My Reading Month: February 2015

February was a month of firsts, though they may seem like small things in the grand scheme of things. I read my first Nick Hornby, and swiftly asked around to find out which of his books I should read next. And I read my first comic book, probably since I was about eight years old. I have one memory of going to Kroger with my mom and little brother and getting a comic book – I think it was Ninja Turtles – but I was never a comic book kid. I would tear through some Sweet Valley Kids, and later, Babysitters Club, but comics? Eh. So I can’t wait to share about that.

This month also saw a kick into high gear with the number of books I read, which makes me happy. It feels like I’m hitting my happy reading stride for the year, and I just want to keep up the momentum. So without further delay, let’s get to the books.

My Reading Month:  February 2015

  • Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. For years, friends have been recommending Nick Hornby to me. I saw the movies High Fidelity and About A Boy, so I just couldn’t make myself pick up those books. But when I got an eGalley for Funny Girl, I finally jumped in, and I’m so glad I did. This book was funny, but not frivolous. When a former beauty queen moves to London with the hopes of being the next Lucille Ball, she gets a big break that makes her a household name in England. But the fame, pressures, work, and tensions that come with it give this story grit and chew. I was surprised how poignant the book was, how it had me in tears at the end, but also how it honored the Work of being an artist, the trial and error, the faith. Highly recommend it.
  • Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1:  No Normal by G. Willow Wilson. As I said, my first comic! I got this one from the Book Riot Quarterly Box in the fall, and I finally sat down with it this month. So much fun! Our heroine is a Pakistani girl who wishes she could be a superhero – someone important who can make changes. And when she gets her wish, things get real. But her family is strict, and her best friend is in love with her, and how do you juggle being a teenager AND a superhero? A fun comic, and a great one to start with.
  • Bon Appetempt:  A-Coming-of-Age Story by Amelia Morris. Morris’s debut, a food memoir that springs forth from her blog, Bon Appetempt, where she has attempted to make recipes covered in food magazines, came out this month. I had mixed feelings throughout – I wavered between thinking it was a bit slow (too many nonessential details) and thinking “yes, this!”. In the end, I laughed, I cried, it moved me. And the latter half of the book, when we get to Morris’s food writing and blogging and her time of becoming a writer, that’s where the story truly shines. A fun read for food lit lovers.
  • Fidelity by Grace Paley. Holy crap. How did I not know about Grace Paley before? I heard her name mentioned so many times when I interned at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, but only this month did I read her final collection of poems, compiled just before her death. I’m writing a book about people entering old age, and these poems – written from her perspective, in her eighties – really made me pause and think.
  • Imagine This:  Creating the Work You Love by Maxine Clair:  This book was a slow read, the kind you have to take manageable bites of and chew with care. Part spiritual guide, part creative guide, part memoir, the result was inspirational, affirmative, and ultimately reassuring. Clair resides in hope and love, and she communicates that throughout this book.
  • Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian:  This book was beautiful and brutal. I am still haunted by scenes contained inside. When Orhan’s grandfather is found dead, the will is read, and in a highly unusual (and possibly illegal) move, his grandfather has left his company to Orhan instead of to his son. But there’s a catch:  he has left their family home, in their family for three generations, to a woman Orhan has never heard of, an old woman living in California. Orhan goes to California to meet this woman, and the story that unfolds is more than he ever could have expected:  the story of the Armenian genocide, from her perspective, as one of the survivors. These revelations force Orhan to have a reckoning not only with his family and his culture and its history, but also with himself, his own interpretation of history. A gorgeously written novel.
  • An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield. THIS BOOK IS AWESOME. I expected that I would learn stuff (I did) and that I would be inspired by Hadfield’s life and career as an astronaut (and I was), but I did not expect the extent to which this book would reach me on so many levels – as a Navy wife, as an artist, as a human on this planet. This is the story of how Hadfield became an astronaut, his stay on the International Space Station, and how he acclimated to life on Earth. Read it. It is so cool.
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott. I read this book in a day. It was that good. I couldn’t put it down. I informed Amanda over dinner that I was making a sacrifice to be sitting at a restaurant with her instead of plowing through that book. (I’m a good wife.) This novel is one of those mysteries that has crazy twists, and the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girlhood…. I am so grateful I’m not a teenage girl anymore.

