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Jan 1 14

Countdown: My Second Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year, and we’re almost at the end!. My second favorite read is the oldest book on the list; it’s a classic I only got around to reading recently. Read on to find out that my second favorite read this year was…

Middlemarch, George Eliot

I’m not the biggest Victorian lit fan. Jane Austen has some good moments, but overall I’m usually bored; the writing can be very dry, and the reflections of people and their doings too outdated to apply to people today. I therefore avoided George Eliot and her Middlemarch, thinking it would be typical nineteenth century British literature. How wrong I was!

It’s hard to describe what is so profoundly moving in the large, leisurely story of Middlemarch. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier review:

Middlemarch succeeded in utterly beguiling me. It’s less like Austen to me, and more like Henry James; it is passionate, realistic, and willing to gaze upon the lives of unhappy individuals with great clarity and compassion. Unlike the stories of Austen, which generally bear toward a marriage, several marriages happen in Middlemarch right at the outset. The drama will stem not from who will marry whom, but what life will truly be like after these matches, for better or for worse, have been made. One storyline follows Dorothea, an enlightened, modern women with great wisdom, ambition, and intelligence. She is a wonderful character to follow, full of identifiable emotion, passion, and loyalty. She marries an older man who is a respected scholar because she believes she wants to support him in his great work; but to Dorothea’s dismay, and the reader’s as well, we discover that his work is useless and backward, the scholarship that he has been devoting his life to an utter waste of time. Through Eliot’s graceful writing, we can see a marriage, having lost its foundation, crumbling from within.

There are other married-life dramas within this story, including another marriage that seems to begin on the best of terms, but begins to fall apart as husband and wife discover how little they know about each other and how unwilling they are to understand each other. Eliot’s descriptions of the small bitternesses of relationships, and how wounds can fester, or how chasms can open between people who once loved each other, are sensitive and real. They feel as relevant to relationships today as they must have been about marriages of a previous century. Frequently I felt myself associating guiltily with the character of Rosamond, whose utter self-absorption causes rifts to open in her marriage. She firmly believes each new hardship is done deliberately to spite her or marr her happiness; it’s these sorts of perspectives that I feel I take when I’m at my worst. And it’s these sorts of perspectives that can make relationships fall apart.

Of course, in the time and place of Middlemarch, divorce or breakups are not an option; so the members of these unhappy unions must struggle along the best they can, facing a lifetime of dischord. They realize that unhappy marriages can mean a lifetime of smothering their true selves, or subjugating their wills to others; but a chance for freedom, even at the risk of social disapproval, might just be worth taking.

Middlemarch is a small-town gossip novel; it’s a gripping portrait of troubled family life; it’s a coming-of-age novel; it’s even a murder mystery. I found it riveting, honest, subtle, and true. It’s the first book in a long while that I’ve felt a real, personal connection to. Finally, I get what all the hype was about.

Stay tuned for my FAVORITE read of 2013, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

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Dec 30 13

Countdown: My 3rd Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My third favorite read is the only short story collection on my life. Read on to find out that my third favorite read this year was…

Dear Life, Alice Munro

What a triumph that Alice Munro should win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. The timing couldn’t have been better, considering she published what might be her very best story collection yet a year ago. After a few decades and a few dozen books, Alice Munro’s mastery of the short story is unmatched; her writing has a clear, fluid beauty to it, as though you were holding water in your hands. The stories in Dear Life have that crystalline quality, as well as her usual warm understanding of humanity, but they are also among her most tightly plotted stories, with startling twists and taut suspense at every turn.

In this collection, Munro is making some of the more bold choices of her storywriting career, pushing characters to the brink. I somehow found these stories to hold more deadly emotional violence, more devastating choices, than ever before. Her writing is stunning on every page, her cold weary understanding of the choices we make to grow up, the quiet sacrifices we make, at its very height. There’s warmth here, too — a calm glowing portrayal of the inner life all people have.

We’re almost at my favorite read this year! Stay tuned, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

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Dec 28 13

Countdown: My 4th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. My 4th favorite read was a Byzantine war story — guessed it?

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra

Much has been said about the stunning novel debut of Anthony Marra, his A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Not enough has been written about the fifty-year night of war, dislocation, flight, and torture of Chechnya. The region suddenly flashed onto Americans’ radars this year due to the identities of the marathon bombers, but long before that terrible event happened, dark stories were unfolding in Chechnya unread. Here at last is a fictional story that brings to light this region. But more than that, this novel captures the complex way people and their choices become interconnected, and the astonishing generosity human beings are capable of even in the cruelest of times and situations.

