Best Books Of 2016

Author and FOFriend, Linda Wolfe, recommends five books for the new year.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey. She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years. Her latest reviews capture everything from 1960s Kabul to present-day hostages in Somalia.

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NUTSHELL
by Ian McEwan

Nan Talese/Doubleday.

If you haven’t already read this, put buying it at the top of your To Do list. And give it to yourself, not someone else, though that’s not a bad idea, either. With Nutshell, the masterful McEwan, of Atonement and Saturday fame, has produced another masterpiece. This, despite its absurd premise – or maybe because of it. The absurdity? The story is told by a foetus.   

He’s a clever little fella. Knows all about wine, especially his mother’s favorites, French burgundy and a good Sancerre, which come to him, he explains, “decanted through her healthy placenta.” Knows too all about  Norway, with its generous social provisions, and Italy with its excellent regional cuisine. How is this possible? It’s because, he tells us, “I listen. My mother likes the radio and prefers talk to music…I hear, above the launderette din of stomach and bowels, the news, wellspring of all bad dreams. I listen closely to analysis and dissent.”

He also listens to his mother’s conversations. And, poor little eavesdropper, he overhears her plotting with her lover, his uncle, to murder his father. She is Trudy. He is Claude. Get it?  Nutshell is, in a nutshell, Shakespeare’s Hamlet as experienced and related by an unborn baby. This one sure doesn’t like Claude. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” he says. “By this late stage [of pregnancy], they should be refraining on my behalf.  Courtesy, if not clinical judgment, demands it. I close my eyes. I grit my gums. I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.”

The book is hilarious. Its also wondrous, with every sentence chiseled to perfection – perhaps in homage to Shakespeare. Most delicious of all, Nutshell is a page turner. Its suspense builds and climbs as we wonder if this older-than-his-years, or even older-than-his-months little creature who’s telling us the story will be able to prevent the murder.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE NEWS OF THE WORLD
by Paulette Jiles

William Morrow.

This book had me reading on the edge of my seat and metaphorically biting my nails. A historical novel, it’s set in the wilds of Texas in the years immediately following the Civil War. The story is told by elderly Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes his living by driving his covered wagon to isolated small towns where he reads the news of the world to settlers with no access to newspapers. One day, he’s asked by a federal agent to take on the task of transporting to her remaining family members a ten-year-old child who, at the age of six, had been taken captive by the Kiowa Indians after they scalped her German-American parents.

The girl is a handful. She doesn’t want to be rescued. She considers herself a Kiowa, and has become very attached to her captors. (Apparently, we learn in an endnote, this was common among children taken by Indians; very few of them wished to be rescued and returned to relatives.)  She has no memory of what her original name was, so Kidd gives her a name: Johanna.  

At first the Captain finds the girl, with her blond braids flaunting bits of stick, her immobile face, and her icy blue-eyed stare, “malign.” She finds him hateful, and proves to be a kicking, screaming, disobedient passenger, always trying to run away. But after they are attacked by truly malign men, and against great odds they together manage to fight them off, the unlikely pair bonds. In time, Johanna, who has learned to call herself “Cho-Hana,” comes to love the “Kep-dun,” who one day she dubs “Kontah,” Grandfather in the Kiowa language. The Captain himself has learned to admire his spunky little charge, and like a real grandfather, dotes on her and longs to see her have a happy future. But trouble awaits when the pair finally makes it to San Antonio, where Johanna’s remaining relatives live.

Jiles is a poet, and she knows how to use her music to play upon the heartstrings. I defy you not to shed a tear, as I did, at what happens to Johanna when she is reunited with her family – and to pray that once again the Captain will find the strength to rescue her.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_COMMONWEALTH
by Ann Patchett

HarperCollins.

Patchett is unpredictable as a novelist, and I don’t mean as regards her art, which is reliably wondrous. I’m referring to the kind of tale she tells in each book, its whos and wheres and wherefores. Commonwealth starts out in California as the story of a married couple who fall in love with other people, divorce their partners, and try to meld their unwieldy bunch of children, three of his, two of hers, into a viable extended family. They’re successful at this. The children become very close. But they are uneasy with their new stepparents and angry at the parents who broke up their original families.

What we get is a tapestry, a complex and exquisite weave of different threads, in which each thread is the tale of one of those children or parents relating what happens to them over a long period of time. Fifty years, to be exact, enough time for the children to grow up and old, and the parents to grow aged. There are lots of characters, lots of threads, a sister who becomes a lawyer, another who becomes a Zen monk, a misfit of a brother who bears a burden of guilt all his life about a tragedy that befell another brother, and, most memorably, the gentle Franny, who falls in love with a writer much older than she is and makes the mistake of telling him the story of her family, only to see him use it, to her embarrassment, and for his own self-aggrandizement. Patchett, treating all her characters with abounding compassion, makes every one of them so vivid and recognizable that you’ll be as fascinated by how they develop and change over the years as you are in how time treats your friends.   

