Stefanie Brook Trout

Author Page with Resources for Writers

Tag: Book Reviews

Great Reads 2018

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 10.21.00 PMAt the end of every year, I like to reflect on all of the wonderful books I have read over the past 365 or so days and highlight the standouts.

This is my fifth annual Great Reads post – apparently the only blog post I can reliably hold myself to doing each year.

I use Goodreads to set a personal reading challenge each year, and I can’t recommend the site enough for fellow readers and writers.

Check out my Goodreads author profile here.

I’m excited to share that I exceeded my 2018 reading goal of 33 books.

The 37 books I read this year include a lot of young adult novels, a few graphic novels, some classics, a little nonfiction, and a lot of contemporary fiction.

(I used to set my goal at 50 books each year, but it was very difficult to reach and pushed me to read shorter books just for the sake of my book count instead of reading what I actually wanted. In 2017, I set my goal at 32 – my age at the time – and have increased my goal by one book each year. Since this change, I have not only been able to read what I wanted, but I have also exceeded my goal every year.)

I really liked most of the books I read this year, but when I reviewed my Goodreads ratings, I was surprised to see that I was stingy with my five-star ratings. I only gave out two five-star ratings this year: one to Angie Thomas for The Hate U Give and one to J. K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

This is really interesting!

It might seem like the only thing these two books have in common is the fact that they are YA novels, but I’ve come to realize that they have a lot more in common than that. 

Thematically, they are both about a very specific type of coming-of-age: having the courage to stand up to authority and do what what you know is right, no matter the consequences. 

I also realized that they both follow the Hero’s Journey fairly closely. As a fantasy hero, Harry Potter follows the journey rather obviously, but Starr Carter’s growth as a character can be plotted on a Hero’s Journey diagram with an even better fit than Potter’s. 

On a personal level, these books also have in common the facts that I have read them multiple times and that I have taught them to my high school students. Neither of these books received a five-star rating from me upon my first read. Each time I reread the books, I picked up on more of the authors’ craft and fell more and more in love with the stories and how they are told.

This is significant because I typically don’t reread books. I usually only reread a book if I am teaching it. With so many books on my To Read list, who has the time to read something they’ve already read before?

But this year’s Great Reads reflection has brought my attention to the value of rereading. In the future, I hope to give more of my four-star books a second go. I am a book hoarder, so they are already in my possession. I just have to make it a priority.

If I love the book even more, then it was well worth my time. If I don’t, then maybe it’s time to let it go by passing the book along to a friend or donating it to a local free library.

Here’s to another year of great reads for all of us!

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Great Reads 2017

I’m so excited to write my fourth annual Great Reads post. I’m so excited, in fact, that I’m not even going to apologize for not writing enough content for the blog. (It’s been so long since I’ve updated this website that WordPress didn’t remember my log-in credentials. Worse, it’s been so long since I’ve even visited my own website that Google Chrome couldn’t auto-complete the URL…)

To be clear, the idea of this post is to list the top books that I read in 2017. Not all of them were actually published in 2017.

Before I begin, I have to give a big shout out to the Book of the Month club, which helped diversify my reading list. (Last year’s list was, regrettably, brought to you by all white male authors. Great books all the same, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t amplify any other voices.) Beyond adding women writers and writers of color, BOTM has helped me balance my 2017 reading list with contemporary authors, so this year’s list does feature a lot more new books than my previous lists have.

I joined Book of the Month in November 2016, and it’s been so much fun reading their selections this year. Fifteen of the thirty-nine books I’ve read this year were from BOTM, and six out of my nine top books listed here (including all of the top 5!) were from BOTM. My subscription was the best gift I have ever given myself. (If you’d like to check it out for yourself, use my referral link to get your first book for $9.99 plus a free tote bag.)

So here they are, folks: the nine books that earned a five-star rating from me on Goodreads this year along with the short reviews I wrote for each of them. Check ’em out.

