Helen Garner – Everywhere I Look
There’s no going wrong with anything Helen Garner’s written, from the fiction (The Children’s Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room are favorites of mine, but that’s not to sell Monkey Grip and other things short) to the journalism and nonfiction. Everywhere I Look compiles Garner’s writing for a variety of publications, and the selections are impeccable. If “Dreams of Her Real Self” doesn’t at least put a lump in your throat, you’re probably dead inside, and “The Insults of Age” is a frank and funny depiction of not the clinical hardships of getting older but the cultural ones. Everything here is smart and mordant and undeniably alive. Put it at the top of your 2017 list if you didn’t get to it this year.Dorothy Whipple – Someone at a Distance
So few books hit the sweet spot Dorothy Whipple found in Someone at a Distance. It first appeared in 1953, and Persephone Books in the UK reissued it as a classic in 2008. It was originally considered popular fiction, but the characterization is complex, and the tone is never less than perfectly appropriate as Whipple takes us through a range of emotional registers. The plot is deceptively dramatic after what feels like a low key start. Probably the most purely pleasurable bit of reading I did all year, like an even more absorbing version of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novel The Tortoise and the Hare.
Neue Galerie in New York is one of the greatest places on earth (as is Galerie St. Etienne). Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933 accompanied an exhibition there that closed in January, but it seems to me an exceptional example of a book that goes beyond just the work on offer to take the measure of the art and culture that marked a time and place. It covers everything from fine art to architecture to fashion to film, and the essays are absolutely worthy of the visuals they accompany. My initial interest was the visual art (“Art and Anti-Art in Berlin Around 1920″ doesn’t disappoint), but Dorothy Price’s, “The New Woman in 1920s Berlin,” and Sharon Jordan’s “The Rhythm of Our Time is Jazz: Popular Entertainment during the Weimar Republic” are remarkable as well. Jürgen Müller reinterprets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s just a glorious book.James Beard – Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown James Beard’s actual personality feels a bit lost now, culturally. He’s more a name – namesake of the James Beard Foundation, Awards, etc – than a distinct individual. These letters were all written to Helen Evans Brown between 1952 and 1964. Brown was a formidable figure on West Coast cuisine in the 1950s and 60s. They feel a little bit in the MFK Fisher vein, with Beard doing a lot to establish a broader, more adventurous food culture in the US, but he’s funnier than Fisher, and ultimately the mix of humor, self-deprecation and genuine confidence on display make him irresistible. Take this for example, on a piece he’d contributed to for Life magazine in 1955:
The Life steak article is awful. They took a bit from everyone, put it all together and called it steak. The picture of Mr. Quincey Jones broiling steaks over hot flames is enough to make you woops.
I’m not part of the “2016 was the worst year ever” brigade, if only for the fact that prior to November, a lot of memorable, good things happened. For that matter, a handful have since. Still, in grim, uncertain moments, a book like this one is a welcome relief.
Matthew Desmond – Evicted
In Evicted, Desmond manages the remarkable balancing act of applying both empathy and realism in looking at the lives of several Milwaukee residents whose housing situations range from fluid to frighteningly tenuous. He doesn’t tack on a neat and tidy ending, and this isn’t the kind of work that provides easily digestible lessons or policy proposals, though it might prompt a few of the latter, with any luck. If the James Beard book was a trip into a beautiful segment of the past, Evicted, I’m afraid, is a gimlet eyed look ahead to the coming years for a lot of Americans.
- John McIntyre