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My favorite books of 2015

 

I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 12. This was a big year for finishing multi-volume works—by Knausgaard, Ferrante, and Smiley. It’s such a pleasure to be immersed in the world of a wonderful book and know that when you finish it, you can open another. Here are a few of my favorite books for the year, along with some that weren’t recently published, but I read this year, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

  1. Euphoria, by Lily King. Gorgeous book, story inspired by the work of Margaret Mead.
  2. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. Based on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, this book is a tour de force of perspective and voice. Wasn’t surprised when he won the Man Booker Award.
  3. A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. Incredible collection of near-autobiographical stories from a peripatetic life. Small, sharp, poignant tales of disappointments and small triumphs. Why wasn’t she famous during her lifetime?
  4. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald. This seems to me a perfect memoir, combining a truly original personality, her obsession, her observant nature, and her bird in an arc of loss and renewal.
  5. My Struggle, Parts I-IV, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I ripped through these four volumes of Knausgaard’s minute observations, fascinated, compelled to keep reading, and puzzling over how he keeps us in his thrall. By the fourth, I had Knausgaard fatigue, and the spell was over.
  6. Storia de la bambina perduta, (Story of the Lost Child) by Elena Ferrante. Fourth in the Naples series. I was an early adopter to these emotionally nuanced novels of female friendship—so much so that I read the second and fourth in translation before they came out in English. Well, I started them before the translations came out. The translator caught up with me; it was slow going. Interesting to see the difference between reading in Italian and English. The Italian seemed more direct, more flavorful, but Ann Goldstein is a wonderful translator.
  7. Some Luck, Early Warnings, and The Golden Age, by Jane Smiley. This fiction trilogy is about an Iowa farming town, starting with the small family, and fanning out over the generations, over 100 years, in a portrait of the United States over that time. Great American novel(s).
  8. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell, stories of rural, resilient women that dig down to the raw core of emotion.
  9. Purity, Jonathan Franzen. Great plot, and a lot to chew on in the milieu of computer hacking, online journalism, global warming, and other contemporary concerns that extend from a girl in California to the world.
  10. Cheating, on #10, with a few not published this year that I gave five stars, if you need a great read:

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Radetsky March, Joseph Roth

The Dancer, Colum McCann

American Romantic, Ward Just

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

On my bedside table:

Report From the Interior, Paul Auster

Enon, Paul Harding

All the Wild That Remains, David Gessner

The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

The First Bad Man, Miranda July

10:04, Ben Lerner

Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

 

One book that didn’t make my list is The M Train, by Patti Smith. I love her as an artist, and thought Just Kids was wonderful, but her meandering memoir seemed thin to me, and a bit of a rip-off of W. G. Sebold.

 

William Zinsser, the man who taught a nation to write well

The author of ‘On Writing Well’ and a mentor to many writers has died at 92

From AlJazeera

I once told William Zinsser that his office was an oasis of writing, which made him smile. Inside that uncluttered office on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, nothing mattered but the work and pleasure of writing. Everything else — publishers, agents, the demise of print, the rise of free content, anxieties about success, failure and Amazon rankings — you left at the door.

Zinsser, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was the author of “On Writing Well” and 18 other books about writing, travel, memories and music. He was also a generous mentor to other writers. Through his books, he taught millions of people to write better by demonstrating simple, clear sentences and an authentic voice.

A few hundred people, including me, were lucky enough to hear his advice in person. I had an in: Zinsser was married to my cousin Caroline Fraser Zinsser, who is a fine writer herself and shares his curiosity about the small stories that reveal our common humanity. As a relative, I felt comfortable asking him for advice. After I got to know him, I realized he was just as welcoming to strangers who called up with writing problems.

In Zinsser’s office, writing was sacred. Woody Allen must have recognized some confessorial quality in Zinsser when he saw him on the street in Manhattan and cast him as a priest in “Broadway Danny Rose.” I always felt nervous there, staring at a white abstract painting by his son, John Zinsser. William Zinsser was warm, but he cut out small talk and got right to the matter at hand. Just the knowledge that he was listening intently and didn’t suffer nonsense clarified my thinking fast.

At one visit, he asked what book I was working on. I told him I wasn’t writing a book, because my last one had been a best-seller, and my agent didn’t think that any of my ideas since then would sell as well, so I wasn’t writing anything. He paused. “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“So why aren’t you writing? Do you have any idea how stupid what you just said sounded?” he said. “You’re a writer!”

Then he delivered one of his most pleasurable sermons — about how you don’t write to sell, you don’t write what your agent or your publisher wants you to write, you write for the process of finding a true story, and you write for the reader.

“The central problem in most writing is the American obsession with the finished product,” he said. “Most Americans setting out on a memoir can picture the jacket of the book — the headline, title, byline and a charming tintype of a child with a pail by the seashore,” he said. “The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to write the damn thing.”

You can’t plan a book, he once told me. You have to respect the process. When you start to write, you’ll find that the story won’t turn out the way you imagined it, but it will be truer to your life. “Forget the final product and start writing the damned story.”

The next time I visited, I had started writing a new memoir. But, I confessed, the story was boring as hell. I was writing about building a house in Mexico, and so far, the only other character in the book was a dull real estate agent, and the building process went smoothly. No stakes, no drama.

“Why did you build the house?” Zinsser asked. “What was the quest you were on?”

I couldn’t answer, because it would take me 200 more pages of writing to figure it out. But it was the key to the book.

