Where's the book?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Go into the woods for #41

I bought this book because of the cover. I'm not kidding. It looked like such a cool cover that I just had to have it.

Luckily the book was cool too. The first book from Irish writer Tana French, it's a dual mystery story. The present-day mystery is of a 12-year-old girl who has turned up murdered on the site of an archeological dig in a Dublin suburb. The two investigating detectives are Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan. And there's the second mystery. Twenty years earlier, three children disappeared in the woods in the same neighborhood. Only one was ever found, alive, clinging desperately to a tree, his shoes filled with blood, with no memory of what happened. That surviving child is Rob Ryan, then known as Adam.

The book is narrated by Ryan, who starts to crumble under the strain of investigating a murder in the same location as his childhood trauma. Memories from his haunted past begin to return, floating desperately outside his consciousness. There are wonderful characters, and both Ryan and Maddox are vivid and empathetic human beings. There are some flaws, particularly in the obvious lies of one of the people involved. They are telegraphed so broadly that it seems impossible that a supposedly intelligent detective like Ryan, even in his mentally addled state, would not see them as well as the readers do.

But there are some really gripping scenes and a few revelations that come as a huge surprise. And there were even a couple of moments where I found myself holding my breath. I would read more of French's work. Even if the covers are not as cool as this one.

But for now, I must face the other massive volume I promised to read this year: The Power Broker, all 1200 densely packed pages of it. I promised to read this book and War and Peace by year's end, and December 31st is coming at me fast. Better get back to reading...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Round the world with #39 and #40

#39, a slender volume, has been sitting in my to-read pile for ages. Mr. Gilfil's Love Story is by one of my favorite writers, George Eliot, but I'd never heard of it, so was fascinated. Turns out the book is actually one of the three long stories that make up Scenes of a Clerical Life, Eliot's first published work.

It concerns the life of a clergyman named Maynard Gilfil, and starts out with a long and rather dreary introduction to the Reverend Gilfil's lonely middle-aged life. I rarely find Victorian writing difficult to read, but this long opening passage (pages and pages long) made me understand why so many people find the Victorian novelists difficult.

George Eliot
One the story got underway it improved. Somewhat. Most of the tale flashes back to Mr. Gilfil's earlier life, when he was in love with a young woman named Caterina, the ward of a wealthy nobleman. But Catarina is in love with the nobleman's nephew and heir, who has made her love him but now plans to marry a more suitable woman. We already know from the dreary opening that things end badly for Catarina. She loses her love, marries Gilfil, but dies in childbirth, leaving Gilfil to live out his life a lonely, heartbroken man.

It's not a pick-me-up, and it never gets terribly interesting. I think in future I'll leave the other two "stories" from Scenes of a Clerical Life alone and stick to Eliot's novels instead.

#40 is not so slender, but equally uninteresting. Shipwreck, by Louis Begley, is a strange tale. It's told by the writer John North to an unnamed narrator he meets in a bar. We know nothing at all about the narrator who makes his appearance known only occasionally. The entire story is told by North. Since Begley does not use quotation marks, the few and far between moments when the actual narrator intervenes with a comment or thought can be startling and confusing, since you have almost completely forgotten about his existence.

The story North tells is of his moral disintegration (although I'm not convinced he ever had much in the way of morality to disintegrate). He has woken up one morning and decided that every word he has written is, basically, crap. In Paris for the publication of his latest novel he decides to be unfaithful--for the first time--to his wife, a wife, he says, that he absolutely adores. Since he claims to be fully satisfied in every way by his wife (who appears to be nothing less than a saint), the decision appears to be arbitrary and absurd. Of course, things don't go very well with the young woman he chooses for his fling. In fact, things get fairly out of hand. Along the way, we come to pretty much despise North, who is selfish, cold, calculating, nasty, and, perhaps, antisemitic.

The book has been sold as a sexual thriller, hot and heavy, but Begley's sex scenes are about as cold as North (just realized how well the name works). They are the farthest thing from erotica. In fact, it's really only North's evaluations of power and money, especially as it concerns his old-guard Protestant family versus his wife's wealthy Jewish bunch, that seem to pack any sort of punch. He is an amoral man who does so much wrong that he should be interesting, but unfortunately, he isn't. In a better author, one with some power in his pen, this could have been a roller-coaster ride of a story. Too bad.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#38 Reading About Writing

He may not be the most brilliant writer, but he sure is prolific, and more than competent. In Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he has some smart, sensible words of advice to anyone who wants to write just about anything.

I had read the book about ten years ago, and was about to give it to a writer acquaintance of mine, so thought I should re-read it before sending it on its way. I am glad I did. I had completely forgotten that the first half of the book is a snapshot-y memoir of the events and people that influenced his development as a writer, beginning back in his early childhood. It's very entertaining, and vivid, and reads a lot like a King novel. The middle chunk of the book is his advice, which, like King himself (I like to think), is straightforward, unpretentious, and occasionally wise.

Writing is a craft, he says, hence the subtitle. King takes all the pomposity and pretentiousness out of writing. Work at it, he says, and you'll get better. Read a lot, write a lot. Don't stop writing for more than one day in a row. It disconnects you from your story and you lose the thread. Avoid adverbs. Close the door of your writing room (if you have one) and don't let yourself get interrupted. And use "said" in your dialogue tags, since readers don't really read that word anyway. Basically: be smart, work hard, and don't get all fancy-pants on us.

There's some good advice on finding an agent and getting published, although a lot of it is technically outdated in a world in which we send emails rather than letters. But conceptually, it works. And there's plenty of thanks to his mother and wife for his support of his writing over many years. I couldn't help thinking, when he says for the fifth time that you have to close the door and go to your desk and write every single day without allowing interruptions, that it's fine and dandy to do that if you have a wife who's taking the kids to school and doing the wash and going grocery shopping and making dinner. Otherwise, it's not so easy to get to the nice, quiet, solo space every day. Virginia Woolf sure had it right. Also Judy Brady.

