Thursday, January 31, 2013

Singing the Winter Blues

I remember being seventeen and driving in the car with my mother.  It was raining outside and the skies were a dull grey.  She had to stop and pump gas.  She got out of the car grumbling that she had let the tank get so low, less than delighted to be stepping out in the murky weather.  I sat in the passenger seat and watched my mother as she filled the truck up – her hands shaking in the cold.  She opened the driver’s door and sat back in the car.  She slammed the door shut and spoke without turning to me, “Those damn birds out there just keep on singing.  They must not know how shitty it is outside.” 

Those words stayed with me forever because they have always seemed to encapsulate my mother – the way I felt she saw the world for what it really was – ugly, dark, and filled with rain drops, and yet she trudged ahead fervently doing whatever needed to be done in the moment.  Part of me admired that no nonsense, no bullshitting attitude.  Another part of me wanted to be like the silly, optimistic birds she spoke of – singing through the darkness and seeing the growth and beauty that came to the world because of the rain, rather than the inconvenience and despair it brought to that precise moment. 

As I look out my window this morning, it’s snowing, the wind is blowing, and the world is still dark outside.  It makes it awfully hard to smile, and even harder to sing.  It makes it difficult to even fill the tank, feed the children, do the dishes – trudge on as my mother did to complete that which needs to be done. Winter makes me want to pull the covers back over my head and stay in bed.  Winter makes the wind blow through my bones leaving me feeling hollow and empty, as low as the gauge on my mother’s gas tank in my memory.

I know that I am not alone in this feeling.  Many individuals, likewise, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Many individuals fall into a depression during the winter months, when the light is less bountiful.  For some individuals, as myself, their mental illness becomes more severe during these winter months.  Other individuals are only affected by depression during this particular season.  Regardless, the symptoms are the same: moodiness, depression, anxiety, weight gain, drowsiness, a loss of interest in activities.  According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, six percent of the US population is affected by SAD in its most marked form.  Another fourteen percent of the population suffers from a lesser form of this disease, known as the winter blues.

The “winter blues” are not an excuse to be lazy and moody. SAD is a very real and very serious illness that is not to be disregarded or downplayed.  It’s important to recognize the reality and challenges of this illness, but not to succumb to the disease.  SAD needs to be treated and a concerted effort is required.  I can’t stop the snow from falling, nor can any one of us.  However, we can choose to look for the light both literally and figuratively.  We can indeed forge fervently ahead, and even whistle a tune while doing so.

Yes – it’s shitty outside – often downright miserable.  I recognize this too, perhaps unlike those silly birds my mother had complained of.  Yet, despite the knowledge that I possess of less literal light and biting, blustery cold temperatures, I want to be like the birds.  I want to sing even through the darkness, even when times get tough, even when clouds hover over me.  It may be na├»ve.  It may be overly optimistic, but I want to sing.  I want to sing.  Sing. Sing. Sing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Side Effects

It was a beautiful anniversary party.  All of our friends and family had joined us in the ballroom decorated with white and lilac balloons, the colors a tribute to the bouquets that were carried by the bridesmaids five years ago.  Everyone was joyous, laughing and chatting happily, and then he entered the room.  Why was he there? 
Why is he here? Why? Why? Oh my God. Why?
My heart started to race as fear masked my face, the happy, loving, confident me suddenly hidden and this frightened whisper of a woman once again returning.  I looked to my husband, who looked to me and then looked up and too saw him – my ex-husband.  I could see my spouse look around the room for the children too and then he ran to this unexpected, most definitely uninvited guest. 
Sam pushed at this intruder’s chest, his mouth uttering words meant to usher him out of this place.  I couldn’t tell what those words were, but I remember my former flame’s first words: “You’re last.”
He intended to kill my husband.  I saw it in those fiery evil eyes, those eyes that I once so god-damn foolishly had fallen for.  He glanced around the room, “Where’s the newest one, Angela?  Where’s your son?”  His voice sent shivers racing down my spine and my entire body trembled.  An image flashed through my unquiet mind: my six month old son a fatality to the gun that I now glanced in this man’s hand, his tiny body twisted and deformed, no longer recognizable as a child of God, just a victim of the devil’s work – this devil who wore a disguise so clever he had once convinced me to say “I do.”  I saw tiny bits of brain matter and bone, and my body twitched and turned, agitated and wanting this nightmare to end.  I found myself mute and locked in this awful reel of absolute horror.
Then another image flashed quickly across my racing, restless mind.  This time, it was my mother, who had noticed as he entered the room too and knew, had always known in her heart, what this monster was capable of.  She had run with the children.  I saw her locked in the coat closet, her arms wrapped tightly around my two children praying to God that they wouldn’t be found and they would be kept safe.
He didn’t try to find them when they were not easily located.  Instead he said, “I can’t find the boy.  I’ll move on then. “ His eyes darted across the room until they locked upon my dear friend.  “You,” he hollered and approached her with an alarmingly determined rapidity.  “You were there!”, he grabbed her arm and yelled loudly in her face. “Why were you there?  If you hadn’t moved, it would have just been us.  I could have kept her alone and dependent!  You came and reminded her she could be happy and herself!” He shook her body fiercely as though she were a mere rag doll, her strong, tempered body suddenly falling limp in his arms.  I could see her fear, smell it, taste it; it was so real for me – so fucking real and I couldn’t stop it as hard I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t happening. 
“Fuck you!” he screamed in her face, further startling everyone in the room, as we all looked on helpless, frozen in fear, unable to make this end despite our deep desires.  There were no heroes here; it was all horror.  “Fuck you! Fuck you!” he screeched even shriller, as he now took a knife from his pocket and sent the razor sharp blade plunging into her temple, again and again and again until her screams became silence, and my voice had finally been found.
I jolted up in bed with a deafening scream that woke my husband.  I was sweating profusely, my body trembling.  Tears ran down my cheeks as my spouse made himself more alert and attempted to calm me.  “It’s okay, Angela,” he whispered as he rocked me in his arms, “It isn’t real.  It isn’t real.  It’s just a nightmare.  It’s okay.” 
But it felt so real, so fucking real; the horror and fear was palatable.  My heart was beating rapidly and my mind was whirling.  I tried to shake this nightmare off of me, but it remained with me.  While my husband tried his damndest to assure me that it wasn’t real and everything would be alright, I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t feel assured.
I rocked back and forth and pulled myself out of his comforting arms, allowing myself to fall back into that nightmare in my memory.  I started bawling, my cries now nearly as strident as my shouts.  “He would have killed me if I had stayed.  He would have killed me if I had stayed. “ I repeated these words like some menacing mantra and blocked out the reality that I was safe here in my home with my new husband and loving family.  That former life didn’t have to haunt me anymore, but it did.
“He would have killed me if I had stayed,” I repeated.  I knew these words were truth as I spoke them again and again.  The party and his vile presence had been a nightmare, but this knowledge was a reality.  How, then, could I have ever married such a malevolent man?  Why couldn’t those vows also be nothing more than a nasty dream?  Maybe then he couldn’t still haunt me. 
I shared these fears in my latest therapy session.  I was there informed of the side effects of Effexor:  vivid dreams.  This dream was so real it crippled me, and I stayed at home too afraid to leave, an anxiety attack having proceeded the nightmare, and depression joining the fear and anxiety in a toxic combination – but none of these, alone or together, as toxic as that relationship had been.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey -- Plus Fifty More

At my final PTC (parent teacher conferences) last school year, I had a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five sitting out on my desk.  I was rereading the text in between meeting with parents as I was then teaching Vonnegut in an AP (advanced placement) Modern Literature course.  I was meeting with a single father whose daughter was in my Creative Writing class.  He glanced down at my book, and said, “Ah. Vonnegut?  Is it a good book?”