“I’m a great believer in writers embarking on quests or pilgrimages,” Zinsser said.

That quest may not be a grand adventure. He tells his students to think small when they’re looking for their narrative.

“Most people sit down to write a memoir and think it’s the story of their wonderful life, that they have to write something that will be certifiably important and worthy,” he said. “They put together a chain of events which are worthy, but not necessarily very interesting.” He tells his students to forget the memoir and write about memories that stick with them.

“They rummage around, I wait them out, and finally they say something like, ‘I’ll never forget the day when my father and I …’ and they tell a story that is so minimal it’s universal. Most writers forget how the smallest things yield the biggest emotional wallop.” He tells his students to relax, and not worry, as he put it, whether someone at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop will say, “What a stunning comment on the human condition.”

Zinsser encouraged me, and so many others, to write for the sake of writing. He offered us tools to write better, cutting away clutter to get to the core. He gave us permission to be ourselves on the page and to enjoy writing so our readers would enjoy it, too.

His words are a tonic in the world of content and dollars per word. When I’m itching to write, to explore without a clear plan, his advice gives me courage. He’s gone now, but his words keep coming to me at my keyboard.

Zinsser was brilliant at teaching craft and story, and left the world with a lot of better writers. But the greatest thing he offered me, writer to writer, was faith.

Laura Fraser is the editorial director of Shebooks and the author of “An Italian Affair” and “All Over the Map.”

Two weeks, one carry-on

I just got back from two weeks of having fun in New Orleans and teaching in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and all I took could fit in a carry-on. (I actually also packed 16 copies of my book All Over the Map, so I did check the bag, but that left me precious little space for clothes and shoes). I have traveled a lot, and I think this was the best I’ve ever packed (and, ahem, I wrote a story on the topic for O Magazine a few years back). I managed to dress to party and be professional, to ride bicycles and to be on a panel discussion in front of 500 people. I taught four classes and saw five bands. A super-versatile wardrobe.

I mainly packed clothes by gr.dano. The designers are friends, so I’ve worn their clothes a lot over the years. Jill Giardano and Brian Scheyer are incredible designers–their drapey, sophisticated designs manage to look flattering on tiny, thin Jill as well as robust me. I have a navy dress from gr.dano that is my go-to, ace-in-the-hole professional dress, but I had no idea how versatile their clothes could be when traveling–not to mention wrinkle-proof and fab for every occasion. Their clothes work together, and I only added a few other pieces.

Here’s the list:

Black zip-up sleeveless tunic vest with leather trim, gr.dano

Blue-grey tunic top, gr.dano

Black ponte leggings, gr.dano

Purple faux wrap dress, gr.dano

Cowl-neck light knit tunic top, black, gr.dano

Black and white duster, gr.dano

Black cowl-necked heavy cotton jacket, gr.dano

Short-sleeved tunic dress, Eileen Fisher

Long-sleeve black T, James Perse

Intimates

One pair leggings, one pair tights

Colorful long scarf

One long and one short San Benito necklace from VSA Designs

Diagonal-zip black ankle boots (Eileen Fisher)

Sparkly cap-toed flats (Jimmy Choo)

Silk chiffon poncho (Johnny Was)

Black and white polka dot tulle dress (uncertain origin)

That’s it! it all fit in the space of a carry-on. I wore the ankle boots, ponte pants, black T and duster on the plane.  I wore everything at least twice, sometimes more. It was great how I could layer pieces–the zip tunic vest over the tunic top, with the cowl neck jacket or the duster over it. I could wear the flimsy tulle dress over the Eileen Fisher tunic or under the g.rdano vest. By far the most versatile piece was the zip tunic. I was riding bicycles in it all over NOLA, and then teaching seminars in it in San Miguel. The faux wrap dress came in second: I went to a fancy dinner in NOLA for my birthday, then dancing afterwards, and two days later appeared on a panel discussion in front of 500 people, looking totally professional. I hand-washed the tunic as well as the ponte pants, and they came out perfectly. Special mention to the cozy duster: I wore it on the plane, and then when my B&B had our private bathroom down the hall, it worked perfectly as a bathrobe. That’s crucial with a carry-on! The chiffon poncho was great over the Eileen Fisher tunic dress for a dressy party look, as was the tulle over the tunic dress. The VSA necklaces, long and short, dressed everything up.photo

So there you have it. Fabulous wardrobe in a carry-on. Above, a not very good p hoto of the gr.dano ponte pants, tunic, and cowl-neck jacket with Mardi Gras beads and mask!

The excellent blue dress:Laura-Fraser-198x300

 

My favorite books, 2014

*I know and like these authors in real life, but I would have loved and recommended their books anyway.

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I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 12. (Yes, that is obsessive—but also a great personal document to have, much more enlightening then My Year in Facebook.) Here’s a list of the ten I most enjoyed this year—not all of which were published this year.

I read fewer books than most years because, as Editorial Director of Shebooks, I had lots of submissions to read and e-books to edit—and published 71 of amazing quality. You can read the rest of my list, this year and back to the 80s, on my website.

This year’s top books, in no particular order.

Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín

This book is on everyone’s top ten lists, as it should be. A memorable and complicated literary character, the Irish widow Nora Webster’s emotions simmer just under the surface as she rises to the challenges of grief, loss, and living fully again.

Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, by Elena Ferrante

I’m obsessed with Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume of an unknown Italian female writer from Naples. This is the third in her Naples trilogy, an epic chronicle of a complicated female friendship between two brilliant girls who grew up in a tough Naples neighborhood, who alternate in their successes and knocks. I am so obsessed with being immersed in her world that I read the second one in Italian (slowly!) and am about to start the fourth, since it isn’t translated yet.

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón*

Set in an unnamed Latin country a lot like Peru, a young actor joins a guerilla theatre troop in a revival play with one of the original leaders. Their tour of the country reveals political and emotional scars, as well as personal turmoil. A meditation on the consequences of actions and gestures–our own, and those we’ve come to believe are our own.

 

A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava

Recommended by Daniel Alarcón, above. Usually I’m a big fan of minimalist writing, but in the right hands—William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, for one favorite, or David Foster Wallace—I love frenetic, maximalist books with manic stream-of-consciousness riffs and a fiesta of memorable characters. This book by De la Pava, whose bio charmingly reads, “A writer who does not live in Brooklyn,” is (by and) about a New York City public defender and the absurd world of the criminal courts he inhabits. Originally self-published in 2008.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

These are actually four novels in one volume–Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk–and a fifth in another, At Last. Acerbic, posh Englishman writes about his truly horrifying childhood with tremendous style and wit, with a devastating result.

 

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The witty, deeply-felt story of a Nigerian immigrant who comes to the U.S. on a college scholarship, whose experiences with culture shock and racism, from the hair-braiding salon to her romance with a wealthy white man, lead her to write an audacious blog on being a Non-American Black about Racial Disorder Syndrome.

 

Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, by Francine Prose

The title refers to a photograph taken at a cabaret club in 1932, and the book follows the subjects of the photo, including a memorable female villain, through personal treacheries and tragedies of World War II.

 

Abroad, by Katie Crouch*

A psychological thriller inspired by the university murders in Puglia, full of bad decisions, beautiful Italian scenery and history—an altogether irresistible read.

 

The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol*

Spare and emotional, these stories are about worlds and cultures colliding–Eastern Europe, Russia, the U.S., old worlds vs. the new–full of wisdom and humanity.

 

Whatever Doesn’t Kill You: Six Memoirs of Resilience, Strength, and Forgiveness, edited by Laura Fraser

Okay, as you can see, I edited this anthology, but it’s still the best, most moving collections of memoirs I’ve read. Gorgeous and inspiring memoirs on overcoming such challenges as war reporting, sexual abuse, disappointing birthmothers, medical problems and racist treatment in the doctor’s office, parental death, and alcoholism by Mary Jo McConahay (“Ricochet”), Barbara Graham (“Camp Paradox”), Susan Ito (“The Mouse Room”), Ethel Rohan (“Out of Dublin”), Faith Adiele (“The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems”) and Beth Kephart (“Nest, Flight. Sky.”)

 

*I know and like these authors in real life, but I would have loved and recommended their books anyway.

Random notes on other books I read this year: I will read anything by Ian McEwan, and liked The Children’s Hour almost as much as any; Solar, less. Getting tired of Murakami with his schematic Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As an American Studies major and feminist, I couldn’t have been more poised to like The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore; how could such great subject matter, story, and reporting be so dry and dull? Read the wonderful Home by Marilynne Robinson in anticipation of Lila. Why had I never read Women In Their Beds by Gina Berriault before? Fabulous stories—maybe the terrible title? Many honorable mentions: You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik; Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley; The Circle, by Dave Eggers; Transatlantic by Colum McCann. Also read Tinkers by Paul Harding; with a Pulitzer Prize, he doesn’t need my five stars, but wow, he has Faulkner written all over him, so gorgeous.

 

 

Interview about Shebooks with agent Andy Ross

There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

http://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/laura-fraser-talks-about-shebooks/

My favorite books of 2013

It’s been a fantastic year in books—not least because at the end of the year, my co-founders Peggy Northrop and Rachel Greenfield and I launched Shebooks.net, an e-publishing platform for short e-books by and for women. We have an amazing collection of short memoirs, fiction, and journalism by some incredibly talented writers…in March, we will launch a full site with a subscription service.

But back to my traditional list of 10 best books I read this year. In honor of Shebooks, this year, they’re all by women. These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. But I’ll try to keep it fresh. (By the way, here’s my complete booklist that I’ve kept for the last 40 years. Yes, I know I’m obsessive).

