The Young Victoria
Looking for something more intelligent than your standard romantic comedy for a Valentine’s Day movie night? Try The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and screenwritten by Julian Fellowes (for all of you Downton Abbey fans). Besides the fact that Ms. Blunt is too pretty to play the reportedly dowdy monarch, the film is more historically accurate than you may expect. And the coda about the queen’s mourning is so lovely that I still think about it on a regular basis. To my mind, this is the most romantic movie to come out in recent years.
So, you’ve probably heard about Pulphead, the much-talked-of essay collection by Louisville native John Jeremiah Sullivan which showed up on many of last year’s Top Ten lists. Sullivan brings an intelligent Southern sensibility to an eclectic assortment of topics: he discusses Christian rock festivals, Axl Rose, 19th century botanists, and Tennessee cave painting with equal authority.
Among the essays are several about music, all of which make you want to immediately hear the artists he’s discussing. He says things like, “Anyone with an interest in American culture should find a way to hear this record,” or spends several paragraphs analyzing Axl’s “Devil Woman” voice (you know, the one at the end of “Sweet Child of Mine”).
To that end, here’s the accompaniment you’ll need to fully appreciate Pulphead:
Essay: Upon This Rock
Back to the Rock
The Essential Michael Jackson
Essay: The Final Comeback of Axl Rose
Appetite for Destruction
Essay: Unknown Bards
American Primitive, vol. 2: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939)
Essay: Unknown Bards
Anthology of American Folk Music
Essay: The Last Wailer
If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to read more this year, let me suggest that you do a catalog search for New York Review Books Classics. What will come up is a diverse and wonderful series of books whose only common denominator is that they have been rescued from oblivion and re-issued in lovely trade paperback editions. The bizarre (and addictive) thing about this series is that no matter what I’ve chosen, it’s as if someone has handpicked the book especially for me.
Wish Her Safe at Home
by Stephen Benatar
The interior life of an unreliable narrator. (1982)
The Dud Avocado
by Elaine Dundy
The madcap adventures of a young American expat in Paris in the 1950′s. (1958)
by Caroline Blackwood
A widow is preyed upon by a wheelchair-bound con man, with surprising results. (1984)
Hons and Rebels
by Jessica Mitford
The autobiography of the hilarious, rebellious, adventurous Mitford sister (not Nancy). (1960)
by John Edward Williams
Reminded me of Richard Yates’ stories of suburban angst and marital discord, with some Midwestern Booth Tarkington thrown in. (1965)
The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story
by Susan Hill
This delivers exactly as promised–a chilling ghost story in the Victorian Gothic style, with excellent atmosphere and a great narrator. It reminded me a lot of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, although this is novella-length. I’m looking forward to the movie, which is coming out in February 2012 with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role. The author, Susan Hill, also wrote a delightful book for bibliophiles called Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home.
I was a bit obsessed with memoirs this year. Here are my top six:
by Rodney Crowell
Try this if you like Rick Bragg‘s work–no prior knowledge of Rodney Crowell required.
Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
by Claire Dederer
I could not resist this book’s charm. I thought it was funny and insightful and touching and smart.
Townie: A Memoir
by Andre Dubus III
This phenomenal memoir is like a potent mixture of Tobias Wolff’s autobiography This Boy’s Life with the movie The Fighter.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller
Another evocative account of life in Africa from the author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
by Kristin Kimball
Try this if you liked Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Fiction Ruined My Family
by Jeanne Darst
Darst’s memoir describes how alcoholism and her father’s tortured pursuit of “the writer’s life” impacted her family. The result is honest, surprisingly funny, and never bitter. For fans of Dead End Gene Pool.
This is my favorite time of the year, when all of the year-end “best of” lists come out. Here are my five picks for the best fiction titles published in 2011:
The Cat’s Table
by Michael Ondaatje
Parentless children having seafaring adventures? Yes, please. Also try Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family.
by Charles Frazier
Try this if you like Night of the Hunter, the North Carolina mountains, or Dan Chaon.
by Jo Ann Beard
A 1970’s childhood, perfectly rendered.
What Alice Forgot
by Liane Moriarty
This literary chick lit, reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, is addictive and thought-provoking.
Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles
The life of a single girl in New York City in the 1930’s.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West
by Dorothy Wickenden
Looking for a gift for your mother or grandmother? Look no further. This true story about two girls who venture out to rural Colorado in 1916 to teach school reminded me a lot of the joy I got out of reading Catherine Marshall’s Christy back in high school. I would also recommend it for fans of Maud Hart Lovelace. My grandmother’s copy is already wrapped and ready to go.