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

In this month’s reading, I’ve checked off the following items:

A book written by someone over age 65 (Fidelity by Grace Paley)

A self-improvement/personal growth book (Imagine This:  Creating the Work You Love by Maxine Clair)

A book set in high school (The Fever by Megan Abbott)

A book by an author of the opposite sex (Funny Girl by Nick Hornby)

What about you? Read anything good this month?

DIY | The Bookish Girl Tote Bag

I love tote bags. When I run a race or attend a conference, one of the highlights is a good, solid canvas tote bag. It’s one of my favorite pieces of swag, not only because they’re usually pretty, but because they serve a wonderful purpose (of helping me carry the vast amounts of junk I tote along with me – I do not pack light) and because they usually represent something I’ve been excited to be part of. When I went to City Lights Bookstore on my San Francisco trip, I passed up the t-shirt and went for the tote bag instead. It’s now my book bag because everyone needs a respectable bag for their books. (Also helpful if you can keep the cat hair, onion skins, and vegetable dirt out of it, which is the fate that all my other tote bags have come to.)

One of my favorite craft projects I’ve done in recent history is for a book bag. When the contributors of Book Riot did a Holiday Armadillo gift exchange this year, I was super excited to be able to send a handmade book tote to my fellow contributor, Nikki, and when she asked me for a tutorial, I told her I would definitely get right to it, and here we are two months later, and it’s finally happening.

These bags are easy, but they do require just a little bit of time. I bought the bags themselves in bulk from a seller on Etsy. Fabric paint came from Joann’s fabrics. And the stencil is from blogger Pieces by Polly, who made this stencil and put it onto onesies and t-shirts (read her post – her finished projects are adorable). These bags make a great gift for bookish children and adults alike, and as Pieces by Polly shows, you’re not limited to using this stencil on bags.

Supplies

  • One canvas tote bag (washed, dried, and ironed)
  • Fabric paint
  • Freezer paper
  • Xacto knife
  • Cutting mat (I use the self-healing cutting mat that I use for sewing)
  • Sponge/paint brush
  • Iron
  • Paper plate (for paint)
  • Scrap fabric (you could use an old t-shirt or any old fabric scraps you have lying around)
  • Cardboard, poster board, or newspaper

Process

Start by printing the stencil from Pieces by Polly on freezer paper. You will want it to print rightly on the smooth (non-sticky) side of the paper.

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Using your Xacto knife, cut out the shaded areas of the stencil first (spine of the book, the shadows between pages, the shading between the girl’s face and hair), and then cut the girl and her book away from the paper (you’ll have her face/shoulders, her hair, and her book, three pieces). After that, cut along the heart outline, which will give you a fourth piece of paper.

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Orient the pieces on the bag, using the original image as a guide. Iron them into place, and take your time here. You don’t want any loose edges for paint to seep under.

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Put a piece of cardboard, poster board, or newspaper inside the bag to prevent the paint from bleeding through. Using a sponge or paint brush, paint the canvas, making sure that it’s all even. Let the paint dry 4-6 hours, or even overnight.

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When the paint is completely dry, carefully peel away the freezer paper. You may need to bring out the Xacto knife again to help you pry up the edges.

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Lay a piece of scrap fabric over the painted image, and iron for a few minutes. This helps the paint set in.

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And voila! You’re done! You’ve got a perfect bag for going to the bookstore, the library, or when the rest of the country thaws out, a nice picnic where you can read outside in the sunshine.

