My goals, in 2016, were nothing if not lofty. In addition to the posts I would write and the the dishes I would make, I had a long list of all the books I would read: Lahiri, Strout, Messud, Franzen, Collins, Smith (Zadie, not to be confused with all the other possible literary Smiths in the world)…Of just these six, I read an embarrassing zero, though this isn’t necessarily for a lack of trying. Whenever I made this list–sometime in early January of last year?– I had thought that these were the books that I wanted to read. Some of them were; I did cross two off the list: Lily King’s Euphoria, which had been a Christmas present from the Greek, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which, given my recent preference (both conscious and unconscious) for reading female authors and the fact that, since I had read Tom Perrotta’s review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (“In recent years, a number of talented novelists have experienced a sudden and alarming loss of faith in their chosen literary form. David Shields thinks most novels are boring and disconnected from reality. Nicole Krauss is ‘sick of plot and characters and scenes and climax and resolution.’ Rachel Cusk has decided that conventional fiction is ‘fake and embarrassing.’ Karl Ove Knausgaard goes even further, dismissing the entire enterprise: ‘Fictional writing has no value.’) I had been curious about this voice that has disavowed the power of fiction, I bought for myself. The failure of this list, like with so many of the lists that I make, should convince me that it’s wrong to attempt to plan “a reading year” so far in advance, that there are moods and times for all books (and recipes and shows), that sometimes you just need to be guided by what leaps out at you as stare at your increasingly overcrowded shelves.
Despite my hits and misses as a reader, I have learned the importance of giving up if a book doesn’t feel quite right. I had, for example, been wanting to read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (many have called it a more gothic Gone Girl for the literary crowd; James Wood, however, was not convinced) since it came out in 2015, but, when the moment finally arrived and despite the immensely pleasing cover with its calming wavelike pattern of blue and white, I couldn’t read past the first page. Maybe I would feel differently if I picked it up now, maybe not. Whereas I used to claim that I would read anything I could get my hands on–and this was largely true–I am now a picky reader, one who wants to be grabbed immediately by the author’s voice and released only after absorbing every morsel of pleasure that I can from both the characters and the twists of plot and language. I wonder sometimes if this means I am simply (or have become) a lazy reader, one who seeks pleasure first and challenge second, but life is short, books are plentiful and hopefully I will one day be old, grey, in full possession of my faculties and finally still and free enough to be able to read all the novels I will inevitably have cast aside over the years.
For now, though, we will just focus on my somewhat youthful tastes, my favorite reads from 2016. While I ultimately didn’t read all that many novels, I did read a good mix of genres (classics, mysteries and contemporary fiction, a lot of which blurs the line between memoir and fiction) and even a few books written by men. Winnowing these books down into a short list was not an easy task, especially when you consider that 2016 brought me an unexpected dose of Potter, which I initially slurped up with the same gusto I would a bowl of udon at a noodle bar on a cold winter day, all before realizing I would have to pace myself, my first Ali Smith novel and more of Maria Semple’s zany observations (“Stop talking about Jesus! People will think we’re poor!”). Had I finished Daniel Deronda (again in progress after a long hiatus), or managed to read the pile of books (Longbourn, Bel Canto, The Signature of All Things) that I would virtuously carry around on various trips and never actually crack open, this list might have been very different.
Also, because I spend a lot of time reading and flipping through cookbooks, I decided to offer my favorites from these categories as well. Happy reading and may we all read more (and stay off the quicksand of the internet) in 2017! Let life look like this.
Five Favorite Books of the Year
Tana French everything: I read not one book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad this year, but three: Faithful Place, Broken Harbor and The Secret Place. If the titles don’t impress you, don’t worry; they didn’t impress me, either. But to judge the books by their titles alone would be a huge mistake. Huge. These mysteries are less about the whodunnit (in two of the three books, I was able to guess outright, or at least suspect the killer; surprisingly, this didn’t affect my opinion of the books) and more about the psychology of both the detective working the case and the murderer. There is always a chilling and somewhat supernatural element to them (the bond of four friends at a private school that leads to something like witchcraft, but that is never overtly stated as such; the mysterious disappearance of two children in the woods; the specter of a wild animal in the attic), as well as a strong sense of coincidence: each detective ends up having to solve the mystery that most gets under his or her skin because they resonate with his or her past. They are smart, creepy and downright engaging. When I recently exchanged Christmas greetings with a friend who was reading Mikhail Shishkin on her Finnish holiday, I told her I was embarrassed to say that I was spending my holiday reading a mystery, but one by Tana French and that I was certain Dostoevsky would approve. I hold to that belief.
