16 December 2017

Best Books of 2017


I read so much good stuff in 2017.  SO MUCH. I wouldn’t say that my reading mojo is completely back from my pre-divorce days-- I’m not going to hit 100 books read for the year, after all.  But I’ll probably finish somewhere in the 80s, and that’s not shabby.

To say that I haven’t blogged much this year would be to indulge in careless understatement. It hasn’t seemed as urgent to me, what with the political scene and human rights fiascos everywhere I turn. (It’s been much easier to lose myself in watching The Office, or The Crown, or The Wire.)

The thing is, though, most of my favorite books this year speak to the horrifying things that have left me feeling, if not precisely hopeless, then at least hopeless-adjacent; yet each book made me feel a little bit better after finishing it. Thus I’m summoning up what energy I have on a Saturday in December to pay tribute to these books, and if you have ever worked retail during the holidays, then you will know how much this is a labor of love.

First, the stats: I completed 79 books this year. Here’s how they break down. Numbers may add up a bit wonkily because many books qualify for multiple categories.

Fiction: 67
Nonfiction: 12
Female authors: 59
Male authors: 20
Audio: 8
Re-Reads: 13
Books for Young Readers: 19
Diversity challenge: 22
Books in translation: 3
Fan fiction: 4
Short story collections: 2

Curiously, three writers count for almost half of the reading I did by male authors this year: David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, and Frederick Backmann (who incidentally was the author of all three books I read in translation). I had rather more re-reads in 2017, as I often turn to my lifetime favorites of Harry Potter or any of the various Anne of Green Gables novels when in need of a comfort read, and I will not include any of those for my top ten list.

Thus, my top books of the year, in chronological order of my reading them, are:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Definitely the most important novel published this fall, possibly the most important novel published this year.  I was lucky enough to read an early copy of this in the spring and ever since then I’ve been telling everybody who will listen to read it.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid would be the other novel published this year that could vie for most important of 2017.  Where Jesmyn Ward’s prose is searing, Mohsin Hamid’s is taut. They’re both nearly perfect. I remain disappointed that this book did not win the Booker prize this year.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire lured me in with descriptions of the part of Massachusetts I currently called home, only to quickly take on greater import on a more global scale. She is compassionate and generous with her characters, who grapple with politics, family, immigration, and fundamentalism.

Local writer Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince is one of only two YA books on my list this year. I pick up Holly’s books to read when I want an escape, since her world building is utterly immersive, but then I remember how sharp an eye she has for politics that transcend the human realm and how much reading her books can inform my current world.

Wiley Cash is one the most gracious authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and The Last Ballad brings all of his storytelling powers to bear. Here he plays with the intersection of workers right with the racism and sexism of the era, bringing the story of real-life Ella Mae Wiggins to modern readers.

The author of the Orange-prize winning Song of Achilles returns to the classics with Circe, spanning the centuries-long life of the eponymous witch-goddess who was not content to play by the laws of the Olympians. I debated including it here simply because it will not publish until April 2018, but I liked it too much to exclude it.

Angie Thomas’s debut novel is the other YA book on my list, and it’s probably the most important book published in the world of young adult literature for 2017.  Powerful and emotional, and likely more effective in putting a human face on the Black Lives Matter movement than any work of nonfiction could be. 

Technically it was not published this year, but I was slow to pick up Amor Towles’ towering work of humanism because I had not been enamored of his previous novel, Rules of Civility. More the fool, me. It did flag for me around the 3/4 mark, but overall this meaty novel was immensely satisfying.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably the most important voice on the topic of race today, and in this collection of essays, one written for each year president Obama was in office, he probes the political underbelly in the US in clear and persuasive prose.

Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir is the second piece of nonfiction to make my list this year, despite its technical pub date for spring of 2018.  Each of her seventeen brushes with death is the jumping off point for an essay that examines life. Her writing is luminous and soul-searching, whether she’s recounting her childhood or reflecting on adulthood. 

01 January 2017

Best Books of 2016

Uh-oh. I think that ship has sailed.

What a wondrous year of books we’ve had! I think I’ve finally reached some kind of reading equilibrium, which is a relief after my nadir of reading in 2015.  I’m back to an average of a little over one book per week, which I think is a rate I’ll be able to sustain.

One of the upsides of reading fewer books on average is being more particular about what I do finish. I’ve been paying attention to things like diversity and books in translation for several years, but this is the first year where they’ve been a pretty good percentage of my overall reading. Here are my stats for 2016, followed by my favorite books that I’ve read this year, some of which won’t be published until 2017.  Percentages add up to more than 100% percent because books can fall into multiple categories.

