What Nerissa “Read” in 2015–Mini Book Reports

posted December 1, 2015

(Tiny, mostly useless and underwhelming, subjective thoughts based on listening to these books on Audible.)

Note: I could not call myself a reader if it weren’t for Audible. I hate to say it, but it’s true. I spend about ten minutes a day, right before bed, actually reading (and if I have the Audible version, I almost always go out and buy the hard copy of the book, because I am that kind of person.) But I have the kind of life that lends itself well to listening, and I like to listen. It’s good for me, in my work, to practicing listening well to writers, and so I feel that audio books are not just delicious and fun, but also good professional development for me. I listen while I make breakfast. I listen while I go for my run, or work out at the Y. I listen while I eat lunch. I listen while I do laundry and clean the house. I listen when I walk to pick up my kids at school. I listen when I make dinner. And thus, I get through quite a few books. I am only reviewing the ones I finished and liked.

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Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks.


I adore her. I want to read the rest of her books. My parents were reading this book over the holidays last year, and I was with my father when he finished it. He told me a bit about it, through tears. I trust my dad’s take on character-driven novels. This one takes place in the mid-late 17th C Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, and it’s gripping and disturbing story of the first Native American to go to Harvard, told from the point of view of the unflinching and compelling Bethia Mayfield. Life was not easy for anyone in 1664, but it was especially unpleasant if you were not a white male.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed.


I finally got around to reading this massively successful book after I devoured Tiny Beautiful Things in late 2014. I am sure you have all read Wild, so what I say will just be flum, but this is a great read. I really like Cheryl Strayed, and it was fun to hang out in her head with her as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Though what sticks with me most, almost a year later, is the story she told Elizabeth Gilbert in the latter’s podcast (which goes with EG’s book, Big Magic, which I “review” below). The story she tells, which shocked me, is that Strayed left her small children (aged 4-6) for TWO WEEKS in order to finish this book. TWO WEEKS! And the kids were fine! Hmmmmmm…..

Torch, Cheryl Strayed.


And then I had to read her novel, which she talks so much about in TBT. She tells the story of her mother’s death (well, technically, her narrator’s mother’s death, but….) through the points of view of her stepfather, herself, her mother and her brother. The POV’s alternate sequentially in a way that I really enjoyed. She used the word “entirely” way too much. She paints a gorgeous scene. She does not let her characters off the hook, even for a second.

Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin.


I have a love/hate thing with Gretchen, who was in my residential college for 4 years. I have spoken with her exactly once, and not when we were in college together (I saw her at my 25th reunion and thanked her for The Happiness Project). She is WAY too Type A for me, and she doesn’t dig God or Music, which is kind of a deal breaker in terms of friendships for me, but I find her enthusiasm and honesty about her limits compelling. She has truly great, helpful ideas about how to “improve” yourself, and I have taken on quite a few of them. For instance, I got a FitBit because of this book, and also a treadmill desk situation which you can read about here.

Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon.


This might be one of my favorite books, ever. I have talked this up a lot with my writers, and used sections of this book’s first 60 pages as a prompt. His basic premise is that we all want to see ourselves in our children, and we go to great lengths to have our kids reflect back to us, through their actions and through their very being, that we are OK. But what if your child is distinctly different from you? What if s/he is gay, deaf, transgender, mentally or physically challenged, mentally ill, or a prodigy? What if s/he is a criminal? Or–in the most difficult cases, what if your child is the result of a rape? How do parents navigate these most extreme cases? The answers are varied and fascinating, sobering and hopeful. Read the first 60 pages and see what you think. Or even just the first 3. This book is 40 hours long (as an Audible listen) and narrated in the peculiar voice of Andrew Solomon himself, which takes a bit of getting used to. But I listened to the whole thing. I couldn’t wait to get to my reading time. I felt sad when it was over.

Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo.


I failed miserably at this. Her great piece of advice is:

“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”

I failed because I did not do this. If I had, I think I would have either kept everything, or tossed everything, depending on my level of fear on that particular day. That being said, I took her instruction on how to fold clothing into my drawers–stack tee shirts as if they are books, and you want to just see their spines. This makes it easy to see all your shirts or pants at once, and “file” them when you are putting away your laundry. Excellent! Brilliant! Maybe in 2016 I’ll do the spark joy thing.All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. I asked for recommendations for a book to read in Paris, and everyone told me about this one. But I was still reading Far from the Tree and could not be swayed from it, so I gave All the Light to Tom, and he devoured it on the flight home. Then I picked it up and could not put it down. This book has everything: tightly woven structure, great story with the tiniest bit of magic thrown it, a strong historical setting, beautifully wrought characters who feel like friends by the end. It reads like a great fable or fairy tale. It’s about bravery and courage in the truest senses. It deserved the Pulitzer.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson.


After All the Light, this felt, well, light. But it was a welcome lightness, and eventually brought me to the same landscape of World War II. And it, too, had magic in it, though ultimately it felt to me a book about writing itself, about novels and the power of the author.

Christ, Actually, James Carroll.


This was one of my favorites of the year. I got it over the summer but didn’t start reading for awhile because it didn’t seem like a lot of fun. And it wasn’t, exactly fun; but it was a great read nonetheless, and the author read it to me, which I always prefer. He makes the case that we can see all of Christian history in light of what was going on in 70 CE–the year that the Temple fell in Jerusalem, and also–not coincidentally–the year Mark, the first gospel, was composed. Everything we read in the new Testament comes from the urgency of the writers at the time, and that urgency was the urgency of holocaust. This was the writing of a people at risk of genocide. What I loved most about this book was the notion that Jesus was always talking to the collective: to the Jewish people.