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Margaret Mitchell and My (Almost) Literary Ghost Story

When I was in college, I interned at Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. I grew up in Jonesboro, the inspiration for Gone with the Winds Tara, a city where GWTW murals are plastered on the sides of buildings and where an actor in costume takes bus-loads of tourists around the small city, pointing out historical and literary landmarks. I drove the hour into the big city and worked at the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote the famed novel, the house that has caught fire twice and has now been preserved as a museum to the writer. It is also the house where I had my only brush – if we can call it that – with a literary ghost story.

What is it about literary ghosts that appeals to me? I find something terribly romantic in the idea of a spectral Emily Dickinson roaming the halls in her white dress, or in a ghostly Thoreau clomping around Walden Pond. Whenever I visit a historic home where an author has lived, I find myself warring between two equally strong feelings:  the hope that there is a ghostly presence, and the fear that there might be a ghostly presence.

The actual house, which Mitchell called “The Dump,” has been burned down twice. It was built back up, in replica, and Mitchell’s apartment was recreated to look like the original; the only feature you’ll see that’s original to the house is the tile outside of her apartment on the first floor.

During the summer, I worked as an assistant at the creative writing camps. Area children came to take field trips and do writing exercises and hone their skills as poets, story-writers, and essayists. They sat around large tables and scribbled in their notebooks and shared their work aloud. As a camp assistant, the bulk of my job was to transcribe their stories into an anthology that would be distributed at week’s end, at the reading they would do for their parents. Camp took place on the third floor of the house, a space usually rented out for events.

I had always heard stories about the house. Janitors said that after locking all the doors that led onto the balconies of the house, they would check again to find those doors standing open. Objects would have been relocated. Someone once told me that a reading had been done on the house and the conclusion was that Ms. Mitchell was indeed still there, and she did not like that people talked about her as if she were dead.

On camp mornings, I was the first in the house. I came in through a side yard, and I could take the stairs up to the third floor – the stairs that began right outside Ms. Mitchell’s apartment – or I could take the elevator, which was separated from the apartment by a door.

Even though I was able-bodied, I almost always took the elevator. Did I want to see her? Was I scared to see her? And did I even really believe that there was anything to see? I wanted to have a jovial mortal-ghost relationship. I wanted to wish her a good morning, skip up the steps, pat the muzzle of the lion’s head newel post cap, an action she herself had repeated everyday, for good luck. But I couldn’t make myself do it. I stood on the other side of the closed door, protected from her apartment, and silently thought to myself, “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see you.”

One hot afternoon, as I sat in the hallway on the third floor, transcribing the children’s work onto my computer, I smelled something burning. I looked around. I saw nothing. No smoke from the kitchen. It had to be a ghost, I thought. The house had been burned twice, I rationalized, so maybe her ghostly presence smelled like burning. I got up from the floor where I sat and I looked in the two front rooms, which were empty. I went into the room where the kids sat. The burning smell was stronger. I mentioned it casually to the teacher.

(I did not delineate for her my logic of a ghostly presence smelling liked the charred remains of a house that has twice been burnt down.)

One of the kids had lit a piece of paper on fire. She pointed to the tea lights she had burning on the table. “Writer’s ambience,” she told me by way of explanation.

I had felt fear. I had felt hope. What was it I feared? And what was it I hoped for? A good story for cocktail parties? Some imprint of literary talent, passed from her to me? Or do we sometimes wish for that presence of writers who have left us because we feel a part of their essence still wanders the halls of an old house? Do we wish for their continued existence the way we wish for good books never to end?

Whatever the reason, and whatever my hopes or fears, I did the only thing that I thought I could truly gain from my experiences with Margaret Mitchell:  I sat down and began to write again.

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

My Reading Month: January 2015

IMG_6555And we’re off! The year has started, the first month is done, and what have we read? Anything good?

I broke my genre fast this month, which felt good. For months, I’d been sticking to nonfiction as a way to protect myself in my writing life from fiction. After reading a lot of great novels in the fall, I’d look at my own writing and think, Uuuuuuuugh. Defeat. Disappointment. Not near as good as the novels I was reading. So I took a break, focused on nonfiction for awhile, and I’m glad I did that. It was a good little break. But I wandered back to fiction’s open arms this month, and I’m equally glad I did that.