Total books completed: 64
Books by men: 27 (42%)
Books by women: 37 (58%)
Books by non-binary gender: one (that I know of)

Fiction: 55 (86%)
Nonfiction: 9 (14%)

Short Stories: 3 (5%)
Fan fiction (novel length): 4 (6%)
For YA or middle grade: 7 (11%)
In translation: 6 (9%)
Re-reads: 8 (13%)
Diversify-Your-Life: 19 (30%)
(by which I mean books written by and/or featuring main characters of color, or on the LGBTQ spectrum, or otherwise featuring characters with under-representation in literature)

The best book by far that I read this year was Homegoing.  It’s one of the few books that I have written a full length review of here in recent times. The writing is good, but the structure and craft here are among the best I’ve ever seen. The fact that this is Yaa Gyasi’s first novel is astonishing.  

The others, in chronological order of when I read them, are:

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. This novel in verse begins with the death of a wife and mother, told through the eyes of her surviving husband, her two sons, and, unexpectedly, a Crow. Crow, one part trickster god, one part guardian, and wholly unpredictable, descends upon this fractured family to watch over them in their grief and guide them back to the land of the living. Some of Porter’s phrases and descriptions startled me with their clarity and undid me with their simple and unexpected poignancy.

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock. I didn’t think I needed another book about cancer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Alice and Oliver are the perfect young New York couple with a newborn baby…until Alice collapses over Thanksgiving dinner. This is the saga of their lives, in all of their messy, devastating glory, as they do battle with cancer, treatments, and the byzantine bylaws of health insurance in our country.  The writing is fresh, unexpected, and so unflinchingly honest that I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was based on the author’s own experiences. This book broke my heart on several levels, but there is so much humanity at its core that I fell in love with it, too.  

The Sport of Kings by C E Morgan. Geography of place combines with the ongoing legacy of slavery and racism to create a powerful, sweeping saga. Thoroughbred racing and breeding have irrevocably shaped the lives of the Forge clan, scions of Lexington, KY, but they have had an even greater impact on the lives of Allmon Shaughnessy and Rueben Bedford Walker III, two of the Forges’ employees. They all pin their hopes on Hellsmouth, the filly destined for greatness, but at what cost? Morgan’s ambitious novel is great in its reach, and the sheer lyricism of her prose will have you underlining text on every page. This book is magnificent, and while it is not perfect, it comes pretty close to achieving the status of a Great American Novel.

Mischling by Affinity Konar. It’s difficult to imagine a more horrific subject for a novel than the sadistic experiments Dr.Mengele performed on twins in Auschwitz, but debut author Konar manages to craft something magnificent from such dark origins. Pearl and Stasha tell their stories in alternating chapters, each twin doing her utmost to protect her sister in the camp, their shared history almostenough to create their belief in a shared future on the other side. Konar’s language is so fresh and inventive, even occasionally playful, that it creates a powerful and shocking juxtaposition against the narrative. This author is going places, and after reading this book, I will want to be along for the ride. Every. Single. Time.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This was an audio book that I purchased for the specific purpose of driving home from Portland, ME one weekend.  It was the perfect length.  I figured that I would like this book and find it both moving and anger-inducing, and I was spot-on about that.  But what I wasn’t expecting about this book was the sheer lyricism of the prose.  Really beautifully written. The author reads it himself. I highly recommend this one.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  This is a quiet novel, especially compared to Bel Canto or State of Wonder.  It opens on a fateful day in LA -- a community comes together for a christening, but their lives are forever changed when the husband of one family falls in love with the wife of another. We see the parents and the children across the years and the consequences and emotional fallout wrought by that first infidelity.  Very good.  Patchett often sneaks up on the reader with her writing and insights.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  It would take a major literary player like Colson Whitehead to reinterpret the Underground Railroad in such a literal way and get away with it.  This latest Oprah honoree takes a staple of the slave narrative and creates metafiction with it. Following the lives of Cora and Caesar, two runaway slaves whose stories constantly intertwine, Whitehead never shies away from the terrible realities of slavery while creating a story that is at once hopeful and honest. Elegant and readable, this is a rare novel that has garnered as much literary acclaim as it has reader enthusiasm.