  1. My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This author, from Naples, writes under a pseudonym—partly because her depictions of live in Southern Italy are so raw and honest, she must need to protect herself in order to lead some semblance of normal life. This novel is the first in a trio about two smart, ambitious young women from a poor neighborhood in Naples, and the twists in their friendship as they confront jealousy, resentment, changes in circumstance and opportunities. This book was so good that I had to read:
  2. Il Nuovo Cognome, by Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t wait for Ann Goldstein of the New Yorker to translated Ferrante’s next book, so I read it in Italian. It’s finally out in English as The Story of a New Name. In this book, Lila and Elena reach young adulthood and the confusions that go with growing up as a lower-class woman in Southern Italy—personal, economic, cultural, educational. Goldstein is a terrific translator, never calling attention to the language, but it was worth it for some of the idiomatic expressions to read it in Italian, for the music and rawness of the dialogue. I also read Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment by Ferrante; both shorter and more intensely personal.
  3. The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan. This novel is about a young Scottish woman who has survived a series of foster homes and abuse to land in a facility for troubled adolescents, in the shame of the panopticon that Jeremy Benthem proposed as a model prison in the late 1700s, so that inmates would always be seen by an omnipresent eye. In his Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for the increased social visibility under authoritarian rule…an idea that has me eager to read Dave Egger’s The Circle. Anyway, Fagan is a terrific writer, and I can’t wait to read more from her.
  4. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I couldn’t put down Tartt’s sprawling, if flawed, novel about a young boy who survives an explosion in an art gallery, though his mother dies; he takes a priceless painting with him out the door and makes his way into adulthood living with various memorable characters. Scenes on the outskirts of Las Vegas with his estranged father are amazing, as is her depiction of upper-crust Manhattanites. The end is unsatisfying, but altogether entertaining.
  5. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of a young motorcyclist nicknamed Reno, because that’s where she’s from, who is briefly the fastest woman on earth. The book careens from the New York Art world to political turmoil in Italy. It’s concerned with art, love, sex, politics, class, speed—a heady read by a fresh, world-wary writer who is nevertheless full of heart.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies,  by Hilary Mantel. The story of Ann Boleyn never gets old, whether watching The Tudors or any of the movies made about Henry VIII, but Mantel takes the story to an entirely new psychological depth, with vivid historic detail.
  7. The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. This novel follows teenagers at art camp into middle age, as their connections are strained by changes in fortune, ambition, degrees of satisfaction, and the realization (or not) of their early talents. Definitely interesting. I had to read The Wife right afterwards, which I also enjoyed.
  8. The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. I will read anything by Claire Messud, whose themes are ambitious and deeply psychological. This probably isn’t my favorite of her books—The Last Life and The Emperor’s Children are—but still engaging. The main character, Nora, is a hum-drum teacher who builds little dollhouses—a direct nod to Ibsen’s The Dollhouse—and imagines a more interesting life of glamour, travel and intrigue. She is the opposite of the “woman upstairs,” the madwoman in the attic, but as this novel proceeds, her equilibrium and creativity are challenged, as is her sense of reality.
  9. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Katy Butler. The only nonfiction on my list this year—a fabulously written and reported tale of Butler’s years caretaking her parents, and all the flaws in the American medical system and costly avoidance of death that it exposed. Poetically written, meticulously researched—an important read for anyone who will ever have to face dying. Oh. I guess that’s all of us.
  10. 10. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. In the past, I’ve found Erdrich’s books to be sometimes heavy-handed, especially politically. This one, from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy whose mother was raped on a reservation, was much less so. It’s a coming-of-age story where the loss of innocence is layered with crime, dawning understanding of human evil, conflicts in reservation life and mores with Non-Native ones, and a wavering sense of justice.

Honorable MENtions

Not to leave the best books I read by male authors this year (in the order I read them):

1.The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

2. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

3. Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (also his The Financial Lives of Poets)

4. Enduring Love, by Ian Mcewan

5. Benediction, by Kent Haruf

6. Blasphemy, by Sherman Alexie

7. Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III

8. Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster

9. Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner

10. Stay Up With Me, by Tom Barbash

 

I can’t wait to read:

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer

At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon

A Permanent Member of the Family, Russell Banks

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

Enon, Paul Harding

 

 

 

 

My favorite books of 2011

I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was about 13 years old. Below is the complete list of the books I read in 2011. You can read the rest of the list on my website.

From this list–which this year, ended up being about a book a week–I’ve picked my ten of my favorites. Not all of these were published this year, but I just encountered them this year. I left out old favorites that I read again–Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though reading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish was an entirely new experience). I have also left out Paul Auster, because I love everything Paul Auster writes, so why go over old territory. Here, in no particular order:

1. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

This book was over 900 pages, but I flew through it. It was a gripping thriller, with the spare language and quirky details I love in Murakami. This book deals with cults and all the fake realities we live with all the time, and how we try to sort them out. Plus, it was a love story with a very satisfying ending. Maybe what I love about Murakami is that he can write such a traditional story with so many metaphysical twists and high and low cultural references casually thrown in, without announcing themselves.

2. Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

This book, about a young sex offender trying to make his way in the margins, was simply amazing. Just read it.

3. The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Maybe I loved this book so much because I have three sisters, so a lot of the themes and interactions were familiar. But I found her descriptions of human relationships to be nuanced and fresh; I felt as if I were living in that weird family for a few days.

4. The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

The Plague, by Albert Camus, is one of my favorite books, and I’ve had a fascination with books about the plague since. Geraldine Brooks came across a plaque near an English village describing how it had quarantined itself during the time of the plague in the 16th century; she imagined the rest. She did such a wonderful job with the history and language that I immediately got two other historical fictions she did–Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American at Harvard, and March, about the imagined life of the March girls in Little Women, who went to the Civil War and was pals with the transcendentalists and abolitionists of the day (including my ancestory, John Brown). Impeccably researched novels.

5. Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

I guess every MFA teacher around has read Jo Ann Beard’s essays, each one a little gem. I hadn’t read them, and was amazed at their economy of language, structure, and ability to say so much so profoundly in so little space.

6. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres

This book is essential reading for San Franciscans, telling the tale of one of the darkest chapters of our history from a humane point of view. Scheeres did meticulous research from FBI files and survivors to tell the story of Jonestown from the perspective of the people who were drawn into that world because of their ideals. A tale of 60s idealism going very, very wrong. Reads like a novel.

7. Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner

Like One Thousand Lives, this novel is written by a fellow member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, but trust me that I’m not biased when I say this is a wonderfully-written book. Through vignettes scattered in time, we learn about generations of a Chicago family and the themes of love and loss and shame that run through them. Lovely.

8. Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

This wasn’t written this year, but it’s an earlier novel by the author of the Glass Castle, and worth a read. What I loved about the book was that she wrote a kind of memoir of her grandmother, who was quite a character–a tough, independent woman of the West.

9. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Of course, I get this book mixed up with The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which I also loved, and which is completely different. But this tale of a lower-caste Indian’s rise in the world of entrepreneurship was funny, revealing, and a heartbreaking portrait of two Indias. I think you can read anything published recently with a tiger in its title. Except–wait–the Tiger Mother? Forget that one. Stick to the novels and you’ll be safe.

10. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

I can’t believe I’m already at 10. I was going to mention Great House by Nicole Krauss, and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. But this spot is for The Privileges, which is a lively, funny, sarcastic novel about ethics and amorality among the wealthy insider trading set. Completely entertaining.

I’m happy that Santa et al brought me a big stack of books from the Booksmith, which gives me a great start to 2012 with The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie; Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon; Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga; Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, and In One Person, by John Irving.

 

 

My 2011 booklist:

I’m starting a five-star rating system this  year (before the books on the list were either starred or not)

Man in the Dark****
Paul Auster

The Cookbook Collector***
Allegra Goodman***

Celeste Ascending***
Kaylie Jones

La Bella Lingua***
Dianne Hales

Boys of My Youth*****
Jo Ann Beard

Cakewalk****
Kate Moses

The Flaming Corsage***
William Kennedy

Cleopatra****
Stacy Schiff

The Widower’s Tale****
Julia Glass

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents****
Julia Alvarez

By Nightfall****
Michael Cunningham

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks***
Rebecca Skloot

The Toughest Indian in the World*****
Sherman Alexie

Orange is the New Black*****
Piper Kerman

Don’t Cry***
Mary Gaitskill

Sunset Park****
Paul Auster

Empty Family****
Colm Toibin

Persuasion*****
Jane Austen

The Privileges****
Jonathan Dee

The Believers****
Zoe Heller

The White Tiger****
Aravind Adiga

Northanger Abbey****
Jane Austen

Half Broke Horses****
Jeannette Walls

Bite Me***
Fabio Parasecoli

The Year of Wonders****
Geraldine Brooks

The Tiger’s Wife****
Tea Obreht

Pride and Prejudice*****
Jane Austen

Before Night Falls***
Reinaldo Arenas

Emma****
Jane Austen

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures**
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

The Weird Sisters*****
Eleanor Brown

Lola, California****
Edie Meidev

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater***
Frank Bruni

The Ask***
Sam Lipsyte

Amor en los Tiempos del Colera*****
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Nowhere City****
Alison Lurie

Blood, Bones, and Butter***
Gabrielle Hamilton

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America***
Laura Shapiro

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts***
Louis de Bernieres

Great House****
Nicole Krauss

Food is Culture***
Massimo Montanari

Lost Memory of Skin*****
Russell Banks

A Short History of Women****
Kate Walbert

Indignation****
Philip Roth

March****
Geraldine Brooks

Caleb’s Crossing****
Geraldine Brooks

Love and Shame and Love****
Peter Orner

The Voyage of the Rose City****
John Moynihan (dear departed friend)

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown****
Julia Scheeres

Stone Arabia****
Dana Spiotta

The Custom of the Country****
Edith Wharton

Bossypants***
Tina Fey

1Q84****
Haruki Murakami

Why I won’t write for HuffPo

The Huffington Post is a parasitic website, reposting tidbits from other news outlets and blogs (they are not the same), without adding anything to the conversation.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post ran a story about a survey of what journalism graduates make in their first year of work these days: about $30,000.

This is a sad comment on the state of journalism, which has become devalued, but it’s also ironic that it appeared in HuffPo, because Arianna Huffington has done a great deal to encourage the devaluation of professional journalism.

For starters, she doesn’t pay her writers.

You may wonder why someone who is so rich, and who just increased her wealth immensely by selling HuffPo to AOL, might refuse to pay the people who do the essential work that maintains her website: writing. Huffington, who often bemoans the political disempowerment of the middle class, is doing everything she can to disempower journalists who are of the middle class, and who have a history of doing the kind of reporting that lets the rest of our democracy understand what is happening, politically. Without good reporting, nobody is putting any checks on the rampant polarization of the lower and upper classes in this country.

The Huffington Post is a parasitic website, reposting tidbits from other news outlets and blogs (they are not the same), without adding anything to the conversation. The original posts on HuffPo are mainly written by people who want to get a story up on the site for the publicity. Everyone is trying to build their platform, and the HuffPo is the place to do it. So, if you’re a shrink who wants more patients and recognition, you post a story about the ten signs that your daughter or your dog is depressed.  If you’re a bon vivant who wants to get a free meal from a fancy restaurant, just post a “review” on HuffPo. Travel junket? Act like an expert, and write about how the hotel that paid your way is the top hotel on the island, with the best food.

There is no such thing as “objective” journalism, but there are standards in journalism, and there are none on the Huffington Post.

Sure, the trend has been toward free content, and we have yet to come up with sustainable models for providing Internet content that people will pay for. We have trained people to expect journalism for free. Some sites, at least, do what they can to counter the trend; when I write for the Daily Beast, at least I get a check big enough to cover some portion of my rent. In these days, when career journalists like me are making less money than they did in, well, the 1980s, that’s not perfect, but it’s at least something. It’s a nod to the fact that reporting and writing are skills, and that in order to get quality, you have to pay for it.

