Monday, December 21, 2020

Favorite Reads, 2020


What can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been already said (and continues to be said, as we fight our way through the dregs of it)? Well, how about…I read more books this year! There’s one positive outcome. Through this endless expanse of homebound months, I read 44 books, up from 30 last year. In my finished pile this year: 29 novels, 4 short story collections, 5 memoirs, 3 poetry collections, and one autobiography. Last year, I said I wanted to read more biographies this year, which I did not do, and more young adult fiction, which—in part, thanks to my teaching job—I did. It should be noted that one of the books I read this year was a graphic novel, and I expect to have that as a new category in 2021, considering the eagerly anticipated stack on my shelf right now. I also expect to continue reading memoirs in the coming year, particularly those that experiment with form. From time to time, I work on my own strange-form memoir. And I’m beginning to formulate my summer reading project, which will have something to do with place as character—specifically, with houses. If you favor a book in which a house is one of the main characters, kindly send me your recommendation.

So many of the books I read in 2020 struck a deeply personal chord with me. Perhaps my antennae were open and receiving to emotionality during this unprecedented year; perhaps those were the type of reads that caught my eye and attention. In the end, it doesn’t matter. So many books were a balm for me this year. Of my ten favorite reads, most had some sort of autobiography or memoir element, whether it be direct, poetic, auto-fictional, or something else. As always, I enjoy reads that inspire contemplations about genre although in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Feeling in writing is what breaks through, at least for me. 

In no particular order, my favorite reads of the year:


 Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik (2010)

After a discussion about writing memoir, my friend and colleague (thanks, Jessica!) said I would love this slim memoir, and I did. In chronological order throughout short chapters, Winik reminisces about people she has known who died. Each section is titled (i.e. The Eye Doctor, The Bon Vivant, The Graduate); some are people quite close to her and some are known through others. All left an imprint on her and as she writes about these losses, much more is revealed about Winik herself, life in general, and the times we live in. A unique, surprising—and ultimately, touching read.

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)

This novel reads like a series of journal entries, short observations from the point of view of a mother, a wife. When the marriage falters due to an infidelity, she retraces the events of their relationship, trying to find a way forward. She talks about the isolation and fulfillment of motherhood, and about striving for a creative life amidst life’s demands. She notices patterns and brings up things she’s read and learned, all in a concentrated effort to make sense of life, her life. I loved this book. Like the best poetry, I often wanted to take my eyes from the page after reading a section and lean back, enjoying the ripples of association. Another unique, contemplative and beautiful read.

The Carrying by Ada Limón

How does one speak about poetry, about a collection that speaks to so many deep truths? In this stunning book of poems, Limon shows the range of human experience, the burdens and joys we carry from beginning to end. Maybe it’s best if I share my favorite.

After the Fire

You ever think you could cry so hard

that there’d be nothing left in you, like

how the wind shakes a tree in a storm

until every part of it is run through with

wind? I live in the low parts now, most

days a little hazy with fever and waiting

for the water to stop shivering out of the

body. Funny thing about grief, its hold

is so bright and determined like a flame,

like something almost worth living for.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This National Book Award winner garnered many more accolades in the year it was released and it’s been on my shelf for some time. Written as a series of letters to his son that touch on the history of African Americans in this country, Coates describes his own life experiences within the framework of racial inequity. In describing what it’s been like for him to survive and make his way as a black man, he also he expresses his fears and hopes for his son. Toni Morrison called the book “required reading,” and CNN named it one of the most influential books of the decade. I only wish I had gotten to it sooner.


Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019)

This captivating, introspective book marries grief with hope, and reminds us that humans exist within the folds of nature. Renkl has experienced many of the life changes we all experience: marriage, children, aging parents and loss. In chapters that alternate between memories of family stories, episodes of love and grief, and observations of the plant and animal life outside her back door, a narrative emerges: we are all part of the world, good and bad, bloom and decay, happiness and pain. For me, reading this book was akin to having your hand held. A wise, comforting, and beautifully written book.