Interestingly, at first Commonwealth seems like a book about extended families, of which we have read many in recent years. But it turns out to be about something newer, and and more important. Patchett’s characters marry, and have children, and get divorced, and some of them remarry and acquire new children, and their children marry and have children, and some of them get divorced and remarried and also acquire new children, so that the “family” keeps growing and expanding. One of the book’s final, stunning scenes shows us that not only do today’s extended families grow ever larger, but that the very idea of family is changing.  When Franny’s mother, late in life, marries a man named Jack Dine, and Franny goes to their Christmas party, she realizes that she can’t keep everyone there straight. “She knew the Dine boys, that’s what they were called late into their fifties, but their wives and second wives confused her, their children, in some cases two sets, some grown and married, others still small…There were members of the Dine family who considered her in some vague sense to be a sister, a cousin, a daughter, an aunt. She couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”  

I think Commonwealth could well have been entitled, The Way We Live Now, like Trollope’s book of that title, for what it really is about is a world in which increasingly the very word family has come to seem something altogether new.  

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between
by Hisham Matar

Random House.

In 2007, when I first fell in love with the work of Libyan-born writer Hisham Matar, it was because I had just read his novel, In the Country of Men, a polished, psychologically astute novel about a little boy who inadvertently betrays his father to the jailers of a repressive regime. The child’s grief at the loss of his father’s presence, plus the burden of guilt he feels for causing that loss, were haunting. I did not know until I read Matar’s eloquent memoir, The Return, that at the time he was writing In the Country, the author was himself struggling with grief over the loss of his own father to the repressive regime of Qaddaffi, and even struggling, with a kind of survivor’s guilt, what he calls, “the guilt of having lived a free life,” for he and the rest of his family had fled the Middle East to live zin exile in London.   

Matar’s father, Jaballah, had not had a free life. An outspoken opponent of the repressive Qaddaffi regime, he had been kidnapped in 1990, imprisoned, and after a few years during which he wrote letters to his family which were smuggled out of Libya by political supporters, never heard from again.  Was he still a prisoner, held in some miserable dungeon, like the one fellow prisoners called, “The Mouth of Hell”? Or was he dead? The uncertainty turned Matar, then nineteen years old, “into a bridled animal, cautious and quiet. I could not stop thinking of the detestable things that were surely happening to my father as I bathed, sat down to eat….I stopped speaking. I hardly left my London flat,” he writes, and, “You make a man disappear to silence him, but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.”

During the years that followed the kidnapping, Matar, his mother, and his brother, Riad, spent endless hours trying to raise public awareness of what had happened to Jaballa, and to arouse British diplomats into finding out what they could about his whereabouts, all to no avail. So in 2012, after the fall of Qaddaffi and before Libya fell victim to competing militias including Al Qaida, when for a brief time the country was peaceful, Matar went there to see if he could learn something of his father’s fate.  

The Return is the story of that trip. Matar travels with his mother and brother, and the three of them manage to find and reunite with relatives they haven’t seen in years. We visit along with them, discovering the Libya that was, and its rich culture and fascinating traditions.

The book is heartbreaking. Matar learns of a prisoner who may or may not have been his father (but seems likely to have been), a man who recites Libyan poetry from his cell a night, and then one night is heard no more. He learns the details of Qaddaffi’s notorious 1996 massacre of twelve hundred prisoners (his father was most likely one of the men brutally killed that day). And he learns how his father, surviving for many years in the most horrendous circumstances, became a symbol to his fellow prisoners of all that was once steadfast and noble in Libya.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_SWING TIME
by Zadie Smith

Penguin Press.

I’m not a big fan of Elena Ferrante. Perhaps it’s the fault of the translator, but I find the language of her acclaimed Neopolitan novels flat and dull. But of course, like everyone else, I’ve been a sucker for the books’ subject – female friendship — a matter so important to so many of us females, but so little written about.  Well, no need to slug through those Naples novels. Zadie Smith of White Teeth fame, arguably England’s most renowned novelist and certainly its liveliest stylist, has just come out with Swing Time, a novel about female friendship which pops and sizzles and rocks. It’s all here, the passionate attachments we women form with friends, first when we’re young, later on, throughout our lives, the way we measure our lives against those of our friends, the way our friendships support and sustain us and the way they can grow stale, can wither with time or distance or achievement, or die sudden deaths from envy or betrayal. Not to mention the way we never, no matter what, forget our first best friends.

The unnamed narrator of Swing Time lives in one of London’s depressing housing projects.  She meets the girl who will become her best friend, a pretty child named Tracey, also the denizen of a housing project, when she’s seven years old, at an after school dance group. “There were many other girls present,” she tells us, “but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas.” Each girl has one white and one black parent. The narrator’s mother is black, a Jamaican immigrant bent on climbing up and away from the projects through education and discipline, her father a white postal worker with little ambition beyond caring for his daughter. Tracey’s mother is white, permissive, free-spending, imbued with bad taste, and determined to see Tracey, who has talent as a dancer, become a star. Tracey’s father, who rarely comes to see his wife or his daughter, is a gambler and petty thief; he’s been in prison, but Tracey boasts when he’s absent that it’s because he’s a back-up dancer traveling with Michael Jackson.

