Monday, January 30, 2017

Best Fiction Reads of 2016

1.  Charles Dickens.  David Copperfield. All (nearly) 900 pages. The master's masterpiece.  Larger than life.  Amazing characters:  Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, the Murdstones, Betsey Trotwood, Mr. Dick, Dora.  Drama and melodrama.  It was written (in 1849-50) in installments which served to keep the readers on tenterhooks.  Pages and pages of descriptive prose--vicissitudes, living on the edge.  Often everyone's favorite Dickens.  This was my first reading of it.  Loved it.

2.  Ernest Hemingway.  For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Another masterpiece.  Set in May 1937 near Segovia, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.  Brutal, honest, exquisite writing.  First-hand knowledge (no stereotypes pretending to be the real thing).  Some sections were too brutal to read.  Some about love and home and truth and irony and friendships and betrayal.  This was my second reading--since it was our book club selection.

3.  Alan Paton.  Cry, the Beloved Country.  Golly, yet another masterpiece!  Published 1948.  The tale of two South African families in 1946--one Zulu-speaking, one English-speaking--and the events that bring them together, first tragically, then with compassion and unified purpose.  Themes:  the decay of the tribal culture as impacted by the white/European economy and the flight to urban centers.  This is an amazingly thoughtful, lyrical book, without cant, simply describing two peoples seeking justice.  It's also about personal actions--what people can do, especially if their government doesn't do it.  This was my first reading--another selection by our book club.

4.  Conrad Richter, The Trees.  (See below)

5.  Conrad Richter, The Fields.  (See below)

6.  Conrad Richter, The Town.  A trilogy describing the opening and settling of the Ohio wilderness.  Three exquisite books, now out of print, alas.  Look under "Books" and see my April 8, 2016, posting for a full description.

7.  Helen Simonson.  The Summer Before the War.  Much good detail about life in Rye, Sussex, in 1914 with one of the characters standing in for Henry James who lived there.  Good range of characters, a flowing story line, some intelligent writing.  A bit of melodrama but, for me, acceptable.  The author grew up there and obviously had a love affair with the area.  This is her second novel, the first being Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.  The spoken language seemed more geared toward the day of Jane Austen, but I dare say that's how the English upper classes still spoke a hundred years later.

8.  Susan Vreeland.  Lisette's List.  Not a great book but not a bad one about a Parisienne who spends the war and post-war years in Provence both tending and then searching for some family paintings by Cezanne, Pissarro, and Picasso around the village of Roussillon with its ocher mines/quarries from which pigment is made.  Guest appearances by Samuel Beckett and the Chagalls who spent some time hidden away there.  By the author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

An added note:

I've said it before and will say it again.  I do enjoy the fiction of Scotsman, Alexander McCall Smith and have now probably read some 30 or so of his books.  He always has something to say about life and the passing scene ... and he does so in a gentle, thoughtful, gracious manner.  (How unusual, eh?)  This year I added several to my reading list.  The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine and Precious and Grace from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.  The Revolving Door of Life from the 44 Scotland Street series.  And The Novel Habits of Happiness from the Isabel Dalhousie series. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Non-fiction Reads of 2016

One of my favorite blog postings is listing what I consider my best reads for the previous year.  So it's that time again.  My book tally for this past year was 42, with 8 non-fiction and 8 fiction in my "best reads" list.  (I'll do fiction next time.)

In alphabetical order by author:

1.  Elisabeth Tova Bailey.  The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  This was a lovely surprise, a lovely book.  The author, bed-bound, barely able to move due to a mysterious illness that lasted years, was given a flower in a pot that she could set beside her bed.  The friend who gave it to her found a snail outdoors which she put in the pot.  This snail became the author's bedside companion, first in the pot and then in a terrarium with mosses, leaves, bits of mushrooms, twigs.  She would study the snail's habits--what it liked to eat, how it procreated, where it slept, how it traced its path with its slime which also served as a good way to shut anything out when it sealed itself in its shell to sleep.  Who would guess that a snail was so fascinating, but this is a dear little book that, as one reviewer wrote, has already become a classic. You might call this a double memoir--author's and snail's.

