January 04, 2017

The Best Books of 2016


The Best Books I read in 2016 --  alphabetical by author, because, goodness, we must have some order in this world:

Dancers in Mourning, by Margery Allingham: I continue to read through the Edmund Campion mysteries (out of order, with lots of re-reads in between), but this was a new favorite. One of the earlier Campion stories, it has two notable threads that display the depth of Allingham's understanding of human character (and the nobility of her hero): the destruction wrought by artistic obsession and single-mindedness, and … Campion falls in love with a married woman. It is very fine. 

This Old Man, by Roger Angell: A surprise Christmas gift from Mom last Christmas, this collection of essays from the last 10 years is much like his stepfather, E. B. White's many collections of essays -- a perpetual delight. I keep a current volume of E. B. White at my bedstead year round, and tick off with a red pencil the essays I've read. This volume by Angell took White's place this year. A genteel man of letters, a lover of baseball, words, New York, humor, and those little curious details that make life worthwhile. 

The New California Wine, by John Bonne: Bonne was the first wine critic I read regularly (he was the critic in the SF Chronicle for 10 years), and like all genuinely good critics, he has very strongly held opinions that are clearly stated, so they offer a barometer for your own experience and appreciation of whatever they are critiquing. This book explores the working thesis of his time in SF: that California wine went off the rails when it became obsessed with big ABVs. He profiles a lot of the California winemakers I love -- terroir driven, obsessive explorers and historians, the dedicated farmers that make California diverse and incredible place to grow wine. I don't 100% agree with his thesis, but his natural enthusiasm for these winemakers (and his honest assessment of their wines) make this book valuable and essential for understanding this new generation of wine in California. (More on CA later…)

Interrogations at Noon, by Dana Gioia: Gioia might be my favorite living poet, and this volume is no exception. I kept it in my purse for all of May and June, reading and re-reading. It shows you how terrible a blogger I've become (as if anyone had any doubt) that I didn't post a single one on here -- though I loved so many of them. A poem for New Years, then:

Curriculum Vitae
The future shrinks 
whether the past
is well or badly spent

We shape our lives
Although their forms
Are never what we meant.

A Breath of Air, by Rumer Godden: Inspired by "The Tempest," Godden explores the themes of power and innocence, wisdom and knowledge and folly, the simple life and the life of the mind. The narrative is especially engaging as she switches between perspectives and shorelines: the wise but proud governor, his innocent, beautiful, good daughter, the adventurous and love-struck pilot who landed on the island, his co-pilot, a thoroughly modern man (Hooper, ten years after the war), the islander who mistakes knowledge for wisdom, the native islanders who love their wine, their women, their work, etc. etc. 

Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer: I might be obsessed with this book because it seems to be the only one out there: a book about the restaurant industry that is from the point of view of the Front of House -- and the business owner -- not from the chef's perspective. Danny Meyer is obsessed with the idea of hospitality, and, once I got past the requisite (and tedious) biographical chapters, I found a book that puts into words all the things I've thought but not been able to express about hospitality and service. It also made me crave Shake Shack almost constantly.

The Human Comedy, William Saroyan: Picked this little volume thanks to the next book on the list, and, I'll say the final chapter is one of the very best I've ever read. 

California, by Kevin Starr: I finally dove into this condensed version of Kevin Starr's 7 volume "Americans and the California Dream" during a super-homesick-for-California phase this winter. It took me almost all year to read it because I kept getting distracted by the things he was writing about, and had to follow all side roads and diversions and recommendations (including his treatment of agricultural communities in the Central Valley explored in The Human Comedy). For any lover of California, this is a must read. 

Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck: Can you believe that I've never read any Steinbeck till now? A huge gap, I know. Well, I didn't start with his novels: instead, I read this travelogue of a 6 month drive around the United States with his King Poodle, Charley, in 1960. Witty, observant, a little melancholic, and well worth your time. (We discussed a favorite passage on one of Sally and Zach's The Vernacular Podcast, here.) I promise to post a few quotations in the coming week.

Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse: Leant by a friend, this might be my new favorite Wodehouse novel. Set in Hollywood -- with a "Freaky Friday" scenario: our English hero, Lord Havershott, a boxing enthusiast with a face like a gorilla, switches souls with a child movie star, Joey Cooley, during a routine dental procedure. Madcap farce brightened by California sunshine. I really don't know why someone hasn't made a movie of this one. 

RE-READ:
I tried to steer clear of re-reading too many books this year, and this marks the first year I did not read any Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or Penelope Fitzgerald or Muriel Spark. But re-reads worth noting: Jane Austen's Lady Susan and other early and half-finished works. I read it in anticipation of Whit Stillman's film "Love & Friendship" (favorite movie of 2016, btw) -- We can get all scholarly and talk about the refinement of her wit through manners and courtesy, and how her mature novels are better for that graciousness with which she treats her characters (etc. etc.), but the fact is: these early works are a reminder that Jane Austen is, quite simply, one of the funniest writers in the English language. 

I also re-read, on Emma's wonderful recommendation, the 6 final novels of the Betsy-Tacy series, relating her highschool years, and then a tour of Europe and her first year of marriage. While Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie are marvelous and I loved them as a child, the Betsy Tacy series is, to me, the best representation of the good life. 

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