The narrator shares Tracey’s love of dancing, though not her talent. No matter. Together they bond over dance VHS tapes, spending endless hours watching Fred Astaire and other hoofers do their routines. To both girls, it seems that their friendship is forever. But time and the differing aspirations of their mothers intervene. Tracey becomes not a star but a minor chorus line dancer and the narrator, after attending university, becomes the personal assistant of a famous singing star, an international celebrity patterned on Madonna and named Aimee.

Along the way the narrator will have boyfriends — I especially liked her college beau Rakim, who wore “skinny dreadlocks to his shoulders, Converse All Stars in all weather, little round Lennon glasses.  I thought he was the most beautiful man in all the world. He thought so, too.” She will travel, with Aimee, to distant places. New York offers to her “her first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in our curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons.” Gambia, where do-gooder Aimee wants to establish a girls school, offers “polygamy, misogyny, motherless children (my mother’s island childhood, only writ large, enshrined in custom).”  

Along the way, the book will offer perceptive reflections on race and class, plans will be realized and thwarted, there will be scandals and betrayals, babies dubiously adopted, lovers lost and stolen, and friendships that teeter and totter yet offer identity and belonging in a world that rarely does. This is an action-packed cinematic novel that also thinks hard on its swiftly running feet.

7 Top Food & Wine Books Of 2016

No matter how many recipes you can access online, there’s nothing quite as satisfying in the kitchen as having a real cookbook at your side, while you make your first or fiftieth creme brulée or a new roast chicken dish.

So think cookbooks as Christmas gifts, and don’t leave yourself out! Here, we have the pleasure of presenting you 7 reviews by book critic and essayist, FOF Annette Gallagher Weisman.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is an award-winning essayist and a longtime member of the National Book Critics Circle. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has written for numerous publications including the St. Petersburg Times, edibleASPEN, TheWineBuzz, Cincinnati Magazine, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Town & Country, People, and in the U.K. Vanity Fair and Over21. Annette received an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_COOKING FOR JEFFREY
by Ina Garten

Clarkson Potter. 258 pp.

It’s that time of year when celebrity chefs come out with their latest cookbooks. Ina Garten, one of the most beloved cooks of our time, has just published her tenth, Cooking for Jeffrey.

Jeffrey, as her fans know, is Ina’s husband, the most affable of men who loves to run errands for his wife. Whether in Paris or the Hamptons, Jeffrey can be seen on her television show, the Barefoot Contessa, shopping for a special wine or cheese and coming home with his prize as delighted as a man can be to have accomplished his mission.

As well as the many beautiful food shots by Quentin Bacon, there are some personal photographs. One of them shows Ina and Jeffrey on their wedding day exuding the kind of joy and happiness they emote together on television. Cooking for Jeffrey also includes tales from their happily-ever-after marriage and recipes for his favorite dishes including Filet Mignon with Mustard and Mushrooms, Skillet Roasted Lemon Chicken and Raspberry Rhubarb Crustata.

Ina’s new television series is also called Cooking For Jeffrey. Both the cookbook and the new series are a love letter of sorts to a man to whom Ina has been married for 48 years… “My most constant and appreciative audience has been my sweet Jeffrey.”

Just reading through these easy to make recipes makes me want to say “I’ll have what he’s having!”

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_APPETITES
by Anthony Bourdain

Ecco. 290 pp.

In August of 2000, Anthony Bourdain’s controversial memoir Kitchen Confidential brought shock and awe to the food world. Since then he’s written many books, both fiction and nonfiction.

Appetites is Bourdain’s 13th book – a cookbook with the focus on comfort food that’s full of the irreverent talk he’s known for. He doles out plenty of advice too, as when making Eggs Benedict, “Toast your goddamn muffins.” Bourdain is both entertaining and informative with comments like “Caesar Salad is of Mexican origin.” And just when I am thinking – really? he adds “I bet you didn’t know that.” In fact, going through his recipes, I get the feeling Bourdain is shadowing me, and if I don’t shape up, he’ll ship me out of my own kitchen!

Seriously, reading this conversational-style cookbook is like having a friend tell you exactly how things should be done and how not to screw up. The brilliant photographs by Bobby Fisher include many candid shots such as Bourdain sitting on a closed lid toilet seat eating a sandwich or feeding linguine to the elegant Chef Eric Ripert who is wearing a badass T-shirt. But the recipes alone are worth the price of the book, from Macaroni and Cheese to British Style Pheasant with Bread Sauce and a pullout illustrated guide to Bourdain’s Perfect Burger.

Anthony Bourdain is an edgy, authentic, and likeable human being. Read him and laugh!

