Chip MacGregor

August 10, 2016

Ask the Agent: So what are you reading?


I used to regularly include updates of the books I’m reading on this blog, until I had some people complain that my personal reading habits weren’t that helpful to their writing careers. So I stopped doing it, and I’ve found I have missed talking about the various titles I’ve read, and being able to discuss books with readers books we liked or disliked. So when I received an email over the weekend that asked, “So what have you been reading lately?” I thought it was time to chat about some of the best and worst of the past few months. (Be warned: I’m a binge reader. I read a LOT in my job as a literary agent, and sometimes I’ll get on a roll and need to read several books on a topic. So  maybe you won’t find all of this helpful, but at least you’ll know what an agent is reading — and I’ll encourage you to drop by the “comments” section at the bottom and tell me what YOU’VE been reading.)

-Over the past six months, I read a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell titles. I re-read Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point, then read David and Goliath. He’s one of those writers I always find interesting, and one of the few I feel I can go back and re-read without being bored. I learn a lot from Gladwell, and he causes me to think in new ways.

-In a flurry of reading on art forgery, I read several titles: Provenance, The Rescue Artist, The Art of the Con, Stealing Rembrandts, Caveat Emptor, Priceless, and Art of the Deal (the Horowitz version, not the Donald Trump version… though I suppose that book also touches on con men). I thought Priceless was great, Provenance was interesting, Caveat Emptor was awful, and the others fell somewhere in between. If you want to learn about a subject, reading a half-dozen books on the topic is a great start. And, um, I have a Picasso to sell you, if you’re interested.

-As usual, I loved reading memoir. I thought Patti Smith’s Just Kids was overrated, no matter how many times people in New York tell me she’s deep and Robert Mapplethorpe a misunderstood genius. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me was cute but just okay, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was entertaining, Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy was fabulous (she always makes me laugh out loud while reading in public), Jennifer Tress’ You’re Not Pretty Enough had the promise of greatness but never achieved it, and the Busby’s The Year we Disappeared was a total snoozer. I re-read Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird and was reminded again what a great writer she is (and she lives here in Oregon). I got a kick out of Waylon: Tales of My Outlaw Dad and was deeply moved by Ruth Everhart’s Ruined, a couple titles I represented. Ruined is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and if you don’t know about it, you should check it out. Would love to know the best memoirs you’ve read and enjoyed.

-I also love narrative nonfiction, and found some interesting titles. The Other Wes Moore is the story of two guys who grew up blocks from each other, had the same name, and wound up with entirely different lives because of race and opportunity. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is essentially the same story, told by the main character’s college roommate, and with the twist of having the lead character rise from poverty to attend Yale before slipping back into his old neighborhood. Both books are interesting reading that offer some insight into race and privilege in American culture. I also read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness — good grief what a talent she was! It hurts me to think she died at 21; we lost a wonderful writer far too soon. I finally read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which had been sitting on my reading shelf for a couple years, and loved it. I also liked the Fainarus’ League of Denial, about the research into head injuries in the NFL, enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief very much,  but thought Daniel Poole’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew was pretty dull. As narrative goes, I thought the best book I’ve read in the genre this year was The Boys in the Boat, which sounds like it should be dull (“a bunch of college guys go out for crew at the University of Washington in the 1930’s”) but is a wonderful, insightful read.

-Yeah, I read some fiction. I thought both All the Light We Cannot See and The Book Thief  were brilliant novels, but found Paula Hawkins’ million-selling The Girl on the Train pretty predictable, and thought the normally-wonderful Isabel Allende’s Ripper was, in a word, terrible. I went back to read Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about Love, and was glad I did — that man can tell a story. And I really enjoyed Mindy Clark and Leslie Gould’s My Brother’s Crown and Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life (and, to be fair, I should mention I represent those last two titles).

-Finally, in the “catch-all” column… I re-read Lawrence Ritter’s history of the early days of baseball, The Glory of their Times, and remembered how much I’d liked it when it first came out years ago. Read Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings — one of those business books that has two chapters of really good material stretched out over twelve chapters of text. And finally got through Michael Regele’s fascinating story of discovering his daughter is gay, Science, Scripture, and Same-Sex Marriage. (You won’t agree with everything he says, and he could certainly have been more concise, but he makes some good arguments. And, for some odd reason, this book has been yanked, so it’s not available at all any more. No idea why.)