Even amid unending war, some characters in this dark and epic novel are determined to save each other. The plot is Byzantine in its intricacy; with the skill of an older writer, Marra releases information a bit at a time so that the true complexity of the characters’ interdependence only gradually becomes clear. You’ll be glad you learned about a largely forgotten corner of the world and its suffering — but you’ll also be glad to discover a new writer who is sure to be a major force in coming years.

Stay tuned to find out my favorite read this year, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!
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Dec 26 13

Countdown: My 5th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My 5th favorite read has hookups, breakups, and relationship mixups. Read on to find out that my 9th favorite read this year was…

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

Waldman’s debut novel has gotten a lot of buzz this year, and for good reason. The author has taken on the challenge of capturing modern hipster Brooklyn life, but specifically from the perspective of a hipster Brooklyn man. In her deeply sensitive, intensely psychological portrait, she captures a great deal of the hypocrisy and under-the-rug sexism that still goes rumbling along through relationships today.

Main character Nathaniel imagines himself to be the modern, enlightened man — supportive feminist, sensitive boyfriend, friend to women. As a writer he preens and sees himself as the classic sensitive artist, able to see the shortcomings of others with a particularly sharp lens. He’s more or less completely unaware of the ways he still belittles, judges, and patronizes the women in his life, even the women he thinks he loves. The fundamental misunderstanding that still goes on between the sexes is the subject of this book, and I found Waldman’s portrayal to be clear-eyed, realistic, and cutting. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a send-up of contemporary Brooklyn life — or whether it’s a realistic portrayal.

Want more? Stay tuned for my favorite read of 2013, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

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Dec 26 13

My New Year’s Writing Resolutions

by BLH

It’s that time of year again — the very end, when our days become a whirlwind of gift shopping and party planning, and there’s nary a moment left to think about our own creative lives and work. We’re stuck pushing our goals back and back and back; before we know it, January is half done and we don’t have a clear vision of what we want out of the next year. That’s modern life these days.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though; if we take a little time for ourselves, in snatches here and there, we can set goals that don’t just involve getting organized or hitting the gym. We can also focus on keeping our writing alive. As always, those are the resolutions I’m committing to this year, because the world of reading and writing is one of the most important worlds I inhabit.

Read more books!
As always, I’m resolving to read more. I’m proud of my intake this year, just crossing 39 (and I’ve still got a few days and a long plane trip to finish Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon!. That list included some absolute mind-benders. It’s more than I managed the previous year, so I’ll try to bump it up still more in the coming year. Heck, that’s almost (almost) a book a week! But the more I read, the happier I feel — and the better my writing is.

Don’t let stories languish
Over the summer, I managed to write several new stories. But as often happens, I finished the first draft and then let them sit there in the drawer without giving them the attention they deserved. Every story is a new chance to further my publishing career, so I ought to make every story count. I’m resolving to give those stories a spit shine and send them out on a vigorous publication campaign in the new year.

Keep improving the novel
While the novel I wrote is currently being sent out, there’s no reason why I can’t keep improving it as well. Friends recently offered some very helpful critiques, and it’s time I finally put those in action. Just because I’m leery of touching the novel now that I’m finally done doesn’t mean it is now perfect. I have to make it the best I can.

So what are your writing resolutions? The most important part of this process, I think, is to make resolutions related to your writing; it matters less what those resolutions are. Maybe this is the year your finish your novel, or it’s the year of that story collection. Maybe you’ll take a trip to a far-off land to do much-needed research, or finally read those classic novels that have been moldering on the shelf. Whatever it is, it’s time to acknowledge the role writing plays in your life. Just as diet and exercise are a necessary part of maintaining your health, time and effort are necessary to maintain your writing health.

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Dec 24 13

Countdown: My 6th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My 6th favorite read has people who come through television screens and men without faces. Read on to find out that my 6th favorite read this year was…

After Dark, Haruki Murakami

I’m a die-hard fan of Haruki Murakami’s work. The first time I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in college, I knew I had never quite experienced a story or a writer like this before. Murakami plays with the fantastic, but it’s his own particular brand of magic; it’s weird, sensual, and often unexplainable, but always affecting. The strange setups he creates end up feeling like a powerful metaphor for life, but they don’t fit easily (or boringly) into a tidy allegorical interpretation.