And so, without further delay, My Reading Month.

Reading at Time of Publication

Imagine This:  Creating the Work You Love by Maxine Clair

My Reading Month:  January 2015

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver:  This book started off a big preachy for me. I was excited to finally be reading this book that had earned so much praise, but it was perhaps telling that here we are, eight years after publication, and I couldn’t help thinking, “Yes, Ms. Kingsolver, I know. Let’s get on with the story.” This is not to say that the things she says aren’t important; it’s just that I had heard them before. I wanted to know about her particular year, about her family’s experience. And I’m glad I hung on because after the first few chapters, she did away with the sermon and got down to telling the story, which was more a more powerful vehicle for the information she hoped to share. Y’all. This book:  absolutely fascinating. Especially the chapters on turkeys. Turkeys are these amazing animals that, really, we shouldn’t even have anymore. Humans have manipulated and engineered them so heavily, it’s a miracle they exist. I highly recommend this book. An interesting read, very informative, with a cool story.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi:  I’m years late to the party on this book as well, but I’m glad I finally got to it as well. Nafisi, after leaving her teaching position at the university in Tehran, assembled a group of female students in her home to read the great books, many of which were banned under The Islamic Republic of Iran. In the course of the book, we get to know the students, but we also learn more about Nafisi, about the onset of the revolution, the rise of the new regime, and the consequent crumbling of women’s rights in the country:  the loss of their freedom, stability, and agency. In addition to discussing her life, Nafisi also discusses the books at hand:  LolitaGatsby, etc. At times heady and difficult – on the literary level, on the emotional level – this book felt important to read.

The Rabbit Back Literature Societyby Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen:  Oh, fiction, it’s good to see you too! This novel is kooky. The town of Rabbit Back is home to one of the world’s most treasured children’s story writers, Laura White, who many years ago assembled The Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of nine promising children who she vowed to turn into writers. And she made good on that vow, all of them growing into successful writers across several genres. When Ella, a substitute teacher, is asked to be the tenth member, after a thirty-year lull in new members, she is overjoyed:  this is her chance. But on the night of her debut with the Society, everything goes nuts. There’s a disappearance, there’s magic, there’s a mystery. And it’s left to Ella to solve it, to figure out the dark group she’s been welcomed into, to take her place among them. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s full of literary humor, intrigue, sexiness, and magic.

Eating Wildly:  Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal by Ava Chin:  Ava Chin used to write the Urban Forager column for The New York Times, and this book is the extension of her education in cultivating the wilds of New York, and of life. She found her foods not at restaurants, but on the side of the road, in friends’ backyards, in remote patches of Central Park, and even on a tree outside her own bedroom window. And as she’s searching for food, she’s also searching for love, for professional stability, for family peace. This memoir is a cool niche in the food memoir genre – foraging is uncommon to say the least – and it’s a great story.

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

In this month’s reading, I’ve checked off the following items:

A book with magic (The Rabbit Back Literature Society)

Though this book technically marks several items off my list, I’m not doing repeats, in the interest of reading as widely and as much as possible.

How about you? Read anything good?

My Reading Year: 2014

photo (16)Tis the season for looking back at the previous 365 days and taking stock. The natural evolution is to use that information to introduce goals, but since I sort of already outlined my reading goals (hey, hey, Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge), this is really just a fun time to look back at my reading year.

In 2014, I joined the team of contributors at Book Riot, a fantastic online magazine about books and book culture. And y’all, my reading life exploded. Necessarily. And though I was nervous going in – I worried that I wasn’t smart enough or well-read enough to hack it at Book Riot, where everyone is SERIOUSLY well-read and smart – I’ve found the most wonderful family of writers there, a marvelously eclectic group who challenge me to read widely and differently.

