I feel I’ve been reading in fits and starts this year. As always, I get over-ambitious with my library loot and then sometimes get overwhelmed and don’t finish anything. But I have managed to get through some great (and not so great) reads so far and wanted to share them.
The “Only in America” Award: This is a tie between The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Giant by Edna Ferber. These are books I felt I had already read based on knowing the movies so well. (For more on my James Dean obsession, see my write-up of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA.) While both films are excellent adaptations, I highly recommend the original books. You may not have heard of Ferber, but, like Steinbeck, she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (in 1925 for So Big) and a fabulous read. Sadly, much of their commentary on class, gender, and immigration is still relevant today.
Best Use of Fairy Tales: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. A different frontier than those described in Giant and The Grapes of Wrath, but still very much a tale of westward expansion. This story, set in 1920s Alaska, has a Little House on the Prairie vibe that I absolutely adored. It’s a fairy tale, but not unbelievable. And, despite the preceding sentences, this book is very much for adults. It’s emotional, but not sappy, with an extremely satisfying ending. Recommended for Sophia, Tandra, and especially Juliana.
Best Non-Clown Circus Book: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Not knowing anything about the plot going in to this book, I was a bit disappointed to learn it was about magic. In fact, the set-up reminded me enormously of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book I just couldn’t get into and never finished. However, after a slow start, I really enjoyed my time in this anachronistic turn-of-the-century world. I could have used a more linear narrative, but was completely enchanted by the circus and its inhabitants. Recommended for Sarah and Melissa.
Best Clown Circus Book: I kid. I would never recommend a clown circus book.
Best Ending: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. No really. I know that people have a problem with how this novel ended, but I think that is exactly the point of the whole thing. Our lives are not made up of cold hard facts, they are stories, and usually these stories do not get tied up in neat bows as we move on to new stages of our life. If Facebook and reconnecting with old friends over the last few years has taught me anything, it’s that things are not always what they seem. Or seemed. Recommended for everyone I went to prep school with (except Aaron).
Best Intrigue: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd. A literary British author writes a WWI espionage novel that opens with an actor seeking psychoanalysis in Vienna? Duh, this is recommended for Aaron.
Best in Booker: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. After an initial difficulty with language, I grew to really enjoy this book. The Sisters Brothers didn’t quite work for me, and while I enjoyed Sense of an Ending, this is the one that would have gotten my vote. The author does a great job of capturing what I imagine the banter of 1930s jazz musicians might be, as well as their love of music. It also presents a little-seen side of World War II, so don’t let that part of the blurb drive you off if you hate war stories. Much like with Skeletons at the Feast, I appreciated the new perspective. It gets a bit sappy at the end, but I think it’s a sappiness that is well-earned. Recommended for La Javanaise.
Best in Britain: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. This book revolves around two mysteries told in alternating narratives (set in London and Glasgow) and it would be easy to ruin the book by giving anything away, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, if you love a bit of mystery, snark, and the Victorian age, this book may be for you. I think this is one of those stories that you have to unravel and sort through in your mind afterwards to really appreciate. I look forward to one day being able to revisit this tale and savor every detail. Recommended for JZ and Sunil.
Best in Salon: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind. I initially got this out of the library for my Paris book salon, but I didn’t finish it in time. Luckily, it also fits this month’s theme, Killer Thrillers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this story, but I know I didn’t expect to read something so creepy and yet so seductive. The descriptions of smells are incredible and really bring the story alive, as do the descriptions of 18th-century France, particularly Paris. It’s also a great mystery and, while you may think you know where it’s going, you really don’t. Recommended especially for John Marcher.
Best in Bones: Pure by Andrew Miller. I have an odd fascination with the Catacombs and cemeteries of Paris and this novel tells the story of the digging up of the mass graves in the Cimetière des Innocents and the removal of the bones to a quarry at the Porte d’Enfer (now the Place Denfert-Rochereau, where you’ll find the entrance to the Catacombs). It was interesting to view this event as an engineering project—I confess that in all my visits to the Catacombs, I hadn’t given the logistics much thought. I often have a problem with books set in Paris, historical or otherwise—either they try too hard, have too many “famous” people in them, or just don’t ring true. This felt incredibly natural and really brought this 1780s neighborhood to life, smells and all. It certainly made an interesting companion read to Perfume. Recommended for The Boys (in memory of one of my finest “Elaine” moments).
Best Movie Tie-In: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I picked this up after hearing it mentioned on The Readers podcast and seeing the exciting trailer. Of course, I still haven’t managed to see the movie yet, but the book was genuinely thrilling, like Turn of the Screw, but interesting and actually creepy. I think it has to do with the incredible prose. Hill’s descriptions really convey the gloomy, bleak atmosphere and the solitude of the landscape. It reminded me a lot of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Recommended for David.
Best Ballet Tie-In: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. I forced myself to read this before attending San Francisco Ballet’s Onegin (which, side note, was awesome and I’m thrilled it’s coming back next year). Pushkin’s tale is a classic of Russian literature, but I wasn’t sure if I would be into reading a classic novel in verse, especially a translated one. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed this story—there are humorous bits that make it seem quite modern as well as passages that are remarkably beautiful in their poetry. Recommended for La Belle Chantal.
Best Lesson Learned: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. This short book sucked away much of January and just a little bit of my soul. It did have moments of brilliance, notably in the poetic language of the “Time Passes” interlude, but I guess high-school me actually did know a thing or two, namely stay far away from Virginia Woolf.
What is the best thing you’ve read so far this year?