  1. Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance
    Ruth Emmie Lang
    St. Martin’s Press, 2017

    33574161I expected to not like this book based on the premise, but I love magical realism, so I gave it a shot as my October Book of the Month pick. I’m so glad I took a chance on it – it’s easily one of my favorite books of all time. It was one of those books that you start reading really fast until you get close to the end, and then you start dragging it out just because you don’t want the dream to end! For me, the initial hook was the To Kill a Mockingbird allusions, but the characters quickly took hold of me and carried the narrative from there. I loved the structure; it was a unique way of letting the story unfold but not gimmicky in any way. Even though it’s classified as adult fiction, I can see a lot of my students loving this book as much as I do. I’m so impressed that this is a debut novel and can’t wait to read more of Lang’s work in the future.
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
    Neil Gaiman
    William Morrow Books, 2013

    I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

    15783514One of the biggest questions I had before reading this book was whether or not it could be classified as YA. But like the neopagan mythology Gaiman calls back to once again with his Triple Goddess from The Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is neither YA nor not-YA. It just is. Most of the story is narrated from a child’s POV, and I think many of my teenage students would appreciate it, but I agree with other reviewers that the reader who will get the most out of the story is the one with nostalgia for childhood lost.

    It’s a short, quick read with a dreamlike – at times, nightmarish – quality that feels expansive while you are immersed in it but slips away as soon as you set it aside to return to reality.

  3. The Sun Is Also a Star
    Nicola Yoon
    Delacorte Press, 2016

    Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.inddIt’s difficult for me to review this book because it is so great that anything I write about it will feel lame by comparison. I expected to like this novel because of all the science – specifically, the interplay between cosmology and poetry – and I did love all of the scientific and historical interludes, but what really blew me away was how much heart the characters had. The main characters, yes, but even the minor characters, who still get to have their story heard no matter how few pages we meet them for. It would be easy for this love story to feel cheesy or sappy, but it was so earnest that I never questioned it. Beautiful stuff. My new favorite YA novel. 
  4. Exit West
    Mohsin Hamid
    Riverhead, 2017

    30688435There is something brilliant about the language here – wholly unique and yet completely ordinary at the same time, just like the story itself. The narrative is at once timely and timeless, and the book’s multiple identities couldn’t be more appropriate for a story of migration. I was unprepared for the supernatural turn, but it was a pleasant surprise because I love speculative fiction. I highly recommend Exit West for any reader who doesn’t mind a little magic in their realism.
  5. Dark Matter
    Blake Crouch
    Crown, 2016

    27833670I had so much fun nerding out with this one. Dark Matter has just the right amount of suspense, science, and heart. I can’t say too much more without spoilers.
  6. In the Woods 
    Dublin Murder Squad #1
    Tana French
    Viking, 2007

    237209This was exactly what I was looking for. I don’t normally read crime fiction, but I was trying to find a solid series that would hook me like a good TV procedural while still having the depth and texture of literary writing. I binge-read the first installment in a weekend, and though I feel a bit icky claiming a book this dark is “amazing” with my five-star review, I was literally amazed at what French accomplished. I can’t wait to devour the series; I hope she can keep this up.
  7. The Graveyard Book
    Neil Gaiman
    Dave McKean, Illustrator
    HarperCollins, 2008

    2213661This was such a perfectly written story. Loved it.

    Note – I feel I should elaborate now since I wrote such a sparse review of this one initially. I’m a late-comer to the Neil Gaiman party – just started reading his work three years ago – and I’m still playing catch-up. The Graveyard Book was my first introduction to Gaiman’s writing for middle grade/young adult readers, and it was such a treat. At least once per trimester, I cry in front of my students during sustained silent reading (SSR), and this was the Fall 2017 Made-Ms.-Trout-Cry book. The closest analogy I can make – though I am loathe to do it – is to Harry Potter but with the heart and magic of the entire series condensed into one volume. On the one hand, a part of me wished Gaiman had stretched out the narrative, so we could spend more time with Nobody “Bod” Owens, but there is such a gorgeous simplicity to the way Gaiman leaves so many of his stories open ended. It makes it impossible for him to disappoint me.