HuffPo recently launched a women’s site, dedicated to the secular spiritual and self-improvement stories that we’re all familiar with. The New York Observer reports that Huffington is paying Marlo Thomas—yes, that girl—a million dollars to be the face of the site. All Arianna’s money is being put toward encouraging  celebrity culture. What the hell has Marlo Thomas done since she published “Free to Be You and Me?” Not much writing, that’s for sure.

What if you gave that million dollars to real journalists? Maybe they could do something more than recycle press releases. They could do some reporting about women’s health, environmental and financial issues that affect women, ways that women are still struggling for some parity after all these years. Maybe they could write something worth reading.

Arianna, degrading journalism means degrading our democracy. Reducing journalists to unpaid content providers lowers everyone’s standards. That’s completely at odds with the political views you espouse, but not, perhaps, the financial ones. Unless you walk the walk your talk is just talk.

I urge all professional writers to boycott the Huffington Post. And everyone else to insist on and pay for quality journalism.

Slow ride through Slow Food country

Slow ride through Slow Food country

 

For all the times I’ve visited Italy, I’ve never been in Piedmont until now, except once, to visit Torino. On that trip, I had a meal that seemed heavy and dull for Italian food, and based on that scant evidence, I decided I didn’t really like Piemontese cuisine.

Spending more time in Piedmont, I realize I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve had the opportunity to spend three days bicycling around Piedmont, which is the best way to see this region of Italy (which is actually the second biggest, after Sicily). While Tuscany and Umbria are packed with tourists this time of year, Piedmont is calm and cooler than the rest of Italy. It’s one of those regions—like Puglia—that is often overlooked by tourists, and feels like a much more authentically Italian part of Italy, with its rolling vineyards, medieval towns, and hilltop castles (last time I was in Tuscany, it seemed like I only heard English, and I had a terrible meal at a café I loved 15 years ago right in front of Santo Spirito in Firenze). Here in Piedmont, you don’t see menus translated into English as often and people aren’t so tourist-weary that they’ve stopped saying “Buon giorno.”

I hopped on a (super-light, carbon frame) bicycle with DuVine Adventures, a bicycling company that specializes in what could be a fairly complete philosophy of life: “Bike, eat, drink sleep.” Unlike at many other tour companies, one of our guides was a local—which makes all the difference.

Guide  Rappeti is an avid cyclist and racer, as well as a member of a family that has been making wine since the time of Napolean.  He was born in Acqui Terme, where we started our trip, and knows everything about the local history, wine, and cycling routes in Monferrato. He explained the first thing I wanted to know, for instance, which is why Piemontese cuisine relies so heavily on anchovies when it is far from the sea. Turns out that they used to tax salt when it came from Liguria unless it was packed in fish. Voila!

We took a quick spin the first day, about 13 miles, and got a sense of the terrain, which is hilly, with wide vistas of grape fields and small towns in the valleys and ridges. It was immediately clear that the Piemontese are used to cyclists, because they give you wide berth, are polite, and offer a friendly toot on the horn to let you know when they are approaching.

One of the wonderful things about bicycling on vacation, especially in Italy, is that you have a big, honest appetite for the wonderful food (which you burn off). We didn’t go to a fancy restaurant the first night, but an old noble house in the country where one of Guido’s friends, Graziella Priarone, makes Villa Delfini wine, near the town of Morsasco. We toured around the old estate, which included a vast Grotto which was either a refuge during war, or a place for monks; its use lost in history except for speculation. We settled in to an intimate dinner in a stone cellar.

We started with a dry sparkling wine, and Guido gave us a rundown of the main wines of Piedmont and how they are made. “In Piedmont, the winemaker has to respect the grape, and the history,” he said. “Tuscan wine is more geared to the market, but here it is geared to tradition and taste.” Piedmont, he explained, has a long tradition of dry wine. Barolo is the most elegant and aristocratic, and Barbera and Dolcetto are more for every day (and let me tell you, I’d love to have a Barbera or Dolcetto every day). Barbera, in his estimation, generally offers the best balance of price and quality. Guido is quite opinionated about wine, but his opinions are driven by tradition. When I asked about screwtops, he said screwtops are fine—just don’t call what’s inside “wine.” Wine has to breathe, he said.

Our dinner was paired with the wines, which were exceptional. All of the food was simple with beautiful ingredients. For antipasti, we had an Insalata Russa, which is not a “Russian” salad, but dialect for “red.” It was a rice and egg salad with peas, celery, carrot, and tuna—very fresh. We drank a chardonnay spumante (a sparkling wine fermented in the tank, not riddled and in the bottle like those in the champagne method). We also had some prosciutto and salami, home-made foccacia. We had carpione—delicately fried eggplant and chicken. For primi, we had malanzane plin. Plin are what the Piemontese call very small ravioli; these were filled with eggplant. The tomato sauce was from tomatoes picked at the absolute perfect moment in the summer, bursting with flavor.

As we moved on to a Dolcetto, I asked Graziela about the Slow Food movement, which started nearby, in Bra, which is known for its cheese. Carlo Patrini wrote a manifesto against the first McDonald’s in Italy, near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Since then, it has become a worldwide movement (I wrote one of the first American stories about Slow Food in the New York Times magazine sometime in the 90s).

