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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

favorite books 2016 part 1

We are halfway through the year already, and I’m reading at my usual breakneck pace – nearly 130 books. I talk about what I’m reading in my semi-monthly roundups, but I wanted to share the best of my reading year (so far) with you.

Here are the books I have loved the most this year. (Not all of them were published in 2016, though about half of them were.)

Book That Best Embodies Its Title: Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett. She writes with such grace and (yes) wisdom about the Big Questions of what it means to be human, and draws many other voices into that conversation. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time. So many great, thought-provoking sentences.

Loveliest Quiet Novel: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. This gorgeously written novel follows the intertwined lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, over several decades. Beautiful, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and wise. A book worth reading and rereading. (Recommended by Anne and others.)

Most Captivating Young Adult Adventure Story: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson. I loved every page of Leah Westfall’s journey from her Georgia homestead to the gold fields of California. She’s hiding a lot of secrets (including her ability to sense gold), but she is strong, compassionate and utterly human. I wrote about this book for Great New Books.

Most Sweeping, Heartbreaking, Absorbing Epic Novel: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Four words: my dad was right. I should have read this years ago, but I’m so glad I finally did. I fell head over heels for Augustus McCrae, Woodrow F. Call, and their band of cowboys and wanderers, making the journey from Texas to Montana. It’s long, but powerfully rendered in simple prose. So good.

Wisest Memoir on Faith, Seasons and Home: Roots and Sky by Christie Purifoy. I loved Christie’s honest, lyrical writing about making a home with her family in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, and the struggles of staying put and building a worthwhile life. Luminous, clear-eyed and utterly lovely.

Freshest Take on Holmes & Watson: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, which reimagines Holmes and Watson as 21st-century teenagers at a Connecticut boarding school. Charlotte Holmes is sharp, jagged and brilliant, and Jamie Watson is insightful and kind. (The dialogue is fantastic.)

Most Insightful Foodie Memoir: Stir by Jessica Fechtor, which recounts the author’s journey to recovery after a brain aneurysm, and how she found her everyday (and a lot of delicious, life-giving meals) in the kitchen. Warm, wry and beautifully written, with so many insightful lines on food, family and living well.

Most Brilliant Homage to a Classic: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, whose orphaned protagonist loves Jane Eyre but is not nearly so meek as that other Jane. Whip-smart writing, some truly wonderful supporting characters and so many fantastic lines.

Best Combination of Recipe Inspiration and Food Haiku: My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl, which includes mouthwatering recipes, lyrical tweets and some plainspoken wisdom about a tough year in Reichl’s life.

Best Reread: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, which pulled me out of a serious reading slump. Beautifully written, deeply compassionate and so smart.

Best Book About Science and Life for Non-Scientists: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. A memoir about botany and building a life. Fascinating, sarcastic, lovely and wise.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are the best books you’ve read so far in 2016?

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red books flowers

I’ve been diving into allll the books this month – several of them on vacation (of which more soon). Here’s the latest roundup:

When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins
North Carolina native Lauren Collins never expected to fall in love with a Frenchman. But when she found herself married to Olivier and living in Geneva, she decided to get serious about learning French. Her memoir muses on the difficulties of language and culture clashes, American monolingualism and the blending of two families. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s graphic novel tells the story of her childhood in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Powerful, often irreverent, sometimes funny. I reread this one for the RTFEBC (though it is definitely for older kids/teens).

The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
This novel is the first pick for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s online Summer Reading Club. It follows the friendship between an 11-year-old boy and Miss Ona Vitkus, age 104 (he’s recording her life story on tape). Funny, poignant and sweet without being saccharine. So many wonderful lines.

The Darkness Knows, Cheryl Honigford
Vivian Witchell is an aspiring radio actress in 1930s Chicago. She’s just landed a plum new role when one of her colleagues is murdered – and Vivian is threatened. With the help of a handsome private eye, Vivian is determined to catch the killer. A fun period mystery; I loved the radio details. Vivian is spunky (if a little bullheaded) and engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

At the Edge of Summer, Jessica Brockmole
In the summer of 1911, orphaned Clare Ross arrives at a quiet French chateau. She forges a deep friendship with Luc, the house’s son, but they are separated by life and war. Years later, they meet again in Paris and must try to bridge the gaps of time and grief. A subtle, lovely story of art, love and human connection, beautifully told.

The Unexpected Everything, Morgan Matson
Andie Walker always has a plan. She’s all set for a summer program at Johns Hopkins when a political scandal (her dad’s a congressman) puts her back at square one. Suddenly, Andie finds herself working as a dog walker and spending hours with a very cute boy. It’s idyllic, until a series of secrets threatens to ruin everything. I love Matson’s smart, sensitive, fun YA novels, and this one is great. Especially fun for writers, as Anne said.

