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Best Books of 2016

14 Dec

My annual review of my favorite books of the year. You cannot go wrong with any of these Best of the Best.

The City of Mirrors

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Justin Cronin’s finale to his magnificent ‘The Passage Trilogy’ is everything a fan of the series could want and much more. Heartfelt, suspenseful, emotionally gripping and ultimately uplifting, The City Of Mirrors devastates in the best of ways. The characters Cronin creates are rich, complex and beautifully human. I’ve rarely cared so deeply about the people I follow through a series. I loved the first two novels so much I was a little worried: as wonderful a writer as is Cronin, could he actually pull the finale off and write something that would satisfy the enormous expectations he set up? Oh my. Did he ever.

If you’ve read the first two, do not miss this book. If you haven’t read the series, get The Passage and start now.

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Scott Frank is one of the best screenwriters working today. I teach every year two of his masterworks, Out of Sight and Minority Report. This year, he published his first novel. Wow. Your first novel is this good, Scott Frank? What’s with these talented people? I’d be annoyed but damn did I love this book.

It’s hard to define Shaker. The novel is a mystery of sorts and kind of a thriller, yet it is literary in many ways and often very, very funny. I love how hard it is to describe in one word. Perhaps the best single word to use is original. Shaker also ranks with the best of narratives that explore and celebrate Los Angeles, a city I love passionately. The novel begins with an earthquake. Frank’s sharp description of the quake and its aftermath is both scary and hilarious. Perhaps most surprising to me was the emotional weight the novel had by the end. I gasped out loud a couple of times in the final pages and was appropriately shaken for days afterwards. I’ll say it again, I love this book.

(BTW, please find and watch another movie written and directed by Frank, his slam dunk adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among The Tombstones. Few people saw this movie when it was released, which is such a shame. The movie is so rich and detailed you still feel as if you are immersed in a novel. This guy Scott Frank is going places.)

Hillbilly Elegy

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This at times heartrending book about an important aspect of American culture is insightful, beautifully written, quick to read, often quite funny and will appeal to and affect readers of any political stripe. How many books can you say all that about? Just about none. J. D. Vance is a former marine and Yale Law School grad. In Hillbilly Elegy he writes personally and vividly about the collapse of the white working class and in doing so captures the feelings and despair of many Americans. If you want rich insight into much of what is going on in our country presently, this is a must read. But it’s a wonderful read for any occasion.

Last Days of Night

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Another immensely enjoyable novel by a talented screenwriter. Graham Moore won a well deserved Oscar last year for the fact-based The Imitation Game, another screenplay I teach given its triple narrative/triple mystery structure. In The Last Days of Night he tackles another real life drama, the brutal battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the light bulb. That may sound a bit dry but this thrilling novel is anything but. It has everything: gripping suspense, numerous mysteries, towering real life characters, a wonderful romance and cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter. Moore struggled mightily to keep the facts as true to life as possible so I actually learned a lot reading the book along with having a great time. The Last Days of Night is a quick, fun, thrilling read. Oh and as someone who attended Thomas Edison Junior High School and only knew Mr. Edison as “that amazing guy who invented the light bulb”… wow, did I have a big slap in the face coming!

The Crooked House 

9781427271167If you like a dark twisted gothic suspenser, look no further than The Crooked House.  Atmospheric and filled with dread, this novel was often compared to Daphne Du Maurier upon its release, given the setting and mood and also because it is a psychological thriller as much as it is a mystery. The main character, a 27-year old woman with two names (I will give away nothing) is a complex and compelling character forced to revisit her tragic past. Kent is a master at revealing information and will make you think twice before ever visiting small coastal towns of England. 

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I was a big fan of Blake Crouch’s insane, violent and very fun Wayward Pines trilogy. (I did not see the TV show.) But there was no way Wayward Pines could prep me for the mind-bending dance of Dark Matter, a terrific thriller that while gripping and suspenseful throughout also morphs into a novel more weighty and philosophical than I ever expected. Crouch is nothing if not daring. He will try anything in his plotting and as far as I can tell, he always gets away with it. Combining the best of metaphysical science-fiction with killer thrills, Dark Matter is a blast of a novel with powerful emotional payoffs.

