2015 Book List

booksThis year, I only made four resolutions, but I should really add a fifth: read more. While I still prioritize getting lost in a good book, I noticed that over the course of 2014, I didn’t read as much as I’d like for a variety of reasons (coughSherlock, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwifecough). B isn’t much of a reader, so lots of times I’ll choose to watch a movie with him instead and I’m afraid this is becoming a bad habit.

So! Because reading is one of my favorite things and to get me going again, here’s the top (first) novels I want to read this year:

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: I first discovered Kate Atkinson in grad school and fell even deeper in love last spring while reading the brilliant Life After Life. Human Croquet is one of her earlier novels and follows the course of siblings Isobel and Charles. I don’t know anymore about the plot than that, but don’t need to. Atkinson’s writing is as evocative, lyrical and sharp as it gets.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: This is one of the classics that, for me, has always slipped between the cracks. This is probably the first book I’m going to get my hands on and, while I’m happily married, I already feel like I relate to Emma Bovary. Sometimes life feels so routine; who doesn’t dream about an escape?

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant: I recently joined a book club and Anita Diamant’s newest novel (an Amazon Best Book of 2014) is this month’s read. B and I were recently in Boston, so I’m looking forward to exploring the city through the eyes of a young immigrant woman at the turn of the century.

Anything by Ian McEwan: Every once in a while you come across a writer who thrills you, so when it comes to Ian McEwan, I can’t choose which of his novels to read first—I want to read them all. I’ll let you know what I end up choosing, but Sweet Tooth (since I didn’t get around to it last year) and Saturday top the list.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: I’ve read nothing but beautiful reviews regarding this New York Times bestseller set in occupied France during the second world war, and have already been waiting weeks to get my hands on it (all copies are checked out at the library). I’ve become fascinated by the countless faucets of WWII, but hardly know a thing about the occupation of France. Trusting in this novel to educate and delight me.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: Was there ever a more glamorous time in literary history than 1920s Paris? Accepting this might be the closest I ever get to this magical decade, A Moveable Feast is a must.

The Mermaid’s Daughter by Jo Baker: Longbourn was easily among the best books I read in 2014, and Baker’s newest novel, to be released in March, sounds even more strange and wonderful. I rarely read fantasy novels, but trust Baker to create a world in which I don’t want to leave.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster: Until I have the chance to explore this breathtaking place for myself, I’ve been getting my fix of India through great novels. (I’d highly recommend Behind the Beautiful Forevers and The Space Between Us). I find the intersection of Indian and British culture and identity especially interesting, making Forster’s novel an essential read.

What great books did you read last year? I’d love your recommendations!
Em
P.S.  I finished A Farewell to Arms last night and I’m still making up my mind about it (love the writing, digesting the plot). At times like this I miss being a student for the rich discussion opportunities! And I’m a geek.

P.S. S. There’s still a couple novels from last year’s list I still need to read, but plans got derailed when I decided to finally sink into The Harry Potter series. See! I told you I’m a geek.
Picture courtesy of littlegreennotebook.blogspot.com

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On the Shelf: William Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits

ws With the exception of acting the part of Mustard Seed in my junior high’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and reading Romeo and Juliet in high school, my Shakespeare education has, at best, been minimal. Even in light of graduating from an English university with a masters in English (and visiting Stratford-on-Avon), my knowledge  of Shakespeare has remained embarrassingly slight.

So, in a valiant effort to correct this glaring literary gap, I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s William Shakespare Without the Boring Bits. Let me start off by saying the volume of books on Shakespeare is overwhelming. Amazon him and no fewer than thousands of guides appear. Look him up in a bookstore and you’ll still find a dizzying array of nonfiction all promising to easily reveal his genius.

I picked up Ackroyd’s book because, after reading a few paragraphs, it seemed approachable and relevant. And, as I can now say, wholly worthwhile.

After a helpful introduction, Ackroyd organizes his book according to the Plays (History, Greek and Roman, Comedies, Tragedies and Romances) along with a section devoted to the poems and sonnets. I particularly enjoyed the last section-titled the Wit and Wisdom of Shakespeare-for explaining just why famous passages have remained popular.

The sections about the plays are thorough, yet not overbearing, and provide the context along with their possible  inspiration and plot and character synopsis. While I definitely didn’t retain every details, these sections were enlightening and will be even more helpful when I see a Shakespeare play in the future and need a quick update.