The last section of the book is about his near-fatal accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along the road near his home in Maine. He thought it might be the end of his writing career. Luckily for all of his fans (me included), it was not.

Monday, December 12, 2016

#37 An modern immigration story

I love a good immigrant story. And I've read many about Indian immigrants, Italian immigrants, Jewish immigrants. But this may be the first I've read about an African immigrant: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Ifemelu, the narrator, is getting her hair braided in New Jersey, and telling us her story of her childhood in Nigeria, her arrival in America to go to college, and the years since. We also get excerpts from the blog she writes about life as a "Non-American Black" in which she explores Racial Disorder Syndrome (her term). The blog, and the book, are wonderfully written, finely observed, funny at times yet also sad, free of lectures and preaching, a truly individual story that is also universal. We also get the story of the man she left behind, Obinze, who has his own journey from Nigeria to London as an undocumented immigrant, and his eventual return to Lagos.

The story is beautifully written, with complex and fascinating characters, all of whom feel as real as the people you live with. My only complaint would be the back-and-forth to the hair braiding salon, which interrupts the flow of the very compelling story. I understand that Achebe wanted to contrast the narrators success in America with the difficult lives of the women in the hair salon--more stories of arrivals and their ability to adapt--but it felt distracting and unnecessary. But that's a minor quibble. Americanah is a marvelous, absorbing, and wonderful book that sticks with you for a long time.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

#36 A River Runs Through It

I knew it was a movie. And that it starred Brad Pitt. But I had no idea that the movie was based on a book--more a novella--by the author Norman Maclean, who I had never heard of. 

Maclean was a scholar, a revered professor at the University of Chicago who taught the Romantic poets and Shakespeare. When he retired in 1973, his children encouraged him to write the stories he liked to tell, many about growing up in Montana, his minister father, and fly fishing. This book, officially titled A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, was the first book of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. 

The title story is beautifully written and completely absorbing, much of it about fly fishing and the relationships between two brothers and their minister father. The best way to describe it is to quote from an interview with Maclean in Esquire magazine from 1981:

Brad in the movie, young and gorgeous
"It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1942. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone."

In the same article, Maclean was quoted as saying:

"I thought for a while it was the writing that kept bringing it around. That’s the way it comes back to me: I hear the sound of the words, then I see them happen. I spent four hours one afternoon picking out three paragraphs to drop into a column I was writing about the book, and in the end they didn’t translate, because except for the first sentence—'In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing'—there isn’t anything in it that doesn’t depend on what comes before it for its meaning."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Do I only read books by women?

Seems that way lately. The last 11 have all been by female writers. After I took my first feminist lit class back in college I made a vow to only read women writers for five years. And I stuck to it, and even added a couple of years. I'm so grateful I did and also glad I widened my horizons eventually. But lately I think I've renewed that vow. At least these last seven, in brief, are all penned by gals.

#29 Drinking: A Love Story is a well-respected memoir by Caroline Knapp, focusing--big spoiler alert here--on her years, or rather decades, of alcohol abuse. Sadly, the book is less of a memoir and more of an extended essay about alcoholism, its roots, its dangers, its challenges. And more sadly, Knapp died of cancer only a few years after finally getting sober. Anyone think life is fair? I found it a slow read, and I kept wishing it were more of an actual story and less of an analysis of addiction and its consequences.

#30 was such a disappointment. I had read Kate Summerscale's Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, a true story of the first divorce in Victorian England, and found it quite interesting. And her new book seemed like a fascinating followup and got good reviews. The Wicked Boy is another true story, about a 13-year-old boy who murdered his mother in 1895, while his father is away. He and his 12-year-old brother leave the body in bed where the deed was done and go to cricket matches, pawn shops, and chips sellers, until the stench gives them away. Sounds fascinating, right? Sadly, it wasn't. The book is drastically padded--Summerscale clearly didn't have enough to work with, so there are lengthy descriptions of the weather (do we really need to know that the Monday of the trial was damp and chilly and on Tuesday the sun came out?), what people wore, how the cricket match progressed (really tedious for a reader who doesn't have a clue how cricket is played), etc. And in the end, there isn't much in the way of insight. I still don't know what drove Robert to kill his mother. I wish she had written an article instead; whittling away all the extraneous information might have made for an interesting story.

#31 was another Ruth Ware. The Woman in Cabin 10 was a relatively fun read, and her prior thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, turned out to be equally entertaining, and, hurrah! the main character was not a drunk or complete emotional mess. Only a partial one. The whodunnit was so completely obvious to me that I disdained the main character for not seeing it as clearly as I did. But it was gripping enough, and easy enough, and, at a couple of moments, downright scary.

#32 Finally! A genuine, well-written piece of literary fiction. Sarah Waters never disappoints and The Night Watch lives up to her reputation. It tells the story of four Londoners during World War II. The book starts in 1947 and moves backward to 1941 to tell of how their complicated relationships began. I was wary of the gimmick, and think the book would have been better off without it. Her characters are so deeply drawn and her stories so interesting that the backwards path made the reader focus more on the unanswered questions of how it started instead of staying completely with the story as it progressed. But despite that irritation, it was a moving and handsomely crafted book, with compelling characters and a terrific evocation of London during that dark time.

#33 I picked up Emily Giffen's Love the One You're With while traveling, trading it for In a Dark, Dark Wood. I think the hotel I left Ware's thriller in got the better end of that deal. Giffen's novel is complete piffle that can be summed up in one sentence: A woman in a seemingly perfect new marriage runs into an old flame and the spark reignites. Will she leave her handsome, rich, kind, intelligent husband? Who also happens to be the brother of her very best friend? Will she have an affair with the dark, handsome, bad boy she can't shake? Who cares. You can read this book in a day, and that may be the best thing I can say about it.

#34 Another hotel find: the always entertaining Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table. Although it probably would have made the book more fun if I understood bridge, since the murder takes place at a bridge party and the score sheet is an important clue, it's always fun to spend some time with the great Christie and her greatest creation: the brilliant Hercule Poirot exercising his "grey matter" with the greatest of skill.