  8. Coraline
    Neil Gaiman
    Dave McKean, Illustrator
    HarperCollins, 2012 (first published in 2002) 

    589836Such a great book! Coraline is technically middle grade, but due to the creepiness, some kids might want to wait until they are young adults to read it. As an adult, I loved it! It’s really only the brevity and inclusion of illustrations that make it middle grade. Gaiman uses great words for young people building their vocabulary, but like a pro, he uses them sparingly so they can learn their meaning in context without getting lost as to what is going on in the book. I plan on buying a few copies for my classroom. It will make a great choice book for fall literature circles!
  9. Lucky You
    Erika Carter
    Counterpoint, 2017

    33825216I can see why so many people have given this book lower reviews. The characters felt realistic but were not always likable – it was hard to want to relate to them. And the plot was not conventionally driven. There were plenty of opportunities for conflict between characters, but the narrative largely skipped over all that to resonate in the quiet internal conflicts within each character. It’s not a long book, and it doesn’t come to a firm – or necessarily satisfying – conclusion.
    And yet, there’s something remarkable about this book. The narrative voice is luscious and lyric without being overwrought. The momentum is incredible, alternating points of view and skipping through time with each chapter to focus on set-piece moments that define each character’s experience. It was funny but serious at the same time, making me cringe, laugh, reflect, and keep turning the pages until – just like that – it was over.
    Many thanks to BOTM for the recommendation and for the opportunity to read a gorgeous early release of Lucky You. This is Erika Carter’s debut novel, and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next. Note – I had a couple random people comment on my Goodreads review about how Lucky You did not deserve the rating and praise I had given it, so I had to add: “I would agree that this is not a ‘five-star’ book if five stars means it’s one of the best and most important works out there, but we aren’t defining the literary canon here. Goodreads defines five stars as ‘I really liked it,’ and since I really enjoyed reading this book, it earned five stars from this reader.”

Several wonderful books that I gave four-star ratings in 2017 almost got honorable mentions here, but since this year’s list features more books than any of my previous Great Reads posts, I thought I’d let these nine awesome novels bask in their five-star glory without any end-of-the-year amendments.

That’s right – every one of my top nine books is a novel. Apparently, I only read two nonfiction books and three graphic novels this year – no books of poetry, plays, or even short story or essay collections. Oops! I guess they got pushed down by all of the YA novels I added to my never ending To Read list…

Good thing there’s always 2018 – feel free to comment with recommendations.

If you’d like to keep up with my book reviews throughout the year, follow me on Goodreads at goodreads.com/stefbt and/or Twitter @brooktrouting.

Happy Reading in the New Year!

Great Reads 2016

With every New Year, I like to call out my favorite books that I read the previous year. (Find my 2014 list here and 2015 list here.) This year, I am compiling another top books list for 2016, but this time, there is one clear standout and a handful of honorable mentions.

Again, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2016. Most of what I read was not actually published in 2016. All the books on this list received five-star “it was amazing” ratings from me on Goodreads. The runners-up are listed in the order in which I read them, not any kind of ranking.

Book of the Year337907

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I never ended up writing a review about this book, though I had intended to as soon as I recovered from the reading experience. The problem with reviewing House of Leaves is that any formal consideration of the book lends itself to dissertation-level thoughts that would have to be expressed in dissertation length to do it any justice. It took me years of trying to start House of Leaves before I finally committed and gave up my winter break to it. And by it, I mean madness. To read this book is to question your own sanity. It changed my idea of what literature is/does while avoiding gimmick with flawless execution.

Runners Up28282

Election by Tom Perotta

My Goodreads review: “A fun book – great read for a Presidential Election year.”

I don’t know if I would have felt the same sentiment had I read the book in December instead of February, but I’m going to let the comment stand.

15811496Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

My Goodreads review: “So good!”

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s work before, you must read Cooked. It’s a wonderful exploration of food culture that will challenge you to take your relationship to food to the next level. If you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s work, I don’t know that this is the best place to start. Check out some of his earlier work first, but keep Cooked on your to-read list.

17707989Brown Dog by Jim Harrison

My Goodreads review: “Though each of the six novellas could stand alone, I really enjoyed reading them together as a collection. I had to take breaks to read other books between the novellas because there is a decent amount of recapitulation in each one, but I loved having all of them together in sequence. Harrison is one of my heroes, and I’m glad that we can still learn so much from him through his writing.”

934329The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Achievement Gap for American Children by  E.D. Hirsch Jr.

My Goodreads review: “Anyone with a stake in the American educational system—so, all Americans but especially educators, educational policy makers, parents, and advocates—should read this book. People who haven’t read a lot of pedagogy might find the writing a bit dry, but it’s the best written (and least bogged down in jargon, abstraction, and vagueness) book on education that I’ve ever read, so if you have had to read a lot of pedagogy, The Knowledge Deficit will be a page turner! I want to hand it out to every teacher, administrator, and politician I know.”

