Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Year in Review: 2007

2007 was my best reading year. I managed to finish 50 books, from cover to cover, which is ten more than last year. Granted, I had to carefully strategize my reading list, jettisoning books I wouldn’t be able to finish by the end of the year and replacing them with shorter fiction. But I made it!

My 2007 books-read list is fairly eclectic, and some statistics follow to corroborate.

Fiction: 35
Nonfiction: 15
Books written by women: 24
Books written by men: 26
Mysteries: 9
Culinary essays: 5
Travel essays: 5
Books by Beverly Cleary: 6
Books by Joan Didion: 2
First novels: 7
Memoirs: 3
Books published in 2007: 16

Reading books aloud to my husband (the 700-page HP7) and children (all of Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books) was a pleasure I wouldn’t exchange for any other. I doubt that I will finish annotating the entire list of books I read this past year. An unbearable work load at the office, as well as deadlines, zaps my best writing energy. Besides, I've got a new pile of books to read!

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention, in some way, my favorites. Herewith are annotations, including one longer entry that represents an abandoned blog post. Better late than never, I always say.

Favorite fiction, in no particular order:

The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)
The premise of this delightfully witty novel involves Queen Elizabeth, who, minding her own business while walking her corgis one day, stumbles upon a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. She chats up the librarian, checks out a book, and becomes a reader and a thinker. Her life is changed in unimaginable ways. It’s beautiful and subversive in all the best ways.

Play It As It Lays (Joan Didion)
Stunning. Sparse. Really, that’s all I want to say. Well, and that I will be reading more Didion in the coming year.

Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
It took me a long time to read this masterful novel, and I loved every single word of it. Sure, it was not without a few problems, but I like these things: intricate storytelling and complex characters. I loved Binna, especially, who had to have been modeled on Chabon’s own beautiful and hugely talented wife, Ayelet. Highly imaginative and very atmospheric, this novel depicts the last days of a Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska, and was inspired by '40s noir detective fiction. My friend Caryl and I saw Chabon interviewed live as part of MPR’s Talking Volumes series, and he was remarkable in so many ways. Let’s just say that I heard his voice as I read most of the novel, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
Over a year ago, The Road received a front-page review in the NYTBR, which left such an impression on me that I became obsessed with reading this book. But I avoided it for months, afraid to face its dark scenes of desparate human behavior in the face of tragedy and hopelessness. Eventually I spotted the unabridged audio at the library, perfect for my commute—i.e., in broad daylight—and it knocked my socks off. Devastating and depressing, gross and bleak are all words I would use to describe this father-and-son novel set in the aftermath of some catastrophic event. But also brilliant—McCarthy is an amazing storyteller.

Fieldwork (Mischa Berlinksi)
This confident first novel of missionaries in Thailand pleasantly surprised me. The plot involves an American journalist in Thailand—Mischa Berlinski—who investigates the murder of an American anthropologist jailed for murder. Fieldwork was nominated, deservingly, for the National Book Award this year.

A Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier)
This post-apocalyptic tale features intertwined storylines, one of which is a midworld between this one and the afterlife. The other storyline features the only survivor of a pandemic—the last person on Earth. I appreciated the compelling plot and interesting characters, and I look forward to reading any future books Brockmeier writes. This was one of those books that you wish you could read again for the first time. Highly recommended to anyone who likes Jonathan Lethem. Read while on vacation in New Orleans.

Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
As a kid, I loved Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books. Son Simon is about the right age to read them so we picked up this title from the library. He loved Henry, and, as you’ll see, we devoured all the Henry Huggins books. Even though these books were written fifty years ago, Henry's adventures—bringing home a stray dog, saving money to buy a bike, getting a paper route, building a clubhouse—really resonated with my eight-year-old. Henry has buddies and a rival (Scooter McCarthy) and a pest (Ramona Quimby). His parents are supportive and help him to reach his goals. He's a good kid. Simon's looking forward to re-reading these books.

Favorite nonfiction, in no particular order:

Feeding a Yen (Calvin Trillin)
In this collection of food essays, Calvin Trillin is in rare form as he writes about local specialties from Cuzco, Peru, to Brooklyn, NY. Humorist Calvin Trillin keeps a list of foods that he refers to as his Register of Frustration and Deprivation and describes as such "despite being my favorite dishes in one part of the world or another, rarely seem to be served outside their territory of origin. Some examples of these victuals include pimientos de Padron, barbecue, the fish taco, and Cajun boudin. Each essay is guaranteed to have you licking your chops, reading to travel and discover the unique food stuffs of far-flung places. He offers one of the most touching dedications I've ever read:
For more than thirty-five years, my companion at the table was my wife, Alice. Although I did once describe Alice as having "a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day," her knowledge and enjoyment of food had a lot to do with the pleasure I took in writing about eating. Partway through this book's adventures, which took place over several years, her name no longer appears. She died in September 2001. I know she would have expected this dedication to be shared with our first grandchild, Isabelle Alice Trillin-Lee, who, as it happens, has already shown signs of being a good eater.
The Places in Between (Rory Stewart)
Again, a front-page review in the NYTBR made me do it—track the book down when it was momentarily scarce and carry it around for awhile before reading it. Stewart, a Scottish foreign service officer, walks across Afghanistan, as part of a trek across Central Asia, just moments after the Taliban falls. Naturally, his requests for permission to embark upon this walk are met with great suspicion by the new local government, but eventually are granted. The author copiously notes the minutiae of Afghan geography, geology, politics, history, and culture, as well as the myriad stories he hears—all of which fuel his anthropological curiosity. He also questions Western government professionals with their fancy educations (of which he knows many having been one) and their ability to know what Afghanistan wants or needs by way of government. Many of the communities he visits are so incredibly remote, you have to wonder what their part in any democratic political process would be and if they thought it would make a difference to their tribal identity and life. I look forward to reading Stewart's Prince of the Marshes.

