Shelf Life: 2016 Reading Retrospective, Part 2

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.ritz-paris-exterior-windows-large

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…




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Shelf Life: 2016 Reading Retrospective, Part One.

“For everything there is a season” said wise Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “a time for every purpose under the sun.” In my world, that purpose is usually reading, because, really, what else matters? As Teddy Roosevelt so aptly put it “Reading with me is a disease.” One for which I am truly hopeful there is no cure.

Setting is an important element in literature, but I also find that my setting in place and time enriches the reading experience. For instance, I had the excellent luck of reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road some years back during a powerful winter rainstorm in California. Rain and dark skies are almost a prerequisite for those books. I wouldn’t bother to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun anywhere but Rome. And since I’m in San Francisco right now, I should drop everything and download Jack London’s San Francisco Stories.

But first, the annual reading retrospective. We’ll start with January and February,  the deepest months of  winter, which, as Flaubert knew, are arguably the very best time of year to curl up with a book.


I love winter reading. The CE always starts an early evening fire when we are in California, a setting which basically demands that a book be opened. And when we are in NYC in February and the temperature is barely above zero and you can’t see out the window for the sleet and the snow, well, you’d better have a book to read. And I did:


Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerina. 337 pages, published 2012. If you judged a book by its cover, you might think, as I did, that this is a basically a beach read, but there’s more to it than that. Despite the fact that a boozy Richard Burton makes a rather surreal appearance among the fictional characters in a fictional Italian fishing village, the story goes beyond the shallows. Favorite quote: “The smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” Recommended.


Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Paperback. 399 ages, published 1999. Well, better late than never, right? You’ve probably already read it, or at least seen the movie, but if not, it’s worth the read. Hillenbrand, also the author of Unbroken, knows how to champion the underdog, and there are many in this story, both of the equine and human variety. Recommended.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. Kindle. 272 pages. Published 1940. This book was at Number 8 on the Modern Library “100 best novel” list, and for good reason. It is simply brilliant and worth reading and re-reading. The setting is purposefully unstated but is assumed to be the Soviet Union during Stalin’s great purge. Highly recommended.


Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization by Andrew Lawler. Hardcover. 264 pages, published 2014. Well, I’ll bet you haven’t read this one! Thanks to my dear and thoughtful friend Nancy, this book is a prize addition to my chicken library. Everything you could possible want to or need to know about Gallus Gallus and so cogently written. Spoiler: the chicken does cross the road, as well as oceans and continents. Reviewed here.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Kindle. 496 pages, published 2001. Another party I was late to, and I also missed the mini-series. Fiction, not literature, but an enjoyable read. I intend to read Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool at some point – he strikes me as a more hopeful Richard Ford, mining the frailties of his small-town characters, but with a folksy dash of optimism.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Audiobook, narrated by Pablo Schreiber. 399 pages, published 1991. What was I thinking???? I was under the impression that this book is a modern classic, and I suppose, in a horrific way, it is. Schreiber, brother of actor Liev, does a terrific job with the narration, but I will never be able to un-see the things I heard while listening to this book. And I am not referring to the liberal sprinkling of (see what I did there?) references to Donald Trump. A classic, yes, but not for the faint of heart.


Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson. Paperback. 375 pages, published 2001. Nicolson, the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson, inherited a tiny, barren, inhospitable archipelago in the Outer Hebrides known as the Shiant Isles from his father, Nigel Nicolson. And then he wrote a lyrically beautiful book about them. Talk about setting. Wow. I was absolutely transported when I read this book. Hard to find a copy as I don’t believe it is currently in print, dog-eared paperback copies are available from various booksellers. Recommended. The photographs in the book are disappointingly small, but here is one I found on a blog called Footless Crow:


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Audiobook, narrated by Dan Stevens. 166 pages, published 1818. I will never completely forgive Dan Stevens for leaving Downton Abbey and basically sacking his own career, but he partly redeems himself with a terrific narration of this classic novel. Best read in winter when the icy scenes on the Swiss glacier can be best appreciated. You think you already know everything about this book from popular culture, but you’re wrong.There is so much more. “You are my Creator but I am your master. Obey!” Read it. Highly recommended.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Kindle. 322 pages, published 1958. Widely considered to be one of the most important Italian novels ever written. Set in Sicily during the years of Italian Reunification. Old habits die hard, especially for the disenfranchised nobility. “The last Salina was himself. That fellow Garibaldi, that bearded Vulcan, had won after all.” Recommended.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Audiobook, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. 340 pages, published 2007. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. There’s a just-out audio version of this terrific novel narrated by man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I had no complaints about the version I listened to, except for the fact that if you don’t have a pretty good grasp on the Spanish language and slang of the Dominican Republic, you’d be better off reading it in book form with a glossary at hand. Junot Diaz occupies a singular spot in the canon of Latin American literature.  “It’s like abuela says: every snake always thinks it’s biting into a rat, until the day it bites into a mongoose.”Recommended.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. Kindle. 300 pages, published 2014. This was a re-read for a book club. Good again the second time around although I found myself becoming a bit irritated with MacDonald’s self-absorption. The hawk may be a more stable character than the author. Recommended.


