Four Really Good Books I Read in 2014

Just in case there aren’t enough “best books of 2014” lists out there for you this time of year, I thought I’d gather just four of my favorites from a year of reading, as well. Because, well, EVERYONE wants to know what I’m reading, right? <sarcasm>

My brief list below is a little weird, though, (no comment necessary) because it contains not only two new books that came out this year, but also “old” ones I picked up again to reread. I think it says a ton if, out of all the books I read in a year, some of the best are ones I’ve read before. Oh, and the reason it’s only four books? Four words: Too busy to live.

Here you go:

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. This book came out in September, and I read it in October. Today, I still think of the main character and wonder what she’s up to. The publisher’s description says: “Imagine The Bell Jar — written by Rizzo from Grease.” I think that’s fairly spot on. The writing is lovely and poignant and provides so much to think about beneath the surface of the story. The storytelling is excellent; one of those rare instances where a character-driven novel, with no real driving plot, makes me can’t wait to turn the page. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young British girl, and I usually have issues with coming-of-age stories where the character’s voice feels far older than than the fictional age. But Moran makes this one work. And work oh so well. I laughed out loud repeatedly, which is always a good sign. (It should definitely have an “R” rating, though, so be ready for some shagging and fagging, as they say in the UK, and a rather overly descriptive scene involving a man named Big Al.)

Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg. This is one of those books — a memoir — that left me breathless about 12 years ago. Spragg’s stories beautifully capture a boyhood spent on a ranch in Wyoming and a deep, spiritual connection to animals and the land. Some people think the book is too slow. Too much focus on the landscape and not enough action. And I would agree it’s not a book that you’ll want to plow through. It’s one to be savored in hardcover or paperback. So you can dog-ear those pages and underline those sentences that speak some essential truth that you always knew was out there, but couldn’t put your finger on before. This book will change a small part of you, if you stick with it.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. My son and I have been reading this classic together, and I’m amazed at his young age, that he’s as into the story as I am. I think I didn’t read this novel for the first time until junior high school. Of course, he loves the idea of sneaking out of school to fish, of trading frogs for a slingshot, and tricking friends and adults on a daily basis. It’s also a great conversation-starter about race issues in America’s past and present. If you haven’t read this in a while, take another look. It’s free as an Amazon Kindle book. And for the record, we don’t say the “N” word out loud in this house, but we do read the original, unedited version.

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones. This is poet Jones’ debut collection, and it’s moving and touching and oh-so-brilliant. The poems capture tenderness and harshness. They are fierce and hope-filled. The collection has such energy and such a story to tell about the connection between one’s history and one’s identity. Some of the poems are difficult to read, yes. But they hit you somewhere between your heart and your intellect, and that’s somewhere, as a reader, I want to be hit every now and then. This is probably one of the best poetry collections I’ve read in a long time. A sampling of why (from Postapocalyptic Heartbeat):

After ruin,

after shards of glass like misplaced stars,

after dredge,

after the black bite of frost:                you are the after,

you are the first hour in a life without clocks;   the name of whatever

falls from the clouds now is you (it is not rain),

a song in a dead language, an unlit earth, a coast broken–

how was I to know every word was your name?

 

What were your favorites of 2014? Please share in the comments below!

10 Books That Impacted Me

An author friend, Lauren Clark, challenged me to quickly come up with 10 books that impacted my life. Definitely not an easy task, but I took a shot at it. (Lauren has a new book out, too [Pie Girls]. If you like southern fiction full of sassy, smart women, you should check it out!)

Meanwhile, here’s my list. I really need about 200 more spaces to work with here, folks.

1. Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder

2. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore

3. Waltzing the Cat – Pam Houston

4. Larry McMurtry – The Last Picture Show

5. Annie Proulx – Close Range

6. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

7. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

8. White Oleander by Janet Fitch

9. Beloved – Toni Morrison

10. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

Now, I’d love to hear your lists in the comments! Then I’ll psychoanalyze you. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Also, I am already revising my list in my head … Stegner, Steinbeck, McCarthy, Salinger, Lopez, Smiley, Conrad, Lamott … oh and The Solace of Open Spaces (G. Ehrlich) …and so many poets like Mary Oliver …heck, even Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew books … I’ll stop now.

Which Novel Should You Read First? Take the Quiz

The infographic craze is, well, crazy. I think it’s safe to say that I’m about as tired of infographics as I am the #IceBucketChallenge.