I briefly spoke to the book’s merits, and his next question was then, “Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey yet?” Because naturally discussing the artistry of Kurt Vonnegut leads directly into a discussion of the tawdry tales of E.L. James.  What? I was struck a bit off guard.  I might expect to discuss Christian Grey with some of my female friends, but had not expected a parent’s father to ask me about this text.  I admitted I hadn’t read it yet, and he proudly boasted that his girlfriend was really into it, and I ought to check it out.  Okay, sir, thanks for the recommendation. Now, might we discuss your daughter’s grade?

I must confess now, probably much to the chagrin of the blogging community (I’ve learned you’re a bunch of damn perverts – which I basically love), I failed to act on his recommendation and have not yet read Fifty Shades.  There are two primary reasons for this.  The first is that, while there are multiple reasons I love to read, such as learning about different cultures and lands and immersing myself in the lives of characters, titillation has honestly never been one of my motives for opening up a new book.  I did admittedly read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but my reasoning was to widen my expanse of the canon. The other reason I have yet to read Fifty Shades is that my life, and particularly my depression, was so damn overwhelming in 2012 that I failed to participate in a lot of my interests.  Reading fell victim to my depression, and I completed very few books.

Therefore, while I have already announced a list of perfectly reasonable resolutions on my blog, I am adding one more goal to that list.  This year, I hope to read Fifty Shades of Grey, and fifty other books.  I am already well on my way toward accomplishing this goal, having completed four books in six days.  I must thank my husband for this who allowed me a lovely Saturday afternoon of sitting in our garden Jacuzzi tub with a bottle of wine and several books. 

As a means of holding myself accountable, I will be updating this particular post every time I complete a book with a very brief evaluation of the text.  If you, like me, are a book junkie, please pick up some of the same books, read along, and share your thoughts and comments here.  I also excitedly welcome your book recommendations, so play along because reading books is totally bad-ass. 


   1.       The Paris Wife – Paula McLain  

I bought this book last year while teaching The Sun Also Rises in my AP Literature course.  A mother had recommended it to me; this recommendation made sense as her daughter was reading Hemingway in my class.  This was an enjoyable read, especially as I have read, researched and taught Ernest Hemingway.  I especially enjoyed the parts in Pamplona and and Madrid because it was easy to identify how his own life led to The Sun Also Rises.
   2.       The Family Fang – Kevin Wilson

I personally have a rather strong distaste for performance art.  If you stand in a gallery and throw your own feces at a wall, this does not make you creative; this makes you fucking crazy.  Reading of the life of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, and the impact their art had on their children, was quite interesting.  This was a bizarre little book – but a quick read with amusing characters and a bit of mystery. I thought the end could have wrapped up more cohesively, but I still enjoyed it.  I think this book would adapt wonderfully into a Wes Anderson film.

   3.       Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict – Laurie Viera Rigler

Jane Austen fan fiction is kind of a guilty pleasure for me.  Most of it is terribly cheesy, and this book was no exception, but I still eat it up.  I had first read her Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, and I recommend reading that novel first because the two are closely linked together.  Courtney Stone is a bit of a hard sell as a character though.  It’s difficult to imagine a Janeite who also only has a bottle of Absolut and tub of Cherry Garcia in her refrigerator, but has volumes of Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle on her book shelves right alongside Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.

  4.       The Summer Before the Dark – Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing is simply brilliant, and this book is further proof.  She’s incredibly progressive and intellectual.  I love what she had to say of marriage in the early seventies, and believe her words have sadly become even truer with the influx of false Hollywood romances.  Lessing writes: “the core of discontent, or of hunger, if you like, which is unfailingly part of every modern marriage – of everything, and that is the point – had nothing to do with either partner.  Or with marriage.  It was fed and heightened by what people were educated to expect of marriage, which was a very great deal because the texture of ordinary life was thin and unsatisfactory.  Marriage had a load heaped upon it that it could not sustain.”

5. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

John Green is my favorite young adult author.  I read young adult fiction as I taught high school English, and hope to teach again soon.  I enjoy his novels because I don’t feel like the work was designed for a fourteen-year-old as I read it.  He possesses incredible insight into the character of adolescents, and creates such compelling relationships.  The relationship between Hazel and Augustus in this book is just brilliant and moving.  I laughed out loud and felt genuine sadness, hope, and sorrow.  I highly, highly recommend this novel for both teens and adults. 
6. The End of the World as we Know It – Robert Goolrick
This book was marketed as being “morbidly funny.”  It was morbid, but not at all funny.  I wish I hadn’t read this book, or that it had come with a disclaimer: “Shit gets real in this book, y’all, and you’re probably going to relate to some of this terrible, awful shit and the memory of your own experience, fueled by Goolrick’s words, will send you reeling into depression.”  I read 177 pages of this 213 page book, and then I was too sickened and sad to continue.  I won’t finish this book, and I won’t keep it on my bookshelf.  I will attempt to sell it for a quarter at my next garage sale.  I did not care for this memoir at all.

7. Eleven Minutes - Paulo Coelho

I really enjoy Paulo Coelho, having fell in love with his words and wisdom many years ago, after having read The Alchemist.  That being said, I was not nearly as enraptured with this story of a prostitute named Maria and her quest to understand love.  I didn't want this novel to have a happy ending; it didn't seem right.  How does the story of a prostitue manage to end as a fairy tale?  Too Pretty Woman. There were elements of this book I enjoyed, but it didn't meet my expectations for Coelho.  If you're going to read a novel of his other than The Alchemist, I would recommend The Devil and Miss Prym. I might also add that "eleven minutes" (once/if  you understand the significance of this title) is really quite generous after marriage and children enter into the equation, Mr. Coelho.

8. every day - David Levithan

I was highly impressed with this novel.  There were so many rich layers to this young adult text-- from the unique, intricate plot to its exploration of gender roles.  On the surface, it might appear as a young adult love story, and that is an element of the novel.  However, I was more impressed with the way the novel allows its readers to live a la Atticus Finch and climb into the skin of so many individuals, attempting to understand what it's like to be in that other person's shoes before quickly passing judgment.  The character of Vic, for example, is brilliantly occupied by A, and may lead to more compassion and understanding to develop in Levithan's readers. As an English teacher to the core (although not currently employed in this occupation), I just kept thinking how much fun it would be to discuss this novel with a group of bright young adults. 

9. Saving the World - Julia Alvarez

Alvarez is the author of the oft-acclaimed novel How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. At times, I thought the character of Alma in Saving the World was somewhat autobiographical.  I enjoyed Alma's story far more than the sister story of Dona Isabel.  However, as is often a complaint of mine, the ending of this was a bit choppy.  Alvarez may have bit off more than she could chew here.  I think there were too many ideas and characters and I didn't really tie together as well as it could have. There were still many beautiful lines and elements though.  I especially liked the line: We belong to the people who love us.

10. A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

As I recently read A Paris Wife, I thoroughly enjoyed Hemingway's own personal account of his early years in Paris, his relationship with his first wife, Hadley, and connections to other authors of the lost generation such as Stein and Pound.  I read this book in one setting; reading this text was like drinking a bottle of rich, red wine.  I loved it.  If you liked A Paris Wife, you will enjoy reading Hemingway's confident, unique voice.  As I can never really be a part of that world of expatriates seeking creativity and enjoying food and drink together, this may be the next best thing.