Of course, I read other things that were created by the authors I represent, and manuscripts they are turning in, but I don’t want to fill up my list with stuff that sounds like a commercial. (I realize I get a small piece of those books, so recommending too many of them would be self-serving. So I could recommend you check out books from Davis Bunn or Rachel Hauck or Vince Zandri or a couple dozen others, but I won’t…)

So that’s my list for 2016 so far. (Well… it includes the reading I did on Christmas break, after I had shoulder surgery and could just lay around and read.) Now here’s my question for you: What are you reading that you want to recommend to me?   I’d love to know the best (and worst) books you’ve read this year. Thanks — and thanks to Dan for asking me that question in the first place!

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  • Carol Doane says:

    In planning to attend the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books, I went to the library and scanned the books on CD to checkout those of authors who would be appearing at the festival. The list of authors was alphabetical. I landed on Matthew Bell, and searched out In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. I plucked it off the shelf. I checked it out, and forced myself to finish it. In summary, it held raw potential, but the scarred shapes, ropes of saliva, snot, blood and poop overcame any sensation that this might be a book I would remember fondly. I felt if I concentrated too much on the content I might go mad.

  • Leah C. Morgan says:

    I enjoy reading a reading list, so thanks for sharing yours. You mentioned enjoying memoirs, and I just finished an enjoyable one, All the Pretty Things, by Edie Wadsworth. I love interior design and stumbled onto her blog years ago because of her brilliant take on an all purpose room. I learned there she was a doctor. I don’t follow the blog religiously, and just happened to see an announcement of this release on Facebook. I was sucked in when I discovered she’s an Appalachian girl from the worst possible background. How in the world did she rise from the poverty of alcoholism to become a doctor and design queen? Now I know.
    Also just finished The Light Between Oceans and liked that too. I really appreciate beautiful phrasing alongside a great story. This was that for me.

  • Mel H says:

    I just finished Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors, the third book in a gigantic series that started in 2010 and spans something like 1300 pages. I loved the whole series and was tempted to start at the beginning again but it’s such a commitment, so I’m reading a YA book (Unwind) instead. I also semi-recently read Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God–it’s not new, but I found it to be a completely fascinating memoir.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m glad you said something about an older book, Mel. We tend to be so “contemporary focused” that we sometimes forget the beauty of discovering a book that has been out for years. What do I care when “The Glory of their Times” was written? The fact is, if someone is reading it for the first time, it’s new… that is the beauty of writing. (And painting. And dance. And music.) Art is something that needs to be discovered.

  • Shawn D. Brink says:

    I recently read THE BOOK THIEF and have the same opinion you posted “a brilliant novel”. In addition, I recently finished a book that I believe you might be familiar with entitled ROOMS by: James L. Rubart – also a good read. Before these, I read Ted Dekker’s SHOWDOWN and Frank Peretti’s THIS PRESENT DARKNESS. Both of these kept me on the edge of my seat until the last page. — Thanks for sharing what you are reading – I don’t think it is a bad idea at all to post suh things. – Sincerely, Shawn D. Brink

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Shawn. I was the agent for ROOMS — in fact, it was the book that we did that helped launch Jim Rubart’s career, and it’s set in Cannon Beach, just minutes from where I live on the Oregon coast.

  • Joanne Reese says:

    I think this topic is extremely fitting, Chip, especially since reading is supposed to make us better writers. Besides, it’s one of my favorite things to talk about! Okay, here is a list of novels I’d highly recommend. There are others, but I’ve only listed titles that have left an indelible mark on me.

    The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton – for the parallels, depth and a setting I could feel

    Plantation by Dorothea Benton Frank – for the realistic relationships and exquisite dialogue

    Healing Stones by Nancy Rue – her POV changes were seamless and the story was poignant without being preachy

    When the Last Leaf Falls by Bill Myers – for the resonating twist

    Unspoken by Angela Elwell Hunt – it was a beautiful tribute to the human spirit

    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – hauntingly provocative, yet redemptive

    Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman – a page turner that had me aching for the protagonist

    Her Mother’s Hope by Francine Rivers – a true depiction of family complications

    Hold Tight by Harlan Coben – skillfully crafted with tension on every page

    Embrace Me by Lisa Samson – real life on the page, unmatched characterization

    Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen – perfect pacing

    Blood for Blood by Ben Wolf – brilliant ending

    A Healing Heart by Angela Breindenbach – breathtaking landscape and a beautiful depiction of second chances

    The Long Way Home by Louise Penny – clues are peeled away in masterful layers

    A Distant Melody by Sarah Sundin – a real handle on the era, told with historical integrity

    Me Before You by JoJo Moyes – captured my empathy and my imagination

    I’ve also been working through your memoir list and loved The Glass Castle and A Girl Named Zippy. I’m in the middle of one titled An Invisible Thread that I’m enjoying very much.

