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 Time

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:,

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,, and the second in the second edition of AvantAppalachia, 

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:✎✎✎✎✎/

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:✎✎✎✎/

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!

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: and

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.✎✎✎/

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.


Eligible!, by Curtis Sittenfeld

engagement eligible

Gentle reader, imagine my delighted surprise. I was driving along, returning to my home from an out of town visit and listening to a book on tape, (Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld) when the narrator mentioned Doodles restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky. A place of business less than a stone’s throw from my own back door. If only I could have stopped the narrative, run from the car, and found female readers’  own favorite protagonist — Lizzie Bennet — having lunch as described! The questions I would ask her! The advice I would offer! The friendship we would develop!

Alas, as all inBenethomcarnations of Elizabeth Bennet inevitably are, this one too was fictional. But what a great fiction. In Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld has written a Lizzie Bennet for the modern American woman. This Liz lives in New York and writes for “Mascara” magazine but hails from an upper middle-class family living in a deteriorating Tudor in Cincinnati’s tony Hyde Park neighborhood. Her mother is an annoying shop-aholic with a penchant for seeing all five of her girls married well; Mr. Bennet is a dry, history buff, who has recently suffered a health scare bringing Liz and her older sister (nearly 40) Jane home from New York where sisters Mary, Lydia and Kitty greet their two older siblings with something less than unadulterated enthusiasm.

Lydia and Kitty as obsessed with their paleo diets and CrossFit, Mary is working on her third post-grad degree on-line and refuses to leave her room, beautiful Jane is a yoga instructor who has grown tired of waiting for the right man and decides to try artificial insemination. And Lizzie — our Lizzie! — is having an affair with a married man. NO, NO, NO: say it ain’t so. But it is: one Jasper Wick.

During their summer in Cincinnati to help care for Papa Bennet, all of the girls are invited to a Fourth of July barbecue where they meet: Chip Bingley, E.R. doc and recent contestant on reality romance show (a la The Bachelor) “Eligible;” Chip’s sister Caroline Bingley, his agent and a miserable, albeit attractive, snob from the moment we meet her; and — wait for it — ahhhhhhh! Yes! YES! YESSSS! Dr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, handsome, eligible, cross-training, Skyline Chili-loving, Cincinnati-hating, Liz Bennet-insulting millionaire –our hero! Fitzwilliam Darcy.

firth_2696575b Matthew Sam-Riley-as-Mr-Darcy-in-Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Zombies Olivier

In fact, all of our favorites are present in Eligible, just adapted (sometimes only slightly) for the present day.

YOUR MOTHER HAS shared a tragic piece of news about Cousin Willie with me,” Mr. Bennet said when the family was assembled for dinner. “He’s coming to visit.”

“Really, Fred,” Mrs. Bennet said, and Jane said, “Dad, that’s an awful way to set us up.”

Mr. Bennet smiled as if he’d been doubly complimented. “As you all know, my sister is flying out next week, to check if I still have a pulse and, in the event that I don’t, to take possession of our mother’s silver. For reasons that elude me, her stepson has decided to accompany her.” Liz swallowed a spoonful of the gazpacho Jane had prepared and said, “I know you all find this hard to believe, but Cousin Willie is kind of a big deal.”

“And if I were an insomniac,” Mr. Bennet replied, “I’d like nothing better than to hear him explain why.”

“Maybe he can tell us why the Internet in this house is so slow,” Kitty said.

“Or teach Mom to use her cellphone,” Lydia suggested.

“His start-ups have made millions of dollars,” Liz said, and Mr. Bennet said, “Yet he doesn’t know how to put on a pair of trousers.”

“That was 1986,” Jane said.

With each new chapter, I was delighted again by how true Sittenfeld’s Eligible is to the character and detail of each element of Pride & Prejudice while updating the story to our time. Of course Liz would be a journalist. Of course, Kitty and Lydia would be obsessed with Cross-Fit and paleo. Of course, Chip Bingley would be the eligible bachelor choosing among vying beauties on a reality television show.

Setting the Bennets in nearby Cincinnati was a charming bonus. Even the day trip to Berea that included a stop in Lexington. Darcy hails from California and hasn’t seen his Stanford classmate Jasper Wick until he bumps into him at Skyline with Liz in Cincinnati. Jane retreats to upstate New York for a while during a bit of confusion with Bingley. Caroline Bingley wants to be a television star herself.

In the audible book version, the reader gave an inexplicable Valley Girl accent to Liz, which really annoyed me. A midwestern accent does not sound like a Valley Girl. And I wondered why Sittenfeld chose to end the novel where she did with a chapter about Mary that reads almost like a separate story than a conclusion to Eligible. I’ve reached out to the author via twitter and hope I can provide a supplement that answers that question, and perhaps more.

I give Eligible my highest recommendation. I’m actually choosing it for my turn to host book club next month. It’s the perfect, fun summer read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


There are lots of mentions of food in Eligible, everything from Skyline chili to macrobiotic gazpacho. However, my menu will include appetizers from a wedding reception and the menu Darcy served to his guests at Pemberley.