11. The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this novel better had it not received such rave reviews.  I think the praise it received from others set up really high expectations for me -- kind of like all the raving over The Matrix, which then left me sorely disappointed.  When I read, I most enjoy those novels that have really rich characters.  I thought the characterization was quite lacking in this novel, and it was just too much about the setting and elements of the circus.  I kept reading hoping for more, but was never fully satisfied.  I didn't come across a great line until page 498 of this 512 page book.  It's so true what the man in the gray suit had to stay about stories here.  If you want to read a truly great novel with the circus as the backdrop, read Water for Elephants. 

12. Threats - Amelia Gray

This book was so bizarre -- truly, completely, totally bizarre.  Even for  a crazy fucker like me, this was really out there.  I don't even know what else to say about this book.  I mean, it was just strange, and there wasn't a single character I could even remotely relate to.  I give her an A for effort and creativity, I guess.

13. Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt

The young narrator of this story was brilliantly crafted and her voice was incredibly believable.  Although it was a strange love indeed, this is also a bit of a love story at heart --- and a beautiful coming of age story.  It also deals with the emergence of AIDs in America, and the early misconceptions about this disease.  Taking on family, love, loss, self-identity, and social stigmas, this story was a charming, well-crafted debut novel. 

14. Anthem - Ayn Rand

I had read this years ago when I was helping my youngest brother with an English assignment.  I remember wondering then why he was reading this particular text.  I had the same question when I saw students carrying it around at my place of employment.  I mean, if you want to teach a dystopian novel, there are so many better options -- like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Why Ayn Rand? Ugh.  So, I read it again to make sure my complaints were valid.  They are.  It's not horrible, and it's quick, but I don't think this text belongs in the curriculum either.  I'm disappointed.

15. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kalig

There are moments of humor here, and this was a quick and easy read as well.  However, while I identified with Mindy in some aspects, she is also too much of  a "woman" for me.  I was never into Sex and the City nor do I understand spending hours getting ready for a date.  I don't cry when I watch Bridget Jones.  In fact, although I'm an Austen fan, I despised the Bridget Jones films and never bothered with the books.  Because I couldn't totally relate, this book didn't elicit as much laughter from me as I had hoped.  I'm too much of a bitch and Mindy is too nice.

16. The Luncheon of the Boating Party - Susan Vreeland

Similar to The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Vreeland's book brings life to a painting. Here, she places us in the mind of Auguste Renoir and several of his models.  The book is beautifully told, and truly does place the reader in a different time and place -- bringing every brush stroke to life on the page.  This book is beautifully crafted, and made me want to visit an art museum.

17. Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson

I had bought this book for my husband years ago, and he really enjoyed it.  I have just now read it myself, and affirm his praise of Guterson.  This book is truly stellar.  There are so many rich elements here.  Not only is this book a murder mystery,  but it is also a story of love, war, betrayal, justice, and injustice.  I was especially impressed with the way Guterson was able to write intimate sexual scenes realistically and beautifully.  I cared about the characters in this novel, most notably Ishmael Chambers.  This book is clearly a contemporary classic and worthy of praise.  If you enjoy this novel, I would also recommend Tall Grass by Sandra Dallas.

18. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

I was ofcourse familar with this  text and its plot for some time, but I don't believe I had ever actually read this full novella myself.  Therefore, I finally got around to reading this, and must say that my former knowledge of the text was probably sufficient to live a good life.  The themes are more interesting than the language and writing itself.  If you should feel compelled to read this classic yourself, I would suggest that you only read "Henry Jeckyll's full statement of the case."  It's by far the most interesting section.

19. Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

I had a hard time continuing to read Freedom after I got hung up on the highly disgusting and disturbing phone sex had between the characters of Joey and Connie, him imagining that she had shit into his mouth, her turds turning into delicious chocolate.  Yeah, that's just gross. I could have done without that scene.  Further, I really had a difficult time seeing just what was so fascinating about Patty. Richard thought she was fascinating, Walter thought she was fascinating, and Franzen said she was an interesting character.  However, I could just never believe any of these men -- but maybe that was kind of the point.  Lalitha's character says toward the close of the novel that she never saw in Patty what men seemed to see in her.  I didn't see it either.  I'm still undetermined about this book. There were parts and passages I really liked, but there were other elements I just found hard to buy into.

20. Poppy Shakespeare - Clare Allan

This novel was a very interesting and sometimes absurd examination of the mentally ill, and the care that they receive.  I wish I could have identified with the characters a bit more, but the book was still captivating in its own right.  Also, I think the lack of a real relationship between the readers and the characters may be part of the point here as well -- to demonstrate the apathy and ignorance of the general population towards the mentally ill.

21. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

This is another one of those novels that I'm higly familar with, but have never fully read.  This truly is a brilliant philsophical novel worthy of its praise.  It is highly inventive and unique, still remaining an original decades after its publication. I must admit that I hated this film, though, when I saw it as a teenager. I may rent it again as I might now enjoy it viewing it from a critical lens.  The one part of this book that made it somewhat unenjoyable to read was Alex's absurd slang/gang language -- a bit of a cockney resonance and a bit of total gobbedly-gook. 

22. The Mockingbirds - Daisy Whitney

I really wanted to like this young adult novel, believing it would be a perfect recommendation for students who had read and enjoyed Harper Lee's classic novel.  The premise is excellent -- a group of students at a prep school who call themselves the Mockingbirds, in tribute to Lee's novel, who seek to fight against injustice and inequality. They are seeking to be more like Atticus and encouraging other students to behave accordingly and honorably.  However, while good in theory, this novel failed in execution and was generally a disappointment.

23. Ellen Foster - Kaye Gibbons

Ellen begins with the following narration: "When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy."  Ellen's narration is spot-on, honest, authentic, and raw.  She's a believable voice of a troubled, impoverished young girl growing up without a supportive family.  Ellen is a stellar character, akin to a female Huck Finn.  She's determined and bright, and struggles with issues of racism and identity.  Ellen is a memorable and remarkable character, making this book worth the read.

24. A Thousand Acres – Jane Smiley

This book has been described as a “full, commanding novel … with the power to haunt.”  Such an evaluation is indeed accurate.  This book had me tethered to its pages and the lives of the characters, unfolding in ever more dramatic and unexpected ways.  In addition, I found myself strangely drawn to Jess Clark, imagining him as some handsome, seductive, strong character that I wish were real and held me, too, in his arms, despite his eventually evident shortcomings.  Each character is this novel was richly and beautifully crafted, and the land that ties them together possesses as much life as any human being.  I highly recommend this novel. This is one of those books of which John Green speaks; one that fills you with “this weird evangelical zeal” and has you convinced everyone else you know must also read this book. 

25. Burning Bright – Tracy Chevalier
Chevalier is the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the lovely little tale of Griet’s love and loss, a character inspired by the famous Vermeer painting.  I enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring, and thus had higher expectations for this historical novel, which follows the lives of the Kellaways.  The Kellaways move to London and become neighbors to the poet and artist William Blake.  However, Blake was really just a backdrop to this story.  The story was really a coming of age tale for young Jem Callaway, his sister Maisie, and their young friend, Maggie Butterfield.  The novel had some redeeming elements, but for the most part, it was a bit of a bore to drudge through and was incapable of fully capturing my attention. I had hoped for a greater focus on Blake.