    I’d rather not include the list of disappointing titles. If a story doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, I will usually put the book down for something better. There is, however, one author that I’m still angry at due to a terribly flimsy and lazy ending. I won’t disclose her name, but I will say that she’s parked in the cozy mystery section of the bookstore.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hey, thanks for the list, Joanne. A mixed bag here — some I think are great, some I think don’t work at all, but that’s why we discuss them. I’ve still yet to read JoJo Moyes, though I’ve been thinking about it for a year or two. I represented “Embrace Me,” and I’ve always thought it was a strong story that would be hard for people to, um, embrace.

    • Joanne Reese says:

      Would you be wiling to share the titles that you don’t think worked and why? I am mostly interested in finding out why a piece didn’t work for you. I’d like to try and avoid the same mistakes in my own writing. If you’d prefer to keep your dislikes a secret, I understand completely. Thank you for posting each week. I’m so glad you’re back. Your blog is one of my favorites!

  • I recently enjoyed Lisa Wingate’s The Story Keeper. I thought it was beautifully written and not the typical inspirational novel. I can say the same about Eve by William Paul Young. Of course, I didn’t expect that he’d be typical.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Lisa Wingate’s novel is really good. As for “Eve”… Meh. I don’t really think Paul Young can write. Famous for being famous, since “The Shack” sold well, but was awful — the Christian equivalent of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” in my view. But nice to see you on the blog, Janet!

    • LOL at the comparison. I definitely think Eve was written better than The Shack.

  • Terri Picone says:

    When I saw your topic in my inbox, i opened it right away rather than wait until I have more time (?) in a few days. Getting good book recommendations is one of my favorite things to do and is marked by putting the ones that interest me into my Amazon cart, which is my booklist that goes with me everywhere. Thank you for adding to mine.

    As for what I’m reading: For fiction, I’d recommend Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller. Just read it for a bookclub and was surprised I liked it since it’s a thriller/crime novel (not usually my choice), but the heart of it is a great story of second chances. I’m reading Delicious: a Novel by Ruth Reichl, contemporary fiction set in Manhattan, one of my favorite settings. I’ve also finished The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver) after about my third attempt and am glad I did. Some of my favorites over the past year are Kings of the Earth (Clinch), The History of Love (Krauss), The Signature of All Things (Gilbert), Euphoria (King), Black River (Hulse), All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Barbery), People of the Book (Brooks), and, my favorite, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

    For writing craft, I’m fifty pages into Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I loved her Wired for Story, and the new one already appears helpful. Also, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, and Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. (Did I mention I went to Powell’s Books last week?)

    Nonfiction: I liked Scary Close by Donald Miller, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and my favorite was also Boys in the Boat (although the first few chapters had too many details that didn’t seem necessary to the story) because the young men overcame a lot of adversity against great odds.

    Thanks for sharing your reading list. Writers need to read after all!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Powell’s is simply the best bookstore on the planet, of course. For writing, I just went back and re-read “Writing Down the Bones,” and remembered how much I appreciated it. Also Elizabeth George’s “Write Away” — a book that never took off, and I can’t see why. Would love to read “Norwegian by Night, since I hear it’s great. And happily are that “The Poisonwood Bible” is one of the best books I’ve read in the past ten years. Thanks, Terri.

    • Terri Picone says:

      I agree about “Writing Down the Bones,” but haven’t read “Write Away” and will have to watch for it. So many books, never enough time.

  • Yes! I’m postponing proofreading to give a completely unnecessary contribution since I love this book talk. Also a Gladwell fan, esp. of The Tipping Point. He is one of those authors who can actually write that many books in a general subject area and not repeat himself ad nauseam. I was also thinking about Jenny Lawson when commenting on Hyperbole and a Half, only Jenny’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” is on my shelf of books I want within reach no matter where I live. Could very much relate to books of ” two chapters of really good material stretched out over twelve chapters of text.” I am a skimmer/speeder through most nonfiction. Highlight the good stuff, done.

