Greatest. Library. Ever.

One of my goals this year is to read 50 book-length works of serious fiction or nonfiction. 


Before kids, I could have easily read twice that many in a month or two — I’ve been a fast and voracious reader since I was a kid, back in the day when my mother used to be the one parent at the PTA meetings begging the school head to try to talk her kid into reading less. She simply couldn’t figure out how to keep me from reading under the covers all night long, and she was worried about the effect of so many sleepless nights on my health, which was probably fair enough, considering I spent most of fifth grade home sick.

All this reading made me want to be a writer. All this reading is why I got a Master’s degree in creative writing. I mean, people, I seriously love books.

Or I used to, before kids sucked the life and brain cells straight out of me and I stopped reading basically everything.

But this year, that changes! This year, I get back my love of books! This year, I throw down the 50 book gauntlet and hope you guys all keep me accountable / come read along with me / suggest things I just have to have to have to read (use the comments for that, please!).

So here’s the ChecklistMommy Book Club, 2013 THUS FAR:



Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Far and away THE BEST book I have read in MANY MANY MANY Years. Can’t-put-down good. Winner of tons of fancy prizes like the Booker and the National Critics Award. With the added benefit of HIGH LITERARY + HISTORICAL interest, and true educational value — I was VERY in-the-know when took the girls to visit the Tower of London this year. (January)

2 . 

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The sequel to Wolf Hall. Just as fantastic if not better. This one ALSO won the Booker Prize. I am going crazy waiting for the third book that’s supposed to finish out this series. (January)


NW by Zadie Smith.
Meh. (January)


A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.
I’m not a huge fan of McSweeneys, or The Believer, but Might magazine was awesome and the first half of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really is just that. (The second half, not so much.) The NYT Book Review liked this, so I tried it. Totally enjoyable, but I’m not sure it’s all that important you run out and read this one. (February)


Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
My mother gave me this. I was drawn in by half of the stories in this collection, but skipped about the same number. She’s one to watch, though, I think — this collection won TONS of awards — and I blame some of my disinterest in my own disintegrating Mom-brain. (February)


That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx.
I am a big fan of Proulx’s Wyoming Stories — and the movie based on them, obviously, which was full on SCREWED out of an Oscar, if you ask me — and I really dig Bird Cloud, her book about building her dream house, too. My father sent me that one, when I was still many years into renovating ours. (Oh wait. I still am.) This novel, however, has taken me ten years or so to finally commit to — I have taken it on basically every vacation of the last ten years, and every vacation I read a magazine instead. But this year I decided it was time to read this through, once and for all, and there was lots to like — the town and the characters within are fabulous, if the narrator a bit hard to fathom. The small-town-iness of it resonated for me, too. But it’s not one of Proulx’s greats, in my opinion. (February)


The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.
I picked this up because I heard Powers on NPR and HOLY JESUS is it wonderful. He’s a Marine who wrote a novel after coming home from Iraq and it is gorgeous and truly brings the war home to those of us who aren’t directly touched by it FAR BETTER AND CLEARER AND TRUER than the newspapers can or ever did. This is a true case of art illuminating life. READ IT. (February)


The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga.
A very entertaining read, but it hasn’t really stuck with me or circled back on me at all since I finished it. (March)


The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea.
So plot-driven-ly gripping I stayed up much of the night to finish it, and immediately ordered the sequel. A brilliant heroine, and a fantastic daddy-daughter and foster-mother-daughter story, as well as a GIANT and EPIC adventure. Bit my finger nails down to and past the cuticle as I tore through it. (March)


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
This book was a FAVORITE when I was a teen and it’s even better now, probably a) because now I’m a a Mom and b) because I get that we are living on the thin edge of the razor in terms of how close we come, every day, to a dystopic reality. (Just today the NYT reported this and this, for instance.) I ADORE THIS BOOK, and it does ring around and around in my head so much so that a few weeks ago a friend was reading Madelinealoud to his daughter and when he got to the twelve little girls in their twelve little beds I couldn’t help quipping, Hey, that’s just like Handmaid’s Tale … Which somehow drove my friend to read this book. AND HE LOVED IT TOO. (April)


Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea.
The sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which I loved. Not quite as good, but still an enjoyable read. (April)


Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.
I read this on the advice of a friend who just had a new baby and despite that apparently managed to read this book and then send me this email, which I reproduce in its entirety here:

SUBJECT: If you haven’t read

MESSAGE: ‘Rules of civility’ I suggest you read it now.

