Carol Colitti Levine’s
Faves since Y2K
Golden Hill, Francis Spufford
Manhattan 1746. Richard Smith, a young handsome man, appears at a counting house after a long voyage from London. He has a note for an extremely large sum to be paid to him in sixty days. Everyone is wary because his plans for the money are secret. Smith finds New-York gritty and dark where a sense of morality seems out of place. During the days he awaits payment, Smith has many misadventures as a result of bad luck and bad choices. Especially his love for a combative clever girl. But in the end. He rights some wrongs. Historical redemption.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith
Layered literary canvas. Beautifully written history which brings the reader into the art guilds of the Netherlands in the 1600’s, of which Sara de Vos is a rare woman member. It then takes us to New York’s gritty Brooklyn & its isolated rich Upper East Side in the later 1950’s. And finally to Australia in 2000. The stories are built in coats of oil colors covering centuries. Sara’s last painting is a masterpiece of an homage to all of the lives affected by her works.
News of the World, Paulette Jiles
A short sweet novel. Jefferson “Captain” Kidd reads the news of the world, literally, to small town Texas folk in the 1870’s. The gentleman widower rides on horseback from town to town regaling people with tales from around the world. He is a welcomed attraction. Intellectual, articulate, well-mannered. At one stop he accepts a mission from the local authorities to return a 10-year old white girl to her family. Johanna was captured by the native Kiowa Indians as a child, spent her formative years living amongst them and considers them her family. Along the way adventures ensue between Johanna and “Captain”. An endearing relationship grows and is beautifully portrayed.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
A magical clockworks metaphor, it’s a tightly wound time piece. Nocturnal wonderment. Transcendent love. Boundless imagination. Morgenstern’s first novel is a tour de force. As you read it, and you must, pay close attention to chapter headings and dates. When I finally got the “Bailey” joke, I laughed out loud. Morgenstern writes with gorgeous detail about clothing design, décor, dance, architecture. Yes. Loved!
The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
This wonderful story draws you up the gangplank of the Oronsay as it sets sail from Ceylon and engrosses until it docks in England in the 1950’s. Three young boys form a tight trio of cast-offs, members of a remote table of secretive passengers adrift in their respective worlds. I’m no fan of cats. But the cats v. dogs metaphor is subtle and beautifully intertwined in story lines portrayed against the dominant backdrop of the ship’s intrigues. A voyage from childhood’s unencumbered innocence to muddled adult memories crashes on the rocks of atonement and forgiveness.
Ondaatje himself is the writer in this cubistic reminiscence.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Every time there is another scandal about bad behavior by sports players at jock-centric universities, this book comes to mind. It is timeless in its depiction of the corruption and greed so epidemic in the culture.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
Period piece set in New Zealand during its 1860’s gold rush. That was not the lure. Yet, once I read the first few paragraphs, I was hooked. Do you usually skim the descriptive passages? Not here. 13 men form a coalition of truth. 3 women matter. An historical magical mystery tour. Life as astrological illusion. Transported.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley
Steampunk as a subgenre of fiction. Fantasy in a Victorian setting, using components of steam powered machinery to bend time and place. Until I read reviews, I’d never heard of it. Despite a lack of context of the literary genre, I loved this novel. Clockworks attract my fascination. Mori, a former Japanese Samurai turned watchmaker in Knightsbridge, London came to life. His relationship with Thaniel, a boring clerk, was real and endearing. His world of future telling and incendiary events captivates. Oxford physicist shakes the fantastical octopus. Different. Unforgettable.
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
In a poignant and important memoir, J.D. Vance tells the story of his Appalachian white working-class life in the context of 2016’s angry crude political mood. Futility is the focus in a tale of the generational subculture of poverty made worse by addiction and abuse. Like Glass Castle and Blood Bones & Butter, Hillbilly Elegy portrays individual triumph over family dysfunction beyond belief. In Vance’s case he makes the miraculous climb to become a Marine, Ohio State grad, Yale Law scholar. Even with all of that, he cannot escape his roots. They remain current in his struggle to overcome bouts of ire at the bleak prospects left to the kin, classmates and community he left behind. Add drug epidemic to the scene as in every small town America today. It puts into sharp focus the reasons for the 2016 election’s desperate yearning for change.
And why Trump won.
Us, David Nicholls
This novel paints a portrait of a modern English family that hit the heart without being maudlin or sappy. A couple gets together for all the wrong yet right reasons at the time. They endure so much and find a kind of love over 20 years. Their son is the cistern that collects all of the runoff and deals with it the best he can. A spare style brilliantly intertwining stories that culminate in the summer of very questionable choices, but make sense in the end. It is laugh out loud funny. Poignant yet not cry out loud sad. Perfect.
Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn
A playful satire of the Man Booker literary prize commitee’s corrupt politics. As a short-lister himself, St. Aubyn takes aim at the process. The novel weaves the stories of fictional 2013 judges and candidates of the “Elysian Prize”, which is of course sponsored by Shanghai Global Assets. Capitalism gobbles art. On every page, St. Aubyn turns a phrase with precision and scandal. He creates passages from each author’s works that parody every modern genre of the day. The ironic twist of fate takes the cake. You can see it coming, but it doesn’t matter. The fun is in the reading. A ludic masterpiece. Makes a cookbook writer very pleased.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Nothing can prepare for the journey designed by Flynn’s cleverly structured story. It is anything but a formulaic plot. From the point of view of each of this couple’s recollections alternately. In the roshomon style. Everyone can relate to many aspects of their relationship. But, definitely not everything. They take it to a new level of complication. It leaves the reader with a conflicted reaction to each of them.
Defending Jacob, William Landay
A legal mystery that gut-wrenchingly explores nature vs. nurture. An horrific family crisis turns blithe normalcy into a twisted tempest of contempt, blame, guilt. A 35-year marriage changes in a day. Regrets. Redemption? Compelling.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Mantel takes us inside Thomas Cromwell and his mature macro worldly view. She changes Cromwell’s voice from first to third to omniscient with a literary facility that transcends tense and time. In doing so, she reduces Henry VIII and the English aristocracy to parochial, debauched, naive pawns. Rings true.
Derby Day, D.J. Taylor
An homage to the Victorian novel. Taylor deftly conjures the genre. He defies any period in his portrayal of Rebecca, the central female figure. She is the epitome of enigmatic evil. Delicious. More Hardy than Thackeray, Taylor paints bleak Lincolnshire countryside mist or decrepit Fitzrovia alley blight with a finer brush than Belgrave’s West End Society.
The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
Runner-up for 2010 Man Booker Prize. It’s 900 pages of a twisted wonderland starring a wicked mother. The Carroll-esque maze of subterranean tales is interspersed with dysfunctional family drama in pre-WWI England. Byatt gets mired a bit in social, political mores of the day. Yet it was a captivating sojourn over long sultry summer nights under the porch light.
Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
Written by a man, the narrator is decidedly feminine. Disconcerting in a good way. New York-phillic, it’s an architectural nod to the landmarks and real estate in their heyday. A slice of late-30’s Village, Jazz, Upper Manhattan Swell Scene. Sparkling twenty-something lives; some that fade with time, others shine. Longed for more Evie, Valentine.
Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
Glass Castle-esque memoir. Gabrielle Hamilton learns butchering and natural cooking from erratic eccentric parents in a ramshackle Pennsylvania silk mill. When she finds herself on her own at 14, she survives by working in catering and camp kitchens from Northampton to New York City. Sporting scars, tatoos, and drug history of a migrant cook, she develops into a wife, mother, featured food writer and James Beard award-winning chef. Her acclaimed East Village restaurant, Prune, opened 1999.
It’s no wonder that Northampton restaurateur Linda Schwartz didn’t recognize her former quirky college line cook from the 80’s.
“After retiring from the restaurant business in the 90’s, Linda Schwartz became a culinary arts professor and enjoyed reading essays by Gabrielle Hamilton, a brilliant young food writer who shared her distaste for pretentious chefs posing at farmers’ markets with baskets on their arms. Schwartz learned that Hamilton had opened a restaurant called Prune in New York and wanted to meet this kindred spirit. The next time she was in the City, Schwartz made a reservation and introduced herself as a fan. Looks of familiarity passed between them. Hamilton shrieked, ‘I worked for you when I was at Hampshire College!’ Schwartz then realized that this was the avant-garde talented line cook who had worked for her back in the day.” -excerpted from Table’s Edge, 2005.
Nobody’s Fool & Everybody’s Fool, Richard Russo
Decades don’t diminish the sequel from the original. Russo has a gift of transporting readers into the everyday life of Americana’s forgotten towns. Main Street, the diner, the tavern as familiar as those of everyman’s childhood home. He creates characters with such depth that they become friends. Their particular speaking styles, idiosyncratic habits, unlikely relationships. The sequel’s Raymer and Charice are not as endearing as Sully, Ruth, Rub, Beryl, Carl. But. As with his classics Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs. It’s hard to let any of them go.