The Best of 2016

2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.

  1. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
  2. I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
  3. If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
  4. Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.

And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.

She Left Me the Gun

I love memoirs–I’ve said this before–and can read one after another, but even I get a little tired of the endless string of “Here’s The Unique Way that My Parents Messed Me Up” stories. I certainly understand how a traumatic childhood can allow for the kind of narrative arc that works well in memoirs, but they are such a drag to read. Which is one reason that She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes was a such a refreshing change from the usual memoir.

Though told from Emma’s point of view, the book is really about her mother Paula, who was born and raised in South Africa but emigrated to England as an adult. After arriving in London, she got married, had her daughter, moved to the country, and lived out a normal, sedate village life. It was only after her mother died that Emma started looking into some of the vague things that her mother had said about her past. It takes Emma a fair amount of research, including multiple trips to South Africa and visits with extended family, to piece together exactly what happened to her mother before she got to England, and I’ll just say that very little of it was good.

The book goes into some detail about what happened to Paula, and offers an intriguing glimpse into everyday life in modern South Africa, as Emma ends up spending a great deal of time there meeting family and doing research. But the real heart of the book seems to be Emma trying to get her head around both who her mother was, and how much of the past she has the right and/or responsibility to know. Her mother kept this information from Emma for her whole life, and clearly wanted her to be as protected as possible; by discovering the truth, does Emma undo her mother’s work? Did Emma really know her mother, if she knows nothing of the first 30 years of her life and the momentous events that shaped her? (Emma does a great job of explaining that kid feeling of, “My mom was born, and then she had me. The end.”) And after her mother has died, does Emma have an obligation to learn what happened, so that SOMEONE knows exactly what her mother had to overcome?

The biggest question asked here, though, is just how does someone start over again? No matter the specifics of what happened to Paula, the upshot is that at 30 years old she walked away from a troubled life in South Africa and started all over again in London. She got married, had a child, and remained, as her daughter describes her, a vibrant, funny, functional person. How does someone do that? How could Paula do it when so many others couldn’t? The book doesn’t really answer that, of course. It’s a bigger mystery than one book can solve and Paula herself isn’t around to offer her thoughts. I wish she were, because she sounds like she would have been a riot, even if she couldn’t tell you how she did this magic act of creating a new life.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Inconclusive, but satisfying.

You might also like: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, another memoir by a daughter that is (largely) about her mother. In this case, the unknowable part seems to be how Walls ended up so functional when her mother was so dysfunctional, but it addresses some of the same key questions about how you construct a life.

Blood, Bones & Butter

I like memoirs and I read a lot of them. Some of them work better than others. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton is not going to go to the very top of my list, but it a solid book and an enjoyable read. Plus, trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more than I did helped me figure out exactly why I like some memoirs better than others, which could certainly help my future book selections.

Hamilton is the very respected chef at Prune, a very respected restaurant in New York’s East Village. (I’ve never been there, but the menu sure looks good.) There are about a million and one chef’s memoirs out there, but this one at least offers a change from the standard culinary school story, since Hamilton took a much more circuitous route to restaurant ownership. She roughly divides her story into three parts that echo the title. The Blood section deals with her childhood and her family, who sound fun but wildly dysfunctional. Personally, I don’t like reading about people’s childhoods and found the first section of this book a real slog–I honestly wasn’t sure I was even going to keep reading. But Hamilton leaves homes as a teenager and moves to New York City, and things pick up from there. In Bones, she describes how she wandered through work in large-scale catering houses and through an MFA program before opening her restaurant and I found all of that fascinating. (Her stories about the catering world also explain a lot of things about the meals I ate a conference recently.) Finally, Butter deals with her marriage, kids and, in-laws. Sound pretty standard? Well, she’s a lesbian who marries an Italian man so he can get his green card (sort of?), has kids, and then falls in love with his mother and the annual trip to Italy to visit her husband’s family. So, not so standard. There were a lot of things in Butter that felt very glossed over to me–she talks in depth about the affair she had with the Italian before they married, but hardly mentions even in passing how they choose to have multiple children–but Italy sure does sound nice. I might have married the guy for those in-laws myself.

So what insight about memoirs did this book lead me to? That memoirs work better when they are structured around something very specific. My favorite two memoirs of recent years were Eat, Pray, Love and Julie & Julia. I think those work well because they both use a particular activity or time period as a framework for the story, such as Julie Powell spending a year cooking her way through one of Julia Child’s cookbooks. This prevents the memoir from falling into a patten in which the author just basically describes everything that has happened from the time they were born up until the present. In Julie & Julia, no matter what tangents she goes off on or what she chooses to discuss, I know that the book is going to come back to what she’s cooking and that it’s going to end when the year is up. In Blood, Bones & Butter, Hamilton does use the three title ingredients to create a structure, but it’s limited–I actually didn’t figure out how the sections were divided until after I had finished the book. And the real weakness of the everything-up-until-now method of writing a memoir is that things often just sort of stop when the author reaches the current day.  I definitely felt that way with this book and would really like to hear the rest of Hamilton’s story. I am aware that when someone is writing the story of their life, that story may not have a classic narrative arc. That’s why I think the very explicit structure of something like Eat, Pray, Love works so well. As a reader, I want for there to be a conclusion of some sort, and putting a frame of time or concept around the story helps provide that. Blood, Bones & Butter is an interesting and well-written book–maybe it is to its credit that my main issue with it is that I wanted to hear more of the story.