Arsenic for Tea, Robin Stevens
Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the school holidays. When an unlikable houseguest is poisoned at afternoon tea, the girls take on the case. A really fun second mystery featuring these characters – so very English. (I have the UK edition; link is to the U.S. edition, called Poison is Not Polite.)

The Invitation, Lucy Foley
A glamorous party in Rome. A chance encounter. English journalist Hal never expects to see the mysterious Stella again. But a year later, they meet on a yacht, both of them loosely tied to a movie cast sailing to Cannes for the premiere of a new film. A gorgeous, bittersweet novel of loss and redemption, alternating between the Spanish Civil War and 1950s Italy. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
Polly Waterford has a lovely little bakery, a doting boyfriend, a pet puffin and a quirky home in an old lighthouse. But when her landlady dies and her boyfriend has to go back to the U.S. for work, her carefully constructed life begins to unravel. A sweet (though often really sad) novel about baking, second chances and fighting to hold onto the good.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Plumb siblings are arguing about money again. Years ago, their father set up a modest trust fund (“The Nest”), and they were all counting on it until Leo, the eldest, got himself into trouble and their mother used The Nest to bail him out. Now, they all may have to reimagine their financial futures and rethink their relationships to one another. A smart, satirical but warmhearted novel of family and finances. (The second pick for the MMD Summer Reading Club.)

Lois Lane: Double Down, Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane, girl reporter, finally has friends and a place to belong: the Scoop, teen arm of the Daily Planet. Her second adventure involves following her nose to a big story involving the mayor’s office, her best friend’s sister and some seriously weird mind control. Lois is snarky but compassionate (think Veronica Mars) and her supporting cast is great. So fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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roots and sky book table sunglasses

What does it mean to come home?

How does a person, or a family, decide to build a home in our frantic, increasingly mobile society? Is it possible to set down genuine roots in a place far from where you grew up? And how is the concept of “home” intertwined with making, and living, a meaningful life?

Christie Purifoy doesn’t answer all these questions in her memoir, Roots and Sky. But she wrestles with them, in honest, lyrical prose.

Roots and Sky is the story of how Christie, her husband, and their four children have made a home at Maplehurst, an old farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania. That journey, like so many worthwhile ones, has been both more difficult and more beautiful than they imagined.

Like me, Christie is a Texas girl who has traveled far from her childhood home: first to Chicago, then to Florida, then eventually to Maplehurst. I nodded my head as I read her words about travel and movement, about the longing to arrive. She wanted a place where she and her family could set down roots, where they could live into the rhythm of the seasons. At Maplehurst, she found a solid foundation – but quickly realized she had underestimated the work of building it up.

I’m back at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Roots and Sky. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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book stack purple tulips

The latest library stack (above) came in the week before Commencement, which caused a tiny bit of panic over here. But I’m working through it. Here’s the latest roundup:

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
Jahren is a botanist who has built three successful labs, and this memoir tells the story of her career and her longtime bond with her lab partner, Bill. Gorgeous writing, wry humor, and wonderful insights on plants and people. (Also: packed with fascinating information but not didactic at all.) Recommended by Lindsey and by Ann at Books on the Nightstand.

Model Misfit, Holly Smale
Geeky teen model Harriet Manners finds herself spending the summer in Japan for a modeling gig, where everything promptly goes wrong. I like Harriet but couldn’t quite believe she was that clueless. Really fun supporting characters and a great setting, though.

Mother-Daughter Book Camp, Heather Vogel Frederick
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Frederick’s series about a group of teenage girls in Concord, Mass., who start a book club with their mothers. This final volume takes them to summer camp, where they’re working as counselors before heading to college (sniff). They start a book club with their campers to counter homesickness. Super sweet and funny. A great ending to the series.

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, Louise Miller
When pastry chef Olivia Rawlings sets her workplace on fire, she flees Boston for tiny Guthrie, Vermont, where her best friend helps her find a job baking at the Sugar Maple Inn. The owner is stern but the locals are kind – but Livvy, used to leaving and being left, isn’t sure she can settle down in Guthrie. A heartwarming debut novel with mouthwatering descriptions of pastry and really engaging characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
Kell is one of a dying breed: Antari, magicians who can slip through the doors between worlds. As he navigates between three different Londons (Red, Grey and White), he stumbles upon a dangerous talisman from the fabled Black London and meets Lila, a trenchant pickpocket who proves a worthy partner in crime. A gripping, fast-paced fantasy novel, but I was seriously creeped out by some of the magic. Recommended by Jaclyn and Leigh.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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time to read clock mv

May is a crazy month when you work in higher education. This May is especially so, since I’m temping at the Harvard Gazette and we are in the thick of Commencement madness. (Three days to go!)