#35 Ugh. A New York Times bestseller? Finalist for the National Book Award? President Obama's favorite book of 2015? Really? I thought Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies was pretentious and overwritten. The story of a marriage, told in the first half of the book from his perspective and in the second half from hers, it annoyed the heck out of me and I couldn't wait for it to end. Every sentence seems like half-baked college-age poetry, and the characters and the story are absurd. Have I said ugh? Ugh.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

#26, 27, 28: a trio of new releases by women

Somehow this summer I've gotten into reading the recently released. It could be because I found a new bookstore I like and I can't seem to stop going there and buying more books. Or it could be because I keep reading about new books that sound so interesting. Unfortunately, in all three of these new releases, I've been pretty disappointed.

#26 is Siracusa by Delia Ephron. I heard her interviewed on the radio and she made the book sound so fascinating I couldn't resist, especially since I'm heading off to Sicily next month. Sadly, she talks a better game than she writes. It's the story of two couples who go on vacation together, accompanied by one couple's strange ten-year-old daughter. The tale is told in alternating voices by each of the adults, which is actually the most interesting thing about the book. Ephron manages to create four very distinct (if not always credible) voices, so that even if you pick the book up without knowing which chapter you were in, you would quickly recognize which character was speaking. That--and a few tips on places to visit in Sicily and Rome--is the best part of the book. The story is moderately interesting, and there's a big shocker that occurs toward the end that is blatantly telegraphed early on, in a Chekhov's gun moment that just leaves you waiting to see who's going to be getting the bullet to the head (I'm speaking metaphorically here, there's no gun in the book). Kind of a disappointment, but at least it made me more excited about my upcoming trip.

#27, however, was a massive bummer. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler has gotten all kinds of hype this summer, and since it's set in New York City and about the restaurant industry and a young woman's coming of age (all topics that push my reading buttons), I was very excited to open the covers. Sad to say, it's an overwritten, undercooked, melodramatic, disjointed piece of junk. The cliches abound, the endless drink and drugs are as dulling to the reader as they are to the narrator, the character development borders on nil (greasy-haired bad boy, wise but cruel older woman...), and, worst of all, it's boring. So is all the hype because the author is young and pretty and her book is supposedly based on real-life places and people? Probably. It certainly can't be because of her writing talent.

#28 is another big recent release, another first novel, by another pretty young woman. And it too has gotten plenty of positive press. And it too disappoints, although not as much as Sweetbitter. Emma Cline's The Girls is loosely based on the Charles Manson family, and is another young woman's coming-of-age story. In this case the narrator is the lonely and lost fourteen-year-old Evie, who becomes a hanger-on at the ranch populated by Russell, the Manson-like leader, and his followers. But Cline is a far better writer, and her depiction of what it's like to be a sad young teenager trying desperately to figure out how to be in the world is spot on. She captures perfectly the confusion and insecurity, and the dangerous attraction to a confident and charming older girl. The book shifts back and forth in time, to a present-day middle-aged Evie, and those shifts fall flat. But much of the book is fascinating, even if ultimately far less interesting than all the buzz would have you think. The main difference is: Cline can write.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

#24 girl on a boat

I do like a good thriller, even if it has "girl" in the title. In this book's case, the girl is upgraded to a woman, but it's the same idea. The only other change is the female in the title, the actual woman in cabin 10, is not the narrator or even the main character. She's a young woman, seen briefly in a cabin on a cruise ship by our story's narrator. No one else sees her. No one else seems to know she ever was there. In fact, the woman is cabin 10's existence is strenuously denied by everyone involved. Hence the mystery.

The only proof that the narrator has is the tube of mascara she borrowed from the woman in the next cabin. But the tube mysteriously disappears -- and that disappearance ironically proves that the woman in cabin 10 did exist. Because if she didn't, and if she hasn't met with foul play, then why would anyone need to disappear the mascara?

It's a twisty, turny book, decently (not brilliantly, not even very well) written, with a neat resolution that's mostly unexpected. My only complaint is why do the narrators of these types of books have to be such pathetic wrecks? The main character in The Girl on the Train, this main character, and so many others -- they drink too much, they wallow in self-loathing, they're clinically depressed, they have sex with the absolutely wrong men. At lease the gone girl in Gone Girl was confident and powerful, although she was a total sociopath. Can't there be a sane, smart, together female who comes across a crime and attempts to solve it? Whatever happened to stories like the one I read a few books back, Compromising Positions? Decently written (as good as this one or The Girl on the Train for sure), and the heroine is smart and confident. And that was the eighties! Have women gotten more delicate and depressed and drug-addled since then? Maybe. Miss Marple was more of a strong, "modern" woman than these gals.

Friday, August 26, 2016

#23 and 24 are by the same author

They may be written by the same author, but they are very different books. #23 is the latest in the series of #1 Ladies' Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine. It's a gentle, delightful read, mainly because McCall Smith's characters feel as familiar as slippers, even to someone like me who has only read a couple of other books in the series. The plot ambles along, it's interesting...enough. But the point is to get to hang out with Mma Ramotswe and her friend and co-worker (and sometimes thorn in her side) Mma Makutsi and all the other endearing folks the author has created. Of many charming moments, my favorite might be when Mma Ramotswe uses her "traditional build" as a method of self defense by sitting on an opponent. It's a gentle, lovely read that carries you along like floating down a river. The perfect escape. 

The second McCall Smith is his take on Jane Austen's classic, Emma. Being a big fan of the original, I was curious to see what he would do in this modern setting. Unfortunately, I think he got it all wrong. And for so many reasons. One is that there's way too much backstory. Austen manages to get us to the meat of the book with economy and brevity. McCall Smith takes ages to get there, meandering uninterestingly through Mr. Woodhouse's marriage, the source of his wealth and his phobias, how Isabella (Emma's sister) met her husband and the Knightleys' background. Not that this author had to stick slavishly to the plot lines of the original, but all that stuffing isn't needed, and it dilutes the important tale, which is about Emma. 