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I saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive on a Monday night the week it opened in 2001. For about three-quarters of the film I was completely entranced. Then it took a narrative left turn that by the end of the movie made me so angry I wanted to hurl my empty popcorn bucket at the screen. I fumed and railed for days about the movie and the ending… but I could not get it out of my head. Four nights later I had to return. I left the theatre the second time hailing the movie as the masterpiece it was and remains.

I had a similar experience this fall with Ian Reid’s brilliant novel I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsWhen I first finished this book, so slender it is basically a novella, I was irritated: it was so compelling I tore through it in one sitting yet a wild narrative left turn toward the end, as well as events seemingly left unexplained, made Ending Things seem obtuse and maddening. Yet like Mulholland Drive Reid’s book stayed with me for days, I could not stop thinking about it. Given it is not very long (you can read it in a long afternoon) I had another go. As I read it a second time I began to realize what a magnificent accomplishment Reid pulled off. With the final pages he blew my mind.

I will admit this is not the most audience friendly novel. Even though short with easy to read prose it takes work to process and much thought afterwards to piece it all together. But the effect is dazzling and heartbreaking and so worth the effort that goes into reading the book.

Oh and at times I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as scary and unnerving as hell. Sign me up.

Moonglow

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Last on the list only because I haven’t finished it yet! I guess Moonglow could go completely off the rails in the second half. But the new book by one of my favorite authors is so far as dazzling as usual. Check back later if you need more assurances but I trust Chabon completely and am having a wonderful time.

The Grand Romances of Stephen King

18 Feb

Yes, constant reader, that’s right, it’s true. Here, come sit beside me and let’s talk. There’s a story within the story. The Master is a romantic at heart.

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I was 12 years old when Ann McPherson handed me a copy of The Shining. A wonderful woman with a joyous and infectious laugh, Mrs. McPherson was one of my mom’s best friends. She lived a few doors down and often dropped by our the house in the late afternoon. She treated me as an equal, for which I adored her, and we shared an intense love for books. Earlier that year Ann gave me Robin Cook’s Coma, a terrific thriller I finished in two days while my parents banged on my bedroom door trying to get me to emerge. (It may be the one time in my life I willingly skipped a meal.) After Coma, I was ready to read anything Mrs. McPherson recommended.

The copy of The Shining she handed me was the initial paperback release. The cover was in reflective silver with the outline of a young boy’s head. 

 

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How awesome is this?!

 

I looked at the cover over and over, tingling with anticipation. I figured they must have spent some bucks on this cover if it reflected! Incredibly cool! The cover read A Masterpiece of Modern Horror. The marketing team earned their salary with that phrase. I was scared already. And a young boy as the centerpiece? Talk about primed.

Primed indeed. The book changed my life, not only because it remains one of my favorite novels of all time, not only because it has haunted me since, but because it introduced me to the man who has influenced my life as much as anyone on the planet. 

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I love this.

What strikes me now about The Shining, which I’ve read umpteen times, is the novel’s humanity. As dark as Stephen King can go – and, oh my, can he go there: try Cujo, one of his best and easily his darkest novel, it’s shattering – his novels have enormous power because he has such a clear love and respect for people, their dreams, their emotions and their love. In The Shining, Jack Torrance’s fierce love for his son Danny (completely missing from the cold, emotionless Kubrick adaptation) drives the novel. Jack’s fierce love for his son is also what ultimately saves everyone from hell. Certainly, yes, terrible things happen in Stephen King novels. (Is life any different?) Yet there is a compassion surrounding the events and the characters that surmounts the horror. I’ve read almost everything in King’s canon and can attest that this love of humanity is evident in just about everything he writes.

