2017 Reading List
I’m keeping track of all the books I’ve read in 2017. I’m trying to get through at least one per week, with an emphasis on books about women, by female authors.
Listings without a synopsis have a full review on the blog.
3. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Examines the lives and struggles of the creator of Frankenstein and her feminist mother, including their shared fight for acceptance in society and the rights of women.
4. If Walls Could Talk
The companion book to the BBC series examining the history of the home, from technology to clothing, set out by room and covering the Tudor period to present day. If you’re a fan of Worsley’s many TV documentaries, you’ll totally hear her voice when you read this.
5. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
It’s a fairly well-known fact that Hitler was a drug addict, his personal doctor giving him daily “vitamin” shots that contained everything from amphetamines to cocaine to heroin. But Ohler discovers that most of the German army (plus factory workers and housewives) were also addicted to an early form of crystal meth in the form of pep pills. A bit on the dry side once you get the basic facts, but still an interesting read.
6. Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained
A romance writer herself, Rodale holds her own on her side of the debate with regard to society’s attitudes towards romance novels. Why do we look down on them so much, really? Are they that subversive? Is it wrong for women to have safe outlets for their fantasies? However, she misses (or avoids) the main issue – it’s not the Fabio-haired bodice-ripping rakes and clichéd, submissive heroines, it’s that many of these titles are just so poorly written that it makes most people cringe.
8. Bad Girls of Fashion
Jennifer Croll, illustrated by Ada Buchholc
9. Fashion Rebels: Style Icons Who Changed the World through Fashion
Carlyn Cerniglia Beccia
10. Rebel Rebel Anti-Style
Keanan Duffty with Paul Gorman
Read full review.
12: Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia
I think I’ve figured out that “Queen of Bohemia” is code for “wasted her life away at the bottom of a bottle”, since so many of the women who were part of the London and Paris art scenes of the early 20th century seem to have spent more time drinking and partying than actually making art. Despite associations with Modigliani, The Bloomsbury Group and even Alistair Crowley (plus pretty much everyone of note in the art scenes in both cities), Hamnett seemed to have spent most of her adult life impoverished and drunk. Which is a shame because her art is unique and quite moving and she could have done so much more of/with it had she not been an alcoholic. A dry, mostly statistical account, but with a suitably tragic ending.
13: Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives
14: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
A love letter to New York City as an elderly woman, once a famous ad exec, spends New Year’s Eve of 1984 wandering the city and remembering bits of her past. Uneven in a few spots, but generally quite a charming and intriquing story about female independence. (The character, while fictional, is based on a real person.)
15: Save Me the Waltz
While it’s a bit of a mess technically, at least by today’s standards, this is an important work, if only so modern readers can compare the story to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, as they cover the same period and events. For years, people (men) in the publishing industry called Zelda a jealous dilettante, competing with her husband for attention because she was considered mentally ill, but opinions are turning and she is finally getting her due.
16. Catering to Nobody
Diane Mott Davidson
Get past the terrible covers and this long-running series (11 titles in total, since 1990) is actually delightful. So often food-themed fiction is just all food porn with little plot, and this series about a mystery-solving chef from Aspen is quite fun and engaging.
17. The Women Who Made New York
History books remember the men, but women were part of history too. Schelfo, with illustrations by Hallie Heald, honours the many women who built New York City, from the actual female engineers to the artists, philanthropists and fashion icons. Small criticisms – the book is sorted into categories and not everything feels like a good fit, and I dislike the author’s habit of creating segues from one woman to the next instead of just creating stand-alone entries. Still a great, interesting book to gives props to many amazing, inspiring women.
18. This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald
After reading Zelda, I had to go back and revisit Scott. The editor in me would like to write reams about style changes in fiction writing over the past century, because Fitzgerald’s work probably wouldn’t make it out of a slush pile today, but this is an intense piece of writing that, while meandering allegorically a bit too much for my taste (plus the desperate patchwork of styles that move from 1st to 3rd person, through gobs of poetry, and a 1-act play…) , asks some questions that are still relevant today, if you can get past loathing the protagonist.
19. The Beautiful and the Damned
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Written shortly after Scott and Zelda married, he mined their lives, and her diary, for plot twists and witty phrasing. Basically, it’s terribly hard to be upper class and wealthy, you know.
20. Les Parisiennes
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps and death.
21. You May Also Like: Taste In an Age of Endless Choice
I was expecting this to be an analysis of current online rating systems and algorithms, and while Vanderbilt does touch on that, this book is more about our actual taste, what we like and why. Lots of discussion of the “but is it art?” variety. Frustrating in that “Augh I’m just like everybody else!” way.
