Monday, July 22, 2013

So many books

by Joan

I was excited to see a novel I’m reading now, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a stunningly told story that drops the reader into alternating timelines in war-torn Chechnya. Yet as I read over the list, I was embarrassed to admit I'd only heard of two of twenty-one other novels. 

Why hadn't I heard of those books? Which made me wonder, whose opinion do you value when choosing your next read? New York Times Bestseller list? Oprah?

I receive email newsletters from Powells, Barnes & Noble, Audible, The Kenyan Review, among others. I follow the Twitter feeds from L.A. Times Books, Simon & Schuster, Media Bistro's Galley Cat, The Paris Review, to name a few. I could spend all day, every day reading lists, adding each book to my never-ending TBR spreadsheet, but my writing time would suffer. 

There's a line in the movie Mona Lisa Smile where Katherine Watson (Julie Roberts) ask her Wellesley art students, "What is art? What makes it good or bad, and who decides? To which Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) replies, "Art isn't art until someone says it is." And then, "The right people."

So who are the right people? Fiction is subjective, we all know that. I love historical fiction, though lately I've been expanding my reading horizon. I love finding novels that are not necessarily the most widely-read, but whose characters haunt me until I tell the world about them. 

Catherine McKenzie (author of the novels Forgotten, Arranged and Spin) started a Facebook page, "I'll bet we can make these bestsellers." Her mission: "Welcome to the AUTHOR/READER EFFECT, where authors and readers band together to bring attention to deserving books. Because who says Oprah's the only one who can get people reading?"  

Carol Woods, freelance editor and founder of Lesser North Texas Writers’ critique group says, “Sometimes I read bestsellers but not because they're on the bestseller list; they definitely have to appeal to me on a personal level. Covers and back-of-the-book blurbs are the first elements I evaluate, but I've been burned even by those (there's a publishing house I've learned never to trust). I spot my potential buys in bookstores, CostCo (the person who selects their books has my interests nailed), Publishers Weekly blurbs (especially the Friday email that focuses just on books and not the industry), personal recommendations, and mentions of titles that I spot in articles that might have nothing to do with reading. Of course, there are authors that I try to keep up with--despite reading 40 or so books a year, I doubt that I'll ever read all that I want to, but please don't tell me that."

I asked the others here at What Women Write to weigh in:

Pamela: I rely heavily on recommendations from friends (mostly y'all) whose opinions I trust. I'm also bad about (I suppose) reading the same authors, therefore limiting my exposure to debut authors. I also read what I might not normally pick up due to book club selections. Other than that, I always read the Dallas Morning News' Sunday edition's book reviews to see if anything piques my interest and have also discovered books based on recommendations from writers I follow on Facebook. A time or two I've purchased a book from an Amazon recommendation based on a past purchase I've made. I remember discovering The Stuff that Never Happened by Maddie Dawson that way.

Susan: I read reviews. For example, I picked up (and loved) Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs because of this series of interviews: Publisher's WeeklyNPR, and Slate. However, I usually like to see multiple positive reviews before I go buy a hardback. This book was worth it-- I really loved it….

Kim: I get a lot of my ideas of books to read from friends on Facebook. Many authors will mention books that they enjoyed on there and some will specifically tell me I would enjoy certain ones. I also look on Goodreads.

Elizabeth: I, like Pamela, read book reviews every Sunday and most weeks there’s something that I either buy or put on request at the Dallas Library. I’m also a good one for just picking up random books that look good (covers do matter, I guess!), and reading the acknowledgements. Often the writer will thank their agent. There are many agents whose names almost guarantee I will like the book. And I’m usually right! Another way I get recommendations is from friends and, much to my daughter’s chagrin, strangers. If you are next to me in a longish grocery line, odds are I’ll start a conversation with you, and there’s a good chance the subject of books will come up. I’ll recommend, and get recommendations in turn. And I have gotten some good reads that way.

I wrote to Susan after she sent the prize list: “So many brilliant books I won’t get to in my lifetime,” to which she replied, “Heaven must be a library, if you think about it.”

In case you're interested, here's the long list:

Flaherty-Dunnan Prize 2013 Long List
Any Resemblance to Actual Persons by Kevin Allardice (Counterpoint)
The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press) 
The Carriage House by Louisa Hall (Scribner) 
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Hogarth) 
Elders by Ryan McIlvain (Hogarth)
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter (Alfred A. Knopf)
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (The Penguin Press)
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho Press) 
The Morels by Christopher Hacker (Soho Press)
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott (New Issues Poetry & Prose) 
The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones (Touchstone)
The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson (Bloomsbury)
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski (Harper Paperbacks)
Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng (Ecco)
Tampa by Alissa Nutting (Ecco) 
A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead Books) 
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (Viking) 
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Wise Men
 by Stuart Nadler (Reagan Arthur Books/ Little, Brown and Co.)
 by Marjorie Celona (Free Press/Simon & Schuster)
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
 by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books)
You Are One of Them
 by Elliott Holt (The Penguin Press)


  1. I'll chime in, that as an avid reader and book blogger I get most of my recommendations from other book bloggers or authors who support others. Those are mostly from twitter or fb. My long list just keeps growing. I find some lists are above my head, even the list above has many books I've never heard of, thankfully I've read 3 of them and have 1 other on my shelf to I don't feel too So many doubt.

  2. Anita - The beautiful thing about having so many books is that everyone can find stories they love, whether literary or mystery or love story or horror, and they aren't necessarily the same ones you or I would choose. We're lucky to have so many options. I've just spent a few minutes on your blog ( and already added 5 books to my list. Love your reviews - thanks for stopping by!


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