Bruschetta with goat cheese & sundried tomatoes spread

Stuffed mushrooms

Grilled zucchini, portobello mushrooms. Brush with good olive oil, salt and pepper and grill.

Grilled steak

Hazelnut Torte, recipe from Epicurious.


Though Liz runs with earbuds, Sittenfeld doesn’t list much, if any that I can recall, music. Here’s my playlist:

For Jane, some Enya.

For Darcy, Taylor Swift‘s State of Grace is rumored to be about him. And Carly Simon‘s You’re So Vain, not for Darcy, but quite appropriate.

For Chip Bingley, Isn’t It Romantic. I like Chet Baker’s version.

For Caroline Bingley, Bitch by Meredith Brock.

For Lydia, anything you’d hear in Cross-fit, but I’m putting Blackeyed PeasMove It” on mine.

For Mary, Eric Carmen‘s “All By Myself.”

Bruno Mars, “Marry You.”

Colbie Caillat, “Bubbly.”

Delbert McClinton‘s Two More Bottles of Wine — in celebration of Liz’s appearance on Eligible.

MOVIE CASTINGsittenfeld_eligible3.jpg

Jane: Diane Kruger

Elizabeth: Natalie Portman? Katherine McPhee? My first pick for a modern actress to play Liz would be Emma Stone but she’s too young for this Liz.

Mary: Zooey Deschanel

Lydia: Sarah Hyland

Kitty: Ashley Benson

Chip: Chris Evans

Darcy: (OK, you know I have to do it) Ryan Gosling

Happy Reading!

If you enjoy, please share it with a friend! You may also follow me on twitter @daeandwrite.

UPDATE: 9-8-17: Apparently ABC is investing in Eligible! and turning it into a “soapy drama series.” (Perhaps Deadline Hollywood hasn’t read Curtis Sittenfeld’s original work, full of humor.) Anyway, I’ve proposed a cast . . . let’s see if ABC takes my advice.

Want some more information about Pride and Prejudice?

ATR COVER*** My novel, After the Race, is now available! Alexandra was raised to be the next Jackie Kennedy. Just as her mother intended, Alexandra’s summer internship on Capitol Hill results in the perfect fiancé, a future job, and D.C. political savvy. But when Alex returns to college for her final year and falls in love with a handsome, blue-jeaned bike champion, she must choose between the two men and the lives they represent, and decide whether she can defy her mother’s designs to fulfill her own dreams. Ultimately, Alexandra must find within herself the power to confront the one unplanned event that could derail everything.

Order from,, or buy at Joseph-Beth booksellers or your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, ask them to order!

Happy Reading!

Thankful for: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

cold comfort

Plucky Flora Poste, the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm, is quite the modern socialite. She makes her own petticoats, entertains a number of suitors, talks fashion with her closest friend and relies on her bible, The Higher Common Sense, to find solutions to a multiplicity. While knowing exactly how to dress and behave in every situation, she has little talent for earning an income but harbors familiar ambitions:

Flora“I think it’s degrading of you, Flora,’ cried Mrs Smiling at breakfast. ‘Do you truly mean that you don’t ever want to work at anything?’

Her friend replied after some thought: ‘Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as “Persuasion”, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say “Collecting material.” No one can object to that. Besides, I shall be.’

Mrs Smiling drank some coffee in silent disapproval.

‘If you ask me,’ continued Flora, ‘I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I. You see Mary,’ – and here Flora began to grow earnest and to wave one finger about – ‘unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes.”

Published in 1932, Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm is set “in the near future.” It’s a delight of a book: a comic parody of the English rural novels of the 19th Century combined with a modern epic storyline of a family, The Starkadders, led by a tyrannical zealot, a Gertrudian mother so in love with her son that she fails to notice the state of affairs and general decline of the world around her, and an iron-fisted granny who despises everyone because she once “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Thus, when Flora Poste must go to stay with her most interesting relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, in Sussex. When she and her little book arrive to spread joy, enlightenment and contraception, the Starkadders soon find themselves mostly maneuvered out of their self-imposed, willful misery. Except for the cows Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless, of course.cows+vintage+image--graphicsfairy001b

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.’
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
‘Curtains?’ she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. ‘Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude’.”

Cold Comfort Farm was my book club’s choice for one cold, January night and it remains one of the group’s favorite books. I read it about once every couple of years, always catching some new amusement. The BBC mini-series production with Kate Beckinsale, Ian MacKellen, Eileen Atkins and Rufus Sewell is spot-on and a hoot if you can scare it up.


The Starkadders chow on porridge, home-made bread and bacon, occasionally ‘spiced-up’ by ‘treats’ such as beef, beer, pickled onions and home-made lemonade.  For Elfine’s wedding, the fare was ‘spiced-up’ to  ‘cold home-cured ham, cider, home-made bread and salads made from local fruit.’