Based on a True Story (2017) by Delphine de Vigan

The only end-of-year entry from my Summer of France reading (I wrote more about it here), this international bestseller is a surprising and wholly entertaining read. It’s fiction (or is it?), a suspenseful read that follows the friendship between Delphine (the character), who is a writer, and the mysterious woman who reemerges from her past (or has she?). The suspense lies, in part, in figuring out which parts are true, might be true, couldn’t be true. It’s a compelling read with a dark undercurrent. As I said, a great diversion for the elements of the story, but it managed to be an exploration of literature too, and how we determine what is true/real and what is fiction/imagined. And if you’ve been paying attention to the books on my 2020 list so far, you will know that this is a current exploration of mine as well.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Another National Book Award winner (in this case, for Young People’s Literature), this novel-in-verse tells the story of Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen who finds her voice through spoken word and poetry. Acevedo says she wrote the book to shed light on the experiences of girls who aren’t often the protagonists of novels. This coming-of-age story addresses religion, the first spark of sexuality, family pressures, and the powers of creative and self-expression. An engaging read, it’s beautifully crafted and packs much emotional resonance.


The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch (2018)

This middle grade novel takes place in the Middle Ages. Boy is a child who has survived the plague but lives in a village desiccated by not only disease, but generations of war as well. When a mysterious pilgrim arrives and chooses Boy to accompany him on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter and return them to Rome, the adventure of his life begins. It’s a quest story, but so much more, because Boy has much to learn on this pilgrimage—about true spirituality and morality, about the bonds that join people, and about his own true nature. I loved this book for its unique setting, and for the surprising layers in this lovely story for young people.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2018)

The main character of this novel, Eleanor Oliphant, is somewhat of a misfit. Her social skills are questionable, she often says the wrong thing, and she doesn’t spend time with people all that much. When she meets Raymond, a similarly eccentric type, their relationship is the catalyst for her journey back into life and love. This book is funny and smart and full of unseen twists, introducing a character you will remember for a long time. It may seem strange for me to compare this book to the last one on my list—The Book of Boy—but it strikes me that they are similar in many ways. Both are about the redemption available when two unlikely hearts meet.


Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019)

One of my most anticipated books in a long time, and now, one of my favorite reads of the year. Strout picks up the story of Olive Kitteridge, the character from her 2008 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. When you love a book as much as I loved the first, you worry about a sequel living up to your expectations. In this case, I was not disappointed. Strout has a way of imbuing life’s ordinary events with gravitas—because, of course, it is exactly life’s most ordinary events that have the most impact. Like Eleanor Oliphant, Olive is a character who is as large as life, and Strout surrounds her with a cast who reveal themselves to be as people are: confounding and endlessly complicated but also, opportunities for warm connection.

Looking back over my list of the year, I would say that what all of these books—whether novel, memoir, or poetry—have in common are that they somehow, in some way, highlight the importance and redemption of human connection. Isn’t that what the best stories are about? I hope your year of reading sustained you somewhat through the challenges 2020 threw our way. As always, I’d love to hear about your favorite reads of the year!



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

How to Create the Perfect Home Reading Nook (repost from Redfin blog)


The holiday season is a perfect time to spend time with those we love and reflect on the year. It’s also an excellent time to cozy up with a blanket and lose yourself in your favorite book. But before you dive into that story, why not create a cozy, personalized space to read and unwind after a long winter’s day? Whether you live in New York City or Portland, we’ve reached out to the experts to help you transform that additional or unused space into the perfect reading nook that the whole family can enjoy for years to come.

