2016: 139.-145. Everything Else I Read in 2016

Ok.  Here is everything else I read in 2016.  I hate to do it, because there are a few really great books here that I wanted to say more about.  But 2017 is already piling up! #booknerdproblems

139. Commonwealth, Ann Patchett

“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

I love Ann Patchett. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of hers (see. e.g. Run,  The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magicians Assistant in fact, I’m noticing she is a recurring player on my best book of the year lists!) - indeed Bel Canto was probably my least favorite of hers, and that is an amazing book.  So I am perhaps in the bag for her when I say that this was one of the best novels I read in 2016. And yet, it was.  It’s a story of two families who become intertwined when their parents fall in love, breaking up two marriages and leading to a new combination of people.  It’s about life, and things that happen, and how we deal with them.  And it also about stories and how we tell them and what the power of telling stories  mean.  But you don’t even notice all that writerly stuff, because Patchett creates such interesting and vivid characters that you just keep reading and reading. I could have read another 500 pages about these people and kept going.  Which isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have a satisfying ending - it does. But I wanted to know more - and I can’t remember the last adult book I read that made me feel like that. I wish this was the first of a series and I could keep going with Franny and Albert. I’d read a whole novel about Holly and the ashram in Switzerland. And I haven’t even talked yet about the opening scene of the novel, which describes the magical party that sets the whole novel in motion.  I cannot remember when I’ve read something so evocative that has just stuck with me.  This is a book where the first scene could have been a novel, and the whole novel wasn’t enough for me.  I’m babbling, I know, but this is a tremendous real.  Go get it.

140. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

“My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.”

I’m late to the party, blogging about this one (it is, right now, the number three book for sale on Amazon).  Talk about hitting the timing jackpot - writing about, for lack of a better word, “Trump’s America” at the exact moment people wanted to to try to understand them better.  But I can’t begrudge Vance his success - he has written an interesting memoir about growing up in “hillbilly” (for lack of a better word) America - growing up poor in Appalachia, and later going on to Yale Law School. Trying to explain how different his life was from the majority of people he went to school with - both in the sense of dealing with poverty but also the sociological difference - the hillbilly culture, for lack of a better word.  He believes and convinces you that there is a different way of life in Appalachia and similar communities, and he wants to explain it to the rest of the country.  And he succeeds in doing that - he vividly describes a way of life that is very different from mine, and shows both the pro and cons of that way of living.  And explains how he had to both overcome his past but also how his past made him who he is today.  Vance is very much a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservative, but despite that he also understands the insiduous nature of poverty and the social forces that keep people stuck in a lifestyle.  It’s a thought provoking book, and I enjoyed reading.  My one quibble (except disagreeing with Vance politically), was that while I appreciated his reporting on the hillbilly culture - I would have enjoyed a book even more that addressed the issue more sociologically - why is it so culturally different from what we think of middle class America? But that isn’t the book Vance chose to write, so I can’t really fault him.  I just need to find something else to read that can explain that question.

141.  The Seventh Book of Wonders, Julianna Baggott

“This is how the story goes: I was born dead — or so my mother was told.”

I liked this book but I wanted to love it, and thus was disappointed.  A New York Times Notable book with the following plot description - “the reclusive Harriet Wolf, revered author and family matriarch, has a posthumous confession: a love story.  It can be found only in the final book of the series that made her a famous writer.  But does that book exist?”  Awesome, right? And it’s a multigenerational saga told through the voices of Harriet, her daughter Eleanor, and her granddaughters, Rugh and Tilton.  Family secrets, long lost love, yaddi yadda.  This sort of story is my jam.  But something about this one made me a little crazy.  The Harriet part, with her insane baroque past was pretty fun, but the more modern part, with her angry daughter, and the granddaughters - one normal, one “different” (is she mentally ill? Special needs? Or just waaay overprotected?) was not for me.  The characters irritated me, even as the plot was intriguing.  A fine airplane read, but not what I wanted, and thus a disappointment.