But the main flaw is that he manages to turn Emma herself from a flawed but charming character into a distinctly unlikable one. And if Emma isn't appealing, the entire story falls apart. She is a young woman learning how to be an adult, how to identify and try to overcome her flaws, and, basically, grow up. Yes, she has unpleasant characteristics, but this Emma is just flat out awful. It's unimaginable that Mr. Knightley is in love with her, or that anyone tolerates her at all. 

While it was fun seeing what he did with it and how he twisted himself into knots explaining why Emma has a governess (why bother? just turn her into an aunt, or an older friend, or get rid of her altogether) and why Frank Churchill has been sent off to live with an aunt and uncle (still hard to believe), as an overall read it lost the humor and humanity of the original. Amy Hecklerling did SO much of a better job in Clueless. Her Emma, a/k/a Cher, was adorable and warm and funny and lovable in addition to being controlling and a snob -- and she learns her lessons and becomes a better human being. McCall Smith should have paid more attention to that Emma and he might have learned a bit or two about how to modernize a classic. 

P.S. Many thanks to E. for lending me both books. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

#22 a theatrical biography

I've often read that Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One, is one of the best, if not the best story of a life in the theater. As I theater lover/geek I thought it was high time to read it.

To tell you the truth (I always do), I wasn't exactly sure who Moss Hart was. I'd heard the name, but I had him mixed up with Lorenz Hart, as in Rodgers and Hart, as in composer and lyricist of Pal Joey and On Your Toes and a bunch of other renowned musicals. Silly me. Moss was one of the theater's most famous writers (with his partner, the legendary George S. Kaufman, You Can't Take it With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner) and directors (My Fair Lady, Camelot), as well as being a Hollywood screenwriter (the Judy Garland A Star is Born, Gentleman's Agreement). But the book is not about his great success, it's about the struggle that led up to it.

It starts with his childhood, spent in poverty in the Bronx and Brooklyn, in his family of immigrant Jews--although not the immigrant Jews we're used to--these came from Britain, hence the odd family name, "Moss." This poverty wasn't charming, or warm, or funny. It was debasing, grinding, and grim. They took in boarders, his father struggled to find work, and Moss dropped out of school at 14 to try to add a few pennies to the family coffers, working a horrific job in a fur vault for two years. He paints the family portraits beautifully, including his younger brother, his beaten-down parents, his overbearing grandfather, and his aunt Kate, a theater-lover who kindles his interest in and devotion to the stage.

Hart pursued his dream of success in the theater with single-minded devotion, through jobs as an office boy, years at Catskill summer "camps" entertaining the guests and mounting plays, to directing tiny theater companies in Jersey, to his first disastrous play, and then, finally, to his first success (after an incredibly long period of revising, reworking, opening out of town, and reworking some more), Once in a Lifetime, written with Kauffman. Kauffman also acted in and directed the play, and is one of the fascinating characters that Moss brings brilliantly to life.

It's at that point that the poverty finally ends, and the day after the play's successful opening night Hart celebrates by insisting that his entire family pack one bag (total!) and walk out of their grim Brooklyn apartment, get in a cab, and move to a hotel in Manhattan, leaving everything, every stick of worn furniture, every piece of outdated and mended clothing, even their toothbrushes, behind.

It's also at that point that the book ends, unfortunately, and Hart was working on Act Two when he died, way too young, at the age of 57 in December of 1961.

One of the things about the book that most interested me was something I discovered while reading about it. One of the most indelible characters in the story was Hart's Aunt Kate. She lived with the family and, despite their extremely miserable poverty, never worked. Not only didn't she have a job, she didn't do anything in the home to help out. Somehow the family members accepted this as an inevitability, which Hart doesn't really explain. But after years of Aunt Kate swanning around the house like a Rockefeller forced to live with savages, Hart's father, a quiet, self-abasing man, loses his temper over some books she has given away and kicks her out. It's years before Moss is able to find her again. She is the mistress of linens at a home for girls, where she lives, and one the most moving scenes in the book is of Moss taking his aunt, already dying of cancer, to the theater and escorting her to a seat in the orchestra--a pleasure she has never before been able to indulge. She dies shortly thereafter, before Hart's first big hit.

It's very sad, and also completely untrue. Aunt Kate survived for many years after Hart's first success, gradually descending into mental illness. She vandalized his home, wrote threatening letters, and even set fires backstage during rehearsals for one of his plays.

He writes in the book that one of the reasons he became a writer is to make life into better, happier, more entertaining stories. I guess that included his own.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Murder, murder, and more murder #19, 20, 21

I love Phryne Fisher! At least, I love Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the Australian show that I stumbled across a few months ago and greedily binged my way through all three seasons of. I hadn't read any of the books--hadn't even heard of them--until now. The book series is called the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries, which was wisely changed for the show, to eliminate the difficulty of pronouncing Miss Fisher's first name, which rhymes with briney.

I began at the beginning, of course, with the first three Miss Fisher mysteries: Cocaine Blues, Flying Too High, and Murder on the Ballarat Train, all three wisely packaged together as Introducing the Honourable Phrye Fisher. 

Unlike most books, these work so much better on screen, which is not something I often believe, and I don't think I'm being influenced by having seen the TV show first. For one, the show wisely smoothes out some of the bumps and unnecessary complications of the books, which makes the mystery more straightforward. Kerry Greenwood, the author, tends to throw in lots of plot on top of more plot on top of more suspects on top of some more clues, and the whole thing eventually starts to resemble what happens to a long necklace when you let it sit in a pile--a big mess of tangles.

For another, one of the great pleasures of the show is Phryne's amazing clothes and jewelry. Did I mention that the stories are set in Melbourne in the 1920s? And Phryne is stinking rich and has a wardrobe that could make the gals on Downton Abbey jealous? Although their are lengthy descriptions of her clothes and accessories in the books, reading about them is boring. Seeing them is heaven.

