01 February 2016

Best of 2015: A month late and many dollars short


Let’s pretend like I’ve been here all along, shall we?  That I didn’t take a nine month hiatus from my online life and such.  I shall tell myself this over and over, as obviously it’s much easier to write a blog post when one is already in the habit of doing so, rather than trying to overcome the tremendous inertia it would take to come back from an absence of that length.

Since it’s also easier to create a book list than to write a book review, I’m a-gonna start with counting down the best books I read in 2015.  Usually this is a pretty daunting task, choosing my favorite 10-15 books out of the 125+ books I read in any given year, but 2015 was special in that I essentially stopped reading during those same months that I wasn’t blogging.  I’m still clawing my way out of that bookless  pit that I fell into, but things are definitely getting better.

I only read 53 books in 2015, but forty of those books were read in the first four months of the year. Since one thing I learned last year was the importance of being kind to oneself, I’m trying very hard not to berate myself for those shocking numbers.  After all, who could have predicted that being unable to read would be the collateral damage of my separation?


The best book that was published in 2015 that I read was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; despite having finished it at the end of 2014, it has earned a spot on this list.  My god, that book had everything in it that a reader like me could want, not least of which was a deep sense of catharsis from reading the last third of it.  I wrote a rather gush-y post about it here, if you’d care to check it out.  

Everything else that I list is in chronological order from when I read it:


2. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. Here’s what I said about it back in February 2015: I liked this one significantly more than her last 2-3 novels, and it might even be my second favorite of her books, after The Bluest Eye.  This one is spare, either all plot or all character, with very few descriptors in between.  It's almost like she said, "Fuck it.  I'm 83 and I don't have time for any filler.”  


3. Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller.  Little did I know when I read this book about the dissolution of a marriage that I would be relating to it on a much more personal level before the year was out.  Fuller is an excellent writer and memoirist. My full review is here.


4. The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora is a wonderfully dark collection of short stories featuring the underbelly of suburbia. I had the pleasure of meeting the author for dinner at NEIBA in the fall of 2015 and had the most delightful time sharing stories with her.  My full review is here.


5. The Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  I couldn’t believe that this was a debut novel -- well written and well constructed, interweaving multiple characters’ narratives into one brilliant story overall. Atmospheric, engaging, ends beautifully.  Not sure you can ask for more than that in one novel.  Here’s a partial review, such as it is.

6. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne.  I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never read this book as a child, which is quite a shame since it’s as delightful a book for young readers as I’ve ever encountered.  Even so, it took me weeks to read it last year.  I have no review for it, but probably most of you already know it better than I do anyway!

7. Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson. This collection of short stories, a follow up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is strong.  Strong, dark, and largely tragic.  I was a little surprised when it won the National Book Award recently, but not displeased.


8. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.  Another short story collection that follows up a better-known and prize winning novel (in this case, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena). This loosely-related collection of stories, however, forms a novel in the same way that Olive Kitteridge did.  I dig Marra’s writing -- his lyricism and sense of metaphor in particular -- and he’s overall one of the most genuine, kind, and engaging authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to have met.


9. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  This was technically an audio book that I listened to, and it’s the only non-fiction to make my Top Ten list this year.  Holy crap, but this book was good, and it should basically be required reading for everybody who has ever felt outrage over the treatment of the disenfranchised in this country.  Or better yet, for everybody who has not felt that outrage.  So basically required reading for everybody. The audio was fine, but I think it might have been better served by a professional reader.


10. Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman. This is also a collection of short stories, which won’t be published until March 8, 2016. You know, I’m a little surprised that short stories comprise 40% of my Top Ten list.  But then again, considering the nature of short stories and being able to pick them up and put them down again at shorter intervals might explain a lot.  These stories are not interrelated per se, but they are linked thematically by love, sex, marriage, aging, and the fragility of our mortal coil.

So that’s that, then.  I’m a little surprised at my list, but those are all of the books I read in 2015 that I gave a 4- or 5-star rating on Goodreads.  My reading does seem to be picking up a bit now in 2016.  I’m able to finish a book in less than two weeks usually, and while I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to resume my average pace of 2.5 books per week, I’ll be quite grateful if I can get back to one book per week.  We’ll just have to see.

