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.

toast

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The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson

gap of time

The Hogarth Press, founded in 1917 by no less than Virginia and Leonard Woolf, announced an audacious plan in 2015: to rewrite the works of Shakespeare as novels “retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” The Gap of Time, a rewrite of The Winter’s Tale, is the first of these retellings, published in the fall of 2015.

As regular readers of daeandwrite.wordpress.com know, there is also an on-going project to rewrite the works of Jane Austen. Here’s a link to my review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s rewrite of Pride And Prejudice Eligible:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the two cover versions that I’ve read. Hogarth has published three Shakespeare-inspired novels so far and revealed eight authors and the plays they chose to interpret. http://crownpublishing.com/hogarth-shakespeare/ I’m quite looking forward to Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, and I’m listening to Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a rewrite of Taming of the Shrew, right now, so keep an eye out for that blog post in the near future.

bearThe Winter’s Tale, written near the end of Shakespeare’s life, is most well-known for a stage direction. In Act 3, Scene 3, which takes place in “Bohemia. A desert country near the sea,” character Antigonus is directed to exit, “pursued by bear.” It is irrelevant that no bears have been mentioned prior to this direction. Perhaps it is one of Shakespeare’s jokes on the future. How to get a bear on stage? How to teach it to pursue Antigonus? Why does it matter?

In any event, Winterson introduces no bears in The Gap of Time. Within the text of the novel, she explains her choice to rewrite The Winter’s Tale, not the best-known, best-loved, or most-understood of the Bard’s works.

I wrote this cover version because the play has been a private text for me for more than thirty years. By that I mean part of the written word(l)d I can’t live without; without, not in the sense of lack, but in the old sense of living outside of something.

It’s a play about a foundling. And I am. It’s a play about forgiveness and a world of possible futures — and about how forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions. Time is reversible.

The Gap of Time’s plot is so complex I’m not sure it’s worth it to even summarize. Suffice it to say, there’s a man and a woman who have a child and the child is lost and adopted by another family and then grown, the child returns. But it’s not a book about a plot. Winterson’s novel is about ideas and time and regret.Rockwell clock

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Somewhere where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

The Gap of Time tells a classic story in an innovative way, slicing narratives, transforming locations, infusing characters. Violent, bold, imaginative, wistful — yes. Though The Winter’s Tale is sometimes called a romance and sometimes a comedy, The Gap of Time‘s humor seemed to me minimal and the “happy ending” suspect. This is not to say I didn’t like it or enjoy it, I did. It is a meaty book — some of the scenes have stayed with me for several weeks. I can recommend it for you or your book club with only a cautionary reservation that the language could prove off-putting for some readers.

MENU

Perdita’s family lives by the sea and her brother Clo has made her shrimp chowder when Perdita returns home one night.

Shrimp Chowder

  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans cream of potato soup, undiluted
  • 3 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds medium-size fresh shrimp, peeled*
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • Garnish: chopped fresh parsley
  • Oyster crackers (optional)

Preparation

Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat; add onion, and sauté 8 minutes or until tender. Stir in cream of potato soup, milk, and pepper; bring to a boil. Add shrimp; reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often, 5 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink. Stir in cheese until melted. Garnish, if desired. Serve immediately. Serve with oyster crackers, if desired.

*1 1/2 pounds frozen shrimp, thawed; 1 1/2 pounds peeled crawfish tails; or 3 cups chopped cooked chicken may be substituted.

I would serve this with a nice, simple green salad, good bread and dessert. There’s a scene in the book with a pot of scalded milk and I looked for a dessert recipe to bring in this plot point and found this recipe from tasteofhome.com for Hot Milk Cake.

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/4 cups 2% milk
  • 10 tablespoons butter, cubed

Directions

  • 1. In a large bowl, beat eggs on high speed for 5 minutes or until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add sugar, beating until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Combine flour and baking powder; gradually add to batter; beat at low speed until smooth. 
  • 2. In a small saucepan, heat milk and butter just until butter is melted. Gradually add to batter; beat just until combined. 
  • 3. Pour into a greased 13-in. x 9-in. baking pan. Bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.Yield: 12-16 servings.

MUSIC

Although The Gap of Time’s characters Mimi and Perdita are singers, I couldn’t fathom what time of music they might sing. I would set my Spotify to play Bohemian music. I have no idea what would come up: gypsy folk music? Pete Seeger? La Boheme? In any event, whatever it was there would be an underlying echo of it in The Gap of Time.

Happy Reading!

Flu Season: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

King Lear, 1950. Artist: Goncharov, Andrei Dmitrievich (1903-1979)

King Lear by Andrei Dmitrievich Goncharov (1950). Photograph: Alamy

     Any novel that begins with an actor in a blue spotlight raging as King Lear will catch my attention.  Ending the first chapter with the line, “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city,” will hold my attention.  And Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic vision of a post-worldwide flu epidemic did not let it go for the two days it took me to finish reading the novel, despite the near hopelessness of the narrative in Station Eleven.