26. The Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick
As I do not view films in the theatre due to the expense, I have not yet seen this film.  However, as I read the novel, I thought the casting was quite well done based on clips of the film I have seen from various awards shows.  Focusing on the novel alone, I wanted to read this as the main character suffers from bipolar disorder, as I myself do.  However, his episodes were clearly tied to external events and thus differed from my own experience.  I really enjoyed parts of the novel, especially how human and relatable, loveable and hilarious, the protagonist Pat was.  His love of football and particularly the Philadelphia Eagles make him a believable character, but as I do not share this same love of football, some of these scenes seemed a bit tedious to me.  I also thought it a bit too convenient that he stumbles upon his old friend from “the bad place” after failing to meet Nikki and discovering Tiffany’s deceit.  I suppose we must often suspend belief in fiction, though.  I did like Pat’s journey to familiarize himself with classic literature, as I am an English teacher. I definitely agree with Pat about the ending of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Pat’s haunting by Kenny G was also quite creative, honest, and humorous.  Overall, there was a lot of heart in this debut novel.

27. Hemingway’s Girl – Erika Robuck
Truth be told, while this debut novel is perhaps not as “literary” as The Paris Wife, I far preferred this tale of Hemingway and his women.  In this novel, Hemingway is living in Key West with his second wife, Pauline, and befriends feisty young Mariella, who becomes employed at the Hemingway home.  I found Mariella a charming, charismatic protagonist and Robuck’s writing was lively and inventive.  Robuck is clearly familiar with Hemingway’s life and works, yet takes more “creative risks” than McClain did with the more popular The Paris Wife.  If you liked that novel, though, I highly recommend Hemingway’s Girl.  I have already pre-ordered Robuck’s next novel, which will follow the life of Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. 
28. Lovely, Dark, and Deep – Amy McNamara
This is a young adult novel that I read as I thought it might appeal to my students.  While this hypothesis may hold true, the novel did not particularly appeal to me.  It read too much like a YA novel and the protagonist was a bit of a nuisance for me.  In fact, as I read this novel, I could imagine how perfectly Kristen Stewart would play this role, and I hate Kristen Stewart.   I find her incredibly awkward and annoying.  The book was easy to read, and young teenage girls may indeed enjoy it, but it just wasn’t a novel that I’m bound to rave about my any means.

29. Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
This book came to me highly praised and recommended on Amazon.  The book occurs in the days preceding and during Hurricane Katrina, so I was expecting to read more about this trying experience and find characters that helped me to empathize with the many real individuals affected by this natural disaster.  However, the book more greatly focused on dog fighting and breeding.  I don’t understand dog fighting, and I don’t support dog fighting.  I had a really difficult time understanding such a culture that would celebrate dog fighting, so I struggled through this book as well.  I did however, appreciate, how hard Skeetah fights to save his prized pit bull during the hurricane.  That kind of love and commitment to animals is understood by me, but I was puzzled at how one could show such simultaneous love for a creature and yet send her into vicious fighting.  I had always seen true care of a pet to be mutually exclusive with the use of a dog as a fighter.

30. The First Part Last – Angela Johnson
A quick and easy read, I highly recommend this book for all teenagers.  This book follows the life of Bobby, an urban teenager whose life is changed forever when he discovers his girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant.  The story is very realistic and may help teens in similar situations learn how to deal with difficult, unexpected situations while still doing “the right thing.” 

31. Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
I had read bits and pieces of this novel around age nineteen, but wasn’t able to embrace and understand it then the way I could now.  I LOVED this novel.  Jong is brutally honest and hilarious in even turns.  This novel explores femininity and womanhood in such an unexpected, yet wise, way.  I found so many universal truths in this novel, one which follows a woman’s search for her truest self.  As a woman, am I to desire being desired, an exotic goddess, or am I to seek to be an ordinary, obedient girl, the front cover model for Good Housekeeping?  I find that most women I know are often torn between their wish to be lustfully wanted and another to be practically needed.  Every woman of a certain age should read this novel and realize that it is perfectly acceptable to be occasionally complicated and always multi-faceted.

32. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
I have had this book on my shelf for years, after taking a course on the Bronte sisters during my undergraduate study.  Yet, it wasn’t until now that I finally read the book.  Rhys’ novel imagines the life of Rochester’s wife, the infamous “madwoman in the attic” from Charlotte Bronte’s beloved Jane Eyre. Like Rhys, I too was disturbed that Jane, an intelligent and well-read young governess, falls for Rochester, a man who keeps his mentally ill ex-wife in the attic.  Rhys transformed her wonder over this element of Jane Eyre and thus invented the life of Antoinette Cosway, Rochester’s first wife. This was an interesting read, but far from my own imaginings of Rochester’s wife.  While I enjoyed this novel overall, I was disappointed that the section narrated by Antoinette while she is confined to the attic is so very brief. 

33. The Hours – Michael Cunningham
As I feel a very strong affinity for Virginia Woolf, it was not surprising that I also LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this novel.  I have actually never seen this film either, but damn was the casting ever right on.  I could see, especially, Meryl Streep every time I read Clarissa Vaughan’s sections.  This story was so beautifully told, and truly a tribute to Woolf.  There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.  The lives of Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway, and Cunningham’s characters will irrevocably stay with me in memory.  This book was easily read in one sitting, and I am so surprised it took me all this time to finally come around to reading this novel. 

34. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
This is yet another novel that I had read only bits of in the past, feeling familiar enough with it through general literary study.  I am quite glad, however, that I returned to Walker’s work and fully read this beautiful novel.  I had true affection for Celie as I read this novel, and was also taken in by her strong reliance on God through her many struggles. It is not enough to simply be familiar with the plot of this novel.  If you haven’t yet read this tale, you should take the time to read each and every word.

35. Y – Marjorie Celona
This was a brilliant debut novel, focusing on the life of young Shannon, discovered abandoned by her birth mother at a YMCA.  This novel tells Shannon’s coming of age tale being brought up in various foster homes and struggling to form her true identity.  It also tells of her birth parents and the struggles that led to her abandonment.  I also read this book is one sitting, and have high praise for Celona’s debut novel.  Shannon is a believable, wise young protagonist and the novel brings up interesting questions of birth and belonging.

36. Same Kind of Different As Me – Ron Hall & Denver Moore, with Lynn Vincent
I highly enjoyed this true tale of Ron and Denver, two unlikely friends brought together by Ron’s incredibly kind and compassionate, departed wife and the grace of God.  Denver’s early story is especially compelling and a great lesson for not only Christians, but all citizens of the planet.  It’s difficult to imagine, but very important to realize, that men could still live in virtual slavery to this very day.  Denver’s story also compelled me to greater empathy and understanding for the homeless in our country.  Beyond this, I enjoyed the Christian component of this story and the reminder of God’s amazing power.

37. The Good Braider – Terry Farish
This book really impressed me.  It details the story of young Viola, who travels from Juba to South Sudan, through northern Sudan to Wadi Halfa, then to Aswan, Egypt, to Cairo, where she is able to finally arrive in the United States.  This novel tells the account of such travels, and there implicit trials given the genocide and war in Sudan, through verse.  The Good Braider is a complete coming of age narrative told through poetry, and it is one of the most beautiful and brilliantly told pieces of fiction I have read in recent years.  I would love to see this novel included in a classroom curriculum.  This is another book that possessed me with Green’s evangelical zeal. 

