Best of 2012

It’s that time of year when I begin to panic. Yes, panic and it has nothing to do with the holidays. What worries me, causes lack of sleep, and makes me ponder endlessly over a glass of wine (or two)? It’s best of lists. That’s stupid, I know, but here’s the thing — I always look back over the year and think about what happened, good and bad, vacations, time with family and friends, and of course, the books I read. So, to alleviate some anxiety, I’m going to share a best of list with you. Whether you like it or not.

Last year I had this genius idea (I thought it was genius and I’m not taking any feedback on that!:)). Instead of picking a list of say 10 books (how could I pick a number one), I would go month by month and pick the books I liked that month. Now, you may see a book on this list and then look at my review and notice I didn’t rate the book high at the time. The reason I picked it? All gut feeling. I’m telling you which books resonate with me, even months later in some cases, so I can say, ‘You know what, try it.’

January
The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Melanie Clegg
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

February
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

March
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate #1) by Gail Carriger
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (read along, no review)
Changeless (The Parasol Protectorate #2) by Gail Carriger

April
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

May
Blameless (The Parasol Protectorate #3) by Gail Carriger
Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (read along, no review)
Railsea by China Mieville

June
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Heartless (The Parasol Protectorate #4) by Gail Carriger
Timeless (The Parasol Protectorate #5) by Gail Carriger

July
Among Others by Jo Walton
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
In The Woods by Tana French

August
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

September
The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma

October
Death in the Floating City by Tasha Alexander
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

November
The Likeness by Tana French

December
Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

I read more fantasy and less historical fiction than in earlier years. And, as always, I have a few series going — not something that I see changing in the New Year. A good series is this reader’s downfall. It’s interesting how my reading habits change, even over the course of a year. One of the reasons I like to keep lists is to see my progress over a year’s worth of reading, that, and I really do like a good list.

OK, the big question — what did you read this year? Anything memorable, wonderful, something you wish you hadn’t read? Share, share. It’s not as if my to read list is getting any shorter anyway.

Review – The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

Susan Casey is a writer home sick when she comes across a documentary on great white sharks filmed at the Farallon Island. The islands, a bleak outcrop of rocks 26 miles past the Golden Gate Bridge are a dreary, perilous place at the best of times, but for great white sharks, a virtual paradise thick with elephant seals to feast on. When the sharks arrive for what is known as shark season, it becomes a dangerous place for man and beast but shark heaven for those creatures lurking beneath the surface. Casey, along with a few biologists who feel at home on the less than sparse island, becomes obsessed with the place and the sharks.

I love reading about sharks. Any kind of shark species really but the great white has a special allure. Is it the size? They can grow over 20 feet in length and weigh thousands of pounds. The fact that the species is an evolutionary throwback that hasn’t changed much in millions of years may have something to do with it too. For me, it’s more the idea that these sharks have a society, if you’ll humor me, and personalities all their own. Most people don’t think of sharks this way — these are far from cuddly animals — but they exhibit tendencies that can make you wonder. And, let’s face it, we know very little about them or the other creatures that inhabit the cold seas of this world of ours.

The author’s fascination with the sharks was an obvious plus for me. I’m one of those people who watches hours and hours worth of BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery channels programming dedicated to sharks. Air jaws? Sure. World’s deadliest sharks? Yes, please. If you aren’t a huge shark fan, this probably wouldn’t be something to draw you in. But the good news is that Casey, who comes from a magazine writing background, knows how to interest the reader in more than just the sharks. It’s also about the islands, the scientists who call the desolate islands home for months at a time, the seals, the birds, the tourist boats, and of course the sharks.

If you’ve ever had an interest in sharks, this book is a good read. Admittedly, I did have some issues with the author herself and the way I thought she glossed over a few events involving herself and her actions.  But I also understood that maybe not inserting herself into the book anymore than she already had was better for the story.

I’ve noticed that a good portion of my non-fiction reading, and non-fiction books on my list, are based around the ocean — sharks, squid, ill-fated trips to the North Pole. Maybe I should have given marine biology a try in college after all.

The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

By Susan Casey

Henry Holt and Company

ISBN: 9780805075816

4 stars

 

Review – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)

There are books I feel I never adequately describe and think it would be best if I just wrote in ginormous font:

READ THIS BOOK! NOW! GO!

 

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is going to be one of those books so keep staring at those big letters.

Among my friends, The Bloggess is a bit of a hero, mostly because she brought home a giant metal chicken to ring the doorbell. If you don’t know about Beyonce, go here. You see, we have an ongoing joke about chickens which I’m going to decline to talk about because it’s only funny to my friends. Needless to say, we all read her blog and to me, she’s one of the funniest, and honest, writers out there.

This book, which I have been looking forward to for a very long time, was just as funny as I hoped it would be, and in some ways even crazier than I thought. I laughed out loud, giggled, and then cried because I was giggling so hard. I was also slightly grossed out — deer sweaters and vomit. (ick) The chapter on infertility was heartbreaking and real. It’s not something people want to talk about but it’s a part of life and the road to parenthood and she acknowledged it as that.

