Sunday, December 20, 2015
These Are A Few of My Favorite Books
But I’m going to offer a few of my favorites anyway. If I wrote about a book in the blog earlier this year, it was a favorite and won’t be mentioned here. Also note that unlike NYT, WaPo and PW, my list reflects books I read this year, but they weren’t necessarily published this year.
Best Books of 2015
Atkinson, Kate, Life After Life.
Every time Ursula Todd dies, she is born again. She drowns, she falls off a roof. When she dies in the London Blitz she appears again as the wife of a Nazi officer who hangs out with Eva Braun. This is very cleverly done. Don’t be put off by its description as “postmodern,” it’s a page turner. Just as good in its own way is the sequel to this book, A God in Ruins. It seems like a much more conventional narrative until the last few pages.
Carroll, Lewis, Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass.
Alice is 150 this year but as fresh, funny and witty as ever. All honor to the man who gave us “galumph” and “chortle.”
Clanchy, Kate, Meeting the English.
Philip Prys, a famous English playwright, has a stroke. Struan is a bright 17 year old from Scotland who needs money to get himself to college. He has considerable experience with stroke patients and nursed his father through his final illness. When he begins to take care of Philip he also has to deal with his patient’s entitled children, his patient’s ex-wife, and his current wife, a 26 year old Iranian artist. His sense of what family members owe to one another and what his patient’s family feels entitled to clash again and again. Well worth a read.
Dickens, Charles, Nicholas Nickleby.
I’m lucky to own a fabulous 2 volume edition of this book which has the monthly installments of the novel as they appeared originally in serial form. This means that every chapter includes wonderful Victorian advertisements for nostrums, all sorts of patent medicine, and other books (Miss Farley’s Botany for Young Ladies). Dickens' good characters are too good to be true but so many of the characters are fabulously drawn and named (Wackford Squeers, The Cheeryble Brothers, the pitiable Smike). If you like lots of colorful characters and plot twists and turns this is the book for you.
Egen, Elizabeth, A Window Opens.
Alice’s husband, Nicholas, does not make partner and leaves his law firm to start his own practice. She then needs to leave her pleasant part-time job as a book reviewer for a women’s magazine for something more lucrative. She lands at Scroll (hint: The author worked at Amazon) where she hopes to create the perfect reading experience for customers. Alas, there is a “pivot” to computer games. Alice also has to deal with her husband whose career switch is not going smoothly, her children, who miss her, and her father, who is growing increasingly ill.
Essbaum, Jill, Alexander.
Hausfrau Anna meets her gorgeous Swiss husband in America. She lives for many years in Switzerland feeling bored and lonely. (She never bothers to learn the language.) She starts therapy. She joins a German language class. She meets lots of men. Overtones of Flaubert and Tolstoy are deliberate.
Everett, Percival, Erasure.
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an African-American author of experimental novels. He gives talks on the theory of the novel at academic conferences. When the family from whom he is estranged unravels, he realizes he needs to make some money so he writes “a ghetto novel” like those sometimes favored by talk show hosts. This is satire with humanity and a novel within a novel.
Edison, Jonathan, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance.
Harriet is a woman in her 70s whose husband suddenly dies. She goes on a cruise following his death even though she discovers he meant to go with his mistress. Harriet has many things to contend with, not the least of which are her grown children. The real treat in this book is the narrator, who, depending on his mood, praises, encourages, chides, and mocks his heroine.
Groff, Lauren, Fates and Furies.
This is a more literary version of Gone Girl. Once more we have an account of marriage from two points of view, the wife and the husband. Lotto (short of Lancelot) sees his wife Mathilde as almost perfect. She doesn’t see herself that way and neither does the reader.
Knausgaard, Karl Ove, My Struggle: Book Four.
I’m never sure I actually like this series of books, but I keep reading. This one finds our “hero” starting his career as a writer, working as a teacher and hoping to find a girlfriend. The events in these books are stunningly ordinary but I do find myself wanting to know how the series (there are two more books to come) turns out.
Murray, Paul, Skippy Dies.
