2014 In Review

Here’s my year in review.  I haven’t listed all the books I read last year, just my favorites.  Most are already featured in a separate blog, which you can search on my homepage.  Some will be featured in a blog shortly.  I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the same books and I’d love to hear from you.  Happy 2015 and Happy Reading!

My favorite novels published in 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerrf_doerr_allthelight_f

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Waltonava

The Hundred Year House, Rebecca Makkai

The Vacationers, Emma Straub jpbook-master180

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shaferth_ffb7925b6ca65c589e11ac4dbf13773b_1383769922_magicfields_book_thumbnail_1_1

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchellboneclocks

The Paying Guests, Sara Waters

Station Eleven, Emily St.-John Mandelstation eleven

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd78755964

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler 0609-bks-KINGSOLVER-cover-popup

 

My favorite reads of 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein  dog_driving_car

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Round House, Louise Erdrich round house cover

 

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Timing: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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    Time magazine named David Mitchell, author of six novels including Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream and The Bone Clocks, one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007.  The Bone Clocks is the first I’ve read, though I did see the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas.  I’m not sure what Time magazine’s criteria for influence was, but Mitchell certainly writes persuasively about the irreversible ecological damage we are doing to Planet Earth and seems to have built himself a neat, but rather strange, philosophy connecting Buddhism, Atheism and Oligarchy.

   I have a one-degree relationship with David Mitchell and because of that and the inclusion of The Bone Clocks on nearly every end-of-year best of list, I wanted to read the novel before 2015 dawned.  I finished it yesterday, just making the deadline.  But I became aware of The Bone Clocks in October, during the Salt Cay Writers Retreat.  My small group leader there, David Ebershoff, himself a novelist, teacher and an editor at Random House, mentioned Mitchell’s book as having taken him by storm over one weekend.  As I recall, David said he began reading it on a plane to California and by the time he arrived, he was racing to connect with his boss on the telephone so that Random House could acquire the book.  From a person of David’s talent and experience, that’s pretty durn high praise.

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     Mitchell’s unique storytelling method compelled me through the six hundred plus page novel.  It is a chronological narrative, in the first person, but the person is not always the same and the chronology fractures and bounces, moving from 1984 to 2043, sometimes day by day and sometimes decade by decade.  Holly Sykes, the rebellious teen whose voice begins the book, is with us nearly all the way, disappearing and reappearing when we need her to establish a touchstone among the various factions.  The plot revolves around a war between two sets of immortals:  one reincarnated “naturally,” and the others who have to work for it.  Unfortunately, Holly gets caught up not only in the immortal war, but also in the invasion of Iraq, a literary battle and ultimately, a war between the haves and the have-nots in a post-apocalyptic world.

    The Bone Clocks breaks all the rules of genre that new authors hear spouted by those in the know at literary conferences.  It is a dystopian, futuristic, fantasy, coming of age, realistic, theological novel.  In other words, un-categorizable.  And yet, incredibly successful.

    NPR calls it “one of the most entertaining and thrilling novels I’ve read in a long time.”  The following link contains a review as well as an author interview.   http://www.npr.org/books/titles/342194386/the-bone-clocks.  The Bone Clocks was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and it was on the end of year best lists of Time, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and others.

    But the New Yorker, in an exploration of what is the modern novel/is the novel still relevant/why novels, is less than 77.David Mitchell-The Bone Clocks jacketenthusiastic, calling the work “entertaining . . . but not humanly significant.”  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/08/soul-cycle

    Fascinating, to me, is Mitchell’s reliance on the reader to fill in huge gaps in the narrative.  For long passages at a time, there is simply dialogue between two characters who know what they are talking about, but which remains a mystery to the reader.  And despite the mystery, the reader continues until sometime, often much, later, the subject matter is explained.

    The writing itself varies from cheeky humor to bleakly preachy:

It’s grief for the regions we deadlined, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office — all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.  People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God.  But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through.  My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing — while denying — that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a table that can never be paid.

    I do recommend it for a book club that doesn’t mind reading a longish book.  There is a lot of meat to discuss, both in terms of the superficial plot and in terms of questions that I don’t feel Mitchell ever really answers.  Marius for example.  And Jacko.  To say more, would be unfair.

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     There is lots of food mentioned in The Bone Clocks but only two items really stood out to me.  One being a vegetarian moussaka, which I have absolutely zero experience with.  But near mid-book, cafe owner Nestor practically divulges his secret recipe:  “marinate the eggplant in red wine.  Simmer the lentils, slow.  Mushrooms cooked in soy sauce . . . butter in white sauce, cornflour, dash of cream.  Heavy on the paprika.”