The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Kindle. Written between 1596-1598, published in first folio 1623. 224 pages. Let’s see. If I read one Shakespeare play every year I will finish in the year 2053. Guess I’d better step it up. This was a great place to begin. There’s more to Shylock than meets the pound of flesh. Highly recommended, of course.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Audiobook, narrated by Oliver Wyman. 304 pages, published  1989. Such a lovely read, and hauntingly auto-biographical. Recommended, as is his collection of short stories based on his Vietnam War experience, In Pharaoh’s Army.

Pax by Sarah Pennypacker. Hardcover. 276 pages, published 2016. There was so much buzz about this middle-grade children’s book that I decided to read it myself in hopes of passing it along to one of the grandkids. Such a great premise and so much promise, but ruined by the author’s heavy-handed intrusion into the story. The fox, Pax, is all good, but the apparently man-hating Pennypacker creates a generic war and a completely not-believable female “heroine” to school the young male protagonist on all the evil done by the adult males of the human species, who are (yawn) uniformly depicted as evil, weak and untrustworthy. Pennypacker needs to deal with some issues. I actually threw the book away after reading it, which was hard because Jon Klassen’s cover illustration was so lovely. Not recommended.


The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Audiobook, narrated by Cindy Hardin Killavey. 96 pages, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896. I have never been to Maine, but this sweet little read took me to the fictional town of Dunnet Landing, which is thought to be based on the towns of Martinsville and Port Clyde. It is really more of a series of loosely connected stories than a novel, perhaps a wispy novella at best, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is set in summer, so if I had it to do over again I would schedule this read for June or July.

Winter 2016 was thoroughly warmed by all these good reads. Next up, March and April…






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Family Album: Best Christmas Ever.

And I’ve got the snaps to prove it.

With twelve people in the house, we had some novel sleeping arrangements, but it all worked out:


Stripes were in:


So was fur:


Speaking of fur, Chloe was happy to see Taylor:


Gail and Angie:


Granny, Tina and some great-grands with a very merry Soho:


Gym rats:


Family moment:


Game on. Pie Face with Uncle Daniel:


And handstand contests:


Followed by general mayhem. The uncles were popular this year.


The Chicken Emperor does turkey:


And amazingly, no one was crabby. Well, except for Thomas:


James and I stole a few quiet moments with our neighborhood walks. Turns out you make friends if you carry carrots and apples with you:


And then, just like that, everyone left! Not a creature is stirring, not even the dust bunnies in the corner. “That’s okay”, says Chloe. “I’ll just sit outside and wait for them all to come back…


Thanks to all for making it such a great Christmas! xoxo



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Family Album: He’s Going 70 in a 60 Zone.

It’s taken three months of celebrating to convince us all (especially him!) that the CE is really, truly 70 years old. Everyone knows he is a stubborn cuss, but who else gets away with refusing to age?

Here he is back in the day…


And more recently. Different bench, same handsome guy. (But still refusing to ask for directions.) Doesn’t look a day over 60.


Yesterday we interrupted Christmas briefly to throw a birthday party for him. Lots of happy tears as Tina rolled the amazing video she created in his honor. “It’s eighteen minutes long,” she said, “but it takes awhile to cover seventy years!” We’re already hearing Oscars buzz, and there’s a rumor that Aerosmith will appear to do a live performance of the soundtrack.

Truly amazing how the years fly by…



Didn’t have a chance to get many photos but so glad to have proof that all four kids and five grandkids were in attendance:



Many thanks to all who came from near and far to help celebrate!


And happy, happy 70th, dear CE and love of my life. xoxo



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And for you, a lump of coal.

Oh, I’ve got a list. And I’m checking it twice. But you may wish you weren’t on it. I promise to get merry somewhere along the line. And I’m even hoping for calm and bright. But right now, that whole “most wonderful time of the year” thing sounds a lot like fake news to me. And you are on my lump of coal list if:

You managed to sleep later than 2:30 a.m. today. You weren’t awake in a panic over not yet having even one sugarplum for the little one’s stockings? You’re dead to me.

You are one of those people I know who squeal excitedly about having finished their holiday shopping back in September. A pox upon you.