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert.


Turning 90 degrees now, this was a fun, short read. I enjoy Liz Gilbert very much, and I loved her take on creativity….though now, only a month later, I can barely remember a thing about this book. Oh, well. I think the point was….write.

Boys on the Boat, Daniel James Brown.


Another book my parents recommended with tears in their eyes, so I read it. I never would have chosen to read this book. Rowing and competition and come-from-behind-underdog stories are not my thing. But I loved it, as the whole world did (and I guess 2015 was the year of World War II for me…) Lila heard some of this book because I had it on in the van as I was driving her around, and she became obsessed. We all can’t wait for the movie to come out. Worth reading for the story of the main character’s childhood in Washington State.

Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta.


My friend Elaine Apthorp recommended this fine novel to me, and I recommend it to you. It’s the story of siblings Denise and Nik, who are now in their forties. Nik is a musician who, after tasting just a hint of success, takes his show off the road. Instead, he has created a whole faux musical career, which he chronicles in his “Chronicles”, a massive opus that mostly just Denise reads. He records CDs for an audience of about six, for whom he carefully constructs artwork, liner notes, and ultimately, reviews (by mythical reviewers). When his niece (Denice’s daughter) decides to make a documentary about him, he has to make some critical decisions. This is a fascinating portrait of a sibling relationship, and it’s so economic and well-written it took my breath away.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson.


After I read the interview of Marilynne Robinson by none other than our President, Barack Obama, I thought I’d better read her new book. It turned out both my mother and sister were reading it that week, so I hopped on the bandwagon. I loved this from the first sentence. It’s part of her Gilead Trilogy (See below), and I’d read Gilead in 2005 or so, so I knew the landscape somewhat. But this is a very different book from Gilead–told in a classically “feminine” way in that the narrative circles around and around, gathering energy as it expands in a wider spiral. Robinson writes about migrants and transients in a way that makes that lifestyle achingly moving and compelling.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson.


And then I had to re-read Gilead. It was even better ten years later. I just love the character John Ames, and I would listen to his thoughts, and his tender letter to his young son, for as long as MR wanted to write them. I am looking forward to reading the second in the trilogy, Home, in 2016.

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande.


I didn’t want to read this book, because I thought it would depress me. Oddly, though it was a hard book emotionally, it ended up lifting my spirits. Gawande is a surgeon who writes for the New Yorker, and is the author of many best selling books. This one is about illness and dying and death. The conclusion he comes to over and over, as he visits these questions both as a surgeon and as a grandson and son, is that we can only really live in and for the moment. Trading time for quality of life rarely works in a satisfying way. Have the best possible day today–this is what I will take from this beautiful book.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates.


I wasn’t planning on reading this, as I wanted to keep up my Marilynne Robinson fest. But my mother (again) was telling me about a group she’s a part of, and how they had just read this amazing article by a writer I’d never heard of before. Of course, as soon as I read the article (here, in The Atlantic) about the mass incarceration of African American men, I heard his hame everywhere I went. I bought this book (choosing it over his Beautiful Struggle because I had just read another book that was a letter from a father to a son), and as I was in the middle of it, I heard he’d just won the National Book Award for it. It transformed my thinking in many ways, and I found the form as amazing as the content. I devoured his memoir/letter to his 15 year old son, Samori. It’s a book as fine as any I have ever read. He has said, “I never wanted to lead a movement. But I did want to be the best writer of my generation.” He may well be. His voice is entirely his own: lyrical, poetic, sharp, mesmerizing. He weaves his narrative with themes: themes about the black body, which is unique, precious and how its destruction is “traditional” in America. He calls “those who must believe themselves to be white” Dreamers, who must awaken from “the Dream” that engulfs us all–the Dream of American equality, the Dream that anyone may advance if they just work hard enough. The nightmare, on the other hand, of slavery, Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of black men, plus the nightmare of ongoing police brutality, is what Coates warns his son about in this slim but amazing book. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

Now I am reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (which has such a bad narrator that I am mostly reading it), and next on deck is The Gospel of Mary by Colm Toibin. I will let you know what I think…in December 2016. Send me your recommendations if these resonated with you!

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  1. I’ve read several of the books on your list, especially appreciated Being Mortal since the author questions the modern ethic of living longer at any cost. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan and recommend his recent memoir On the Move which features a photo of him on a motorcycle on the dust jacket.

  2. Dear Nerissa,
    This is your old fan/pal, The Reet from Santa Barbara. I hung out with you guys at that Grass Valley World Fest (the Waifs were there) many years ago. Anyway, I find this is the only way I could tell u something. I just watched an Australian horror/comedy film, The Loved Ones, ( I don’t advise you to view it, it’s pretty gory), BUT… a song in it, sung by one of the leads, Robin McLeavy & written by Kasey Chambers, sounded suspiciously reminiscent of Snowman. There is even a line in it that uses the words “heart” and “freeze” called Not Pretty Enough. It was weird cause it made me immediately flash on you guys! I left Santa Barbara 6 years ago and came to Florida to care give for my parents, both 90 and both with dementia. Your albums still bring me much joy and comfort. It’s Christmas eve, so Happy Holidays to you and yer families! Love, Reet.
    p.s. The most recent audible book i read/heard was called Under The Skin by Michel Faber. It is an earth bound science fiction book that speaks of many issues , empathy, isolation and human power over one another, especially from a female point of view.

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