Sunday, December 31, 2006

a year of reading (2006)

1. Don’t Get Too Comfortable (David Rakoff)
David Rakoff, a frequent contributor to PRI’s This American Life, offers a collection of snarky, sharp essays about consumer behavior. Equal parts gut-busting funny and uncomfortably mean-spirited, Rakoff nonetheless lambastes those who revel in greed and excess.

2. The World to Come (Dara Horn)
The novel opens with the theft of a Chagall painting from a Jewish museum during a singles mixer (based on actual events) and alternates storylines with 1920s Soviet Russia. Often mired by heavy-handed imagery (to wit, characters that float or fly, as in a Chagall painting) and repetitive vocabulary and phrases, The World to Come ultimately possesses the potent combination of folklore, romance, history, and mystery. I read this for book group.

3. The City of Falling Angels (John Berendt)
Berendt examines a crime that is as much about the city (this time Venice)—its people and places—as the crime itself, although less successfully than he did in his super-mega bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In CoFA, Berendt's jumping-off point is the Fenice opera fire and the resulting investigation. Luscious descriptions of Venice and a depiction of the wacky cast of characters who inhabit the city are nestled into the crime story.

4. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (Ayelet Waldman)
I devoured this novel in three sittings, which is something I almost never do since I am an excruciatingly slow reader. Funny, sophisticated, and compelling, the story follows hapless Emilia Greenleaf as she navigates the minefield of losing a child and learning to love a stepson. New York City plays a supporting role.

5. Toast (Nigel Slater)
A host of foodstuffs and meals trigger memories of childhood, resulting in powerfully delicious vignettes from cook, cookbook author, and columnist Nigel Slater.

6. The Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsell)
Humorous situations and wonderfully drawn characters drive this children’s book, which I read for the Storknotes book group. I think the subtitle sums it up best: “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy.”

7. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Far from being just a keen observer, Wharton proves that she is an accomplished novelist with artfully drawn and developed characters, as well as an appropriate amount of tension, in this biting story of 1870s New York society.

8. The Last Templar (Raymond Khoury)
While far from perfect (cheesy romance and implausibly dramatic climax), The Last Templar is a satisfactorily even-paced Gnostic thriller, which one would expect from a screenwriter. It also has one of the most unexpectedly gruesome opening scenes I have ever read.

9. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
This chick-lit novel was a delightful page-turner—the perfect airplane book for an April vacation in Costa Rica. Utterly predictable with a highly likeable lead character and a London setting, this book provided a great antidote to heavier fare (Arthur and George, which I was reading at the time and which has since been abandoned).

10. The Pythagorean Solution (Joseph Badal)
Hands down, this was the worst book I read this year. Greece setting and hidden treasure was the draw, promising a Davinci Code-esque book, instead it was haltingly paced with horribly stereotyped characters. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

11. The Calcutta Chromosome (Amitav Ghosh)
One of the best books I read this year—a smart, complex story about malaria and medical discovery, with a conspiracy and a touch of the supernatural. Strongly recommended for those who like William Gibson or Richard Preston. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

12. The Thai Amulet (Lyn Hamilton)
So far, this has been my favorite book in the archaeology mysteries series (#7) featuring antiques dealer/amateur sleuth Lara McClintock. In The Thai Amulet, the exotic setting (contemporary Bangkok), the parallel historic storyline (16th century Ayutthaya), and the mystery (full of treachery and betrayal) all work harmoniously. Read on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica.

13. What Do You Do All Day (Amy Scheibe)
Amy Scheibe, who is an editor at Counterpoint Press, has written an intelligent and funny novel about being a stay-at-home mom with its attendant adventures (high and low). I breezed my way through this book, alternately laughing and crying as the protagonist (Jennifer Bradley, a former antiquities dealer) discovers the joys and struggles of parenting and confronts the challenges of being a modern mother.

14. Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (Paul Bowles)
Paul Bowles is an amazing, sensuous writer, as well as a consummately keen observer. And in this collection of essays, his writing immediately transports you to places that are sweaty, dusty, pungent, and vibrant—places like Sri Lanka, Morocco, and Tunisia. First published in 1963, his travel writing is lyrical and timely. I bought my copy at the fabulous NYC independent bookstore McNally Robinson and chose it for book group.

15. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Ishiguro’s trademark controlled writing is fully present in this novel, which explores an intense relationship between three characters—beginning with their time as children at boarding school until their deaths—which often reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood depicts friendships with rifts and shifts. The backdrop of the novel involves cloning and organ harvest, which smacks right up against the science and ethics topics I love to think about, and it’s an utterly eerie, rib-sticking story.

16. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
My friend (and great reader) Caryl and I were inspired to read Dame Muriel Spark after the author’s death earlier this year, starting with her best-known work. Originally published in the fall of 1961 as a short story in the New Yorker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a striking slim novel that follows an Edinburgh teacher as she molds her “set”—a group of six female students—in her likeness. Wowed by Spark’s concise, witty, stylized writing, Caryl and I vowed to read more from this talented author.

