I'm not sure why (now that it's March) I am doing the 2014 Reading Wrap, except that I said I would -- and a few have said they were waiting for it! So hear goes! (I probably started this post about the time these photos were taken! Not quite, but it seems like it!)
I was going for 50 reads this year and it didn't happen. But I felt rather virtuous clocking in at 40, more than the past few years! And some of those had a lot of pages, so I don't feel too sad about not making it!
Here are a few of my favorites.
I love the biography/memoir group and this year raced through books by Calvin Trillin, Laurie Colwin (that ended up in another category but had enough memoir to count!), Katrina Kennison, Rachel Naomi Remen and more. And I learned about King George and Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother), Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria's children, Ginger Rogers, the Hammersteins, Maya Angelou and many others.
Here are my faves in no particular order in two categories:
Elizabeth the Queen by Sally Bedell Smith -- a well researched biography of the Queen written before the Jubilee celebrations (but barely before). This isn't your gossipy royals book, don't look for dirt on Diana, Fergie, Charles or the young princes. There is a heavy focus on the Queen and her role in political and international life, her relationship with advisors and her achievements. It takes you behind the scenes of power more than it does behind the private walls of Buckingham Palace (with the exception of the Queen's horse racing passion -- you'll learn lots about that!) Yes, you'll hear a little about Diana, Charles, Philip and the rest of the gang, but this is really a book for those who appreciate British history and are intrigued by more than the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy.
Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard -- Queen Victoria may have been succeeded on the throne by her son but her daughters were nothing to sniff at. The oldest, Princess Vicky, was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II (talk about a sticky wicket in WWI) and the others were remarkable as well. The book provides an interesting behind-the-walls-of-the-palace approach, revealing as much about the Queen as it does her daughters. Check out the family tree in front. No wonder there was a boatload of hemophilia in the ranks.
The Hammersteins by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein -- This biography covers three generations of the musical family from the first impresario to the man who put words to South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma, among others. Hardcover and well written with lots of photos, it is an interesting look at how musical styles and passions evolved over the generations.
Paris Letters by Janice Macleod --Many bloggers know Janice Macleod from her delightful blog. This enchanting books tells how she decided to travel and live in Paris for a year (which meant, of course, leaving her successful job and raising enough money to be able to afford to do that). While there, she meets the butcher of her dreams and begins a new life (part of which includes sending a monthly letter, the proceeds helping to support her stay.) It's a delightful book, fun and funny, smart and charming -- and of course, it's set (mostly) in Paris!
My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen -- I've loved the work of Rachel Naomi Remen ever since I saw her on Bill Moyers' 1990s series "Healing and the Mind." "My Grandfather's Blessings" is a series of essays written by this articulate, wise and most delightful medical professional. Many of the short essays are stories related to her patients who are having challenging times (some coping with very serious illnesses) and how they work through those things. Others are stories about the time spent with her beloved grandfather. The miracle is how they all work together. This is one of those books you can pick up and put down because each story (some only two or three pages long) is self-contained. But you'll want to keep reading once you start. And you'll wish she was your doctor.
Magical Journey by Katrina Kennison -- Another book by a blogger! In a sense, this is a "finding yourself" book but it doesn't come across at all preachy or self-righteous. Kennison is facing a dilemma many women of a certain age feel -- what happens when your kids are off at school and your home routine is different, your friends are dying and you feel your life is changing? In a delightful style, she explains her magical journey. (For a sample, click here.)
Best Fiction (non-mystery)
I read a few pretty lousy fiction books along with some that were fine but not "Boy, I really thought that lived up to or exceeded expectations." These are my favorites.
