Books I have read lately (April 2018)

Since last time, in no particular order. This was not a very enjoyable reading month for me, for reasons that are unclear. I didn’t get much read and I think that slowed me down — i.e., as I enjoyed my reading less and less I became less committed to it. However, I also did read a couple of things that were really long. I think most of what I read is 350 pp or less, and a book that length is something I can read in a day or two. This time around, however, I read several long things and started several more. Some of the ones I’m halfway through will make it onto the May “highly recommended” list.

Highly recommended

None in this category for April. Aggravating.


Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Saw it recommended somewhere. The only Israeli cookbook I own (and it’s not really an Israeli cookbook) is Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s Jerusalem. I learned a lot from this one (my political concerns aside, insofar as the book is framed as a memorial to his brother, who was killed in an IDF exchange with Hezbollah snipers). His basic insight is that the general parameters of kashrut (no pork or shellfish, no meat / milk combinations) are the approximate borders that make Israeli cuisine coherent. I probably will never make tehina myself,  or ice-cream from it, but I am definitely planning to substitute crispy chicken skin for bacon in bacon-wrapped situations, brine my potatoes in pickle juice before frying, and try out some of these other recipes. Of particular interest to me — periodic discussion of how “Israeli” dishes such as tabbouleh vary in preparation by region. There are a lot of recipes here that come from tables as opposed to restaurant kitchens — which is my preference in cookbooks. I will probably buy this one used eventually.

Joe Dunthorne, The Adulterants. Recommended in the literary press. A dryly biting satire of middle-class millennials in London in 2011: Ray, a tech writer, breaks up his marriage when his wife, NHS nurse Garthene, discovers him injured after spending the night in a friend’s wife’s bed. There isn’t a real plot here — it’s more sort of a series of episodic observations about millennial life, set against the background of the riots of that year. Its snarkiness occasionally ventures onto the territory of hipster unlikeability, but there are so many hilarious one-liners here and shots over the bow of middle class pretensions. Due to the constant stream of jokes and irony, this might actually work better as an audiobook. Not memorable but funny, if that makes any sense.

Campi & Zabus, Magritte: This Is Not A Biography. (I think this was published in multiple European languages simultaneously; there are German and French editions.) Picked up because Die Pö had it on her reading list. It’s a graphic novel introduction to Magritte’s biography and oeuvre. The protagonist, Charles Singulier, buys a bowler had at a flea market, and discovers it won’t let itself be removed until he learns the “secrets” of Magritte’s life. The comic book format allows for a lot of visual inventiveness, and if you’re familiar with even some of Magritte’s work, you will see many references and jokes about it in various frames. It’s a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t really engage with any of the problematic aspects of Magritte’s work beyond his overlap with advertising. This is appropriate for someone who knows nothing about surrealist art, but you will get more out of it if you are familiar with Magritte’s work first.

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage. One of my Black History Month picks. And now an Oprah’s Book Club selection as well. Widely profiled in the literary press. A young African-American couple’s marriage is put under pressure when the husband is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit; in the wake of the enforced separation, the marriage succumbs to pressures and problems that were already there, which come to a head when the man is acquitted and released before the end of his sentence. I think the main thing to understand about this book is that the title is accurate — it’s more about the marriage than about the structural injustice of black incarceration in the U.S.; it’s more intimate than political. In that sense, it is a perfect Oprah pick, but that is the main thing that kept me from promoting it to “highly recommended.” It’s a solid portrait of the kind of tensions that afflict marriages in the U.S. in general and African-American couples in particular, and it has a lot of convincing dialogue and plotting. I just, in the end, sorry, didn’t think it was really about the thing that I was more interested in, which was the question of how incarceration affects Black families. It’s a good book but probably the wrong one for me.

Cris Beam, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. I’m generally interested in the over-exposure of “empathy” as a proposed solution to every social problem of the moment, but the title would have put me off this book. What got me to pick it up was a disastrous interview I heard on Wisconsin Public Radio with the author. WPR has a new morning host who, I think, possibly doesn’t read the books she’s interviewing the authors about, has never learned how to ask a followup question, and most irritatingly, phrases every single question as an accusation. Then of course the callers ask questions about the book based on what the host blurbs, which led to a program of the most treacly nonsense I have ever heard. It was enraging. So when I stumbled over the book later that morning (on the “new non-fiction” shelf at the library), I picked it out primarily out of curiosity, expecting to have my horror at the book’s treatment of its subject confirmed. Happily (!) that was wrong. The author is actually suspicious of the conventional definitions of empathy that we’re bombarded with every day, and she visits a number of settings to pursue her questions. In the end, she comes out in favor of a version of empathy that I agree would probably be beneficial if practiced more frequently, but which is unlikely to take over the popular mind. On her way, she visits classrooms, particular theater projects, considers neuroscience and sex dolls, and talks about the question of self-empathy. Read this if the current public discourse about empathy frustrates you.

