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2015 favorite books

I read a lot, as y’all know – I’m almost at 100 books for the year. And we are (somehow) halfway through the year already, so here are the books I have loved the most over the last six months:

Frothiest, Sauciest, Most Fun Chick Lit: The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan. Oxford, true love, tightly knit sibling bonds and a gaggle of quirky, loyal friends – what more could I ask for?

Most Insightful Memoir on Work & Life: Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin. A thoughtful, sensitive exploration of writing, carpentry and building a good life.

Best New Installment in a Beloved Series: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear. Classic Maisie Dobbs in a fresh new setting, with new challenges. I will follow Maisie to the ends of the earth.

Smart, Witty, Utterly Delightful Sherlockiana: The Great Detective by Zach Dundas. A fantastic exploration of the Holmes phenomenon (past and present).

Best Book on Yoga & Life: Do Your Om Thing by Rebecca Pacheco.

Cheeriest British Fictional Companion: Mrs. Tim, aka Hester Christie. I enjoyed every page of the four books about her.

Most Evocative Travel Memoir: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. So many beautiful sentences.

Best Retelling of a Legend I Thought I Knew: Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, which made me fall in love with Robin Hood all over again. (I still have a crush on the handsome fox from the Disney movie.)

Most Delicious Memoir of Food & Marriage: Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard, which I reviewed at Great New Books.

Snarkiest, Most Entertaining YA Novel: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond.

Spunkiest Cozy Mystery Series: the adventures of Daisy Dalrymple.

Loveliest Story of a Quiet Life Well Lived: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (out in September).

What are the best books you’ve read so far this year? I’d love to hear about them.

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brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

As the end-of-year book lists flood blogs and newspapers, I’ve looked back over this year’s (long) reading list and handpicked a few favorites. Not all of these were published in 2014, but I read them all for the first time (except Best Reread) in 2014.

Best Road Trip with a Cranky Narrator: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I loved every page of Steinbeck’s wry, witty observations as he and Charley (a dignified elderly poodle) crisscrossed the country together in 1960. (It was also my top pick in our Great New Books roundup.)

Most Evocative Wartime Fiction: a tie between After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson (out Jan. 6) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Very different novels, both stunning in their exploration of the effects of war on ordinary people.

Best Insights on Food and Marriage: Delancey by Molly Wizenberg. Her story of building a pizza restaurant with her husband was fascinating, and her musings on how hard it can be to support your spouse rang so true.

Most Beautifully Written Classic: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I love Cather’s prose and her skill is on full display in this early novel (though My Ántonia is still my favorite Cather novel).

Wittiest Adaptation of a Classic: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick. (I also loved the YouTube video series.)

Best Love Story With Playlists: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson. Made me want to hop in a car with a handsome boy and drive for miles with the windows down.

Fanfiction That Actually Works: Jill Paton Walsh’s novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. There are four so far, and three of them are really good.

Yummiest Cozy Mystery Series: the Hayley Snow novels by Lucy Burdette. A food writer gets mixed up in various mysteries on Key West.

Loveliest Meditation on Ireland and Life: The House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy.

Favorite Elderly Spy: Definitely Mrs. Pollifax.

Best Reread: Bel Canto, whose elegant prose and engrossing story swept me up all over again. Though I also loved revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird and some Jane Austen.

What were your favorite books this year? I can always use more recommendations – though the TBR stacks are teetering, as ever.

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When I posted recently about my trip to Ireland four years ago, I promised you a post about the Aran Islands, those three tiny specks of land floating off the western coast of Ireland. I find it a bit ironic that I came to Ireland only to travel to the very edge of it – but the edge can sometimes be a charming place. And this edge was a place of rest, and quiet, and utterly beautiful peace.

We’d found a hostel on Inishmor, the largest of the islands, at the top of a hill (tough to ride up on a bike, but exhilarating to coast down). This view from the front steps exemplified our views all weekend – sea and sky, a few charming buildings, and so much green:

Of course, there were also many stone walls, which crisscross the islands like veins. They were built hundreds of years ago, and they stretch all the way up the hill to Dun Aengus, a spectacular ruined fort (worth far more than the 2 euros we paid to see it):

The cliffs at Dun Aengus are high, with no guardrails or barriers – and when we arrived at the top, we snickered at the other tourists crawling on their stomachs to the very edge of the cliffs – how dangerous! And how silly! But (you can probably guess), after walking over to the edge and nearly being knocked flat by the wind, we dropped to our bellies and peered down over the cliffs, and the wind whipped up to literally snatch our breath away:

Not a swim I’m anxious to take, but an absolutely stunning view.

