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I had a bumber crop of volunteer sunflowers come up in the yard this year. It’s been a lot of fun watching the plants shoot up all summer long. For the past three week, the blooms have been opening up–how we marveled at the slow release of the first one–one by one, and the subsequent appearance of bees, butterflies, and goldfinches have been a welcome next act of the late summer show.
A couple of caveats to kick off this review:
Caveat Number One: There is a very good chance that many of you reading this recommendation will dislike Cousin Henry, but that’s the very reason it makes such a good choice for a book club discussion. Every winter, my club (going two-decades strong, thank you very much) chooses a work of classic literature to discuss over high tea. It’s a lovely escape from the doldrums of the deep winter in Chicago–a special group outing, and a wonderful way to usher in another year of book club gatherings.
Cousin Henry, the titular character in Anthony Trollop’s novel, didn’t garner many sympathetic readers among our group. In fact, the three main characters, each unable to make up their minds to varying and frustrating degrees, had members throwing their hands up in annoyance. I, on the other hand, found it amusing and believable that Henry and his Uncle Indefer could not make up their minds to save their lives, while haughty Isobel stubbornly stuck to her guns (to the bafflement of some in the group.) In all, this book elicited strong opinions, which made for lively discussion.
Caveat Number Two: Cousin Henry is definitely not the book to start with if you’re coming to Trollope for the first time. Start with The Chronicles of Barsetshire series or the terrific How We Live Now, which my book club read a few years ago during the financial crisis, and wow, did that book ever seem contemporary.
All that being said, Trollope is a master when it comes to creating timeless characters, as he taps into human nature with characters that will have you nodding your head in recognition. So it is with Cousin Henry, who makes a life-changing discovery about his recent inheritance and cannot for the life of him decide what to do about it.
Henry’s indecision would seem to run in the family, as his lately departed Uncle Indefer, whose death triggers the story, was no better at making up his mind and sticking to it. Nearing his death, Indefer Jones vacillates over whom to name as heir to Llanafeare estate: either Isabel, the niece he loves like a daughter, or the only male heir, his odious nephew Henry. Days before his death, Indefer changes his mind yet again, and drafts a final will that leaves everything to Isobel. Upon his death, the latest will, rumored to exist, cannot be found and Henry is named inheritor. When Henry discovers the missing will, he slips it back into its hiding place and spends the remainder of this short novel vacillating over what to do. He cannot reveal it and he cannot destroy it, and there lies the crux of this amusing character study.
No; he could not himself destroy the document, though it should remain there for years to make his life a burden to him.
Henry and his uncle, paralyzed by an inability to just-make-a-damn-decision-already and stick to it. Alas, don’t we all know someone like them?
Following the election, I quickly began to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending series of appalling, discouraging, frustrating, and frightening events that typify the current political and social situation. Thankfully, there are lots of resources that have mobilized to help focus resistance and provide individual citizens with ways to make their voices heard.
But I needed a way to make an immediate, personal difference, something that would allow me to channel my frustration and feelings of powerlessness into something positive. I hoped to find a local cause. The universe provided when I learned about organizations that collect hand-knit scarves to give to victims of sexual assault when they leave the hospital. The idea is to give victims something of warmth and comfort to get them home in the immediate, and perhaps give them solace and strength in the longer term. Even if they never wear it, a hand-made scarf can serve as a symbol of support and compassion.
I jumped on the idea. I love to knit because at the end of a project, you have something tangible, beautiful, and best of all, functional to show for it, and while I will never meet the individuals who receive these donated scarves, I’m content knowing each scarf will (hopefully) make a positive and immediate impact on someone’s life, even in this small way.
And so, over this past holiday season, I purchased yarn and scouted for new patterns to try. After I completed the first scarf, I hit a bump in the road when my repeated attempts to contact a well-known local organization met with no response. Once again the universe provided when a friend of mine attended an event at the Illinois Holocaust Museum that was part of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition. There she met someone who works as a crisis counselor for women in the ER, directly following an assault. During her volunteer shift, when this counselor receives a call, she heads to the hospital, where she advocates with the medical staff and law enforcement on behalf of the victim, providing support, counselling information, and items of clothing.
Though I have many personal knitting projects queuing up, I’ll continue to make time to knit scarves to donate and each year, as the weather turns colder, I’ll hand them off to my counsellor friend, with the hope that at worst, each scarf will give comfort to someone at a terrible time, and at best, will never be needed at all.
This is the 24th year running that I have assembled a year-end list of recommended reading. Title links will take you to my full review for each selection. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments or recommendations you’d like to add. I’m always looking for the next great read.
So, in no particular order, here are the books I read last year and recommend to you.
H is for Hawk (2014) Helen MacDonald
Following the sudden death of her father, the author takes on a falconer’s most difficult challenge, to train a goshawk. This transcendent memoir is an honest revelation of love and loss, delivered with rich, moving prose.
Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969) John Steinbeck
Of the books I read last year, East of Eden was my favorite. So, when I learned that author John Steinbeck had kept a writer’s journal in 1951, during the ten months he spent composing the novel, I knew I had to read it too.
In the Woods (2007) Tana French
The writing elevates story, dialog, and atmosphere to deliver a book that satisfies as a character drama wrapped in a mystery.
A Man Called Ove (2012) Fredrik Backman
This book, which I thought was going to be merely an entertaining, light read about a lovable curmudgeon, unexpectedly grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go.
Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (2014) Gillen D’Arcy Wood
This fascinating and immensely readable book explains how the eruption of Mount Tambora on a tiny Indonesian island in 1815 rippled out over the next three years to affect weather around the globe and alter human history in locations as far away as Europe and North America.