17. The Moai Murders (Lyn Hamilton)
It seems like every time antiques dealer Lara McClintock leaves home, she stumbles across a dead body, even when vacationing on Rapa Nui. Must get old. Vivid descriptions of Easter Island, its history and culture, as well as a well-drawn cast of eccentrics who have gathered for a pseudo-scholarly conference drive the ninth mystery in Hamilton’s archaeology series. Read aloud to John on a So Dak road trip.

18. Leap Days (Katherine Lanpher)
I’ve had a real love-hate relationship with Katherine Lanpher (hate her voice; love the touching piece she wrote memorializing George J.). But she really endeared herself to me in this unvarnished memoir, detailing her midlife move from the Midwest to New York City. I enjoyed reading about the trajectory of her career (from a print journalist to a radio personality—first as the host of a Minnesota Public Radio show, then as the cohost on Al Franken’s Air America program). Local references to people and places abound (she stays with friend Sarah M’s brother whenever she visits St. Paul).

19. Dark Tort (Diane Mott Davidson)
Caterer Goldy Schulz also has the unfortunate habit of tripping over dead bodies as she’s minding her own business, serving up food at functions in Aspen Meadow, Colorado. This is the latest (#13) in Davidson’s culinary mystery series. I found the mystery, while cohesive, lacked the energy of previous books in the series, but the scenes of Goldy doing what she does best—planning menus and cooking food—continue to drive the story.

20. The Girls (Lori Lansens)
I read this novel about conjoined twins for book group, otherwise I’m fairly sure I never would have picked it up. Some of it was downright creepy. While the sensitive, and sometimes beautiful, novel received a lot of review attention—including a glowing assessment from Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram—sales never really took off. It should do well in paperback, especially with book groups.

21. The Comforters (Muriel Spark)
The second installment in the Spark study group. This was Spark’s first novel, which she wrote at 39. From the first sentence, you can tell that the author is going to have fun with the novel’s form, writing a nicely multilayered metafiction. Spark also begins exploring themes—such as Catholicism and religious conversion—that she’ll continue throughout her prolific writing life.

22. My Life in France (Julia Child)
What a treat to read an account of Julia’s love affair with France. You can see, hear, and smell Marseilles, where her loving husband Paul was stationed in a government position following WW2. It’s also a treat to read Julia’s own account of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was well detailed in Janet Finch’s bio, but here in My Life, the challenges of working with Simca and Louisette seem rendered with less gossip. I can’t wait to read this again.

23. Promise Me (Harlan Coben)
Even though I’ve really missed Myron Bolitar (it has been six years since Coben "retired" him), I’d just like to say, for the record, that Coben should have stuck to the stand-alone thrillers that have earned him New York Times bestselling-author status. Without even getting into the lame-o, convoluted plot, Bolitar came off as a big whining baby, and his sidekicks—Win and Esperanza—barely make an appearance. It certainly wasn’t the worst book I read this year, and I’ll likely read the next in the series—as always, aloud to John.

24. The Reach of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)
Ruhlman’s third chef book, marked by graceful writing, explores what it means to be a celebrity chef. My favorite section follows Grant Achatz from his time spent in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry kitchen to a field trip in Spain where he had his defining moment at Ferran Adria’s el Bulli. Ruhlman concludes that the reach of a chef is beyond the kitchen. By expanding their restaurants, celebrity chefs give younger chefs who have been working under them an opportunity to run a kitchen.

25. Bye-Bye Black Sheep (Ayelet Waldman)
Two books from Ayelet Waldman in one year will spoil me for next year. In this fifth Mommy Track mystery, Juliet Appelbaum—a former public defender turned stay-at-home mom—solves another crime in LA. I love Waldman’s sharp, feisty heroine and hope a sixth mystery is published in 2007. Please.

26. The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup)
The office manager at my office loaned me this book, which was written by her stepsister. It’s a children’s chapter book set in a part of Iowa I’ve passed through on RAGBRAI. And, it’s a highly imaginative adventure featuring a magic notebook where story beginnings come true, but the characters don’t know how they’ll end, nor can they control the journey.

27. The Dissident (Nell Freudenberger)
When I read the young author’s much-hyped collection of stories (Lucky Girls) a few years ago, I was suitably impressed—enough so to look forward to any fiction she might write in the future. So, I was thrilled to find a big ol' 400+ page novel this fall. Also, I wasn’t disappointed by it. The story follows a Chinese artist and the members of his incredibly dysfunctional SoCal host family. Not all is as it seems, for anyone. Very nicely done.

28. Memento Mori (Muriel Spark)
Installment three in the Spark study group. This novel about Death features the geriatric set—a group of octogenarian friends who are receiving crank phone calls. At the other end of the line is a voice telling each, “Remember, you must die,” (memento mori). The phone calls unleash a history of deception and tangled relationships as well as lend a spooky feel to the novel, another trim but dense story.