My Struggle, Book One: I first read Karl Ove Knausgaard a few years ago in The New Yorker. The piece was, I think, taken from the third or fourth book in his autobiographical series and, while I enjoyed it (it was light and funny; I read it with the Greek American boy I was tutoring at the time, which, given some of the racy elements to Knausgaard’s sexual discovery, was probably not the best choice, but he was game and I decided to go with it), I didn’t think to myself that I wanted to sit down and read the whole series. At the time, something about it felt claustrophobic to me; it also was overwhelmingly masculine, which I wasn’t interested in reading about in my spare time. But two years later, I found myself wanting to read it, starting to and then falling into it rather obsessively. I suddenly couldn’t look away, from his violent struggles with his own children (some of the descriptions make you wonder, is this parenting or is this child abuse?) to his hardened affection for his alcoholic father, it reeled me in. I still had 200+ pages to go before the Greek and I left for our honeymoon and, somehow, even though I didn’t feel Knausgaard was my idea of appropriate honeymoon reading, I continued to read it from Lisbon to Lagos to Porto. By the end, it too felt like a Scandinavian murder mystery with the discovery of his grandmother’s own complicity in his father’s drinking and the presence of blood in a scene that had formerly been believed to be the scene of a peaceful death by drunkenness. I haven’t gone back yet to read Book Two, but 2017 may be the year to do so; I just hope that it offers some kind of answers to the questions that it dangled before the reader in Book One.
Everything I Never Told You: I had seen this book on the bestseller lists and year-end roundups a few years ago, but something about it–the cover? the title?–turned me off. When I went to Hong Kong this year, however, I found out that the friend I was visiting was reading it and had only good things to say about it. Since she and I have shared many book tips over the years, I figured that, once I was again stateside, I would take her good advice and run with it. Only this past summer, after finishing the Knausgaard, did I finally open it, but I read it– a tale of a broken family, marital discord and grief–quickly and voraciously. In a matter of two days, which, for me, a fairly slow reader, is saying a lot, I was done reading, but not done thinking about the book. It was a timely read in a lot of ways, given its portrayal of a biracial family (Asian father, white mother) in the 1960s and 70s and the quiet, almost invisible acts of racism that are directed towards them. It also tackled, and with real insight and delicacy, the inevitable choices that women have to make when they have children; when Marilyn, a formerly bright and promising scientist, attempts to reforge her path and finds that it is too late for her, you are as crushed as she is. But how these lost dreams and family secrets impact the present and future is what really drives the novel, which somehow manages to surprise you at each and every turn.
Euphoria: A former instructor of reading and writing classes that focused on novels of adultery, I love stories about marriages challenged by the presence of a disruptive outsider. But, though this novel could be seen as a typical novel of adultery (in so far as there is a typical novel of adultery) this is only one of the reasons I loved Euphoria. Its exploration of passion goes beyond the desire to connect with another human being and extends to the passion involved in research and discovery, which is, in a lot of ways, the preferred form of passion for these characters (they are loosely based on Margaret Mead, her second husband, Reo Fortune and, Gregory Bateson, the man who would become Mead’s third husband) and the one the novel is most interested in exploring. While the novel is beautifully written (Lily King is a poet in prose), it is also sharp and witty, full of intellectual discourse and insight into human nature. For anybody who has ever studied Anthropology (I did and badly, though this book makes me wish I had taken Columbia’s “Monkey Sex” class more seriously), you will appreciate the novel’s serious engagement with this field. You may also, just as I did, want to read more about Mead and her anthropological discoveries.
News of the World: I wasn’t sure this book would make the cut. It’s a Western: slight, with jaunty prose, a sense of adventure and a somewhat predictable outcome (good triumphs over evil, doubtful hero decides to listen to his conscious rather than follow the rules; young ingenue is saved). It’s not even the kind of thing I usually read. In spite of all those things, or maybe because of all of those things, it stuck with me. There’s something inherently inviting about this kind of straightforward storytelling. I learned something not only about white children who were kidnapped by Native Americans (apparently, even when rescued, they either committed suicide or escaped; they did not want to be reintegrated into “white” or European culture), but also about both Texan and American political history. This, in fact, is why I picked this book up in the first place; the Greek has applied to a few jobs in Texas (Houston, mainly) and I figured that I ought to learn something about Texan history. What I learned was rather heartening or disheartening; I suppose it depends on your perspective. For all of our talk this year about American politics being at its absolute worst and about how we need to return to the good old days when there was bipartisan support and cooperation, there is a telling scene in this well-researched novel that might just shatter our illusions. The main character, Captain Kidd, is attempting to enter a small town and he is stopped by a local group that has taken law enforcement upon itself; they tell him, “Nobody who voted for Davis [a republican who served as governor of Texas from 1870-1874] is getting into Erath County” (130). Clearly, this line struck a chord with me and, when I looked up Davis (this novel offers a lot of historical information, but expects you to do your homework to understand the various allusions), I discovered that as a governor during Reconstruction who was committed to advancing the civil rights of African Americans, he was a despised figure; when he lost in 1873 to a Democrat, Davis was so certain that the election had been marked by “irregularities” that he refused to leave his office on the ground floor of the Texas Capitol. This refusal forced Governor-Elect Coke, when meeting with the legislature, to climb a ladder to the second floor. Even once Davis left the office, he got in one final jab at his successor, locking the door and taking the key, which forced the Governor-Elect’s supporters to break in with an ax. Oh, America, or maybe it’s just Texan politics as usual? Obviously, for this anecdote alone, I am eternally grateful that I picked up this book.