38. The Round House – Louise Erdrich
A beautifully told coming of age tale, this novel follow young Native American Joe, whose mother is suffering an episode of severe depression and withdrawal following the trauma of a violent rape, which is accompanied by other secrets to be discovered throughout this rich narrative.  This book was promoted by one reviewer as “a Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.”  The novel is indeed richly layered and draws attention to issues of justice and empathy.  I highly enjoyed this novel, and it is another book that would be a wise contribution to a classroom.  Full of humor and heart, this novel makes the reader examine our own humanity. The writing is profound and poetic, and this novel is worthy of all its acclaim.

39. The Unfinished Garden – Barbara Claypole White

This was a wonderful book.  I can’t say it was the highest form of literature or that it will ever be in the annuls of any celebrated works, but it was incredibly enjoyable and very easy to escape into.  I really enjoyed White’s character James, and her honest, compassionate portrayal of his struggle with OCD and anxiety.  At times, the developing love between Tilly and James was a bit contrived, but I forgave the plot because the characters were beautifully and believably crafted.  I would highly recommend this book for an easy summer read while lying in the sunshine and sipping white wine.

40. The Lover’s Dictionary – David Levithan

The Lover’s Dictionary was highly creative and brilliantly crafted.  This book could have very easily become a gimmick, but David’s honest words made it work.  There were so many moments where I nudged my husband and read a passage aloud to him, recalling when one of us felt exactly the same way as Levithan’s unnamed narrator.  I would have liked to see a bit more balance in the book because I felt it started off more strongly than it ended.  All the same, it was still impressive and a quick, fun, worthwhile read.

41. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster

Forster’s classic is indeed worthy of its praise, a novel that exquisitely portrays a place, a culture, a landscape, and a mindset.  It fills the reader with hope at times and leaves the reader feeling a void, an echo, at other times.  This classic captures a period in time, evoking India at the peak of the British colonial era, and yet speaks so many universal truths that can painfully be felt to this date and age – intolerance and self-interest among its themes.  Kindness is indeed so desperately needed in this world, and thus spoke Aziz: “Kindness, more kindness, and even after that more kindness.  I assure you it is our only hope.”  The world, and its inhabitants, will indeed never stop needing kindness and empathy. 

42. Because I am Furniture – Thalia Chaltas

I own this book as it was given to members of my former English department when a local bookstore closed.  It was believed this might be a good novel for teens – hailed as “a coming of age story that transcends traditional issues books.”  The plot unveils in narrative verse and at times the book does haunt as it tells the story of Anke, a young girl who feels as furniture, invisible to her father and feeling unloved as her siblings receive more attention, although said attention is violent and sexually abusive.  The theme is indeed one that far too many teens may regrettably relate to, but the book disappointed.  If my high school students were to turn in such poetry in a creative writing course, they would not have scored very highly and I would have challenged them to do better and explore their emotions more deeply.  This seemed very much to be the work of an early adolescent – it often read as though it were written by a sixth grade student.  This may make it a relatable and compelling tell for that age group, but I was less than impressed myself.

43. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen – Syrie James

A self-proclaimed “Janeite,” I admit that Austen fan fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine.  At times, however, I find myself believing that the brilliance of such authors is merely in their ability to cash in on the Austen adoration of saps like me who will pick up copies of any book that references Austen or my dear Mr. Darcy.  Many authors are merely retelling Austen’s tales, changing names and places – using a voice a la Austen.  James’ book is told as though Austen herself wrote it, to be believed as Jane’s lost memoirs.  Surely, thus, it lacks originality.  However, it is clear that James is a well-versed Austen scholar and her delivery is believable.  Yet, there is a sadness to this novel that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Maybe it’s just self-pity that I live too much in books. 

44. Straight Man – Richard Russo

Russo is a great story teller, and Straight Man surely showcases his strong composition skills.  William Henry Deveraux Jr. is a charming, although surely fallible, protagonist.  The book is full of intelligent humor.  The book’s cover features a goose, a reference to the unforgettable scene where William threatens to kill a duck a day until his department gets a budget.  While creating a memorable and loveable oaf of a man in William, Russo also explores family dynamics, those between spouses, fathers and daughters, and grown children and their aging parents.  Russo also satirically writes about higher education and the struggle of authors.

45. It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Ned Vizzini

I had seen this movie years ago, but just recently got around to reading the book.  I didn’t love this book, but I did think that it’s a great read for young adults who are suffering from depression.  The characters were likeable and believable, and it didn’t push it too far – meaning that many fiction stories portray depressed patients as “crazy.”  Craig wasn’t a depressed teen; he was a teenager suffering from depression and Vizzini did a good job of portraying the person before the illness. 

46. My Jane Austen Summer – Cindy Jones

Yes, yes – more Austen fan fiction.  While this was once again a case of Pride and Prejudice being reinterpreted in modern fiction, it was also an enjoyable read.  I liked the protagonist, Lily, and I really liked the idea of spending a summer as part of a Jane Austen reenactment.  This book was also easy to escape into, and yet Jones pointed out precisely why there’s some sadness is having your own Austen, if you don’t also have your own strong identity and your own meaningful relationships.

47. The Probability of Miracles – Wendy Wunder

Teenagers will like Cam Cooper – she’s everything a sixteen year old dying of cancer is supposed to be – dry, sarcastic, pessimistic, and yet, you end up really liking her and rooting for her mother’s crazy schemes.  I think most people, especially lovers of fiction, want to believe in miracles, so this book offers that belief.  Yet, it isn’t saccharine or totally predictable and it doesn’t promise, or provide, a perfect ending.  This was a successful YA novel.  It is not as worthy of praise as many other novels, yet it still holds its own with authenticity and humor.

48. Open House – Elizabeth Berg

I just recently discovered Berg, after she was recommended to me. Open House was my first Berg novel.  Like many other books that I have recently read, Berg’s books are not high literature.  She will never be shelved alongside Hemingway.  However, Berg’s books are perfect “bathtub books” – easy, pleasant reads with likeable characters and straightforward plots.  She doesn’t overcomplicate her books with allusions or arcane vocabulary.  They’re easy reading with a genuine voice.  Although the plots often tie up a bit too neatly, the characters are real.  They could be your neighbors; they could be you.  Berg’s ability to create such characters makes her books simple guilty pleasures.

49. The Year of Pleasures – Elizabeth Berg

I preferred this novel to Open House.  While the protagonist was more my mother’s age than my own, I still found her easy to identify with and likeable.  I thought her dreams after the death of her husband came together all a bit too neatly, but such tidiness allows for a different level of escape.  I don’t feel the need to discover more about myself or the world while reading Berg, and sometimes reading for pleasure alone is okay.

50. Breathing Underwater – Alex Flinn

This is a powerful YA novel – one which I hope holds a place in high school classrooms as a choice book for many years to come.  Yes, this is an “issue book,” but Flinn deals with that issue quite well.  This book explores abusive teenage relationships, and offers unique insight into the mind of the abuser, while not excusing his behavior either.  I would highly recommend this novel for teens who find themselves in a similar situation.

51. The Winner Stands Alone – Paulo Coelho

I did not enjoy this novel as much as Coelho’s other novels. Having said that, however, this was still a fine novel, as Coelho is one of my favorite authors.  Coelho offers an interesting exploration of fame and obsession, weaving the tales of many different characters together into one full tapestry.  His characters, and his words, also make readers explore our personal and popular definitions of success.  The novel also asks readers to reconsider their values in this life, a life in which the popular media attempts to dictate and prescribe our individual values and dreams.

