book Award? I guess I liked it better when it was sort of bad-girl to like Patti Smith, not mainstream critics’ darling.

7. Freedom, by 
Jonathan Franzen

Worth all that hype.

8. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (hardcover 2009)

All of New York City pauses when a Frenchman, Philippe Petit, walks a cable between the World Trade Center towers. An intermingling of stories–a street priest, hookers, mothers mourning their sons who died in the war–told with a perfect ear and heartbreaking humanity.

9. Snake Lake, by Jeff Greenwald.

Painfully honest account of this travel writer (and, okay, my friend) as he searches for meaning to big questions in Nepal, and understanding his brother’s suicide. I wish there’d been a little more on the brother and less on Nepal, but it’s a delicate balance. Brave.

10. Private Life, by
Jane Smiley

Glad to enjoy another Jane Smiley book after I HATED Ten Days in the Hills. Sweeping novel with a depressing arc. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is evoked at one point, and Margaret’s life and journey seem almost as confined. But I wondered whether she was too smart a character to live with what she lived with for so long without taking any action on her own behalf.

The wisdom of not reading your reviews

I somehow have very bad luck with New York Times reviews. Most authors would say that it is very good luck to have your book reviewed in the Times at all, not to mention that any publicity is good publicity. They would also say that it isn’t wise to complain about such a powerful institution.

I have huge respect for the Times. I’m addicted to the paper, and feel proud every time I write for it. It’s simply the best paper in the country. My experiences writing for the paper have shown me that they are very, very careful professionals, and respectful of their writers.

So when a review appears from a writer who is snide and disdaining, particularly, it seems, of women, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. Worse to think that almost every person you know will read the review and feel–I don’t know, pity?

When my first book, Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It, came out, Gina Kolata gave it a very bitchy review, randomly plucking lines that seemed foolish out of context. A few months later she made extensive use of the book in a piece on the history of dieting, without credit. A few more years later she wrote a book on a similar topic. But first, she did what she could to bury mine. The Washington Post gave Losing It a great review, and its topic was featured on the cover of Newsweek. It made a contribution to the discussion about weight in the United States.

An Italian Affair was ignored. All Over the Map was included as part of a travel roundup, reviewed by Joshua Hammer, a Newsweek bureau chief and war correspondent. It might have been nice if the reviewer had been a woman, or at least someone who was capable of reading a book about a woman’s internal as well as geographical journey and not call it “embarrassing.” I was not embarrassed, and I think it says a lot that he was. My book was one of seven reviewed; five were by men, and the last two listed were by women–and one of those women, Rosita Forbes, has been dead for decades. I guess they needed a live woman in the mix.

I realize Hammer had to read a lot of books and digest a lot of material for his reviews. That could account for his weary tone; he had a lot of pages to plow through.

Writers are sensitive, so you can read the review yourself: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/books/review/Travel-t.html?pagewanted=3&sq=Laura%20Fraser&st=cse&scp=1

I was  annoyed, of course, that the reviewer described parts of my book as “Eat, Pray, Love Lite.” I’m not sure what it is about going to Rwanda to look at reconciliation projects after a genocide, or interviewing sex-trafficked women in Italy, that counts as “lite.” And no slam to Elizabeth Gilbert, who seems like a lovely person, but I wrote An Italian Affair about six years before she packed her suitcase, and I’m tired both of the comparisons to her book and the notion that my book was inspired by hers. It was not. Isn’t there room for more than one book about a woman uses travel as a means to find herself?

Does one complain about a review? Ordinarily, you’re supposed to roll with the punches, and hope that discerning readers like the book better. In this case, I could have shrugged off the digs I just mentioned and been happy that even a mixed review was better than none.

My friend Tim Redmond, Executive Editor of the Bay Guardian, and a friend whose judgment I respect hugely, told me, “It was bad, but not that bad. It’ll still sell books. It mostly seemed as if the reviewer totally didn’t get the book at all; I think even to categorize it as a “travel book” is wrong. But it’s okay; I don’t think it will dissuade people from buying it.”

I think he’s right. Many of my other friends said I was over-reacting and that the review was positive. My agent, editor, and publicist were not happy with the review, but suggested I let it go. I would have, but for one line in the review.

There was one wild inaccuracy in the review, and it had to do with a scene I described where I was drinking with some Samoan fa’afafine, males who act in the roles of women, and then took a walk on  the beach, where I was sexually assaulted. I included this scene because one of the themes of the book is the price that women pay for independence and freedom, all over the world. It was not an easy scene to write. In fact, I had written an entire novel about the incident, which I threw away, leaving only that one scene.