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Best of 2015 Pt. 2 (Books & TV)

15 Jan

Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:

Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:

A MONSTER CALLS

No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

WEST OF SUNSET

If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

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Building Your Cookbook Library Vol. I

3 Oct

People keep asking which cookbooks they should buy. If you take a look at the photo below, you can see I am as good as person to ask as any! So I decided I would do a few posts about how to practically build your cookbook library.

It should be noted that the photo below was taken after I tossed over 50 cookbooks… and the books are stacked on these shelves two deep… and I am not showing the myriad cookbooks in various bookshelves all over the house… nor the two large drawers under the shelf in the photo that are filled to the brim.

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a small part of my cookbook collection, 2 deep

It’s true, I have a cookbook addiction.

Not only are cookbooks worth buying because, well, you know, you can cook great food from them, the best cookbooks open up different parts of the world. Even better, the best cookbooks are not only about food but about exquisite and passionate writing. There are few things I love to read more than a chef writing vividly about their love for food and their approach to food. Reading cookbooks is a big de-stresser for me. I can get lost in them for hours.

For starters, we need to be semi-practical. I will later do another post about more exotic cookbooks. For this post, I want to recommend the books I return to over and over and over again. Each one has terrific recipes that are for the most part practical and simple, recipes you will make again and again. These books are all terrific references for anything you might need. If you have just these cookbooks I list in this post, and no other, you will enjoy years of amazing food.

FAVORITES

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I’ve written before about a cookbook that changed my life, Patricia Wells at Home In Provence. Read the entire post to find out my experience with both this book and this wonderful woman. Know, however, that the book is filled with easy, glorious dishes that will transform your table and, additionally, your approach to cooking. If you can find a copy of the original book, cover shown above, I highly recommend it as it is a beautiful book. I am including a photo of the original copy of my book, which proves how much I return to it.

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I’ve used this book quite a bit…

Among many favorites in this book, Patricia’s Gratin Dauphinois recipe (potatoes au gratin) is a divine version I make for every holiday meal.

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I also wrote lovingly about Suzanne Goin and her cornbread, the best ever invented. She, too, is a chef that changed how I thought about cooking and food. Her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques is filled with marvelous food I’ve cited many times before on this blog. Two standouts of many, many killer recipes are her Devil’s Chicken Thighs with Braised Leeks (you can simply make the leeks as well, they are great as is and are usually on my holiday table) and her Braised Beef Stew. Check this link for a few more recipes… the 5 recipes in the link are recipes I make all the time. The tart is a go-to I make constantly.

For the rest of my choices, click here ->>> Continue reading

Summer Reading 2014

10 Jul

Time for another yearly post that is always popular: summer book recommendations. I’ve been tearing through a stack of novels the last few weeks and have come across some true finds. Hopefully there will be one or two you might find as enjoyable.

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some of the books I am reading this summer

MICHAEL KORTYA

I have two picks from Michael Kortya, whose two last novels, The Prophet and Those Who Wish Me Dead, are terrific. The Prophet, in fact, is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

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Michael Kortya signing copies of The Prophet

One critic described The Prophet as a cross between Friday Night Lights and In Cold Blood. I could not put it better myself so I’m stealing it here. The novel is a thriller about a killer stalking people in a small town. But the book is really about two estranged brothers, one the popular high school football coach, who warily come together in an attempt to solve the mystery. The book was very, very suspenseful and quite emotional as well. I found myself rather verklempt at the end. The guy can also write one hell of an exciting football game! This is a perfect summer read. It’s a great thriller but it’s much more than that, I found it a deep and emotionally resonant novel that goes way beyond the thriller genre. The Prophet is a great novel, period.

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Kortya’s next novel, the recently released Those Who Wish Me Dead, is an exemplary summer thriller, the kind the cliched phrase ‘Don’t start it unless you have time, you will not be able to put this down!” was made for. It starts off with a bang and never lets up. (I think that also is one of those cliched phrases.) Ignore the bad literary criticism and check this one out, I loved it. 

