I read Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer — and left it in Illinois for my mother when I was visiting. She suffers from serious dementia, but expressed excitement about this book and wanted to read it. It’s set in 17th-century Poland — during the aftermath of a catastrophic massacre of the Jews. Messiahs and Devils abound in this book amid the 17th century music Singer has miraculously composed. My mother was born in a similar place in this vicinity. My mother told me her mother died of fear. They were all terribly mad.
My Dream Book: I feel the only proper way to start this Year in Reading is by telling you that last night I dreamt about meeting Curtis Sittenfeld. As I recall, we were both in a small group conversing politely, but not directly to one another, and at one point I threw caution to the wind, grabbed her by the elbow, and said, “I just have to tell you that I loooooved Eligible,” and then enumerated the reasons for a few minutes.
I did meet Curtis Sittenfeld about 10 years ago, and told her one of my top tier anecdotes, which she seemed to enjoy. I also professed my love of Eligible on Twitter earlier this year, which she acknowledged, so perhaps I feel we have a certain connection — a connection my subconscious spun into a dream. Even so, I read Eligible in February, so why I was dreaming about it and its author nine months later is a mystery.
Allow me to reiterate, however, in the cold light of day, that I did love Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. My favorite thing about it is how she modernized the stakes. It’s easy to read the original, or watch the BBC version, and find it all quite charming. Your sister danced too flirtatiously at a local dance? How terribly cute. Your estate might be entailed away? How quaintly sad. You’re not married at 20? Quelle horreur. Sittenfeld translates these conflicts into a modern-day setting so that the Bennetts’ trials, embarrassments, and love lives are legitimately worrisome (until everything works out). See you in my dreams, Curtis!
Best One-Day Reading Experience: I put off watching the least season of Justified for over a year, because I knew how despondent I’d be once it was over, which was exactly what happened. To ease the blow, I bought a copy of Fire in the Hole, a book of short stories by Elmore Leonard, the titular story of which is the basis for the series. On a Sunday afternoon I poured myself a glass of whisky, sat down, and read the book cover to cover. It was perfect. See you in my dreams, Boyd Crowder!
Favorite Sentence of the Year: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam is a coming-of-age story about a smart, awkward teenage girl in 1970s England, although in the way of most awkward girl novels, it turns out plenty of people are in love with her. She finds herself in an amorous situation with one of them, and notes: “I was quite enchanted with myself. I had always thought I had very strong views on sexual morality. I found I had nothing of the kind.”
Book I Loved Despite Not Being Able to Tell You What Happened: Long Division by Kiese Laymon happened to me. It’s very funny, there’s time travel, a book-within-a-book, young love, and an excellent young protagonist/narrator with an excellent grandmother. I was glued to every page, and am not confident I know how it ended. Please read it and contact me. While you’re at it, read Kiese Laymon’s essay about Outkast. It was in the 2015 music issue of the Oxford American. It was also anthologized in The Fire This Time. It’s ostensibly about music, but it’s about — wait for it — so much else. You’ll recognize the grandmother.
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This was my year of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Bowen, or the year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers. I’m appalled to say I had never read either until this year; I tried to make up for my lost decades by reading furiously and fully, from their first books to their last. It in the end, however, it was impossible to read all that they wrote, because they were prolific, and because life was difficult this year and I ran out of steam. Well — also, I found that both women wrote books I loved and some I frankly disliked. (This is fine! A book’s impact has as much to do with where the reader is in her life as it does with the innate qualities of the work; and if I have a bad breakup with a book, the author and I can still be pals).
My favorite by Mitford was her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. My edition put some kind of accelerator on the feminist flames because it has “Love” in the title and the loopiest picture of a bride on the cover, and I did the automatic discounting thing we do — even people in the business who should know better — when faced with frilly, condescending covers of books by women. Gah. I don’t know if I hate more the idea that we have been conditioned to associate feminine with frothy, or the covers themselves, which actively dissuade a large swath of humanity from picking up such a worthy book in the first place. And, my lord, is this novel worthy. The story of an upper-class British family, particularly that of a sensitive free-spirit named Linda, was so slyly hilarious that I was smitten by the first paragraph; but it wasn’t until a few pages in, and the narrator describes her Uncle Matthew sending out the hounds on a child hunt — in which the children of the family take the place of hares and try to outrun four slavering bloodhounds, to the horror of the neighbors — that I knew this book would be a friend for life.
Of all the gorgeous Elizabeth Bowen books I read (and here I’ll give a shout-out to To The North and The Death of the Heart), my favorite is her second, The Last September, because I think it’s her most deeply felt and affecting work. It is such a deft and humorous and ferocious novel that I marvel that Bowen was only about thirty when she wrote it. Bowen, like the book’s main character, Lois, was the child of a large Anglo-Irish estate, and the book is set at a lightly fictionalized version of the house in 1920, at the cusp of the Irish Civil War. The tremendous pressure that politics bears on the estate is seen mostly aslant; all of the family’s visitors, though their days are full of dance-parties and tennis matches, are oddly brittle in their effort to ignore the tension around them. Bowen pulls off a terrific high-wire act that left me breathless — and nostalgic for a lost world that I’d only really known in Bowen’s pages — by the end.
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Bonny Wolf is the author of Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories (St Martins, 2006), the host of Kitchen Window, NPR’s food podcast; a commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition; and a food columnist for The Washington Post. More information is available at www.bonnywolf.com.Julia Child and Judith Jones both went to Paris for the first time in 1948, beginning a journey that changed their lives and the way Americans cook.”It’s quite possible that we passed Judith and Evan (her husband) on the street, or that we stood next to each other at a cocktail party, for we were leading parallel lives,” Child writes in her memoir My Life in France. “But we never met in Paris.”They didn’t learn of each other until the summer of 1959 when a huge manuscript on French cooking by Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle landed on Jones’ desk at Knopf where she was an editor.”I was bouleversee, as the French say – knocked out,” Jones writes in her memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. “This was the book I’d been searching for.”My Life in France was published in 2006, two years after Child’s death at age 91. Her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, put together the story of her formative time in France from conversations with her, letters, notes and photographs, many taken by her husband Paul.The two memoirs make a lovely couple. Together, a clear picture emerges of the somewhat appalling food scene in the U.S. after World War II and how much these two women – after a few years in Paris – effected change.Their voices are different: Jones is reserved and private while Child is exuberant and forthright. Their stories, however, are similar. Both grew up in homes with hired cooks and were educated at eastern women’s colleges (Smith for Child, Bennington for Jones). Both married older men who they considered soulmates and neither couple had children. Both women fell in love with France and its food, and both believed home cooking could be excellent.Jones went on to bring out books by many important food writers including Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis and Marion Cunningham. She was also the editor of literary figures such as John Updike and Anne Tyler.Her publishing career began when she pulled from the reject pile Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. All of this is part of the story told in The Tenth Muse. (The 19th-century French gourmet Brillat-Savarin called food the 10th muse.)Julia Child, of course, went on to become Julia Child. My Life in France is a wonderful window through which to look at how she went from, in her words, “a six-foot-two-inch … rather loud and unserious Californian” to the meticulous cook who taught Americans how to cook like the French.More from A Year in Reading 2007