And for last, the TV show wisely changes the character of the police detective Phryne works with. In the book, he's a friendly, dull fellow with a wife and kids and probably a stamp collection and a nice dog. In the book, he's a steamy, dreamy guy with an ex-wife and a rivalry with that becomes a fascination for Phryne. In three seasons they've managed to kiss, but I have high hopes for season four. After all, even Sam and Diane got it on by the end of season one.

Jack Robinson and the Honorable Phryne Fisher

The other characters in the show are here (except for Phryne's stuffy Aunt Prudence, who's another reason to prefer the show): companion Dot (although she doesn't have a beau), ward Jane, all-round assistants and commie cabbies Bert and Cec, female physician Mack (although she's young and attractive in the show), even Mr. Butler (although in the books, there's a Mrs. Butler). There's a clearer explanation of how Phryne become "the Honorable" and got all her dough, why she ended up in Melbourne to begin with, and how she got her unusual name.

But overall, the books don't hold a candle to the show, although I may read another one or two while I wait, impatiently, for Phryne to return to the screen.

#18 Murder most fun

I read this book way back when, probably not long after it came out in 1978. I remember thoroughly enjoying it. I read more of Susan Isaac's books, but never liked any of the others as much as this one. And I saw the movie when it came out in 1985, starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. I remember great chemistry between Sarandon and Julia, but the more constrained movie never allowed them to consummate their attraction, unlike the book, which has plenty of good sex between the two main characters (which was surely one of the reasons I liked it so much).

After reading it again, I can say that I enjoyed it nearly as much the second time around--especially since in the intervening decades I'd completely forgotten who the murderer was, which made it just as much fun to try and figure out. 

The book was a big bestseller back in the day. It's a combination of the bored housewife genre of that time (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, etc.) and a romp of a murder mystery. The main character is a bored (of course), smart, funny Long Island housewife named Judith Singer. Her life picks up when she begins an investigation into the murder of a local periodontist, a raging philanderer who not only philandered but took compromising photos of his conquests, any one of whom could have plunged the fatal ice pick into the back of his neck. 

The murder investigation is a heck of a lot of fun with a long list of suburban housewife/suspects. And the romantic relationship that develops between Judith and the sexy police lieutenant investigating the crime is so satisfying. Isaac's writing keeps all the balls in the air with a light and humorous touch. It's a talent I respect, having read enough murder mysteries to know that this type (the romp-ish, sexy ones) are often confusing (too many similar suspects) or nonsensical (the clues don't add up) or infuriating (the conclusion comes out of left field and doesn't build on what leads up to it). In this genre, Compromising Positions is an standout. 

Sarandon and Julia doing the It's a Wonderful Life sexy telephone thing.

#17 for Victorian drama, the real kind

I'm not exactly sure how I came to be reading this book. It ended up in my ginormous books-to-read pile and it had been there long enough that when I stumbled upon it I could no longer remember how it got there. Did I see it in a bookstore and think, oh that looks interesting, I'll buy it and surely read it in a timely manner? Did someone lend it to me? Was it a gift with purchase?

Who knows. But find it I did, and read it I did, and it was, qualifiedly, interesting.

It's the story of one of the first divorces in Britain, after the laws had been changed to allow middle-class Britons access to divorce in the 1850s. Isabella Walker, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson, a well-off civil engineer and manufacturer, in 1844. They had two more sons together, but the marriage foundered from the start. Henry was cold and remote. He demanded, and took control of Isabella's money, leaving her with nothing of her own. He traveled often, and was angry and demanding when he was home. 

Isabella, on the other hand, was a high-spirited and intelligent woman, with a passion for new ideas, the arts, and for a married doctor named Edward Lane. What makes the story so interesting is that Isabella kept a secret diary in which, over five years, she recorded her ardor and longing for Dr. Lane, who finally returned her affections. Her writing is sensual and suggestive, although in good Victorian style she never directly states that she was unfaithful. But is there a reasonable doubt that she wasn't? I don't think so. Why else would the good doctor be warning her about post-copulation pregnancy prevention?

Unfortunately for Isabella, she became ill and in the height of her fever, and the presence of her husband, she called out her lover's name. In a rage, Henry tore her room apart looking for evidence and, in a locked drawer, found the revealing diary. He petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. The diary was used in evidence against both his wife and Dr. Lane, and passages were read into the court record and published in the newspapers. The trial was the scandal of the day--a middle-class, respectable wife and mother who was restless and unhappy, a British Madame Bovary (which was published in France that very year but considered too scandalous to be published in England until the 1880s). 

The trial was humiliating for Isabella, whose very looks were used against her by her erstwhile lover. In his own defense he claimed he would never have become romantically involved with such an unattractive woman in her fifties (at the time Isabella was in her late thirties). She was labeled a harlot, a whore, mentally ill, a bad mother, a bad example of an Englishwoman, and any other mud that could be flung at her. Her defense, as sad as it was, was that the diary was an exercise in fantasy fulfillment, and not the record of an actual affair. 

Isabella's writing is so juicy that Summerscale's often pales in comparison. But it's a gripping tale that sheds quite a bit of light on the prejudices and assumptions we make about marriage and women, even today.

Miranda, he gets the job done

I think I'm better now. I think I'm over it. I've seen the show three times, I've listened to the cast album until I know every word and sound effect and breath by heart. I've analyzed the lyrics, read every article, watched every Ham4Ham performance. And now I've read the book. I think my hamilaria may finally be subsiding.

The book (#16) is Hamilton:The Revolution by Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the show from early on, and, of course, the creator and star himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Chapter by chapter, it takes us through the creation of the show, from that famous White House rap when it was just going to be a concept album, to the opening on Broadway six years later and the show's astounding success.