Momentum Is Your Friend (Joe Kurmaskie)
The boys gave this book to John for Father's Day, and I read it aloud to him. The further adventures of the Metal Cowboy, who takes his young boys—who are in a pleasant coincidence the same age as my young boys—on a unbeatable adventure. This is the ultimate father-son story—Joe pulls his sons across the country—from Portland, OR, to Washington, DC—on his bicycle, using a crazy contraption of a tagalong and a Burley cart. Why? Kurmaskie seems to be a little crazy, but he also remembers how his father, a workaholic, had always meant to take his kids on a big vacation and never did before dying of a massive heart attack. Kurmaskie vows not to wait until it's too late to have a memorable vacation with his boys. They climb mountains, cross the Continental Divide, eat countless watermelons, and see multitude of really great things.

Heat (Bill Buford)
Bill Buford, the founding editor of Granta, as well as the former literary editor of The New Yorker and author of Among the Thugs, wonders what it would be like to work in a professional kitchen and gets an opportunity to find out firsthand when he works the line at Mario Batali’s Babbo. Fast-paced, funny, always mouth-watering, Buford’s account is interspersed with the story of Batali’s apprenticeship in Italy learning grandmother cooking and of his rise to celebrity chef status.

When his stint in Batali’s kitchen is over, Buford travels to Italy to do his own apprenticeship, first with Gianni and Betta in Porretta, Italy, learning to make pasta, as Mario had done. When he finished the tortellini tutorial, he convinced his wife, a high-powered NY magazine editor, to quit her job and move to Italy so he could apprentice to a butcher. Not just any butcher either, but Dario Cecchini, the same butcher Mario’s father, Armendino, the owner of Seattle’s Salumi, apprenticed with.

One of my favorite passages details making a pasta and exemplifies the message of the book: food is important. And, knowing where your food comes from, not just the source, but tradition, is important.

My advice: ignore the Babbo cookbook and begin by roasting small pinches of garlic and chili flakes and medium pinches of the onion and pancetta in a hot pan with olive oil. Hot oil accelerates the cooking process, and the moment everything gets soft you pour it away (holding back the contents with your tongs) and add a slap of butter and a splash of while wine, which stops the cooking. This is Stage One—and you are left with the familiar messy buttery mush—but already you’ve added two things you’d never see in Italy: butter (seafood with butter—or any other dairy ingredient—verges on culinary blasphemy) and pancetta, because, according to Mario, pork and shellfish are an eternal combination found in many other places: in Portugal, in amĂȘijoas na cataplanas (clams and ham); or in Spain, in a paella (chorizo and scallops); or in the United States, in the Italian-American clams casino, even though none of those places happens to be in Italy. (“Italians,” Mario says, “won’t fuck with their fish. There are restaurants that won’t use lemon because they think it’s excessive.”)
In Stage Two, you drop the pasta in boiling water and take your messy buttery pan and fill it with a big handful of clams and put it on the highest possible flame. The objective is to cook them fast—they’ll start opening after three or four minutes, when you give the pan a swirl, mixing the shellfish juice with the buttery porky white wine emulsion. At six minutes and thirty seconds, you use your tongs to pull your noodles out and drop them into your pan—all that starch pasta water slopping in with them is still a good thing; give the pan another swirl; flip it; swirl it again to ensure that the pasta is covered by the sauce. If it looks dry, add another splash of pasta water; if too wet, pour some out. You then let the thing cook away for another half minute or so, swirling, swirling, until the sauce streaks across the bottom of the pan, splash with olive oil and sprinkle it with parsley: dinner.
Cross-X (Joe Miller)
In high school, participating on the debate team saved my life, preserving my sanity in a small town. It was a delight to read this book about a Kansas City Urban Debate League team, written by a journalist who later became a coach/mentor to the team. Miller writes about debate for the layperson, but more important, he writes about racism, in a city that has had, for decades, serious desegregation issues. His portrait of this particular team, thriving in a perceived white, elitist activity is really compelling. The kids and their coach—all are amazing.

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