    The other:  apples.

   And Holly’s family owns a tavern in Gravesend, England, so I’d make sure to have several pints of ale on hand.

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     Holly’s 15 year old self is quite the music fan and makes various references to her favorites in Section One of the book.  Among them:

Talking Heads’ Fear of Music

The Who’s Quadrophenia

The Ramones

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven

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     I can’t even begin to conceive of how someone would make this into a movie much less cast it.  The shifting natures/genders of several main characters and the enormous span of time involved would seriously challenge even the best director.

Holly Sykes — Emma Watson

Ed Brubeck — Eddy Redmayne

Crispin Hershey — Michael Sheen

Hugo Lamb — Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy)

Imaculee Constantin — Nicole Kidman

God Bless Us, Everyone: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

fezziwig

And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

    Is there one among us who is unfamiliar with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come?  Who knows not that Marley was dead, to begin with, in fact, “dead as a door-nail?”  Whose tears of Tiny Tim’s untimely fate have not been shed?  A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens, in 1843, has been adapted more times than the number of its pages (160) with portrayals as varied as Mr. Magoo and Alastair Sim.  Wikipedia has an exhaustive (and at times amusing) list:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptations_of_A_Christmas_Carol.  (I did not realize there had been a Jetson’s Christmas Carol — how could I have missed that?)  And here’s a completely new version:  novelist Neil Gaiman reading Dickens’ own hand-edited copy at a public reading at the New York Public Library:  http://www.openculture.com/2014/12/hear-neil-gaiman-read-a-christmas-carol-just-as-dickens-read-it.html.  Incidentally, there are several free, full texts of the novella on line.

      A Christmas Carol takes merely an hour or so to read from cover to cover, yet is filled with an indelible story, spirit, characters and lines we all know by heart.

Bah Humbug

Every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips would be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart

There’s more of gravy than of grave about you

Many many more, but most famous, “God Bless Us, Everyone.”

     I re-read A Christmas Carol this week, something I haven’t done for several years, and found it as touching as ever, more detailed than I recalled and surprisingly full of humor.  That Dickens was a funny guy.  I did not recall this humorous description of Scrooge’s reaction to Marley’s ghost:

His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, could see the two buttons on his waistcoat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it till now.

Marley's_Ghost-John_Leech,_1843

     So, yeah, it’s a classic, we know we know.  Get to the recipes.  I shall but before I do, may I wish you and yours the Merriest of Christmas, the Happiest of Hanukahs, the most blessed of Kwanzaas . . . and God Bless Us, Everyone.

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When the Ghost of Christmas Past transports Scrooge to Fezziwig’s ball, a splendid repast is detailed.

. . . there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of cold roast, and there was a great piece of cold boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.

Negus?  Negus.  Apparently a concoction made of wine, hot water, lemon, sugar and nutmeg, invented by Col. Francis Negus in the 18th Century.  Thanks to Jane Austen (janeausten.com), I can share with you the recipe should you be so inclined to go all out Regency/Victorian at your book club.  http://www.janeausten.co.uk/negus/  I also tried to find the definitive answer for what “cold boiled” might be.  There are disagreements as to whether it is boiled beef, pork or chicken.  To all boiled meats I say:  NAY!

There’s another fine description of foodstuffs when the Ghost of Christmas Present appears surrounded by a mountain of comestibles.  This is quite the food pyramid.

. . . turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch . . .

My menu would include:

Chestnuts:  Preheat oven to 400.  Using a very sharp knife, mark raw chestnuts with an X.  Bake on a cookie sheet for 15-20 minutes.

Sausage and cheese plate with apple and pear slices

Turkey.  Now, let me tell you I’ve been elected/volunteered to be the family chef of the turkey for the past couple of Thanksgivings and by combining the wisdom of two of my favorite chefs, Mark Bittman and Ina Garten, I think I have come up with the perfect turkey recipe.

First, prepare the turkey by removing all the stuff inside.  Get out a stick of butter and let it melt a bit so you can mush it up.  Get your hand between the flesh of the turkey breast and the skin and rub as much of the butter on the turkey all over as you can but don’t break the skin off.  Salt and pepper the bird, inside and out.  Inside the turkey, I always place a cut orange and cut lemon to keep it moist during cooking.  If you want you can add rosemary under the skin with the butter.  Now, put more butter on the exterior of the bird.