There are wonderful photos, a look at Miranda's notebooks (his handwriting looks like an eight-year-old's), interviews with dozens of the people involved, wonderful behind-the-scenes stories, every single lyric and every single line, including many that didn't make it into the final product, and more than 200 footnotes by Miranda himself, a fun little peak into the mind of a genius and really fun guy.

If you love the show (is there anyone who doesn't?) it's a thrilling look at how it came to be and the incredibly talented people (it isn't all Miranda) who made it happen, as well as a fascinating story of how any show goes from an idea in someone's head to atop the boards of Broadway.

#15 back to the seventies on a "Speedboat"

Probably the only thing I really liked about this strange book by Renata Adler was its depiction of New York City in the 1970s. It captures the grey gritty harshness and energy of that time perfectly, which it should, since the book is a sort-of roman a clef of Adler's life as a swinging journalist in this city in that difficult decade. 

The book doesn't have any sort of conventional plot or recurring characters. We don't even find out the name of the young journalist narrator until the second half of the novel. It is a series of disjointed paragraphs, anecdotes, and stories that are by turns pointed, funny, neurotic, telling, occasionally moving, even more occasionally boring, that add up to a pointillist portrait of a time and place. It's the kind of book you can pick up and put down whenever. Some of the anecdotes are quite gripping, some left me cold. 

More of a collage than anything else, it's an entirely different sort of book. And while I might pick it up again sometime, read a paragraph or two, and walk away, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who likes those old fusty things like plot, or character, or story. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

I finished the hat! #14

Even a less-then-passionate Sondheim fan will get the reference: "Finishing the Hat" is one of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim's brilliant songs, from his extremely brilliant musical Sunday in the Park with George. It's a song about the art of making art, and the life of the artist, and is, according to Sondheim's book, Finishing the Hat, one of his few autobiographical songs. 

The subtitle of the book says it all: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The grudges and whines come through loud and clear: Sondheim's critiques of other composers and lyricists are strongly phrased and withering. I don't get the impression that he suffers fools. And I do get the impression that, to him, most of humanity may fall into that category. His portraits of the many remarkable people with whom he's worked are also pointed. I may never again be able to fully appreciate Jerome Robbins's choreography for West Side Story now that I know what an egomaniacal bully he was. 

Little Stephen Sondheim at the piano
I've been reading the book a little at a time for a while and have finally finished it. It's mostly fascinating, an incredible inside look at how a Broadway musical is put together. Or actually, was put together, since the days of out-of-town productions in Washington and Boston are long over. As a history of the theater as well as the history of theater greats, and an inside look at Sondheim's creative process, it's pretty compelling reading.

The book covers the first half of Sondheim's career, from his first musical, Saturday Night, a student production, through his first lyrics-only shows (West Side Story and Gypsy) through the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) through his next nine productions: Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.

An impressive list, an astonishing list. Anyone would be happy with a career encompassing even half of those legendary creations. But remarkably, it's only the first installment. The second book, Look I Made a Hat, begins with the show from which the lyric comes, Sunday in the Park with George and goes through 2011. 

It's incredibly sad that there won't be a third volume. Can we clone Mr. Sondheim, please?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

#13, not so lucky

I was really looking forward to reading Jonathan Franzen's Purity. I liked The Corrections, loved Freedom, and was sure I would thoroughly enjoy his latest. So wrong. Purity is like a massive buffet of what look like tasty treats: There are dozens and dozens of different things to eat, but only a bite or two of each, and, as it turns out, they all look prettier than they taste.

The plot (or should I say plots, since there are so many) is far too complicated to attempt to explain. There's a young woman named Pip (Purity) who doesn't know who her father is (or even what her mother's real name is), some Oakland anarchist squatters, German peace activists, a Julian Assenge-ish "truth-teller" in Bolivia and his many cult-like followers, a flashback to pre-wall-fall East Germany, a murder, several love stories, two high-minded, muck-raking journalists, a wheelchair-bound famous author, and dozens more. Much happens. No, MUCH happens. Way too much, for me. There was more plot than I could keep ahold of, and I started to feel like Franzen maybe couldn't either. He was like that guy on Ed Sullivan who had to keep all the plates spinning (that made me anxious, too). But that guy always succeeded. I'm not sure Franzen does.

In the end, I felt like the book was a mile wide and an inch deep, and for me, as a reader, I would much rather have writing that is an inch wide and a mile deep (Jane Austen, anyone?).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

#12 goes to Austria

Never heard of The Post-Office Girl. Never heard of Stefan Zweig, who was, according to Wikipedia,  one of the most popular writers in the world during his heyday, the 1920s and '30s. An Austrian Jew (by "accident of birth" he said), Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 and died in Brazil in 1942 after fleeing the Nazis in 1934 for England, then New York, then Brazil. He and his second wife committed joint suicide because, he wrote in his suicide note, he was more and more depressed by the growth of intolerance, authoritarianism, and Nazism, and he felt hopeless for the future of humanity.

Not a fun guy. And not a fun read. But a compelling one. The book, published posthumously in 1982, tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a post-office clerk in poverty-stricken, post World War I Austria. She lives in a stuffy, damp rented attic room that she shares with her ailing mother, her father and brother both having perished in the war. She works like a drone in her stultifying post office job. She makes barely enough to keep herself and her mother from starvation. And she has no hope for the future.


But then her aunt -- who had fled years before to America and married a wealthy man -- takes her away on vacation to a beautiful, elegant Alpine resort. It's like oxygen for the suffocating, food for the starving. And Christine opens to the beauty and hopefulness like a flower in sunlight. Until, of course, things change, and then change again.

It was not an easy story to read, but such an interesting one, not least because I've read so little about that time in European history, and never a story set in Austria. The awful poverty and sheer desperation of that time, the incredibly difficult recovery from the devastating war, and the losses upon losses it engendered...it's a world that seems to have no connection whatsoever to the swinging Jazz Age of America in the 1920s. The idea that F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Zweig's Christine Hoflehner could be living at the same time is hard to grasp.