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE LONDON COOKBOOK
by Aleksandra Crapanzano

10 Speed Press. 352 pp.

Let’s travel across the pond to a city best known for its gourmet food. You might be thinking Paris. But, no, I mean London. Who knew a country once known for its bangers and mash and nondescript looking dishes is now considered by Aleksandra Crapanzano to be “the gastronomic center of the world.”

That may seem to be going a little far, but the world-class restaurants and other establishments serving specialty foods and beverages featured in The London Cookbook confirm that statement. Crapanzano shows us that this sophisticated, hip and lively city is undergoing a culinary rebirth.

Restaurants such as Ottolenghi, Clos Maggiore and Trullo showcase over 100 recipes that make one salivate. Some are a bit involved for the home cook, but others are relatively easy to make such as The River Café’s signature Crab and Raw Artichoke Salad or St. John’s Plaice, Salsify, and Capers. The superb desserts include Tom’s Kitchen’s Baked Alaska and Brasserie Zedel’s Bavarois Framboise, which are followed by yummy cocktails in the back pages.

It’s obvious that Crapanzano knows the increasingly diverse London dining scene inside and out. In The London Cookbook she describes in an engaging way the history of British food, the ingredients used in each recipe, as well as personal details about the chefs – a touch of humanity that runs throughout the entire book.  In fact, if you have a friend who is a professional chef, he or she, along with home cooks would appreciate owning this cookbook.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE 24 HOUR WINE EXPERT
by Jancis Robinson

Abrams Image. 112 pp.

Want to become a wine expert overnight without wading through books that double as doorstops? Jancis Robinson, a well-known wine critic, writes prolifically about the subject and is esteemed by wanabee sommeliers. Yet her latest book is for non-experts, the average wine lover who, after reading it, will feel more comfortable about selecting a wine in a restaurant and in a wine store.

Although small in size, The 24 Hour Wine Expert is jam-packed with useful information. Chapters include How to Taste, Ten Ways to Pick the Right Bottle and Matching Wine with Food. Last year, the 4th edition of Robinson’s tome The Oxford Companion to Wine was published – required reading by serious students. However, this tiny primer is an easy read and a user-friendly guide for anyone who loves to drink wine.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_DINNER AT THE LONG TABLE
by Andrew Tarlow & Anna Dunn

10 Speed Press. 336 pp.

Restaurateur, chef, and publisher of Diner Journal Andrew Tarlow and Anna Dunn his editor-in-chief have written a cookbook that celebrates special occasions and the art of slow living. It is organized around 17 menus representing the essence of good food, such as Ragu, a sauce that takes a weekend to make. As with other meals, Ragu is described poetically. “Serve it in the afternoon, when you can still glimpse low angular light arching through the window.”  

Tarlow and is wife Kate Huling have six restaurants, a hotel, a bar, and a bakery, all in Brooklyn, New York. At Diner, their first restaurant, there was a long table at the back where about 20 people who had worked hard in helping the restaurant get started sat around for a celebratory meal together.

Dinner at the Long Table is a big thank you to all the fans and supporters who helped make their restaurants successful. It’s also for those of us who truly love to cook, preferably without time constraints. Dishes such as Rabbit & Chorizo Paella, Roasted Leg of Lamb Dressed Down with Zest, and Cassoulet are the kind of meals to be savored, but not the kind you can whip up in 30 minutes after a busy day at the office.

There are, however, some recipes that can add a little zing to your culinary life without going to too much trouble. But this cookbook is not for cooks in a hurry; rather, it’s a book about love, about taking the time to prepare a satisfying meal for friends and sitting down with those loved ones around your table, or mine.  

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_A NEW WAY TO DINNER A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead
by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs

10 Speed Press. 288 pp.

Food 52’s cookbook A New Way to Dinner is perfect for the person who likes to make lists and be organized. I mean really organized. In fact, thinking of all the work that went into this comprehensive cookbook makes me tired.

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, co-founders of the online home destination Food52, will plan a week’s worth of meals for you, supply you with grocery lists, and provide strategies for selecting meals you can prepare in advance. Divided into seasonal recipes, you’ll find these techniques and more, such as cooking timelines and how to mix and match food with sauces (almost like clothing), for first one meal and then another.

Hesser and Stubbs have put a tremendous amount of thought and personal experience into writing a cookbook that will make the home cook’s life easier. By taking their advice and doing some planning and preparatory cooking on the weekend, you can quickly put together meals during the week to come. Even if you’re like me, and get an adrenalin rush from winging it using ingredients I have on hand, you’ve got to admit Hesser and Stubbs are on to something. Their cookbook has so many inspiring recipes too, such as Chicken Cutlets with Charmoula and Preserved Lemon, Frittata with Peas, Spring Greens, and Ricotta and Lemony Pasta with Asparagus, as well as useful tips.