Now, preheat the oven to 500 degrees (yes, 500! have no fear).  Place the turkey on a rack inside a roasting pan.  Add 1/2 cup white wine to the bottom of the pan.  Roast for 20-30 minutes without basting just until the top begins to brown.  Then turn the oven to 350 and continue to roast, checking and basting every 30 minutes or so.  If the top gets too brown, cover it with aluminum foil.  I had a 16.9 pound turkey this year and it took about four hours and was perfect and juicy and delicious.

I had never heard of Twelfth Cake, but researching it for the blog, I love the idea!  On January 6, the Epiphany, you have a 12th Night party and every draws a card with a character.  Then you have to act and interact as that character all night long.  The cake is an elaborately decorated spice cake.  http://www.historicfood.com/John%20Mollard’s%20Twelfth%20Cake.html.  I’m not about to try anything as gorgeous as this:

Twelfth-Cake-with-feathers

But I might try this recipe from the New York Times:  http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1644-english-twelfth-night-cake

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Almost too easy. Skip the radio MixMas, or MixMess, that plays only Feliz Navidad and Holly Jolly Christmas repeatedly.  I’m listening to the Holiday Hits channel on TimeWarner Cable as I write this afternoon, Channel 850.  I love, love, love Songza!  A free app that lets you choose music to accompany your activity.  And of course, there’s spotify and pandora.  My buddy conductor Robert Baldwin has shared a blogpost that lists ten classical Christmas works, less well-known than the Messiah:  https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/lets-expand-our-holiday-horizons/.

So, that should leave you all set for a great book club discussion of A Christmas Carol, or a 12th Night party, or just . . . a great meal.

Happy Reading!

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

radio_face_cus_001

Anthony Doerr’s splendid, elegiac novel All The Light We Cannot See encompasses WW2 within an examination of the lives and worlds of two teenagers:  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfenning, a German whiz-kid desperate to live the coal mine fate of his home town of Essen.   Written mostly in the present tense, with recurring flashbacks throughout both children’s lives, All The Light progresses inevitably to their meeting during the siege of St.-Malo, France, in August of 1944.

Doerr’s narrative captures with words elements that literally cannot be visualized.  Radio waves, communication, thoughts, the songs of birds, time, fear, love, loyalty . . . and the ever present drifting of musical notes.  A voice is described as “a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”  As a touchstone, Doerr returns time and time again to Debussy’s Clair de Lune.  (Listen to the piece here:  http://youtu.be/-LXl4y6D-QI)

To quantify Marie-Laure’s blindness, Doerr is even more limited than her father, who constructs scale models of their neighborhood in Paris and ultimately of the entire town of St.-Malo, complete with park benches and gutter openings.

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

599_snails1Swamp Lymnea by Patricia Pepin

In contrast, Werner must also rely on non-visual cues for his own navigation.  He triangulates radio emissions to find Allied and Resistance transistors and leads his team there to eliminate them.

I listened to this book over the past few weeks, 16 hours worth, and found it mesmerizing, haunting, sometimes too disturbing to accompany a drive.  The details of the Nazi youth training program, the flight of Marie-Laure and her father from Paris to St.-Malo frankly made me shut off the sound on several occasions.  But each chapter is fairly short, as if Doerr himself can’t stand to render more than a certain modicum of horror, beauty or incandescence per page.

All The Light We Cannot See was an international bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Awards, and has been named a best book of 2014 at the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, the Daily Beast, Slate.com, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and Kirkus.

There are many words and sentences that remain in my mind.  Doerr’s mastery of language is profound.  Near the end of the book, Doerr moves the narrative to some twenty-five or thirty years after WW2.  One particularly poignant thought is expressed as, “Every hour someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”

All the Light We Cannot See would make a wonderful read for your book club.  A grand story, eloquent language, interesting and sympathetic characters.  It is definitely on my top five of 2014 list.

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Homemade Bread

Omelettes

Peaches

MUSIC

Clair De Lune

MOVIE CASTING

This is quite difficult for All The Light We Cannot See due to the youth of the primary characters.  A young Emma Watson for Marie-Laure.  Werner — I have no idea.  But here’s my dream French team.

