2018 Reading Challenge: Book Recommendations

It seems like everywhere I look, people are starting reading challenges for the new year. Some are aiming to read 18 books, some 80… I set my own 2018 reading challenge at 55 books. The way I see it, that’s roughly a book per week, which I think is a reasonable, realistic goal. Some weeks I’ll go through three books for research, while one lovely, long book might take me a couple of weeks. It should balance out all right.

Setting a reading goal helps me to be thoughtful about what is important to me (reading books) and to be deliberate about managing my time to prioritize that.

I thought I would share some of my favorite reads from the past year and a half or so (this isn’t all of them, but a fairly good bunch). These books are all different from each other. I’m a big believer in reading all kinds of books, and not comparing them to each other. I love both a good piece of cake and nicely roasted vegetables, but I can’t really compare them to each other or rank them. I need them both in my life!

Non-fiction

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Genre: Biography, Social Justice, Race
  • I feel like everyone knows this book as it was everywhere when it came out. It won the National Book Award in 2015 and is a must-read for all Americans.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

  • Genre: Science, Nature
  • This shares surprising facts about trees that will make you think twice about what “humanity” means and your place in the world (for example: they mourn when a tree in their group dies, they communicate with each other) from a German forest manager.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  • Genre: History, True Crime
  • An incredible true story of what it took to set up the 1893 Chicago World Fair. You really get a sense of what the world was like then, the long-lasting impact of the fair, and how people could disappear for so long without any questions asked…

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

  • Genre: Essays
  • With humor and sharp observations, this Canadian author writes about immigration and being a woman today.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

  • Genre: Science, Memoir
  • A wonderful exploration of the intelligence and consciousness of this mysterious sea creature

Fiction

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

  • Genre: Thriller, Suspense
  • One of my favorite quotes comes from this book:

“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave?” ― Noah Hawley

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

  • Genre: Young Adult
  • One of the most popular books of recent times. So beautifully written, every sentence makes you stop, and yet you can’t stop reading at the same time.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

  • Genre: Contemporary, Adult
  • This book stands out as perhaps a top two of the past year. Its beautiful writing and story will challenge you in unexpected ways.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • One of my favorite books is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and this epistolary novel set during World War II has a similar feel. I spent a very enjoyable entire Sunday with this book.

How many books do you hope to read in 2018? And are there any books you really enjoyed reading during the past year or so that you recommend?

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Jennifer Egan on the Writing Process Behind Her New Novel Manhattan Beach

Pulitzer-prize wining author Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2011) was in Los Angeles last week to talk about her new historical novel Manhattan Beach with Marisa Silver, part of the ALOUD conversation series from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

In a packed auditorium at the Central Library downtown, she shared details about her creative process and what went into creating this book.

It required years of research, which she said she did in a “desultory way” while doing other things from 2005-2012. This included:

  • Field trips to shipyards, especially the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she collaborated with the archivist and the Brooklyn Historical society.
  • Reading fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. “I included cheesy mysteries, which was wonderful to have an excuse to read those,” Egan said.
  • Watching movies from the same time period

She sat down to start writing the book in 2012 without a real sense of who would be in it or what it would be about. When she starts writing any piece of work, she usually has a time, a place, and an abstract question.

With Manhattan Beach, she had very vague ideas about what would be in the book. She knew she wanted it to be set in New York during World War II, that she wanted to explore what it was like to feel the power of America amassing, that she wanted to have a female protagonist working in shipyards, a male authority in the mob world, and maybe one more main character. “There were questions, there were big things I didn’t know,” she said.

Once she began writing her first scene, the architecture began to reveal itself.

“I spent a year and a half on that first draft, and it was 1400 handwritten pages,” she said, which she then typed and read. “In a way, it couldn’t be a more inefficient process,” Egan told the crowd to laughs. “We have technical solutions for this nowadays. But the reason I do it is that is my best shot at good material. If I just sit down and think, I don’t have good ideas.”

This is her process every time. Once she has completed this first stage, she gets analytical and does charts and maps for her story.

She said that sometimes very little is salvageable from that first draft. “I thought it was terrible, and it was, but when I look back, there actually was a fair amount that was salvageable… I guess there was more there than I thought.”

Silver asked her if the novel came out easily when she started writing.

“There’s plenty of throat-clearing,” Egan said. “I’ll have a full day where I’m just trying to fill my pages so I can stop. And of course nothing could be more obvious. And then some days I’m right there and I’m moving…

I try to write 5-7 pages a day. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll, and I write 10, but that’s always a mistake the next day, because I’m depleted. So having a little more I want to do on a particular day is not so bad.”

Egan said that one of the main things that wasn’t working in the first draft was the voice of the book.

“Voice, which is something I think about a lot, I think is actually the most important part of a book, sort of the way it speaks. And I always liken it… to me, it’s really like the stock of a soup. If you have a really great stock, you could put a boot in it, and it will actually still taste good, because you have a great stock. And if you have a thin stock, you can put in the most marvelous ingredients, and it will still taste dull. So for me, the voice is that stock. And it can take a while, just as a stock does, to kind of mature and figure out what the right elements are.”

There was a period after reading the first draft where she thought very seriously about abandoning the book. She said she wasn’t sure that she could do it. But she stuck to it because there was nothing else that she wanted to do, nothing else was pressing on her, and all the research that she did felt vital. “The research was not only essential, but it kind of sustained me.”

I was so struck by the amount of time it took this project to come to fruition–over a decade–and how gnarly the writing process is even for a writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize.

You can listen to the full inspiring conversation on the ALOUD podcast (find it in your smartphone app), or here.