Hammer described this scene as a “drunken flirtation” that ended in rape. But nowhere in the text was there any indication that I was flirting with the Samoan surfer. In fact, I disliked him from the moment he sat down, when he asked me to help read a letter in English from a poor girl who’d fallen for him, and his attitude toward her was completely derisive, crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the sand. Plus, he was about as smart as a refrigerator. I couldn’t very well tell him not to walk on the beach near me because it was his beach; I was a visitor in the country. I was just getting air. I made my disinterest in him clear in the book. Anyway, it’s a memoir. I know what happened. I’m the expert here.

I decided I had to write a letter to the Times. Here’s what I wrote:

To the Editor:

Joshua Hammer’s review of my book, All Over the Map, contained a grave inaccuracy. He described a scene in my book where “an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” Nowhere in the text is there an indication that I flirted with the man who raped me; that is an assumption, and a wildly inaccurate one. One of the themes of my book is about how, worldwide, women who either desire to be independent or who are compelled to strike out on their own are punished by members of their cultures who are still vastly ambivalent about changing women’s roles. Sadly, Hammer’s review proves that point by insinuating that because I was out drinking with some Samoan drag queens, I must have been flirting with the rapist who joined us, and therefore to blame for the ensuing rape. Aren’t we past the notion that “she had it coming to her”?

The editors have acknowledged the letter, but haven’t told me anything else so far. I don’t want to make a stink; I’d just like to raise a little consciousness. That part of my book was subtle, and I deliberately did not want to make a big deal out of the incident, which I don’t want to do in print in the Times. I just wish someone would apologize. That Samoan surfer did, the next day. It didn’t make the bad incident go away, but it helped me realize that he was human, too.

Update: The Times has agreed to run my letter about the review. I appreciate their professionalism and consideration.

Q&A with Packing for Mars author Mary Roach

I’m so excited about the success of my friend Mary Roach’s new book, Packing for Mars, a hilarious look at life at zero-gravity.

Here’s a Q&A she did with me about All Over the Map:

Q&A with Mary Roach

MR: I loved your new book, Laura. I found it to be really wise. There were some lines that really stayed with me, like, “Whatever happens, in spring there will always be rhubarb.” I also loved, “It’s not that the grass is greener, it’s that you can never be on both sides of the lawn.” Amen.

LF: Thanks, Mary. I’m wiser, I hope, than when we first met in our twenties!

MR: With this book, there’s something about the fact that you’re writing it in “middle age”–there’s a wisdom to it, and your perspectives on yourself, relationships and marriage had a lot of depth. An Italian Affair was a wonderful, sweeping romance, but this one has more depth and lessons for so many people who are in similar situations.

LF: I guess there are a few advantages to being middle-aged. You’re not as much of an idiot.

MR: I was wondering why there was such a big gap in time between An Italian Affair and this book? I mean, I know, book ideas are not easy to come up with, particularly when you’re writing from your own life—and there’s that sense that you have do always be doing something book-worthy.

LF: That’s right. An Italian Affair was successful enough that it was hard to come up with an idea that people in the book world thought would be as successful. I went to see a mentor, William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, who’s an old-school journalist, with an office in New York City that’s like an oasis of craft where agents and publishers dare not enter. When I told him I felt like I couldn’t write anything because I didn’t think anything would be as successful as my last book, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He told me to just get back to writing about what moves me most.

MR: Good advice.

LF: Absolutely. And the funny thing about this book is that it ended up being quite different from what I set out to write, and I like it better. Everything happens in the process of writing. You can’t plan it all out. The book is a little hodge-podge—“All Over the Map” is kind of the theme as well.

MR: You’re giving your critics a big, fat target. Here’s your headline! Run with it! (Both laugh). But life is all over the map, and maybe because you travel so much, you’re skilled at finding the angle in covering the things you report that fit a larger narrative—you did a really good job of thematically weaving in issues about women and the struggles they have all over the world and the ways they find of dealing with what society expects of them. The book is really not all over the map at all.

LF: I in no way wanted to compare the issues I’m dealing with to those of the women I interviewed—prostitutes in Naples, genocide survivors in Rwanda.

MR: I feel your pain, honey. Just try being me! You can’t believe some of the dates I’ve had on Match.com! You think your Saturday night is rough! (Laughs) No, I don’t think you in any way belittled their experiences, because the stories of those women are very compassionately told.

LF: Good. I just wanted to get across that we’re at a funny time in history when women all over the world are in a double bind about what’s expected of them.

MR: So, did you think about writing this book in the second person like An Italian Affair? I remember you went back and forth when you wrote that, deciding between first person or second.