52. Dancing on Broken Glass – Ka Hancock

This was perhaps the best piece of fiction I have ever read in regards to its portrayal of bipolar disorder.  Bipolar was portrayed so realistically here, and I was much appreciative of that.  At the heart, however, this novel truly is a sappy love story.  However, you actually find yourself caring a great deal for the two central characters, so the story is less saccharine than most fictional romances.  For anyone looking to understand bipolar a bit better, I suggest you climb into the skin of these characters.  Well done, Ka!

53. A Jane Austen Education – William Deresiewicz

This is now my new favorite piece of Austen inspired text.  This is a non-fiction text from a well-versed, but beautifully self-effacing, Austen appreciating male, a gem among men really.  The book is subtitled “How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.”  I loved Deresiewicz’s voice, and I plan to read more of his scholarly work on Austen as well.  This book was a true joy.  As I sat silently reading this in study hall, I had a few of my students look at me quizzically and ask why I kept smiling at my book.

54. Help, Thanks, Wow – Anne Lamott

To Anne Lamott, for this book, I want to say fuck you.  I am so fucking mad I wasted my money on this book.  This piece of crap could have been shat out by Anne in about an hour.  I loved most of her other work, particularly Faith, Eventually and Plan B, but this was a massive let-down, and that may be an understatement.  After I finished reading it (which took all of about 25 minutes), I literally threw it across the room and cursed aloud.  C’mon, Anne Lamott! On the other hand, I am jealous of a woman like Lamott who has become so established as a strong writer than she can now publish whatever non-sensical ramblings about her fucking dying cat that she wants.  What a bitch. I clearly didn’t get the point of being grateful and appreciative from this book.

55. Call Me Zelda – Erika Robuck

I read Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl  earlier this year, and enjoyed it so much that I preordered this text.  This novel was told from the viewpoint of Fitzgerald’s psychiatric nurse, and it was a pleasure from the first to last page.  After finishing this book, I even ordered a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald’s own Save Me the Waltz, although it has been widely acknowledged as weak writing.  I also took my copy of Tender is the Night, and put it back on my bedside shelf for rereading. Robuck is a very strong emerging writer, and I wish her many more successes.

56. Recovery Road – Blake Nelson

I thought this was an excellent “issue” book for teenagers.  It was an easy read, and it was believable as well.  Nelson didn’t overdramatize Madeline’s drinking issues.  He portrayed them honestly, and yet made the story engaging.  Having worked with youth for years, I know that alcoholism is all too common of a problem, so this is a text I would definitely like to see on the shelves of high school libraries.

57. The Dovekeepers – Alice Hoffman

I started out really enjoying this book – drawn in by the rich historical and mystical elements of the tale.  I especially enjoyed the first narrative of the assassin’s daughter.  I also thought there were many universal truths and very poetic beautiful passages in this book, such as the following: “A leopard knows who she is; she does not calculate her prey’s agony and fear, she runs because she is made to do so, she takes what she must.”  However, the story really just dragged on and there was probably one more narrative than necessary.  Toward the end of this novel, reading it became a chore rather than a pleasure.

58. Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs

This is hands down, without fail, the most obscene and fucked-up book I have ever read.  That makes sense as it was written in an extremely drug-induced state.  I thought I was familiar with this novel, but until I read the whole thing, I didn’t recognize how little I knew about Burroughs’ work.  The only reason anyone should read this book ever is if they are going into ADA counseling.  Otherwise, you’ll just be left confused and sickened. Holy fuck.

59. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk – David Sedaris

I love David Sedaris, and this book was no exception.  This was such clever satire.  “The Toad, the Turtle, and the Duck” was probably my favorite tale in this fun little collection of essays.  The illustrations by Ian Falconer are also quite exceptional.  If you enjoyed any David Sedaris work, do not miss this.  If you also enjoy Politically Correct versions of classic fairy tales, you have to check out this book for a guaranteed chuckle.

60. We are all Welcome Here – Elizabeth Berg

I read this book in an afternoon.  It was brilliantly told, and I love the fact that this piece of fiction was inspired by an actual story of a fan’s mother.  It was really a great coming of age story, and I don’t believe Berg has gotten the credit she deserves.  This book goes well beyond the “bathtime reads” she typically writes and captures the elements of a true classic.  I highly recommend this novel.  Your mother-in-law will love it too.

61. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

I loved, loved, loved this book.  Faulkner is brilliant, and I preferred this to any other work I have read by him.  It does such an excellent job of portraying the south while also representing the break-down of a typical Southern family.  I wanted to be sitting outside in the fall reading this in a pile of leaves.  It excellently evoked such strong sensory details.  Jason is such a major dick here too – I like having a villain that I have no empathy for sometimes.  This would be a fun novel to teach with AP students.

62. Every You, Every Me – David Levithan

I have recently come to really enjoy Levithan’s works.  While this book did intrigue me, I was also left with a final conclusion that it was just fucking weird.  I know it was supposed to be brilliant and it was definitely unique, but – meh.  I felt like this book was trying too hard and it became one of those “cool, mysterious emo” kids who actually live in the suburbs and like all the same shit you do.  This book just seemed too “posed.”

63. The Man who Loved Books Too Much – Allison Hoover Bartlett

Hoover’s narrative isn’t especially engaging, but she has excellent subject matter.  She really struck gold when she met Gilkey.  He is an interesting character, and I enjoyed reading about his motives and beliefs, while also learning a great deal about the rare book world.  While this book was a bit dry at times, book lovers would find an appreciation for this non-fiction work.

64. Daisy Miller and Washington Square – Henry James

I read this collection of two novellas by Henry James, and was appropriately bored by his archaic language, but also had my interest piqued by his careful crafting of words and characters.  I love Daisy Miller – I always have since I first encountered her about twenty years ago.  She’s a bit of a tramp, but there’s something about that women I find compelling.  Catherine Sloper, on the other hand, is a sad sack and a pathetic woman and she deserves what she gets, even though her father is undoubtedly a raging asshole.  If you’re interested in literature, as I am, then Henry James is worthy of your attention.  If you just like fiction for escapism and enjoyment, Henry James is best kept in the past.

65. The Expats – Chris Pavone

I loved The Expats.  A “spy novel” isn’t typically within my wheel-house, but this novel is so much more than that.   While there are elements of suspicion and deceit, which keep the reader turning the page, this is a far more complex novel than it appears to be at the surface.  Like the characters within is pages, this novel is rich, complicated, and intriguing.  Ultimately, it’s a marvelous exploration of relationships. This novel is beautifully crafted and I thoroughly applaud Pavone.  I think nearly every critical reader can find something of interest in this novel.  I recommended this to both fellow teachers, literary snobs such as myself, and my father-in-law, who reads James Patterson and John Grisham.  This novel deserves abundant applause!

66.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

The photographs found in this novel are deeply intriguing in and of themselves.  All the pictures in the book are authentic, vintage found, unaltered photographs collected by Riggs over several years.  Initially, I had my doubts about this book.  I thought it would be cheesy YA that could not also be enjoyed by adults.  I was proven wrong, as I actually found this book deeply intriguing and richly layered.  I have already pre-ordered Hollow City, and have also developed a bit of a crush on Ransom Riggs (no way is that his real name).

67.  Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Bravo, Marge Piercy! If you are a literary lover, science-fiction fan, or feminist, you must read this novel.  Piercy’s name belongs right alongside the likes of Mary Shelley and Ursula LeGuin.  This book is incredibly imaginative, and inspires much critical thinking in its readership.  This book is not only an exploration of the future, but of our current society and the way in which we handle mental illness.  The Philadelphia Inquirer applauds Piercy’s enduring novel as “an ambitious, unusual novel about the possibilities for moral courage in contemporary society.”