And most of all, they challenge me to pay attention to what I read. In years past, I was doing good just to read. Immediately after finishing graduate school, I was lucky to read a book a month. In those days, attention to what I was reading was just beyond me. But now, I have a reading life that not only allows me to consider the what, but also begins to necessitate it, as a good reading citizen. I want to pay attention to the breakdown of authors – gender, sexual orientation, race, class – and also the subject matter of my books.

Looking back at the year, I did pretty well on the gender breakdown. Out of 48 books read this year, I actually skewed in a big way towards reading books by women.

Gender Breakdown

I didn’t realize the trend until well into the fall, but I was happy about it. I read what I enjoyed, what I felt drawn towards, and by and large, those were books by women.

I didn’t start out the year with a concrete goal of reading diversely, and that’s something I want to improve upon next year. The basic truth is that books by and about people of color are marketed differently, making it harder to encounter them the way you might encounter books by white authors. This is a problem in publishing, and luckily, the shift is coming, which is good news for readers. This year, out of 48 books, I managed to read 11 by POC.

Racial Breakdown

I had an even more dismal showing of books by LGBT authors, something I also want to do better with.

LGBT Authors

Why pay attention to all of this? Why worry about diversity in reading? Why chart it with tables and spreadsheets (besides the fact that it makes the chart-and-graph-loving part of myself super happy)? Imagine that for your whole life, the only cheese you ate was Kraft Singles. That orange processed cheese product was the only thing you knew of cheese. People talked about Brie and Jarlsberg and goat cheese and gorgonzola, and you could only think of clammy plastic squares of cheese product. That’s lack of diversity in your cheese life.

I don’t want a Kraft Singles reading life. Even when it’s hard, even when I read things that make me uncomfortable or that scare me, that make me miss my wife when she’s gone or that hit into the soft painful spots in my heart without my expecting it – the quirky and the difficult, the romantic and the historical, it all matters, and it’s all important, because I’m hungry for story. And I want so much more than Kraft Singles.

I published a list of my reading goals for 2015, and I’ll be updating monthly with My Reading Month, both to share my progress with the Reading Challenge but also to keep you posted on other books I’m reading. But for now, I want to share My Reading Year:  2014, in full, which you’ll find by following the link.

And until January’s Reading Month, happy reading, and a happy, sparkly, tremendous new year!

 

My Reading Month: December 2014

photo (16)Is there anything better than the stretch of holidays, from Christmas to New Years, for maximizing the opportunity for laziness, for sweatpants, for long, luxurious bouts of reading? I don’t think so. December was a great push towards the end of the year, and I read some surprising books – surprising for reasons I’ll explain – two of which are coming out in 2015 and that I highly recommend keeping a lookout for.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting My Reading Year, linking up to my complete reading list for 2014 as well as some stats about my reading life, my goals, my thoughts as I choose books and maneuver my reading life. But I didn’t want to skip the opportunity to tell you abut December’s books in a bit more detail. So here goes:

Reading at Time of Publication

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

My Reading Month:  December 2014

– The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin:  I finished this book on December 1, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It appealed to my sense of trying to maximize efficiency and order, trying to bring discipline and ease to my life. Though I know Rubin’s situation is different from mine – aren’t all our situations different? – it gave me good stuff to think on as far as resolutions go, the things I want to achieve or at least hold in my head as I go through the world.

- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson:  You guys. Read this book. Please. It won the National Book Award for Children’s Literature, but I wouldn’t call it a children’s book. This is Woodson’s memoir in verse, a lyrical look at her childhood growing up in rural North Carolina and then New York. It may be written in verse, but it reads as a straightforward, though vividly imagistic and lovingly remembered, narrative. There’s no difficulty to this poetry, so people who are new to (or even intimidated by) poetry will find this approachable. And it’s clear the level of care and love that Woodson put into it. I read it, smiled, laughed, and cried. I heartily recommend it.

– The Writer’s Notebook by various authors:  I began this book back in July after I went away to writer camp at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. A collection of essays/lectures on writing from some of their faculty writers, this is a great collection of craft essays.