Thomas Mullen, Darktown. Another of my Black History Month picks. A police procedural set in post-WWII Atlanta, which has just hired an initial cadre of eight African American police officers, who have limited powers and a high level of job frustration. We follow Officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith as they investigate the murder of a black woman and attempt to bring her killer to justice against social forces from racism to police corruption to small-town sheriffs to Black respectability politics. What’s great about this novel is how well it thinks through the various political aspects of the job (e.g., some African Americans had their own investments in corrupt white policing), and how well it builds its setting. The plot is somewhat haphazardly structure, but the characters, particularly Boggs, are convincingly and sympathetically drawn. Attica Locke blurbed this novel as hopeful, which almost makes me feel like she didn’t read it; the attempt to pursue justice in Atlanta leads to chaos everywhere else. A second novel in the series is already available and in my book queue.

Youssef Fadel, A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me. Original title: Ta’ir azraq nadir yuhalliq ma’i (2013). Recommended in an article on Moroccan crime fiction as coming to terms with recent history. A young Moroccan woman searches for her husband, who has participated in the coup against King Hassan II, in political prisons in the 1970s and 90s, even as her sister, who works intermittently as a prostitute and inherits a bar from an elderly French woman, tries to keep them afloat financially. The novel is equally an evocative comment on the region’s modernization and urbanization and culture in the long transition away from French colonialism. Although I don’t think the novel requires it for comprehension, there’s a useful note at the beginning that summarizes the history of the period in which the story takes place. Additionally, I appreciated a great deal that the very brutal violence of the period was mostly “off screen” and the novel concentrated on its effects. I would read more translations of Fadel’s work, but they are not in our library system (yet; I requested the purchase of the “prequel” to this book a week ago).

Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone. The YA publishing sensation of the year; first book in a planned trilogy with a multi-figure advance. The setting is a land loosely based on Nigerian cosmology / mythology. A young woman, Zélie, who belongs to a caste of natural magicians who have been robbed of their magic by an evil king, suddenly regains pieces of it. Together with Amari, the king’s daughter, she goes on a quest to restore it, while they are pursued by Amari’s brother Inan. The general structure of the story is excellent and Zélie is a hugely appealing protagonist: powerful, complicated, ultimately sympathetic. The perspective shifts between the different characters were not so convincing, since Amari and Zélie experience much of the action together, but the story is fast-paced and held my attention. Like much current YA literature, the book specifically addresses cultural-political concerns (diversity in fantasy, female characters who are friends, racism, etc.), but it wears all of this didacticism relatively lightly. I’m definitely on board for the second one.

Emily Ruskovich, Idaho. Recommended in the literary press, and shortlisted for some literary prizes. A woman dealing with a husband afflicted by early-onset dementia tries to reconstruct the events of his first marriage, during which his wife killed one of their children while the second child escaped but was not found. The prose is truly evocative, and Ruskovich effectively creates a picture of the Idaho country and wilderness as it reclaims itself against the inroads of the humans that inhabit it. I found myself thinking repeatedly about how nature finally always wears away people’s efforts and erodes the corners of their stuff while reading. The plot itself I found less interesting. I didn’t understand why the couple were married — I found the female narrator’s personality incomprehensible and unrelatable — and I found myself more interested in the scenes that took place around the first wife in prison. The perspective shifts end up being hard to take. But it’s worth it for the prose, I think.

