I remember March and April of 2016 for the harsh glare of the California sun. In theory, endless days of sunshine sounds like a good thing, but amid our waning hopes for rain it felt like a dusty curse. Some years we get a “March miracle” storm, but it was not to be, and, caught in the grip of deepening drought, we grieved the loss of fruit trees in our orchard and pitied the sad moon crater that used to be our small neighborhood lake.
Fortunately, there were books, and the glorious coincidence of art intersecting life with one of my favorite reads of the year. An audio re-read of East of Eden during the parched month of April gave me comfort as John Steinbeck’s memories of historic drought in California’s Salinas Valley provided perspective. “…but there were dry years, too, and they put a terror on the valley.”
Steinbeck wrote East of Eden as a gift to his two sons, weaving the Steinbeck family history into his epic about the Trask and Hamilton families. The book is filled with visual details of the Salinas Valley but was actually written in New York and I listened to the last chapter as I walked across Central Park to the Upper East Side to take a peek at the building on East 72nd Street where Steinbeck lived and sifted through old newspapers from Salinas to fuel his memories of California.
Of course, one cannot always duplicate the setting of a book. My March and April reads were set variously in Paris, Naples, Tunisia and Asteroid 325, but, you know, so many places and so little time and rocket fuel. Here is the list:
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter. Kindle. 528 pages, published 2010. The three world leaders were variously related through Queen Victoria and all were more interested in shiny medals and what to wear for dinner than in ruling their respective countries, hence WWI. A bit of a slog, but recommended.
The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Kindle. 323 pages, published 2014. A lighter and more entertaining but well-researched take on history as it unfolded at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The hotel opened in 1898 but most of the action is focused around the years of World War II, when Coco Chanel did or did not collaborate with the Germans and Ernest Hemingway “liberated”the hotel bar.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Kindle. 260 pages, published 2007. This was a re-read for a book club. Just as breathtakingly beautiful and austere as the first time. Highly recommended.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Audiobook, narrated by Hillary Huber. 331 pages, published 2012. Ferrante, as everyone now knows, is the pen name of translator Anita Raja and her pearl strand of “Neapolitan novels” have been wildly popular. I can’t say I loved this read, the first in the quartet, but its deeply evocative portrait of a complicated friendship in post-WWII Naples has stayed with me. Recommended, maybe.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kindle. 306 pages, published 1920. Sometimes I think that Fitzgerald’s work is too frothy or too self-loathing or just plain outdated, but then there are moments of sharp relevance. “Modern life,” began Amory again, “changes no longer century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before — populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic interdependence, racial questions…” Recommended, although The Great Gatsby is still the go-to.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Audiobook, narrated by Dan Stevens. 264 pages, published 1939. My first Agatha Christie and possibly my last because I could not bring myself to care whodunit. Not my cup of tea and thus, not recommended.
Burial Rites: A Novel by Hannah Kent. Kindle. 353 pages, published 2013. Based on a true story of a woman charged with murders in 19th century Iceland. The depiction of the harshness of the landscape was fascinating, the book overall somewhat less so. Neutral on the recommendation. There is an interesting photo essay on the book and its location that might pique your interest.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Audiobook, narrated by Humphrey Bower. 98 pages, published 1943. So embarrassed that I never read this classic, so I decided to listen to it. Big mistake. I think the meaning of the story must be inextricably linked to the illustrations because I thought it was a big dud and can’t recommend it, at least not the audio version.
Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini. Kindle. 225 pages, published 1969. Possibly not the most readable biography of Old Hickory, but I learned a lot. He was a teenaged POW in the Revolutionary War, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, known for the 1829-1837 Bank War, his temper, political incorrectness and being an all-around wild man. I recommend the story, if not the book.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Audiobook, narrated by Frances McDormand. 256 pages, published 1938. There are occasional stumbles in my quest to choose “listenable” books and this was one of them. Mildly clever but dated and just not that interesting. Not recommended.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Hardcover. 228 pages, published 2016. Diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in his early 30’s, Dr. Kalanithi used the precious months left to him to pen this heartbreaking memoir. Highly recommended.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Kindle. 288 pages, published 2013. This was a re-read of a book I didn’t like much the first time around, but apparently I am in the minority as it is very popular with book clubs. The mid-19th century social experiment of transporting children from New York City to the Midwest via “orphan trains ” was horrifically fascinating; this particular book less so. Anodyne, but not recommended.
Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd. Kindle. 897 pages, published 1987. I am a sucker for Rutherford’s doorstop-length historical fiction. Sarum is the ancient name for the city of Salisbury, England. The ambitious Rutherfurd begins his story during the Ice Age and takes it all the way up to the twentieth century. Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral figure prominently. Recommended.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Audiobook, narrated by Richard Poe. 601 pages, published 1952. A book to be read and savored over and over again. So very highly recommended.
The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith. Kindle. 292 pages, published 1969. Graham Greene and Francine Prose loved it. My note at the end was “What the hell was this about?” I was enthralled by the Tunisian setting but very unclear as to what Highsmith was trying to say. The ex-pat characters are uniformly brittle, cynical and unlikable. I guess I’m not smart enough to recommend or not recommend what Green called Highsmith’s “finest novel”.
That does it for the first quarter of 2016. Onward to spring reading…