Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Decade of Books: 10 Series, 40 Titles

Just as surely as the first week of January brings new diet books, the last week of December brings Top 10 or Top 100 lists. See, for example, Wine Spectator's "Top 100 Wines," or Michiko Kakutani's "Top 10 Books of 2009" in the New York Times, or--let's make this easy--Time magazine's "Top 10 Everything" list, which is almost a parody of the genre. These lists are way too late to inspire holiday shopping, so they must serve another function. Perhaps they are a quick way to come up with copy when magazine editors would rather be partying. Perhaps these editors know that, at the end of a year or a decade or, not so long ago, a millennium, a lot of us feel the need to examine, sort, take stock, evaluate.

Since 1997, when I made a long commute bearable by reading, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. Before then, when people asked me if I'd read any good books lately, I could assure them that I had--but I had no idea what they were. Now I can prime myself before attending social functions where that question might come up. I decided it would be fun to look at my lists for this decade and choose a favorite novel and nonfiction book for each year.

I quickly realized I could not limit myself to two excellent books a year, so I decided to allow two in each category. The criteria: I had to remember what they were about (not so easy: I was amazed at how many titles I did not remember at all). They had to be interesting--no moral uplift or literary elegance unless I truly liked the books. And they had to stand alone: I did not include books that are part of series. That seriously narrowed the field, because I cheerfully read almost everything some authors write. So before listing my highly idiosyncratic Top 40 of the last decade, I'll list the series authors that give a more accurate picture of my reading habits. This list is arranged alphabetically. I have no idea what my order of preference would be.

10 Series Authors I Can't Resist
  • BarbaraNeely. Blanche White, a cleaning lady from Roxbury, is a gutsy original. And yes, that's how the author writes her name. 
  • Connelly, Michael. Reporter Jack McEvoy, FBI agent Rachel Walling, and policeman Harry Bosch keep getting themselves almost killed.  
  • Frazer, Margaret. 15th-century nun Dame Frevisse fights original sin (my Books and Culture review is here).  
  • Grafton, Sue. California investigator Kinsey Milhone gets tough.  
  • James, P.D. Poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, with DI Kate Miskin, fights mayhem in Britain.  
  • King, Laurie R. In one series, policewoman Kate Martinelli keeps Northern California safe; in another, Mary Russell assists the aging Sherlock Holmes. King has also written several stand-alone books.  
  • Langton, Jane. Homer and Mary Kelly solve crimes in New England, Venice, or wherever they happen to be.  
  • McCall Smith, Alexander. Many series and several stand-alones: Begin with The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency and keep reading. This year's La's Orchestra Saves the World, a World War II story, is a switch. (My review is here.)  
  • Rowling, J.K. Seven Harry Potter books in print and on CD, six movies so far--and since I have to read/hear/see all of them multiple times, Ms. Rowling has kept me busy for an entire decade.  
  • Sansom, C.J. Hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake fights evil in Tudor England--which keeps him busy for four books covering only six years. Since plenty of evil remained after 1543, we can hope more books are coming.
And now, on to the year-by-year choices. I'm going to insert a break here so as not to make this page too long. Just click on the link below and you'll be taken to the Top 40.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

A good friend gave me this book--a friend whose literary tastes always exceed my own, and so I feel I must read her selections when I am in a brave and intellectual mood. The front cover warned me that the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (see the list of titles since 1948 here) and hinted that Oprah liked it (indeed, it was one of her beach reads last year)--two warning bells for sure. The book is a collection of short stories, some of them previously published. And if reviewers agree on one word to describe Olive, it's "unlikeable" (if you doubt me, google Olive Kitteridge unlikeable and you can take your pick of them).

Oddly, I liked the book anyway, and I think you might too.

I didn't like Olive, at least not at first. Who could? She is a rude, sarcastic, abusive force of nature. She's also very funny.
Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. "Is it too much to ask," he had found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. "A man's wife accompanying him to church?" Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure.

"Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!" Olive had almost spit, her fury's door flung open. "You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher's homework with him! And you--" She had grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night's disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. "You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!" Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. "Well, I'm sick and tired of it," she'd said, calmly. "Sick to death."

Don't tell me, Female Readers Married to Holy Men, you've never had similar thoughts. Not that you'd have put them quite that way, of course. That's the beauty of Olive: she'll stride right out of your mucky old id and tell it like it is. Loudly. Which makes her off-putting, inadvertently hilarious, and rather touchingly sensitive, since nobody much likes her (imagine!).

