“Best Books” or Personal Favorites?


_Best Book_ of 2017 or Personal Favorite_ (2)

I have, for many years, been interested in critical reviews when deciding which books to add to my “to read” list. These examinations of theme, character, tone, plot, and the author’s mastery of the written language have been my guideposts, as have the nominees and winners of the various literary prizes and the ever-growing lists of “best books” by publications that feature reviews.  One of my favorite magazines, Bookmarks, helps by publishing summaries of reviews from such authorities as The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post, and averaging their ratings.

There is another factor that comes into my personal selection which is equally important (to me) and compels me to change my end-of-the-year list from “Best Books” to “Personal Favorites”. Books on my  Favorites list are chosen according to the qualities and characteristics of the books which have spoken to me – one reader – and my tastes and preferences.

I will always pay homage to those who read deeply and critically, and have often set my sights on emulating them.  The challenge is that I often find myself so involved in the story that I forget that I am trying to read critically and get carried away. One of my own mantras as an aspiring writer is “It’s always about the story” and the very best stories make me forget anything else.

I have to consciously focus my thinking on the elements of good storytelling if I wish to read critically.  This is probably because I haven’t practiced deep reading enough, something I wish to do to develop my writing skills.

I have decided to leave the critical reviews to the professionals and share my favorites with you. This is not to say that the titles on my list are not praise-worthy, but to provide a measuring device to help guide you to (away from) a book I have enjoyed.

I am a member of Goodreads and would encourage you to join and become my reading friend there. Members rate the books they read from one to five stars and often write reviews (short and long, sometimes critical and sometimes “I loved this book”). You can see how popular a book is by looking at the average rating and the number of readers who have rated it.

I limit my own ratings to four or five stars, with an occasional three-stars for books I feel compelled to finish. I don’t complete books that would please me less than that – there are other readers who will rate them with one or two stars and I choose to spend my time other ways.

For those who are interested in what books might end up on my favorites list, I offer this:

  • I enjoy books about relationships, especially about families, friendships, and marriages.
  • I enjoy books where the protagonist or main character is close to my own age (although I don’t limit myself to stories about older people).
  • I enjoy books set in the south (especially the mid-south, where I grew up), in Oklahoma and the mid-west.
  • I enjoy rural and small-town settings.
  • I enjoy historical fiction and nonfiction about different eras and events.
  • I like to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about people who inspire me.
  • I enjoy books and stories that let me see myself and the world more completely.
  • I read books about storytelling and writing to build own my understanding and skills.
  • I read for entertainment and pleasure when I need a break, when I’m on vacation, or doing a task that doesn’t demand my full attention. (Audiobooks are a part of my reading diet.)
  • Finally, I am always thrilled to be surprised by a new author, a great book that doesn’t fit into any of these categories, or a good book that I missed earlier.

The following are the books that I enjoyed most during 2017.  I hope that you can find one or two (or several) that appeal to you. I will be interested in your own lists of favorites and recommendations as we move through 2018.


Fiction Favorites

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – This was one of the first novels I read during the year and has remained a favorite.  It is a story about a “blended” family, which fits into one of the catgeories to which I am drawn. Storytelling is another nonfictional category I read – what makes stories compelling and how our brains are wired to use story to help us function in the world. Commonwealth is about the stories the members of one family tell themselves, each other, and the world about the events in their lives, specifically the breakup of their parents’ marriages and how it affects them personally. This book began a year of exploration for me – reading memoirs and books about writing memoirs – in preparation for writing my own personal and family stories.

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott – This is another story about family – those we are born to and those who nourish us and bring us to our best selves. It begins with a young father’s suicide in a New York tenement and leads us through the multiple generations that experience the love and sacrifice of the Catholic nuns who extend their caregiving to those left behind. A beautiful story, simple yet complex in its understanding of the human condition, The Ninth Hour won my heart and gratitude that there is such goodness in the world.

Nonfiction Favorites

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee – My choice of American Wolf as one of my two favorite nonfiction books was a matter of serendipity, since it would probably not been a typical title I would read.  I chose to listen to the audiobook version after I heard it described as a staff favorite by a representative of Penguin Random House at a “Book Buzz” at one of my favorite libraries. I learned that the wolf is considered the closest species to man in terms of their behavior and was enthralled to hear the story of O’Six, the celebrated alpha female wolf of Yellowstone National Park. Her story, like our own, is one that encompasses generations and reflects the need for control and protection of the places we call home.

Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place by Rilla Askew – I have been an avid reader of the novels by this celebrated Oklahoma author.  They all speak to our state’s history and the challenges that have faced its citizens since its inception as Indian Territory.  Most American is a collection of essays that lends personal credence to the fiction she writes, in the form of her observation of and participation in the Oklahoma narrative. She writes with authority about the scars left by the Trail of Tears, the Osage Murders, the Tulsa Race Riots, the Oklahoma City Bombing and her own personal experiences as one who is an Oklahoman, a former resident of New York, and a citizen of the United States.


Five-Star Fiction

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Camino Island by John Grisham

Flight Patterns by Karen White

I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The Feathered Bone by Julie Cantrell

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

The Risen by Ron Rash

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

The Storied Life of A.J. Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish


Five-Star Nonfiction

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott

In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas by Daniel Schaeffer

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

KNOWN: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age by Mark Schaefer

Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place by Rilla Askew

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday

Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future by Jonah Sachs

Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron


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Loving Audiobooks


Why I Love Audiobooks2

The weeks before the holidays are prime times for listening to audiobooks while decorating, cooking, and wrapping packages. Publishers release many audios tailored for the season each year, so you can listen to one of your classic favorites or a new title as you work.