The story takes unexpected twists and turns that continually surprise. And the ending, if it can be called that, is somehow both completely ambiguous and strangely satisfying. It's a book that stays with you, hauntingly, sadly, movingly, for a long time.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#11: So very sad

I've read a lot of memoirs, but this one was one of the hardest to read. At nine years old, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a very dangerous form of cancer (she finds out later that only 5% of people with this disease survive). In the surgery to remove the tumor, she lost a third of her jaw. Two years of subsequent radiation and chemotherapy left her with fragile bones and teeth. Year after year of endless surgeries followed, in useless attempts to repair the damage.

The number of ways in which Grealy suffered are beyond count. The horrific pain of the surgeries and therapies, the cruelty of other children, the agony of chemotherapy, her father's death, the continual disappointment as each reconstructive surgery fails...the pain becomes difficult to read about, I can't even imagine how she lived through it all. She writes without sentiment and without self-pity, which makes the reading bearable (just). But she also writes without a redemptive message, and although I didn't want her to come to an epiphany that taught her some great emotional lesson, the fact that it all just...ends, made the reading even harder. And knowing that not too many years after finishing the book Grealy committed suicide makes it all so very very sad.

I had already read the book Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, written by Grealy's best friend, the novelist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder), about their long and very close friendship, so I knew much of the story and also knew what happened afterwards: Grealy's drug use and eventual suicide. Although it was probably backwards to read Patchett's memoir first, together the two books chronicle so much love and loss and pain that it is truly heartbreaking.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A mixed bag

Books 7, 8, 9, and 10 have nothing in common other than the fact that I read them all.

Two novels: one sunshine and warm, one dark and nasty. A memoir. And a classic children's book.

#7 The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh. I have to admit that I bought this one because of the title. That name just jumped off the bookshelf and into my hand. Who doesn't want to know more about the sex lives of siamese twins? But it was a bit of a bait and switch, unfortunately. The book isn't about Siamese twins, much less their sex lives. The twins are just a background, a story that's on the news during the time the actual story of the novel takes place. The book is about a personal trainer in South Beach, Florida, one of the ugliest characters I've ever encountered in a book (or movie or any other work), a woman who rants, continuously, about her fat lazy pig clients and the whole fat lazy pig world. Only my language is far kinder than hers. It was hard getting though the book, I felt at times like I was swimming through sewage, and probably not worth the pain. But I have a hard time putting a book down once I've started, and luckily it wasn't too long (after War and Peace I can get through anything!), so I finished. And I have to report that the sweet and sunshine-y ending did nothing to help wash the ugliness away. Beware of this one -- you'll feel like you need a shower after ever chapter.

#8 The Vacationers by Emma Straub. An upper-west-side family (magazine editor dad, journalist mom, recent high school grad daughter, adult son, and adult son's age-inappropriate girlfriend) plus two friends head to Mallorca on a family vacation. There are secrets, marital problems, money problems, and more complications. The jacket promised brilliance and smarts, but despite the gorgeous locale, and the gorgeous Spanish tutor hired to work with the daughter, there was not much of either. The whole thing felt kind of drippy, like those holiday movies with all sorts of complications that get magically resolved by final curtain. Not one character felt fully realized or at all compelling and the pages just passed by without a whole lot of interest. And then it ended.

#9 Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. How to make grammar a whole lot of fun. Norris is the longtime copy editor of The New Yorker (kind of like being a gold medalist) and in her first book, a sort-of memoir, she interlaces stories of her Ohio youth (she was a milkman!) with the story of her career at the famous magazine (three decades and counting) and the right way to use pronouns and commas. It's a fun read even if you aren't a word nerd, and you might just learn something.

#10 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. I thought I had read every children's classic book, either in my own childhood or to my kids. But somehow, I missed this one. And since I am going to see the new musical based on this story, I thought I should read the book itself first. It's a remarkably simple tale: a young girl meets a family that is either blessed or cursed with eternal life.  They have sipped from a magic stream, and the girl helps them outwit the man who has discovered it and intends to get rich by marketing its contents. It reads like a fairy tale, with a simultaneously happy and sad ending. It's short, and has lots and lots of description, which made it even shorter for me, since I tend to race past long paragraphs about green, dark woods and hot, steamy weather. It weaves a spell, though, and I wish I had read it aloud to my kids. Maybe they'll let me do it now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Stopping to play

Number 6 is something different: two plays, which I'm counting as one since they don't take as long to read as even the shortest book.

Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in The Crucible
Two wonderful plays, I should say: The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I'd read Crucible before, and seen it on stage a couple of times, but in preparation for seeing it again on Broadway (a powerful new production with Ben be-still-my-heart Whishaw, Sophie Okenado, Saoirse Ronan (again!), and Ciaran Hinds), I decided to read it again.

Every time I read it, I am awed by it, and all its many insights into human nature and life. I know it was written as Miller's response to McCarthyism, but it's just as relevant to the crazy presidential race going on right now. And it's eternally relevant in its understanding of people, their desires, their relationships, and their flaws.

Laura and her Gentleman Caller
I'd never read or seen The Glass Menagerie, but I knew that it was Williams's reflections on his own family: his sensitive and withdrawn sister, absent father, and determined, aspirational, and near-delusional mother. I was surprised at how modern the many uses of visuals felt--Williams was experimenting with form, looking for visual representations of inner thoughts psychological states. And I was also surprised at how unexpected the turns of the simple story are. I did not expect to find myself gasping and then weeping over a play I've heard so much about over so many decades. Great art surprises! Great art survives!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Heading to Brooklyn for #5

The old Brooklyn, that is. As in Colm Toibin's beautiful Brooklyn, the story of a young Irish immigrant who comes to the borough in the 1950s. Eilis Lacey is quiet, intelligent, and charming, and so is her story. That tale is told in such a gentle, calm manner that it seems almost nothing has happened. Yet everything has happened: a young woman has upended her life, left her small town and her family (who, in those days of sea voyages, she may never see again) to create an entirely new existence in a strange and overwhelming new place. There is love, tragedy, sex, death -- all the drama of life -- yet it is expressed so simply and directly that you find yourself weeping and then wondering why you're crying. The book packs a subtle, powerful punch. And the movie is equally wonderful, with a different ending that, although I felt the book to be perfect, is even more satisfying. The characters are drawn so effortlessly yet so perfectly that you feel like you've met them all before. You will find yourself thinking of these people and this story often. It sticks with you like all great art.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Applause, please: #4 is finished!