The Underground Railroad (2016) Colson Whitehead
An intense and richly rewarding book about a pair of antebellum slaves’ flight to freedom, with twists, turns, and terrible surprises, memorable characters, and masterful prose.
The War That Saved My Life (2015) Kimberly Brusker Bradley
Written with heart, sensitivity and an attention to period detail, this work of historical fiction for younger readers gives a genuine impression of life during wartime in an English coastal village at the start of WWII.
As someone who has logged many miles road tripping America, visiting the birth and resting places of many presidents, I particularly enjoyed hitching a ride with Carlson on his journey through the odd after-life of these dead heads of state.
The Sport of Kings (2016) C.E. Morgan
I’m adding this book to my pantheon of very challenging pleasure reads, alongside Middlemarch (which I didn’t much like) and Moby-Dick (which I loved.) The Sport of Kings will sit on the fence between them, at least for now, as I continue to mull over my reaction to this book.
Britt-Marie Was Here (2016) Fredrik Backman
Britt-Marie is a quirky, extremely well-defined, somewhat rigid, and not completely likable character—and I loved every minute spent with her.
The House of the Seven Gables (1851) Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne’s classic tale of a cursed house, tinged by witchcraft and mysterious sudden death
Pax (2016) Sara Pennypacker
Author Sara Pennypacker and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a Charlotte’s Web for a new generation, a rich experience that will resonate with readers of all ages.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001) Nathaniel Philbrick
Philbrick’s informative and exciting book tells the story of the infamous sperm whale attack and the history of New England’s 19th-century whaling industry with lively and engaging prose.
Telegraph Avenue (2012) Michael Chabon
I’ll admit Telegraph Avenue was a bit of a struggle at first, but thanks to my commitment to book club and faith in Michael Chabon, I settled in to the book and found it a relevant and satisfying read, resulting in an interesting discussion.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble (2016) Dan Lyons
I really got a kick out of this book. Following Lyons on his cockeyed HubSpot roller coaster ride is edifying, surprisingly suspenseful, and thoroughly entertaining.
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer (2016) Fredrik Backman
A deeply moving story that honors the slender ties that bind one’s memory with family.
This beautifully rendered novella about the dimming memory of a beloved grandfather was difficult to finish through the tears in my eyes. With prose that deftly floats between past and present, Backman (of Ove and Britt-Marie fame) works his magic once again, conjuring a life-affirming tale from the struggles of an elderly man to hold his connection to the present by revisiting and letting go of the past. A deeply moving story that honors the slender ties that bind one’s memory with family.
Colson Whitehead is garnering well-deserved kudos for this terrific work of historical fiction about a runaway slave’s odyssey via the Underground Railroad. Cora is a young slave living with few friends and no family on an antebellum Georgia cotton plantation. When Caesar arrives, it doesn’t take him long to peg Cora as a survivor and the perfect partner to make an escape to a better life up north.
The book takes the form of a rail adventure, as the author imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal subterranean rail line with trains, conductors, engineers, and stations. Once off the plantation, we follow Cora and Caesar on their epic adventure, including a pivotal stopover at an idyllic town in North Carolina that may not be what it seems. In pursuit is a ruthless slave catcher obsessed with capturing the pair. The Underground Railroad is an intense and richly rewarding book, with twists, turns, and terrible surprises, memorable characters, and masterful prose.
I’ll admit Telegraph Avenue was a bit of a struggle at first, but thanks to my commitment to book club and faith in Michael Chabon, I settled in to the book and found it a relevant and satisfying read, resulting in an interesting, lengthy discussion.
The story focuses on four characters in 1980s Oakland, California. Archy and Nat are longtime friends and partners in a struggling second-hand record shop, located in a space once occupied by a barbershop fondly remembered by old timers in the hood. Brokeland Records is at risk of becoming a piece of neighborhood history itself when a famous hometown boy, the fifth richest black man in America, announces plans to open a mega-record store in a new development down the way. As Archy and Nat react to the news, Chabon intertwines the stories of their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as at-home midwives. Following a complicated delivery that requires hospital intervention, Gwen and Aviva find their own business and friendship compromised by the repercussions of a vindictive father and the condescending delivery room doctor. Parenthood, infidelity, race, class, friendship, gender, and pop culture play out in a “simpler,” pre-technology era.
The threads of this multi-character tapestry take a while to cohere, partly due to Chabon’s writing style, which can be quite effusive—sometimes I found myself screaming in my head, “enough already”—but the story is never boring and the prose is often breathtaking. Characters are nuanced, which make them human, sometimes frustratingly so, but that’s all part of the rewarding journey down Telegraph Avenue.
Anyone following my book recommendations for low, these many decades, could probably guess that this book was bound to show up on my list. I’m a fan of Moby-Dick (see my review here) and am continually drawn to true tales of high seas adventure (my reviews of The Perfect Storm, Batavia’s Graveyard, and Over the Edge of the World to name a few), so it only follows that a National Book Award-winning work of narrative non-fiction about the events that inspired Moby-Dick would be right up my alley.
In 1820, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was attacked by a sperm whale and quickly sank in the Pacific Ocean, stranding the crew for over ninety days at sea. Three decades later, Herman Melville drew inspiration for his epic whale tale from the infamous disaster. Philbrick’s informative and exciting book tells the Essex story and the history of New England’s 19th-century whaling industry with lively and engaging prose. Such an amazing true tale, so compulsively readable, it’s easy to see how it would eventually make its way to the big screen.