But what about you, Gentle Reader?  What books excited you most in 2015?  And are there books coming up this year you’re particularly keen on? 

24 December 2015

I Wish You Peace and Light In These Dark Times


Stonehenge in the Midwinter Snow
Image source: http://www.disclose.tv

NB: This is a slightly modified post from years past that I wanted to reuse for Christmas.

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  It’s also a little out of character to share many of my personal details in such a public space, but I’ve been away from the blogosphere since April, and I’ve had many supportive inquiries from readers.  2015 has been a very difficult year, which has marked, among other things, the death of one of my cats, the imminent death of my dog, the most difficult and exhausting time at work I’ve ever survived, and above all, the dissolution of my marriage.

Among the collateral damage of the latter was a swift blow to my ability to read, a blow that I’ve only lately been recovering from and am still not back to normal. Thus this holiday season has been far more emotional and challenging than most, and it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been alone on Christmas Eve, a day which has been far more important to me (and my family) than Christmas itself.

There's a Christmas song lingering in my mind right now that I have been listening to more or less on a loop for  the last couple of days.  I love sacred Christmas carols, though I'm not Christian, or at least I’m not a Christian if by “Christian,” you mean somebody who believes that Jesus Christ is the offspring of God. Agnostic, I suppose, is the proper term for me.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. But if by “Christian,” you mean somebody who thinks that guy Jesus Christ was a revolutionary ahead of his time, especially his ideas regarding the treatment of the disenfranchised, then maybe the term fits.

Whatever inclination toward the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my recent mental soundtrack of Loreena McKennitt's performance of Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.   Regardless of any divine context,  a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that at face value, if not his divinity.  But what does the celebration of his birth mean for the world today, all those angels and mangers  and glorias in excelsis deo*? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, so relevant today, yet so sorely lacking in our current times where grace and graciousness are endangered species.  

With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling--
Yonder peasant, who is he? 
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence,
By St. Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, 
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bring them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together.
Heedless of the wind's lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night grows darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze the blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, all good folk, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
You who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourself find blessing.

It's not just the song, for me, but also the arrangement that is so important.  I love the melding of a traditional western carol with Celtic and Middle Eastern musical elements and the instruments you don't normally hear outside a medieval/Renaissance festival. The Middle Eastern aspect actually places the song in a historical context like never before, and it’s an important signpost in these dark times when many Americans think Islamophobia is the way to go.

I hope, wherever you are, that you find peace in your heart during these darkest days of the year. 

* Glory to God in the highest
**And on earth, peace to all people

03 June 2015

What I Read In May: A Big Fat Nothing...



...but I might be able to work up a mini book review just for you.

Seriously, folks.  I didn't finish a single book in May.  This is probably the first month in my 40 years of reading that I've not finished a book, and it astounds me every time I think about it. 

There are reasons (travel to Ireland) and there are Reasons (private). Life has been difficult lately, and it's probably going to get harder before it gets better.  Any spare prayers or good vibes or Magic 8 Ball answers you can send my way would be terrific.  I'm being utterly in earnest. I don't want to bog down my space here, which is purportedly dedicated to books and travel, by talking too much about my personal life. Sharing that much in a public space isn't really me, but it's also true that I'm in need of  any support you can share over the ether. Please and thank you.


Last night I met a terrific author whose debut novel I pretty much fell in love with. Her name is Leslie Parry, and she's as adorable and fun as her photo indicates.  Plus just look at her shoes. She was raised in Pasadena, California, where she worked in television and film for a while, before moving to Chicago where she now lives with her two lazy but wonderful cats.  If you really want to get her animated, ask her about her dog back home in California, whom she misses like crazy, or the goats and chickens she would like to raise one day.