142. The Best of Connie Willis, Connie Willis

A collection of short stories by Willis, who is a science fiction writer.  She has written some absolutely amazing books (most particularly her time travel novels - Blackout, All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog) that I have loved.  She has also written books that have drove me crazy - I find, and I’ve said this before but am too lazy to look up links, that her work can be absolutely frenetic particularly at the endings, which often involve people running around at cross purposes just missing each other until the last possible second, which I find exhausting.  So, I approach her with skepticism.  This book, which is a collection of her short stories contains both the best and worst of Willis.  I think if you are fan you’d love it, but if you are new to Willis, I’d start with either Blackout or To Say Nothing of the Dog and decide from there if you like her enough to be patient with her worst tendencies.

143. The Flaming Corsage,  William Kennedy

“When the husband made his surprised entrance into the Manhattan hotel suite, his wife was leaning against a table, clad in a floor-length forest-green velvet cloak, and earing a small eye mask of the same color, her black hair loose to below her shoulders.”

I bought this book at the Bath Maine used booksale extravaganza because I read Kennedy’s Ironweed and loved it.  So I usually will grab a Kennedy book if I see one, but I hadn’t actually read any of the ones I had until this one (New Years Resolution, read more books that I have bought but never read).  And this had a cool cover and an intriguing premise.  Here I will quote the blurb: 

In a Manhattan hotel room, the “Love Nest Killings of 1908” take place. But the mystery of who killed whom, and why, does not unravel until we explore the lives of Katrina Taylor and Edward Daugherty

So, he is a first generation Irish American, she a scion of Old Protestant money.  They have a firey relationship, there is an actual hotel fire, it’s about Albany and New York and money and status and there is the promised Love Nest murders.  It’s funny - the book didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected - what kind of novel makes the murder of a beautiful woman in a velvet cloak almost an afterthought? But I did enjoy it and honestly which I had a) blogged about it sooner when the the details were a little less foggy in my mind, and b) read more Kennedy. Well, at least I remedy the latter!

144. American Ghost, Hannah Nordhaus

“It began late at night, as these stories do.”

This is a memoir of sorts, and also a ghost story, and also a family history. You see, Nordhaus’s great-great-grandmother, Julia Staab is also the the sad darked eyed woman in brown who allegedly haunts La Posada, a fancy Santa Fe hotel.  It was once the family home, and starting in the 1970’s stories began to arise about it being haunted by a female ghost.  Nordhaus decided to investigate the story - to learn what she can about the real Julia and to better understand the mythical Julia as well.  It is absolutely riveting to watch Nordhaus stream through three hundred years of history in Germany and the American Southwest to try to discovery the real Julia.  There is also a bit of exploration of the whole ghost thing - which I think is hokum, but the author handles that stuff well.  I bought this because it set in the Southwest (where I went on vacation after Christmas) and because I all of a sudden became a sucker for ruminations on the meaning of ghost stories (watch this space for a future post), but I really, really enjoyed this book.  Highly recommended if you like to think about history and how it trickles down from generation to generation.

and, FINALLY

145. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin

“Languid, lovely, lonely: the swans arches their beautiful necks and turned to gaze at him as his stood rooted to the shore, his feet encased in mud.”

This book is a fictionalized account of Truman Capote and his relationship with his “swans,” the wealthy women of Park Avenue who flocked to him in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with especial focus on his relationship with Babe Paley - and how he betrayed them all by publishing their secrets.  It’s chatty and gossipy and delightful, and while I am always a little queasy about fictionalized versions of real people’s lives, I couldn’t put this down.  And it’s reasonably sensitive to its characters, which let me read it without being quite so guilty.  And I know now that evidently I will read or watch anything about Capote.  Good to  know one’s self. Anyway, this is a very fun book to end the year on.


© Carrie Dunsmore 2017