2016: A Year in Books
There are a lot of “Year in Review” pieces floating around the internet, but I don’t want to review my year. 2016 sucked. Books don’t. I don’t want to think about questionable personal decisions, sudden accidents, people who went missing, jobs lost, all of the celebrities who died, or horrible world leaders who came to power. Let’s just not (2017 has to be better—right?!). Instead, let’s focus on perhaps the one good thing that happened in 2016: I read. This year, I made an annual reading goal on GoodReads for the very first time. What can I say? I got caught up in the flurry. All the other kids were doing it! I was feeling bold. I thought, I like books. I like to read. I boldly typed out ’50 books in 2016.’ I’ve always been one for the impossible goal. I rarely hit my target, but it always feels good to aim high.
I discovered so many new writers, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, though the challenge made it all too easy to overspend at the bookshop. In fact, by autumn, I wasn’t budgeting for books at all—buying them willy-nilly whenever I felt a story calling my name. While this is a wonderful state of affairs for growing your personal library, I won’t advise it for budgeters the world over. Nonetheless, here’s a “quick” glance at my reading life in 2016, book by book:
Carol, Patricia Highsmith
Yes, I will admit that I picked up Carol because I loved the film trailer, but can I get some credit for saying that I now want to read all of Patricia Highsmith’s other books? Raves: road trips, 1950’s love affair, and LBGTQ representation.
The 6:41 to Paris, Jean-Phillipe Blondel
When I read the event blurb for Blondel’s talk at Shakespeare & Company, I raced out to snag a copy and cleared my calendar (you can listen to the event Podcast here). I was hooked within the first few pages. The 6:41 to Paris taps into that ultimate breakup fantasy—”You dumped me, but 25 years later, we’re stuck together on a train and you’re really not all that.” Yes. Raves: strangers on a train, bittersweet love, trés Parisien.
The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy
I’m a huge fan of The Dud Avocado (yuuuuuuuuuge), and when I discovered Elaine Dundy’s take on the Mid-Century American gal in London, I knew it must be mine—especially as I was on my way to visit a dear friend in London. Betsy Lou is no Sally Jay, but I enjoyed her humor, and Soho misadventures. Raves: Humor, depiction of the “American Abroad,” 1960s London.
#Girlboss, Sophia Amoruso
I read the entirety of #Girlboss on the Eurostar back to Paris following a London adventure. While I doubt I’ll be opening my own viral eBay shop-cum-Fashion Empire, I did appreciate the honest approach to how to transform a pipe dream into a reality. Raves: Nonfiction, non-pandering Millenial self-help, business inspiration, DIY philosophy.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
A cross between poem and prose, Grief is the Thing with Feathers defies normal classification. Is it fiction? Is it an epic poem? I’m really not sure, but I don’t think it really matters. I loved the way Porter mimicked the rhythmic, tapping twitching of birds. Raves: Unusual style, Ted Hughes connection, one sassy Crow.
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
I popped into Heywood Hill a year or so ago, and the fact that Nancy Mitford once worked there didn’t have much of an effect on me. But that was before I discovered that Nancy Mitford is a goddess. The fact that Mitford modeled her characters in this novel after her own family makes me want to skip on over to a Mitford biography for one of my 2017 reads. Raves: razor-sharp wit, 1930s England, upper class fantasies, hilarious characters.
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
One Nancy Mitford is never enough. Love in a Cold Climate pretends to be about Polly Hampton’s supposed disinterest in love, but let’s be real—it’s all about Cedric Hampton, a distant cousin set to inherit the family manor and title. Raves: Cedric Hampton, Cedric Hampton, Cedric Hampton.
Don’t Tell Alfred, Nancy Mitford
To everyone’s surprise (not mine), Fanny’s become the center of attention in Paris when her husband takes up the post as the new Ambassador. I particularly enjoyed the Parisian flair in this installment of Fanny’s tales, and the fact that the spotlight is finally on our narrator. Raves: Razor-sharp wit, 1960s Paris, Fanny as the heroine!
The Blessing, Nancy Mitford
If you haven’t made up your mind as to whether you should pick up a Nancy Mitford novel, I’ll decide for you. Do it. Nancy is Queen. Here, we meet Grace, a young Englishwoman attempting to bridge cultural the differences and navigating what it means to be an Anglophone in France. Raves: Hilarious depiction of adjusting to life in France, philandering French husbands, sneaky bilingual children.