Recommended if you’re interested in the material or genre

Elizabeth George, The Punishment She Deserves. Havers and Ardery take a field trip to Ludlow at the behest of an MP whose constituent thinks the murder investigation into his nephew’s death was bungled by the local cops. Ardery hopes she’ll be able to trick Havers into misstepping so badly she’ll be permanently transferred out of London, but Ardery’s personal problems prevent her from seeing things clearly and Lynley saves the day. This book is long, and it’s long. So long. You know how it’s going to end by about page 450. It could have been 100 pp. shorter without anyone missing them. It also has all the things that I hate about George’s novels, which don’t become more appealing as her career wears on: racism, fat hate, misogynism, class prejudice. George proves once again that she really hates women, especially women who are not beautiful or have any flaws. Her main point here seems to be an indictment of what she sees as helicopter parenting, especially when non-white UKers are involved, but she’s also got plenty of time for an unconvincing, unrealistic, but moralistic and punishing portrait of Ardery’s alcoholism. Why do I keep reading? Two words: Barbara Havers. I care about the fate of Barbara Havers, to my frequent regret. This isn’t the worst of the series (that’s A Traitor to Memory) but I really recommend this book only to people like me who for some reason can’t free themselves from these stories. If you want to understand why she’s so popular, though, start at the beginning of the series, when her characters were less one dimensional, their problems were more realistic, and she spent less time torturing them pointlessly.

Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. An older book and I’m not sure why I picked it up; I did enjoy his book on depression (The Noonday Demon) many years ago. This one concerns how parents deal with children who turn out to be very different from them in some distinctive way (homosexual, autistic, Deaf, genius, artistic, mentally ill, etc.). In addition to describing dozens of interviews, Solomon weaves his own experiences with his parents, doctors and therapists through the narrative — his parents had no difficulty with his dyslexia but struggled with their son being gay. This is the same technique that worked to such effect in The Noonday Demon and Solomon is a master. Most interesting thing I learned: family acceptance of strongly differing children becomes more difficult the more affluent / upper-class a family is. A great read but warning: this is also really long.

Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Ray, Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters. A biography of Madeleine L’Engle pitched at tween readers and released in conjunction with the (in my opinion very disappointing) new film adaptation of the novel. L’Engle is one of the few authors about whom I will read every scrap of new writing. If you don’t know anything about L’Engle, or your kids have read her books and are interested, this would be a good pick: it focuses heavily on her childhood, school years and early adulthood, and her struggle to fit in and find a path. If you’re already familiar with her life, however, you can skip this. It very much glosses over the difficult aspects of L’Engle’s personality identified by other biographers, particularly the way she cannibalized events from her children’s lives in her works.

C.C. Benison, Twelve Drummers Drumming. Also a bit older and I don’t remember where I saw the recommendation. First in a series of English village cozies / mystery murder novels around the protagonist Tom Christmas, a C of E clergyman (“Father Christmas,” arf arf) with a past involving an adoption, a career as a musician, and a dead wife. In this one, Father Christmas is confronted with the murder of the recently-clean daughter of a rock musician, who shows up in the barrel of taiko drum that’s meant to be played during a performance at the village festival. This is not your old-fashioned English village, as it takes the whole “wacky parishioners” tendency to an extreme. I liked this book less than I would have before reading Phil Rickman’s novels about Merrily Watkins, but although I am not racing to read the next ones, I would have no objection to doing so. It perfectly fulfills the expectations of the genre.

Justin Spring, The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy. The author weaves the stories of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A.J. Liebling, Richard Olney, and Alice B. Toklas together in an account of how Americans at home and abroad encountered French cuisine in the post-WWII era. I read a review of this somewhere that caused me to queue for it at the library. Some of these stories (Child; Fisher; Toklas) are very familiar and some less so, but what’s great about this is the way that it backs from the focus on the biographies and discusses the transcontinental connections of the individuals and their contexts and impacts in the U.S.

Carlyn Berghoff and Jan Berghoff with Nancy Ross Ryan. The Berghoff Family Cookbook. Cookbook produced when the famous Chicago restaurant was planning to close some time ago. It turned out that the restaurant stayed open. Checked out because my cousin and I got into a discussion about the restaurant’s famed and addictive creamed spinach recipe, which is in here. Somewhat to our surprise, it’s made with frozen spinach. Other than that, it’s a pretty standard U.S. midwestern cookbook interpretation of southern German food with a few American classic added. The most interesting piece of it is a history of the restaurant; I always find it intriguing to read about how German cultural institutions navigated Prohibition.

Pierre Thiam, Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal. Recommended in Eater. Written by a Senegalese immigrant to the U.S. who accidentally became a cook after he was robbed, in order to document the basics of his native cuisine. He now operates a West African restaurant in New York City. I was a bit surprised this was in the library. I occasionally read a blog by a U.S. expat in Senegal and thought, aha, this is my chance to learn what is in ceebu jen. It was an interesting read, but more as a documentation than anything else. Most of the pictures are not of food, but of scenes from Senegal. It’s hard for me to believe that the recipes are as uncomplicated as this book suggests.