Olive is complex, and one of the joys of reading this book is seeing her from all sides. A former math teacher, she has earned the respect, if not the love, of many of her acquaintances. In one story, "Incoming Tide," she gently and perceptively saves a former student from self-destruction.

Another of the book's delights is the cast of genuine characters in Olive's little town of Crosby, Maine--think Flannery O'Connor people in a cold climate. Many of the stories are about them, with Olive making only an incidental appearance.

Best of all, I think, is watching Olive grow older and wiser without ever losing her cynicism. Turns out she didn't dislike Henry nearly as much as you might think from the first chapter. Halfway through the book he has a stroke and has to go to the nursing home. Olive is devastated.
She didn't like to be alone. Even more, she didn't like being with people.

It made her skin crawl to sit in Daisy Foster's tiny dining room, sipping tea. "I went to that damn dopey grief group," she told Daisy. "And they said it was normal to feel angry. God, people are stupid. Why in hell should I feel angry? We all know this stuff is coming. Not many are lucky enough to just drop dead in their sleep."

"People react in their own way, I guess," Daisy said, in her nice voice. She didn't have anything except a nice voice, Olive thought, because that's what Daisy was--nice. To hell with all of it. She said the dog was waiting, and left her teacup still full.
Olive is not nice, not in her middle years, not when she is old. Nice is not Olive's style. But Olive becomes wise, at least in her own way.
What young people didn't know, she thought; ... oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again.... If her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
Thanks, Olive. You're unforgettable. And I'm really glad you aren't my mother-in-law.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith: La's Orchestra Saves the World

Alexander McCall Smith's third book in 2009 (after The Lost Art of Gratitude, the sixth Isabel Dalhousie book, and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, the tenth Mma Ramotswe book) is a bit of a departure from his usual approach. It takes place in England, with only one brief mention of Edinburgh and none at all of Botswana. It probably is not going to spawn a series: he pretty much covers the central character's whole life in this one volume. Most of the story takes place during World War II, and it's rather serious for McCall Smith. Lavender Stone--La for short--is betrayed, widowed, and sent to the country where she, a Cambridge scholar, tends chickens to help the war effort.

And yet the McCall Smith fan club, of which I am a devout member, will not be disappointed in La's Orchestra Saves the World. Once again the incredibly prolic author tells a short, uncomplicated, gentle story about a good woman who speaks in simple sentences and probably thinks too much. Get past the first chapter, which somewhat confusingly bookends the story: it doesn't make a lot of sense until you've read the rest of the tale, so read it quickly and then come back to it later. The real story starts in chapter 2, which begins: "La's childhood was spent in the shadow of Death."

As always, McCall Smith pokes fun at the foibles of his very human characters: a man-hating academic, a venial pig farmer, a philandering husband. But he does this in the nicest way, because for McCall Smith, an ethicist by training, the bottom line is always kindness, even and perhaps especially toward the undeserving. Why, for example, should La fix up a nice room for the injured Polish airman-turned-farmworker?
Surely she should feel indifferent towards him--there were so many displaced persons, people washed up by the war, people from somewhere else--and yet already she felt that looking after him was something that she had to do. But why? Because he was in need and he was about to cross her path. That, perhaps, was the basis of our responsibility to one another; the simple fact that we collided with one another.
Like other McCall Smith characters, La does not base her ethics on theology.
"We can't afford to be without God," Feliks continued.... If you take God out of it, then right and justice become small, human things. And weak things, too."

La thought about this. He was right, perhaps, even if she did not feel that she needed God in the same way Feliks seems to need him. She would do whatever she had to do--even if it was for the sake of simple decency. You did not wipe a child's tears because God told you to do so. You did it because the tears were there.
And as in other McCall Smith books, there are no heroes, no stars, no larger-than-life characters. If La's orchestra saves the world, the world is unaware of it. Near the end of the book, when La is in her 50s, she looks out her kitchen window at fields and clouds, and this is what she thinks:
For her, life seemed unchanged, barely touched by the movements and shifts of the times. Again I have missed it, she thought; heady things are happening, and I am not there; I am somewhere in the wings, watching what is happening on the stage, in a play in which I have no real part. That is what my life has been.... I have been a handmaiden; she relished the word--a handmaiden; one who waits and watches; assists, perhaps, but only in a small way....