ORDINARY GRACE

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William Kent Krueger’s latest novel quietly blew me away. If you’ve read Peace Like A River (and if you haven’t, stop everything you are doing right now and read it, you must!) imagine Peace but with a mystery layered into the mix. “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…” starts the novel and there is indeed a lot of death. Don’t let that deter you, Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written coming of age novel, written from the 1st person perspective of the son of the town pastor. Krueger grapples intelligently with God, faith and, yes, grace, but without a trace of sentimentality. It’s a tough novel but not tough to read, if that makes sense. The mystery keeps it driving forward and the richness of Krueger’s writing is continually surprising. To Kill A Mockingbird also kept coming to mind though here the narrator is a teen, not a child. Ordinary Grace is a wonderful novel that makes me excited for Krueger’s next. Oh and it just won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the year. It’s that good.

REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS

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And here we have another ‘wow’. The most emotionally devastating novel of the bunch, Remember Me Like This is a gorgeously written, deeply nuanced novel about a family grappling with the disappearance of their teenage son. It’s not what you would anticipate from that pitch-line, however. One of the many twists is that the novel starts four years after the boy disappeared. Rather than watch the family implode when the boy cannot be found, we start well after the implosion: where most novels would end, this one begins as all hell once again breaks loose in a surprising way. Also a mystery of sorts, it’s an extremely involving narrative that keeps wrenching your heart with revelations and conflict. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, I can heartily affirm the author nailed the milieu perfectly, given I myself grew up on the gulf coast of Texas. Bret Anthony Johnston’s first novel, Remember Me is the announcement of an extraordinary talent.

MR. MERCEDES

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And then there is Stephen King’s latest. I don’t know how the man does it over and over but this novel is so $#%* awesome, just like his last two novels, Sir King is getting his own entire blog post coming up next, The Grand Romances of Stephen King. That’s right, The Grand Romances of Stephen King is the title, I’ve already started it, but feel free to run get this novel as fast as you can. Mr. Mercedes is, ahem, a killer.

Have you any books you’ve read this summer you recommend? Let us know in the comments section below. As always, thanks for reading!

My 2013 Review

30 Dec

I’m having a difficult time believing it is ‘that time of year’ again. Time seems to move so fast. 2013 may have zipped by much too quickly but not without encountering great food and film that deserves mention. Behold, my second annual ‘best of’ list, with the usual extras.

FILM

Movies first! 2013 was terrific for cinema. Sure there were a few absolute train wrecks, including one of the worst movies ever, ever, ever made. It’s about a lawyer everyone calls counselor and a drug deal and beheadings and sex with — not on — a car, and long rambling monologues that make you want to shoot yourself in the head. It’s so bad, like Lord V, it is the movie that must not be named.

Still, I’ve been blessed to see many terrific, often wildly original movies. My favorites:

PRISONERS

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Intense, brutal, devastating, demanding. Prisoners is not the feel good movie of the year, which is one the reasons, even though it received excellent reviews, it is being overlooked in many ‘best of’ lists. Don’t make a mistake and miss this methodical, intricate, morally complex mystery. Why is it so good? First there’s the script: rarely have I encountered a script so tightly woven. Each word and every plot point matters, there is nothing extraneous. The script also packs an emotional wallop and works on many levels. It’s a surprising mystery with red herrings galore, a very complex morality tale with no easy answers (it’s up to the audience to draw conclusions regarding the characters and their actions) and it is a piercing character study, with some of the best acting of the year. Hugh Jackman is astounding. The guy is of course insanely talented. I’ve seen him twice on stage singing his heart out, charming everyone in view. I’ve seen him dark and mysterious. But I never suspected he could go to the angry emotional depths of this film. His performance is ferocious and dangerous, keeping the movie on a trigger wire. He’s matched by Jake Gyllenhaal who has the less showy role but whose work is just as deep and profound. Prisoners had me so overwrought on first viewing I almost left the theatre towards the end, my stomach was in such knots over the possible outcomes of the story. When it was over, I left the theatre and went straight to a bar for a shot of whiskey to calm down. That may not be the most enticing recommendation, given we usually go to the movies for fun and frivolity. Trust me. If you have not yet seen it, check it out. Not only do the intricacies of the mystery hold up on repeated viewing, it will resonate deep into your soul.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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I didn’t think any movie could match Prisoners as ‘best of the year.’ And then I saw The Coen Brothers latest. Like most Coen Brothers movies, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. The movie focuses on one of the most dislikable characters ever to be seen in a motion picture, at least on paper. Llewyn Davis is a dick. The movie does little to redeem him. Which makes the lead performance of Oscar Issac that much more astounding. Issac somehow keeps us interested and engaged in Llewyn, as do the innumerable gifts of The Coens, two of the best filmmakers ever. Ever. Every scene is perfection. The movie is stunningly shot, the directing spot on. T-Bone Burnett supervised the music, so of course the music is incredible… and I don’t even like folk music! The acting across the board is as good as can be. (Is there anything better in life than John Goodman delivering Coen Bros. dialogue? I think not.) Somehow, even though the main character is an asshole and the plot a bit of a downer, the movie was joy to me. I laughed constantly, happy to watch such impeccable filmmaking. I also loved what the movie had to say about art, the struggle to be an artist and also the struggle to live. Beautifully crafted and surprisingly rich in meaning, this ranks with the Coen Brothers best. 

For an excellent, relatively spoiler free 7 minute video about the making of the film and the music, click here.

Click the link for many more picks!

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Summer Picks 2013

6 Jun

We are back! Thanks much for the patience, the Cinema Language seminar was such a success we are doing it yet again in November. In the meantime, I want to give you a few recommendations to get you through the summer. No food this time, as we have a lot of food upcoming, including a ‘Food on the 4th’ menu.

It’s been a great Spring for reading, at least for me. I’ve been blessed with one terrific novel after another. What better time to have a few good books to read than in the summer! Here are a few good reads to get you through:

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

 I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

                                                                                                                           Hazel Lancaster

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I am a little behind on this one. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green made a big splash last year and the film adaptation is in full swing. If you have not yet read it, Get. This. Book. It’s a stunner. Time Magazine’s #1 Fiction Pick for 2012, this book is frequently hilarious, wonderfully romantic and absolutely devastating, sometimes all at once. Yes, the novel is about a 17 year old girl, Hazel, who has cancer. But don’t let that deter you, it’s an easy, thoroughly enjoyable read. Easy as it is, the prose is beautiful and remarkably profound. The Fault In Our Stars was so good that when I finished it, I flipped back to page one and read it again. It’s that good.

A quick aside: this book makes me wonder who determines how books are classified. The Fault In Our Stars is marketed as a ‘young adult’ novel, yet it is one of the more adult and thematically mature books I’ve read in a long while. It’s not that teens shouldn’t be reading it! I’m thrilled they are reading it and that it was so popular. But the ‘young adult’ designation certainly deters some adult readers. It did me. Some people say the designation is because of the age of the main character. Hmph. Just because it’s about a 17 year old girl shouldn’t automatically make it a ‘teen novel’.  To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t a children’s novel just because Scout is a child. I’m curious about this, given so many ‘teen novels’ seem anything but. I said the same thing about the brilliant “Hunger Games” trilogy, a must read if you haven’t yet. That trilogy is one of the darkest and most morally complex stories in print. ‘Teen Novels’? No way. At any rate, do not let that designation cause you to stumble with Fault. Read this book!

NOS4A2

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NOS4A2, published in April, is also one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in a long time. If I wasn’t so amazed at his talent, I would be green with envy over Joe Hill. This is his third novel: three novels in a row, each novel was one of the best of its year. Damn, can this guy write!

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