68.  The Monsters of Templeton – Lauren Groff

I cannot possibly describe this book better than is done by Stephen King, so I will allow him to speak here: “Lauren Groff’s debut novel is everything a reader might have expected from this gifted writer, and more … There are monsters, murders, bastards, and ne’er –do-wells almost without number.  I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end.”  I concur, Mr. King, I concur.

69.  The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo – F.G. Hagenbeck

This book was a pure joy.  It was a quick and interesting read, with Hagenbeck beautifully envisioning Frida’s life, and her unique relationship with death.  Along the way, we also encounter many other interesting individuals such as Kahlo’s spouse, Diego Rivera and her lover, Georgia O’Keefe.  We also encounter Rockefeller, Nin, Dos Passos, Dali, and Hemingway.  The book is also intermixed with recipes that Kahlo reportedly recorded in “The Hierba Santa Book.”  This would make an excellent book group read, as you can accompany your discussion with recipes from the book.  Delicious and delightful!

70. The Good House – Ann Leary

I found myself slightly disappointed in this novel.  I was hoping, based on the description provided by Amazon, that this book would more accurately portray the protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism.  While this was present in the novel, it seemed a bit contrived to me.  Maybe it was that the protagonist wasn’t described as attractive.  She was old, paunchy, and pessimistic.  She basically just gave up on life and took whatever she could get – even if it was a sad troll of a trash man.  I suppose I have witnessed these kinds of attitudes and relationships in my own small town, but the book left me wanting a bit more.

71.  Just Jane – Nancy Moser

I am of the belief that I really need not review these Austen fan fiction pieces that I read, as lately so many of them leave me with the same final impression.  They’re light and easy reading, but there is nothing to rave about.  Such is the case here as well.  Moser does do a fine job of capturing Austen’s voice, but nothing can replace Austen herself.

72.  Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler

This was a wonderful read, and Fowler did a delightful job of combining fact and fiction to create this unique and interesting narrative of Zelda’s life.  This novel further piqued my interest in Fitzgerald, as I realized what incredible kindred souls we are, both of us suffering from similar illnesses such as bipolar disorder, eczema, and colitis.  Whenever I read of Zelda, I want my own “Midnight in Paris” Owen Wilson moment where I get to hang out with this woman, and the men she loved and hated her husband Scott and his colleague and friend Hemingway.  I have no doubt that Zelda and I would get along splendidly, getting into shit loads of trouble together and looking fabulous while doing it.

73.  The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin

The ideas that are introduced in this novel are brilliant, and were really quite revolutionary for the time in which LeGuin’s work was published.  Having said that, however, the narrative is often dull and slow and one must, at times, force herself through the work.  All the same, I do believe this is a classic of both science fiction and feminist literature.  The ideas that the Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle could lead to many interesting discussions in a literature course.  Further, the journey made by the ethnologist from The Ekumen of Known Worlds is akin to any to any classic literary journey, such as that probably most familiar to us in Tolkien’s There and Back Again.

74.  Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

Last year, I declared Flynn’s Gone Girl as the best novel of 2012.  Upon that declaration, I heard from a few folks that her other two novels were just as good, perhaps even better.  In my own opinion, Gone Girl is still superior to this novel.  It was such a turn from the fiction I usually read – focusing on a murder known as “The Satan Sacrifice” of Kinnakee, Kansas, where only seven-year-old Libby Day survives, her mother and sisters slain.  Her own brother is blamed with the murder, and only years later does Libby come to unravel the truth when she is contacted by a secret society known as the “Kill Club.”  The plot is very fast moving and Flynn is undoubtedly a talented writer (although, perhaps with a very twisted mind).  However, none of the characters seemed to have any redeeming qualities.  Maybe I needed to try harder to put myself in their shoes, but they really were just all bad, unforgiving folks. 

75. Vinegar Hill – A. Manette Ansay

This is one of my favorite pieces of fiction read this year.  Ansay portrays her characters with a gritty honesty, exposing their flaws, their sorrow, their unfulfilled dreams, and yet allowing us to connect without feeling that our own lives are bound to depression or damnation.  Although the tale is often quite sad, following Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly Field, Wisconsin where she must live with her husband’s wretched, hateful family, while trying to maintain a sense of self and sanity in a society that still believed very heavily in matriarchal duties.  There are so many family secrets that unfold in this flawless narrative; awful crimes of bitterness and betrayal are committed.  Ultimately, however, this book, and Grier, maintain hope and that is the prevailing emotion I was left with as a reader.  I was further encouraged by Ansay’s personal story, feeling akin to this Wisconsin girl whose physical illnesses completely altered the direction of her dreams.

76.  Salem Witch: My Side of the Story – Patricia Hermes

This is another one of those unproofed copies I was formerly provided as a teacher.  I was offered this proof as the book might prove a companion to my instruction of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.   It might be a good read for interested students with very low lexile scores.  As an adult reader, my interest waivered based on the intended reading level.  I might suggest this for a ten-year-old.

77. Hood – Emma Donoghue

I selected this novel after having been quite impressed with Donoghue’s celebrated novel Room.  Hood, however, left much to desire.  The characters were dull and the narrative was slow and boring.  Perhaps this is a cultural barrier as the book is set in Dublin.  Female lovers Cara and Pen have kept their relationship secret for many, many years and now Pen must suffer alone when Cara is killed in a car crash.  It sounds interesting, but the book bores.  I would far rather just watch Colin Firth in A Single Man again. 

78.  The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course I had read this classic in my own childhood.  I now enjoy reading classic pieces of literature to my own children, although they are only age one and two.  My daughter, two-years-old, really loved being told this tale aloud at bedtime though.  She asked wonderful questions about dragons and trolls, and especially loved looking at the map.  She did bore with it one evening though, stating, “Momma, no more this Bilbo story.”

79.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

This is another one of my childhood beloved classics that I then read aloud to my children.  As I read it this time, I just kept thinking about drug use.  Further, it is very infrequently when I will say that a film is better than the book.  However, I must say hats off to Disney because their version is far better than Carroll’s original text.  I find the idea that “it was all a dream” so off putting now.

80. Where Things Come Back – John Corey Whaley

I had such high hopes for this novel.  It has been highly applauded as a young adult novel akin to the works of John Green or David Levithan.  Sorry, Whaley, but you have nothing on those men.  This book tried way too damn hard for me.  The plot was overly complicated, and failed miserably to have any sense of believability.  Whaley needed a few more edits and someone should have told him that more is less.  He tried to do far too much with this novel, and I also thought he used the word “ass-hat” too profusely.  This was a major let-down for me.
81.  The Witch’s Daughter – Paula Brackston
I believe, like Whaley, Brackston also tried to do too much with this novel.  It became quite contrived for me, and I couldn’t get into it.  I dredged through the novel thinking that I was definitely not the intended office.  There were too many past histories, and the book often became miserably predictable. 
82.  Flat-Out Love – Jessica Park
I describe this book in one word: cute.  It was simply cute; it was heart-warming.  Although it deals with a family torn apart my death, and some very, very strange coping skills, it’s funny and witty.  This book is full of humor and hope, and it’s a light, enjoyable read appropriate for teens and adults alike.
83.  Arcadia – Lauren Groff
I hate Lauren Groff.  I don’t hate her because I hated this book, however.  I hate her because she’s so damn intelligent and talented, and I’m way fucking jealous.  While it honestly took me a while to get into, this book ultimately ended up blowing me away.  Beyond the characters or plot, this novel is a testament to Groff’s talent with words.  The way she paces her story and crafts a sentence is simply impeccable.  She took a world so unlike my familiar place and made me feel at home among these hippies and misfits.  According to Richard Russo, “It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.”  If you’re looking for a fast moving story with lots of plot twists, look to Gillian Flynn.  If you are looking for true literary artistry, Arcadia is where it’s at.  Stunning!
84. The Girl – Meridel Le Sueur
If you look to some of my picks this year, you’ll observe that I’ve had an interest in feminist fiction.  Le Sueur is hailed as one of the leading radical writers of her generation, and I am so glad I finally checked this read off of my “book bucket list.”  It was definitely worth-while, and Le Sueur has earned her place among poets and proud, literary women.
85. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Once you pick this book up, you won’t be able to put it down.  Gaiman simply has a magic with story-telling.  This is what that book does too: It tells you a story.  Gaiman is more than an author and really captures the craft of oral narrative here.  To quote from the book’s binding, this novel “is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from darkness inside and out.”  Expect to read this in one sitting for sure.