So I did. In one day. Including into the night while BrBigIdeas snored because I just couldn’t stop. It was THAT good. Completely compelling, and super-literary, too — it reads like Gatsby for women. Amazing. Go read it. Totally worthwhile. (May)


The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver.
A family history, over 70 years or so, as told through one family’s connection to their summer house in Massachusetts. This book resonated on tons of levels for me — the family dynamic, the love of the summer home and summer traditions, the ways a beloved spot changes over time, and the ways a family changes in it’s own affection towards it. If you have a deep connection to any spot on earth that you share with extended family, this book is THE book for you. It was really lovely, and a perfect opener to my beginning to plan for our own family’sannual trip to our ranch in Colorado. (May)


Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
This book has a very Tristram Shandy open, and then it flies through the next 40 years or so in the life of of its heroine — and her own extended family, and family history — with great humor and pathos. One plot twist especially KILLED ME. That said, if you have small kids and you’re still in that “I can’t think about kids in harm’s way at all WOULDSOMEONEPLEASETURNOFFPrivatePracticeALREADY” stage, this book is definitely not for you. (May)


Americanah by Chimamand Ngozi Adichie
Way back when I wanted to be a novelist, I used to hang out on Zoetrope. Adichie used to hang out there too. One of us is now a big time novelist and it ain’t me. Well, you know what? She’s just better than I was. This book is a fabulous commentary on colonialism, institutionalized racism, academic politics, and popular culture. It spans three continents, twenty years or so, and oh yeah: and it’s a hell of an entertaining love story, too. Basically, I think this book does everything RIGHT that NW. … well, kinda didn’t. (Yes, I know. Different writers, different projects. But very similar concerns, people, and this book is just BETTER.) If you’re looking for a literary read that still entertains as it edifies, read this one. (June)

The Art Forger: A Novel by B.A. Shapiro
My mother sent me this. So did my dad. This has only happened one other time that I can remember (Bel Canto) so I took this as a serious recommendation. Full disclosure: I don’t think this is the best WRITTEN novel of the bunch. The prose is a little bit … I dunno. Popular. But the story is FABULOUS, the pacing is great, and the subject matter — art, the art world, art history, forgery — is really engrossing. And several of the plot points shook me up in the same way watching a decent thriller on a big screen would. BA Shapiro is no Hilary Mantle, but this is a hell of a great summer read. (July)


Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson
This book is a MUST BUY. Truly. It’s the only book I’ve read this year since Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodiesthat I have literally not been able to put down nor stop thinking about every second I was forced to walk away to deal with things like kids, dishes, life. UGH! NO! I wanted to be READING THIS!

First off: best heroine ever, best portrait of family life ever, best writing about civilian life on both sides of WW2 … Seriously wonderful. Wonderful! And to think I almost DIDN’T read it … Here’s the thing: the conceit of the book is that the heroine, Ursula, keeps re-living her life over and over again in various iterations until she finally manages to live it “right.” Which is not to say, “correct,” or morally “improved,” but rather, manages to make every choice and take every chance that puts her on the path that she is universally importantly best meant to be on. I thought this would be aggravating, starting over and over again, but then I got a pedicure next to a lady who was reading this in hard cover (imagine that!) and we started chatting and she said it was great so I kindled it (obviously) and it was. It just WAS. I got so passionate describing it to MrBigIdeas the other night that he said he might read it. It’s THAT KIND OF GOOD. Go get it. You won’t be sorry. (July)