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris. This slender tome began as a social media viral sensation. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, one husband and father wrote an open letter to the authors of those attacks, stating time and again that they would not have his hate, despite the fact that he lost his wife and the mother of their infant son. This memoir closely follows the hours after the attack, chronicling his thoughts and emotions for the next several days through the funeral for his wife. Though brief, this is a powerful meditation on grief and resilience and the importance of building a legacy of forgiveness for his son.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Gosh, I don’t have a blurb or review for this one yet, which is terrible because it’s really, really good.  This is the first book on my Best Of 2016 list that actually won’t be published until this year. March, to be exact. Hamid is a terrific writer who takes on topical subjects in his novels.  This one is a curious look at refugees, following Nadia and Saeed from an unnamed Middle Eastern country through a series of waysides until they settle again, more or less permanently, in a place not far from what is now San Francisco. This novel explores civil unrest and societal change, and it presents the way refugees move from one location to another with magical realism, but the overall effect and statement is an all-too-real realism. 

American War by Omar El Akkad. Alas, the same applies here.  I’ve nothing prepared for this one, either, and it will be published in April of this year. Debut novel that explores a post apocalyptic setting in 21st century America where certain Southern states have seceded over the use of gasoline. A young girl whose family is scattered and destroyed in a refugee camp becomes a trained assassin for a rebel resistance movement. Decades later, her nephew (through whom the story is told in retrospect) only begins to understand his aunt’s legacy and his family’s burden of history.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s latest novel drapes loosely over a non-fiction structural conceit in a very meta way – where the narrator is a character named Michael Chabon who sits at his grandfather’s deathbed and records all of his stories. Spanning most of the 20th century, and bookended with world wars and rocketry,  this novel’s warm, rueful tone, its flirtation with the allure of science fiction, and its ultimate themes of conflict, love, madness, and loss across generations all combine to showcase Chabon at the top of his form.  Top that off with the prose, which is as luminous as this title might suggest, and you’ve got one helluva read.

12 December 2016

Return to The Place and Other Favorites

I’m not experiencing the first snow of the season this morning, but it’s the first snow that has accumulated enough to make roadways treacherous.  Thus, on this day off I’m obviously choosing to relive my Anguilla experiences as a means of putting off shoveling the driveway.

Tuesday morning was stormy, so it was just as well that we had already decided to stay home for breakfast.  Michael made some eggs and we supplemented those with the leftover banana and pumpkin breads from Veya the night before, which they kindly supplemented with extra johnny cakes.

After breakfast as the storms moved out to sea, we walked the beach towards Four Seasons but we couldn’t get past Caribella, where the sand was so washed away that there was a four foot drop from the rocks to the sand on the other side.  Since we weren’t wearing shoes, we decided not to press farther, despite wanting to get closer to the rolling breakers coming in down the beach to make some photographs.

When the weather started to clear we walked back to Villa Ella to pack up our beach bags. I wanted to go back to The Place and Michael was amenable to that.  (Really, who wouldn’t be?)  There were a few folks there when we arrived, and their beach umbrellas had been installed since our visit a few days earlier, but we decided for both shade and rain purposes that we’d like to set up under the pavilion again.

Our two lone chaises
This visit we spent more time in the water, and that spot on Rendezvous is just about perfect.  Sandy entry, gentle waves, perfect for floating or bobbing around. A man in the water struck up a conversation with us and in one of those “It’s a small world” moments, we discovered we were from the same part of the world. He was part of a group of friends visiting the island for the first time, staying with a couple who had built a house down there.

Rendezvous, looking toward Anguilla Great House

After chatting with him for a while we moseyed up to the restaurant for lunch. I ordered the coconut shrimp appetizer, and Michael ordered The Place burger, which he actually received this time around. Food was good, and although I enjoyed my shrimp, I did feel that it was a tad overpriced.

After lunch we returned to our chairs to read but before long we had a visitor -- a fairly sizable iguana walked by on its way to the beach foliage. This attracted the attention of nearly everybody on the beach, but that didn’t seem to faze the iguana much.

We were both enjoying our books quite a bit, so we read a bit longer and took a final walk on the beach before packing up our bags for our next stop: Cuisinart.  True, we could have walked there, but we were only planning to stop in for a frozen mojito and make a few photos, and we didn’t want to have to walk back again. So we made the short drive up the road and through the golf course to the other end of the beach where all of the staff greeted us warmly, despite not being guests there. That’s one thing that I love about Anguilla -- they don’t work to keep out the riffraff like us!