Paris by Edward Rutherfurd -- I love this man's work. Rutherfurd takes the story of a city and tells it through generations of characters whose family lives intersect over six centuries. You'll find a nobleman, a revolutionary, a worker who helped build the Eiffel Tower, a bourgouis merchant and several others whose descendants' cross paths. All this is set against a background of a city that includes revolutions, the dawn of an industrial age, remarkable artists, and several wars. Your don't have to adore Paris as I do to love this book and find it fascinating (but if you do, what a bonus!)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel -- Here's one for the historical fiction lovers who are into British history. The first in a series of three books (the third yet to come), Wolf Hall focuses on Thomas Cromwell who rises from the streets to become one of Henry VIII's most trusted advisors (for a time, at least -- but the bitter end comes in a later book). This one focuses primarily on the crisis that occurs when the King wants to divorce his wife and wed Anne Boleyn, causing a schism in the church (and bringing about the Church of England). Mantell is a fine writer and while it took me a bit to sink into this one, once I did, I couldn't let go. Incidentally, "Wolf Hall" is part of the upcoming PBS "Masterpiece" series with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. It begins in March.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks -- Here's another surprise, my first Geraldine Brooks book, this one inspired by the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. (Events in this book are fiction, using the still-uncertain historical events as inspiration, not fact.) Hanna is a book conservator who is called in to examine this remarkable book, written centuries ago and saved from the Nazis during WWII. Written as a combination of Hanna's contemporary story and flashbacks focusing on how the book finally landed where it now was, in the museum, and how it came to be written in the first place is both detective story and an intriguing struggle of human perseverance. (In the epilogue of the book, Brooks separates her fiction from fact, a useful bit for those who like to know where the reality ends and the story begins.)
I added in a few trashy mysteries (the kind you read on the beach or when you really need a break from something heavy) but my favorites were the series, including several Aimee Leduc mysteries set in Paris by Cara Black, a fun Ruth Rendell and even Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," an oldie from a yard sale. I've mentioned Cara Black here before and the fact I've read all her books is a good sign. My two favorites this year were:
Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May Series (I read "Full Dark House" and "The Water Room.") -- This is a wonderful series featuring two aging detectives whose track record keeps them on the force despite their idiosyncrasies. Arthur Bryant is particularly eccentric, while John May makes a fine balance for him. I recommend starting the series with "Full Dark House," which is set in both contemporary times but is often played as a flashbacks to their first case together when May determines that an accident involving Bryant may have leads going back to their first case around World War II, involving the theatrical community. Then read in order, with "The Water Room" next. Neither will disappoint. Nor can you race through these -- and you won't want to!
Susan Elia MacNeal's "Maggie Hope" Series (I read the first three) is not what I'd call great literature but they sure are fun! Set during World War II, the three I read this year (Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Princess Elizabeth's Spy -- a re-read -- and Her Majesty's Hope) focus on a young woman whose work at Bletchley Park evolves into her becoming part of the secret service. In the third book, she is sent on a mission to Germany. The details are good, the characters fun and intriguing. It was worth the time!
Interested in starting a winery in Tuscany, moving to France to open a cooking school, having a perfect party (Sally Quinn has the scoop!)? I read about them all. Two come to the top of the list:
On Rue Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis -- I LOVED this book. It falls into the "woman moves to France" category and in this case the woman is a cookbook author who moves not to Paris but to Normandy. In addition to learning about the home reno (it helps to have a handy husband) it's also a story of assimilation into a different culture as her family (she also has a young son) take on new friendships, new experiences, and new flavors. I loved reading about their conversion of the convent to a home, her experiences studying cooking in Paris before making her move, the challenges of moving into a relatively close-knit community and building a bond with her neighbors. The delicious-sounding recipes are an extra bonus! (When looking up something for this post I discovered her blog and will add myself to its list of regular visitors!)
More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin -- This is an oldie. I had long loved this late writer's original "Home Cooking" volume but hadn't discovered "More." She adds to the original with more stories, more recipes and more warmth and love. Hers is a life cut short but fortunately I have a stack of her books, including this one, to remind me of her talent and story-telling skill. (There's a recipe there I'm dying to try -- maybe today!)
