My Reads: Best Books of 2016

Happy New Year! 2016 has come and gone, leaving trail marks, some more scorching than others. But in my own rearview mirror, I have some books that I truly enjoyed — not all of which were published in 2016 — and will relish the thoughts they left behind and the opportunity to re-read them in the future.

shakespeareA special delight of this past reading year for me was the Hogarth Press Shakespeare rewrite project. I enjoyed Anne Tyler‘s Vinegar Girl, a revision of Taming of the Shrew , and Jeannette Winterson‘s take on The Winter’s Tale entitled The Gap of Time. I haven’t reviewed Vinegar Girl yet, but here’s more on The Gap of Timehttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/the-gap-of-time-jeanette-winterson/

austenI enjoyed even more the Harper-Collins “Austen Project” series re-exploring the novels of Jane Austen, particularly Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield, which is one of my favorite books of the year.  So far, all I have read are Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I have not yet read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid or Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Here are my more in=depth reviews: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith/, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/.

book-drawing-lessons-0005.jpgIn addition to my top five list, which I’m getting to . . ., I also had some very fun book experiences this year. I traveled to New Orleans and sat in the lobby bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel jotting some notes for my own novel and hoping I was channelling the soul of Tennessee Williams, reputed to have written Streetcar Named Desire in the same location. I attended the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s Kentucky Literary Hall-of-Fame ceremony and enjoyed seeing Bobbie Ann Mason accept her position as only the second living member of the Hall of Fame. My fellow writing group members and I traveled together to New York for a Pitch Conference with our respective works and met fellow writers from across the country, New York editors and agents. I achieved publication with two short stories! The first in Nowhere Magazine, http://nowheremag.com/2016/10/clearing-out/, and the second in the second edition of AvantAppalachia, avantappalachia.com. 

Back to my top reads of 2016:

metropol-postcardA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Dear Mr. Towles: I love your words. Your elegant view of life. The grace and beauty with which you depict humans and the events surrounding them. I will read anything you write. (You should too.) Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles-✎✎✎✎✎/

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. There are those writers who can haunt you with an idea. Some who can impress you with a particular sentence or a descriptive image. Anne Patchett launches all the weapons in her impressive arsenal at the reader with every book she writes and leaves the reader with her words, thoughts, ideas, and novels imprinted on their memory. Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/

sittenfeld_eligible3Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield. Any writer who can take Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy, Skyline Chili, the Bachelor, and a day trip through Lexington, Kentucky, and combine them into a funny, sexy, skewering romp through American pop culture should be a best-seller. And Ms. Sittenfield deservedly is. I loved Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

brooklyn.jpgThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. I’m cheating a little to include two books as one, but there was something quite similar to me in these two tales of Gen X’ers aging into parenthood, amid family crisis and the havoc of the past. I liked and frequently recommended both. Full reviews for both novels: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/modern-lovers-emma-straub/ and https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-nest-by-cynthia-daprix-sweeney/

Finally, I struggled over this but am going to include The Sport of Kings by Kentucky horse-racing-neck-and-neckauthor C.E. Morgan. I feel like I spent the most time with this doorstop of a book this year, as I reviewed it for my mother’s book club and wanted to do as well as possible in approaching the themes and history as possible. I hazarded some guesses as to the notably reticent Morgan’s literary goals, but long and short: it’s quite a masterpiece of Kentucky history and I feel it must be included here.https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-sport-of-kings-c-e-morgan-✎✎✎/

So, there’s my 2016 roundup. I have a few more reviews to add from the end of the year: The Mothers by Brit Bennet, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. And then it’s to my to-be-read stack for 2017: The Underground Railroad, The Guineveres, Tana French’s The Trespasser, Hillbilly Elegy. And then there’s that novel I’m supposed to be writing!

Happy Happy New Year and all the best reading — I hope I can help guide your choices.

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Falling: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

mallorca

Have you ever thought that life would all make sense when you got to the end of it and looked back? Have you identified those moments, decisions, actions in which life changed course immediately? The Rocks, Peter Nichols’ second novel, raised these questions in my mind but didn’t answer them reassuringly. It did, however, give me a very enjoyable read.

When the book opens, it is 2005 and long-divorced couple Lulu and Gerald have encountered one another for the third time in the sixty years since their disastrous honeymoon, despite being two ex-patriot Brits living on the same small Spanish Island. The chance meeting at a local market, ends on the road to Lulu’s resort hotel, the Rocks.

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

[Gerald] caught up with Lulu just outside the Rocks. He grabbed her arm again with strength field by rage, and spun her round.

“You never — he stared, with a smoker’s bulling growl, but his chest was empty of air, heaving spasmodically.

Again, Lulu shook off his grip. But she was surprised and immensely pleased to see the effort Gerald had made, how overwrought, breathless, and unwell he was. It occurred to her that with just a nudge, he might easily die of a heart attack right in front of her. “You’re pathetic, Gerald. An empty, hobbling husk of a man.” A flame of old anger rose in her. “You’re a belter! A miserable, wretched shit of a fucking —

You never developed the film! Did you!” The furious, strangled world erupted wetly out of Gerald’s chest, his body pitching forward. “I lured them away! Do you understand? I got them away ! I — ” His blue-and-gray glistening face thrust into hers, but he had no more breath.