I did it. I said I'd read the damn book and indeed I did.

After more time than I think I've ever spent with one book, I have finished War and Peace. All 1214 tiny-typed, densely packed pages of it (well, I might have skimmed a few of those "let's ponder the meanings of history" pages, but only a few).

I am too exhausted by reading it to say much about it, and that, combined with the fact that saying "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" seems almost insulting in the face of this massive accomplishment, means this will be a brief post. I will say that it wasn't what I expected it to be. I expected more novel, less philosophy. In fact, I don't think I expected philosophy at all. But the book is perhaps one-third the story of three Russian families at the time of the Napoleonic Wars (mainly what the Russians call the War of 1812, which was when Napoleon's army invaded Russia), one-third the story of the war itself, and one-third (or maybe less, but it reads long) philosophizing on the nature of power, war, and history. In fact, the epilogue (which alone is longer than many books) is almost all philosophy, which makes for slow going, especially with the end in sight.

Since I don't love reading about the maneuvers of battalions and blow-by-blow descriptions of battles, and reading about the philosophy behind those movements pleases me even less, I'd have to say that much of it was tough going for me. But I did enjoy the stories of the intertwined families, and, above all, I am damn proud of myself for getting to the end. I learned a massive amount about Russian and European history. And even some of the philosophizing about the nature of power and the "why" behind the forces of history was interesting.

But most importantly, I did it. Whew.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

In the beginning (of 2016)

2016 is off to a slow start. After reading 41 books in 2015, and 53 (!) in 2014, my resolution for 2016 was different: To finally read those two big books that have been sitting on my to-read pile (actually, they mainly are my to-read pile) since forever. War & Peace and The Power Broker probably weigh a collective 20 pounds, and if I ever lose my hand weights I can easily substitute them for strength exercise purposes. But they are there to be read, and as God is my witness, read them I will.

But I needed a short break from the two massive books that ended 2015 before embarking on the Tolstoyian journey (also I was traveling, and packing War & Peace would put me over the luggage weight limit before I even packed a pair of pants), so I began the year with these three. Right now it's mid-March and I am mid-W&P. I don't think it's ever taken me this long to read a book, but in addition to being over 1200 pages, the pages are densely packed, the print is small, and the book is, well, not exactly a page-turner. So I may not be back for a while. Pray for me.

#1 A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. The concept sounded promising, since the plot could easily have been something cooked up by Trollope. A council member in a small town in the English countryside dies suddenly, and the battle over his seat is rich with gossip and rivalries. While entertaining enough, the complete absence of anyone worth caring about made the book less compelling than it should have been. Surely not everyone in a typical town in Britain is duplicitous, venal, hostile, and mendacious? Are there no even semi-decent people left in the country? More than just wanting someone to root for, it became difficult to believe that so many awful people could have congregated in one place. Did Rowling use up all her compassionate imagination on Hogwarts?

#2 To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie. The latest in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, this one starts with a literal bang: a bomb goes off in historic St. Pancras Station. There was too much information on history and architecture for my taste, and a few resolutions that didn't quite feel like resolutions, but I always enjoy a visit with Duncan and Gemma and their absurdly ever-growing home life (his kid, her kid, a kid they adopted together, dogs, cats, fish...and always more and more--this one added a passel of kittens!).

#3 The Apartment by Greg Baxter. An unnamed European city, an unnamed narrator...two strikes against this book before I've even started. But to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much. The narrator is an American veteran who has served in Iraq, and become wealthy by providing some sort of intelligence services to the military. The action takes place in the course of just one day, as he searches for an apartment to rent along with a woman he has met. There are side trips, memories, interesting encounters, hints at a future relationship, and overall the sense that the narrator, haunted by what he has experienced, is deciding whether or not he wishes to continue with life. The book is beautifully written, ultimately wise, and emotionally gripping.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2015 Year in Review

2015 started with a bang and ended with a bang -- two fantastic books on either end. Not everything in the middle was as wonderful, though, and I certainly did not keep up with last year's book-a-week pace. Nor did I read the two books I pledged to read, which are still perched, dauntingly, on my nightstand. But War and Peace and The Power Broker are on tap for this year, I promise (myself). Resolution #1 is to read both before the year is out.

In the meantime, I started 2016 with something light, which I desperately needed after those two final books of 2015. More about that later. In the meantime, here is the 2015 final tally (books I particularly liked have an asterisk):

1.     The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters *
2.     Euphoria by Lily King   
3.     Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast *
4.     Being Mortal by Atul Gawande*
5.     The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
6.     Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
7.     Plays: Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, ‘Night Mother by Marsha Norman, The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
8.     Home by Marilynne Robinson
9.     Lila by Marilynne Robinson 
10.  Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
11.  Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
12.  The Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier 
13.  The Whites by Richard Price
14.  The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
15.  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr *
16.  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark * 
17.  Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
18.  Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
19.  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
20.  The Chateau by William Maxwell  
21.  Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
22.  The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham *
23.  On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
24.  The Turner House by Angela Flournoy *
25.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters *
26.  Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
27.  Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
28.  Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
29.  Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
30.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed *
31.  Lucky by Alice Sebold
32.  Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
33.  The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts
34.  They Came Like Swallows by Joseph Mitchell *
35.  Negroland by Margo Jefferson
36.  The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
37.  The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison *
38.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves 
39.  As You Wish by Cary Elwes
40.  City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallburg
41.  A Little Life by Hanya Yanagaihara *