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
After hearing nothing but Ferrante for months, I finally gave it whirl. The raw force of Ferrante’s narrator can be overwhelming at times. Concise and emotionally fraught, The Days of Abandonment has you wanting to slug the last loser who broke your heart. Raves: Bittersweet love, immediate, almost violently forceful prose, Italian literature in translation.
Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín
My company decided to attempt a book club. Before everyone stopped reading—sadly, the way most book clubs meet their demise—we met virtually to discuss the depiction of the immigrant experience in Brooklyn. Raves: Immersive, descriptive writing style, 1950s Brooklyn and Ireland, bittersweet, love triangles.
Three Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell
I was traveling to Spain for work, and felt like a true jet-setter with Rindell’s second novel tucked under my arm. It helped me imagine I was on my way to lunch with writers and editors rather than organize walking tours. With three different narrating characters, I enjoyed the variety of perspectives. My personal favorite was following Eden Katz. Raves: 1960s NYC, Mad Men for the publishing industry, unexpected ending.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Before we became friends, a girl in one of my college courses had The Lover on her desk the first day of class. After hearing her speak about Duras, I knew we’d become fast friends. Somehow, I put off reading Duras until four years later! Raves: French connection, compelling voice, coming of age story.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller
On my way home from the aforementioned work trip to Spain, my flight got delayed, and I read The Private Lives of Pippa Lee over the 5 hours I spent trapped in the Madrid airport. I particularly enjoyed looking at Pippa’s relationship with her troubled mother, Suky. Confession: I have a thing for mother-daughter relationships gone sour, but my mom and I get on very well. Weird, huh? Raves: Bittersweet, analyzing loss, coming of age, the name Pippa. Pippa!
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
I’m a huge fan of the campus novel, and let me say that The Secret History has it ALL: classics majors run amok, cults, secret societies, college antics galore! Raves: Collegiate characters, campus novel, Classics majors, surprise endings, secret societies.
The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty
While Daugherty has been criticized for not bringing much new information to light in this giant (yuge?) biography, I really did enjoy it. But what can I say? I love Joan Didion. Mention Joan and you can do no wrong. Raves: Palos Verdes, Noel E. Parmentel Jr., Hollywood, JoanJoanJoanJoanJoan.
Just Kids, Patti Smith
I picked this up on my last day in Vienna while browsing the books at Café Phil, and had to forcibly pack it into the bottom of my bag so I’d actually see a bit more of Vienna instead of sitting in the Burggarten with my nose in a book. I loved Smith’s description of finding her way as a young creative. Raves: 1960s and 1970s NYC, artist life, coming of age, rock’n’roll.
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
The Hours hit me in ways I wasn’t expecting. While it’s a relatively short read, I was completely hooked and didn’t want it to end! I loved Cunningham’s evocative style, and memorable characters—including Virginia Woolf herself. Raves: Interconnected narratives, bittersweet, better than the movie.
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride
I’ll admit it. I judged a book by its cover. I saw this cover, and knew I must read it ASAP. The writing style is difficult and unconventional, and it did take me 30 pages to get used to it (I’m not kidding), but The Lesser Bohemians is worth the extra effort! While I normally don’t favor books that make life hard for you, I am always impressed by writers with a forceful vision for both their style and story. I like a writer who can say “Nah, brahh—I do what I want.” Raves: Raw, bittersweet love, London, theater.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
I met a lovely friend when I hitchhiked to Brussels who gave me this book! I finally read it this September while on vacation in Rome. While not highbrow to say the least, it’s a fun vacation read. I particularly enjoyed the links to the 20th Century Fox Production of Cleopatra. Raves: 1960s Italy, Cleopatra, interconnected narratives, Hollywood.
Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim
In Venice, I was more drawn to photographs of the inimitable Peggy Guggenheim than her art collection, so I bought her autobiography. What can I say? I love a sassy gal who does what she wants. Raves: Upperclass Americans abroad, affairs on affairs on affairs, Paris, Venice, NYC, 20th century history, Surrealists.
M Train, Patti Smith
I was hoping this would have the sparkle of Just Kids. It didn’t. That said, I wouldn’t mind being Patti Smith. Jet-setting around the world to escape despair and ennui doesn’t sound half bad. Raves: Book lists, writing style, coffee rituals.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini, John Fante
I always meant to read John Fante’s other books about Arturo Bandini after devouring Ask the Dust during college, and I found a copy of this gem at Berkeley Books of Paris! It was hilarious to see Arturo as a snotty brat. Raves: Little Arturo, immigrant America, bittersweet love, more reasons why winter sucks.