The encounter ends, shall we say, badly and without further explanation. Over the course of the next several hundred pages, Nichols leads the reader back in time through the lives of Gerald and Lulu, Gerald’s daughter Aegina and her child Charlie, Lulu’s son Luc and his frustrated careers, and illuminates motivations, temptations, sins, and omissions in reverse. The Rocks drops the reader into 2005, 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, until, finally, we reach the beginning in 1948, and the revelation of what happened on Gerald and Lulu’s honeymoon voyage.

It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, reviewed here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/.

Emma Straub’s 2014 novel The Vacationers, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/ is also set during a disintegrating family’s vacation on Mallorca, but other than setting has little in common with The Rocks. 

Gerald Rutledge, my favorite character of the book, has devoted his life to three things: repeating Odysseus’ voyage and

John William Waterhouse, 1891

John William Waterhouse, 1891

finding the actual locations of incidents in The Odyssey; raising his daughter Aegina; and working and preserving his own little bit of Mallorcan paradise with its olive groves and lemon trees. Lulu, conversely, I didn’t like at all. She devotes her entire life, seemingly, to scheming revenges, neglecting her child, and plotting sexual pairings.

Kate Christensen, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, read Nichols’ memoir Sea Change.

As I read, I had a series of “aha!” moments; the parallels between Nichols’s own life and marriage and those of his fictional characters were deeply satisfying to uncover. Nichols, like his character Luc, grew up partially on Mallorca, the son of divorced parents. Like the novel’s secondary lovers, Luc and Aegina, Nichols and his ex-wife met as children on the island, and their own romance failed, in part, because of their inability to transcend their childhood knowledge of each other and ­become adults together. The memoir, like the ­novel, contains a precipitous nautical elopement, dope smuggling in Morocco and a young wife held hostage by pirates. People getting into trouble, both on boats and in marriages, might be said to be the common theme between the two books.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/books/review/the-rocks-by-peter-nichols.html

I very much enjoyed The Rocks. The themes of regret, misunderstanding, romantic love and adventure will be excellent fodder for your book club’s discussion.

MENU

On board Szabo’s yacht, a luxurious menu is served.

Two young crewmen appeared with bowls of salad. They poured wine for each of the guests. . . . the plates were handed out: cold grilled quail with a reduced fig sauce, tiny warm new potatoes, avocado halves filled with pomegranate seeds, plates of toast with pate de foie gras.

Gerald’s own menu is much simpler: “Aegina had made the tumbet she had learned from her mother: a Mallorcan dish full of aubergines, tomatoes, onion, garlic, goat cheese, and olives from Gerald’s trees.”

This recipe for Mallorcan Tumbet fromSpanish Sabores blog looks like the genuine article:  http://spanishsabores.com/2013/09/15/mallorcan-tumbet-recipe/

MUSIC

Aegina listens to her father’s favorite records while painting. Those mentioned, pastoral music of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century English composers, are: “Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, Holst, Finzi, Alwyn, Bantock, Parry, Bridge, Delius, Moeran.”

iTunes has a $7.99 album of Elgar’s music. Elgar: Enigma Variations, Introduction & Allegro. Spotify has an English Song Series by Butterworth you could play for free.

MOVIE CASTINGthe rocks

Gerald – Benedict Cumberbatch

Lulu – Emily Blunt

Luc – Jamie Bell

Aegina – Oona Chaplin

Happy Reading & Eating!

Easy links for purchase:

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Summer Reads 2015

dog_driving_carHeaded Out for A Little Fun in the Sun?  Want to take the perfect book(s) with you?

I thought I might be able to help.  All of these are in paperback, because I find it much more difficult to haul 5-8 hardbound books.  Any of the below books would be divine at the beach or the pool, on the campground or in the air.  I often try to match my reading to my destination, hoping to add a little insider info to my trip.  Just a tip.

Happy Vacating!

In Euphoria, Lily King’s intoxicating trek into the exotic locale of Papua, New Guinea, three anthropologists (Australian, euphoriaAmerican and British) find themselves far from home.  King’s anthropologists are simulacrums of Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future husband, Gregory Bateson.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/love-in-the-time-of-malaria-euphoria-by-lily-king/

f_doerr_allthelight_fAnthony Doerr’s gorgeous novel won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.  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.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr/

the secret place

Tana French has become one of my obsessions.  She publishes a new book, I must have it in hard back and begin reading immediately.  In the Woods, her first novel, remains my favorite of her five books; however, all are excellent.  Her most recent, The Secret Place, is my second favorite.  These are page-turning, mystery novels set in Ireland with a cast of realistic, driven and haunted characters.