How well do you know Shakespeare? Do you have a favorite play? Quote? Ashleigh read sonnet 116 at our wedding and it has remained hopeful and special to me.

 

On the Shelf: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

lifeKate Atkinson is as precious to me as my first author-love Charlotte Brontë. Atkinson’s novels, like Brontë‘s, tremble with wit, comfort, and significance. She writes the words at the tip of your tongue with clarity and logic, achieving that incalculable balance of beauty and blood in the process.You become dizzy with the loveliness of her shapely scenes but aren’t allowed to be oblivious to the strong undercurrents of disaster.

I first discovered Kate Atkinson in Bristol–in a “Space and Place” class taught by Professor Ralph Pite. We read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and I was utterly absorbed by the feisty narrator and the novel’s hurtfully honest portrayal of family. Next I discovered Jackson Brodie and the magical combination of Atkinson’s prose in mystery form. Yet none of this reading prepared me for the force of her newest novel.

 Life After Life is spun with gold. If you read anything this year, Life After Life must be it. The story-or stories- of Ursula Todd is utterly compelling and lingers with depth and spirit long after you close the cover. The Todd family is as real as your own flesh and blood and you can’t help but absorb their joy, their loss and their tremendous fragility.

In a nutshell, it’s Ursula’s brother who expresses the hope (purpose/beauty/tragedy) of the novel:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally got it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

The wholly lovable Ursula Todd is given the chance to do just this. As she dies and returns to us throughout the novel-set before and after the second world war-we become intimately aware of the infinite value of a single life. Not only is the novel a powerful encapsulation of English identity  in the midst of ‘the war to end all wars,’ but it answers the question we so often ask ourselves–“What If?”

If you pay any attention to book awards and bestsellers, you’ve heard about Life After Life, and I don’t need to say much more. But this is, hands down, the sweetest novel I’ve read in years and one which I know will bring you joy.

On the Shelf: Therese Anne Fowler’s ‘Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald’

zFor me, one of the best things about Mexico was having time to read and while I didn’t exactly get through the ambitious seven novels I brought, I did manage to read a couple. Among them was Therese Anne Fowler’s singular first novel Z.

Prior to discovering the novel, I had a vague idea of the glamorous literary lives of the Fitzgeralds, but an even more evasive notion of Zelda. Fowler’s compulsively readable Z brought her to life in vivid color. From her first meeting with Scott in 1918 at a country club dance to the dizzying years of their marriage lived in New York, Paris and Hollywood, Fowler captured the intense emotion, the magic,  and the cracks of discontent wholly and lovingly.

Fowler did a great array of research to bring Zelda’s blurred life into focus, and even though this is a work of fiction, I was struck again and again by the logic and coherence.  The connective tissues Fowler weaves through the often disjointed lives of Scott and Zelda seem so likely that it’s easy to forgets this is fiction. Or is it? In the novel’s afterward Fowler mentions uncanny “coincidences.” Much of Z was published on the same dates as The Great Gatsby, among other unusual occurrences.

Above all, Z is a beautifully rendered memoir-like novel brimming with insight, wit and authenticity. It’s for those of us who are curious, who want to know the inside story not for the gossip, but in order to really ‘get’ someone. You laugh and ache with Zelda, but above all, you cheer her on.

Your Life in Six Words

writeI started a creative writing class a couple weeks ago, which has been exhilarating and scary, and this week’s assignment really got me thinking. In the class we’re focusing on “flash fiction,” or the art of writing as succinctly as possible (Hemingway was a master of this). As part of the assignment we had to write a story in 50 words or less, but what was even more challenging was writing our own story in exactly six words.

Here are some examples we were given from Smith Magazine:

“Saw the sky and started walking.” -Mark Sundeen

“Youngest of four girls turns fifty.” Judi Kolenda

“Partied a ton, then had kids.” -Paul Tallis

“Wasn’t born a redhead; fixed that.” -Andie Grace

“Naively expected logical world. Acted foolish.” -Emily Thieler

“Sexy single; married not so much.” -Vicki Botnick

Interesting, eh? I’m still not sure which six word memoir I’ll share in class tonight, but here are a few fragments I composed last night:

“New wife occasionally cries and laughs.”

“Newly married, has questions, will travel.”

“Introvert seeks full-time adventure, part-time job.”

Or in the words of my loving husband:

“Gold digger, collects Scotties, seeks retirement.”

Thanks, Brady. What are your six words? I’d love to know. X, Em