And yet …

Let me know your result of this quiz, would ya? I’ll psychologically analyze you later.

infographic

The Best Margarita Recipe, Taste-Tested and Texan-Approved

tequila Margarita on the rocksWhen you’re from Texas, three of the four main food groups are lime, tequila, and salt. (The fourth is straight-up enchiladas.) Suffice it to say that I’m no stranger to the sweet-tart heaven of a margarita done right. (The main character in my novel Blue Straggler isn’t, either.)

I’ve had margaritas made with sweet-and-sour mixes. I’ve had margaritas made with Lone Star beer. I’ve had blue margaritas and strawberry margaritas and cucumber margaritas and prickly pear margaritas. I’ve enjoyed frozen margaritas, swirled-with-sangria margaritas and on-the-rocks margaritas.

And they are not all, as they say, created equal.

In honor of the two-year anniversary of the publication of Blue Straggler by 30 Day Books, I’m sharing what I consider to be the best, simple margarita recipe on the planet.

Let me know if you agree!

The Blue Straggler Margarita

Run a juicy lime wedge over the rim of a cocktail glass and dip the rim of the glass in coarse sea salt.

In a bowl, whisk 1 tablespoon light agave nectar with 1 tablespoon filtered water and 1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice.

Pour the nectar mixture, along with 1/3 cup 100-percent blue agave tequila, into a shaker. (Do not settle for cheap college-days tequila. You’re a grown up!)

Add ice and shake.

Pour liquid only over fresh ice in your salt-rimmed glass. Add a final squirt of lime on top and drop the wedge into the drink.

Sip while listening to the Marty Robbins’ song, El Paso, or Down on the Rio Grande by Johnny Rodriguez.

My Favorite Reads of 2013

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Before pneumonia took me down in December, I would consider 2013 a banner reading year for me. Mostly because, perhaps unfortunately, I wasn’t writing much fiction myself. Which is just fine. Because sometimes writers need to spend a long time soaking up the words others have written to get back to the reason we write in the first place.

I didn’t keep track, but I’m sure I read at least 100 books — some fiction, some nonfiction. And here are five of my favorites.

1. Tenth of December by George Saunders. This collection of short stories is literary perfection. Every word, every phrase, every sentence, every character, and every story seems to have meaning far beyond the first that comes to mind. It’s definitely a thinker’s story collection and not for anyone who wants a light, airy read. It’s honest and brutal and moving, and it’s one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve read it. It’s oh so good. It’s one I will buy in hardcover after having read it twice on my Kindle. This should be required reading for all writers of fiction. Maybe all writers in general. Maybe all readers.

2. Great Colorado Bear Stories by Laura Pritchett. I’ve been a fan of Laura’s since her first collection of short stories, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado. And I’m also very interested in bears, since I have lived among them in the Colorado mountains for 12 years now. But I think anyone who is curious about wildlife, and the interaction between humans and wildlife, will enjoy it. The book is full of nonfiction research and first-hand accounts of bear encounters. It’s written in a way that engages and makes what could be a dry topic instead a book I couldn’t put down. If you like Craig Childs’ work, you’ll enjoy this book.

3. Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III. Another fiction collection, this one touted as “four not-quite-novella-length stories.” I absolutely loved these stories, all of them about relationships and people who are on the cusp of something. The stories hurl you into the characters’ minds so completely that you truly care about them, even with all their flaws, and, in comparison to Saunders’ work, you don’t even think about the words or language used. You just HAVE to know what happens to these people. (However, the writing is near brilliant, too.) I’d love to see any of these stories made into a full novel. If you liked House of Sand and Fog by Dubus, you’ll enjoy this collection.

4. Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere by Lauren Leto. This was a fun, nonfiction keeper. It’s from the woman who cofounded the humor blog, Texts From Last Night, while she was in law school. But the book grew out of her other blog (no longer up, I don’t think) called Book Porn. This book is hilarious, particularly for college English majors and all-around book nerds like me. Here’s how the publisher described it, and I agree: “… [It’s] like a literary Sh*t My Dad Says—an unrelentingly witty and delightfully irreverent guide to the intricate world of passionate literary debate, at once skewering and celebrating great writers, from Dostoevsky to Ayn Rand to Jonathan Franzen, and all the people who read them.”

5. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh. Another blogger turned book-writer, Brosh got her book deal based on her blog, Hyperbole and a Half. So be sure to check out the blog to see if you can handle her type of writing, which is a hybrid form of words and illustrations and more words. But mostly, it’s hilarious. And insightful. And true. Not just to her life, but probably to your own. My favorite chapters were the ones where she delves into the minds of her dogs (so funny!) and the ones where she describes depression for those who have never experienced it (spot on.)

What was your favorite read of 2013?