Meh / not recommended

Corinne Sullivan, Indecent. A recent female college graduate interning at an elite boys’ boarding school falls in love with one of its students. Billed as a treatment of class and gender, but a generally boring plot. You might like this if you like Curtis Sittenfeld. I don’t, but this isn’t even as good as Sittenfeld’s boarding school novel.

Ted Scheinman, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan. Recommended in Lithub. A graduate student whose mom is a professor of Victorian literature takes a gig at a university-sponsored summer camp for Austen fans. In his conclusion the author apologizes for occasionally being somewhat glib. Glib is right. There are a lot of perspectives that would have been interesting to examine (the internal lives of fans; the economics of the event; the ways that universities try to interface with an increasingly detached public; how grad students make ends meet), but none of them are touched up. There’s a superficial discussion of how participating in the event affected the author’s relationship with his mother. If the topic interests you, read Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites (2013).

Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock, Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. Picked up from the “new non-fiction” shelf at the library because the only think I knew about the assassination was the name of the assassin. I did not know that there was a provable, organized conspiracy to kill Dr. King undertaken by a number of white supremacist groups, so I got that out of it. Informative, but the authors clearly think that MLK’s assassination was his own fault and say so repeatedly. He made himself into a target, criticizing the FBI was a mistake, etc. The book argues ex negativo that an FBI informant was involved in planning the murder and the FBI failed to stop it, and accuses the U.S. government of a coverup of wider participation in the killing.

Anya Yurchyshyn, My Dead Parents. Recommended in the literary press (and it’s still getting a lot of buzz — puzzlingly, in my opinion). A young woman whose childhood was strongly affected by her parents’ apparently unhappy marriage discovers that they loved each other and her father might have been murdered. This is honestly one of the most unreflective memoirs I have ever read. Attention memoir authors: You have to be able to do more with the genre these days than narrate your unhappy childhood, attribute it to your parents, and then suddenly discover that once upon a time your parents had lives independent of you and did love each other. I suspect that the author will be embarrassed by this book in twenty years.

Sara Blaedel, The Undertaker’s Daughter. Originally published as Bedemandens datter (2016). Picked up off the new books shelf at the library because I’d enjoyed the characters and plots of her earlier Louise Rick mysteries. A Danish woman travels to Racine, Wisconsin, to inherit the undertaking business of her long-disappeared father. I was really prepared to like them, but mysteries need to have some basis in reality for me to enjoy them. In this story, the main character, a photographer, travels to another country, signs papers without reading them, and the next morning finds herself operating a funeral home. Om, no. In case anyone’s interested, in Wisconsin we do indeed require undertakers to be licensed, and funeral homes to have a licensed funeral director. Here’s the applicable law. Dropped after 30 pp., although I would still read more of the Louise Rick titles when they come out.

Candice Kumai, Harry Eastwood and Allison Fishman, Cook Yourself Thin: Skinny Meals You Can Make in Minutes. Picked up off the “staff picks” table at the library. I don’t care about cooking myself thin, but I am vitally interested in delicious, nutritious meals I can make in minutes. Most of the recipes in this book don’t actually fulfill that description. For me, “minutes” means ten or fewer from unwrapping the ingredients to putting the stuff in my mouth. That’s apparently not how the authors define it.

~ by Servetus on May 3, 2018.

7 Responses to “Books I have read lately (April 2018)”

  1. I have Idaho on my list. I wasn’t sure about Children of Blood and Bone before, but if you say it’s good, I’ll give it a shot. It does sound interesting 🙂


    • I don’t know if’s as good as the hype suggests but I enjoyed it and Afrofuturism is growing on me as a reader.


    • I got another dystopia yesterday that you might like — and that so far I don’t hate — The Parking Lot Attendant by Tamirat Nafkote.


  2. I agree regarding Camp Austen. Our dissatisfaction with it was a lively topic of conversation at our last JASNA event. Among the Janeites is much better on a number of levels.


    • I think at some point he said he an advance to write a magazine article explaining Austen fans to outsiders — it read like a failed attempt to do that.


  3. Merci ! ^^
    More books to read !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] reviews of books I have read since last time. This month was more worthwhile than last, I think because I read more true fictions as opposed to […]


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