Even at Cold Comfort, though, Aunt Ada Doom and higher-ranking guests like Flora eat a bit better.  Omeletteskipperscold vealsaladblancmangesjunkets and jam. A similar kind of food is also available in pubs and cafés. For example, at the pub in Howling, Flora eats a steak with vegetables and apple tart, and in the café where she first meets Mr. Mybug, she has some plain biscuits‘a sugared orange’ and coffee.

At the upper end of the social scale, there is much more exotic and varied champagnefood and drink on offer. For example, Mrs. Smiling is able to supply cocktails and cinnamon wafers, and the ‘posh-nosh‘ offered to the guests at Elfine’s wedding includes syllabubs, ice-puddings, caviare sandwiches, crab patties, trifle and champagne.

Thanks to Siân
 for assistance on the food portion of this post.


The soundtrack from the BBC mini-series production of 1995 includes:

I’m More Than Satisfied, Fats Waller

Then I’ll Be Tired of You, Harburg & Schwarzt

Sidewalks of Cuba, Rumba from the Cotton Club

Red Sails in the Sunset, Kennedy & Williams

Buttercup Joe, Richardson

Tara’s Theme, from Gone with the Wind, Steiner

I might include, for irony, some English Pastoral music from the early 20th Century. Examples include the Australian Percy Grainger‘s Molly on the Shore (1907), Frederick Delius‘ Brigg Fair (1908), and Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ English Folk Song Suite (1923) for brass band.

Happy Reading!

Buy the book: //

Buy the miniseries: //






Thankful for: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen


Gentle Reader:

As it is the week of our national day of thanks, I determined that a review of tomes for which I am most thankful would be a most felicitous duty. Under such joyful conditions, I find my mind, nay my mind and heart, turn with instinctive abandon to the powerful, un-Zombiefied (oh, what horrors! I shudder, gentle reader, I shudder) words of our dear Miss Austen in Pride and Prejudice.

In other words, I cannot believe I haven’t previously written about Pride and Prejudice as it is one of my favorite books.

firth_2696575bHow can it not be? Isn’t it a touchstone for generations, centuries even? The plucky, courageous Elizabeth Bennet? The darkly brooding, irresistible-in-love Fitzwilliam Darcy? That Pemberly Estate!?! Reams have been written about Pride and Prejudice, over it, under it, around it. Nearly a dozen feature films adaptations, although the one that counts is the one with Colin Firth (IMHO). And countless, literally countless, knock-offs and/or tributes in print and in film.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must in want of a wife.

Perhaps that opening line, one of the best in literature, captures the reader immediately with its’ humor, and perhaps, ironic truth.

Maybe it’s the scene where Darcy and Elizabeth meet that captures our hearts.

Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.

‘Come, Darcy,’ said he, ‘I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.’

‘I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.’

. . .’There is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I daresay very agreeable.’ . . .

‘Which do you mean?’ and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, ‘She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. . . .

heart+floral+vintage+Image+GraphicsFairy010bAh, ha ha! That charmer! Perhaps it is that ultimately, Mr. Darcy must
admit and recant his own pride, allowing Elizabeth the ultimate comeuppance.

Pride and Prejudice has been the subject of our book club at least once and is due for a re-reading. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, add it to your 2016 selections. And if you’ve already read it, everyone needs to re-read a great book once in a while.


I’ve scoured the pages for food references. Emma has the Box Hill picnic scene, of course, but though I can find multiple references to dining opportunities in Pride and Prejudice, I find only references to coffee and porridge in the pages of Pride and Prejudice and haven’t found the first reference to what was being dined upon during the multiple dinners.

The dinner was exceedingly handsome, and there were all the servants, and all the articles of plate which Mr. Collins had promised; and, as he had likewise foretold, he took his seat at the bottom of the table, by her ladyship’s desire, and looked as if he felt that life could furnish nothing greater. – He carved, and ate, and praised with delighted alacrity; and every dish was commended, first by him, and then by Sir William, who was not enough recovered to echo whatever his son-in-law said, and in a matter which Elizabeth wondered Lady Catherine could hear.

But never fear Gentle Reader! The popularity of Jane Austen comes to our assistance with multiple website devoted to the times of Miss Austen, the food, the clothing, the dances, the music. Here are links, with recipes:


The easiest way to go would be the soundtrack of Pride and Prejudice, any of the film versions. Or perhaps all of them.


My ultimate Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth. <sigh> But if we are recasting: Benedict Cumberbatch.

Elizabeth Bennet: I think Emma Watson would be a good casting now.

Mr. Bingley: Eddie Redmayne

Jane Bennet: Felicity Jones

Mrs. Bennet: Emma Thompsonp&amp;p

That’s all I’ve got! Thanks for reading! Check back tomorrow for another book for which I’m thankful!


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.  The Wall Street Journal review compared it to Nancy Mitford’s work.

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.


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


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


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!