Here, the books that are keeping me sane:

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett
Tippett is the longtime host of On Being, a radio show that examines the big questions of what it means to be human. This memoir beautifully distills what she has learned from her conversation partners over nearly 15 years. Her insights are grouped into five big categories: words, flesh, love, faith and hope (which all overlap). Lots of quotes from On Being guests, who range from physicists to poets (and everyone in between). Tippett writes in luminous, wise prose. Absolutely stunning on every page. If I could give it six stars (out of five), I would.

Geek Girl, Holly Smale
Harriet Manners is a geek – a fact she mostly embraces, though it occasionally causes her great social pain at school. But when she gets “spotted” by a modeling agency, Harriet wonders if this is her chance to reinvent herself. Smart, British, wacky and so much fun. Found at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard.

Thursdays with the Crown, Jessica Day George
Princess Celie, her siblings and their friend Prince Lulath end up in a different world by accident, and must outsmart two evil wizards to get back home (with a load of griffin eggs). These characters are fun and engaging, though the magic in this book didn’t really hold together. Book 3 in a series.

Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, ed. Mary Savig
This book is exactly what it sounds like: full-color scans of handwritten letters by visual artists, each accompanied by a brief essay from a scholar or curator. Engaging and unusual. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 14).

First Comes Love, Emily Giffin
Sisters Josie and Meredith have always had a fractious relationship, made more so by their brother’s tragic death 15 years ago. Now Meredith is at a crisis point in her marriage and Josie is contemplating single motherhood. Giffin deftly explores the complex bonds between sisters and the ways we can both wound and heal each other. I’ve read three of her other books (my sister loves them) and I thought this one (her eighth) was a big leap forward. She’s really matured as a writer. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 28).

The Forgotten Room, Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig
I picked up this historical novel (which shifts between three different periods and narrators in NYC) because I love Williams’ elegant, witty novels about the Schuyler family. This one doesn’t glitter quite like her others, but it’s a rich, engaging story of three women who are all connected (to each other and the Schuylers) I saw several twists coming a mile away, but there were a couple I didn’t expect. I particularly liked Dr. Kate Schuyler, fighting to make her way as an independent woman in 1944.

Fridays with the Wizards, Jessica Day George
Princess Celie and her friends are safely home in Sleyne. But trouble strikes when an evil wizard disappears and then starts making mischief in Celie’s beloved Castle. Book 4 in a series.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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central park yellow flowers nyc

Confession: I had a hard time at first coming up with books for this post.

There are a million books set in NYC, but the New York in my head is the New York of TV and movies: Friends, Castle, pretty much every Nora Ephron film ever made. (I once spent an entire solo vacation pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.) Plus, New York is always changing: every book set there captures a slightly different city, filtered through a different historical era or narrator’s perspective.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t gather up a handful of books about this beautiful, gritty, bewitching city. So here are my New York favorites for you. Please add yours in the comments!

Children’s Lit/Classics

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I loved this book as a child – dreamy Francie, her hardworking mother and exuberant Aunt Sissy, and the hope and heartbreak of growing up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn.

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I adore this first book in the Melendy series, about four siblings who live in a big, comfortably shabby brownstone with their father and their housekeeper-general, Cuffy. The siblings take turns exploring the city by themselves on Saturdays, and the sense of wonder and independence is exactly right.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsberg
Claudia and her little brother Jamie run away from home – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one does. When I visited the Met for the first time as an adult, I thought about them sneaking through the halls at night and scrounging coins from the fountain.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet’s childhood was so different from mine: a brownstone with a dumbwaiter! Ole Golly! Tomato sandwiches and chocolate egg creams! It all seemed fantastically exotic to me. But Harriet is a New York girl through and through.

Remember Me to Harold Square, Paula Danziger
This fun middle-grade novel is built around a New York scavenger hunt undertaken by three kids – so it contains lots of city trivia. But it’s fast-paced, funny and highly entertaining.

strand books nyc exterior

Nonfiction/Memoir

Here is New York, E.B. White
White wrote this long essay in 1949, after the city and the world had been transformed by two world wars. But reading it in the wake of 9/11, it still feels eerily relevant. He evokes so well the combination of hope and possibility and fear, the vibrant rhythm of the city streets. (I found my copy at the Strand, pictured above.)

Act One, Moss Hart
An inside look at the mid-century NYC theatre world from one of the great playwrights. Hart’s voice is wry, witty and warm. (I picked this one up at Three Lives & Co. in the West Village.)

My First New York, various authors
New York is beautiful and brutal, and it glitters with possibility. This collection of about 50 essays captures the dazzling range of New York experiences: gorgeous, bewildering, always exciting. (I bought my copy at Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side.)

Eat the City, Robin Shulman
Despite its reputation as a concrete jungle, NYC teems with food production: gardens, breweries, farms. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. (Another Strand find.)