Speaking of the calendar, I’d like to have the name of the time thief who removed an entire week of December. I know for a fact that it was just December 3 a couple of days ago and yet the 17th keeps coming up on my phone calendar. What’s with that?

You, over there. The one I keep seeing at parties, sampling cheese puffs and chocolate truffles with abandon and never gaining an ounce. I looked at a pfeffernusse last week and there went another dress size…

Purveyors of gift-wrapping supplies. You, sirs, are Beelzebub incarnate. Shiny little roll of ribbon that costs $7 and then, unspooled, is just about long enough to wrap one and a half shirt boxes? Who do you think you’re kidding?

As long as we are talking about the devil, here’s a special shout-out to my L-2, 3, 4 and 5 vertebrae. That song of searing pain you were belting out all night long was not exactly music to my ears.

Oh, and that reminds me. Music. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Anyone who sings, plays or facilitates the dissemination of the song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” should be hung upside down by their jingle bells.

To the Russians, who have clearly hacked my husband’s internal programming. Please return that nice man to me, because this Grinch with whom you have replaced him and who keeps telling me that people don’t give Christmas gifts anymore is not helping the situation.


To all the people who actually remembered to put stamps on their Christmas cards before you mailed them, just stop giving me that smug look. Like you’re smarter than me or something. Huh.

If you can assemble a Nordstrom box in under a half hour. Or, at all. I officially hate you. Or maybe I need to hire you, because I’ve got some pretty wonky looking boxes over here. What the heck IS a “gusset”, anyway?

If you are the idiot lame brain who decided it would be a good idea to plan a birthday party TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Oh wait, that was me. Never mind…

And the most special ire of all, the contents of an entire coal mine, go to the guy who zoomed into  the sweet parking place for which I had patiently waited, the guy who almost ran me down as I walked across said parking lot AND to the clerk who stole my credit card number the other day. Hope you enjoyed the $150 dinner you charged on it, meaning, actually, that I hope you choked on it. Eight shopping days left and I am without a MasterCard. At least my husband is happy…









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Chloe and I are taking one brief moment in the midst of the frenzy to breathe and think and reflect on the reason for this season.


May all be merry with you!

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12 Days of Chickenmas

It’s that most wonderful time of the year – the time when flockkeepers brace for a new round of chicken-themed gifts coming their way. I happen to be up to my wattle in chicken tchotchkes but for everyone else out there, here are some suggestions:

I wouldn’t mind if my true love gave me this on the first day of Chickenmas. There’s nothing more soothing to watch than a flock of chickens, and artist Karen Bezuidenhout  paints hers strolling through a forest. 30″ x 24″, available from Sundance Catalog, but at a price. $3,700. Not exactly chicken feed.


For a lot less scratch, you can do well and do good to honor someone on your list with a gift of a flock of chickens through Heifer International. A $20 donation can change lives.


Prefer to wear your chicken love? I’ve got my eye on this Jacques Pepin apron from Sur La Table,  although at $50 I’m hoping it might go on sale after the holidays. The collection also includes coordinated placemats, mugs and paper goods. Three French hens, indeed:


For $320 you could be at the top of the pecking order in these feather-trimmed Uggs, which feature Swarovski crystal trim and a collar of “ostrich, chicken and peafowl” feathers.


Chicks can be chic: ranging in sizes and priced from $8-$46 are these stylish vessels encased in chicken wire from Jayson Home’s Grant Glass Collection.


Perhaps a “prosperity hen” garland will bring you luck in the New Year. Crafted by women cooperatives, these are available from various sources, including Gardener’s Supply Company, where they are priced at $14.99.


For the most dedicated flock keepers, these harnesses from My Pet Chicken bring free-ranging to a whole new level. $10.95 each.


Online retailer Brave New Look  offers a variety of chicken-themed clothing items, including leggings and “ugly chicken sweaters”. But this “Saving My Chicken” t-shirt for $26 is my fave:


It would look lovely paired with this scarf from purplepossumuk on for a mere $10.42:


These winsome decorative knobs from Anthropologie’s “Farm Collection” would be perfect stocking stuffers. $10 each.


Need a cuddle? You can order your very own Roxy, a 12″plush hen from Amazon for $19.99. No barnyard mess, no chicken poop, but, of course, no eggs, either.


Although Amazon has that covered, too, with this egg-laying chicken keychain for $4.68:



And on the last day of Chickenmas, I hope to take a break and hang out with my hens and the latest copy of Backyard Poultry magazine. You can make your favorite chicken keeper happy with a year’s subscription for just $25:



Whatever you find under the tree, I wish you and your flock a merry little Chickenmas!



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