13533747The Wake (The Sandman #10) by Neil Gaiman

My Goodreads review: “After ‘really liking but not quite loving’ most of the volumes of this series, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed the way Gaiman closed his story. I look forward to rereading the series and have a feeling I’ll appreciate it even more with additional passes.”

If you’re a reader of graphic novels, then I’m sure you’ve already read The Sandman, but if you aren’t, it’s time to check the Dream King out. I was never “into comic books” until the used book store in Ames moved away from downtown and a new comic book store moved in. I wanted to support my Main Street bookstore, even if most of their books are illustrated. For me, The Sandman was a gateway into a whole new type of storytelling. I highly recommend to anyone who likes good literature but isn’t “into comic books” yet.

12502523Breakfast of Champions by  Kurt Vonnegut

My Goodreads review: “Listen: You might not like this book if you have a problem with illustrations of assholes and wide open beavers. The assholes look something like this: *. You’ll have to read the book to see the rest of the illustrations. You might like this book if you have chemicals in your brain that make you like Vonnegut, his illustrations, his characters, and his dark humor. And you might like the way he gives the plot away in Chapter 1 and defines useful terms like legume for the reader. You might like that this book prominently features Kilgore Trout.

“And so on.”

22522808Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

My Goodreads review: “A wonderful collection, mostly short stories with a few narrative poems here and there. As in any collection, there were a few pieces that I didn’t enjoy as much, but there were many more great ones.

“I really enjoyed Gaiman’s introduction, which includes a brief note on each of the pieces. You can certainly appreciate the ‘disturbances’ without any backstory, but as I writer, I always love reading notes like these.”

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What’s missing from this list? Authors who aren’t white men! I do make sure to include women writers and writers-of-color in each year’s reading list, but this year none of the ones I chose made it to five-star status. Looking forward to 2017, I’m planning to devote a lot more of my reading time to these underrepresented authors with the hope that I’ll be able to feature them in next year’s New Year post. Feel free to shoot me any recommendations you might have.

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In addition to tracking my books read and books-I-want-to-read on Goodreads, last year I made a Pinterest board to track them as well, and I’m doing it again this year. Check out my Books Read in 2016 board here and my Books to Read in 2017 board here.

Happy Reading in 2017!

Honey from the Lion Review

It has long been a dream of mine to get paid to read books, and after four years of giving my book reviews away for free, I am thrilled to share that I’m finally getting paid for one!

Pick up a copy of the November/December 2016 issue of Orion Magazine to check out my review of Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel, Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books, 2015).

597_large_image-sca1-55025134618

Fracture in the News

Fracture officially released February 14, and there has been a lot of great media coverage of the book since then, including a review in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, an interview in Orion Magazine, and conversations with public radio.

One recent article we’re excited about is an online review by Thomas Fate for the Chicago Tribune. Here’s an excerpt:

Fracture includes a wide variety of voices and thinking, which is what keeps the book from slipping into what anthologies of social critique can become — cycles of guilt-laden lament, where the language of the activist overwhelms the language of the artist. In Fracture these two viewpoints somehow converge rather than compete, resulting in an innovative and compelling weave of writers who both educate and inspire.

Fracture will also be featured in their Sunday edition.

Another recent article worth calling out is by Adam Burke for Little Village magazine. In addition to promoting tomorrow’s reading at Prairie Lights, Burke sought to understand the significance of the book through the experiences of the editors and contributors. He interviewed both Taylor and me, plus three of our contributors, beautifully illustrating the range of perspectives and motivations you’ll find in Fracture.

“Bringing a book like Fracture into the world is important because our society needs to cultivate healthy, productive ways to talk about big contentious issues like hydraulic fracturing,” Trout said, adding, “We have not attempted to represent every side of the issue, but we have aimed to provide context for conversations about fracking and to illustrate just how complicated the issue is.”

Ice Cube Press frequently updates this page with links to reviews and local and national media reporting on the book.

Great Reads 2015

Last year, I called out the top five books I read in 2014. This year, I am compiling another top books list for 2015, but I’ve thrown in a little twist by selecting a top book in several categories.

