I loved the 2013 novel Life After Life, which told the story-- stories-- of Ursula Todd and all the lives she might have had, many of which involved surviving the London Blitz. I was delighted this year to find that author Kate Atkinson has written A God in Ruins, a companion piece to Life After Life, which expands on the story of Teddy, Ursula's brother. I love this character, a man who survives real horror, and who, as the pilot of an RAF bomber plane, drops horror on countless others. After surviving when so many pilots have not, he decides that after the war, he must be kind. And he mostly succeeds in being kind to the people around him for the rest of his long life.

Author Kate Atkinson writes so beautifully that she makes me want to stop the endless stream of books flying at me and have myself a little Kate Atkinson festival. It's always so delicious to discover an author you love who's already written tons of books. Maybe I’ll do it. A God in Ruins is glorious, a book about flight, about the terrible cost of war in terms of lost lives, about the value of one single life, about time itself. The narrative skips backward and forward in time and tells stories from Teddy's life and from the lives of the people he loves. But then, within each story, you find yourself shooting backward in time and sometimes forward into the future, so all of that past and future informs the present. I kept thinking about time, how it changes us-- and sometimes can't change us one bit-- about how every moment can be affected by all the moments before-- and how, in our memory, those moments can be colored by everything that comes after, too.

I've read and watched a number of things lately in which time has been used to allow you to get to know the characters in deep and interesting ways. I loved Richard Linklater’s wonderful movie Boyhood, shot in twelve consecutive summers. And then I happened to come across Here, a fascinating new graphic novel set entirely in a corner of a single living room over years and years. It became apparent that I needed to make a list of books and movies in which time plays its very important part, and you can find that list right here. And you just might need this list to keep you entertained until May 5 or so, when A God in Ruins is going to be officially released. (I was lucky enough to get my hands on an Advance Reading Copy, but most readers have to wait.)

It captured my imagination when a colleague told me that Roy Blount Jr. said of Charles Portis that he “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” I listened to the audiobook of True Grit soon thereafter, and I agree. He’s my favorite kind of funny, too. The humor all emerges out of-- and illuminates-- beautifully  realized characters. In this, I’d compare him to Jane Austen as much as anyone else-- Jane Austen without the courtships but with more shooting and swearing, and with a very different set of social expectations. The conversations around the campfire are priceless. And in True Grit, as in Austen's novels, the most important thing is to be a fair and strong person, even in trying circumstances.

You might already know the story of True Grit. A 14-year-old girl is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she hires a crusty U.S. Marshall to find the murderer and make sure he is punished. Much against his will, she rides into Indian Territory with him to see the job done. The Coen brothers flick absolutely did this story justice, but I'm glad I turned to the book (actually, the audiobook) to enjoy the elegant writing. I vow that there will be a lot more Charles Portis in my life in the future.

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch and The Secret History, was the voice actor for True Grit, and she was perfect. If you’re interested in experiencing more classic works read by their ideal voice actor, take a look at this list, and please let me know if you think of any more audiobooks that need to be added to it.

I like lots of music that’s just plain pretty--I'll admit that I have a weakness for harmonies and a sprightly fiddle line-- but there’s something especially bracing for me about listening to women singing loud, singing honestly with little regard for “just plain pretty.” It makes me feel a little freer myself, like swearing sometimes does, like quitting jobs to take off traveling used to feel.

The latest album to scratch that itch for me is Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love. The songs are catchy, with quirky, inventive guitar. The lyrics are all about power, getting it or fighting it. My favorite song right now is the first single, “Bury Our Friends.”

We speak in circles
We dance in code
Untamed and hungry
On fire and in cold
Exhume our idols and bury our friends
We're wild and weary but we won't give in

My heart gives this little leap when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sing that “won’t give in”.  The vocals are howled in No Cities to Love.  I read an article that said Tucker, in particular "sounds like a badly injured opera soprano, or like an enraged mother hyena.” She does, and it’s great. This whole album made me think of the story that Tina Fey told in Bossypants about Amy Poehler saying “I don’t care if you like it” , a story that seems to be resonating with me and a lot of women I’ve talked to lately. We want to be ourselves. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. We don’t care if you don’t like it.

One thing you will like is that this album, as of this writing, is available both on CD and on MCL’s streaming music and video service, Hoopla. So if you have a library card and an Internet connection, you could be listening to it right now. After that, check out this list I made of other loud, honest female voices. Let me know if there are artists I missed who I should have included!

I’ve said this before, but for me, cooking in winter-- after the holidays and too many cookies-- is all about vivid flavors, about food that both tastes good and will make me and my family feel good when we eat it. So I was delighted when my hold on Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More came in.

The first Ottolenghi cookbook I read was Plenty, which came out a few years ago. My husband and I both like to cook, and we look at a lot of recipes, which can make us kind of blasé about a new cookbook, but Plenty was exciting. We filled it up with post-its and started cooking from it, and eventually we just bought the book. We’re omnivores, but Ottolenghi has such an original way of celebrating vegetables that it was a while before we even paid attention to the fact that the recipes in the book are meatless.

Unlike Plenty, which focuses on Mediterranean recipes, Ottolenghi’s new cookbook widens its scope to include a range of world cuisines. I had some friends over for dinner recently and made a cheesy, quiche-like cauliflower cake inspired by an English dish and a delicious Thai lentil soup that knocked our socks off with its combination of star anise, ginger, lime juice, coconut milk and Kaffir lime leaves, along with a pretty topping of finely sliced sugar snap peas. If you love your vegetables, you must take a look at this cookbook, which offers delights like an arugula salad with caramelized figs and feta, pea and mint croquettes, bell peppers stuffed with buttery rutabaga and goat cheese, and smoky polenta fries. Yum. The hold list is still kind of long, so you might want to check out this list of other excellent international cookbooks while you wait.

I read a lot of great books last year, so I had a hard time choosing, but (fanfare, please!) the best book I read in 2014 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It came out in 2010, but I didn't read it for years because the title misled me into thinking it was a different kind of book altogether. The goon in the title is time, and the main theme of this book is how time changes us, turns us into someone we wouldn't have recognized when we were young. This could be a real bummer of a theme, too, but the book is so smart and engaging that the theme just kind of washed over me because I was completely involved with its characters and delighted by its fine writing.

Goon Squad seems like more of a collection of short stories than a novel, at first, but the characters are connected to each other, sometimes very loosely. The narrative bounces around in time from about the 1970s into the 2020s and is mostly about people involved with the music and entertainment industry. There's a very moving PowerPoint presentation, a punk rock show at a club in LA in 1979, a celebrity journalist who tries to rape the starlet subject of his interview, a lion attack in Africa,  and an erotic kiss delivered to the unwilling lips of a Mother Superior. Which is to say that this book is wildly entertaining on top of being incredibly, dazzlingly good.

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