2019: The Year in Books

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” ― Charles W. Eliot

As the years winds down, I have a book in queue (The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler) and the manuscript for a dear friend’s new book in my lap. It’s my favorite reading time of year: this hot coffee, chilly air, fire in the fireplace, cat on the lap season that it is.

In this week’s in-box, the Goodreads “Your Year in Books” reports that I have read 51 books this year, and some 13,451 pages. The shortest, at 40 pages, was Wabi Sabi, a wonderfully collaged children’s book by Mark Reibstein; the longest at a whopping 545 pages was The Witches of New York by Ami McKay.

Speaking of pages, this was the year I instituted my 29-page rule: if I’m not all-in by page 29, I’m all-out. Life is too short to be half-in on anything, isn’t it?

Books with 5-star, all-in ratings this year included:

  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
  • Almost Everything, Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott
  • Witchmark, C.L. Polk
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • Peony in Love, Lisa See
  • The Forest Lover, Susan Vreeland
  • Beyond the Bright Sea, Lauren Wolk

Through no fault of her own, Barbara Kingsolver earned the only one-star rating this year for Unsheltered. My review said something like this: “I adore Kingsolver’s work and her commitment to helping us better understand the natural world and our environment, but…we. are. still. living. the. nightmare. I’m off to read some escapist fiction now. Thank you. And no hard feelings.”

Which could explain why I devoured Ottessa Moshgegh’s book My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which the protagonist drug-sleeps her way through an entire year.

But who needs drugs when you have books? I mean, what better way to escape for a moment or week than to time travel (Time After Time, Lisa Grunwald), get lost in a mystery (The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton), consider other monsters (Melmoth, Sarah Perry), or just find solitude (The Salt House, Cynthia Huntington ).

What better way indeed?

Now, here’s some happy news with which to start your year…the new Ransom Riggs book, The Conference of the Birds, hits shelves January 14! I’m pre-ordered. Are you?

Happy New Year and Blissful Reading!

©2019, Jen Payne. IMAGE: The submissive reader, Rene Magritte

Indie Blog Hop: Behind the Lens by Nasirah Kathrada

by Nasirah Kathrada (@nnaskatz on IG)
Published 2019 by Artson Publishing House

Behind The Lens, by 15-year-old Nasirah Kathrada, is an anthology of poetry which is predominantly about social issues. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in learning more about what people in Africa and the Middle East have to endure on a daily basis. Photography by Abubakr Adam.

“My aim is to give voices to those who have been suppressed, my aim is to show the world the truth.” — Nasirah Kathrada


This Book Tour is proudly brought to you by Indie Blog Hop – the totally free book tour site!

Book Review: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

It is no surprise that for the three nights since reading Kin Types, I have had vivid dreams of my own family. It is no surprise because Luanne Castle’s thought-full book presents the concept of family in such a palpable manner, one feels as if you have sat across the table from an aunt, a grandmother, a cousin, and heard family stories that could very well be your own.

Layered with poems and prose, you turn a page to reveal the next colorful character, the faded memory, the texture of a detail only a poet would think to include. The result is a beautiful collage of the family experience — its loves and losses, its joys and sorrows, its tragedies and secrets.

How clever of Castle to include the modern-day theory of behavioral epigenetics, essentially we are that collage, we are the stories, they are in our DNA. It is the premise of the book, and holds its own from the opening epigraph by Liam Callanan (The Cloud Atlas) to the final, beautiful poem “When Your Grandfather Shows You Photographs of His Mother.”

Speaking of photographs, do make note of the woman on the front cover, her knowing glance to the author’s photo on the back. Is this the forebear who whispers “Don’t quit writing like I did”?

No matter, we are happy Castle heeded the advice.

CLICK HERE to order a copy of Kin Types from Finishing Line Press today.

The Unread Book Project: Things Fall Apart


From the back cover of my yellowing 1959, 75¢ copy of Things Fall Apart:

“First published in England in 1958, Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s first and most famous novel, a classic of modern African writing. It is the story of a “strong” man whose life is dominated by fear and anger, a powerful and moving narrative that critics have compared with classic Greek tragedy. Written with remarkable economy and subtle irony, it is uniquely and richly African and at the same time reveals Achebe’s keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and all places. Things Fall Apart is no less successful as a social document, dramatizing traditional Ibo life in its first encounter with colonialism and Christianity at the turn of this century. Set in an Ibo village in what is now Biafra, the novel vividly re-creates pre-Christian tribal life and shows how the coming of the white men led to the breaking up of the old ways.”

For someone who has been a pretty devout popular fiction reader for many years, Things Fall Apart was a big switch for me. While it presented itself as fiction, the details of primitive tribal life were very real, very hard, and very male.

It occurred to me that I had not read a book by a male author in quite a long time—I don’t think Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden counts exactly.

The tribe was extremely patriarchal, so women were fairly insignificant in the storyline—except to pop out babies and keep house and feed their husbands and get beaten when they didn’t comply. The tribe was extremely violent, seeking out war as retribution, celebrating violent wrestling matches as sport, and killing off life’s oddities in the name of evil spirits.

At first, I had very little empathy for the main character, Okonkwo. I had very little empathy for any of the characters. But gradually, I became intrigued by the stark similarities of our own culture and the Ibo culture. I was humbled, actually, to start with such prejudgment—this is a very male book, I don’t like these people—and then be caught up in the beautiful, organic nature of their lives.

Their days and weeks and seasons were guided by nature and the cycles of an agrarian society. They appreciated and respected their natural resources. They worked together as families, villages, tribes. They had a strong sense of family—immediate and ancestral. They formed a working structure of government, and great rituals of celebration and worship. They were self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and insulated from the dysfunctional workings of the industrialized world.

My affinity for the Ibo tribe, and for Okonkwo, grew exponentially with the arrival of the Christian missionaries. It was at that point, two-thirds of the way through the book, that I truly came to appreciate the experience of Things Fall Apart.

I was no longer reading a male book about a foreign culture, it was as if I had been part of that culture. I had spent time in the villages the arrogant white men were about to destroy; I had participated in the celebrations the missionaries called evil ways; I had honored gods and customs these interlopers would never understand; I had experienced moments of love and friendship, and was a better person for the journey.

With his deft hands and words, Chinua Achebe had taken me there.

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A Death in the Family

The Unread Book Project
Book #2: A Death in the Family by James Agee

Click here to purchase a copy of Things Fall Apart or A Death in the Family.

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Image of traditional Ibo mask courtesy of Ethnic Arts.

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