Ignorance: A Novel by Michele Roberts

One of the benefits of reading via the Kindle app on my phone and iPad is that my mother, after years of trying to interest me in what SHE’S reading (Mom: You know, you really should read — Me: Mom, I have four kids, I have no time to talk about this AT ALL, much less READ any of it!), is now skipping those conversations altogether and doing an end run around me by just zapping books she likes to my Kindle. So that when I think, hmm, what shall I read next? I open up my Kindle to find the decision has already been made for me. This is sometimes VERY successful, and sometimes only a little bit successful. Ignorance, for me, was only a little bit successful. On the sentence level, I find the book lovely. Very pretty writing. HOWEVER: The pretty writing sometimes gets in its own way, and is slightly too elliptical and obscure than it needs to be. Slightly too obviously straining for LITERARY, if you ask me — and I tend to prefer literary. Just not when it’s all proud of itself for BEING literary. That said: this problem is helped out a bit by the built-in grippingness of the book’s setting: pre-and-wartime France, in a Catholic village, with a few Jews, that is eventually occupied by the Germans. A compelling read? Yes. Just slightly annoying around the edges. (August)


Schroder: A Novel by Amity Gaige

Loved this. Written as a confessional, it follows a man who, having escaped East Germany in the seventies and eventually landed in Massachussetts with his father, takes on an assumed identity as a teen to better assimilate with his American peers … and finds himself living that lie right up the the events of the novel, that explode it. Set in the recession of the nineties, the story has a real Nabokovian cast, in tone and in plotting, which I don’t want to tell you any more about because I don’t want to kill this book for you. Except: If you’ve got kids, this novel does one of the best jobs of describing how kids actually act and feel when they are with adults that I have EVER seen. Truly. Upshot: this book succeeds as a literary work and great read all in one without trying to hard. Loved it. Read it super-fast. And it’s sticking with me. Can’t say YES GO GET IT loudly enough. (August)


The Doctor’s Wife by Luis Jaramillo

What a great summer read! First off: it’s incredibly quick without being air-head-y. The chapters are short, but visceral — you jump right in to every scene and every relationship with great ease as you follow the Doctor’s Wife and her family through the childhoods of her kids, and their kids. This intimate family history would practically float if it weren’t counterweighted by the one great tragedy that colors everyone’s lives. And yet, their lives go on, as lives do … Another rec from my mother, and yep, it was pretty darn good. (August)


A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel by Hilary Mantle

OK, I’m on the fence about event counting this book as a book I read this year, because, umm … I’m not going to finish it. And I’m telling you, you can probably skip it. I had great hopes for this novel, as I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantle’s (see Books 1. and 2. on this list) but holy hell was this slowgoing. And 783 pages. Of which I read 300+ before giving up. 300+ pages being a perfectly respectable length for a novel, I am counting this as a novel read. Ish. But still.  Let’s move right on. (August)



Southern Cross the Dog: A Novel by Bill Cheng

This is a great, compelling, extremely visceral and tragic read, following a group of children who survive, to some degree or another, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The characters are mostly African American, and the book is written by an Asian guy, which is an interesting thing because he seems to inhabit the characters as if he shared their long histories (of course I say this as white coastal urban Jew, so what do I know?). Still. Well worth a read. Great prose that rips you right through a great, tragic, yet weirdly hopeful, story. (August)

14 Responses to BOOK CLUB 2013

  • Sparky Pappas
    January 6, 2014

    Thank you for the list – I have put many of the books on my “to-read” list, and have read some before. I hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, The Art Forger, and I loved it! What a great story. I certainly didn’t read 50 books in 2013 – i read pretty slowly and usually sound out all the words, so books like Shogun take way too long! I guess I’m saying that the rhythm means something to me.

    • checklistmommy
      January 7, 2014

      Sparky — as you can see I DEFINITELY didn’t read 50 books last year ;( Ah well, try try again. This year I’m going to go for 50 again but be kinder and let myself include all the non-fiction I read, too, so I have a fighting chance of making my numbers — thus far this year I’ve read “The Bell Jar” and “Girl, Interrupted” (do we detect a theme?) for a project I’m developing, so I’m off to a decent start. Glad you liked The Art Forger!