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Colwin writes with wit and grace about food, love, and tiny New York apartments. I especially love “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.”

Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
Reichl visited dozens of restaurants as the New York Times food critic, often in disguise. This is a rarefied New York, but it’s so much fun (and mouthwateringly described).

brooklyn brownstones light

Fiction

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
A glittering tale of high society, love and ambition in 1930s New York. Gorgeously written.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
A razor-sharp, elegantly written imagining of Truman Capote and the circle of wealthy socialite “swans,” notably Babe Paley, who were his darlings in 1950s NYC.

The View from Penthouse B and The Family Man, Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes witty comedies of manners, and these two novels both draw New York in quick, loving strokes.

Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok
Kwok’s novels both feature Chinese-American protagonists struggling to make their way in NYC. She draws the sharp contrasts of New York – enormous privilege next to great poverty; immigrant traditions and the siren call of the new – so well.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This novel is tragic, moving and sometimes very funny . It is an incredible mosaic of New York: all the lives and the loneliness (and the post-9/11 cocktail of fear, love and loss).

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Eilis Lacey emigrates from her small Irish town to Brooklyn in the 1950s, struggling to build a life for herself. This is a lovely evocation of a vanished New York, with a quietly appealing main character.

Bunheads, Sophie Flack
A well-written YA novel about a young ballet dancer in New York – who starts to wonder if the world of ballet is where she truly belongs. Captures the constant possibility that thrums through the city.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are your favorite books about (or set in) NYC?

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bunch of grapes bookstore marthas vineyard ma

We began May with a string of grey, rainy days – which are good reading weather, if nothing else. (We did get some sunshine while visiting the enchanting Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on our Martha’s Vineyard trip.)

Here, the books I have loved lately:

Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld
This much-heralded 21st-century retelling of Pride and Prejudice is a wild ride. Sittenfeld elegantly skewers both the Bennets and 21st-century social mores in biting prose (and on reality TV). Most of the relationships herein are more than a little depressing, but it’s still fun to read. I thought the elder Bennets were particularly well done. Reminiscent of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which I adored.

Wednesdays in the Tower, Jessica Day George
This sequel to Tuesdays at the Castle finds Princess Celie and her siblings dealing with (more) new rooms, a gallery full of mysterious armor, a highly suspect wizard, and a newly hatched griffin. Really fun – though the ending felt quite abrupt. Made me curious to read book 3!

Trouble is a Friend of Mine, Stephanie Tromly
After her parents’ divorce, Zoe Webster is not excited about moving to tiny River Heights, N.Y., with her mom. But then Digby – rude, sarcastic, brilliant and obsessed with crime-solving – shows up on her doorstep. Think Veronica Mars with a male sleuth and a smart female narrator. Snarky and fun, though a few plot threads were left dangling.

Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year, Neil Hayward
After quitting his executive job, Neil Hayward found himself drifting. A longtime avid birder, he began spending copious amounts of time on birding trips, and found himself pursuing a Big Year (a birder’s quest to see as many species as possible in a year). This memoir traces his journey (geographical and personal). Slow at times, but full of lovely descriptions of birds, and insights into Hayward’s struggle with depression. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 7).

Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow, Tara Austen Weaver
I adore Tara’s blog and liked her first book, The Butcher and the Vegetarian. But this memoir is in a whole other league. She writes in gorgeous, sensitive prose about the ramshackle Seattle house and overgrown garden that her mother bought, and how their family brought it back to life together. So many insights on family, growth and community, through the lens of gardening. Beautiful.

Hour of the Bees, Lindsey Eagar
Carol, age 12, isn’t thrilled about spending her summer at her grandpa’s ranch in the middle of the New Mexico desert. But as she listens to Grandpa Serge’s stories, she comes to appreciate the ranch’s wild beauty, and gains some surprising insights into her family and herself. A lovely, bittersweet middle-grade novel about family, imagination and the titular bees.

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, Ruth Reichl
When Gourmet magazine folded unexpectedly, Reichl, its longtime editor, wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. This memoir-cum-cookbook chronicles the year after Gourmet‘s demise, when Reichl spent hours upon hours in the kitchen, cooking her favorites and trying new things. Beautifully written (with her lyrical, haiku-like tweets sprinkled throughout) and so many tempting recipes. (I’ve already made two and have plans to try more.) Delectable.

A Certain Age, Beatriz Williams
New York, 1922: Mrs. Theresa Marshall’s dissolute brother, Ox, is finally getting married and he wants to employ an old family tradition: having a cavalier, a proxy, present the ring. Theresa enlists her lover, Octavian, as cavalier to the beautiful Sophie, which naturally leads to all sorts of tangled passions. Deliciously scandalous and elegantly written, like all Williams’ novels. (With cameos by members of the sprawling, blue-blooded Schuyler clan.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 28).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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