– Spinster:  A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick:  I worried that this book would amount to “marriage=bad/single=good” but I have to say, Bolick rid me of those fears quite quickly in this book, which was part memoir-part literary criticism. By looking at the history of some of her most influential female authors, and coupling that history with her own memoir, Bolick creates an in-depth, well-researched memoir that investigates spinsterhood, independence, and freedom, and in the end, finds a way to create a universal battle cry for women writers:  find the space of your own, create your work, no matter your relationship status. This book releases on April 21, 2015, and I highly recommend checking it out.

- The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore:  So, the story behind the creation of the comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, is totally nuts. I thought I was settling in for a heavy dose of (somewhat dry) history, but I was wrong. It got sensational, and scandalous, pretty quickly. Jill Lepore has put together a fantastic, in-depth body of research in her history of Wonder Woman and her creator, who was, among other things, a psychologist, a scholar, and one of the early developers of the heart rate lie detector test – not to mention a suffragist and a man who enjoyed the company of several women. I don’t want to give away details, but this book is worth a read, especially for fans of Wonder Woman and/or comics in general.

- 19 Varieties of Gazelle:  Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye:  My friend Tara recommended I try reading Nye, and I’m so glad I did. I kept swooning over her poems, the sadness and the beauty and the hope of poems written after and in response to 9/11.

– How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis:  I want this book to have lunch with Spinster and I want to be there to buy the first round of drinks. Samantha Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish family; both of her parents, and much of her family, had fled Baghdad for London, where Ellis grew up and was expected to marry a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy and settle down. But Samantha Ellis heard the siren call of the writing life, and she heard it primarily through the literary heroines of her youth. Heavy on the memoir, Ellis goes on a literary journey through her childhood heroines, asking whether we need our heroines, what help (or harm) they do, and how to be the heroine of our own lives. This book comes out (in the States) on February 3, 2015. Again, I recommend checking it out.

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

IMG_6363In previous years, my only reading challenge has been to read a certain number of books within a calendar year. They could be fiction, nonfiction, whatever. I set a quota using the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I logged my list, and I worked on meeting my count. I usually hit it, and year by year, my number has gone up, to my current year where I’ve read over forty books. But 2014 was a transformational year in my reading life, which I’ll talk more about when I publish the post on My Reading Year.

This means it’s time to up the ante, I think. It’s time to make things a bit more interesting.

This year, I’ll be doing my own Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge. This is a hybrid of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, Pop Sugar’s Ultimate Reading Challenge, and a few of my own challenge entries as well – both to cater to my own interests as well as to help me stretch a bit. With the help of Book Riot and Pop Sugar, I’ve come up with 26 markers to hit, which means if I average a book a week (which is my supplementary goal), then half my year will be spent meeting the challenge, and half my year will be reading whatever I please.

I’ll be tracking my books here on the blog, checking off my challenge markers and listing the books that got me there as I go along in 2015. I love reading company, so if you feel compelled, follow along with me. My Reading Month posts will detail my progress with the Challenge, and I’d love to hear how your reading year is progressing – and if you have any recommendations for me!

The challenge starts January 1, 2015. And away we go!

Whisks & Words 2015 Reading Challenge

A book written by someone over age 65
A collection of short stories
A banned book
A book with magic
A classic book that I haven’t gotten around to yet
A book set in high school
A horror book
A book by or about someone LGBTQ
A book with a one-word title
A book by an author of the opposite sex
A book from BuzzFeed’s “22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts of 2014″ list
A book that takes place in Asia
A self-improvement/personal growth book
A book by an author from Africa
A book published before 1900
A YA novel
A comic/graphic novel/graphic memoir
A book about how to succeed in business
A microhistory
A book originally published in a different language
A sci-fi novel
A collection of poetry
A romance novel
An audiobook
A National Book Award/Man Booker Prize/Pulitzer Prize winning book from the previous decade (2000-2009)
A book about religion (any religion)