2.  Bill Bryson.  The Road to Little Dribbling.  Set in England, the author considers it THE outstanding country in the world ... with its universities, museums, architectural sites, World Heritage sites, public ramble paths, abbeys, and incredibly beautiful scenery.  But as he goes from one end of the country to the other, he makes an excellent point that a concerted effort should be made (and money spent) to preserve/ restore the English village rather than tear down and replace it with garbage-y claptrap.  KEEP the butcher's shops, the greengrocers, the pubs, the post offices, the tea houses, he says.  Let people access them easily--by walking into the village rather than driving out to some depressing mall.

3.  Bill Bryson.  A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  Take note--the book is much better than the movie.  In 1996, Bryson and his friend, Katz, walked a portion of the AT, finding it much more difficult and much longer (some 2,000 miles) than they imagined.  His description is amusing, informative, enjoyable.

4.  Thomas Cahill.  How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. In a very readable fashion, this describes the spread of Christianity by St. Patrick and St. Colomba and the monks and scholars who copied the West's ancient texts including the classics and the Bible ... thus preserving what the Barbarians destroyed on the European mainland.

5.  Candice Millard.  The River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.  This is a fabulous telling of the first exploration of a thousand-mile-long Brazilian river led by Brazil's leading explorer of the day plus Theodore Roosevelt.  The expedition included every conceivable problem: illness, hostile people, piranhas, starvation, lost boats and crew-members, and the constant need to portage what boats they had left to avoid rapids and falls.  This was in the spring of 1914 just after TR lost his bid for the Presidency when running as a Progressive.  You wonder how anyone survived at all.  In fact, he nearly died but with grit and determination, he managed to survive though never fully regained his health.

6.  Marcel Pagnol.  My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle.  Though I've seen this listed as "an autobiographical novel," these are two separate memoirs in one book which describe the author's life as a boy around 1905 in the mountainous region just outside Marseille with his school master father, fragile mother, and younger brother.  Totally charming, they are told in a wonderfully human way and center around his love of the region--the aromatic vegetation, the silence of the garrigue and Mt. Garlaban.  In fact, both tales were turned into excellent films in 1990 that beautifully maintained the integrity of the stories.  Anyone who loves France and evocative writing will enjoy this.

7.  Helen Russell.  The Year of Living Danishly, Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country.  A young British couple move to a small village in Denmark where he works for Lego and she works at discovering why the Danish way of life is such a happy one.  A small manageable population, a single culture, a social safety net, and trust in people (to the extent that young mothers would leave baby and carriage outside a restaurant while they went in for lunch).  Amusing, informative, well researched.

8.  Lee Smith.  Dimestore, A Writer's Life.  The title comes from the dimestore her father owned in a small coal-mining town in southwestern Virginia, Appalachia, where she grew up.  The title may also indicate the bits and pieces she includes in this memoir as she tells the tale of when and how she became a writer.  Loose style, engaging.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

17 Movies That I Saw in 2016 That I Can Recommend

1.  A Year in Burgundy.  2013.  A splendid documentary that follows 7 wine-making families in the Burgundy region of France who continue to make wine as it has been made there for hundreds of years.  These grapes are chardonnay and pinot noir.  Beautifully filmed, wonderful narration, interesting tid-bits about wine making ... such as emphasizing that the grapes and wine are live produce and must be treated with respect.  (One wine-maker turns on classical music in the cellars to benefit the wine--the same cellars that were built by Cistercian monks hundreds of years ago).  From pruning the vines in winter to cutting out hail-damaged grapes when harvesting in late summer.  In French and English.

2.  Ballet 422.  2014.  A documentary about a new work at the New York City Ballet by its young choreographer in residence, Justin Peck.  This is a back stage piece showing how he wrote, directed, and performed the piece as he also put everything together--lighting, costume, hair, music, and ballet rehearsal.