Create a space that inspires you to read

I read over 150 books a year, so a perfect reading nook is essential! My reading nook is surrounded by books, which makes me feel inspired and full of possibilities. It's comfortable, quiet and has lots of natural light. It's a perfect place for reading, repose and reflection. Make your reading nook unique by surrounding it with things you love. - Jennifer Caloyeras at Books Are My People

The key to creating a quiet reading nook is to block out everything else going on in your home so you can concentrate on your story.  I love to put on white noise or spa music to block out all the tablets, TVs, kids, dogs, and other distracting noises.  I always have earbuds or a BlueTooth speaker within reach of my reading chair. - Back Cover Copy

Recognize what makes you feel most at ease

How to build a cozy reading room is easy and personal. What makes you feel most at ease? For me, it's soft or natural lighting, no fluorescent overhead lights on, only lamps or sunlight coming through a window and always at least one candle. Next, I like to fill the space with the most comfortable places to sit and put my feet up. A comfortable armchair with a footrest, or if I can swing it, the very best place to cozy up and read it in a hammock or swinging chair. - Human Kind Book Club

Creating a reading space in your home is about creating a comfortable place you can tuck yourself in. Whether or not you consider yourself a reader or think you'd use a reading nook, the possibility is what you're after. An otherwise unused area of your home can be transformed in a few short steps, be a conversation piece, a place for family heirlooms, and is a great way to encourage yourself and your children to read. My own reading space is an inviting respite at the end of a long day and gives warmth and life to an area that might've just been clutter otherwise, it's a place where the whole family gravitates toward, and that's exactly what makes our house a home. - The Ardent Biblio

Know what you need

When I'm creating the ideal space for reading, it needs to have 3 things: ergonomic comfort, excellent lighting, and a place to rest my beverage. Too often, reading nooks look cute and creative (think charming window benches and "under the stairs" nooks), but aren't actually that conducive to spending long stretches of time reading. First and foremost, make sure you have a comfortable place to sit or lounge. Secondly, lighting is important. Maybe you do best with bright, natural light, or maybe you prefer to adjust your lighting depending on the time of day. Will you need a dimmer switch, or maybe light bulbs you can adjust from an app on your phone? And finally, a reading nook should have a safe place to rest your beverage of choice. I love drinking hot tea while I'm reading, so having a place where I can easily reach for my mug is important to me. - Dear English Major & Home Scribe Creative

Make your space a reflection of your spirit

it is imperative that your room reflects you.  This can be with the decor, the furnishings and even the decision to color code your books instead of organizing by title, author. You want the space to mirror your personal values/style. - Mahogany books

Don’t sacrifice comfort for aesthetic

Aesthetic is important, but don't forget comfort. No matter how gorgeous your reading nook photographs, you won't use it if the antique chair's uncomfortable crossbar is jabbing into your back. And one bonus tip: if you're going to read ambitiously, make sure you have a dictionary within arm's reach. - Dzanc Books

Be sure to have plenty of light

Comfy seating and good lighting are key in creating a cozy reading nook. A window with a view is always an inviting place to sit. If that's not an option, choose a corner by the fireplace or in a room with low traffic. Along with an overstuffed chair, add a floor lamp w/ 3-way lighting; a small end table for your books, table lamp (in lieu of floor lamp) and a coaster for your hot cocoa. PS: Don't forget a cozy lap blanket. Happy reading! - Seaport Books 

Good lighting is a must. Natural light from a nearby window is sublime, but as the day progresses a good reading lamp with an arm that adjusts for height and direction is important. For optimum directional light, a clip book light or a camper’s headlamp can be useful, and kids find them fun, too — it helps make reading an adventure. - The Book Cougars

Decorate with stylish and functional pieces

Invest in some stylish and functional lamps for your reading nook, and make sure to buy the right temperature bulbs! Recent studies have shown that cool light is best for a learning environment while warm light creates a more relaxing environment. If you’re trying to relax with a good novel or short story you should grab bulbs in the warmer 2700K-3000K range, light a few candles, or even set up in front of a fireplace for maximum coziness! But if you prefer to read more stimulating works like educational materials or nonfiction, you might try swapping for a cooler 3000K+ bulb or positioning your reading chair in front of your biggest, brightest window. - Ad Biblio