BeautifulRuins_small-330-exp

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  On the rugged, Mediterranean coast of Italy, a land of five towns clings stunningly to the edge of the cliffs;  accessible only by boat, offering fresh seafood pulled daily from the Ligurian sea by men whose families have done the same for centuries and a hiding place from the modern world, the Cinque Terre seems just the place for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to have sought refuge during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome.  In Jess Walter’s sumptuous novel Beautiful Ruins, they do just this.  And the tale of the IT couple’s visit to Porto Vergogna, a lonely innkeeper, a starlet, star-crossed lovers, a wannabe screenwriter (whose big concept is “Donner!,” a movie about the Donner party,) a nauseating Hollywood producer and fifty years of frustrated confusion make the novel one of my top five reads.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/

VacationersA New York family brings a large set of first world problems to Mallorca, where even more challenges await:  a Spanish tutor both mom and daughter have the hots for, a retired Spanish tennis stud and lots of gorgeous food and descriptions and you have The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/

Other books that would make great traveling companions:  The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff (Utah); Boy, Snow, Bird (Maine); Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple (Seattle); The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion; The Perfume Collector, by Kathleen Tessaro (Paris), Dominance, by Will Lavender.

I’d love to hear what you’re reading!

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

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

 

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Mallorca_map

    One married couple, on the rocks.  Check.

    One disaffected, about-to-leave-for-college, recently-Facebook-traumatized teenage daughter.  Check.

    One selfish adult son and his much older girlfriend.  Check.

    One gay couple awaiting news of an adoption.  Check.

   Add in the exotic locale of Mallorca, a Spanish tutor both mom and daughter have the hots for, a retired Spanish tennis stud and lots of gorgeous food and descriptions and you have The Vacationers by Emma Straub, who appears to be all of 12 years old.

 jpbook-master180photo by Jennifer Bastien

    Ms. Straub has quite the nice website, incidentally, on which she uses some language that is definitely not that of a 12 year old.  http://www.emmastraub.net

   Amidst the romantic comedy elements of vacation-location-vocation, Straub (daughter of horror novelist Peter Straub) weaves a recurring thread of infidelity.  Jim, one half of the parental married couple, has recently admitted an affair with a 23 year old assistant at his magazine for which Jim’s job was terminated.  Franny, his wife, is furious.  Mostly silently, but occasionally vehemently.  Franny cooks, fusses, intrudes into her Charles, her gay best friend’s marriage to Lawrence, aggravates her daughter and torments her son’s girlfriend.vacationers

    The Vacationers is one of those books that I had a very tough time finding a character to like.  Of them all, I liked Jim, Charles and Lawrence the best I suppose although I don’t think that is the author’s intention.  The teenage daughter Sylvia was whiny and attitudinal as a whole.  The adult son and his girlfriend were narcissistic body-building freaks.  Franny was the Barefoot Contessa gone mad.

    But one thing Emma Straub does very, very well is add food, music and flavor to her book.  The Vacationers is an excellent book club choice.  It’s an easy but fun read.  It has lots of issues to discuss:  infidelity, kids going to college, older women-younger men.  And the food options are wonderful.

MENU

   Spain is the land of tapas and every time the group goes out to eat, Straub describes beautiful Spanish food.  An “overflowing plate of blistered green peppers covered with wide flakes of salt, touted pieces of bread with dollops of whipped cod, grilled octopus on a stick.  . . . Albondigas, little meatballs swimming in tomato sauce; patatas bravas, fried potatoes with a ribbon of cream run back and forth over the top, pa amb oli, the Mallorcan answer to Italy’s bruschetta.”  Ensaimadas, a sort of flaky pastry with sugar, makes several appearances.

  Back at their borrowed vacation house, complete with pool, Franny whips up group servings of pancakes with blueberries, roasted chicken with asparagus, fish with couscous, guacamole, pies, bread.  The choices are myriad.

 I would roast a chicken, serve it with asparagus with vinaigrette and try to make ensaimadas.  Photo courtesy of http://www.sky-blue-mallorca.com.  Here’s a recipe link:  http://spanishfood.about.com/od/dessertssweets/r/Mallorcan-Spiral-Pastry-Recipe-Ensaimada-Mallorquina.htm.

ensaimada-for-blog-400-3-300x225

MUSIC

   Ms. Straub happily includes many specific musical references in The Vacationers.  Elton John, Maroon Five’s Hands All Over, Enrique Iglesias’ Euphoria c.d., and native Mallorcan Tomeu Penya.  She also mentioned One Direction, but don’t get me started.

MOVIE CASTING

   Sylvia:  Sarah Hyland, from Modern Family

   Joan, the Spanish tutor, Alex Gonzalez

Alex+Gonzalez+X+Men+First+Class+Photocall+7P6t8DzrM88l

   Franny:  Marcia Gay Harden

   Jim:  Sam Waterston

   Charles:  Bruce Willis

   Lawrence:  I don’t know.  I didn’t get enough of a feeling for Lawrence.  Someone likable, intellectual-looking, patient.

   Bobby:  Chris Pine

Enjoy!