It was the fall of 1986 and we had driven from Paris to Dijon. I can’t imagine it now – no Google Maps, no TripAdvisor, no knowledge of the French language and no hotel or dining reservations. We were armed with nothing but wanderlust and enthusiasm and relative youth and that was apparently enough to move even a steely French innkeeper to take pity on us. He directed us to an unassuming-looking restaurant where he promised the finest meal we would ever eat. He was absolutely right. Eleven courses later, at least three of which were desserts, we surrendered in awe and gratitude.
My May and June reading comprised just such a feast, which is what made me remember that long-ago trip. One after another, the guilty pleasure of each course tasting better than the one before. Books, books and more books. Here is the menu:
Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Booth Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris. Kindle. 752 pages, published 2014. This is actually the second volume of a very fine biography, the first being Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce. Beautiful, talented,voraciously ambitious and deeply flawed, Luce was an accomplished author, Congresswoman and U.S. Ambassador to Italy. She was also selfishly reckless in her personal relationships, opportunistic, haunted by her humble beginnings and an early dabbler in LSD. You can’t make this stuff up – it’s a terrine composed of history, politics and gossip – a juicy read. Recommended.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Audiobook, narrated by the incandescent Ruby Dee. 180 pages, published 1937. If you are only ever going to listen to one audiobook, let it be this one. This book is exquisitely written and magnificently performed by Ms. Dee. It is the tale of Janie, born black and poor in “old” Florida. “Time makes everything old, so the kissing young darkness became a monstropolis old thing while Janie talked. Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf…dawn and doom was in the branches.”One of my favorite books of this or any year. Highly, ever so highly, recommended.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell. 258 pages, published 2013. Oops – one bad apple in the reading feast. There was so much buzz about this collection of short stories by the author of Swamplandia! but it just didn’t work for me and I resented what seemed like an effort to compensate for undeveloped characters by adding a large helping of shock value. The common thread seemed to be mothers who are dead, dying, unemployed, depressed or checked out. Not recommended.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Kindle. 786 pages, published 2010. A novel and an homage to the author’s Jewish, Hungarian grandfather, whose life and dreams are catastrophically disrupted by the rise of Nazis and World War II. For me the book started slowly, but staying with it brought great rewards. Recommended.
The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives Of Birds and what they Reveal about Being Human by Noah Strycker. Paperback. 263 pages, published 2014. This talented young author set a 2015 worldwide “Big Year” birding record so he knows his stuff. Here he writes breezily about hummingbirds, pigeons, starlings (did you know Mozart kept one as a pet?) turkey vultures (some of the details may be appetite-suppressing), snowy owls (which have been known to take a full-grown feral cat and tried to take a Yorkie still attached to its leash), flamingos (“terrible at keeping commitments, with a chart-topping divorce rate of 99%”)…and, oh yes, chickens! Heartily recommended.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Audiobook, narrated by Will Patton. 308 pages, published 1957. Another hurrah for the audiobook format – Will Patton’s performance of this iconic ode to hipsterism is tender and wondrous. I know, you’ve probably already read it, but have you listened to it? Kerouac and his motley clan, which included Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs, consume drugs and roam the continent. Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Mexico, and, of course, New York City. Antic and brilliant and holds up over time thanks to Kerouac’s mastery of language. “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” Highly recommended.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass. Kindle. 126 pages, published 1845. Okay, so this is more of an “eat your vegetables” than a dessert course, but here’s to a balanced diet. Douglass was born into slavery, of a white father and a black mother from whom he was mostly separated. He speaks frankly of the ill-treatment of slaves by harsh masters and of his unflagging efforts to learn to read and write. He eventually escaped to the North, where he became a famed abolitionist and statesman. Worth reading.
Crooked Heart: A Novel by Lissa Evans. Kindle. 293 pages, published 2014. London, 1939-1941 is hardly a setting for an amusing tale, but Evans is a very clever writer and kind, too, as she allows Noel, her young protagonist, and Vera, his unlikely protector, to live happily ever after. An amuse-bouche for your reading menu.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Audiobook, narrated by Simon Prebble. 258 pages, published 1989. Yes, I know you’ve seen the movie, but this book, oh, this book! So masterfully constructed, such an exercise in restraint, yet so deeply felt. Themes of dignity, duty and sacrifice are explored through the choices made by Ishiguro’s “unreliable narrator”, the butler, Mr. Stevens. Deserving winner of the 1989 Booker Prize. So highly recommended I can’t even begin to tell you…please just read it.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Kindle, 352 pages published 2016. It used to be called “stick-to-it-iveness” but that wouldn’t cut it at a TED talk, which is where Duckworth and her study of “grit” got its buzz. The book was an instant best-seller, and definitely has some nuggets of wisdom, although I guess I would caution that there isn’t really anything new under the sun. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness and a dollop of optimistic self-talk. Recommended if you are inclined toward the latest in the “self-help” genre.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Audiobook, narrated by William Hurt. 251 pages, published 1926. Pamplona. Bull-fighting. Champagne. (You can always count on Hemingway for the drinks menu) Trout-fishing. Bad behavior. Dissipation. Pretty much everything you need for a Hemingway masterpiece. Autobiographical, of course. I wasn’t 100% sold on Hurt’s interpretation; he may have intended world-weary but I heard cynical. Still, highly recommended.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Audiobook, narrated by Colin Firth. 210 pages, published 1951. Graham Greene was popping up everywhere I turned last year so I decided to give him a listen. He is often referred to as a “Catholic” author, and faith and religion do play a central part in this book. Greene famously suffered from depression and so, I think, does this story. Love, jealousy and Jacob wrestling with the angel. On the fence as far as recommending this one.
The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman. Kindle. 511 pages, published 1962. Reading this book was a little like downing a large bowl of oatmeal. You know it’s good for you, but it is dense and extremely filling. The first month of World War I is covered in exemplary, and at moments, excruciating, detail. Won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller. Kindle. 288 pages, published 2011. This was a re-read. I was asked to officiate a wedding, so I had marriage on my mind. Keller does not sugar coat the complexity of the journey: “Marriage is glorious but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet it is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories.” All true! Keller is the renowned founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. His how-to for a successful marriage is biblically based: “Start here, Paul says. Do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus, and the rest will follow.” Recommended.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Audiobook, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. 176 pages, published 1925. Another re-read, because even though Fitzgerald’s masterpiece doesn’t change, we change, and Tom and Daisy and Nick looked very different to me than when I first met them. Plus, I listened to much of it while I strolled around NYC and that was a big bonus. Jordan Baker: “I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it, overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hand.” Recommended, still and again.
There you have it: fifteen courses and nary a calorie among them. Reading is the most sumptuous of feasts; you can devour page after page, completely guilt-free. Although, truth be told, I would give anything to find that little restaurant again in Dijon…