Keep it quiet and private 

One of the biggest joys of reading is being able to disappear into different worlds, to be immersed in new places and times, and to go on adventures with characters you’ve only just met, or who have become old friends.  There is nothing more frustrating than being interrupted just as you get to that pivotal moment in a scene or narrative.  With that in mind, create a reading nook that is “off the beaten path” of your household – someplace quiet and private -- this can be a transformed closet, or the corner of less frequently used room, or a whimsical tent or fort built out of household materials (e.g., blankets, cushions, curtain rods, etc.).  - Anastasia Betts, VP Curriculum Planning & Design at Age of Learning

Make your reading nook cozy by choosing a quiet spot away from distractions. Make sure you choose a comfy chair, have adequate soft lighting, a cup of tea, and a soft blanket. Small book carts for keeping your to-be-read books within reach have become popular. Strike up an inspiring scented candle to set the mood. - Capital Books

Get cozy

A comfy chair and soft chenille throw are must-haves for any book lover when creating the perfect reading nook! And don’t forget the light—choosing a well-lit space will allow you to finish that page-turner that’s been keeping you up each night. - Liz and Lisa

If you don't enjoy the actual experience of sitting in your reading nook, you won't! Do you like being cozy? You need a comfy armchair or lots of pillows and blankets. Need a space with no distractions? A minimalist nook is for you. Do you need help channeling your imagination? Choose whimsical colors or patterns to surround and inspire you. - The Story Shop

As a mystery writer and avid reader, the things in my own cozy reading nooks always include a comfy chair, an ottoman, and good lighting. Personally, I avoid super bright light -- subdued and indirect feel most natural, whether I'm holding a hardcover book, jotting notes on my lap desk, or reading on my Kindle. To cozy up my space, I add cushions, a shawl over my shoulders, and a fuzzy throw during the winter months. A place for my teacup is also a must! - Connie Shelton

Have a heat source nearby for colder months

A reading nook is a perfect addition to any mountain home. In the winter months, it's important to set up your reading nook near a heat source, a wood stove or fireplace is perfect for keeping warm. Furnish the space with an extra cozy bouclé accent chair. - We Dream Big

Make it how you like it

The best book nook should be tailored just for you as an ideal spot where you're drawn to spend more of your time reading books!  So if you like it cozy, pile up the blankets and add an atmospheric electric fireplace.  If you are trying to keep it cool, make sure there's a fan and a spot for your favorite iced beverage.  Our ideal would be a chaise longue wrapped with corner bookcases near a window for an occasional peek at the view. - La Playa Books

Creating a reading space for the kiddos

For kids, a reading nook should be secret, special, and small. It should be a place lit by flashlights, well camouflaged so that nosy parents won't intrude, comfy with blankets, couch cushions, stuffed animals, and a 'do not disturb' sign. And most important: let the young reader build it her/himself. - Book Club for Kids


When I was a child I liked to go in my closet with a flashlight to read because I liked the seclusion and the chance to get away from it all.  In a home with children, I believe a reading area should be set up to provide a bit of whimsy.  It should be cozy with dark walls and very comfortable areas to lounge with bean bags and recliners because reading for pleasure is best done in absolute comfort.  The lighting should be good but soft and the accent pieces should be literary in nature. A quiet area with no windows is preferred to eliminate distractions.  Instilling a love of reading in young children will set them up for greater success in the future because learning to read is one of the first bricks in the educational foundation. - R&B Used Books

Be flexible

As a single mother with four children who are now young adults, our household is lively—and at times, crowded. As a writer, teacher and editor, all of the work I do requires a quiet space, so I’ve learned to be flexible. Reading is no different. Whether it be in my traditional nook with a leather armchair and mosaic reading lamp or curled up next to the fireplace with both dogs next to me, or on the patio enjoying the California sunshine—any spot can be made into a reading zone. Quiet not always guaranteed! - Mary Vensel White


Originally published on Redfin

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka