Thursday, December 15, 2016

Favorites of 2016: Books


Daniel Bergner, Sing For Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family (Little, Brown, 2016)

Ryan Speedo Green's life story is shattering. His parents split up when he was a young child, and his mother struggled to provide a safe home for the family. As he grew older Green lashed out, exploding in uncontrollable rages. At age 12 he was institutionalized at a facility for violent juveniles, where he was frequently locked in isolation for threatening (and at times assaulting) the staff and other inmates. His life was spiraling out of control.

A dozen years later he walked onstage at the Metropolitan Opera as a semifinalist in the National Council Auditions, the most prestigious operatic vocal competition in the United States. Even to make it to the semifinals is to beat astronomical odds. Green felt desperately out of place, he didn't know how to pronounce Italian properly, and he could barely read music. And then, after his performance in the semifinals, he waits to hear whether he has been chosen for the finals...

Daniel Bergner's recounting of Green's struggles against poverty, racism, and his self-destructive impulses—with the aid of dedicated teachers and his own sheer determination—would be too implausible if it were fiction. It makes for gripping and inspiring reading.*

I read four memoirs by rock musicians in 2016 (and no, that list doesn't (yet) include Born To Run). Two were among my favorite books of the year, and one was my biggest disappointment:

Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Brownstein, a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney, "offers moving accounts of what it was like to grow up in the 70s and 80s in a suburban family with deeply hidden emotional fissures; to find music as a refuge, as a solace, as an escape, and as a means of expression; to enter the adult world with deep uncertainty about your future and purpose; to try to find like-minded people as friends, partners, mentors, and co-creators; and to struggle to hold on to what you've achieved while at the same time allowing yourself and your partners room to grow and change. . .At the end of the book, describing how it felt to step onstage for the opening show of the tour for the first Sleater-Kinney album in a decade, 2015's No Cities to Love, she writes, 'I was home.'"

Patti Smith, M Train (Knopf, 2015)

"M Train is Patti Smith's deeply personal memoir covering the period from her move to Detroit in 1980 up to the present. In its format and associative structure it is clearly influenced by W. G. Sebald's unclassifiable works such as Rings of Saturn, but like Smith's great cover versions of songs by other artists, it emerges as something uniquely her own, expressed in her own unmistakable voice."

Biggest disappointment: Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (Blue River Press, 2015)

"This rambling, confusingly arranged book would be twice as good if half its ink had really disappeared. . .my admiration for Costello did anything but grow after spending 670 pages in his sometimes enjoyable, sometimes annoying, sometimes evasive, and sometimes tedious company. As he writes with self-lacerating wit (on page 372), 'The trouble with finishing any autobiographical tome like this is that for every mildly diverting tale or precious memory, you eventually arrive at this thought: I don't much care for the subject.' It's a feeling the reader may come to share."

Read the full post: Whole lives: Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello

The fourth rock-musician memoir I read this year was Kim Gordon's Girl in a Band (Dey Street, 2015), about which I had distinctly mixed feelings.

Two of my favorite nonfiction books this year inspired not one, but a series of posts:

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters (selected and edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997)

Lady Mary eloped with a man she tolerated to avoid a forced marriage to a man she despised; travelled with her husband and children to Turkey, where she learned of smallpox inoculation, went to the public baths, and was entertained in a harem; may have had love affairs before and after her marriage with both women and men; and in her late forties left her husband, home and country to follow the man she loved to Italy. I wrote that "she was the medical heroine who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain, saving thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture." Her letters are emotionally revealing, sometimes uncomfortably so, and her adventures read like a novel. Also recommended as a companion to the letters: Isobel Grundy's excellent biography of Lady Mary (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Read the first post in the series: "I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 1

Paula Byrne: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (Harper, 2013)

I wrote that The Real Jane Austen is "a fascinating (and very entertaining) examination of a series of objects—among them a family silhouette, an Indian shawl, and a pair of topaz crosses—that illustrate key aspects of Austen's life, work and world." While Byrne has a tendency to write "must have" and "certainly" where she should have written "may have" and "possibly," her engaging book (along with Jocelyn Harris's more specialized A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion (University of Delaware Press, 2007)) inspired me to spend a richly rewarding six months re-reading all of Austen's novels.

Read the first post in the series: "Six months with Jane Austen: The plan"


The novels of Jane Austen

Jane Austen's novels are sometimes considered to be timelessly romantic. But I was made far more aware of the social world of Austen's books by passionate readers and scholars such as Paula Byrne, Jocelyn Harris, Brian Southam, and many others. They highlighted issues such as the difficulties faced by women in a highly unequal marriage market, the daughter of a West Indian slave who may have been the inspiration for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and the unenviable fates of unmarried women without independent means. Awareness of the economic and political realities faced by her characters and by Austen herself made my renewed encounters with her novels an even richer and more involving experience. As I wrote in my final post in the Six Months with Jane Austen series, "Her books are inexhaustible; I know that I will be returning to them again and again."

Read the full series (listed in reverse order): "Six Months with Jane Austen"

Maurizio de Giovanni, the Commissario Ricciardi novels

Sure, the detective as an emotionally wounded loner who follows his own personal code of justice in a city full of corruption, violence and evil is a staple of noir fiction. But the Commissario Ricciardi novels of Italian writer Maurizio de Giovanni are set apart by the richness of their historical setting: Naples in the middle years of Mussolini's fascist regime. The evocation of time and place is highly convincing, and over the course of the series de Giovanni only gradually brings to the fore the impact of fascism on the everyday lives of his characters. Each novel is set during a particular time of year, and as I wrote in my original post, "de Giovanni vividly renders the characteristic sights, sounds and smells of Naples (including its seasonal festivals, cuisine and other traditions)." He also provides his detective with supernatural perception, an element that at first feels like a gimmick but which grows more emotionally consequential as the series progresses. And finally, the novels are distinguished by the almost cinematic quality of de Giovanni's writing (generally well-translated by Anne Milano Appel and Anthony Shugaar). Europa Editions is to be commended for bringing yet another compelling European writer to the attention of English-language readers. The eighth novel in the Commissario Ricciardi series, Glass Souls, has already been announced for 2017.

Read the full post: "Seasons of blood: The Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio de Giovanni"

Next in the series: Favorite movies of 2016

* Note to Sing for Your Life's designers: I realize it's too much to ask for the word "opera" to appear on the cover of a book headed for the bestseller lists, but doesn't the subject's name belong there?

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