Winter

41qcSMwuA5L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_  After experiencing Hawaii’s near-miss apocalypse with the mistaken incoming ballistic missile  warning, the beginning of Ali Smith’s Winter was not as disconcerting as it might have been – her story starts with a floating head. Stranger things have happened. When the line on page 51 stared back with “…are we at the mercy of technology or is technology at the mercy of us?” – the fake alarm prompting phone alerts seemed timely.

Smith’s Winter is not easy to read.  The author has created a mess of madness, with strains of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare weaving through current politics and the state of the world – but perhaps the point is that the world is a mad mess.  References to the British Brexit and the American President Trump’s immigration policies somehow connect to Sophia and her family at Christmas in Cornwall.

The characters include: Sophia, an older woman living alone – except for the floating head who intermittently changes from the innocence of a child to an old man with greens growing out of its ears to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; her son Arthur who seems to be looking for the one opportunity to make his mark through his writing (on a blog) while he fastidiously works at a company responsible for identifying copyright infringement; Lux, Arthur’s Croatian substitute girlfriend – he picked her up at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend when Charlotte unceremoniously dumps him before Christmas; and Iris, Sophia’s sister who in her seventies continues to demonstrate against all the ills of the world – and there are plenty to complain about.

They all meet up at Sophia’s many bedroom house in Cornwall (the floating head is already there).  When Arthur and Lux find Sophia sitting in an overheated kitchen, wrapped in coats and mittens, they promptly send her to bed and send for her estranged sister Iris, who arrives with the groceries.  No one really sleeps and each time the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Sophia relives a past experience through her memories – Scrooge without the ghosts, revealing stormy protests, funerals, and family history.  When Christmas finally arrives, the family dinner is not pleasant.

Smith punctuates this stream of consciousness with asides pointedly critical of the state of the world, as it has become today:

“And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we’ve got reality TV…and soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States…”

“Me, me, me, Iris says,  It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about…”

When all seems so despondent and coldly brutal – the title is Winter, after all  – Smith redeems the morase with some hope, but it is a long time coming.  Sophia and Iris are the political polar opposites, arguing with each other without convincing the other.  But, after they, the others, and perhaps the author, exhaust themselves with dire assessments of the world’s condition, they tell stories and reveal secrets. Reminiscing about the past seems to focus the present and provide some possibilities for “to-day” that will not all end miserably.

Unlike Autumn, the first in her series, this book never warms up (unless it is to signify the horrors of global warming), and it takes longer to connect to both the characters and their message.  Winter is a difficult book, and the New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner says – “…it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway…”  Maybe – or perhaps wait for the Spring thaw in her next book.

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Five Books To Anticipate Reading in 2018

Five Books to Pre-Order for the New Year

Unknown Winter by Ali Smith – available in the United States on January 9th.

If you enjoyed Smith’s first book in this series, Autumn, she follows up with the second in her seasonal quartet – Winter.  In her keynote lecture for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, Ali Smith promised –  “The novel (Winter) matters because of Donald Trump.”  Smith’s second novel in the series is set in the aftermath of Trump’s election; Winter has “four people, strangers and family, {who}converge on a fifteen-bedroom house in Cornwall for Christmas…It’s the season that teaches us survival.”

9780812995664 White Houses by Amy Bloom – available in the United States February 13th

Historical fiction about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press journalist who fell in love with the First Lady and moved into the White House with her and the President.  Hickok was Eleanor Roosevelt’s increasingly confidante, cheerleader and intimate partner.

34888106  The Black Painting by Neil Olson – available January 9th

A wealthy East Coast family faces the suspicious death of its patriarch and the unsolved theft of a self-portrait by Goya rumored to cause madness and death. Art in a mystery thriller.

9780735221925  The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake – available  January 9th

  1. Five parallel stories, from Colonial times to the present, set in Newport, Rhode Island.  Smith weaves lives into “a narrative odyssey that braids together three centuries of aspiration and adversity. A witty and urbane bachelor of the Gilded Age embarks on a high-risk scheme to marry into a fortune; a young writer soon to make his mark turns himself to his craft with harrowing social consequences; an aristocratic British officer during the American Revolution carries on a courtship that leads to murder; and, in Newport’s earliest days, a tragically orphaned Quaker girl imagines a way forward for herself and the slave girl she has inherited…(Kirkus)”

51EOygu5XjL._AC_US218_The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani – available January 9th

Winner of France’s Goncourt literary prize.   Set in an apartment in the upscale tenth arrondissement of Paris, the story “is a compulsive, riveting…exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, and motherhood (Publisher’s Weekly).”   Louise is the perfect nanny to two young children; she cleans, stays late whenever asked, and hosts children’s parties, but as the parents’ dependence on her increases, she has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.

 

 

 

 

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Unknown   Despite the song, the real twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and continue through the eve of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). But the countdown to Christmas may start as early as December 1st if you have an Advent Calendar and sometimes right after Halloween in shopping malls.

With twelve days left, here is a short list of Christmas themed books you might have missed.

  • Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Leviathan

What would you do if you found a notebook in the stacks of a New York City bookstore with a mysterious note, challenging you to solve a mystery?  In this young adult book, the authors of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist create a quirky and delightful story combining a love of books with teenage first love.

Lily, an avid reader and dog walker, has written a set of clues and challenges in a red notebook and left it on her favorite bookstore shelf hoping for the right guy to find it.  Dash (short for Dashiell), a lover of books and yogurt, finds the notebook and they begin passing it between them with clues, sometimes literary, leading each to new places and experiences around the city during Christmas.

  • Agatha Christie Christmas Mysteries

A Christmas family get-together abruptly ends in a murder with Hercule Poirot called in to investigate in Hercules Poirot’s Christmas, and in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (a wonderful BBC audiobook), Poirot finds a scrawled note on his pillow: “DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE WHO WISHES YOU WELL”.  A fun alternative to listening to The Night Before Christmas.

9781509848195  Pablo Picasso’s Noel by Carol Ann Duffy follows the famous painter as he moves through a small town in the south of France on Christmas Eve, drawing the residents and the festive scenes he encounters, accompanied by his small dog.

  • The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus by Dr. Hannah Fry provides mathematical proof of Santa with puzzles and games.
  • Christmas: A Biography by Judith Sanders gives a social historian’s examination of the origins, myths, legends and history of the season.
  • Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive, a funny children’s story based on real events and people, is seen through the eyes of a prim eight-year old girl in a large Edwardian country house.
  •  Christmas Remembered (audiobook) by children’s author Tommy dePaola shares his love for Christmas in fifteen vivid memories, spanning six decades – as a teenager in Connecticut, an art student in Brooklyn, a novice monk in Vermont, and an artist in New Hampshire.

To get to twelve, try some Charles Dickens:  The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, A Christmas Tree, and The Holly Tree – all available on line at Dickens on Line.

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Books of 2017

Top10-2-300x300David Letterman may not have known what he was starting with his top ten list; this Sunday the New York Times not only identified their top ten books of the year, Blake Wilson also wrote “The Top 10 Things About Top 10 Lists” for the second page of the paper.

I’ve read three of the five on the fiction list – and concur – great books.  One I do not plan to read, but will defer from naming it to avoid influencing you.  I may look for the other one.

Since I rarely read nonfiction, I’ve added 5 from my reading this year to round out the list.

New York Times Top 10 Books for 2017

Fiction

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – (informative) read my review here   
  2. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  3. The Power by Naomi Alderman (timely) – read my review here  
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  5. Autumn (read but not reviewed) by Ali Smith

Five More I Would Nominate

  1. Dunbar by Edward St. Albyn
  2. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  3. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  5. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Have you read any of them? What would you add to the list?

 

 

 

 

 

Sourdough: A Novel

51lUUj3WwAL._AC_US218_    Robin Sloan’s Sourdough had me craving for bread as I read the adventurous tale of a young computer geek turned baker.

Although the dough itself is the main character in the novel, Lois Clary expedites its coming of age.  The dough grows from a lump in a crock owned by two undocumented cooks with a take-out business who leave town quickly, to a starring role in a futuristic farmer’s market of experimental foods.  Along the way, Computer Lois finds her calling and is able to use her expertise programming industrial robot arms to streamline the process of baking loaves of bread.

Most of the story is tantalizingly fun, but some conflict is created by the challenge between eating for pleasure and feeding the masses.  It’s Alice Waters vs the scientists, home-grown tomatoes vs nutritious Slurry.  The ending gets a little wild – as yeasty dough can get if left unattended, as Sloan tries to accommodate old world with new age in a strange marriage of breadcrumbs.

This is a book for all the senses: the yeasty smell of the starter dough percolating in its crock; the sounds of the background music motivating the sourdough starter as it whistles and pops through the night; the taste of soft bread in a crispy crust smothered in butter with a sprinkling of salt; the sight of the strange markings on the baked crust, possibly channeling the Madonna on a potato chip; and, finally the squeeze of the dough kneaded into the final heft of a crusty loaf.  You will need some good bread nearby to eat as you read, preferably one with character.

My favorite scene was Lois teaching the robot arm to crack an egg.  Cracking an egg, one-handed, is no easy feat.  Julia Child made it look simple, but have you ever tried it?  One of my favorite elements of satire is the idea of losing weight eating only bread (Oprah, take note – no bad carbs here).  The story spoofs the modern and the conventional – a Lois Club for women named Lois, the nutritive gel replacing real food, the strangely isolating workplace environment, the identify of the mysterious benefactor.

Sourdough, like the bread, has more heft than first appears.  Sloan has filled it with mysterious and satisfying ingredients; let your senses fill up while you read and enjoy.  I plan to bake some bread today.

Related:

A friend was listening to the book on Audible while I was reading it on my iPhone.  When she described how the author incorporated the sounds of the starter dough as it morphed as well as the baker’s music into the reading of the book, it made me want to listen to it.  We also started sharing bread recipes.  I’ve included one of my favorites – here.