22. The Girls in the Garden
I wanted to like this suspense/thriller book more than I did. The plot is well developed but many of the characters – including some of the important ones – are not well fleshed-out. Jewell works a bit too hard on the red herrings of the whodunnit plot, instead of giving us better insight into, well, everyone, and their motives. There was an effort to delve into into family connections, alternative lifestyles, teenage jealousy, relationships between mothers and daughters, and sexual coming of age, but it fell short just because few of the characters were knowable, let alone relatable.
23. Rubyfruit Jungle
Rita Mae Brown
This lesbian coming of age novel was one of the earliest examples of the genre and tends to be the benchmark. Funny, sad, witty and inspiring, it tells the tale of Molly who leaves the homophobic south to live her life freely in New York, struggling to survive with some semblance of integrity as she becomes a filmmaker in a traditionally male-dominated career. The likely inspiration for…
A young lesbian gets pregnant by her wealthy gay teacher, marries him, keeps his house for 10 years and then flees with their youngest child. Oh, and she passes herself and her daughter off as black, despite the child being fair and blonde. Things come to a head when her two children, who have grown up not knowing each other, meet at university and end up in a courtroom together. The plot is reasonably predictable, but Zink captures her protagonist’s fear at being found (her husband had threatened to have her committed), the racism of the south, and the ways that people accept each other because of a perceived similarity.
25. So Much Love
This book has received huge accolades but something about it feels disjointed to me. Everyone is affected when a teenage boy and then a young woman go missing, even moreso when the women escapes, killing her captor in the process. Rosemblum writes from the perspective of Catherine, the victim, but also that of her mother, her husband, and the teenage boy’s girlfriend. Which would be fine but chapters in the point of view of her English professor and the ghost of a poet she admires feel like the author is trying too hard to tie everything together somehow, or create a deeper meaning that feels precarious.
26. Men Walking On Water
An exquisitely woven story about Detroit-Windsor rumrunners near the end of prohibition. Schulz offers robust character development, a logical yet intricate plot and a well-written, well-researched novel. Great flow makes it a quick read, even at over 500 pages.
27. The Long Weekend – Life in the English Country House 1918 – 1939
This is less about G&Ts in the library after a day of riding to hounds and more of a history of the country house in general. Which is not a bad thing but does get a little dry what with all those Dukes and Marquesses and such. Basically, there were thousands of country piles and in the interwar years, lots of them got knocked down because the Duke of Snootington lost all his money at cards. Not exactly that, but nobody could afford the upkeep once the riches of the industrial revolution gave way to war and the Great Depression.
28. The Secret Rooms
If you ever needed an excuse for the dissolution of the British aristocracy and the laws regarding estates and primogenitor, look no further than The Secret Rooms in which Bailey discovers a corrupt family secret about the machinations that prevented the sole male heir to a Dukeship from serving at the front during World War 1. Filed under “Holy shit, your mother is a piece of work!” Includes bribery, blackmail and potentially selling your daughter’s virginity to secure a government official’s assistance to protect your son. Plus a massive castle, a celebrity relative, and rooms full of letters with the salient ones gone missing.
29. Modern Girls
Jennifer S. Brown
I am so ready for a sequel to Brown’s first novel. She does a magnificent job of contrasting new and old world interests when a Jewish mother and daughter both find themselves pregnant in 1935 NYC. Rose speaks little English and is still mourning the loss of a son to polio, while her daughter Dottie is young, naive and trying to determine her future. Lots of good suspense here, plus a bit of an uncertain ending that definitely needs a follow-up.
Rita Mae Brown
Honestly, this one is a head-scratcher. The cover shows four flappers on a beach with parasols, but the story is set in the early spring in Maryland in 1920. No flappers, no beach. Cakewalk is a prequel to Brown’s other books in the Runnymede series, but there doesn’t appear to be a central plot, other than plenty of excuses for teenage girls to get into smack-down style cat fights. Didn’t make me want to read the rest of the series.
32. Dying For Chocolate
Dianne Mott Davidson
The second book in Davidson’s food mystery series. Goldy needs to figure out who has murdered psychologist Philip Miller, a death that she is the only witness to. I’m not a huge mystery fan, but a series full of good food (with recipes) and a plot in which I didn’t figure out whodunnit before the big reveal is always an enjoyable read.
33. Speaking in Cod Tongues
I was looking forward to this book but ended up abandoning it about halfway through. It’s well-written and interesting, especially for what is essentially an academic text, but it suffers from both “preaching to the choir” syndrome (anyone who cares about Canadian food has already ready a dozen similar tomes), and over-generalizations because Canada is just too big to cover in a comprehensive manner in one book.