Being able to laugh at ourselves and the strange lives we all lead is a big part of the book. We all enter adulthood in a convoluted manner and even, and especially, the embarrassing parts that shape us in our struggle to become the people we are. You have to embrace it all.

What are some of the funniest parts?

Well, obviously, Beyonce. The chapter – And That’s Why You Should Learn to Pick Your Battles. What starts as an argument over towels with her husband ends up in the purchase of a giant metal chicken.

The chapter where she describes numerous ways to photocopy body parts and how not to hide those photocopies and or websites you shouldn’t be looking at from human resources – The Dark and Disturbing Secrets HR Doesn’t Want You to Know. Needless to say, any hopes and dreams I ever had of working in HR are now gone. Gone I tell you!

So what do you do when your dog dies? Please don’t answer that it’s only a segue into the chapter – Honestly, I Don’t Even Know Where I Got That Machete: A Comic Tragedy in Three Parts Days. Let me just say we all need a friend to help fend off vultures and help put a beloved dead dog to rest. And the vultures are not metaphorical in this instance, I mean real vultures. This also means I will never be leaving my urban digs for rural Texas.

There’s a chapter called Making Friends With Girls that really made me smile. I’m fortunate in that I have some really wonderful women in my life, even the ones that are clear across the country and in places I don’t get to visit often. But, on the whole, I’m not the type of person that makes friends easily. I’m a nice person and all, I’m just shy. Reading another person talk about making friends was a shining spot in my day that meant I wasn’t the only one that found it hard to talk to people. Even when you know you aren’t the only one, it’s nice to hear it.

I could go on but I prefer not to give the whole book away because you should read it. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in such a long time. And of course, that doesn’t adequately describe the book at all (see above).

Also, The Bloggess is a person you should be reading here too. I want to keep talking but I feel I’ve already gone overboard on the mushy, gushy review part so, carry on. Oh, and read the book!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)

By Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess)

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Amy Einhorn Books

ISBN: 9780399159015

4.75 stars

Review – Blood, Bones & Butter

This book has been on my radar for a while but I never quite got around to it for no other reason than I just didn’t. This happens to me sometimes. So, when it arrived in the mail it was fate, I guess.

Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef but not one that’s been classically trained; in fact, you can probably argue that she hasn’t really been trained at all. Her mother, a woman of French decent, instilled in her a love of all food and the ability to cook it. Up until the age of 12, she had an ideal life growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania punctuated by summer blowout parties and family memories. When her parents decide to divorce, she ends up taking care of herself and finding it not so easy a project. She’s smart but barely finishes high school. She is able to work but can’t seem to hold down a job without getting in trouble. And even though she manages to get into college, she can’t manage to stay there. She takes on catering jobs in all the places she lands, and along the way, realizes this is what she knows, what she can do, and what she wants to do. She wants to feed people and share her food experiences with them.

I was skeptical at first — really the first chapter of this book is setup so sweet that you’re pretty sure she was walking around with rainbows streaming out of her ass. That might sound harsh, but I put this one down a few times only a few pages in wondering exactly what was going on. No one’s life is like that and then it all came to a crashing halt, and not that I felt better, but it felt like a better book. Hamilton is a trained writer, MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, so she knows the tricks and she used them in that first chapter. My favorite parts were the rougher ones though. When she moves to New York for college she takes a job as a waitress and then gets on the night shift where she finds she can make a ton of money. When she ends up in trouble, legal this time, her brother pulls in a few favors to get her out and you see where all of this might go.

The best parts of this book have to do with her time in Italy. Hamilton marries an Italian professor in need of wife to stay in the country, and for whatever reason, she marries him (there is talk of several girlfriends in this book but her sexuality is not explicitly talked about and I don’t feel the need to address it here either other than note this for the sake of non-confusion) and accompanies him back home to Italy every year. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his family at all, but manages to find a place in the kitchen and share her love of food with people she doesn’t know but very much wants to. I didn’t necessarily relate to the family issues though; for me it was the food. We went to Italy on our honeymoon and there are still dishes that I remember so fondly, and yes, I’m sure my recollection is cloudy with wine and love but I wanted to go to those places all over again.

Hamilton is a good writer and she’s able to capture something that we all have memories of, in one way or another, and elevate them to something you want to know more about. Yes, I looked up her restaurant in New York to see what was on the menu because I wondered what a writer talking about food was actually cooking.

I don’t read memoirs, generally, but when I do I tend to prefer ones dealing with food because I think I can relate. I’ve never had aspirations of being a chef, and frankly after watching too many food shows, know I would never be able to even think about it. But this book did make think about food differently and the way it’s intertwined with our lives. This book is not always about cooking and food. In some ways, that comes later to this author, but it’s an interesting look in on a life definitely lived.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

By Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House
ISBN: 9780812980882

3.5 stars

 

Review – Unfamiliar Fishes

In September 2011, I went to hear Sarah Vowell speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I stood in the back and laughed as she read her snarky take on the history of Hawaii. I bought the book that night at one of my two favorite bookstores. Yes, I have two favorites.