Daniel LeBlanc — Vincent Cassel

Etienne LeBlanc — Jean Rochefort

Madame Rouelle — Juliette Binoche

Madame Manac, Etienne’s housekeeper — Catherine Deneuve

f_doerr_allthelight_f

C’est Magnifique: The Suitors by Cecile David-Weill

Seaside Resort in the South of France 1927 by Paul Klee 1879-1940

“Seaside Resort in the South of France,” by Paul Klee

In Cecile David-Weill’s delightful romp through the South of France, two sisters attempt to save the family’s summer home, a seaside villa near Cap d’Antibes, from their father’s intended sale by romancing wealthy men.  The plan is to seduce some unsuspecting rich guy, get him to either buy the place or cause enough fear in Dear Old Dad to make him rethink his position.  Along the way, the girls relive some favorite childhood memories, reencounter old loves, reacquaint with one another and find out their mom uses cocaine to remain svelte.  Ah, sisters.

maas 129 “Two Sisters,” Jean Claude Richard

The Suitors‘ action occurs over three weekends in the family’s final summer at their bonne maison.  Laure and Marie take turns inviting prey, ahem, I mean potential suitors.  Oprah’s magazine called the novel “Downtown Abbey” set in France during our current century.  http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Suitors?editors_pick_id=40551.  The Wall Street Journal review compared it to Nancy Mitford’s work.  http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324678604578342244051488344.

I think it has some elements of Jane Austen myself.  Societal chasms, money issues, mother-daughter tete-a-tetes in the bathroom of the luxurious estate.

L’Agapanthe has nothing flashy about it.  No balustrade or row of columns overlooking the sea.  It is a Mediterranean villa, built around a loggia like a monastery around its cloister, the complete opposite of a house with a view.  As if the sea had decided to behave like an experienced courtesan and simply suggest its presence, with bright touches shimmering through the shad of lush plants and undergrowth, instead of flaunting itself under the windows of L’Agapanthe like a trollop.

Of the many divine things about The Suitors, I particularly enjoyed the meticulous detailing of the daily life which guides the servants.  David-Weill includes menus for each lunch and dinner, the room assignments of each weekends guests on the Secretary’s Name Board, the chauffeur pick-up schedules, the staff lunch notebook and even the cupboard inventory. I also enjoyed the weary wisdom of narrator Laure, a recently divorced, single mom.

I agreed with all my single friends who had looked around without finding anyone seriously desirable, and I had taken up their mantra:  “where are all the men?”  As far as I was concerned, the answer was “Wyoming!” – and only half in jest, because on a trip there I’d seen lots of men who seemed completely well-adjusted, perfectly happy with their horses, their cowboy duds.  . . .

I used to say that I loved men but not unconditionally.  I wanted them to be, in descending order of importance:  nice, intelligent, ready to be happy, forgiving of themselves and others, generous, and wise.  They had to have no fear of women, be virile, fond of making love but at eh same time past the frolicking-with-bimbos stage.  I’m demanding, I know.  Especially since they had to be successful in their careers; otherwise they were bitter or limited in their outlook on life.

Good luck with that, girlfriend.

the suitors

David-Weill knows whereof she writes:  her father was chairman of the merchant bank Lazard Frères, and the family spent their holidays at Cap d’Antibes.  I discovered that salient fact after reading The Suitors and wish I had known there was a potential roman a clef element to the novel.

I’m hosting book club next week and I hope the other members of my group enjoyed The Suitors as much as I did.

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David-Weill includes two recipes in the back of the book.  I will be using her recipe for Coeur a la Creme.  But since it’s December and hovering around 40 degrees, I will not be serving the warm weather food that makes up most of the menus in the book.

Cheese Sticks — made with puff pastry (much easier than gougeres)

Haricots Vertes

Chicken with Cremini and Chestnuts (adapted from The Barefoot Contessa’s Barefoot in Paris)

1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thinly

1 cup of roasted, peeled chestnuts (I used Trader Joe’s package of peeled chestnuts, the whole thing)

6 chicken breasts

Shallots

Minced garlic (3 cloves)

1 cup red wine

1 cup creme fraiche

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Butter, salt, pepper, flour

Preheat oven to 375. Salt and pepper the chicken, then dredge it in flour.  Heat 2 tbsp butter in large sauté pan and cook the chicken over medium-low heat until browned on both sides.  Then place in a dutch oven or large casserole dish.

Add 2 tablespoons melted butter, to the pan with shallots, mushrooms, chestnuts and garlic and sauté over medium heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the mix into the pan and reduce the liquid by half over high heat.  Add the creme fraiche, cream, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and bake for 15 minutes until the chicken is heated through.

Potato Gratin

Coeur a la Creme

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I’m very excited about the music.  I found a C.D. of 20 songs for $9.99 on iTunes — A Christmas Eve in Paris!

Happy Reading!