So each of us, thought La, each one of us should do something to make life better for somebody, to change the course of events, even if only in the most local sense. Even a handmaiden can do something about that.
This is a small book, and it will not change the world. But it is perfect for a long winter's evening, and it will increase the sum of goodness in the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A seriously chocolate cake

Tired of sugar plums and gingerbread? Need to sink your teeth into some serious chocolate? Want a recipe that's faster than instant?

Several years ago my friend Ashleigh made a cake she called Texas Sheet Cake. It was lovely though a bit ladylike. I decided it would be even better if I at least doubled the amount of cocoa, using only Hershey's extra dark, and then added dark chocolate chips to the batter, then cut the rest of the recipe in half.

"Um, do you think that might be too much chocolate?" a friend politely asked. "You can't have too much chocolate," I answered. Feel free to add even more if you like. If simple hedonism doesn't induce you to make this cake, think of the antioxidants.

I need a name for this recipe. It might involve the words Dark Side. Suggestions are welcome.

Here's the recipe.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cheerful books for the bleak midwinter

Here are some book recommendations for you who are tired of thinking about Afghanistan or the health-care debate or the economy. Last September I went to the library in search of books that would make me laugh (I described my quest here) and ended up reading Jennifer Weiner. Now I'm looking for more cheerful books to brighten bleak midwinter days. These 2009 books may help. Please lengthen my list--it's a long time until spring!

Two sort-of religious memoirs

Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. What's a (middle-aged) girl to do when her husband leaves her for a guy named Bob and a car accident leaves her with multiple injuries? Go home to mother, of course. Even though mother is the ditzy matriarch of a prominent Mennonite family, and Janzen hasn't been part of that community for decades. Mennonite is one of the few Christian religions I've never practiced (though it looks attractive, especially when POTUS starts talking about just war theory), but I still found this memoir hilarious. Mother Janzen is a funnier-than-life character not to be missed.

Elna Baker's The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Disclaimer: I haven't read this one yet. My daughter Heidi enjoyed it and said I should. When I was visiting her for Thanksgiving, I read part of the first chapter on her iPhone before giving up and going back to a book with actual pages. I really liked the beginning, though, and Amazon cross-references this book with Janzen's. And while both books--Mennonite and Mormon--are humorous and ironic, they are affectionate, not bitter. Bitter books stop being funny very quickly.

A precocious detective

Ya gotta love a 70-year-old first-time novelist whose debut mystery is translated into 19 languages. Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, number one in at least a three-part series, features an 11-year-old narrator and sleuth who has been called a cross between Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. I noticed hints of Lemony Snicket in the author's style, though Bradley is less outrageous. Sweetness is so popular at the Wheaton Public Library that I had to wait in line for months--I think I started out as hold number 34. Mr Neff is now reading it and snickering. I believe our teen-aged granddaughters would also enjoy it.

Tragedy and slapstick

I also waited patiently in line for Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, having not the slightest inkling that partway through chapter 9 I would start laughing out loud. I'd recently read--well, listened to--Russo's Bridge of Sighs, and there was nothing funny about that book. And Publisher's Weekly's review of Cape Magic was not auspicious, unless you like books that are "dense" and "flashback-filled" with "navel-gazing interior monologues" about "a life coming apart at the seams" (kill me now!). Hey, it wasn't that bad--and once Harve propels himself, wheelchair and all, into the upper branches of a yew tree, it's positively hilarious. You'll have no idea how many things can go wrong with a wedding until you've read this book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Need I say more?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Archbishop and the President have a problem

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

--William Butler Yeats, from "The Second Coming"

Two of the best people in public life today--in my humble opinion--are the President of the United States and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both are intelligent, thoughtful, well-read men who care deeply about justice, not only for themselves and their immediate constituents, but for the whole world. Both are complex thinkers who understand that every issue has many aspects. Both practice empathy: they see value in their opponents as well as in their adherents, and they dream of finding common ground, reconciling adversaries, and creating peace on earth.

By no means do Barack Obama and Rowan Williams lack all conviction. But--dogged on all sides by passionately intense extremists--both men seem unable to say, loud and clear, "Here I stand." Obama, still hoping to come up with a viable health plan, dreams of bipartisanship; while Williams, navigating among bishops from Africa and North America, appeals to the via media.

The results?

