Each year that I have been blogging, I take a look back at the year’s best and most memorable reads. Sometimes the list is just as I expected it to be, and other times, I am surprised by what still stands out (or doesn’t) after 12 months. Here is my list for 2011.
I was chatting with Jen (Devourer of Books) the other day after she came back from a cookie swap. She mentioned picking up a Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookie that she was saving for her husband. (Poor girl doesn’t actually like bacon herself. Moment of silence please.)
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Add one egg; beat until blended into the butter mixture. Add the remaining egg, vanilla extract, and maple extract; beat until well blended and slightly fluffy.
Stir in the flour mixture a little at a time, mixing just until combined. Stir in the bacon and chocolate chips. Scoop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets.
Bake in the preheated oven until edges turn golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, and cool on a wire rack.
I had seen this trailer ahead of the last few movies I’ve gone too and I kept meaning to put it up, but then kept forgetting. Though it looks like a bit of a downer and a sort of retread of similar movies about the turmoil that happens in a child’s life at the death of a parent, I am very curious about this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I tried to readEverything Is Illuminatedwith my book club, but just couldn’t get through it. It was just a little too weird for me. Did anyone have any luck with either of his books or this movie? Oscar bait or the real thing?
One of the fun things about the holiday season is celebrating old traditions and creating new ones. This is a really new tradition that I started with my friend Allie last year. We get together and have lunch and talk books, of course, but this particular time in December, she brought along some Russian Teacake cookies that she made. It was love at first bite! We are getting together again this year to celebrate the holidays and to talk books, and we are planning to make these together. Well she’ll probably make them, and I will eat them. But, you know, same thing.
When Allie shared the ingredients with me, I was pretty amazed by how few there were. For all intents and purposes, they are just flour, sugar and oil. This explains the instant love and instant new tradition.
They are magnificent! Here’s how to make some of your own.
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely chopped nuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 400ºF.
Mix butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar and the vanilla in large bowl. Stir in flour, nuts and salt until dough holds together.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. Remove from cookie sheet. Cool slightly on wire rack.
Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar; cool on wire rack. Roll in powdered sugar again.
For Donia Bijan’s family, food has been the language they use to tell their stories and to communicate their love. In 1978, when the Islamic revolution in Iran threatened their safety, they fled to California’s Bay Area, where the familiar flavors of Bijan’s mother’s cooking formed a bridge to the life they left behind. Now, through the prism of food, award-winning chef Donia Bijan unwinds her own story, finding that at the heart of it all is her mother, whose love and support enabled Bijan to realize her dreams.
From the Persian world of her youth to the American life she embraced as a teenager to her years at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (studying under the infamous Madame Brassart) to apprenticeships in France’s three-star kitchens and finally back to San Francisco, where she opened her own celebrated bistro, Bijan evokes a vibrant kaleidoscope of cultures and cuisines. And she shares thirty inspired recipes from her childhood (Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and Eggplant and Orange Cardamom Cookies), her French training (Ratatouille with Black Olives and Fried Bread and Purple Plum Skillet Tart), and her cooking career (Roast Duck Legs with Dates and Warm Lentil Salad and Rose Petal Ice Cream).
An exhilarating, heartfelt memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie is also a reminder of the women who encourage us to shine.
Here are a few of the reviews from BOOK CLUB participants.
The end of the year is when the book world traditionally settles down for a moment after the hustle and bustle of the fall holiday shopping. There aren’t as many new releases popping up, but here are a couple of things that caught my eye, and they are out now and by the end of the year.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James – I read P.D. James’s Children of Men after seeing the movie of the same name, and I loved her writing and her style, so though I am not a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice sequels in general (I am one of those who loves the book way too much to brook much tampering), I thought this might be a good one to check out. Elizabeth and Darcy play detective when Lydia arrives at Pemberley, and announces that her husband Wickham has been murdered. I am willing to give this one a try because I am such a fan of P.D. James’s work.
The Art of Disappearance by Anita Desai – I have heard so much about Anita Desai’s works that I mistakenly thought I had read one. But, I had her confused her with Leslie Marmon Silko, whose Ceremony I had to read in college. In any case, Desai is on my list of writers worthy of checking out. Her new book seems a good time for me to do it. This set include three novellas about Indians and Indian life.