Paul (“Skippy”) Juster is a student at Seabrooke College, an Irish boy’s school. When the priest who runs the school is taken ill, he is replaced by an administrator who is interested in “branding” and mission statements and all things blandly corporate. He is frustrated at almost every turn by students and faculty. Besides the sensitive Skippy, he must deal with the young genius Ruprecht Van Doren who is trying to find a portal into another world. Then there is Howard (the Coward) Fallon who tries to rouse both his students and himself from a constant torpor by having them read Robert Graves’ WWI memoir, Goodbye to All That, and consider the lives of young men not much older than they are when they go to war. The is book is complex, ambitious, thoughtful and hilarious.
Packer, Ann, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.
On a Memorial Day weekend Carrie and Michael, who are engaged to be married, drive out to Clausen’s Pier for a picnic. Michael is paralyzed after diving into shallow water. Burdened by guilt and the expectations of others, Carrie drives to New York City and a new life. Eventually, Carrie has to decide where she will be happiest. I understand that readers, frustrated by her decision, have hurled the book across the room. My Kindle is pricy so I didn’t go that far.
Yanagihara, Hanya, A Little Life.
I didn’t so much read this book as live in it. It is grim, but compelling. It follows four male friends live in NYC. JB is an artist who chronicles the group friendship in his work, Malcolm is an architect and Willem becomes quite a famous actor. The focus of the group is frequently Jude St Francis whose brutal physical and sexual abuse as a child continues to blight his adulthood. While he has a brilliant professional life and commands the love and loyalty of many people, he is never really able to reveal much of himself to them. Some of the book didn’t ring true to me, but all in all, I found it hard to put down.
Armstrong, Charlotte, Mischief.
When a couple travel to NYC so that the husband can make a speech (about what we never know) at an important dinner, he and his wife bring their young daughter with them. They hire a babysitter to take care of her in the hotel room and that is when the mischief occurs.
Dahl, Julia, Invisible World.
Rebekah Roberts is a stringer for The New York Tribune. When she begins investigating the murder of the wife of a prominent Hasidic Jew she confronts a crime that no one seems to want to investigate. Rebekah’s mother is a Hasidic woman who left home shortly after Rebekah was born. Her father is not Jewish As she is drawn deeper into the investigation she learns more about her community and her own past.
Greenwood, Kerry, Cocaine Blues.
This is the first of the Phryne Fisher mysteries. Phryne is what used to be called in the 1920s a New Woman. Her first mystery finds her leaving her boring London season to investigate the disappearance in Australia of a friend’s daughter. There is plenty of wit and adventure and the portrait of post WWI Australia is fascinating as well.
French, Tana, The Secret Place.
Just a word of warning. It’s best to read Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad mysteries in order. (This is her fifth). If you don’t, certain allusions and quirks of character won’t make sense. The action for this case is set at an exclusive girls' school. Holly Mackey, the daughter of detective Frank Mackey, thinks she may have found a clue to an unsolved crime committed at the school. French’s understanding of the loyalties that young girls form and the secrets they keep make this
mystery most absorbing.
Hawkins, Paula, The Girl on the Train.
This has been one of the best selling books of the year and hardly needs my endorsement. Rachel passes the house of two people she calls Jess and Jason. They seem happy and she spends a lot of time imagining what their lives might be like. Then one day she sees Jess kissing someone who isn’t Jason. Jess then seems to disappear. This is fun because you have the perspective of several unreliable narrators.
Nesbo, Jo, The Harry Hole novels: (Cockroaches, Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil’s Star, Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard, The Panther, The Police).
Harry Hole is a cop based in Oslo (though the first two books take place in Australia and Thailand). His personal life is a mess. One can question whether any police detective, no matter how brilliant, would be retained by his employer if he consumed the the number of substances Harry does.The books are undeniably compelling. Detective Hole is very smart (except about his own life) and the books are riveting.
Allingham, Margery, The Oaken Heart: An English Village at War.
Allingham is best known for her murder mysteries, but this is a tale of her life in rural England during WWII when she helped families evacuated from London (people from urban areas don’t necessarily find the country soothing) and neighbors cope. She also manages to work on a novel. Other accounts of Allingham’s life don’t necessarily jibe with the portrait she paints here but she is, after all, a writer of fiction.
Carr, David, The Night of The Gun.
This is better than a memoir. Who can really trust the memories of a drug addict? Carr, a substance loving, award winning reporter goes back and essentially researches and reports his own addiction. He talks to friends, lovers and people he betrayed. This is a great book about the fallibility of memory but also about the rewards of recovery.
Cooke, Rachel, Her Brilliant Career.