I’m not very resort-oriented, especially not on Anguilla, but there is something lovely and welcoming about Cuisinart and I very much like it there, even if I wouldn’t actually stay. It’s manicured without being overly fussy and I like that they grow much of their own produce on site in their hydroponic garden. They had run out of mint at the bar, so we enjoyed looking around while waiting for the bartender to come back with more, both agreeing that next time we’d want to sample the pineapple rum. 

Really, a drink this green must be good for you

We sat and relaxed with our drinks, which I’m convinced must contain a full serving of vegetables and debated what to do before our reservation at Straw Hat for dinner. We walked down to the beach to get the full perspective of Rendezvous before heading back to our cars and driving to Limin’ Boutique for a little shopping. 

Renée and her husband had just opened up for the season the day before and were trying to get some new items priced and displayed around the store when we arrived. One of the things I like about this boutique is that while they offer many beautiful, higher end items, they always have gifts on offer in the lower price range, too, like locally made soaps and jams.  There was one necklace in particular that I thought was lovely, but even when using the Anguilla card, it was still too pricey for my budget on that trip. 

Michael and I decided that we wanted one last swim before getting ready for dinner, but the waves on Barnes were a little intimidating, so we sought a calmer location and headed to Shoal Bay West, just a few minutes up the road from where we were staying. We parked near Trattoria Tramonto and walked up and over the sand dune to reach the beach and chatted with another couple who were just leaving but confirmed that the water was perfect.

Well, they were right.  Very easy entry into the water here and the sun was low enough in the sky to not need to worry about sunburn. We watched a storm approach us from the direction of St Martin, which at one point entirely disappeared, and stayed in the water until it started sprinkling. By the time we dried off enough to get back in the car, the storm had arrived and we’d barely closed the car doors behind us when it started pouring. 

When I had first planned this trip and found a ticket using FF miles that would have us traveling during Election Day in the US, I immediately planned for two things: an absentee ballot for home (which turned out to be early voting instead) and a place to watch the election results on the island.  Thus, we were headed for Straw Hat that night.  It was surprisingly quiet in the restaurant, but that just gave us time to chat longer with Armel, Doris, and Peter.

I settled on the daily lionfish special, since I’d never tried it before and wanted to do my part to protect the local reef fish and Michael chose the red curried prawns with coconut rice, and we opted to share the tuna tartare with guacamole to start.

The appetizer was amazing -- we used our forks for what we could and scraped up the rest with our fingers and the plantain chips.  Could have eaten a couple more of those, they were so delicious!  Michael’s prawns were also good, but while I liked the lionfish itself, the panko preparation left a little to be desired.

We knew that we’d be sitting there for quite a while that night so we held off on ordering dessert. We took the rest of our bottle of wine with us to the bar, where Peter was kind enough to reserve two seats to watch the election results.  By the time I was distracted enough by all of the red state wins to think about dessert again, the kitchen turned out to be closed.  Too bad, as I had been looking forward to their caramelized bananas since my last trip to the island two years ago.  To ease the blow, Peter poured us a taste of one of his favorite rums and offered to comp us our dessert if were able to make it back to Straw Hat before leaving the island.

Michael and I drove back home and continued to watch the election coverage. Although many states were “too close to call,” we knew what was coming, so it was with truly heavy hearts that we went to bed that night. To this day, I don’t understand how our nation managed to elect a business man with dubious connections and no governmental experience over a woman who has been both a US Senator and the frickin’ Secretary of State. 

04 December 2016

A Jam-Packed Monday on the Island

Monday morning was a little overcast, but we had set it aside for a day of exploration.  Wanting to try something new for breakfast, we decided to stop in at Valley Bistro. I had been there for lunch once before but this was my first time sampling their petit dejeuner. It was bright and airy, and the circulating ceiling fans kept the breakfast area comfortable, despite the lack of breezes coming through.

Michael decided on a made to order omelet while I opted for the croque monsieur. The lateness of the hour means we missed the breakfast rush and our food arrived quickly.  Ample portions at good prices would be enough to recommend Valley Bistro, but the food was good and the central location was very pleasant, and it’s a place I intend to keep on my regular rotations on future visits to the island.


We finished our breakfast at a leisurely pace and made our way farther east. Our next stop? AARF. We had seen their request for more circular stickers for pricing items in their shop, so we dropped some of those off, but primarily we were there to play with the puppies! AARF had constructed an outdoor play area since my last visit, so we were led out there where a handful of pups were already getting their morning constitutional. As soon as we walked outside, they swarmed us, so we took turns picking each of them up and giving them woogies.