Church of Marvels is a many-splendored thing, tying together various narratives from the most colorful characters, exploring the darker underbelly of fin de siecle New York City. We get side show characters from Coney Island, we have a character who wakes up in an insane asylum with no clear knowledge of how she got there, and there's one poor young man who is a night soiler.  That is, he cleans the privies on the lower east side by hand. By the time I started to anticipate just how their stories would become intertwined, it was too late – I was so mesmerized that I had to finish the last 200+ pages in one long stretch. 

Just read this book.  It's fun.  It's atmospheric. It's well-written. And it ends beautifully. There are lots of good novels out there that fall apart at the end, or that don't know how to end. Leslie Parry could teach a master class on how to end a novel, however. 

01 May 2015

F*** You, April. (Otherwise known as Last Month In Review)


April and I are not on the best speaking terms.  Or should I say reading terms? I regularly knock off 8-10 books every month, but not this April.  Oh, sure.  There are a few extenuating circumstances. I traveled to Philly for a long weekend, and I'm in Ireland right now (as of this reading, if not this writing), which took a lot of time to prepare for at work and at home.  And some of the REASONS that slowed my reading down in March stuck around for April.  But still.  To have only finished 4 books?

I'm trying hard to meet my shortcomings with forgiveness rather than recrimination, but it's a little difficult.  Everybody goes through book slumps; this one just happens to have lasted longer than any other book slump I've ever experienced.

In chronological order, then, we have:

1) Nocturne by Dutchy. This is a work of Harry Potter fanfiction that is a bit darker than my usual fareThe unthinkable has happened.  Voldemort has won. Now, one Severus Snape must find a new way in this dark and twisted world, one seemingly devoid of all hope. You can find it on the Ashwinder site.

2) Round Ireland With a Fridge by Tony Hawks.  Le sigh.  A guy makes a bet that he can hitchhike around Ireland.  With a fridge.  This book sounded like it would be great and funny and the next best thing to Bill Bryson. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be all about Tony Hawks and not much about Ireland itself. Since I wanted a book that would be evocative of the country I was looking forward to visiting, this book was ultimately not for me.

3) Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. How on earth have I not read this book before?  This is basically the pinnacle of what a children's book should be: charming and fun and lovable and funny. I never really was a fan of Pooh growing up, much to my siblings' chagrin.  They all had a "Now We Are Six" birthday party, which I had no interest in whatsoever.  I think it kind of broke their hearts.  Well, sibs, I'm sorry.  If I knew then what I know now, I'd be All About Pooh.

4. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson. This was a re-read for me from several years ago (2002, maybe?), and as much as I hate to say it, it didn't really live up to my memory of it.  I'm a Bill Bryson fan from way back, and he's probably the only nonfiction author I know whose works would make my laminated list, so I'm a little bit bummed.

And that's that.  A whopping big FOUR books that I finished in April, with one being a children's book and one being a re-read. May can only get better, is how I see it!

What about you? What did you love in April?  What disappointed you?

23 April 2015

Philadelphia: City of Granddaughterly Love, Part Deux


When I last left off, Izzy, Bubba, and I had finished our second museum of the day, and it was nearing 2:00. We were feeling peckish, so Izzy shepherded us to a wonderful little place called Barbuzzo, where we shared some incredible food for a late lunch.


Debating over the menu, we eventually settled on sharing the cured meat board and the shaved asparagus pizza with guanciale and a truffled egg.



Both were amazing, and not just because we were famished by that time. It was difficult restraining ourselves from finishing it all, because we had a reservation a few hours later for dinner.

We rolled out of Barbuzzo about an hour later and headed back to Izzy's house to nap and freshen up before dinner.  Izzy and her partner, Dane, had been debating between several restaurants for our meal that evening, but once they learned that Zahav had an opening at 7:30, it clinched their decision.

Well, it was a great choice. I've been to quite a few Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurants before, but never one that was specifically an Israeli restaurant, and I ended up just loving it.  Izzy had requested a quiet table, and we were rewarded when we walked in by being taken to a side room with a banquette draped in soft curtains that leant a real sense of privacy. Dane and DH chatted about their respective trips to Jerusalem, while Izzy and I listened with a certain rapt attention, but then it was time to order.