    As for what I’ve read, 75% is stuff I’m working on so I move pretty slowly through other books. I just reread Dee Henderson’s “Full Disclosure” in 10 minute bites over the last month because I desperately needed “comfort reading” and she doesn’t disappoint. That’s my favorite of hers; I think its NYT bestseller status is well-deserved.

    I also read “Ruined,” though it took me weeks because it hit way too close to home. But too good to not read–wow. In fact I was with another group of writers who were discussing it yesterday–and raving about it. On the same vein, “Wrecked” by Maria Padian I’ve not finished yet but appreciate. She dares to grapple with the mess of perpectives in rape–consent, memory, identity. Not sure what I think yet but I’m going to finish it.

    And most certainly George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I open it and I don’t even know how he can pull it off. And then I start reading and I can’t stop. The first page and he has me.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you liked “Ruined.” Powerful stuff. And yes, Jenny Lawson is one of the funniest writers on the planet right now. If you’re interested, an oldie but a goodie is Haven Kimmel’s “A Girl Named Zippy.” Really fun stuff.

  • Jodie Bailey says:

    Wow. You always make me feel like I am over her going, “I read See Spot Run today. Want to share my juice box?”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ll share your juice box if you let me have a bite of your cookie.

    • Jodie Bailey says:

      Uhm, sounds like you just took my cookie AND my juice box. How about I give you five shiny pennies for that one crumpled dollar you have?

  • Kristi Woods says:

    So glad the “reading list” is back.
    Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron was intriguing. I wouldn’t stamp it with the best writing in the world, but the story was wild and continually pulled my interest. Michael Oher’s I Beat the Odds was a great audio listen for the family as we traveled to football camps this summer. Other books I’m nose-deep in are college sports recruiting and admissions books. Too many to note here. Thank God for books, right?!

  • Peggotty says:

    Some people complained, as in more than one? I’m boggled at the concept of a writer not wanting to discuss books with someone who reads as much as you do. I’ll refrain from ranting, but I suspect this is another example of misplaced priorities.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Oh, yeah. I had several folks write and say, “Who cares what you’re reading? Stick to the info on careers and publishing!” So I’ve not talked about the books I’m reading in months, Peggotty. Glad I did – and glad some readers have appreciated it.

  • Bonnie says:

    We are moving and I just gave away 12 boxes of books! Haha! And yes. I still have some left.

    I’m in Hollow City right now, by Ranson Riggs. I loved the first one – Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children – just weird enough to trap me. (Wasn’t going to use the word peculiar … ) Been dabbling in Lemony Snicket and having fun. I can’t finish a book if I am not gripped by it though, so I have started many that I haven’t finished. I wouldn’t make a good agent. As an author, I read a huge number of writing craft books and right now it’s How to Blog a Book from when Nina Amir was at NWG in Omaha. Love Malcolm Gladwell. Partway through Angels on Assignment (Research for the current series.). Also partway through The Highly Sensitive Person (research). Reading David Farland’s Charley in the Wind on my phone. Undone by Michele Cushatt – I love her sense of humor in the midst of life. The Progeny by Tosca Lee – impatiently waiting for the following book. Self-Publishing Attack! by James Scott Bell – I need the kick in the butt most times.

    I don’t read many memoirs so I’ll have to add yours to my list.

    BTW, I love reading people’s reading lists!

  • Thanks for sharing what you’re reading, Chip. That was a great question to be asked. I appreciate that you mixed in a few books from authors you’re representing. I’ve been reading books by writers I know to help support them, although the novels aren’t in genres I particularly care for (horror and romance/mystery). I started Cassandra Clarke’s Mortal Instruments series and am also reading Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters since my daughter’s friend can’t stop talking about his love of Discworld. Last night I stayed up too late reading a history book about gladiators (research for a YA I’m working on)…it was like not being able to look away from a terrible car wreck.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! A good description of some books, Amanda. I’m reading “Hyperbole and a Half” right now; finding it weird but funny (and sometimes pathetic, I guess). And loving Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America 1927.” I appreciate several Bryson books, and cannot for the the life of me figure out why this one tanked. If you like well-written American history, it’s wonderful.

    • I read “Hyperbole and a Half” while in a trauma recovery center….some of us sat around and laughed till we cried at how ridiculous (and true) parts were.

    • I haven’t read the HandH book but read the blog several years ago and like @natalienyquist:disqus said, I was crying over the posts and drawings. Thanks for the recommendation on One Summer.