Best Non-Fiction not in other categories
Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson -- Now this one was a treat! It's not light reading but it is fascinating and I have to thank Jenny Bloxsome, with whom I was paired in a swap, for this one. (The swap was a couple of years ago but I finally read it and boy -- it's good). This is history, women's history. When World War I hit, the toll on human life was extraordinary. And most of those soldiers were some of England's best and brightest. They were also some of England's most marriageable insofar as age was concerned. When they left for war and didn't return it left a huge number of "surplus women" -- women who had been raised to marry, not raised to find careers or life a life alone. Nicholson looks at this group of women who, through necessity as much as anything else, launched into an array of new experiences. Some became well known educators, doctors, leaders. Other "spinsters" were seamstresses or cared for their aging parents. Some developed loving relationships with other women, forming a powerful bond. In the years of suffrage, there were many changes -- and for some, it was the war that drove that change. The book is fascinating and well worth reading.
Humor is tough and even Jon Stewart didn't do it for me on the printed page. Only one did:
The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster -- Consider devoting a year of your life to trying to be like Martha. Entertaining like her. Cooking like her. Crafting like her. Decorating like her. For some, it might be easy. For Jen Lancaster, it was a mixed bag which she shared in laugh-out-loud detail.
Best Animal Book
I read several books where animals played a key role. Two stood out for different reasons.
Purr Therapy by Dr. Kathy McCoy -- I wrote about this before HERE. Blogger Kathy McCoy always has wonderful and thought-provoking posts with a credibility that is solid, based on her years as a practicing psychologist. But when she brought one of her cats to the office one day, she discovered that the power of this small animal to make a big difference in treating some of her clients was outstanding. Kathy shares the stories of Timmy and Marina, her therapy cats, their tough starts in life as rescue animals and their careers in practice. Forewarned, there are tears to come. We all know that animals don't live forever and there is an additional bit of tragedy related to the horrific cat food scandal. But you cry because you love these kits so much. (Kathy's tips related to the stories she shares are also well worth reading. I loved this book with no immediate challenges in my life; I sure wish I had read it when I did.)
Particularly Cats by Doris Lessing -- This is a very different book, small and intimate. Author Doris Lessing focuses on the cats in her life. This very short book acquaints you with the animals in her life, their characteristics and idiosyncrasies. You'll also learn about the author's childhood in the African bush, her life in Devon and why she loves Black Cat and Gray Cat so much. Of course, when you are dealing with work by a Nobel Prize-winning author, you can count on intelligent and articulate language and style, too.
Most disappointing books
Some books you read and they disappoint you because they just aren't very good. But when they are widely hyped and even win major awards, the disappointment is all the greater. Two fell into this category. I feel my explanations need to be a bit longer to justify why these two books -- highly acclaimed and well reviewed, both by greatly respected authors -- didn't float my boat.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt -- I don't think anyone who has read Donna Tartt and this book in particular will doubt that her mastery of the written word is exquisite. Nor will they argue with a plot that is complex and intriguing. It's just that she couldn't stop. I've rarely read a book so redundant. There is redundancy for style and then there is just not knowing when to stop. I'm not sure which happened here. Had her editor forced her to knock out about 150 pages of this 700+ page book, we wouldn't have lost a bit of plot or character and I would have put it high on the list. (I put the blame largely on the editor, though sometimes if the author is powerful enough, there's not a lot one can do. Not sure what happened here.)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson -- I love Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mysteries, so while I knew this wasn't a "Brodie Book," I was pleased when our book club chose it. Pleased because of the author, of course, but also that a chunk of it is set during my favorite World War II period and in Britain, so I should love it, right?
No. It was just confusing. To put it simplistically, the heroine, Ursula, keeps dying over and over again. And when she does her life begins again and circumstances work out differently. Then she dies again and it's another do-over. In this case, redundancy is part of the style. She dies as a kid, in the war, being born, just about everywhere she can die. Now, you can bring in the metaphysical and parallel lives and that's fine. But I was just totally confused throughout. Finally, and the only way I could get through this, was to think of it like "Rashomon" -- same story, different endings. If you do this, then that happens. If something else occurs, then the outcome is different.
I don't mind working hard when I read -- but this one wasn't worth the work for me.
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