Whether you need a little structure or a lot in planning meals for the week ahead, A New Way to Dinner could be your new best friend.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_AMARO: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas
by Brad Thomas Parsons

10 Speed Press, 280 pp.

Amaro (plural amari) is the Italian term for bitters. Reading Brad Thomas Parsons’ Amaro has shown me how ignorant I was about the breadth of this genre of herbaceous liqueurs; that there’s a whole world out there of bittersweet aperitifs and digestifs that I, and maybe you, have been missing out on.

These drinks are not all as bitter tasting as Fernet-Brancas or Negronis either. Take Aperol, an orange liqueur owned by Compari but not as bitter. An Aperol Spritz is easy to make, low in alcohol, and so popular in Italy it may as well be the national drink.  Sipping this pretty orange-flavored Spritz, makes me feel as if I am sitting in a small ristorante on the Amalfi Coast or some other sunny clime.

Amaro is so versatile it can be a digestive aid, used as a hangover helper, or enjoyed as part of a cocktail. But before we get to the more than 100 recipes with accompanying color photographs by Michael Graydon and Nicole Herriot, Parsons first takes us on an informative tour of Italian bars, cafes and distilleries.

With names like “Hanky Panky” and “Exit Strategy,” even making these drinks sounds like a fun way to liven up one’s evening. Amaro is the perfect gift for the cocktail enthusiast who wants to expand their repertoire, as well as the bar professional.

Keep Reading…

12 Top Food & Wine Books Of 2015

No matter how many recipes you can access online, there’s nothing quite as satisfying in the kitchen as having a real cookbook at your side, while you make your first or fiftieth crème brulée or a new roast chicken dish.

So think cookbooks as Christmas gifts, and don’t leave yourself out! Here, we have the pleasure of presenting you 12 reviews by award-winning essayist, FOF Annette Gallagher Weisman.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is an award-winning essayist and a longtime member of the National Book Critics Circle. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has written for numerous publications including the St. Petersburg Times, edibleASPEN, TheWineBuzz, Cincinnati Magazine, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Town & Country, People, and in the U.K. Vanity Fair and Over21. Annette received an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont.

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[GIVEAWAY & REVIEW] Linda Wolfe’s Fall Reading List

Autumn is cornucopia time in the book world. Publishers’ lists are crammed with a harvest of the latest efforts of the big guns and the debut works of promising newbies. I’ve been enthralled, educated, amused, and moved by a great many of the books I’ve read this season. And here are some of the ones I enjoyed or wondered at the most.

KEEP READING AND ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF ONE OF LINDA’S FALL PICKS!

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Linda Wolfe’s Summer Reading List

I’m in as much of a hurry to get out and enjoy the summer weather as you probably are.  But I wanted to tell you, at least briefly, about some of the summer books I’ve found of particular interest this year.   Some of them are what’s traditionally called “beach books,” others, more thoughtful, will make for good company on a shady lawn or, when you come home tired and sweaty, to devour in the air conditioned bliss of your bedroom.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

GREY
by E.L. James
Vintage Books

In Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James’s Jane Eyre for the 21st Century, the author introduced us (and apparently the entire rest of the world)  to Anastasia Steele, a blushing heroine as innocent as Bronte’s Jane, albeit rather more steely, as per her name, and to millionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey, James’s  take on Bronte’s brooding, dangerous-seeming romantic hero, Mr. Rochester.  But this sullen hero likes to beat the women he loves with a riding crop after screwing them.  Hard. Or gag them or put them in handcuffs.   Anastasia told her side of the story in the three books that comprised Fifty Shades.  In Grey, Christian gets to tell his – in what one can only hope will be just this one book.

Poor Christian, it develops, is always berating himself for his naughty sexual habits and talking to his unnerving prick for standing up when he thinks about Ana, especially Ana on her knees. No matter how hard he tries, his prick won’t let him stop thinking about her.  Of course, as who doesn’t know by now, Ana will eventually bring her emotionally stunted and, let’s face it, weird beau to his knees, making him realize he can’t possibly live without her, and therefor is willing to reform his wicked ways. He may even have to allow her to touch him when having sex!

We know the story already.  There’s nothing new here.   The book is not nearly as erotic as Fifty Shades, and given a hero who is forever talking to that ill-behaved thing in those tight-fitting trousers that Ana quite admires, it’s silly as all get out.

 

LANDFALLS
by Naomi J. Williams
FSG

This thoroughly engrossing novel, which will be coming out at the beginning of August,  is by a debut author who, after years of work finally finished, and is now publishing her very first book — at the age of fifty.  If anyone can be called fifty and truly fabulous, it’s Williams.  Her Landfalls is a historical novel that’s almost as original in its execution as the Cromwell novels of Hillary Mantel, and indeed, like Mantel’s books, can rightly be celebrated as a successful attempt at redefining the historical novel.