“It’s complicated,” Graziela said. The general idea of Slow Food, as a way of promoting and preserving artisanal foods, is wonderful. But basically she said that in the course of becoming ever more popular, it has become a brand, which recognizes other big brands. So you rarely see really small producers in a place like Eataly, or in the Slow Food books.

Guido gave the example that someone from Slow Food tasted his wines and awarded them a very fine rating. But when Guido said his family makes only 10,000 bottles, it was deemed too small for Slow Food. I said I thought that was contrary to the whole point of promoting and preserving small, artisanal producers like Guido and Graziela.

Added to that, Graziela pointed out, precious few women are listed in Slow Food. The movement is slow about a lot of things.

Graziela was incredibly passionate about food. Ingredients, she says, are 90% of any dish. The preparation is simple, and only 10% of the result. The same, she said, can be said about wine. It’s all about the sun, earth, and grapes. It certainly tasted that way.

On our second day, we took a 25-mile ride out of Aqui Terme in a lovely loop passing wineries. We started on a big hill and ended up on a ridge with spectacular views on both sides. I’m a slow rider—especially on the uphill—and my group was filled with super-fit cyclists (which is not always the case), but everyone was patient and friendly. We ended up at Graziela’s again for lunch, this time on an outside terrace, which was wonderful. Guido remarked about how many people have enjoyed lunch in this place through the centuries. It was everything you could want in a lunch—three different wines, prosciutto, salami, chickpea salad (with goat cheese), foccacia, chicken salad, mozzarella and tomatoes, finished off with some amazing mint/lemon sorbet. I wasn’t all that eager to get back on the bike and ride to the hotel in Aqui Terme, but it was a beautiful day. Later in the day, we tried some local moscatos sitting by the big pool in Aqui Terme.

Dinner on the second day was memorable. We went to Guido’s family’s farmhouse, which was where the family fled when Napoleon came and his army took over his family’s land in the flat part of Aqui Terme (when Guido’s ancestor protested, they cut off an ear). The family moved to the top of a hill, where the house is invisible from the town and main road. The view is amazing of grapes running up and down hills in all directions. The family has turned part of the house into an agriturismo, Cascina Marcantonio, done with spare modern lines inside and using historic materials: gorgeous. Upstairs are a few rooms where you can stay.

We helped Guido’s mother, Clara, and his father, Franco, with the dinner. At least we tried to help. She had made a number of traditional Piemontese dishes. We chopped nuts for hazelnut cake, patted out foccacia, spread sauce on eggplant slices and rolled them up, and made whole-wheat tagliatelle. It was really fun to get our hands into the pasta and help. While we were cooking, we had a glass of their spumante, and some grissini with a bagnetto verde sauce. Grissini are breadsticks that are from Piedmont, and they are not like the cardboard breadsticks you get in an American Italian restaurant. These, which Franco made, were delicate, crispy on the outside, and just soft inside. We dipped them in the bagnetto verde, which I am going to run home and make. This is an amazing savory green sauce, and as far as I could tell, the recipe goes like this:

BAGNETTO VERDE

100 g parsley

2 hard-boiled eggs

6 anchovies, deboned

A handful of capers (500 g)

One panino soaked in vinegar

Tuna-200 grams

You chop up the parsley fine, like pesto, as well as the other ingredients so that the sauce is smooth. You can add garlic if you like, but Clara didn’t. You can put this sauce on meat, fish, just about anything.

Our dinner, seated near giant windows with a sweeping view where we could watch the sky grow pink, was one of the best I’ve ever had, particularly because it was made with such care from such lovely people who are so proud of where they live and the wine and food that their family has made since forever. Guido brought out bottle after bottle of his beautiful Barbera (the vineyard is MarcAntonio). We had:

Grissini

Salami, prosciutto,

Foccacia,

Involtini di melanzane (eggplant roll-up)

Zucchini-filled crepe with local cheese

Vitello tonnato—thinly sliced veal with a sauce with mayonnaise, capers, anchovies,a nd tuna

Tagliatelle with aromatic herbs (marjoram, basil, thyme, etc.)

Incredibly tender boiled meat with some tomatoes and green sauce

Finally: the hazelnut cake.

 

We all thought the hazelnut cake was the most splendid dessert we’ve ever had. It was light, with a slightly crunchy texture, and not too sweet.

Clara’s Hazelnut Cake:

Mix: 300 grams ground hazelnuts

1 T sugar

Separate 4 eggs (Clara only uses her neighbor’s eggs, because she says they are far superior for baking than the ones you buy at the market). Put 130 grams of sugar in with the yolks and a teaspoon of vanilla.

Whip the egg whites with a tablespoon of powdered sugar

Add 120 grams of softened butter to the egg mixture. Add the hazelnuts, then fold in the egg whites.

Bake at 150 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.

 

It was an incredible evening where we all became friends and had the warm glow of a wonderful meal and wine, with an amazing view, a moment out of history, a moment to savor for a long time.

On the third day, we took the hardest ride. After one particularly difficult hill, Giovanni, our other guide, offered up a leftover slice of that hazelnut cake. It may have tasted even better then.

 

Thanks to super-cyclist, aptly-named Linda Crank for her photos!

A Tale of Two Markets

Torino, Italy–

I just arrived in Torino, and as usual when I visit Italy, I felt an immediate sense of well-being. Torino is a cafe city, with huge porticos that you can walk under throughout the town; it has been called “the most Italian city in France.” I love watching all the people dressed up for being out in public, even in the heat, with colorful sundresses, men wearing green and purple pants. Such a sense of style.