     Station Eleven begins at Lear in Toronto.  That night and over the next few days, most of humanity is wiped out by the Georgia Flu, a killer that begins in the Republic and is shipped worldwide via a series of flights containing numerous patient zeros.  With minimal contact, the flu is transferred and victims die within two or three days.  St. John Mandel picks up the threads of civilization twenty years later, when Kirsten — who had performed as a child in the original Lear — is on the very perilous road with a Shakespearean/musical company called the Travelling Symphony.

    art_deco_cello_musician_vintage_poster_posters-r7b63e68adce044bd845d4d63722fa21c_xxgf_8byvr_512

     Station Eleven is a National Book Award finalist and frankly, couldn’t be more timely given the press attention and world fear of Ebola.  It’s a haunting vision:  no electricity, no running water, no telephones, no gas, no cars, no grocery stores, no food.  The only thing left in Mandel’s world after twenty years are the shells of fast food joints, Wal-Marts and Motel 6s.  So much for great architecture.  Tractor trailer trucks are pulled by horses, people hunt and fish for their food or they don’t eat and suspicion is the first emotion experienced when greeting a stranger.

    The most hopeful thing about Station Eleven is the existence of a Travelling Orchestra with a Shakespearean troupe of actors.  In all things and despite all things, art still exists and the humans who remain crave it.  Performing on a stage set with candlelight and in costumes dredged from the poached houses of dead people, the actors carry their own weapons and defend themselves as conscientiously as they perform the words of the Bard.  Yet, the lead caravan’s motto comes not from the Shakespearean canon but from a most-unlikely source:  Star Trek.  “Survival is insufficient.”

Station Eleven Logo

MENU

     One could be quite literal and design a book club menu of canned items, spam and beans and olives.  Or put together a Georgian menu in honor of the flu.  My preference would be something grand and Shakespearean.  Roasted turkey legs, great grogs of mead, loaves of bread, hunked at the table and slathered with fresh butter.  If it’s the end of the world as we know it, might as well enjoy it while we can.

MUSIC

End of the World as We Know It, R.E.M.  http://youtu.be/Z0GFRcFm-aY

1999, Prince

Ground Control to Major Tom, David Bowie

Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix

Calamity Song, The Decemberists

End of the Innocence, Don Henley

Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones

station eleven

OKAY. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Image

The Fault in Our Stars was the number one movie at the box office the weekend of June 6-8, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/.  In honor of that, I’m reposting this.

There’s a little movie coming out next weekend.  You may have caught one of the (ahem) few promos for it.  It’s a small, (cough cough), low-budget (more throat-clearing) adaptation of John Green’s modest young adult love story, The Fault in Our Stars.  So before the Hollywood has a chance to ruin this lovely story of two doomed teen-agers sharing one night of love on a final romantic trip to — ah, you thought I was going to say Verona, didn’t you? — Amsterdam, read the durn book people.

If you insist on cheating, here is a link to the movie trailer:  http://youtu.be/_Li8uojsfGc.

The novel is beautiful, in the way only a book about teen-agers in first love (with a touch of osteosarcoma or thyroid cancer with lung mets) can be.  And I’m not giving anything away here.  Hazel Grace, the narrator, tells us on page one that “Cancer is a side effect of dying.  Almost everything is, really.”  Hazel Grace is a courageous, funny, warm, imminently empathetic narrator.  She provides startlingly humorous insights into the world of “cancer perks” for “cancer kids,” the support group happening “literally inside the heart of Jesus,” and the philosophy of living metaphorically.  She addresses her life with black humor that particularly appears when a friend, nurse and/or family member makes a reference such as “I could have died.”

Hazel Grace has a quest involving a book and an author and how can you not love a girl like that?  Augustus Waters meets Hazel during support group and after reading her book, decides to become involved and help make her wish come true.

I’ve written before about the urgency of young love, first love.  Without their youth, Romeo and Juliet would just seem foolish.  But at sixteen, everything, especially love, is literally a matter of life and death.  Pardon me for the use of literally there, Hazel Grace.  But I meant it literally, unlike the number of instances in which the word is incorrectly used as Hazel and Gus enjoy pointing out to one another.

The only way to increase the urgency would be if one of those lovers were about to be married off to a loathsome spouse . . . or dying of a fatal and incurable disease.  And for Hazel and Gus, they are young and in love.  And John Green has just one-upped William Shakespeare.

Image Doesn’t sound like it leaves a whole lot for them to celebrate.  And yet . . .

      And then we were kissing.  My hand let go of the oxygen cart and I reached up for his neck, and he pulled me up by my was it onto my tiptoes.  As his parted lips met mine, I started to feel breathless in a new and fascinating way.  The space around us evaporated, and for a weird moment I really liked my body; this cancer-ruined thing I’d spent years dragging around suddenly seemed worth the struggle, worth the chest tubes and the PICC lines and the ceaseless bodily betrayal of the tumors.

I realized that my eyes were closed and opened them.  Augustus was staring at me, his blue eyes closer to me than they’d ever been, and behind him, a crowd of people three deep had sort of circled around us.  They were angry, I thought Horrified.

. . . And then they started clapping.  All the people, all these adults, just started clapping, and one shouted “Bravo!” in a European accent.  Augustus, smiling, bowed.  Laughing, I curtsied ever so slightly, which was met with another round of applause.