Landfalls tells a story the French know well, but one which is largely unfamiliar to most of us in America.  It’s the story of Lapérouse, the navigator sent in the late 18th century on a voyage round the world to explore and map the same Northwest and South Seas regions that the ill-fated British Captain Cook had visited.  The expedition was funded by the French partly in the hopes it would open up new trade routes, but also to add to the glory of France, for it was to be a unique scientific expedition.  (Think NASA and the race to the moon.)  Lapérouse, the captain and an admiral in the French navy, took along with his crew, an astronomer, a geologist, a botanist, three naturalists, three illustrators, two medical men, and two scientifically trained chaplains.

What makes the book so original is that Williams’ has framed her story as a series of memoirs told in the voices of not just the famed captain, but of many of those scientists, and even some of the natives the expedition encountered.  Each chapter takes place at a different stop the ship made as it progressed, and what happens is chronological, though each narrator takes up the next event on the long and troubled voyage.

The tale is filled with adventure, suspense and heartbreaking tragedy.  The writing is superb, the characters unforgettable.  Indeed, the book is so brilliant it’s my choice for the Best Novel of 2015.  At least so far.

 

THE RIVAL QUEEN
by Nancy Goldstone
Little Brown

For those of you who like their history unadulterated by the novelist’s penchant for inventing dialogue but enjoy a nonfiction book that’s as engrossing as fiction, The Rival Queens will be a real treat.  Nancy Goldstone, who with her husband, Lawrence, wrote Out of the Flames, one of my favorite books and one which I repeatedly purchase as a gift for friends, has now written an equally mesmerizing tale – that of the 16th century French queens, Catherine de Medici and her daughter, Marguerite of Navarre.

What with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, not to mention four seasons of the TV drama The Tudors, most of us are pretty much up on the history of  Henry’s VIII’s antagonistic, regal daughters, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and her Catholic sister, Queen Mary, who became known as Bloody Mary.  The story of the tortured mother-daughter relationship of Catherine and Marguerite is another French story not much known to Americans, but one that is every bit as fascinating as that of Mary and Elizabeth.

Catherine was a Mommie Dearest to beat all hateful mothers, and Marguerite, known as Margot, was a dutiful daughter who suffered terribly at her hands. When she was fourteen years old, her mother forced her, though she was a devout Catholic and in love with another prince, to marry her much older cousin, the Protestant Henri of Navarre.  Margot spent the night before her wedding on her knees, tearfully begging her mother to change her mind.  But the wily Catherine insisted on the marriage and then, five days after the Paris wedding, to which Henri had brought a large number of his Huguenot nobles and friends, arranged to have the entire wedding party and some five thousand French Protestants, massacred.

It was a hell of a way to begin a marriage.  And married life went downhill from there, as – natch — did Margot’s relationship with her mother.  But amazingly, Margot grew up to become her own woman, an entirely free spirit renowned for her independent thinking, her courage in the face of many terrifying events, and her defiance of the malignant woman who had given birth to her.  The Rival Queens is a mother-daughter story like none other, a story filled with ambition, espionage, and treachery, and Goldstone tells it with a verve that keeps the pages flying.

MISLAID
by Nell Zink
Ecco

The ballsy, original Nell Zink, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper hit it right out of the ballpark at first up, is back with another irreverent, entertaining, although somewhat less successful, novel.  Mislaid is the story of  Peggy Villaincourt, a naïve, gay undergrad at a women’s college in Virginia, who has an affair with one of her teachers, Lee Fleming, a poet who is also gay.  Older and highly narcissistic, Lee somewhat reluctantly marries Peggy after he gets her pregnant. The couple engage in straight sex, which is good for a time but soon becomes unfulfilling.  Worse, in the entitled manner of the worst of 1950s husbands, Lee wants Peggy to be a house slave, to do all the childcare and to cook and clean for his coterie of hard-drinking visiting poets.  Besides which, he’s screwing some of them.

Peggy eventually flees, managing to take with her Mireille, her three-year-old daughter, but having to leave behind with Lee her first born, five year old Byrdie.  Lee wants his daughter back, and in order to hide from him, fair-skinned Peggy figures out a way to make her and blond, blue-eyed Mireille adopt new identities.  They will pass as  African-American – not so unbelievable as you might think, given that back in Virginia’s history there was the “one drop rule,” the pervasive idea that even one drop of black blood in a person’s ancestry meant they were black, whatever color they looked .  Living happily in their new identities, Peggy and Mireille set up home in a place where Lee would never think to took for them, an abandoned shack in a poor, black neighborhood deep in the woods.

Zink milks this odd situation with some clever and wry observances about race in America.  But after a while she begins to seem bored with her story, and races through time and adventures until, landing with a thud in the 1980s, she reunites son and daughter in a series of wild druggy encounters during their college days. The idea seems to have been to play on   Shakespeare’s comedies about disguised twins who are eventually reunited,  but Zink, being  no Shakespeare, (who is?),  isn’t quite up to the task.  You’ll laugh in many places, but you’ll wish the author had taken a bit more time to write descriptively about and make more credible some of her wacky far out scenes.