  • dawn
    June 13, 2013

    i love your stuff, and i love this list of books (i just started wolf hall) but as a fellow english major neurotic mom i must remind you NOT to use an apostrophe in “its” when you are saying “belonging to it.” only when you are saying, “it is.” i am sorry to be nagging grammar police, but it brings me up short when i am reading your posts, and they are too good to be interrupted that way!

    • checklistmommy
      June 13, 2013

      Dawn — THANK YOU. Please keep calling me on it. I wish I could blame that on the brain-drain of the four kids, but I have been that kind of loopy forever. In high school I wrote a very compelling (if I do say so myself) paper on Macbeth. Except the whole paper referred to Hamlet everywhere I meant to type Macbeth. Yep. I have been living with that shame for 20 years. You are fighting the good fight. Keep fighting it. I salute you.

  • […] Book Club […]

  • Karen Theroux
    March 24, 2013

    Pre-kids, a book a week.
    Post-kids, a book a year.
    I have solved the dilemna, AUDIO BOOKS!
    I download them from my library for free, and am reading a book a week, again.
    Things I can do while “reading”:
    Fold laundry, wash dishes, clean house, knit, and drive (with a mini portable speaker).
    Audio books have changed my world, not quite as much as my children have, but all in a very good way.

    • checklistmommy
      March 25, 2013

      Karen, I hear that. I have tried audio-books in the past, but I now have way too many noisy kids and I can barely hear myself THINK in this house, much less hear an audio-book 😉 Right now my solution is Kindle on my iPad, which I can read in the dark next to sleeping MrBigIdeas, or standing on line places, or waiting for my kids places … That said, when the kids are a little older I think great audio-books will be a lifesaver on our annual road-trip to Colorado. Right now we just fight over the XM satellited Broadway (me+kids) vs. Garage (MrBigIdeas).

  • Christina Simon
    February 27, 2013

    Such a great idea! I started reading seriously again a few months ago, after reading too little over the past few years. Reading makes my writing better, so I started with my favorite classics and from there I’ll tackle some great non-fiction.

  • BH Mom
    February 27, 2013

    Now you have to tell us what you think of those books before I dive in because I have at least fifty books in piles around the house that are feeling rather neglected. Reading ‘Gone Girl’ at the moment.

    • checklistmommy
      February 27, 2013

      Gone Girl is THE book at my kids’ school right now — all the Moms are reading it. I will be interested to hear what you think.

      What I think: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies may be the best books I have EVER read, which is saying something. NW was NOT that. Hologram for the King was enjoyable, and minor-ly significant, I think. The book of stories was uneven — four or five greats, the rest, not. Starting something new tonight — I filled up the Kindle last week, so hopefully I’ll have more to report soon!

      • AC
        April 8, 2013

        Gone Girl is a great read. I tip my hat to you for your resolution, checklistmommy! I will look here for some book ideas.

        • checklistmommy
          April 8, 2013

          AC, people KEEP telling me to read Gone Girl. Guess I better do it already!

  • Leemore
    February 27, 2013

    i finally started reading again after a long hiatus, and have read some great books so far. Nonfiction: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Paris Wife (more of historical fiction), Molokai (again, historical fiction). Fiction: Where’d You Go Bernadette, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Middlesex (came out a few years ago). Happy reading and let me know if you read any of these!

    • checklistmommy
      February 27, 2013

      I’ve been meaning to read Unbroken, and you are not the first person to mention Molokai to me, so I’ll have to look that up. Goon Squad I didn’t love except for that TRULY AMAZING STUNNING LIFE-CHANGING chapter written by the teen-aged daughter as a school report, which I found so effing amazing I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. I read Middlesex when it came out and enjoyed that, too.

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Sarah Kate Levy

Once upon a time I wanted to be a novelist in NY. FOUR KIDS LATER I'm a
screenwriter in LA who blogs about parenting, partnering, and the decline of civilization / my home.

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