Category Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Reading Year in Review and Top Ten Books of 2011.

My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month.  I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a “public” space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom).  Every year when I’m home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I’ve read.

Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten.  I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life–and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time.  This year was not so difficult.  Sadly, I don’t think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):

  • The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I’m working on, but weren’t necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to. 
  •  The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it.  (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.) 
  • This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon.  Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I’m finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.  

All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life…and the reflections that accompany good books.  As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham/Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (rereads)
These books have to be paired together and were two of the most thought provoking reads of the year.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year.  Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Harder than my book club’s run with the Russians a few years ago and encompassing almost all of my summer, this book was well worth it.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years  by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I’ve written about it a few times.  I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents’ house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit.  This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer.  I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read.  However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year.  I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.

Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!

Defining Freedom, Part One.

Somehow I’ve fallen back into the habit of reading and thinking about multiple books at once.  This school year I’ve been a bit off with my writing about what I’m reading–I have posts planned in my mind that never make it to my laptop.  In the chaos that is now my reading life, though, some unexpected patterns have arisen and I thought it would be interesting to unpack them.  The first will be on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, by title and by topic.  Continuing thoughts will follow about the concept of freedom in my rereading of both Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.  I am about to write about the resolution for one of the characters, and while I don’t think it won’t take away from the book, don’t read ahead if you already have Freedom on your book list.  

Freedom is complex and multi-layered, so it is impossible to treat it as a whole in a single post.  The aspect I want to think about comes from the story of the main characters’ son, Joey.  He has grown up spoiled by his mother, a disappointment to his father and in general pretty selfish in all of his life pursuits.  He has been in a relationship with the girl next door, two years his senior, since early adolescence.  Their connection and relationship has been a mainstay in his life, to the point where he moved next door as a 17 year old.  Her entire world revolves around him, but when he goes off to college he seeks out girls who would better fit in to his imagined future: sophisticated, wealthy and influential.  However, he remains incapable of severing himself from Connie.  They decide to get married on the spur of the moment, yet keep it secret and Joey is pursuing other girls.  And then.

The freedom that comes from understanding who you are. Joey’s moment came when he accidently swallowed his wedding ring and it came back out while he was on a trip with the girl he’d been chasing after for a number of years–the girl who he thought was his fantasy.  But.

“He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back.  This wasn’t the person he thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.” (432)

This is the kind of freedom that I’m not sure Joey’s parents understood as they were raising him. They seemed to be tip toeing around parts of themselves and restraining opinions in fear and leaving life that needed to be discussed untouched and unexplored–leaving both of them ultimately uncomfortable in their own skin.  Seeing their son understand this before they did–especially when he was trying on so many different personas throughout his college experience–was incredibly surprising as a reader.  I thought that Joey would be the kind of person who is a serial leaver: always looking for the next person who might fit his idea of perfection, never realizing that perfection never exists up close.  That kind of living gives the mirage of freedom, but is actually quite the opposite.

This fall, maybe because I was turning 30 and intentionally thinking about it, I realized that somewhere along the line I became myself: the Ohio and the New York in me all seemed to sort out and settle where it needed to be–and this was incredibly freeing.  To live in a place where you know who you are what what you are seeking allows you to not have the burden of carrying what other people might be thinking.  And of course there is the part about the Truth I believe in–something about the story of grace and love–that leads me to freedom and reminds me of what matters.


I’ve been trying to figure out what I should write about The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen since I finished it the week before Christmas.  So much has already been written about this book of a dysfunctional (or maybe more normal than people would like to admit) midwestern family that I wasn’t sure which way to direct my own writing. But. The character I kept coming back to was the mother, Enid Lambert: she often made me cringe with a kind of loathing pity with her neurotics, but there were a few moments that absolutely broke me with the concessions she made for her life.  “It wasn’t a wonderful life, but a woman could subsist on self-deceptions like these and on her memories (which also now curiously seemed like self deceptions) of the early years when he’d been mad for her and had looked into her eyes.”

I felt deep seated sadness after reading this.  When people are young, the future seems a long way off and time to accomplish things and become the person they want to be seems limitless.  Then the line blurs–at different stages and with different weight, which is what we see in Enid’s children and husband in the book– and one can look back and see all of the looking forward that was done has amounted to much less than they imagined.  People then feel stuck in who they’ve become and the daily rituals they’ve created. All of the corrections they had planned on making are still just well meaning intentions floating around in the back of their minds.  Or, perhaps, Enid focused on the wrong kinds of corrections: nitpicking after her children and husband and believing that everything could be fixed neatly and tied with a bow.

I’m not a believer that life can be perfect or free of pain.  I am a believer that there is true sustenance that can run deep if we free ourselves from the self deceptions that we walk around believing.