 

I SAW A MAN
by Owen Sheers
Talese (Doubleday)

In I Saw a Man, British poet and winner of many prestigious literary awards Owen Sheers, tells the tale of Michael Turner, a British print journalist whose beloved wife Catherine, a broadcast journalist, has been killed by an American airstrike while covering a story in the Middle East.  Michael, who lives in Wales, cannot get over the loss of his wife; his grief is like a shroud, he is wrapped up in it, and Catherine virtually haunts him.  Still, he has been trying to come out of months of despair, at least to the extent of starting a new life in London, and making friends with his neighbors.

The book opens with a teaser: in the very first paragraph Sheers tells us that one hot August day Michael goes into the home of the neighbors to retrieve a screwdriver he had lent them, and something happens that changes all of their lives.  What it is remains a mystery for a big chunk of the narrative, a device that to my mind reeked of the canned advice given to novice writers in creative writers programs, i.e., hook your reader from the start with something suspenseful. I was hooked, but as the first half of the book dragged on without revealing what happened, I became irritated.  Especially when Sheers described the writers Michael admires as, “Salter, Balzac, Fitzgerald, Atwood.”  Salter?  Salter’s a decent writer but he hardly belongs to the company in which Sheers, rather pretentiously, placed him. My irritation grew when Sheers described Michael as having made a pile of money by writing a book about two brothers raised in New York’s Hispanic ghetto that became an international bestseller, a highly unlikely outcome for a book on that subject, no matter how brilliantly written.

But I stuck with Michael and the book, and I am glad I did.  In time, the withholding Sheers comes around to revealing the thing that changed so many lives on that hot August day, and the ways in which those lives have been irrevocably altered.  The “something” turns out to have been something Michael did.  It is something that has made him feel so deeply ashamed and guilt-ridden that it has put him on a par with a latecomer in the tale, the guilt-ridden American pilot who operated the drone that struck down Catherine.  Now, the book moves ahead more swiftly, the characters become ever more fascinating, and Sheers raises profound questions about friendship, grief, and responsibility,

It takes the author a while to stop playing games with his readers, but once he does, he makes I Saw A Man a rewarding work, filled with surprises and fueled by passion.

 

Masters At Work by Linda Wolfe

Masters of the art of fiction – or perhaps I should say the craft of fiction, for it is these authors’ mischievous craftiness that accounts for a great deal of the delights of their new works. Me, I couldn’t be happier. New literary voices are all well and good but oh, to read again an author you have loved for years and find that she or he is still writing up a storm! That’s not just happiness, that’s joy.

Want to win a copy of one of these books? To enter to win, comment below by answering the question:

 Which of these books do you want to read and why?
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{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices Part IV

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS
by Miriam Toews

McSweeney’s. 317 pp.

Canadian writer Miriam Toews is another author with an inimitable dazzling voice, one in which she can write about sorrow in a way that makes you laugh, even as you feel tears surging behind your eyelids. At one point in this novel of two sisters, Yoli, the younger of the pair, reads the opening of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover to her depressed and suicidal older sister, Elfrieda: “Ours is essentially a tragic age,” Yoli reads, “so we refuse to take it tragically. The catclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” Yoli’s goal is to inspire Elfrieda to just get on with her life, to scramble over the obstacles. But the medium is the
message here. Refusing to take tragedy tragically is Toews’ modus operandi as a writer.

Elfrieda is a highly successful concert pianist. Yoli is an unsuccessful writer of bad YA novels. She is in debt, separated from her husband and two children, and has been having a lot of unsatisfying casual sexual encounters. Her latest lover, Radek, a sad-eyed Czech violinst, is “very pale with black wiry hair that covers his entire body. …I admire him for not burning it or ripping it all away like North Americans who are terrified of hair and fur in general.”

sisters

Nevertheless, it is Yoli who has been spared the family curse of depression. When the book opens, Elfrieda, who has attempted suicide several times in the past, has just swallowed a large amount of pills. Found unconscious by the girls’ mother, she has been rushed to a hospital where, unfortunately as far as Elfrieda is concerned, she has been revived. But another suicide attempt is still very much on her mind when Yoli arrives to sit by her side. “After she’d been moved from the emergency ward to the psych ward,” Yoli tells us, “They’d found her lying on the floor bleeding from her head and clutching her toothbrush in her fist the way you’d hold a paring knife if you were just about to plunge it into someone’s throat.” Elfrieda means business, and Yoli must do all she can not just to keep her sister alive, but to make her want to stay alive in the future.AUTHOR2

Yoli wisecracks her way through her shared past with Elfrieda and their present cataclysms and somehow manages to bring her sister back from the abyss – from the kinds of sorrow we all have, and which we all must endure.

The novel is fresh and sassy, and the two sisters feel like friends you’ve always wished you knew.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices Part III

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.

Untitled-1
THE WALLCREEPER
by Nell Zink

Dorothy, A Publishing Project. 193 pp.