Lookit his ears!

Dat tongue!
There was one small pup who was too shy to come near us. He (she?) darted under the bench, so I sat down on the ground to get a little closer and talk softly to try to coax him out.  He left met touch his front paw with one finger, but that was all.

Michael says that it looks like the black pup is saying, “I wish I were bold like you.”  We stayed until we were both so uncomfortable out in the sun that we had to call it quits, and then headed east some more.  I had hoped that we could stop by the Anguilla Heritage Museum, but they were closed, so we made our way to Savannah Bay instead. Michael was apprehensive about the road after hearing repeated conversations about it with other folks on the island, but I wanted him to see a very different side of the island. As it turns out, the road wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but we still drove at a snail’s pace.

We walked along the beach to the point where the sand gives way to rocks & coral and made some photos, but the sun felt pretty brutal, despite the overcast skies. But I love the textures and the colors there.

It was really hot, so after making some photos and a short video of the sea, we walked back to Nat’s to order some Tings. We sat and chatted with him for a while, then got back in the car towards Island Harbour.

Coming down the hill into the fishing village and seeing that water will always take my breath away. I’m not sure what was happening with my camera lens here, but all of the photos I made with that lens now have those odd little superimposed squiggles. (Any tips what to do about that before I use my camera again?)

Seriously, how beautiful is that water?
Getting back in the car, we drove onwards looking for the new Anguilla Sea Salt company. We passed it before we realized what we had found and simply double backed. The man there was very kind and friendly, talking to us about the process they use to harvest the sea salt. He also let me walk out onto the miniature golf course to make some photos, including the photo of inside the  double hole that showcases some of Anguilla’s history.

We hit the road once more, this time with the Savannah Gallery in mind as our destination.  Frank welcomed us both to sit down on his back porch with a cold Perrier and we whiled away more time talking about island life, American politics, family, dogs, and upcoming changes to the island with the new season.  Then Frank led us through the gallery to showcase some new pieces he had acquired since my last visit:

We thought about stopping in at DaVida for a light snack, but  we decided we weren’t hungry enough to do that with our reservations for dinner at Veya that night.  So we went home to Villa Ella for a quick swim and a nap to get ready for our primo meal ahead, after a brief detour so I could show Michael my (and everybody else’s) favorite little pink chattel house on the island.

Our reservation was for 7:00, which I figured would give us time to get settled in and order a round of cocktails before Omari started playing downstairs. I thought we’d be on the early side, but the restaurant was packed when we arrived. We even had to back out into the drive to find a parking spot, their car park was so crowded. One of our servers brought us an amuse bouche of soup, which I think may have been pumpkin, and then I had to make a terribly difficult decision -- to order off the menu or to request the chef’s tasting menu.  

Our yummy soup

Vera’s signature sea urchin votive holders
The latter won out, despite the price increase since my last visit, and it wasn’t cheap then. (NB: Nor should it be, but I do have to think twice, possibly thrice, before spending that much money on a single dinner, albeit an extraordinary one.)  Michael, meanwhile, decided to try the Grilled Jerk Spice Tuna with a rum coffee glaze, stacked with caramelized pineapples and fried plantains -- which is quite possibly my favorite entrée there. The courses unfolded one by one, with his main course delivered between two of mine.  Despite the small size of each course in the tasting menu, I would not have been able finish everything if I had not been sharing. 

Mahi mahi ceviche with dill crème fraiche, ginger, and scallion

Simple grilled sea lice

Michael’s dish

Duck with Brussels sprouts, carrot purée and seasoning peppers,
Michael opined that it was his favorite duck he’d ever had.

Lamb lollipops
Our dessert course was good -- Michael chose the trio of creme brûlée and I was given a selection that included banana sorbet, hazelnut mousse bars, and what was supposed to be a coconut creme brûlée but which turned out to be a ginger one instead. I would most definitely have preferred the coconut, but that’s a minor quibble in the face of such supreme deliciousness over the course of the evening. Spectacular from beginning to finish, and a meal whose memory I will long treasure. 

Omari was just finishing up downstairs by the time we departed, and if I had had even one square millimeter to spare in my belly, I would have pressed to stay at Meze for a small nibble to enjoy the ambience. But alas, that was not the case, so we made our way home and rolled into bed to be well-rested for our next adventure in the morning.