Some weeks ago, I described my love of books in traditional format and the benefits of including e-books in my reading routines. A third format, the audiobook, has made it possible for me to broaden my options even further.

In the past, some purists didn’t consider listening to audiobooks to be “reading”. I count mine because I receive the same benefits from audiobooks as I do with traditional books, except for practicing reading as a skill. Reading books encompasses much, much more and my reading diet doesn’t suffer by the inclusion of an occasional audiobook.

Here are some reasons I enjoy audiobooks:

  1. They allow me to enjoy more books. I am able to add several titles to my “have read” list each year that I could not have otherwise included .
  2. I’m able to listen while I do other activities, such as getting dressed for the day, putting on make-up, folding laundry and loading the dishwasher. The weeks before the holidays are prime times for listening to audiobooks while decorating, cooking, and wrapping packages. Publishers release many audios tailored for the season each year, so you can listen to one of your classic favorites or a new title as you work.
  3. Audiobooks are very portable when I have them downloaded to my phone. I don’t even need to carry a reader to catch a few minutes of a good book.
  4. I can escape to an audiobook during boring or not-so-pleasant experiences, such as waiting in the doctor’s office or standing in a long line. (Earbuds come in handy during those times.)
  5. I can listen to an audiobook when traveling, and not be tied in to others’ listening preferences. You don’t have to listen to your least favorite type of music when trapped in a car with others who love it. You can take out your audiobook, nod to those whose taste in music differs from yours, and enjoy the ride.
  6. Excellent narration adds another dimension to my listening experience. Some books I’ve enjoyed lately that have been enhanced by the narration include The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg (narrated by the author), American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (narrated by the author and Mark Bramhall), and The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck (narrated by Suzanne Toren).
  7. Audiobook sources are constantly expanding and being refined. Subscription services such as Amazon’s Audible offer customers great selections from best sellers to those addressing specific interests.
  8. I live in audiobook nirvana because my library offers titles to check out that I can listen to on one of my devices. Be sure to check with your local library to see if this service is available!

Some additional titles that I have listened to and enjoyed include The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, and The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.


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Ten Reasons I Love Book Talking (And Maybe You Will, Too!)


First, let me clarify. I love book discussion in all its varieties – one-on-one, online, group discussion about one title, panel discussion – you name it.  If it’s about books, I’m there!

My favorite format is book talking. I learned the term when I was a new librarian attending my first Oklahoma Library Association conference.  There was a session going on that seemed to be attracting a large audience.

I scanned the room and found an empty seat; it might have been the last one. I sat and waited for the speaker. When the session began and the introductions were done, I could see that there would be more than a dozen speakers.  I wondered how they would all fit themselves in during the one allotted hour.

Then it started.  Each speaker went to the center of the stage with one book (in this case, the books showcased were Oklahoma’s Sequoyah Award Nominees) and spoke about it. No, that is not quite accurate.  They sold it.

The audience around me was busy writing notes and I decided it was time to do the same. Each presenter spoke for a couple of minutes  –something about their passion for the book, for what made interesting, and just enough to draw us in and want to read it ourselves and recommend it to others. It drew us in and kept us there.

One after another, without a break in between, we heard from readers who loved books, but more importantly, loved the book he/she was holding.

I was almost out of breath when I left the session, after learning something else about what librarians do – what I would be doing for the next 25 years. I would be talking about books and telling our customers why they might like them – why the book I was holding might be their “next best book” or their favorite book of all time.

I still love to do that (even though I am retired) and I still love to listen to book talks. I especially look forward to the “Book Buzz” presentations done at the Pioneer Library System branches by the Penguin Random House representatives, when they book talk the latest and upcoming books for the season. (It doesn’t hurt that they give away advanced readers copies and book bags, or that the librarians and the Friends of the Library prepare delicious food for us.)


What I love best, though, is “Ravenous Readers”, a group of about 20 members who meet each month at the McLoud Library to talk about the books we’ve read. It’s always fast and furious around the table because several of us bring more than one to share.

The book talks are as individual as the members who present them and each member has his/her own style of presentation. Some read passages, some talk about the author, and some tell us about their own emotional response to the book.

Someday, someone will probably put their book talk to music, as I did once during my librarian days. We also share or lend our own personal books and share items such as bookmarks and pens provided by indie book stores we visit. Again, the wonderful pot luck dinner we enjoy is “icing on the cake” (pun intended).


What I am suggesting is that you consider the “book talk” format if you’re planning to join or begin a book group.  Here are some reasons you might enjoy book talking as much as I do:

  1. Book talk groups put very little pressure on the members. Each can choose his/her own title(s) to read and share.
  2. It isn’t necessary to gather multiple copies of one single title for discussion. (Pioneer Library System makes book discussion kits with multiple copies of the same title available to book groups, but not every library can provide this service.)
  3. Book talking doesn’t require a moderator or that discussion questions be prepared.
  4. Each meeting provides several recommended titles for each member’s “to read” list.
  5. Members can often trade books on the spot if a title sounds interesting to another member.
  6. There is a lot of flexibility for groups as far as desired number of members, locations (homes, restaurants, the library, community meeting rooms), etc.
  7. Refreshments can range from pot luck or restaurant fare, from desserts and coffee to wine and cheese, but food and drink enhances the experience!
  8. Book talking can be integrated into an existing group’s discussion format. A twice-a-year book talk session can result in multiple titles to consider for traditional book discussion sessions.
  9. Members can focus on subject areas for specific meetings. For example, Women’s History Month in March, or Christmas titles in December.
  10. Enthusiasm for book talk groups doesn’t seem to waver. Just ask the members of the Ravenous Readers – 20 years and going strong!

I hope to see you one day at a book talk group, or better yet, hear that you have begun one!

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