Since that book I’ve enjoyed many others of Murakami’s, but his new book After Dark is a particular favorite. Unlike his massive opus 1Q84 from a few years back, After Dark is a tidy, slim little novel all contained in one night in the dark bar and club district of Tokyo. We follow a small cast of lonely late-night characters as they move through the city after hours, occasionally bumping up against each other. As with other Murakami books, there’s something strange and very unsettling going on here, and there’s also a very simple human drama underneath that. That mix of the sweet and the strange is what I love about this author’s weird and wonderful books.

Want more? Stay tuned to find out my favorite read this year, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!
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Dec 22 13

Countdown: My 7th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My 7th favorite read has odd doodles and killer geese. Read on to find out that my 7th favorite read this year was…

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

If you’re a reader of the laugh-out-loud hilarious blog Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, then you’ve probably already grabbed up this book. Brosh’s fans are devoted, and for good reason; there’s just something hilariously apt about her crude drawings matched with her sophisticated sense of humor. Her observations about life, from procrastination to wild goose attacks to depression, are spot on. Doubtless you’ll find yourself identifying with something she writes about here; and you’ll find the drawings to create a killer sense of pacing. Hyperbole is not quite a novel, and not quite a comic book, but its delightful pairing of deadpan humor, bald honesty, and yes, very funny little drawings, is truly unique. You’ll want to pick this one up for yourself or for someone else in your life.

Stay tuned for the rest of the list, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!
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Dec 20 13

Countdown: My 8th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My 8th favorite read has telepathy, vintage sexism, and strange mindmelds. Read on to find out that my 9th favorite read this year was…

More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

We’re traveling back in time today to an oldie but a goodie; I read classic science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human this year, and I’m still thinking about it. This series of odd vignettes that draw together to a startling and philosophical union is always strange, often chilling, and often downright disturbing. But it also has its redemptive side.

More than Human sets a high bar for entry. It begins following the perspective of someone who seems less than human — an individual barely able to comprehend its own existence or the existence of others. Yet in spite of this character’s obvious deficiencies, he seems to possess something special, something the human race has never seen before. As the story moves from character to character, we meet a host of misfit people who possess strange abilities. By putting them all together, they might add up to something that is altogether extraordinary. Sturgeon was interested in the process of human evolution, and what form its next revolutionary leap might take. His hypothesis strains believability, yet raises still-lasting questions about what makes us human, and what could make us become larger than ourselves.

Stay tuned for number 7 on the list, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!


Dec 18 13

Countdown: My 9th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year. My 9th favorite book has alligators, swamps, and ghosts. Read on to find out that my 9th favorite read this year was…

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

Like many readers, I was first seduced by Karen Russell’s delightful imagination with her short stories. A few of the stories from Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, including the titular story, won me over immediately with their fresh funny voice, their lovely human vision, and their stunning prose. Swamplandia, Russell’s novel debut, takes the best of her wonderful short stories and throws it into a wild Floridian brew of haunted swamps, alligator wrestlers, dodgy amusement parks, faked Native American heritage, and tender family drama.

The plot is both complex and simple; a family-run alligator ranch is threatened by bankruptcy by a slick amusement park chain that moves into town, but larger than that, the family threatens to fall apart after losing its center, the mother. Narrated by the youngest daughter, Swamplandia is often hilarious, always fresh, and also unexpectedly dark. I didn’t even think the violence that emerges was fully necessary, but nevertheless, the haunted feeling of Russell’s vividly rendered Florida swamp makes this book feel magical.

Keep reading to find out my 8th favorite book this year, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!


Dec 16 13

Countdown: My 10th Favorite Read This Year Is…

by BLH

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. In the meantime, I’ll be counting down my ten favorite reads this year, whether the books were published in 2013 or not. Many of the books were from this year; it truly was a great year for exciting, vital, heart-rending reading. So let’s begin with the book in the number ten spot…

Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon

Snow Hunters is the novel debut of acclaimed short story writer Paul Yoon. His spare, haunting portraits of Korea around the time of World War II and the Korean war are often haunting, and there is a kind of soundless brilliance in Snow Hunters. Like other short stories of his, the novel has a feeling of trauma quietly haunting every interaction; our narrator, a withdrawn man who has finally left a POW camp in the Korean war to work as a tailor’s assistant in South America, is unable or unwilling to connect with people around him. He prefers the safety and reliability of objects and the work he does. When moments of kindness do come, they’re small and restrained, but end up feeling startling in this very gray world.

Yoon seems like a writer after Hemingway’s heart, someone who captures horror through minimalism and suggestion, and who uses restraint and silence. At time the book seemed a little too restrained, implying depth that wasn’t always there. But ultimately, the book did find its own measure of depth, and ended up being quite moving.

Want to see the rest? Keep checking back at Two Cities, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!