3.  The Big Short.  2015.  A U.S. comedy-drama about high finance and modern banking.  With Bale, Carell, Gosling, Pitt.  I enjoyed it.

4.  Bridge of Spies.  2015.  A rendering of the shooting down of the U-2 spy-plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers in 1960, and how a New York lawyer (Tom Hanks) negotiated his release.  An intelligent thriller directed by Spielberg.

5.  Brooklyn.  2015.  A British-Canadian-Irish romantic drama based on Colm Toibin's novel.  A young Irish woman who goes off to the U.S. (Brooklyn) but later returns home, needs to decide which of the two countries she will make her permanent home.  Well done.

6.  East Side Sushi.  2014.  Set and filmed in Oakland, this sweet feel-good film tells the story of a Latina who begins working in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant.  She soon aspires to become a full-fledged sushi chef but, as a result, finds herself confronting some major problems.

7.  Far From Men (Loin des Hommes).  2015.  French.  Set it 1954 Algeria at the time of their war for independence, this is based on a story by Camus.  Viggo Mortensen plays a French school teacher in the Atlas Mountains who is given the task of taking a murderer some distance to a trial.  The two men gain a rapport which complicates matters.  It won several awards.  In French and Arabic.

8.  45 Years.  2015.  British.  Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when he receives the news that the body of his old lover has been found after 50 years in a Swiss glacier, an event which then opens up that period of his life, not all of it to his wife's liking.  Both leads won awards for their performances.  Intelligent story, well portrayed.

9. The House of Sand.  2005.  Brazil.  Set from 1910-1969, this was filmed in the extraordinary setting of the sand-filled Atlantic coastal Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in northern Brazil.  (Which I'd never heard of or seen pictures of before.)  It's a strong, survival-oriented story though I had difficulty believing anyone could exist in such an uninhabitable environment.  The story centers around two strong women, a mother and daughter--played by real life mother and daughter.  In Portuguese.

10. A Little Chaos.  2014.  British period piece.  Alan Rickman directed this film and also played Louis XIV.  It's a fantasy film of sorts about a garden designer in Versailles with the modern touch of having that be a woman, Kate Winslett.  Lots of conflict/resolution, good people/bad people, plus falling in love, so lots of clichés, but okay.

11.  Live-in Maid.  2004. Argentina.  Set in Buenos Aires during Argentina's economic crisis in the early 2000's.  Poignant story about a live-in maid and her long-term employer, a former well-to-do socialite.  Beautifully acted.  In Spanish.

12. Mustang.  2015.  Turkish-French film set in a town on the Black Sea by a Turkish director who won several awards for her work.  It's about 5 orphaned teen-aged sisters living with their grandmother who curtails their activities in order not to spoil their marriage chances.  In Turkish.

13.  Poetry.  2010.  Korean.  A grandmother signs up for a poetry writing class as different elements of turmoil then enter her life.  Thoughtful, slow-paced.  In Korean.

14.  Queen and Country.  2014.  British drama/biography.  This is John Boorman's sequel to Hope and Glory which was about his boyhood in London during the Blitz.  This isn't quite as charming, but still good acting, funny story, and nice to see a few of the Hope and Glory people here, too.  In this, he's just been recruited into the army at the time of the Korean War and together with his best buddy, engages in plenty of shenanigans as they begin life in training camp.

15.  The Second Mother.  2015.  Brazilian.  A maid's daughter comes to live with her in the house of her employers which creates confusion and class consciousness but is resolved in a loving fashion.  In Portuguese.

16.  Sweet Bean.  2015.  Japanese.  A sweet, lyrical drama about a man who runs a small pancake stall and a much older woman who helps him make the bean paste to spread on the pancakes.  Both have hardships to overcome.  Beautifully filmed.  In Japanese.

17.  Trumbo.  2015.  American biographical drama about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), jailed and blacklisted for alleged Communist propaganda in Hollywood films.  Well done.