Monday, March 9, 2015

The 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

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:

Formal Biography 

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.

Personal Memoir

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.)

Best Mysteries

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!

Foodie/Party/Homey Books

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.

Best Humor

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.


Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

What adorable photos! And they are so appropriate to illustrate this most interesting post. It certainly appears that you have always been an avid reader!

Beth Leintz said...

You have a very diverse taste in books. Im surprised to see so many authors i've never heard of...only because we have so much in common otherwise. Im going to take notes from your post and try to read something completely different.

I read Laurie Colwins books years ago, it might be time fir a reread. I agree completely about The Goldfinch....too too long.

Marilyn Miller said...

Oh my, I love your list. I have read the Cara Black mysteries and Paris. I didn't even finish The Goldfinch I thought it was so bad and I read at least half of it before I stopped. I couldn't believe it was on the best sellers list. Been wanting to read the blogger that moved to Paris for a year and met the butcher, must do that. Thanks Jeanie!

Cheryl said...

Um... your supposed to read books? and not tear them up and use them for art? On nuts, I am always the last to know things lol
big hugs!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanie! Oh, I'm so proud of you - 40 books is a lot! I need to read more and pay attention to your list. These snaps are adorable. Is that little girl you? Thanks for popping in to see me and I hope you're having a great week.
Be a sweetie,
Shelia ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanie! Oh, I'm so proud of you - 40 books is a lot! I need to read more and pay attention to your list. These snaps are adorable. Is that little girl you? Thanks for popping in to see me and I hope you're having a great week.
Be a sweetie,
Shelia ;)

Jenny Woolf said...

Interesting what you said about Kate Atkinson. She is one of my favourite writers and I didn't mind this book, but I do feel that in some ways she has gone off the boil as far as plots go.
I'm impressed by your wide reading tastes and thank you for taking the troule to write it all out. I often take recommendations from other bloggers about what to read.

Jenny Woolf said...

Interesting what you said about Kate Atkinson. She is one of my favourite writers and I didn't mind this book, but I do feel that in some ways she has gone off the boil as far as plots go.
I'm impressed by your wide reading tastes and thank you for taking the troule to write it all out. I often take recommendations from other bloggers about what to read.

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Great post! Better late than never with the 'best of' posts! I like that you included the 'misses'. I bought Goldfinch when the eBook was on sale at B&N and now I am debating whether it's worth the time I'll have to invest to read it... most have said that they really did not care for it and that it drug on and on so I feel like maybe it's one to skip...

One book on this list that I KNOW I'll be reading is Paris Letters! I already own that one and can't wait to check it out.

I think you should be proud of the number of books you read as well as the wide variety of books you read in 2014! Oh and I am so glad that you loved Paris, too! That was my first Rutherfurd book - I must read his others!!

Jennifer Richardson said...

There you go inspiring me to read more and again stretching my world wider. I so appreciate you for that:)
And the pics of you reading in blissful peace, undisturbed by grown up distractions, brought such a deep breath of yes and remember:)
I appreciate that, too:)

skiourophile said...

I loved Singled Out too - such a wide-ranging book: one felt there was something for all interests. And beautifully written. I also really liked the first Bryant and May book - haven't read any more yet, but it had such an appealing quirkiness - so different! - that I am sure to read more.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

First of all, how LUCKY are you to have all these darling photos of you reading as a child! LOVELY! And like you, I've made promises in the past to myself that I'd read a certain quota of books. That never happened UNTIL I stopped blogging! YES! I have now devoured more poetry books than I ever did, during the school year! I hope to keep up this pace and more during the summer months.

Good to read your picks, Jeanie!

Tracy said...

Look at that CUTIE PIE reading all those photos!! ;o) Such a great VARIETY of reading, Jeanie! My hat off to you. Adding the Virginia Nicholson book to my reading list. I loved her book "Among the Bohemians" from a few years back. I see she has a book on the 1950's housewives coming up this summer-"Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes" haha... Happy Week, my friend ((HUGS))

Joanne Huffman said...