Since we were out on the fringes of civilization, with limited options for entertainment or distraction, the whole weekend felt wrapped in a kind of simple, peaceful quiet. We rented bikes and cycled all over Inishmor, coasting down hills just for the fun of it, and stopping to pick blackberries along the roadside:

That evening, we ate dinner at Joe Watty’s (the only pub around, I think), and were nearly done when a trio of men came in carrying some musical instruments. They settled themselves in a corner and launched into a set of traditional Irish music, complete with haunting penny whistle – and we sat and listened, spellbound. Colton said later that he felt like Bilbo, listening to the Elves’ music in the hall at Rivendell. Then we walked back up the hill in a light, misty rain. Perfection.

This photo, taken by Colton, sums up the weekend for me: the sunny weather with a hint of chill, the vivid green crisscrossed with gray stones, the wide blue sky and expansive sunshine, and the joy.

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Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
One of Dame Agatha’s most famous, of course – and the first mystery I’d read featuring Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian with the curled moustaches and the sharp brain. Quite an ingenious solution to a seemingly impossible murder story. (And quite amazing how Poirot always knows – or guesses – when people are lying to him.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick
A truly extraordinary novel in words and pictures – part graphic novel, part children’s book. Beautifully written, and set in my beloved Paris (though Hugo’s Paris is quite different than mine). My favorite lines: “You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”

Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan
I’d head a lot of buzz about this book – it was a big summer hit, and an online kerfuffle about its cover image resulted in a sweet love story. But I didn’t finish it. I wanted to like the Kelleher women, and I wanted to care whether they all could stop griping and just enjoy each other’s company for once, but I found them all rather irritating – and found their dislike of each other unutterably sad.

Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White
I am a longtime fan of White’s children’s books (who doesn’t love Charlotte, Wilbur, Stuart and Louis?), but hadn’t read many of his essays before. I loved every one of these gems, though – White writes with humor, wisdom and a keen observer’s eye about American life in the middle of the last century. I particularly loved his paean to New York and his musings on farm life in Maine.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, Judith Jones
I knew Jones only as the editor who championed Julia Child – and came up with the title for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But in this lovely, lyrical memoir, I discovered a woman brave enough to move to Paris and carve out a life for herself – and fearless enough to try any food once. I loved reading about her relationship with her husband, Evan, and her connections to so many culinary giants – Julia, James Beard, Marion Cunningham and many more.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
A childhood favorite (read to me in sixth grade) and bought at the Strand during my weekend in New York with Allison. I read it on the bus ride home for the first time in 16 years, enjoying it even more because I’ve been to the Met now. (And appreciating some nuances of the story I didn’t quite catch as a 12-year-old. This is the magic of rereading.)

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Trenton Lee Stewart
Fast-paced, compelling and often very funny – this is the second installment in Stewart’s series about the adventures of four unusually bright, quirky children. (A bit like Harry Potter, but lighter, and with logic and puzzles instead of magic.) I enjoyed it, and can’t wait to read the third.

Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave, Simon Goldhill
A wryly funny, deeply thoughtful meditation on literary pilgrimage – Goldhill visits five writers’ houses-turned-museums, wondering what compels us to make the trek to Wordsworth’s cottage and Bronte’s moors (among other locales). He’s a bit of a skeptic, so he skewers the myth of the literary pilgrimage rather than having any great epiphanies himself – but the journey is highly entertaining and thought-provoking. (To review for the Shelf.)

Heist Society, Ally Carter
I love Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (about teenage spies-in-training), and thoroughly enjoyed this story about a 15-year-old art thief, who plans a heist with a bunch of her friends to save her father’s neck (he’s also an art thief). Fast-paced, witty and full of fun characters (including a handsome love interest). I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

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This past weekend, I did something I hadn’t done in a long while – took off for a solo adventure (J had flown to Texas for a conference midweek). I’ve been enjoying a delightful email correspondence with Allison, a regular reader of this blog, so I invited myself to her little apartment in Queens, and we spent three lovely days exploring the city together.

Allison is the daughter of a children’s librarian (just one reason we’ve become such fast friends), so she was quick to direct me to various locations in NYC involving classic kids’ books. Needless to say, I relished every one.

On Friday afternoon, amid torrential rain, we made our way to Alice’s Tea Cup for soup, sandwiches, cups of Earl Grey and delectable scones:

(That’s Allison’s pumpkin scone in the foreground, and my chocolate-cranberry scone in the background.)

