Welcome to the inaugural blog post. As you’ll soon learn, I am an avid reader and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off this blog than with a reflection on what I learned from fiction in the last year.
2017 was a very good reading year. I devoured more books than I have read in the last two years combined, from the pulpy to the Pulitzer-winning, and I owe it at least in part to the Goodreads annual reading challenge. I thrive on competition, and seeing my total book count creep up with each new tome fueled my fire for more.
One of my favorite things about reading, apart from escaping into a different world for a spell, is noticing what stays with you long after you’ve finished a book. It could be a feeling, an idea, or a lesson in writing craft. I’m a firm believer that if you want to be a good writer, you have to read as much as you can – the good, the bad, and everything in between – to learn what you like and what doesn’t work for you.
In no particular order, here is what stayed with me from some of my 2017 reads:
The Plot Against America. Social change isn’t always the result of sudden upheaval. It is sometimes the product of a gradual unwinding, and the stories we tell ourselves to shield us from reality sometimes put us right in the path of the danger we seek to avoid. The book has some chilling parallels to the present day, and I think it should be required reading for the sense it conveys of the personal experience of social decay.
The Signature of All Things. It’s possible to write fiction with a female character over 40! Hallelujah! Also, what it means to have a fulfilling life, with or without romantic love.
Our Souls at Night. This novella is a gentle, deeply human, beautifully told story of love, loss, and separation. [Spoiler] It also has one of the saddest endings I have ever read: talking to each other over the phone at night, seeking something to hold on to, while gazing out into the unknowable dark. [End spoiler]
American Pastoral. Writing lesson: there are no rules. Roth switches from first-person to third-person, has run-on sentences of epic proportions, and changes the tone of the novel dramatically. Hands-down the most difficult book of 2017, but very rewarding. I also watched Ewan McGregor’s movie, and it managed to capture some of the spirit of the book but left me disappointed.
The Hunger Games trilogy. The personal is political. Also, learn a survival skill. Archery is useful, but knowing how to find water in the wilderness is also a must.
Swing Time. This story is, to me, about existing in your skin, when your skin is neither fully black nor fully white, and about existing in your skin as a woman, and about duality and identity and belonging and privilege and compassion and friendship and so much more. Possibly my favorite book of 2017, though it’s my first Zadie Smith and I know some of her longtime fans feel that this isn’t her best work. Looking forward to digging into more this year.
Station Eleven. Wonderful reimagining of the post-apocalyptic novel. As the book’s tagline says, we seek beauty even in the face of utter devastation because “survival is not enough.” This narrative continues to haunt me.
The Underground Railroad. I don’t often cry over books, but this was an exception. The winding path of human perseverance and the spirit of survival is something beyond reckoning.
The Girl on the Train. Stay out of other people’s business, but if you get involved, make important decisions only when you’re sober. Writing tip: a flawed protagonist can be interesting and deeply engaging. Don’t go too far, though, or you risk losing your readers’ sympathy entirely.
The Stand. First book of 2017, and what a whopper! Writing tip: few stories require this many pages to be told. There were too many rambling passages describing in depth people’s thoughts and feelings, the landscape, or backstory. But. You can compensate for such flaws by telling a story so juicy that readers can’t put it down. Stephen King is a master of taking a simple premise and weaving it into an epic tale. You never lose the narrative thread and even with a million characters, you’re always aware of where each one of them is and what they’re doing.
Cheers to another great reading year ahead!
Yours truly, one page at a time,