,1. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
I believe I first encountered the word "ballon" in an eerie Isak Dinesen story, "The Deluge at Norderney", from her Seven Gothic Tales, also available here.. From there, I fell in love with the concept of ballet as the perfect expression of lightness. And this book by Maggie Shipstead is the most perfect expression of that: a ripping good read and the best book about ballet I've ever read.
2. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I'm a little late to the Rainbow Rowell party, and it's a big one, so I'm surprised I missed it for so long. Not Harry Potter big but pretty darn sizable. I actually also read Eleanor and Park this year, and I think, also technically speaking, it's the better written book. Plus (my third technically) Fangirl came out in 2013, but I read it in 2015.... and hey! Whose blog is it anyway? I make up the rules around here. Besides, Carry On, which is sort of a sequel to Fangirl, did come out in 2015, and I also read that. As for Carry On, I liked it a lot (more in the idea of a YA Harry Potter satire than the execution), but not quite as much as Fangirl,. Fangirl is a love story about a reclusive writer, who searches for her voice and identity at a large university; there's plenty I can relate to right there, but even if you yourself are not a shy, fangirly type who favors extraverted men-- and I am possibly as introverted as a human can be and married to as extraverted an opposite as I could humanly find-- there's plenty other aspects of the story to enjoy like the aforementioned Harry Potterish fangirl stuff the MC writes. And everyone likes Harry Potter. So, anyway, all that's to say, if you enjoy YA, join our Rainbow Rowell party. She's my favorite--as in she's the most fun, most inventive, playful, witty, fearless-- writer writing in the genre at the moment.
3. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon
Okay, and now this one came out in 2005, so I placed it farther down the list, but it is my number one book in 2015 that helped me the most. I found it right after my baby was born, and it actually helped me look forward to long, sleepless white nights when I could get a lot of reading done. There's two more books in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books Series as well and maybe there'll be more. He's an author that can tell a story, write beautifully, make you think, and create lovable characters-- very, very few can tick off each box for me, and this thriller/ mystery/ love story about a boy with a passion for books coming of age in Franco's Barcelona did all that for me and more.
4. The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola
And now this one's from another century! I really am cheating at this game. Equally shamefully, it's my first time reading that old master of naturalism. Up until now, I've avoided reading Zola for two reasons: I wanted to read him in French, but didn't have the vocab. I've finally acknowledged that I don't know if it will ever be quite as pleasurable for me to read 19th century writers in another language. I learned French as a child, so I'm fluent, but my vocabulary isn't anywhere near as expansive as it is in English. Also, most readers probably don't even realize it, but when we read older books, our eyes recognize and skim over odd words-- like the words for the parts of a carriage. Those words catch you up when you're reading in another language. I don't know if I really know what a "button head screw" is for example, but it wouldn't hitch me up too much if I read an odd descriptor of a screw. I'd see "screw" and think got it, screw it, carry on.
In French, I'd have to look that up, only to realize it didn't matter and probably wasn't a word I'd ever encounter again. That sort of thing ruins the flow of a story, especially repeated twice a page. Anyway, sad but appropriate in this case to say, I finally read the wonderful Zola, and this particular Zola, because the bright cover attracted my eye. It's appropriate, because The Ladies' Paradise is all about the birth of the modern shopaholic-- i.e. all about the seduction of the shopper and advertising and bingeing on fashion and spectacle. It's also one of Zola's more upbeat novels, the 11th from his Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 and actually a good one to start with for that reason-- its upbeatedness.
Also, in English, it wasn't work at all to read it. The lush descriptions of clothes and home goods did sometimes become a little lengthy-- I wouldn't recommend this one to my husband, who has zero patience for description of any kind let alone gorgeous ones of outfits-- but I didn't mind. It was like reading the best-written catalogue ever, and I enjoyed the story, too. Plus, he's a very keen observer of humanity, something that's rare to come across in more modern writers. I feel like 19th century writers could find just the right words to describe the soul and heart in a way that I can't name anyone writing today accomplishing quite as handily. Anyway, I can't wait to dip into more of his books, although I will stick to English for anything written earlier than the 20th century.