29. The Big Oyster (Mark Kurlansky)
In this satisfying microhistory, Kurlanksy turns his attention to the oyster beds that existed off the shores of Manhattan, ranging from before Europeans arrived until the 1930s when the beds were deemed too polluted. I love what Kurlanksy does best—writing a history imbued with economics, sociology, marine biology, culinary history, and the environment—and I’d like to read more. Thank goodness for Salt and Cod.

30. The Keep (Jennifer Egan)
I didn’t love Egan’s first two highly acclaimed novels, which Picador published when I was at Holtzbrinck and was under direct orders to love. But, Charles Baxter called Egan’s Look at Me underrated, and The Keep received strong advanced review attention, so I picked it up. No regrets here. It’s a yummy Gothic ghost story as well as a metafiction—both of these elements are sure to keep readers on their toes. I nearly started re-reading it immediately—it’s that good—but I don’t re-read (so many books, too little time dictates).

31. The Templar Legacy (Steve Berry) audio
I could get a lot a reading done by listening to audio books. Benefiting from quick plot pacing,The Templar Legacy was an ideal book to “read” in this format. Another Gnostic thriller, but this one delves deeper into Templar history and lore, and has a twist I couldn’t have anticipated even if I had been paying closer attention. Unabridged.

32. Testing Kate (Whitney Gaskell)
Gaskell, an accomplished author of lit lite, gives me a birthday gift each year in the form of a new novel. Isn’t she sweet? This year, she draws upon her experience as a law student, setting her romantic comedy during One-L at Tulane. Written before Katrina, the city of New Orleans plays a supporting role. Coincidentally, this is the third novel (nearly in a row) I have read this fall involving a protagonist whose parents have died in an accident (The Dissident and The Keep also used this device to cleverly keep pesky parents in the background).

33. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (Nick Hornby)
Another collection of Hornby’s columns from The Believer. The premise of the columns is clever—wish I’d thought of it first. Each month, Hornby lists separately his book purchases and the books he read, then analyzes his choices. The essays are also shamelessly peppered with personal connections (such as Hornby’s brother-in-law, the bestselling author Robert Harris, or his good friend Violet Incredible, aka Sarah Vowell) and strewn with complaints about the Polysyllabic Spree (roughly, The Believer’s editorial staff), which are a delight to read. I will not be able to sit still for a third volume.

34. Stuart Little (E.B. White)
I read this aloud to the little boys on our Thanksgiving trip to Los Angeles. They loved Stuart’s adventures, but neither questioned how it was that the human Little family came to have a mouse child. John and I each remembered loving this story when we were kids, and we commented on E.B. White’s genius. Charlotte’s Web is up next for us, and I believe Trumpet of the Swan, which I have never read, is in our near future.

35. An Alphabetical Life (Wendy Werris)
I’m a sucker for books about books and books about bookstores, but Wendy Werris’s memoir trumps all as it is both of those and a book about book reps, which makes an ideal framework for her memoir—coming of age in the book biz. It’s also a vivid portrait of Southern California in the 1970s and a lovely tribute to her father, who was a comedy writer for Jackie Gleason, among others. Read on Los Angeles vacation.

36. Chicken with Plums (Marjane Satrapi)
In Satrapi’s latest graphic memoir, she relates the story of her great-uncle, a famous Iranian musician. After his tar (a stringed instrument) is broken and he fails to find a replacement, he takes to his bed in despair—deciding he cannot continue living. Flashbacks and flash-forwards dominate the storytelling, which, with Satrapi’s signature style meld tradition with pop culture in a very satisfying way.

37. Frank Lloyd Wright (Ada Louise Huxtable) audio
A concise, but lively, biography—part of the Penguin Lives series—written by the Wall Street Journal’s architecture critic. After checking the book out on a number of occasions this year, yet never getting to read it, I decided I might have better luck to listening to it. Wright’s story proved to be just the inspiration I needed to face the day writing about architecture. Unabridged.

38. Girl in Landscape (Jonathan Lethem)
This fall, Powell’s sent me a review of Girl, which knocked my socks off. So I requested a copy from the library and, despite having other reading obligations, devoured it in a few sittings. Lethem deftly weaves a coming of age set during colonization, which yields a novel rivaling the best science fiction. Protagonist Pella Marsh is one of the most intense and likeable characters I have met this year. Images of the Archbuilders, their planet’s desolate landscape, and household deer will stick with me for some time.

39. How I Learned to Cook (edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan)
Forty of the world’s greatest chefs write about the events that inspired them to cook. My favorite essays were written by Rick Bayless (who writes about coming of age while pouring over Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which he had to convince his parents to buy for him instead of football equipment, then lives a dream when he’s asked to appear on one of her TV series), Suzanne Goin (who writes about a lousy stage in a Michelin two-star restaurant in France), and David Chang of Momofuko (who writes about his noodle education in Japan).

40. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
Continuing with our E.B. White education, I read this children’s classic to the little boys. White richly depicts a Maine farm, replete with talking animals and a spider, named Charlotte, who saves a pig from slaughter. She does it by weaving messages about Wilbur into her web, thereby creating celebrity and preventing him from becoming bacon and ham. It’s extraordinarily touching the way Charlotte finds and lauds the exceptional in her friend.

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