Again, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2015. None of them were actually published in 2015.

vonneBest Short Story Collection

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, I often claim to prefer novels to short stories, but Vonnegut is a master of both. Look no further if you’d like to see just how large a story can be communicated in just a few words.

jcoBest Novel

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I wrote a six-paragraph review of this one for Goodreads, so I’m just going to share a tiny piece of it here: “It’s blow-your-mind good.”

Find the rest of the review here.

zooBest Essay Collection

Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit
by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Each chapter of this book is an essay exploring a different connection between humans and non-human animals with great insight and expertly precise language, and though there is lamentation, there is also hope.

Read the rest of my review here.

feastBest Memoir

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
(The Restored Edition edited by Seán Hemingway)

Here’s another one that I waxed poetic about in my Goodreads review. Here’s a link if you’re interested in my ramblings.

soulMost Innovative

Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron
by Steve Semken

Placing the soul externally is not difficult. Just figure out how and where.

This is the future of nature writing at the intersection of fantasy, myth lore, natural history, personal essay, philosophy, and even theology. It’s pastiche with several quotations celebrating the authors that have influenced Steve the most—from Edward Abbey to Robert Wolf—as well as full-color illustrations and typography by Andrew Driscoll and poetic text formatting that often had me wondering: what is this book I’m reading? Beautiful is what it is. It’s the kind of book that you won’t ever see as a mass market paperback. It’s far too precious for that. It’s a gift to all those who can’t live without wildness.

fracBest Book-That’s-Not-Out-Yet
(or Best Multi-Genre Collection)

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America
by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors

I know it’s probably gauche to include my own book on my annual “Tops” list two years in a row. If you’d read Fracture, you’d know why it deserves to make this list, but you haven’t because it’s not out yet! Don’t take my word for it. Ask those who have gotten a sneak peak at the collection, like Mary Evelyn Tucker who says, “This stunning collection of essays, poems, and fiction is gripping and illuminating. […] Indeed, no where else has such a gifted group of writers been assembled for a clarion call to awakening for our future generations.” Preorder your copy here.

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I faced a few dilemmas in coming up with this list.

The first, though these really aren’t in any particular order, is that I really wanted a “Best Graphic Novel” or “Best Sequential Art” category, but I really couldn’t decide. I’ve dabbled in four different series this year, and Neil Gaiman easily wins with the Sandman, but which volume? Number 5, A Game of You? Or #6, Fables and Reflections? I’m really not that concerned about it, but I wanted to acknowledge that I did, in fact, read enough comic books to warrant a subcategory here, but my indecision won out again.

On the other hand, I didn’t read enough poetry collections in 2015 to really have a “Best Book of Poetry” category. This year, my poetry mostly came in small doses: in anthologies, literary journals, and online. So with that in mind and looking toward the future, one of my 2016 goals is to read more poetry, starting with the two books on my to-read shelf. Then I’ll have to go out and actually buy more poetry, which I should be doing anyway.

Likewise, I really didn’t read much Murakami in 2015. How tragic! There’s another 2016 goal: must read more Murakami.

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So what were the best books you read in 2015?

Happy Aldo Leopold Week!

ALWThere are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.

Though Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was written in and about Wisconsin, Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, and that’s where his love of nature first began to emerge. Last fall, the State of Iowa proclaimed the first full week of March as Aldo Leopold Week, a time to celebrate and pay tribute to Leopold’s legacy as a leader in conservation.

As a writer, I also see Aldo Leopold Week as a time to celebrate and reflect on nature writing, a genre that influences my own writing deeply. I don’t define myself primarily as a nature writer because the term is limited, and I don’t build fences between what I do and don’t do, but my experiences writing about nature were certainly what inspired me to pursue writing seriously and remains a passion of mine.

(Those interested in beginning nature writing should check out this excellent resource: “Henry Thoreau as a Model for Nature Writing” by Ron Harton.)

Great Reads

I wanted to take this opportunity to call out some amazing nature writing texts. There are hundreds of books shelved under the category of “Nature Writing” on Goodreads, and there are a lot that I haven’t read. I’m not including any books on this list that I haven’t read in their entirety, and while I’m ashamed to admit it, there are some really important books that I’ve only read in excerpts.

It’s worth acknowledging that this list is more than 75% white men. For a long time, the genre was largely dominated by white men, but there are now plenty of excellent nature writing texts by women and people of color. I just haven’t read them all yet, and a lot of the ones to which I’ve been exposed, I haven’t had the chance to enjoy in their entirety yet. Don’t worry. It is a priority of mine. Many are sitting on my bookshelf right now, just waiting for their turn.