5. Tied at 5-- Some Others I Enjoyed This Year But That Plenty of Others Have Written Plenty More (and Better) About
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The man writes like a modern Tolkien/Gunther Grass on speed. He's funny, insanely passionate, and a good storyteller, and he does these really odd, wonderful things to English as a bilingual writer, things that I wish I could emulate with French-English, only, in my case, without sounding like a pretentious ass. Mais, hélas, c'est impossible. See? If you speak French in any English context (or arguably in any context), even if you are French, for some reason you immediately sound like a pretentious ass. But Diaz just sounds so cool interspersing his English with Dominican expressions.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I found this book to be uneven but a mostly pleasurable read with many intensely beautiful passages. A must if you are like me and love to read books about characters in New York City. However, the vivid descriptions of child abuse and self-harm might be too much for some readers. *spoiler alert* I also found the MC's lifelong pity party a little much by the end of the book, not to mention the ridiculous levels of success that he and all his friends achieve. More and more, I wanted to bash them all over the head and steal their fancy lives... No, not really, then I'd have to give up my kids, but...sigh... you can really tell the author used to write luxury articles for the New York Times Magazine. My compassion for his suffering withered with each million dollar purchase the MC made. (Joking, not joking?) Still, it's refreshing to read a queer love story, especially if you're beyond tired of the old rom-com formula.
My Struggle (Vol. 2) by Karl Ove Knaussgard
I was as scared to read this as I was Zola, but it was even more accessible. Knausgaard can write about brushing his teeth and keep you on the edge of your seat. Plus, if you're a writer with kids, you'll find a lot you can relate with him about. More on this book and my first foray into the wonderful word of autofiction here.
6. Books by Friends in 2015: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep, All in Letters Bound in String by Samantha Memi, Proof of Forever by Lexa Hillyer
7. Books I wish I'd had the chance to read/ TBR 2016
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Life in Motion by Misty Copeland, The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, Asking for It by Louise O'Neill, The Feasts of Lesser Men by Stephen Parrish,
And here's to the best books of 2016... when me and my friends Roz and Cynthia**'s first books are all coming out! AH!!!
**I couldn't find a cover of Blue Hallelujahs yet, but if you click on Cynthia's picture, it will take you to the publisher's page, which includes more information on the book and some excerpts of her poetry.
Having a dorky, good time at Sesame Place just outside Philadelphia.
Dear New York,
It’s going to be that kind of letter. The Dear John, it’s not you, it’s me, chockfull of BS, passive-aggressive kind of letter. The kind of letter where, with hope, we both find closure.
Okay, maybe you don’t need any closure. You’re used to those who love you, leaving you, moving on, unable to swing the ups and downs of life with you anymore.
But I need to write this letter for me. I need get over you. I need to move on.
I’ve already literally moved on, too. To Philadelphia a few weeks ago. It’s a new city in a way you’ve never been new to me, figuring, as you do, in my very first memories: that winter day my dad took me into the city, for example. I was five or six, watching businessmen hurrying past the homeless on the sidewalk, stuffed like frozen meat in their sleeping bags. Juxtaposed with the luxury of the hotel my father ran near Times Square, you jarred me online. That was the essential Peter Pan moment that crystallized my whole life. Who wants to be a proper grownup if it means being so entirely without a heart?
Actually, all my family's lore originates in you. My French father came to New York, fleeing political persecution, the same as my mother’s Russian grandparents did a century before, although he drove a cab, learning English on the job, folding and unfolding a giant street map (which I would give anything to go back in time and witness), while they never learned English but still lived the American dream, building a millinery factory in Brooklyn, and goddammit, I wish our family had kept their mitts on that property.
But Philly? That's a city I’ve previously had no connection to other than a morbid enjoyment of The Sixth Sense and that time you got snowed in, New York, all the way up to your Broadway hoo-ha, until the cabs were slipping and sliding and stopped dead, and my husband and I concocted the most top-heavy Bloody Marys ever and watched all of Season 1 and 2 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which really could be set in any bar anywhere and doesn’t count for much.
Still, I need to give Philly a chance beyond devoting the occasional binge-watching session to it. I know none of the most important events of my adult life happened here—I didn’t meet my husband here or become pregnant with my first child here, have my first story published here, or even almost deliver a fifth-generation New Yorker in the back of a taxi racing up the FDR to Mount Sinai.
And, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe all that drama has been a touch co-dependent. Sure, our relationship was exciting. I made a lot of friends and learned a lot about life, know for a fact that shows like Sex and the City and Girls are almost unbelievably racist, because you have to GO OUT OF YOUR WAY not to have a multicultural cast of friends in a city like New York.
We had some of the best times of my life. Even had some of the worst ones, too. The night my grandfather died in that hospital in Queens comes to mind. Another race to get there in time, only that one didn’t work out so well. And mostly just because, it's a little known fact Queens is almost as impenetrable as big, bad Brooklyn—as in this Thomas Wolfe short story, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”.
But my grandfather did know all those streets-- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens. All of 'em, like the back of his veiny, crabbed, craps-playing hands. He was like me. He never wanted to leave New York, ever. I felt him lingering there that night. Maybe it was my imagination as I walked beside the Hudson, frozen into jigsaw pack ice, mourning my grandfather more than I feared muggers at midnight. There was a vastness I'd never perceived before over the moonlit, ice-white bay and sky, a vastness that could encompass all souls. Maybe that was just hopeful thinking. Maybe it was a stage of grief. Maybe that was just an example of how hopelessly in love I am with you, New York, that I imagine you could be... well, not heaven, but maybe another ring of eternity for lost souls like my grandfather and me, like purgatory.
Anyway, speaking of Thomas Wolfe, that's what woke me up to the truth of the situation, how bad I've got it, this thing for you. I was unpacking my books today, and I realized I’ve assembled a small library devoted to you.
There’s Elizabeth Hardwick and Henry James’ The New York Stories. E. B. White’s Here is New York. Ian Frazier’s Goodbye New York. (Although the title is a misnomer. He doesn’t appear to actually leave. Thank goodness.) Teju Cole's luminescent Open City and Jamaica Kincaid’s crystal-hard shard of a book Lucy about an immigrant’s experience. There's Hana Yanigihara’s A Little Life, which is technically only half New York, but what a half. There’s The Goldfinch, of course, and Jan Morris’s Manhattan ’45 and most of Salinger. There’s Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland about New York bankers and on and on.
The point is: set a book in New York, and like a sucker I’ll buy it.
But I get how fangirly I sound, too. I'm a savvy city-dweller, after all, and I cringe for how hollow, avowing love for New York has become like all those partiers living it up, thinking that's why New York is the tits. Not getting it at all. Thinking it's all about what New York can do for them and never about what they can do for the city, for the people struggling to live there, for the generations who have made up its history, given it its texture, lured the artists struggling to create there as they've always struggled. No, it's not the center of the world, and it's silly to say it is, but it’s been the center of my world my whole life, my own little life.
My Brooklynese mother tried to take the New York out of me; she moved me South at eight, but by then it was too late. I could never be convinced to call sneakers "tennis shoes", and every time my mouth formed the diphthong in "y’all" I felt another New York angel die.
But I’m not convinced anymore either that New York is still the place for me. I have two children now, and New York is a hard place to be a tender thing. As much as I love you, New York, I didn't enjoy being pregnant in you. I did not enjoy feeling vulnerable or weak on your tough streets. It's gotta be asked; what is making you so Tiffany diamond-hard that the old, the weak, the sick, the very young get broken against you?
Is New York becoming a gated community? Is Sex and the City becoming a prophesy rather than a somewhat trashy, escapist fantasy? Is Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens for that matter) becoming a city only the rich are welcome in?
So, word on the street is Philadelphia is a diverse family-friendly city, or, in your provincial parlance, "like a sixth borough of New York". That might not sound glamorous or exciting, but I’m not exactly glamorous or exciting anymore myself. With two young kids hanging off me like little koala bears, I’m an entity not an individual ego out to get what it can get. I don’t mean to be snide, but perhaps you could take a page from my book, New York.
(Hey, I’m a woman, New York, you knew I’d have to get the last word.)
No man is an island, New York, not even you. (Cause let’s not forget the boroughs. Although Staten Island is technically an island like Manhattan. So that does make you at least 2/5 island. Ach, whatever.)
So it’s not me, then. Let's agree to agree on that: it is you.
I’m leaving you, New York.
But maybe I’ll come back someday.
What I’m saying is; I hope we can be friends.
For another story featuring another homesick New Yorker, please check out my Danahy Fiction Prize-winning story in Tampa Reivew's 50th anniversary edition, available for sale here.
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.