Ask the Dust, John Fante
Arturo Bandini—young writer on the make! An upperclassman loaned me his wine-stained copy on my third week of being a college freshman, and that was that. I knew Ask the Dust was a story I’d keep coming back to. I hated reading this as a junior, when I was forced to analyze every inch of it. However, this year, I felt I finally understood Arturo’s insane responses to his insecurities. Raves: 1930s Los Angeles, DTLA, Long Beach, bittersweet love, writers, coming of age story, 1930s voice.
Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli
Faces in the Crowd is a slow read. I wasn’t thrilled until I was in too deep to put it down. I didn’t find this book enjoyable, per say, but it certainly was thought provoking. Raves: Interesting writing style, interconnected narratives, bittersweet, city life, writers, languages.
Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz is such a babe! For anyone who’s ever lived in Los Angeles, drop everything and READ THIS NOW. Raves: Humorous voice, 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles, Hollywood, day trips, L.A. traffic.
Je T’Aime…Maybe?, April Lily Heise
Guys, my friend Lily wrote a book! A light-hearted, playful read, Je T’Aime…Maybe follows Lily’s romantic misadventures looking for love in Paris. The best part? All of these stories are true. Snag your copy and uncork the vin rouge! Raves: Paris, expats, dating, true tales.
The Girls, Emma Cline
I loved Cline’s exploration of the darkness within female friendships and the desperate urge to be seen and accepted as an insecure teenage girl. Some of us pretend to like Avril Lavigne and some of us join cults (honestly though, can someone tell me why was this cool when I was 11?). Raves: 1960s California, hippies, Manson murders, bittersweet.
Sagan, Paris 1954, Anne Berest
I loved Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, but haven’t had a chance to pick up any of her other books. Nonetheless, this slim book on young Françoise caught my eye. Berest focuses on the young author’s final months of being just any old girl—before her debut caught the world’s attention, and the pressures of fame and success closed in on her. Raves: Unconventional approach, 1950s Paris, Françoise Sagan, writers.
The Graduate, Charles Webb
We’ve all seen the movie and sang along to the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack. Some of you may have even joined me in geeking out over the movie after the movie, but have you read the book that shook up Pasadena in 1963? Do it! It was a quick, enjoyable read, but I will say that Benjamin and Elaine’s relationship makes even less sense on the page (it’s all about Mrs. Robinson). Raves: 1960s Los Angeles, post-grad ennui, coo coo cachoo.
Blue Nights, Joan Didion
Blue Nights discusses Joan’s relationship with her daughter Quintana following her sudden death. Joan is Queen. Raves: Writing style, details of Quintana’s wedding, bittersweet, JoanJoanJoanJoanJoan.
Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer
Frances and Bernard lets us imagine all the what ifs of a romance between pen pals Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. Confession: the turning point was so unexpected that I actually teared up and had to put the book down for a bit. Raves: 1950s and ’60s America, writers, bittersweet, broken hearts.
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s ability to spin magic out of ordinary lives is delightful. Commonwealth follows the consequences of one kiss, and how it changes the lives of two families for decades. I was hooked immediately. The fact that it’s partially set in Torrance, California was pretty cool too. Raves: Franny Keating, Multiple perspectives, patterns and consequences.
Paint It Black, Janet Fitch
Los Angeles, 1980. Josie Tyrell gets a call from the Los Angeles Coroner—is anyone missing? She drives her ratty Ford Falcon to the Coroner’s office, praying it isn’t her mercurial boyfriend Michael. In the months following the discovery of his suicide, Paint It Black examines her grief—her doubt that she ever knew him, as his secrets come tumbling out—and how she connects with Michael’s enigmatic mother, Meredith. I met Janet Fitch in 2007. I was fourteen and trying to decide why exactly I was drawn to this book. It’s one of my favorites. Raves: Los Angeles, Punk culture, Creatives, Poetry, Little Jeanne and Blaise from Montmartre
So there you have it! In the end, I only read 34. Pas mal de tout, if I do say so myself. I’m chipping away at one of my favorite books to welcome 2017 in style, but I doubt I’ll finish by the 31st, alas. For my next goal, I’m going to be a bit more realistic. I’m going to attempt to finish 38 books in 2017. Wish me luck?