34. The Woman on the Orient Express
Lindsay Jane Ashford
A fictionalized account of Agatha Christie’s trip to Baghdad where she meets her second husband. This novel follows Christie, archaeologist Katherine Wooley and a fictional character whom Christie at first believes to her her ex-husband’s mistress as they travel on the famous train. Nice interweaving of characters with a good amount of intrigue and suspense.
35. Little Sister
While I get what Gowdy is going for with this story of repressed memory and the links between sisters as well as mothers and daughters, I don’t love the mechanics of the main character inhabiting the body of a stranger. Verges too much into the realm of sci-fi/fantasy for me, which usually just makes me want to go read a lot of Colette.
36. Spoiled Brats: Stories
Oh, I get it now. Rich writes for SNL. People call him “the funniest man in America”. But I didn’t find the majority of the stories in this collection funny or even very witty. I also don’t find SNL very funny so that probably explains a lot. Or that I’m getting too old to read “funny” books by young people.
37. I Feel Bad About My Neck
I had always written Ephron off as the writer of popular but uninspiring rom-coms. Which is true but her essays are HIGH-larious.
38. The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life
Less of a primer on how to have grace (and Kaufman, being a dance critic, focuses more on moving gracefully than of being gracious), this book looks at various people in the arts (film, dance and sport) who exhibit grace. There are some references to acting graciously, including a primer written by George Washington, but those looking for a how-to guide should search elsewhere.
39. My Name Is Lucy Barton
Still musing on this one. It was a strong story but the disjointed chapters, almost like bits of memories or notes that should have been more fleshed out, felt weird. There’s always a resonance with stories that include childhood neglect and abuse, the now-adult narrator still carrying the scars and the abusive parents oblivious to the damage they’ve done. Which is hard truth but also frustrates the desire for closure.
Bryan Lee O’Malley
This graphic novel about a chef who angers her house spirit while trying to correct the wrongs from her past is cute and fun. Could use more character development, but I suspect that isn’t always easy with this format.
As a bookish introvert, I’m always looking for the justification to be alone as opposed to part of a crowd. Harris explores different types of solitude, or lack thereof, particularly with regards to the digital age, but doesn’t really get into the hows and whys of living a life alone.
42. The Cake Therapist
An uneven story about a baker returned to her hometown interwoven with a historical mystery. The food porn bits are food porn-y, and the historical bits are historical, and they don’t really blend. Plus a main character with a type of synesthesia who associates flavours with people.
43. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Shut up, all of you, you’re too noisy and exuberant. Introverts are told to be more sociable, to talk more… well you know what, fuck that shit. Imma sit over here in the corner with a book and you can’t make me go to that party. And it’s okay. Susan Cain says it’s okay.
44. This Is Just My Face, Try Not to Stare
She’s much more than Precious. Gabourey Sidibe tells the story of her life in a selection of essays, and she’s brilliantly hilarious. She writes about her family life, her love/hate relationship with social media, and the bizarre story about how she came to take on her first starring role.
45. What a Wallflower Wants
Yup, that was a romance novel. And it was good, for a romance novel, I don’t really know. There was romance. And historical stuff, although some of it wasn’t particularly accurate. And it was fun and light and exactly what it was meant to be.
The restaurant/wine bits of this were accurate and well-written, it was when the author got into character development that it collapsed. Every story needs someone for the reader to relate to, and the narrator, Tess, was mostly just annoying to the point that I nearly ditched this book a few times.
47. I Hear She’s A Real Bitch
Another restaurant book? This bio of Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg is part a detailed account of the restaurant biz and part Agg’s life and sexuality. The two don’t always jive in terms of flow, but she gets points for her transparency and her ability to insert a pop culture reference into any paragraph. (“I don’t want to get all ‘old man yells at cloud’…”)
48. Men Explain Things to Me
Essays on feminism, and all the fun ways certain men try to silence women’s voices.
49. Bride of New France
The main complaint about this book on Goodreads is that the characters are all flat. Which is true, but my main gripe was that it was written in present tense. (“Laure kills the pig” as opposed to “killed”.) A really intense and interesting topic (about the women sent from French workhouses and asylums to marry farmers and trappers in the new world in the 1600s – the British had their own version of this in which the men paid the travel expenses of the women and “owned” them when they arrived in Virginia), that just needed more finesse overall.
50. The Little Paris Bookshop
A book about the power of books. This is an odd little story about a “road trip” (on a barge through the river ways of France), a romance (from the perspective of the male protagonist), and mourning loss. It came together in the end but maybe tried a bit too hard along the way.
This story overlaps Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the below stairs staff in the Bennet household. There’s dirty linen (both kinds), homosexuality, children born out of wedlock, and that darn Mr. Wickham who is even creepier than you were previously led to believe. Individual opinions on this will vary depending on how you feel about Austen and her work — it will either be a bit of fun or a total travesty.