DH, Izzy, Dane
My lovely granddaughter and me
DH and me
Zahav is a tapas-style restaurant, but since Dane doesn't eat some meats, we decided to just order what sounded best to each individual. I loved all of my dishes and some of the ones the others ordered, too, but I also loved my cocktails. I ordered the Desert Rose, comprising gin, hibiscus, grapefruit, and cucumber because it sounded refreshing and not too sweet, and I ended up drinking three of them over the course of the night. But who could resist such a brilliant red drink like that, I ask you?


Our menu
We ordered the salad sampler for the table, which was six small plates of various kinds of vegetable preps, of which all were pretty good, but two were amazing: a smoky eggplant dish and a savory beet dish.  They don't look especially appetizing here, but believe me when I say the flavors were very interesting and well-balanced.

The eggplant and beets are in the foreground.
I ended up ordering the crispy halloumi, which is a kind of cheese, which was accompanied by dates and pickled onions, plus the fried cauliflower served with chive, mint, and garlic. Both were outstanding.  Also at the table were crispy lamb's tongue (not bad), grilled eggplant, kofte (a meatball made with lamb & beef), plus a few other things I no longer remember.  I think I liked my dishes best.  

My frickin' delicious haloumi

The unattractive but amazing cauliflower

The kofte

Grilled eggplant
We ordered dessert more because we wanted our evening to continue, rather than we were still hungry or actively craving something sweet. The desserts were fine but nothing special. One was a semifreddo with ginger and cantaloupe and the other was similar to a bread pudding in texture.  Neither one is particularly beautiful, I'm afraid. 



We Uber'd our way back to Izzy and Dane's neighborhood, where we stopped in at their local watering hole to have one last drink for the night, but then we had to beg off. I had definitely imbibed more than my usual amount, but I felt liberated by Uber 'cause I'm usually the designated driver. 
The four of us at their neighborhood bar
Despite the fact that our train left early on Saturday afternoon, Izzy had a very full day planned for us, including brunch, a stop at Reading Terminal, and one last museum visit.  We began our day at Honey's, which was pleasant enough, but not amazing.  I enjoyed my pancakes with bananas and pecans and everybody else seemed to enjoy theirs, too.



After brunch, we dropped Dane back at home so that the three of us could head out to the Rodin Museum.  Our admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art the day before entitled us to next-day admission to the Rodin, so off we went. 


It's a small museum but well done.  I never would have pegged myself as someone particularly interested in sculpture before, but I have to say, there were multiple pieces there that I could have looked at for hours. 

The iconic Thinker 
The Kiss
The Kiss
Cathedral. This might have been my favorite.
I was taken with this one because of the
unusual model -- one doesn't often see
skinny, old, women modeling like this.

St John the Baptist 

It didn't take us long to see our fill, so we headed toward Rittenhouse Square for a little people watching before hying ourselves off the Reading Terminal. It was a cool but beautiful late morning and we enjoyed the people watching opportunities.  I also enjoyed seeing the blooming window boxes, as spring is much further along in Philly than at home, and seeing some of the buildings.







After nearly an hour of people watching on an uncomfortable park bench, we started suffering from Numb Bum syndrome, so it was time to head to Reading Terminal.  This place was staggering in the variety of food it offered, not to mention the variety of humanity that was on display there.  It's row upon row of food and foodstuffs, and woe betide you if you enter there hungry. 






Cheese, glorious cheese
I mean, if you're gonna eat salami, it might as well be hard



Yum. BBQ.

This place was outrageous.  I'm not actually super-comfortable in crowded spaces like that, but with all of that food to focus on, I was doing pretty well.  It's amazing that the three of us didn't get separated, now that I think about it. 

DH and I had to hand it to Izzy -- she had planned a superb visit for us and we both left Philly feeling very impressed and with a desire to visit again.  Basically 30 hours in the city, and we did three museums, three restaurants, and Reading Terminal. Not too shabby.  

And it came to pass that it was time for us to board our train back home, feeling very sassified with our brief trip but sad to say goodbye to Izzy.  We can't wait to go back to visit!