86.  All Roads Lead to Austen – Amy Elizabeth Smith

Rather than the typical Bridget Jones style spin on Austen, this is one woman’s travel memoir, with those travels inspired by Austen.  I ended up quite enjoying this book.  Although Smith was perhaps more guarded (probably due, in part, to age) than I would have been along this journey, I enjoyed the academic perspective the book offered.  Smith’s book covers a year- long Latin American adventure inspired by a traveling Austen book club, seeking to observe the universality of Austen against ages and different cultures.  This book was definitely worth the read.

87. The Art Forger – B.A. Shapiro

This was one of my favorites from this year.  I liked the characters and found Claire relatable, sympathetic, talented, and compelling.  I supported Claire’s decisions the entire time, even when they seemed a bit questionable.  Shapiro does an excellent job of blending Claire’s back-story with Isaac into the events of the book.  This was a mystery with a lot of heart, and it also offers an interesting art education that I quite enjoyed.  This was an easy book to escape into.

88. Three Lives – Gertrude Stein

Quite often, I read books I feel I should be familiar with as an English major and self-proclaimed literary snob.  Having said that, however, I probably can’t claim the snob title any longer because I have no high praise for Stein.  I enjoyed the introduction by Jonathan Levin far more than the three portraits themselves.  I wanted to buy into what Levin was saying and appreciate Stein “appropriately,” but ugh … these three stories were so boring and drawn out and … boring.  Further, there most definitely seems to bit hints of racism in “Melantcha,” although it was the most interesting of the three lives. 

89.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

This was a very fun book to read! I am simply going to refer to the New York Times review, which states: “Part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem  ... Eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence.”  I would most assuredly recommend this book to anyone.  I think it’s a book to be equally enjoyed regardless of gender.

90. The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

Quite naturally, I had read “The Lottery” some time ago.  However, as the freshmen students in my current district read this story now, I decided to revisit it, while also familiarizing myself with her other works.  As A.M. Homes states in the introduction, “(Jackson’s) stories chart intention, behavior – they are an intimate exploration of the psychopathology of everyday life.”  My favorite of these was probably the brief “Got a Letter from Jimmy.”

91. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

It took me a while to get into this book.  The opening pages seemed to move a bit slowly, although that was appropriate given the tedium of Jack and Mabel’s childless life in bitterly cold Alaska in 1920.  However, once they build the child out of snow, the story really picked up pace for me and became far more fascinating and poetic.  It really was beautifully told, and I found myself at home with Jack, Mabel, and Faina.  This is both a story of developed, difficult relationships, as well as an intriguing and unique coming of age tale.  I ended up quite falling in love with Faina and would recommend this book as well.

92. The Other Typist – Suzanne Rindell

This book came highly recommended from my Amazon.  However, I was quite bitterly disappointed.  I did not care for the style of this book at all.  Frequently, the narrator would make a point and then state, “Ah, but we shall come to that later” or something of that nature.  I found it quite frustrating.  As this was Rindell’s debut novel, I thought it really could have been helped with better editing.  The story, however, struggles as well due to Rose’s unreliable narration and really quite non-compelling character. 

93. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

I really, thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and found myself quite surprised that it isn’t held in higher esteem.  I thought this was a better love story than Pride and Prejudice (a perennial favorite) and a better portrait of history than The Great Gatsby.  If you enjoy literature and have not yet read this novel, add it to your reading list right now!  I relished the language and found myself very strongly drawn, just as Newland Archer was, to the Countess Ellen Olenska.  This book speaks to marriage, relationships, society, class separation, and so many more issues with compelling language, characters, and plot lines.  Of all the “classic literature” I have read in the past year, this is my number one pick.

94. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Oh, how I loved this book! I was highlighting passages left and right and this is definitely one of those books that gave me that “strange evangelical zeal” John Green speaks of.  There are so many people I would like to share this book with.  I really enjoyed the narration of John Ames.  I am curious to read Robinson’s correlating novel, Home, told in the voice of John Ames “Jack” Boughton.  However, as I liked John Ames Senior so much, I find myself quite prejudiced against Jack.  I felt I intimately knew these characters, something that happens only in great fiction.  The San Francisco Chronicle states, “Gilead is a refuge for readers longing for that increasingly rare work of fiction, one that explores big ideas while telling a good story.”  I must quite concur.  I found Robinson’s work quite genius, and this is probably the best book I read all year. 

95. Last Night I Sang to the Monster – Benjamin Alire Saenz

I enjoyed this book, and it was one to take some time with – to appreciate the character’s internal struggles and progress.  I found it to be a truly compelling, raw, and brilliant YA novel.  For any one dealing with mental illness, family problems, alcoholism, or addiction, I believe they will find hints of their own selves in this novel’s narration.  This book was heart-breaking, poetic, and beautiful.

96. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

I don’t know why I read this, after so hating Three Lives.  However, I thought I ought to give Stein another try. Furthermore, I thought it would be fascinating to read of the true lives of great artists like Picasso and celebrated authors like Hemingway.  I have come to the conclusion, though, after reading this, that Stein is an egomaniacal old bitch with very little real talent beyond an ability to market herself as a genius (somewhat akin to say, Madonna).  This book was just Stein bragging about shit and name-dropping like crazy.  Poor old Alice Toklas stuck in the room with all the wives. 

97. World of Shell and Bone – Adriana Ryan

This was an interesting YA dystopian novel, somewhat akin to The Hunger Games.  With the recent popularity of Collin’s trilogy, I though young teens would really appreciate this book as well.  The plots were quite fascinating and the action moved really quickly, keeping young readers engaged.  I also think this book would lend brilliantly to subsequent novels, and a film adaptation. 

And now … to finally come to the book that I started this whole challenge for (nearly doubling my goal of 51 books):

98.  Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Really? Really? This is what you people were all excited about?  I don’t get it.  Seriously, I just don’t get it.  I can honestly say that I was not once stimulated during the reading of this book, and I had to drag myself through it.  It was seriously painful for me.  I know lots of people are excited about this book, but I’m on the side of the fellow blogger who said this trilogy made the Twilight trilogy look like high literature.  This was probably the worst book I have ever read --- ever.  I hated it so much.  It was so poorly written.  The characters are annoying, awful people and I was so disgusted every time I read “Holy Crap” or “Holy Fuck.”  Pure garbage.  I suppose I owe it some credit for inspiring this challenge, but that is the only tiny bit of praise I can manage.  I am truly confounded by this book’s popularity.