52. The Nazi Officer’s Wife
This true story about a Jew from Vienna who rode out the Holocaust in plain sight, using a friend’s identity papers and married to a member of the Nazi party. A different perspective on the horrors of WW2 that demonstrates how women had to be cunning and resourceful to stay alive.
53. Sex Object
While this is listed as a memoir, I expected this to be more a collection of essays than a traditional biography, so once it became clear that most of these stories were just lists of the guys Valenti gave hand jobs to in high school, I lost interest.
54. Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia
Julian Fellowes and Lindy Woodhead
A fairly formulaic Fellowes work that would fill your historical fiction bingo card: lines of secession; marrying out of your class; an out of wedlock child put up for adoption; a rogue who gets up to no good when he’s cut out of said line of secession, etc, etc. Plus some below stairs characters betraying their employers.
55. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”?
56. The Dollhouse
Switching back and forth from present day to 1952, this novel set in the famous Barbizon Hotel in New York tells the story of a mysterious recluse who has been living at the hotel since the 1950s. Full of fashion, jazz, food, and enough twists to keep things interesting.
57. Toronto Public Etiquette Guide
This tiny little pocket-size guide is not what I was expecting. Discussing the peculiarities of Toronto’s local (and sometimes neighbourhood-specific) rules for living, it would be better as a full-size book with more in-depth background. Plus, etiquette or not, I’m not a fan of the subtle inferences in the cycling section that traffic laws are mere suggestions for anybody on two wheels.
58. The Jemima Code – Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks
This is a brilliant collection of cookbooks that traces the history of African American cooking, as well as a general history of how white people interacted with their black slaves/servants. From books and articles written in dialect purporting to be by older female cooks to collections written by white people who grew up on plantations, staking a claim to Mammy’s recipes and calling them their own. Plus the noted southern food writers who almost completely ignored the contribution of African American to the larger realm of southern cuisine.
59. Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto
A justification for anybody who ever chose to sit at home with a book instead of heading out to a party or nightclub. Rufus dwells a bit too much on society’s supposed thoughts on loners (apparently the world thinks we’re all serial killers or terrorists), and spends a lot of time insisting that all loners are creative. I’d have preferred some wisdom – how to make the most of being a loner, how to tell when it’s time to get out and talk to another human being, that kind of thing.
60. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter
I’m a bit torn on this one. I’m not sure the bits of dry, witty, funny, brilliant insight make up for the utterly self-involved parts. And there are a fair amount of utterly self-involved parts. Interesting as the voice of a woman of colour sharing her life experiences, but I feel as if the author doesn’t yet have the wisdom she thinks she does.
61. The Coincidence of Coconut Cake
Amy E. Reichert
This was a cute, light romance-type story that was ruined for me by the gaping plot hole regarding the main plot point of Al’s review (as in, that’s not how a review for a mainstream, established newspaper happens – EVER!) of Lou’s restaurant. Reichert could have managed to tell the story and keep to a similar – but more accurate – plot, but it would have taken more work and more research. Likely not noticeable or important to anyone not in the food writing field, but it wrecked an otherwise charming novel for me.
62. Difficult Women
Nope. I’m counting this one because I got more than halfway through it, but I didn’t like much at all about this collection of short stories about sad, depressed, often-abused women. I was expecting badass broads who take no shit, and got a collection of stories about women being raped and abused.
63. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.
64. The Painted Girls
Cathy Marie Buchanan
A fictional story of the girl who modeled for Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years statue that intertwines the stage, the philosophy of Emile Zola, and the impoverished living conditions – which led to crime and addiction – in Belle Epoque Paris. It was charming and engaging but perhaps not as memorable as it hoped to be.
65. Nature Fix
Hey! Go outside and sit under a tree. Do it regularly to feel better. Williams examines the science and philosophy of being out in nature and it turns out that it’s good for our brains.
66. The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class
While the Victorians bought all the things to impress those around them, today the “aspirational class” spends their money on less conspicuous purchases such as education, household services, and experiences such as travel. They buy fair trade coffee and heirloom tomatoes to feel important about their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. A fairly dry read with lots of data, which will probably make you hate rich people just a bit.
67. Jane Austen – The Secret Radical
If your experience of Austen is to look at her books as sweet romance novels, this might be an eye-opener. Under the guise of romance, verging on Gothic, Austen subtly slipped various serious themes into each book, dealing with slavery, primogeniture, enclosure laws, and other current issues of the time. Some of these will whiz over a modern reader’s head, whether because of the context and time frame of the issues or because Austen was making an effort to be intentionally subversive. Kelly does tend to go off on some speculative tangents, such as suggesting that Austen might actually have died of a drug overdose administered by those caring for her, but I will keep this in hand for the next time I read any of Austen’s novels.