Favorite Cookbooks of the Year
Let me just say, and briefly, that this is not an exhaustive list of all of the books that inspired my cooking and baking this year; if that were the case, this blog post would rival War and Peace. These are simply the five books that I cooked from the most, either during or in the final months of the year.
Classic German Baking: I’ve long been a follower of The Wednesday Chef’s (aka Luisa Weiss) blog and Instagram feed, so there was never any doubt in my mind that, when this book came out, I would be buying a copy. This may sound hyperbolic, but I have never been happier about a cookbook purchase (that is, once I overcame my initial disappointment that the book contained fewer photographs than I would have liked, given my general lack of knowledge about German pastries), nor have I ever used one so exhaustively in the first month of owning it. In this month, I made Chocolate Streusel Cheesecake, Cabbage Strudel, a Leek and Bacon Tart, Chocolate Hazelnut Loaf Cake, Quark, Quark Stollen! If I wasn’t rivaling the output of a German bakery, I was, at the very least, trying recipes and methods that were entirely new to me. Reading it and discovering the secrets of classic German baking are not the only pleasures the book has to offer; the fact that you are guided by Luisa’s calm and reassuring voice is a real bonus, as she is an experienced editor, having gotten her start in cookbook publishing. Even if I one day winnow down the collection, this is one book that is bound for the keeper shelf.
SQIRL, Everything I Want to Eat: Let me say, before saying anything else, that I have never been to SQIRL. I am neither a worshipper at the altar of Koslow, nor a believer that “cookbooks should be kept weird,” which was the reaction that some bloggers had to this book (I like a well done and quirky cookbook, but I don’t know that an item that should be functional should necessarily be weird. What exactly does weird mean anyway in this context?). I simply like good and interesting food and I don’t mind working for it, even though I’m convinced that I enjoy cooking more when I don’t spend the whole day sweating in the kitchen. And, yes, I’ve read a lot about SQIRL; I would love to go there someday and stand in line for a grain bowl and a turmeric juice. Call me crazy or just somebody who used to live in California and misses the frou-frou delights of these things…All of these things aside, however, this is an excellent cookbook: the recipes are clearly written, shortcuts for the home cook are suggested at each and every turn and, true to the promise of the title, you will want to eat everything that Koslow describes, from the Buckwheat Pancake with Cocoa Nib Pudding to the Kohlrabi Tzatziki. It’s the small twists to the classics, as well as the generally and generously healthful bent to the recipes, that make this book shine. Personally, I could live without the pictures of the celebrities and the regulars who frequent SQIRL, but I appreciate that cookbooks, like all books, are a product of their time and place.
Samarkand: I already talked a lot about this book in my last post, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Suffice it to say that this book, with its focus on Central Asian (Eastern European meets Middle Eastern/Balkan) flavors, is not only a looker, but is also full of both classic and innovative recipes. The stories offer the insights and experiences of the authors, while the accompanying photography is gorgeous and evocative of a region rich with vibrant dishes and various ingredients.
Essential Turkish Cuisine: There was a month, earlier in the year, when the Greek and I were pretty much exclusively eating Turkish food. I had, you see, gone a little crazy after buying Engin Akin’s beautiful and informative book (for example, in Turkish, if you say that somebody “eats quince,” you are saying that this person will experience trouble; it is often said when couples are getting married). While I already had a trusted Turkish cookbook (Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, which I have featured recipes from four or five times), I was persuaded that I needed another by the historical information and chatty headnotes in this one. I also liked that Akin discusses, in a fairly scholarly way, the origins of recipes and the fine lines that exist between Turkish and Armenian cuisine (as well as other ethnic cuisines) and that she features both classic Ottoman dishes and recipes from specific regions (Kale Dolma from the Black Sea; Anatolian Gypsy Salad, which is bright and bracing with tomato paste, pomegranate molasses and sumac; Red Lentil Balls with Cornichons from Gaziantep). The food is wonderful–inviting and simple–but the writing may be enough to satiate your hunger.
Dorie’s Cookies: I didn’t want to like this book, nor did I really think that I need another by Dorie, beloved though she may be. I also was initially put off by the photography; I don’t mind being up close and personal with my food, but I found some of the images to be disarming, like when you find yourself before a magnifying mirror and suddenly wonder if this is what other people see when they look at you. My discomfort aside, the more time I spent with this book, the more time I realized that a) up close and personal has its charms and b) you could own 20 books exclusively on cookies and still learn something from Greenspan. I already baked several kinds of cookies from this book (Moroccan semolina, Cabin Fever Banana Bars, the fabulous Double Ginger and Molasses Cookies, the Pumpkin Spice Jammers) and bookmarked several more. I have always felt that cookies, besides pies, are the most consuming dessert to make and, while I stand by this belief, I have found that all the extra work of spooning out the dough, rolling it into little balls, properly spacing it and then rotating the baking sheets is more than worth it. There is nothing better than having a cookie around and, if you believe that, then Greenspan and her inventive recipes are fine company indeed.