Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 : a year in books

The White Witch, Elizabeth Goudge. 439 pages, historical fiction. (A re-read) 
I want to see this made into a movie.  Goudge is usually a bit sentimental for my taste but this was an even-handed portrait of Puritans and Catholics caught up in the English Civil war.  But you don't read it for that.  Romantic tale, stirring events, the cosy interiors, mysterious happenings and vivid characterizations make this a delight.   A strong and complicated female protagonist and scenes as precisely and deftly painted is if the work of a gifted miniaturist. 

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr. 531 pages, historical novel set in WWII France.
One of the most beautiful books I've ever read.  Like the intricate puzzle boxes the blind heroine's locksmith father builds for her each Christmas, this novel of courage and kindness in Nazi-occupied France is full of endless surprises.  I will read this again. Incandescent.

The Cheese and the Worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller, Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. 177 pages, medieval history.  
The vernacular religion and popular culture of northern Italy recovered in this quirky medieval history taken from the Inquisition's trial records of Menocchio, independent thinker and surprisingly literate peasant, who passes his time quarreling with his neighbors and flogging a theory of the universe that jives more closely with today's scientific theories than the theology of his day.

Glass of Blessing, Barbara Pym. 256 pages, brilliant novel.  Also An Unsuitable Attachment, 256 pages; Civil to Stranger, and other writings, 388 pages.  
Re-reads.  Still refreshing.  Still funny.  Even over and over. I love Barbara Pym, her wit, her humanity and her mordant humor.

Lyrics Alley, Leila Aboulela.  310 pages, autobiographical novel.  Based on the author's family history in Sudan in the 1950s as British rule ends about the pull between tradition and progress and the consolations of poetry.  Rich and engrossing, exquisitely detailed, engagingly told from multiple points of view.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer. 326 pages, novel.  Maybe the most delightful character ever created, Oskar Schell, 9 year-old survivor in New York City after the dearth of his father in the Twin Towers.  This story is profound and sweet, deep and light and reading it restores my hope in humanity. 

Together Tea, Marjan Kamali.  321 pages, mother-daughter novel.  Loved this!  Set in the mid-90s in New York and Tehran.  Sweet and realistic relationships, appealing dynamic, likable characters.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan. 239 pages, experimental novel.  Dazzling work that shifts tantalizingly between stories that may be the same story.  The plot circles and twists around an ancient castle which two estranged cousins are working to restore.  Also A Visit from the Good Squad, which flickers from scene to scene in the messed-up life arc of lost souls within the music industry.  I can't say why I like these two novels, which are hard-bitten and sour but at the same time full of a lush yearning.  The mastery of the writing leaves me in a state of awe.

Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson.  556 pages, memoir. The kind of history I like best -- the intimate, grass-roots individuals of a farming village in Oxfordshire England during the lean years post-Enclosures with a memory still of the more prosperous times when country folk had access to the common.  The idea of the common.  The TV-miniseries on BBC has charm but lacks the depth and breadth of the book. 

Two Wheels North - Cycling the West Coast in 1909 - Evelyn McDaniel Gibb. 181 pages, memoir written by the daughter of one of the young men who bikes from California to the world's fair in 1909.  A captivating account of a journey that today we can only dream about--one that finds two boys on the road not only to Seattle, but also to manhood.  We read this aloud during our two-week bike trek to all the state parks centered around Portland - so we covered some of the same territory as we read about it.

Shepherdess of Sheep  by Noel Streatfeild  (also, Caroline England.  360 pages), novels of the era between the wars in England.
Streatfeild is the prolific author of the delightful children's books Ballet Shoes, Theatre Shoes, etc.  These are books for adults.  Tragic stories with comic heroines, in the the classical sense.  I love these main characters, unsinkable and cheerful women who choose their lives and then live with the consequences.  Their stories don't end with bluebirds and butterflies, but there is an austere and bedrock beauty to these lives that gives me courage.

Pied Piper - Nevill Shute. 303 pages, novel that reads like a memoir.
John Howard is determined to brighten up his old age by taking a fishing trip to France. However, during his stay the Nazis invade and he is forced to try to escape back to England with the two small children of some friends who are forced to stay behind in order to help the Allied war effort.  Another wonderful read-aloud for teenage boys.
Eating on the Wild Side - Jo Robinson.  407 pages, nutrition.
Starting with the wild plants that were central to our original diet, investigative journalist Robinson reveals the nutritional history of our fruits and vegetables, describing how 400 generations of farmers have unwittingly squandered a host of essential fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  With a useful index of varieties that are still the most full of natural goodness.

Happy City: transforming our lives through urban design - Charles Montgomery. 358 pages, city planning.
A journalist travels the world and investigates current socioeconomic theories of happiness to discover why most modern cities are designed to make us miserable, what we can do to change this, and why we have more to learn from poor cities than from prosperous ones

A Pure Clear Light - Madeleine St. John. 233 pages (also The Essence of the Thing. 234 pages), comedy of manners, novels of modern London.  
The writing is utterly limpid and the characterization deft.  Modern marriage, matters of faith, the necessary compromises.

How to Travel Incognito - Ludwig Bemelmans. 244 pages, comic novel that sets itself up as an autobiographical memoir and how-to travel cheap in France.  

Exuberant, droll, lyrical.  Take your pick. Take your time.  Take your pleasure with this 1950s comic classic by the author of the beloved Madeline books.  Such a spirit of innocence and cheer in this ridiculous story.

Perennial Vegetables:  From Artichoke to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-grow Edibles - Eric Toensmeier. 241 pages, gardening.
Fantastic resource for planting a garden that looks great from the garden to your plate.

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat It Too - Judd, Michael. 143 pages, gardening
Great pictures for inspiration and useful instructions to actually get you there.

The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy A Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen - America's Test Kitchen. 486 pages, cookbook with scientific explanations. 
First, everything I cook from this tastes terrific. Secondly, I love knowing why so I can get similar results by applying simple but expert techniques to old recipes.  This is a great resource -- with a couple of friends we're meeting monthly to work our way through the sections.  Such fun! Such yum!

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