Therefore, please don’t see this list as my nature writing canon–far from it. I can only recommend that which I know, and unfortunately, my formal literary education focused primarily on white men, and I’m still in the process of making up for lost time. Check out that Goodreads shelf I mentioned, and you’ll see a more diverse array of nature writing texts.

One more thing worth noting is that I don’t actually use the category of “nature writing” to organize my own books on Goodreads. It’s too hard for me to define. I use the much broader “environment.” I didn’t want to overthink what is or isn’t nature writing for this blog post, so the following list is based on the Goodreads hive mind. If people are shelving it under “nature writing,” then I counted it. If they aren’t, then I didn’t. I expect controversy.

Without further ado, here are just a few great nature writing books besides A Sand County Almanac with Other Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold. They appear in alphabetical order, not in any order of preference.

  1. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  2. The Lives of Rocks by Rick Bass
  3. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
  4. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
  5. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  6. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway
  7. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
  8. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
  9. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  10. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  11. The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd F. Olson
  12. The Wilding by Benjamin Percy
  13. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
  14. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
  15. Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber
  16. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  17. Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History by Stephen Trimble (editor)
  18. Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson
  19. The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson
  20. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

Lots of omissions here, I know, and probably plenty of books that would be better classified elsewhere. The point is not to for me to establish the nature writing canon but to spark discussion, so discuss!

What are your favorite nature writing books? What are the most offensive omissions (which may be either because I haven’t read a critical nature writing text yet or because the Goodreads community hasn’t yet shelved the work as “nature writing”)? What doesn’t belong on this list? Often we think of nature writing as nonfiction, yet a few fiction texts made the list–but no poetry. Does nature writing have to be nonfiction? Within nonfiction, do research (rather than observation) based texts count? Does any of this even matter? 

Ames Reads Leopold

ARLThough this is the first annual Aldo Leopold Week, communities nationwide have been celebrating Aldo Leopold Weekend on the first weekend of March since 2004. And Saturday, March 7, will be the eighth annual Ames Reads Leopold event.

I had the pleasure of reading “Axe-in-Hand” at last year’s Ames Reads Leopold, and this year, I am thrilled to be reading “January Thaw.”

The event is free and open to the public. You can expect readings from Leopold’s work, a screening of the Emmy award winning documentary Green Fire, and an overall good time. It’s also a great opportunity to check out the newly renovated Ames Public Library if you haven’t had the chance to do that yet. Check out this news release for more information.

Great Reads 2014

Inspired by the lovely blog Pints And Cupcakes, I wanted to look back at the books I read in 2014 and call out a few of my favorites. P&C‘s Chloe Clark listed her top 15, but I’m just going to pick five because I don’t think I read nearly as many books as she did in 2014.

To be clear, the idea is to list the top books that I read in 2014. Only a few of them were actually published in 2014.

  1. TTTCThe Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien. (Here’s my short Goodreads review.) I know what you’re thinking. “This is the first time you’re reading this?” The answer is yes, and it shames me to say as much. First published in 1990, TTTC is one of the finest works of fiction I’ve ever encountered. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading my words right now and get on it. I promise this post will still be here when you get back.
  2. CTTAHYOPColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami. (Here’s my short Goodreads review.) I love Murakami, and I try to read at least one of his books each year, though I’ll have to read more than that if I’m ever going to keep pace with his new work while getting caught up on some of his older stuff. I’ve encountered several negative reviews of CTTAHYOP (published in 2014), but they were mostly from people who are either just starting to read Murakami or else have tried him before and didn’t like it but maybe wanted to so were trying him again. So I strongly recommend it to Murakami fans, but I realize it’s not for everyone.
  3. HTBAWHow to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran. (Here’s my short Goodreads review.) I’d been wanting to read this one since I first heard Caitlin Moran on NPR in 2012. I actually surprised myself when HTBAW ended up the only nonfiction book that rose to the Top Five. I’m working on a novel for my thesis, so I guess I’ve been in fiction mode lately. But let’s not let that diminish how much I enjoyed reading Moran’s 2011 memoir. I read some great nonfiction books this year, but I devoured this one.
  4. PushcartThe Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses 2014 Edition – Edited by Bill Henderson. (Here’s my short Goodreads review, where I rank my favorite pieces in each genre.) The quality of the nonfiction alone got this book on my Top Five list. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of good fiction and poetry here too. But the nonfiction seemed of another class entirely. It inspired me to step my own essay-writing game up considerably.
  5. PGPrairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland – Edited by Lance M. Sacknoff, Xavier Cavazos, and me, Stefanie Brook Trout. So I know it’s tacky to list your own book – I’d say it’s an unwritten rule, but I’m sure it is in fact written somewhere – and yet I’m going to do it anyway because as hard as I worked on this thing, I can’t take credit for the quality of writing our contributors brought to the table. I’ve read this book more times than I’ve read any other text, and it never fails to fill me with joy, pride, and excitement. (More about Prairie Gold on the publisher’s website.)