I love your book reviews and the pictures you posted are absolutely perfect! I never made it through The Goldfinch. I am currently happily into the first quarter of Full Dark Horse and already look forward to continuing on with the series.

~*~Patty S said...

Forty books is nothing to sneeze at = Wonderful times!
Darling pics of you as always too Jeanie.

littleRamstudio said...

The BBC has recently produced Wolf Hall for TV and it is absolutely wonderful!
The actor playing the role of Thomas Cromwell is Mark Rylance, the foremost stage actor we have here in UK at present. He is hypnotic to watch.
Do hope you get to see it!
Heather :)

Janet said...

LOVE the photos!! And thanks for all the book recommendations that I can now add to my list of "to read"...there are several that look interesting to me.

Mari said...

Wow you are very impressive to be able too keep the habit of reading since childhood. You look so cute as a child by the way, especially with that lovely curl :)

I've bookmarked this post 'coz I'm planning to check out some of these books later. The "People of the Book" sounds good to me. The ones I've read recently are quite depressing, mostly about war (Russian history & Japanese occupation in China). You see, I have already left the country but the interest didn't leave me :)

The book about Royal family might bring a new air to me. Thanks for providing your thoughts about the books. In that way, it's easier for me to pick one. I also have checked the blogger-writers you've mentioned, would love to read their blogs.

The French Hutch said...

I think your doing fabulous with forty! Great post and I love all the photos, just precious Jeanie.


Victoria Zigler said...

There are a couple that sound really good among that list.

Oh, and 40 books is a good number! OK, so I read more. But most people don't manage to read even half as many books as I do. Besides, reading at all is what counts!

Becca said...

Well you’ve given me some to add to my list!

BTW, I’m so happy you enjoyed Katrina Kenison’s book. She is my idol ;)
And I also love the Maggie Hope series! Great historical mysteries.

My goal for this year is 100 books. I’ve never formally made a reading goal for myself, but I noticed that since I have, I’m much more inclined to pick up a book and read rather than surf the internet, so I think it’s a good thing. Wish me luck!

anno said...

What a great post, and one I'll be returning to often in the year to come: thanks so much for all the pointers to some terrific reading.

Hard to believe, I know, but I think this might be more important to me than even the wonderful recommendations from the always wonderful wine poppers crew...

Optimistic Existentialist said...

The Maggie Hope series sounds very interesting!!

Barb said...

I love all your adorable reading photos, Jeanie. Now, you've made me feel guilty! I haven't finished my 2014 book reviews while I'm well on my way to being overwhelmed with books I've already read in 2015 and haven't reviewed. I'm thinking of giving up on my book review page. It's so much work to keep after it because I'm reading all the time. I've added some of your books to my samples on Kindle - thanks!

Anonymous said...

Obviously, my family wasn't into taking photos of me as a child, because surely they would have had at least one of me reading! That's about all I ever did! Your photos are adorable!

I intended to do a review of Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth after that little snippet I posted early on, but never got around to it. You really should put it on your TBR list for this year. It is wonderful, and you will love the Rapunzel story that's woven into it.

I've had The Goldfinch on my tablet for a year and haven't gotten around to reading it, so now...well, I paid for it, so I guess I'll read it someday. How disappointing, since I loved her first book.

Arti said...

This is an impressive list, Jeanie, and a great post both in words and visuals. Love all those sweet reading photos! As for The Goldfinch, I listened to the audiobook. I liked the first part but can't say the latter. It's like two different books. You're right, maybe this ought to be split into two books.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Wow...thanks so much, Jeanie! I'm so honored that Purr Therapy made your list of favorites! Your whole list was just fascinating! Good for you!! And I really love those old pictures of you reading!

Maggie said...

Such an eclectic choice, it was fascinating to read your critique well done on reaching 40.

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