  • Melle Amade says:

    I love that you wrote about what you are reading! I am still nervous about putting up opinions like “in a word, terrible”. Great to see honest opinions simply and publicly put. I’m reading “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon at the moment. It’s sharp turn for the masochistic freaked me out a bit, but really appreciate her deep descriptions of the world and characters.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate you saying that, Melle. And I think it’s fair to say a book didn’t live up to expectations, or it was simply boring, or they stretched out the info a bit too long. Love Diana Gabaldon’s work, by the way. Nice of you to comment.

    • Melle Amade says:

      I have a long commute so listen to a lot of books and just find myself falling into the language Gabaldon uses and the characters she develops, even for the bit players. This morning I started Game of Thrones Book 1 again, focusing on how Martin world builds and shares that with the reader without overt exposition or overwhelming. hahaha Just realize I sound like a totally analyzing book nerd. Have a great Thursday! =)

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Hi Chip.
    I read a lot, and I have not yet had my requisite cup of strong Irish tea, so I won’t make a list for you. I was up late and need to awaken! But a lovely, lilting new memoir I just finished is Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy. Ok, now on to that tea! I hope all is well with you (and judging from your reading, it is. How can one not be happy with one’s many books? Imagine having a job where you are paid to read!)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No complaints about the job, Lynn. I’m not a TV watcher, so I tend to read a lot. :o)

  • Renee Yancy says:

    Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan was excellent. I go back every couple years and re-read some of my favorites. Shogun, by James Clavell. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (When I first read this, I didn’t want the end to come.) Also loved Memoirs of a Geisha. And if you haven’t read it yet, Titan, the story of John D Rockefeller and Standard Oil, is fascinating.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Cold Sassy Tree is a wonderful read, Renee. And I know what you mean… sometimes I’ll start slowing down on a great book, because I don’t want it to end.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Hmmm…as for memoir, I really enjoyed “I was blind dating but now I see.” Made me both laugh and cry which is always a good sign. I read Jim Butcher’s first steam punk offering (his is my husband’s favorite author and I sorta got sucked in. It’s called “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” and is a great read. I finished up Sherry Thomas’ YA trilogy with “The Immortal Heights” and enjoyed the concluding book. I also read a magic treehouse book yesterday and enjoyed it much more than I expected. I will not go on about books that I did not like…would take too much time.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ll have to try that memoir, Kristen — it’s got great reviews. Thanks for the tip! (And feel free to talk about books that disappointed. It’s therapeutic.)

  • SheilaG says:

    I absolutely LOVE Gladwell! Do you remember the bit in The Outliers about how professional sports players were all born in the first month of the year that the age cutoff was for children’s teams? I discovered a similar thing on my own about 10 years ago in my husband’s pediatric practice. About 80% of referrals for ADD were for boys born in the LAST month of the cutoff year for school. So they were the youngest in the class. Nothing to do with ADD; just little boys who were too young for their classes. Anyway, the best book by far I’ve read in ages is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, about Rembrandt’s painting. We read it before seeing the painting at The Hermitage this summer. You think you’ve thought of everything you possibly could about that parable and then you figure out–wow, I saw nothing at all before this. Great writer.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know, that one fact (about the youngest getting pushed aside) has proven helpful to a LOT of parents since the book released, Sheila. Glad you said something. And LOVE Henri Nouwen’s works. Prodigal Son is wonderful. Try “In the Name of Jesus,” which is an amazing read.

  • I had such cautiously optimistic hopes for The Girl on the Train. The premise was solid. The rest fell flat for me – predictable storyline, slow action, unlikeable characters (without anything that intrigued me or made me want to root for them – by the time I was halfway through, I was hoping maybe they’d all mysteriously die. That’s how invested I was in them.)

    I really enjoyed Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things (winner of the Mary Higgins Clark award). And if you like Malcolm Gladwell, have you read much Daniel Pink? His A Whole New Mind was essentially therapy for this right-brainer raised in a family of left-brainers. And a lot cheaper than therapy, too.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Agreed about Girl on the Train. By the end, I was sort of hoping she’d fall under the train, Hallee. And I’ve not read Daniel Pink, but will put that on my list. Thanks!

    • And with all that drinking, falling under the train seemed a legitimate possibility. Speaking of, I thought Hawkins had a great opportunity to explore the nature of addiction but instead it felt like the main character regularly got drunk just because she was bored. As a woman, it was hard to respect a woman who’d go out on her own and get blackout drunk. Not to mention, using blackout drinking as a way to explain an inaccurate memory seems like a tired, overused plot device.

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