This is a look at 10 British women who had major careers in the 1950s. I had heard of none of them and when I checked out the Amazon UK site found that many of the British readers of this book knew little about these women either. Subjects include the Box sisters, who were very much involved in the British movie industry, Elizabeth David, a sort of British Julia Child, and Rose Heilbronn, one of the first women to “take silk” (become a high court judge). My total unfamiliarity with any of these women didn’t get in the way of my enjoying the book.
de Margerie, Caroline, American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop.
Though she was both an author and a Washington hostess, Susan Mary Alsop came of age in a time when women got their power, in part, from their associations with men. She married Bill Patton, had a child with British diplomat Duff Cooper, and then married Joseph Alsop at at time when his Georgetown dinner parties were the place to be for important and policy changing political discussions. The book is fascinating look at a woman who was notable even though the times in which she lived did not especially favor women who asserted themselves.
Granger, Farley Include Me Out: My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway.
Farley Granger may be best known for his role in Hitchcock’s filming of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on A Train. This is a good book about movie star life in the 1950s and being gay when it could ruin your career. Granger and writer/director Arthur Laurents lived together for a while, Laurents paid for Granger to undergo psychoanalysis. When they broke up Laurents offered to find Granger an analyst in New York. Granger said, “But I don’t feel guilty about being homosexual. I don’t need analysis.” Indeed, Granger hadn’t been keeping his appointments in California. He just drove around for a therapeutic hour.
Hart-Davis, Rupert, and Lyttleton, George, The Lyttleton-Hart-Davis Letters (v1-2 1955-1957).
Whenever I meet someone who has read these letters, I know I’ve met a kindred spirit. Hart-Davis was a British publisher, author and editor (he edited the complete correspondence of Oscar Wilde) and Lyttleton was one of his Eaton masters .
They meet at some literary function and Lyttleton complains that no one wrote to him. Hart Davis takes up the challenge until Lyttleton’s death in 1962. It is a wonderfully bookish correspondence and has had a substantial impact on my book budget.
Lough, David, No More Champagne: Churchill and Money.
This is the letter to his wife Clementine that inspires the name of this book: “No more champagne is to be bought. Unless special directions are given only white or red wine, or whiskey and soda will be offered at luncheon and dinner. The Wine Book is to be shown to me every week. No more port is to be opened without special instructions.” Churchill’s daughter has no recollection of these directions ever being followed. We owe the flow of Churchillian publications to the fact that he never had enough money. He did expensive taste, a love of gambling and stock market speculation. A book sure to make any reader feel better about her financial acumen.
Manning, Molly Guptill, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us During WW II.
During WWII the US government thought providing soldiers with books would offer a wonderful contrast to the book burning of Nazi Germany. This is the story of ASEs (Armed Services Editions) that were produced and the paperback revolution they heralded. The most popular book printed in these editions? A Tree Growns in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
Maraniss, David, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.
Maraniss, a Detroit native, tells the story of an 18 month period in the history of Detroit from roughly 1962-1964. There’s a lot about the auto industry and the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King led a march that foreshadowed the March on Washington. There is lots of good stuff about Motown. You can read about Aretha Franklin and her influential pastor father, C. L. Franklin.
Reidel, Michael, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.
This is not a full account of Broadway musicals. Reidel is interested in the musicals backed by the Shubert Brothers and the Nederlanders. If, like me, you’re not an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, the latter part of this book is fascinating in the way a train wreck is. But there’s lots of gossipy details about many Broadway stars and how various Broadway properties did or did not make it on The Great White Way.
Risen, Clay, The Bill of the Century: The Story of the Civil Rights Act.
You see, once upon a time government worked. This is the story of the many people who made the Civil Rights Act possible and how they worked together to get it passed. Democrats worked with Republicans—I know you think I should have put this in the fiction section—and a major piece of legislation was passed. It makes me proud and sad to read about this much more productive time in political history.
Schultz, Kevin, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped The ‘60s.
The subtitle here might be more accurate if it characterized the relationship between Buckley and Mailer as one that reflected the ‘60s rather than shaped it. The interest of the book lies in its portrayal of two very different people trying to understand each other.
Silberman, Steve, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.
Silberman’s book traces the history of autism theory, diagnosis and treatment but also looks at how people with various neurological idiosyncrasies have affected our technology and our culture.