MENU

Augustus and Hazel have a lovely vegetarian meal in Amsterdam.  I am relaying it here.  I don’t have any recipes as yet, but if I can locate any, I will share them.

Champagne

White asparagus with lavender infusion

Dragon Carrot Risotto

Sweet Pea sorbet

Green Garlic Gnocchi with red mustard leaves

Crémeux with passion fruit

MUSIC

Gus and Hazel live in Indianapolis and travel together to Amsterdam.  Given my love of John Mellencamp, I would definitely include his music, most definitely Jack and Diane.  Starry, Starry Night by Don McLean.  I Only Have Eyes for You, by Nat King Cole.  Stardust (by Hobie Carmichael — also a Hoosier).  The Avett Brothers’ music matches perfectly the mood of this book.

So read, enjoy and make sure you finish it sitting in a big, comfy chair with a box of tissues.

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor

     Someone once told me that I should marry my first love.  If I did that, she assured me, I would miss the worst pain of heartbreak that comes from tearing yourself away from your first love.  And we (my first love and I) would forever share the tender, open, honest relationship that no one ever has after that first broken heart.  A love that age and experience (and past hurts and regrets) just won’t allow you to feel.

     A relationship like the one shared by Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell’s fictional misfit lovers.  Eleanor, the new girl in school, is too beautiful and mature to be accepted by anyone so she is shunned.  This is 1986, when vintage clothes were strange and young ladies had to wear those horrible (HORRIBLE!) one-piece polyester unitards for gym class.  Park, a cool kid with a Korean mom and a former American service man dad who are still deeply in love, finds himself stuck with sitting next to her on the school bus simply because he is the only one not cruel enough to turn her away.  As the school year progresses, Park finds himself magnetically drawn to the girl in the weird clothes who makes the intelligent comments in English class.  The girl with “adorable cheeks.  Dimples on top of freckles . . . and a face shaped like a box of chocolates.”

vintage_valentines_day_blonde_girl_w_chocolates_postcard-p239223526936170185en8sh_325

     If Eleanor and Park all sounds a bit . . . Shakespearean, Rowell intends it to.  Early in the novel, which is classified as Young Adult by the way (despite the many adult book clubs reading it), Eleanor and Park‘s English class reads Romeo & Juliet.  Eleanor and the teacher Mr. Stessman discuss the tragedy.

“No . . . ” she  said.  “I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.”

 “It’s the tragedy,” Mr. Stessman said.

 She rolled her eyes.  She was wearing tow or three necklaces, old fake pearls, like Park’s grandmother wore to church,and she twisted them while she talked.  “But he’s so obviously making fun of them,” she said.

 “Who is?”

  “Shakespeare.”

   “Do tell . . .”                                         tumblr_l59hvs1GWG1qccbedo1_1280

She rolled her eyes again.  She knew Mr. Stessman’s game by now.  “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want.  And now, they think they want each other.  . . . They don’t even know each other.  . . . If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline.  . . . It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,” she said.

     Mr. Stessman begs another student, “one with a heart,” to redefine the play and explain why this play has survived four hundred years.  Park, unwittingly does.  “Because people want to remember what it’s like to be young?  And in love. . . . Is that right?”  Park asked.

     That afternoon, Eleanor speaks to Park on the bus.  And they fall in love.  And as you know, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Ms. Rowell herself said in an interview that she believes you can find real love at a young age, but it is incredibly hard to make it last.  http://teenlitrocks.com/2013/02/20/eleanor-and-park-author-rainbow-rowell/  That’s the trick, isn’t it?  To find love and make it last . . . in a way that doesn’t involve a suicide pact?

    Throughout Eleanor and Park, I was reminded of Romeo And Juliet.  The absolute certainty of those two young lovers (and their friends) that immediate action must be taken, that their instincts must be correct and that time is the enemy of love.  A sweet melancholy infuses the passion.  At the age of 17, that is life.  And it will never be that way again.  Romeo describes his first sight of Juliet.

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
     Read Eleanor & Park.  Read Romeo & Juliet.  Marry your first love.  At least two of the three are still possible.
BOOK CLUB MENU
Red wine — Eleanor’s mother serves lots of red wine at parties before her divorce
Turkey with stuffing
Mashed potatoes
Rice pudding
3/4 cup uncooked white rice
2 cups milk, divided
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
2/3 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan; stir rice into boiling water. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
In a clean saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups cooked rice, 1 1/2 cups milk, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat until thick and creamy, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup milk, beaten egg, and raisins; cook 2 minutes more, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla.
MUSIC
The book is full of music.  Actually, Eleanor and Park bond through Park sharing music with Eleanor.  He makes her tapes of his favorites music, The Smiths, The Cure … bands she’s never heard of.  She returns his gift by sharing with him the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.  How can you beat that?
As an update: I queried author Rainbow Rowell about her own playlist for Eleanor and Park. She responded that she has it posted on her Spotify profile. So if you’re on Spotify and want to listen to what Rainbow Rowell was listening to, go get it!
Happy Reading!
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