The next day, I made a pilgrimage to the New York Public Library’s main branch, to visit a few old friends:

Yes. Those are the ORIGINAL Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals – Pooh, Piglet (center), Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga (and Lottie the Otter, a new addition, behind Kanga). And, of course, they are right in the middle of the Hundred Acre Wood:

The exhibit is right in the middle of the children’s room, which has wonderful, colorful New York wall art:

On Sunday morning, I found myself at the Met, to which Claudia and Jamie run away in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s enormous, imposing and grand outside:

And simply gorgeous inside:

I didn’t see nearly everything Claudia and Jamie did, but I wandered through the galleries, gazing at the exhibits and enjoying the general effect of so many beautiful and curious things so close together, for a couple of hours. I’d bought a copy of the book at the Strand the day before, and I read myself back to sixth grade on the bus ride home.

All weekend, as Allison and I walked around Manhattan, we tried to decide where the Melendys would have lived when they had their Saturday adventures in New York. We decided it must have been a lovely, comfortable old brownstone like this:

With flowers in the window boxes, of course. Cuffy, or maybe Mona, would definitely have made sure of that.

On Sunday afternoon, we walked through Central Park, and paused at the lake, where the Melendys went rowing and Randy fell in:

It was a perfect way to end my children’s lit tour. (We didn’t get to go rowing ourselves, but that’s on the list for next time.)

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I like to flatter myself that I’m pretty well-traveled. After all, I’ve been to 24 states and eight countries, and I lived abroad for three semesters (a semester in Oxford as an undergrad and then a year there as a grad student). But I tend to revisit – and read about – the same types of places over and over again. Oxford has my heart, but I adore the UK in general. I never, ever get tired of Paris memoirs; I love stories about Americans forging new lives in Europe because that’s a dream of mine; I drool over Little Brown Pen’s Paris pictures on a regular basis; and yes, I loved Eat, Pray, Love (but the Italy section was my favorite).

Recently, however, I read and reviewed two collections of travel essays – The Best American Travel Writing 2011, and the much more interestingly titled Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar – both of which were extensive tours of places I would never, ever choose to travel. (This is partly because several essays in the first collection, and all the essays in the second one, were set in war zones, where, frankly, I’ve never had any desire to go.) I think the locales in the Best American anthology – Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Moscow, Mumbai, Serbia – provide a clear portrait of where America’s eyes are focused these days (namely: the Middle East, the sites of natural disasters, and rapidly developing countries of all stripes). There was only one gentle European essay, about a man in pursuit of Monet, and while it was lovely, it sort of paled in comparison to the other, more vivid – and usually more shocking – stories.

The map of stories in Mud Crabs reads similarly, though of course conflict is overtly present in every single story, not just hiding behind the scenes. (And the conditions for war-zone journalists are worse than for travel writers in peacetime, however uneasy the peace.) But despite the fact that I would never choose most of these locales to visit (or, usually, to read about), I was totally swept up in the stories of these people, and their keen-eyed observations of cultures so totally different, so completely Other, than my own. It’s a testament, in part, to great travel writing, which evokes a place in a few well-chosen details and conversations. But perhaps it also represents a broadening of my own horizons.

I’m still not sure I want to go to Asia or Africa or the Middle East on my next trip – besides the concerns for safety in some of these places, I suspect I’ll always be an Anglophile at heart. But I’m learning to appreciate stories from all locales, however war-torn or foreign to me, and I think that’s got to count for something.

What places do you like to read about that you’d never choose to go?

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After delving recently into The Story of E.B. White by Michael Sims (which I loved – scroll down for review), I’ve been on an E.B. White kick.

(Image from amsaw.org)

I’ve read Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, of course, but had only read snippets from White’s essays and letters. But after reading his biography I was fascinated by this wise and witty man, who wrote prolifically for The New Yorker and other publications (and who loved dachshunds as I do). So I’ve been savoring his essays on my daily commute – often smiling, sometimes chuckling, at his observations.

Here, some of the lines that have moved me:

Familiarity is the thing – the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. […] Or so it seems to the homing traveler. (“Home-Coming”)

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists, just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts. (“A Report in Spring”)

I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston […]. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and […] after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!” (“A Report in Spring”)

All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright. (“Bedfellows”)

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now. (“Here is New York,” written in 1949)

In the fury of the storm, thought was impossible; the future was expunged by wind and water; I lived at last in the present, and the present was magnificent – rich and beautiful and awesome. It gave me all the things I wanted from life, and it was as though I drank each towering wave as it came aboard, as though I would ever after be athirst. (“The Years of Wonder”)

The slowness of rail travel is not because the Horse is incapable of great speed but because the railroad is a gossip; all along the line it stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar. (“The Railroad”)

If our future journeys are to be little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there. (“The Railroad”)

[Walden] is distilled from [Thoreau’s] vast journals, and this accounts for its intensity: he picked out bright particles that pleased his eye, whirled them in the kaleidoscope of his content, and produced the pattern that has endured – the color, the form, the light. (“A Slight Sound at Evening”)

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