Several wonderful books almost made the Top Five, but these were the ones that made me feel the most.

I’m looking forward to doing this again next year, maybe even with a longer list, though for the first time in several years I won’t be setting an annual goal.

Tangent about Annual Reading Goals

I love Goodreads – absolutely adore it – and I’ve participated in their annual reading challenge since 2011. It’s a fun way to hold myself accountable for spending as much time reading as I both should and want to without making it feel like work. It’s always so much easier to find a new show to binge watch on Netflix, but you have to rein that in somehow.

Inevitably, at the end of the year, I was always scrambling to get my hands on shorter reads – novellas, poetry collections, graphic novels, chapbooks, you get the idea – or else finishing books I’ve partially read for some reason or another in order to meet my goal, which is fine because that stuff is good to read too, but this past year I really didn’t want to do that again. I just didn’t feel like it, and I’m a strong believer in doing what you feel like when it comes to reading.

I wonder if there isn’t another way to do a reading challenge that goes beyond books. I love books – I really can’t overstate that enough. But this year, I’ve been trying to read more literary journals, magazines, news, blogs, etc., and I’ve also been doing a lot of editing – reading other people’s work over and over again (and I guess reading my own work over and over again as well) – and this type of reading matters too, even though I can’t log it into my Goodreads.

My older sister, who is a middle school teacher and uses this strategy with her students, suggested (several years ago, in fact, when I first mentioned my impulse to read shorter novels rather than undertake weighty tomes because of the impending Goodreads deadline) that I go by a page count goal instead, which is a smart and perfectly reasonable suggestion, but I don’t want to have to add tally marks to a scrap of paper every time I read something. (Is there an app for this? Or can someone please develop one? Thanks!)

Maybe I’ll set a 2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge in a few months, but for now my goal for 2015 is simply to read a lot and not just books.

Speaking of Goodreads

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“Anthology Delivers Fine Offerings”: A Review of Prairie Gold in the Wapsipinicon Almanac

IMG_0015 2This volume was no doubt a massive undertaking, and the effort has paid off. It will interest anyone who sees who they are as a product of where they are, and will especially appeal to those who sometimes feel that, in the words of Bakopolous, it is “almost too beautiful to bear that rolling countryside without a notebook and pen in hand.”

Pick up a copy of the latest Wapsipinicon Almanac (No. 21) to read more of what Tad Boehmer had to say in his review of Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland.

Also in that issue, check out Robert Leonard’s essay, “Iowa: ‘Land of Enchantment’ – A Literary Manifesto,” in which he discusses Iowa’s cultural narratives and how Ice Cube Press “has done more than any in the past couple of decades in publishing books about Iowa, many of them by Iowans.”

Book Review on Bryson’s “One Summer”

Bryson

Me and Bill (October 28, 2013)

Last fall, Bill Bryson visited Ames, Iowa, for a reading. As a nonfiction writer, this was a dream come true. If nonfiction writing was baseball, Bill Bryson would be Babe Ruth. As far as I’m concerned, Bryson is a living legend. I contained my over-enthusiasm about meeting him long enough to lob him a question in the Q&A session and to have him sign my copy of his latest book, One Summer: America, 1927. At the time, I hadn’t actually read the book yet–it’s over 500 pages, and I’m in graduate school–but this winter, I finally sat down with One Summer, and I hardly came up for air until that “one hell of a summer” had ended.

In short, it was fantastic. For the long version, check my book review for Flight Patterns, the Flyway blog.