LF: Or the royal “we.” With this book, it’s part of that sense of being older and wiser–I felt I could land on the first person. I’ve got something to say, I have more confidence about my voice.  With An Italian Affair, the second person worked, partly because it gave it a dreamy quality, like a fable. But this is a different book.

MR: This is such an honest book, I don’t think the “you” would work. You can say about yourself, “You’re the most impulsive person, always blurting things out,” but the reader might take offense at the “you.”

LF: I’m not sure men who read An Italian Affair appreciated the “you,” either. “You’re having an affair with a sexy French professor.” Wait! No I’m not! It just doesn’t work for everyone.

MR: My publisher did an audio book for my last book, Bonk, and they found a male reader. I asked, “What about that chapter where I have sex with Ed in the ultrasound lab?” That’s going to be a little problem, since it’s in the first person. They hired a woman.

LF: That’s hilarious. Since An Italian Affair was about my thirties, and All Over the Map is about my forties, that means there’s less sex in it, sadly. But it’s harder to write about sex in the first person, so it’s just as well.

MR: One of the things I like about this book, in an age where there’s a blurry line between fact and fiction in a lot of memoirs, is that this one is absolutely true. You didn’t exaggerate anything, or change things around to make them fit. It’s a really real story about coming to grips with who you are, and what you thought you’d be.

LF: I guess the journalist in me believes that memoirs should be true. I mean, dialogue is never word for word, and memory is always faulty—memoir is about the truth to the best of your ability to remember it– but I don’t believe in embellishing anything. If you want to do that, just call it “fiction.”

MR: I was especially touched by your portrait of your mom, and just a generation back, how hard it was for her to balance an adventurous spirit with family life and pretty rigid social expectations of women. I liked your exploration of whether women can have it all. When you talked to women at your reunion who seemed to have great jobs and family lives, you scratched the surface and saw a lot of stress, and they envied your life. Like you said, it’s not that the grass is always greener, it’s that you can’t be on both sides of the lawn.

LF: The whole dating thing in your forties is brutal. Thank God you vetted a lot of my Internet dating matches over the years, or I would’ve gotten into bigger trouble. Or maybe I would’ve had more to write about. But you had an unerring sense with the “delete” button.

MR: Yeah, I remember the guy who took you to Muslim Malaysia where Americans weren’t very welcome, in the middle of monsoon season.

LF: No cocktails on the beach.

MR: You didn’t run him by me!

LF: My mistake. Older and wiser.

MR: Let’s go have a cocktail.

Summer reads so far

You can read my booklist for the past 35 years here

Death with Interruptions*
Jose Saramago

Another one of Saramago’s books where he takes one aspect of reality and shows how people react to it–in this case, death takes a vacation for two weeks. I loved the first half of the book, liked less the part where Death falls in love with a cellist. Strange to be reading it when Saramago died.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog*
Muriel Barbery

Loved the book, felt like the ending undermined the rest of the story.

Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Amy Bloom

Wonderfully emotional, spare writing, but hard to like or care about the perverse characters.

More of  This World or Maybe Another*
Barb Johnson

Memorable characters in pre-Katrina New Orleans, completely satisfying.

Private Life*
Jane Smiley

Sweeping novel with a depressing arc. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is evoked at one point, and Margaret’s life and journey seem almost as confined. But I wondered whether she was too smart a character to live with what she lived with for so long without taking any action on her own behalf.

Desert*
JMG LeClezio

Nobel Prize-winning author’s  tale of two Algerian desert people, a boy many years ago, and a contemporary girl of his tribe, and their struggles to exist against the forces first of colonialism and then globalization. Lovely.

The Night of the Gun*
David Carr

NYT writer investigates his drug-addled past, raising meta-questions about the nature of truth and memoir. Great book as long as he stayed on the theme of overcoming addiction; once safely back in the world, it verges on name-dropping and narcissism. Interviewing the wife and current boss? Not the same as the interviews with the druggies of the past.

The Lovers
Vendela Vida

I admire Vendela’s spare prose and stark emotional landscapes, and really loved Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. This book, though, left me a bit cold.

Little Bee*
Chris Cleave

Thoughtful look at clash of cultures and refugees from a brutal problem the UK doesn’t want to recognize. Hard to like one of the protagonists, especially when the other was so wonderful. Bang-up ending with too many easy coincidences.

A Visit from the Goon Squad*
Jennifer Egan

Mish-mash of  story relating to rock and roll and aging. Unlikeable characters, but very likeable book. Hard to read on a Kindle because you want to skip around and figure who the heck that character was again. A little Nick Hornby/Jonathan Letham, unusual from a female writer.