The Leopard by Joe Nesbö – Joe Nesbo writes really smart mysteries and crime fiction- primarily set outside of the US. I thoroughly enjoyed The Redbreast, one of the first of his books to be available here. His novels are intricately plotted and often set in Norway and other exotic locales, so there are many unfamiliar names with which to contend, but they are seriously worth diving into. I had been holding off on reading more of the Harry Hole series in order to try to read them in order, but I think I just want to jump in again with this next one which- the 8th book in the Harry Hole series.
The Demi-Monde Winter by Rod Rees -This is a new author for me, but I was immediately interested in this story which boats complicated genre mingling with devious world leaders as fictional characters. I’ve hardly read any steampunk, and this looks like it falls into that category, so I am glad to be trying it out. This is one of the books that I’m planning to read over winter break. Lately I have been enjoying reading about alternate histories and worlds, and some of that is here as well. I just hope that I can keep track of all the details, because Rees’s book looks pretty intricate.
15-year-old Pearl lives with her mother in a small house on her uncle’s property in Fallbrook, California. She is used to hanging out with her cousin Robbie and her Uncle Hoyt, an avocado farmer using both legal and illegal immigrant labor to work his ranch. When Pearl spots Amiel, a young migrant miming and juggling in the midst of a group, she immediately wants her uncle to hire him, and once he does that she wants to get to know him better. However, getting to know him presents many problems, namely his poverty and need to hide from authorities, and the taboo of a relationship between a migrant worker and a daughter of the community all leading to consequences that none can foresee.
Dark Water is a contemplative novel concerning the complexities underscoring Pearl’s life in the summer of 2007, a year known for its fierce wildfires, which play a prominent role in the concerns of the town throughout the book. Pearl struggles in the face of her mother’s grief at her father’s infidelity and abandonment of his family, and the emotional and physical loss of their once close relationship. Along with the issues of her immediate family, she and her best friend are slowly growing apart, and her cousin Robby comes to her with a dilemma which threatens the way both of them feel about family and relationships. In this confusing time, Pearl spends most of her free time either alone or in pursuit of Amiel.
McNeal sets up a moving story giving the reader the opportunity to ponder the emotional landscape in which Pearl dwells- the state of mind which ultimately drives her decisions. There are big issues contained within this book, but the story focuses much more on the way Pearl perceives her world and her personal reactions to what she experiences. The novel quietly moves through Pearl’s interactions with her friends, dealings with her family, and with her peripheral notice of the lives of the migrants workers while she attempts to get close to Amiel. This story is about this girl and how she views life. The relationship with Amiel drives a large part of the novel but it’s never fully explained why she feels the way she does. He is plagued by very real concerns of deportation, food and shelter, and is initially very reluctant to spend any time with Pearl at all.
Dark Water is well-written and moving, but it suffers from some plausibility issues, some of which could be chalked up to the passionate and impulsive nature of teenagers. I was a little baffled by the ending, because some of the choices that characters made did not seem supported by the way I came to view them throughout the story. The circumstances and themes were heavy and replete with loss and sadness, but the somewhat improbable ending made it hard to mesh the emotions stirred with the actual events.
Many authors have mentioned struggling with the titles of their books- they say they go through several titles or have books that were finally titled by someone else. Alex Gilvarry’s book trailer for Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant, takes on the idea that his book suffers from an overly long and possibly unmemorable title. He discusses this premise at length and elicits suggestions for a title, and even examples of a good titles from a model/literary consultant, and his own literary agent in this amusing book trailer.
I have said many times that I tend to flee from books that are touted overtly for their comedic/humorous effects. Often I haven’t found these books very funny, but I am interested in humor in the ways that it naturally occurs within drama- and it looks like From The Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant will have both. Penguin has offered to send me and one of my readers a copy of the book to read. I am curious about Guantanamo Bay and how this writer will present that experience to readers, so I’m looking forward to reading this. Read the description below to see if it piques your interest as well.
Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of design school in Manila. With dubious financing and visions of Fashion Week runways, he sets up shop in a Brooklyn toothpick factory, pursuing his goals with monkish devotion (distractions of a voluptuous undergrad not withstanding). But mere weeks after a high-end retail order promises to catapult his (B)oy label to the big time, there’s a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic Boyet is brought to Gitmo, handed a Koran, and locked away indefinitely on suspicion of being linked to a terrorist plot. Now, from his 6′ x 8′ cell, Boy prepares for the trial of his life with this intimate confession, even as his belief in American justice begins to erode.
With a nod to Junot Diaz and a wink to Gary Shteyngart, Alex Gilvarry’s first novel explores some of the most serious issues of our time with dark eviscerating wit.
Giveaway – I have a copy of From The Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant to give to readers with a US or Canadian address. Please fill out this form for entry to win a copy by Thursday, December 15, 2011.
Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory is one of the strangest little collections of stories that I have ever read, and oddly, it’s really resonant. While longer than sudden fiction (though some of it really is just that), each of these short stories are dark and offered up something of the weird to be pondered. The stories don’t always make the most sense, but they grab hold of mind and imagination in satisfying ways. They stay with you. They have off kilter premises- a tree walks and goes on adventures before being trapped in a tree cage in a park, an octopus lives in a house and collects teacups, a man and moose become friends in precarious circumstances, a monster dwells in a swimming pool. You get the picture, right?
I had a lot of fun reading this book- it is a great conversation starter and very discussable. It might be that the rich blue of the cover and the far flung arm of the orange octopus were too entrancing to pass up, but people wanted to ask me about this book, and sometimes I would even let them read a story. There is a short one- only three sentences long- that doesn’t even fill a page. Others are only two pages long. I compared meanings with strangers and sometimes we disagreed and at others they gave me food for thought.
These stories are fun in that since they are easily shared, reading takes on a communal feel. I chatted quite a bit about the experience of reading these stories, because it mainly comes down to the way they make you feel. Most of them have dark meanings, surprising turns and unhappy endings,while some are beautiful and others are baffling. Oftentimes while reading I felt as if I were on the verge of grasping some meaning or deeper truth but was left with only a residue of their elusiveness.
Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a beguiling and thought-provoking collection of short fiction that strays from the beaten path, but is better for following its own rhythm. I haven’t found many collections of short stories that I like, but it was pleasure to read through these, and I will do so again. I recommend them not only for short fiction readers but for those who enjoy the meditative quality of art. These stories are open wide to and welcome many interpretations. Recommended.
It wasn’t until after I’d read Audrey Niffenegger’s novels The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry that I found out she was also an illustrator and graphic novelist. She has two earlier “novels-in-pictures” The Adventuress (which I’ve since read) and The Three Incestuous Sisters. The Adventuress was really, really strange, but still I picked up a copy of her most recent graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. It’s a moving, though disturbing, book about the joys, sorrows, and isolation of reading. The main character is at an extreme on the reading spectrum- one I am happy to report that I do not occupy- but still, her story stayed with me for quite awhile after I’d read it.
Alexandra is out walking late one evening when she comes across a Bookmobile and its librarian and sole employee Mr. Openshaw. Upon entrance she encounters all the books that she read growing up as a girl, and finds all the novels from her adulthood including her diaries, letters and personal papers. Oddly, some of the books stop in the middle, their remainders filled only with blank pages. The next night she wants to return to the Bookmobile, but though she spends many years exhaustively exploring the city streets, she only sees it sporadically, and many years go by between each visit. In the intervening years she breaks up with her boyfriend, eschews most company but that of her books, and studies to become a librarian.
Alexandra doesn’t stop with her efforts to become a librarian, but you’ll have to read on to find where her pursuit of the Bookmobile takes her. Niffenegger is not exploring middle ground with Alexandra, but through her relentless pursuit of reading, the avid reader will come upon familiar ideas and circumstances – sometimes you do want to shut out the world and curl up with a good book. Part cautionary tale and part exploration of libraries and the reading life, The Night Bookmobile has an undeniably haunting component that lingers, and makes you think about the exchange you make when you pick up a book and start to turn the pages. Recommended.