It’s not often one comes across a novelist with a voice as offbeat and altogether original as Nell Zink’s. She writes as if she’s fencing — her sentences feint, thrust, parry, leap, and time after time take a jab that goes right to its target: your gut. She’s been writing for years, but what she wrote was what she calls “impromptus,” communications which she merely sent to friends –“long involved things,” she says, “like Viennese-style operettas and entire novels just to illustrate points in conversation.AUTHOR

It was only at the urging of one of those friends, her fellow bird lover, Jonathan Franzen, that she wrote the first draft of The Wallcreeper; its life began as an impromptu for him. I don’t buy the impromptu thing. Zink’s paragraphs may move with the zing of sudden thoughts, but the sentences have been chiseled, the words curated. Here she is on spotting cranes: “They were sock puppets with red heels.” And here she is on seeing geese: “They passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.”

Did I say that she’s not just good at descriptions, but she’s hilariously funny? Here’s Zink on marriage:

“Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out.” And here she is on pregnancy – it’s “one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk.”

Her narrator, Tiffany, is a newlywed. Working at a low-level typing job in a pharmaceutical company, she latches on to Stephen, a scientist at the company who has just received an offer for a better position in Europe. After a three-week courtship, the pair marries – Stephen because he doesn’t want to be in Europe all on his lonesome, and Tiffany because she believes having a man to be dependent on will bring her happiness. Alas, it doesn’t work out quite that way. For one thing, Stephen wants things she doesn’t want. Like sex standing up in the kitchen only three weeks after she’s had a miscarriage and her “down there” has not yet healed.

“I was there in a state of mournful passivity while he knelt down and licked me,” Zink writes, “touching my asshole rhythmically with one finger and petting my thigh in counterpoint. I felt sad. His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake.”

Still, that’s not the worst of it. Tiffany thinks maybe she’ll feel better about the encounter once they progress to intercourse. “However, that was before he entered my butt with the rest of his hand followed by his penis and the metaphoric auto-da-fe became a thick one-to-one description of taking a dump.” Stephen comes, “crying out like a dinosaur,” after which Tiffany falls out of love with him, having discovered, “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate.”shutterstock_221547388

Still, she and Stephen stay married. They set up home in Switzerland, then Germany, spend a lot of time pursuing Stephen’s favorite hobby, birding. and even raise a bird together, the wallcreeper. Tiffany is miserable, She becomes a serial adulterer. And although her hope is to become an important player in the environmental field, she isn’t serious about the work it would take, and would rather get her jollies by having affairs with men who are important in the environmental field. Other women, she thinks one night, “were out there somewhere being taken seriously for doing serious work saving nature from whatever, while I studiously fucked not only their husbands but even my own as though miming reproductive acts were my sole aim in life.”

Tiffany eventually gets her act together. She and Stephen break up and she gets a degree in hydrogeology, founds an ecological planning bureau, and goes on to writes papers that have great impact in the field of ecology. It’s an old Women’s Lib story: unhappy housewife finds herself through a career. But, oh, how Zink tells it! Her novel, which will probably teach you a lot about ecoterrorism, and more about birds than you probably thought you wanted to know, is rather like a bird itself: free frying and very far out.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices Part II

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.

Outline
by Rachel Cusk

FSG. 249 pp.

Cusk has attempted a fascinating experiment in this, her eighth novel (she’s also written two excellent memoirs). The novel’s narrator, Faye, is a writer who has been invited to teach a writing workshop in Athens. We learn very little about Faye in the book, other than that her marriage has recently come to an end and that she has two children, but we learn a great deal about everyone she meets on her brief excursion to Greece. There’s the wealthy seductive businessman she sits next to on the plane, who talks intimately about his three failed marriages, his arcane financial doings, his messy quarrels with family and friends, and his hapless schizophrenic son. There’s the dynamic feminist writer, who for years wrote books that were obscure and little noticed, but eventually became a symbol of fulfillment for the women’s movement, achieving a late-in-life fame that has turned her vain and self-important. There is the publisher friend whose beloved book company has tanked, a fellow writer who was recently mugged and beaten so badly that she has lost the sense of who she really is. People tell Faye the stories of their lives, with the emphasis always on relationships between men and women, on marriage and divorce, on love and loneliness, success and failure. Faye merely listens, interjecting enough questions and ironic comments to keep the stories unfolding. Her own story is somehow beside the point—though there is a bit of a “story” when the garrulous businessman puts the make on her.

What distinguishes Outline
is the richness of the author’s imagination—her ability to make characters come alive merely through observation and conversation.

In one of my favorite chapters in the book the narrator asks her students to write something about what they have observed or overheard on their way to class. The assignment provokes revelations and reactions that are utterly stunning. One student, however, objects to the session, feels that nothing useful about writing has been taught, when in fact everything useful has been taught. The students have each “written” a powerful story just by relating what something they saw on their way to school has triggered in them. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like an exciting read to you. But take my word: the book, a work like nothing you’ve read before, is indeed exciting.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over the next four weeks, I’ll introduce you to each of the books.

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