In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii.

History can be, and is, strange. I’m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about.  Hawaii is a state I don’t know much about. I’ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I’m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what’s there.

This isn’t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won’t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I’m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Riverhead Books

ISBN: 9781594487873

4 stars

Review – MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

Up front warning, this review will be a gusher. Yes, dear readers, I adored this book. Bertsche is funny, pragmatic (she does research on how to make a friend), encouraging, and in her own way, makes you feel like you too can go out and find a new best friend. Her ups and downs are more than just amusing, they’re painfully real and it’s refreshing to hear — and be reminded — that friendships are not easy. It’s not always friendship at first sight.

When Rachel Bertsche moved to Chicago to be with her long-distance boyfriend, she reveled in the fact they would be together in the same city. While it was wonderful to be with the man who would become her husband, she missed her friends. The ones she could call for a manicure, for brunch, and to complain about nothing simply because she felt like it and it had been that kind of day. Acquaintances didn’t cut it. She wanted a best friend that would listen, comfort, and laugh with her. She went on the hunt — 52 girl dates in a year.

I won’t tell you whether or not she found the one. You must read it for yourself. And I mean that, you must read this book.

The 52 girl dates are a stark reminder we all want something as simple as a friend and that it’s not always so simple to find a friend. It doesn’t happen overnight and requires work to connect with people. Facebook makes it seems as though we’re all friends but it’s not true. Friends are the ones that listen, encourage, and see you for who you are — they aren’t the like button.

This book also made me think about my friends. I don’t have a huge circle, I never have I prefer small, but they’re wonderful people. I have one who will be leaving for the west coast soon, I’ll miss her dearly, but she’s marrying a fantastic man and I couldn’t be more thrilled for her. I have others that live in far off states that remind me distance really is just a word some days. I’m incredibly thankful for the ones that find me funny and not crazy when I write an email to them laying out all the things that can happen to us while traveling in Ecuador. I’m thankful these people still boarded a plane with me and am so very thankful when I look back at all those photos and remember the time we had. There’s the one that gets me out of my house to swim and drink coffee and talk about nothing and everything. Above all, there’s my sister who will always, always be my favorite girl.

All these people make my life better in some way. I can see why Bertsche took on the task. We all need someone to laugh with, cry with, and travel with. Life is better with friends.

Go read this book. Not only will you be entertained but you’ll be left with a warm feeling about who we are as people. We’re all very much alike even when we don’t want to admit it. We all want and need friends.

If you want to know more about Bertsche, visit her blog MWF Seeking BFF. This is actually how I found out about the book many months ago. I’ve kept reading simply because she really is an entertaining writer. I’m looking forward to her next adventure.

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

By Rachel Bertsche

Random House

ISBN: 9780345524959

4.75 stars

Review – The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

I read several reviews of this book, put it on my list, and promptly forgot about it. Unfortunately, this happens with many of the books I put on my list. They linger. Fortunately for The Poisoner’s Handbook, I came across it while scanning the shelves at my favorite bookstore one afternoon. It’s a fascinating recounting of the beginnings of the coroner’s office in New York City during Prohibition.

In a city full of corrupt officials, one man manages to change the face of detective work, create what many might consider to be the modern medical examiner’s office, and invent ways to detect even the smallest amount of poison to prove murder. The story of Charles Norris is interspersed with his cases — cases that all have one tie — poison. Before his work as medical examiner, poison was easy to acquire, easy to use, and very difficult to detect. That soon changed when Norris’s methods were put to use.

What surprised me most was just how much poison was a part of everyday products: cosmetics, medicine, and in the case of radium, even considered healthy. People drank it which baffles me. Even Marie Curie used to carry a small vile of radium in her pocket believing it was completely harmless. I found the story about the women working in the clock factory painting watch faces with radioactive paint for the men on the battlefield especially fascinating. What happened to the women was absolutely horrific and the work of Norris and the men in his office to find out what was happening to them was sort of heroic in a way.

A good portion of the book focuses on alcohol and it’s replacements during Prohibition. What people will drink for a high is both disgusting and interesting. I would never in my wildest dreams ever even think of sniffing the stuff let along drinking it. It was a crazy time and I loved the fact that the New York Medical Examiner argued for a repeal of Prohibition in order to save lives. He was right; knowing that if alcohol didn’t once again become legal, more deaths would occur. Many of the people dying were not hard drinkers but casual ones trying to brew up something for a few nips here and there. Crazy times.

I found this a great read and Blum manages to take a subject that could easily get very boring and dry and intersperse it with unbelievable stories that make you wonder if you’ve accidentally picked up a fiction novel. If you’re looking for something different but very informative, pick up The Poisoner’s Handbook. One word of caution though — you don’t want to read it while eating, descriptions of certain poisons and their effects can be rather off-putting.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-1-59420-243-8

4.25 stars