In Congress, a formerly fairly good health bill has been rewritten to the point that it soon may do just what Republicans warned it would do, back when it didn't do it: that is, cost too much. So of course Republicans don't like it, even though they're the ones who are making the changes--but Democrats don't much like it either, since it may no longer do what needs doing.

In Lambeth, a decades-long series of non-decisions and non-comments regarding gay clergy has driven conservative Anglicans to Africa or Rome while leaving liberal Anglicans feeling betrayed, wondering why their former champion has not even spoken up about the proposed death penalty for gays in Uganda.

I really like President Obama and Archbishop Williams. I like them because they are thoughtful reconcilers, and I think both of them have really good ideas.
I would love to have a beer with either one, any time. The question is, can they do their jobs if they continue to be simultaneously irenic and visionary? Or does a public figure eventually need to draw a line in the sand, even though a lot of people will end up on the other side of the line?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Holiday wish lists--an easy way to remember others

I have mixed feelings about wish lists. They rob Christmas of creativity, surprise, and personal contact, but they make shopping much, much easier. And it's nice to know that if I pay attention to the lists, gift recipients won't roll their eyes and return the gifts before the tree is by the curb. To cut down on my family's December stress, I make my own wish list each year, feeling vaguely guilty (do I need those pearl earrings?). "Get better gifts," orders Amazon's wishlistmeister. I don't like his tone.

This year, though, Amazon has vastly improved its wish list. Now I can ask for anything I want from any online supplier. It doesn't even have to be a merchant: it can be a food bank, a cultural or educational organization, a humane society, a church--any organization that has a web site and is willing to accept money. All I have to do is put an "Add to Wish List" button on my Favorites or Bookmarks toolbar. It's extremely easy to do: click here to get started.

And 2009 is a good year, I think, to bypass the pearl earrings and go straight for the better gifts: gifts that will help people whose income went down more than ours did, or who lost their jobs or their homes, or who have unmanageable medical expenses, or who aren't sure they'll be able to afford Christmas dinner. According to a November 27 AP story,
food banks across the country report about a 30 percent increase in demand on average, but some have seen as much as a 150 percent jump in demand from 2008 through the middle of this year.... The U.S. Department of Agriculture said earlier this month that 49 million people, or 14.6 percent of U.S. households, struggle to put food on the table, the most since the agency began tracking food security levels in 1995.
Contributions can't keep pace. David R. Francis writes in the November 30 Christian Science Monitor:
Donations to the nation’s largest nonprofits, including prominent universities, hospitals, and foundations, are expected to fall 9 percent this year, according to a survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy last month. That’s the steepest drop the publication has reported in 17 years of surveying the 400 largest charities in the United States.
What to do?

1. Set up your Amazon wish list and add-to button.

2. Go to your favorite charity's web site. (If you don't have a favorite charity, or if you'd like to be sure that the charities you support are using your money wisely, go to Charity Navigator. There you can sort charities by name, location, purpose, budget, and rating. You can look at Top Ten lists and articles on how to give wisely; you can read users' comments on various charities; and you can learn how much each charity's CEO earns. You can even make a donation directly from the site.)

3. Navigate to the web page that describes the program you want to support, or that tells how to donate.

4. Click on your Add to Wish List button and follow instructions.

I've added a couple of charities to my wish list. One is the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, IL, a four-star charity according to Charity Navigator. I linked to their art studio program and added an explanatory note in case people reading my list thought I was asking for an art studio for Christmas. Here's more or less how this item in my list looks on Amazon:

Product Image
People's Resource | Arts Studioshop this store $15.00

shop this store
This item was added with the Universal Wish List Button.
Scroll down: $15 provides an art class for a child. PRC does lots of other good things too, like feed and clothe people and teach them to read. They are always happy to get donations of any amount. And donations are tax deductible.
Quantity Desired: 10
Hey, the earrings are still on my wish list (I add them anew every year), along with the coffee grinder, the Harry Potter DVD, and the espresso cups. I'm not saying Christmas should be turned into a social-justice rally. I plan to add even more items to my list (rationale: a really long list allows friends and family to be creative, and even the recipient might be surprised at what she gets), and I'm already ordering wrappable gifts for the kids and grandkids.

I'm just saying that a little less for me and a little more for others, multiplied by however many people also put charities on their wish lists this year, could add up to a merrier Christmas for everyone.