2016 Reading List



Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout / I suppose I’m a bit late to the table talking about a book published in 2008, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, but I have to admit I don’t always pay attention to the Pulitzer the way I do the Governor General’s Award or The Giller Prize. But no matter when it was published, I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not wanting to tell everyone they know about it.

This is not a book to be read quickly. Not because it’s dense and overwritten, but because it’s captivating and oh so beautiful. I don’t even know what to say. I rarely cry at books, as much as they may move me emotionally, but tears rolled down my cheeks several times.

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 stories that take place in or around Elizabeth Strout’s fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Olive appears in every story, sometimes it is her story, sometimes she is a key character and sometimes she just appears briefly.

Strout cracks life open page after page. In my opinion there is not one misstep, not one detail of description that doesn’t add to the atmosphere, not one word of dialogue that isn’t authentic. I wanted to highlight some of the beautiful writing, but as I flipped through the stories I realized I would need to transcribe the whole book. To say look at this or look at that would be like pulling a thread from a beautiful tapestry and expecting it to illuminate the beauty of the whole.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro / Meh. Started well enough, but I was eventually bored.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins / This book is a train. It rocks and sways and keeps us off balance, it passes back and forth across the narrative, allowing us to pick up more details on each pass. The person keeping this train on the track is writer Paula Hawkins. If I hadn’t read that she was a journalist before she turned her hand to fiction, I would have guessed it. Her economy of words, and her ability to choose just the right details to paint a picture, point to someone used to writing to a word count. Nothing is wasted, details unfold naturally yet often with a pop of surprise that keeps us fully engaged and turning pages.

Outline by Rachel Cusk / Canadian – Giller  Prize nominee My edition of Outline by Rachel Cusk has a quote from the New York Times Book Review on the cover. It says: “Lethally intelligent…spend much time with this novel and you’ll become convinced that [Cusk] is one of the smartest writers alive.”

I’m not sure I agree with lethal, but I agree that she is a fiercely intelligent writer, and I also agree that it takes time to come to that conclusion. I didn’t think I was going to like Outline when I was 10, even 20 pages into it. But the reviews and its prize nomination pedigree made me stick it out. Thank Goodness.

This isn’t a warm book, and I think for me, coming off my high from reading Olive Kitteridge in January, a book that is brilliant and emotionally gripping, Outline felt like it kept me at arms-length. Which isn’t surprising because Cusk completely roasts the old writing chestnut: Show Don’t Tell. This is a book about telling. It’s a book that would most likely have failed in other hands.

The narrator, who is the human notebook into which these story “outlines” are deposited, is a novelist working as a writing instructor in a summer school in Athens, Greece. Over the course of the novel we learn a bit of her story, but mostly we hear the life stories of the friends, strangers and students who cross her path. This could be dull indeed, except that somehow it isn’t. This book is so deeply observed that you have to stop, reread and reflect.

Outline is a fascinating and unique piece of fiction. It’s like reading a brilliant documentary on story.

Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout /I enjoyed this book, Strout is an amazing writer, but it didn’t have the depth of Olive Kitteridge which I loved insanely, so I may have been expecting too much. It was one of my “save for the perfect moment” books, which often disappoint because I have put them on a pedestal before opening the cover.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante / I know Ferrante’s novels have received great praise and a great following, but I found myself very bored halfway through. Perhaps the hype had me expecting something different.

Birdie by  Tracey Lindberg / Canadian / Beautiful book illuminating the the life of a young Cree Woman. Moves around in time as if you are in a dream state. Very touching. 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan / Wonderful, complex story. It’s Ian McEwan for goodness sakes, he never disappoints.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue / Canadian / It doesn’t have the emotional depth of her novel Room, but it’s a really good read. It will make a terrific movie.

13 Ways of Looking at  Fat Girl by Mona Awad / Canadian – 2016 Giller Prize finalist / I really thought I would like this book; I’m a fat girl, and it’s a Canadian book that was nominated for a Giller. I didn’t like it at all. Weight and body image are definitely issues in our culture, I have my own weight issues, but this book was too heavy handed for me. It struck one chord over and over. The main character  has zero interest in any life goals. Every character is either fat and miserable or thin, miserable and hating on those who are fat. The scene where she shops in the plus size store is so stereotyped, and wildly inaccurate, that I found it insulting. Can Mona Awad write? Absolutely. Her descriptions are vivid, her dialogue is fresh, her dark humour amusing at times, but this story, as I said, hits one note, for 212 depressing pages.

Smoke by Dan Vyleta /Canadian / I liked this strange novel about London, but I had to push myself to finish it, it’s a bit slow moving.


Personal Essays

The View From The Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman / Wonderful, funny, smart essays on many things, by a master writer.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett / Ann Patchett finds beautiful stories everywhere. If you enjoy personal essays I recommend this book highly, (especially if you also write).

Holidays on ice by David Sedaris / I love David Sedaris – but this collection of personal and fictional essays made me more uncomfortable than amused for some reason – I actually think it may be because some of the characters, especially in stories like Christmas means giving, and Season’s greetings to our family and friends, seemed suddenly less satire and more glimpses of a mindset that elected Donald Trump, and just didn’t seem as funny anymore. I’ll have to guard against the world ruining my ability to laugh.

People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann / I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book. I skimmed a lot of it. She is funny, she is brash, I was amused at times. But I’m a little tired of brash. I think it’s just me at this point in my life, in a world that feels increasingly ugly. My sense of humour is tired.


Creativity and Writing

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel (a re-read) / One of my “Bibles.”

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert / Wonderful, wish I had this book when I was 20 years old. Added to my list of “Bibles.”

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey / A look at the working rituals of writers, painters and composers. An OK read. Nothing that useful. The reading equivalent to a bag of potato chips. Enjoy by the handful, then read something more mentally nutritional.

Startle and Illuminate – Carol Shields on Writing edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini / Canadian / This is a beautiful collection of insights on the writing life from writer Carol Shields. I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended to anyone who writes or is a Shields fan.

The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn / I really like Joanna Penn, she has a lot of great advice for people interested in being authorpreneurs.

Still Writing – The perils and pleasures of a creative life by Dani Shapiro / Love this book, joined my personal “Bible” list.

Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel / Great book when the creative struggle feels like a weight. I re-read parts of this book probably once or twice a year.

Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara / Fun and instructive look at writing.


Self-Help, Mindset, Psychology

The 52 Weeks by Karen Amster Young and Pam Godwin / Don’t bother 

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin / Lots of insights into what makes a habit stick. I like her conversational writing style. Less a dry expert, and more like a smart friend who has read a lot of stuff.

The End of Average by Todd Rose / I enjoyed this book. Very interesting.

Deep Work by Cal Newport  / Very good book.

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha /  Canadian / A bit fluffy but if you like these sorts of self help books, ( I do) I think you will find this one pretty good – but if you want really great books about happiness check out Shawn Achor. 

The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks /I may have just read too many of these books, I didn’t read anything new here. But if you are new to the change your mindset/change your life genre, this is as good a place as any to start.

Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth /I didn’t like this book at all. I found it to be a narrow view of success. Perhaps I didn’t like it because I scored poorly on the Grit scale.

Mini Habits by Stephen Guise / Another look at habit, a good book if you want to make tweeks to your routines.

Why Smart People Hurt by Eric Maisel /In my opinion, anyone who struggles with life from time to time should read the work of Eric Maisel. This book is good, but more theory based, I would suggest starting with Van Gogh Blues.