But what I love most in Italy are the markets, and Torino has two that seem to represent the old and new here, the traditional Porta Palazzo and the huge, almost fetishistically good Eataly at Lingotto, near the old Fiat factory. Enrico Deaglio, a Torinese journalist here who is the partner of my good friend Cecilia, explained to me that the Porta Palazzo goes back to before medieval times, when it was the central market for all traders in northern Europe. Cecilia and I took the tram to near the Porta Palazzo and came upon a huge market. One side was festooned with cheap clothing, probably made in China, but the food side was all-Italian.

Every time I travel in Italy and see markets like this, I want to cook. There was a huge hall with all kinds of fish, stands upon stands of tomatoes, vegetables, olives, cheeses, flowers, meats. Everything was local, everything was at the height of the season. We had  a long day before us, so I only bought a few rosy apricots; the vendor picked the ones that were perfectly ripe to eat that day.

We went from Porta Palazzo into the medieval streets of centro Torino, and then stopped at a 17th-century cafe called Al Bicerin. A bicerin is a Torinese specialty, basically hot chocolate with cream and sometimes rum. It’s a ridiculous thing to drink in the middle of a hot summer day, but you can’t really leave Torino without trying one. The chocolate was amazing, not at all sweet. You sip it with a spoon. Mine didn’t have rum, but it would’ve been good with rum.

After we wandered around the centro, we took a train to Lingotto, which is where the old Fiat factory and the workers housing is. We walked past the long factory to what used to be an old vermouth factory and houses Eataly, which must be the world’s most amazing supermarket (one opened recently in New York). The market showcases absolutely the best of all Italian foods, with an enormous variety.

When we first walked in, the market looked too precious and sterile, especially after the colorful bustle of Porta Palazzo. We were hungry by 3:00 after subsisting all day, Italian-style, on a cappuccino. We sat at one of the bars that served food; since it was late, only the “carne/formaggio” bar was open, so we shared a couple of plates, prosciutto melone and a burrata cheese with some mache and red pepper conserve. The bread came in a little basket that told us the provenance of the flour, that it was ground with stones, baked in a wood-fired oven that morning, and explained where the sale came from, too. It was some of the best prosciutto and burrata I’ve had.

Fortified, we could make our way around the market. I was stupefied. There were rows and rows of every kind of pasta imaginable. Hundreds of brands of olive oil. A huge case of fresh pasta. Every kind of jam and sauce imaginable. Huge displays of cheeses and meats. The seafood looked like it all slithered and flopped into the case a few moments before. Clean and tidy, everything was displayed as if for a photo. Eataly made Whole Foods look like it has the produce variety of a 7-11.

Eataly, which was created by Oscar Farinetti, opened a few years ago, in collaboration with the Slow Food movement. The idea is to showcase the best Italian artisanal foods, and also create a space for people to sample and learn about them. The place is awesome, and, of course, expensive.

There was so much to try that I settled in on picking out my dinner for the next day. I bought some fresh gorgonzola plin, which is what the Torinese call little ravioli. I also picked up some perfect, peppery arugula. Then I went to the cheese stand to try some pecorino cheese, which is my favorite (made from sheep’s milk). I was atonished at the sheer quantity of pecorinos. I tried one washed in barolo, I tried one with herbs, and finally settled on something simpler and more soulful, a simple fiore sardo cheese. I wanted to take home bottles of olive oil, big hunks of bottarga, Sicilian marmalade, slices from the fat legs of prosciutto hanging in the meat section.

My friend Cecilia shops here, she says, when it’s Sunday and the markets closer to home are closed. It’s a fun palce to visit, but for most people, it’s not a place you can shop or eat eery day. I was amazed by Eataly, but also felt a little like it was all too easy. One of the delights of Italy is coming across those artisan foods where they are local, discovering them, having the locals prepare them with pride. A Sardinian cheese doesn’t taste the same away from Sardinia, though it is still a wonderful cheese. Unlike at the Porta Palazzo, there wasn’t a cast of characters calling out to sell me their peppers and snails; the human interaction was missing, too, because Eataly is populated by professionals.

All that said, Oscar, could you please bring an  Eataly to San Francisco?

After Eataly, we dropped by the old Fiat factory, which has turned into an awful mall, with loud music, the smell of popcorn, and rows of teenage shops from which you cannot escape. Inexplicably, in the middle of all this, is an art gallery, the collection of the grandson of the founder of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, and his wife, Marella. For four euros we got to see six Matisses, which I figure is a deal. Even better, we got to walk on the roof of the building, which is the old race track for Fiat. They’d start building the cars at the bottom of the factory, then they’d work their way up to the top, where they’d get taken out for a spin on the track.

Deaglio told me that when Agnelli died, everyone in town, some 200,000 people, including him, stood in the line, starting at the bottom of the factoring, and going to the top, to shake the hands of the remaining family and to see the casket. The Torinese are proud of their town, with its industrial beginnings, its cornucopia of food, its Paris-like streets, its cafes.

We ended the day at dinner on the sidewalk near the house at a lovely place where we had anchovies and raw meat appetizers, and some pasta with swordfish, cherry tomatoes, and capers, which is hardly Torinese. I should’ve had something more local, which would have been heavy on a summer day, so I ate something from Sicily instead. Foodwise, I love the North of Italy, but I would choose the South.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A stall at the Porta Palazzo market in Torino.
A stall at the Porta Palazzo market in Torino.