Books I have read lately (June 2018)

Books I read since the previous installment, through June 17 (I didn’t read any books for the rest of that month after dad’s stroke). Very short blurbs because I didn’t fix these in my memory and some of them seem very hazy to me in retrospect. It was kind of a weird month insofar as there were several novels I was really loving and I had to break off and return them to the library, and I need to reorder them to catch up. I will do another one of these posts for July-November, too, and then hopefully I can get back to normal for December.

Highly Recommended

Ismael Kadare, The General of the Dead Army. (Originally published in Albanian as Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur, 1963). Read because I enjoyed a different book of his that was recently translated into English, and this title is supposed to be his masterwork. An Italian general travels through Albania, looking for the graves of WWII Albanian soldiers to repatriate their bodies. The novel weaves a number of threads together including the perspective of some of the (deceased) soldiers and that of a German group also in the process of disinterring war dead. I’m still on the fence about reading more Kadare due to his religious / political views, but this novel has everything I used to love about East German authors in it — the spare, anti-materialistic quality, the feelings of uncertainty over perception, the awareness of the ultimate rot at the core of politics, the quiet observation.

Christopher Kimball, Milk Street: The New Home Cooking. Earlier this year I was listening to the radio show occasionally on Sunday mornings, so I decided to get this at some point. I used to have an idea of what my own “home cooking” would be like if I ever became someone who had to put meals on a table according to a schedule, and this book really conforms to it: American food with a twist, or rather with the incorporation of some of the central ingredients and foods that have become standard fare since the 1970s. (The paradox is, of course, that as of July I do put meals on a table according to schedule, and I cook exactly the way my mother did in the 70s. Ah well.) But this cookbook conforms really well to my vision of myself as a home, cook, even if not to the reality. For a better, more detailed review, check out Jennifer Guerrero’s blog here.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. Picked up because I read there would be a film version. In the face of confusing local opposition, a widow opens a bookshop in an English coastal town in Suffolk. This is one of those perfect character / milieu studies that are so fascinating to read. A detailed and at times brutal portrait of English village life as England leaves its recovery phase from WWII. On one level, it’s a sort of a parody of an “English cozy.”


Fuminori Nakamura, Cult X. (Originally published in Japanese as Kyōdan X, 2014). In contemporary Japan, a man searching for his missing girlfriend descends into the conflict between two religious cults, which relates not only to philosophy but also to theft / financial betrayals. On multiple recommended lists. Feels like a reworking / analysis of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks of 1995 — timely insofar as the planners are about to be executed (or perhaps were this summer; I’ve lost track). I enjoyed the discovery / gradually developing awareness on the part of the main character of the huge tangle that underlies the disappearance of his lover. However, don’t read this if sex, fetish sex, and violence are issues for you because all of that stuff was on the border of toleration for me and I put the book down several times for that reason.

Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing is Monsters. A girl living in 60s Chicago searches for the murderer of her upstairs neighbor, a Holocaust survivor. On multiple recommended lists. It looks like there’s a sequel now as well. My main memory of this book is the drawings. I sort of lost track of the story as I looked at page after page of mesmerizing images. This almost never happens to be as a reader — I am very focused first on plot and then on language, even when reading a graphic novel.

Angela Carter, Heroes & Villains. In a post-apocalyptic world, a sheltered young woman (daughter of an intellectual caste protected by soldiers) runs away to live with the barbarians. Leftover from my resolution to revisit Angela Carter’s oeuvre after Richard Armitage read The Bloody Chamber. For some reason this reminded me quite a bit of Pamela Dean’s The Dubious Hills, at least in style. Definitely something for the modern fantasy / fairy tale reader.

Greg Rucka and Nicole Scott, Black Magick. Volume 001: Awakening. Recommended here. Graphic novel / comic. Rowan Black is a police detective and a witch, and in this volume she’s targeted by one of the rare people who know about her witch allegiances. Great drawing, Rowan is a fascinating character, and the portrayal of witchcraft isn’t utter nonsense. I enjoyed this a good chunk more than I expected to. Unfortunately the later volumes are not in our library except as e-books, which virtually guarantees I’ll never read them.

Elaine Castillo, America is Not the Heart. Paz, a Filipina nurse, moves to the U.S. and draws her family after her, especially husband Pol and niece Hero, both political refugees. Hero is a really appealing protagonist, but it bothered me somewhat that the first long chapter is told from Paz’s perspective and we never come back to it. It’s also full of words from languages in the Philippines that have to be understood by context. IMO the book needed a glossary. But the story really sucked me in, even so.

Rachel Cusk, Kudos. Third volume in her recent trilogy; in this installment, the main character who may or may not be Rachel Cusk, attends a literary conference in Spain. I loved the two earlier novels but felt that the relative lack of plot here gave the book more of a philosophical and less of a fictional feel.


Recommended if something about the book interests you

Piper Weiss, You All Grow Up and Leave Me. True crime / memoir written by a former student of Gary Wilensky. Recommended in CrimeReads. The book starts with an intriguing premise: in later life, reconstructing events, the author is pursuing a gut reaction of jealousy that Wilensky wanted to kidnap and molest a different one of his tennis students and not her. Weiss feels like she was often not good enough, second best. What was more interesting to me about this book than the descriptions of her interactions with Wilensky (a classic “groomer”) was her reflections on her childhood and adolescence on New York’s Upper East Side. Perhaps also interesting to some readers in light of the many revelations about Larry Nasser this year.

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. A theology professor deals with a near-death-sentence cancer diagnosis. I picked this up because I’d been planning a post on grief — this summer was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’d been thinking about Armitage’s situation — but then dad’s stroke created a huge detour in my emotional life that is starting to look like less of a detour and more of a permanent change of direction. I thought I’d like it not least because she has the same academic specialty as I did, and there were certain resemblances in her conservative Christian upbringing to mine. Her narrative was more interesting than her list of prescriptions — she criticizes other people’s formulas for dealing with personal disasters, but unfortunately she doesn’t hesitate to add her own. I found her list of things not to say to someone suffering from disaster and grief were better than the recommendations. I personally don’t want hugs or (necessarily) foods. Despite her departure from her childhood, the book is still trapped in the Christian tradition, which I suppose isn’t surprising for a theology professor. She also uses the book to discuss her research on the prosperity Gospel, which I experienced as out of place here.

Tim Mälzer, Heimat Kochbuch (in German, although I think there was an English translation). Our library has started a more aggressive program of buying foreign-language books and so I found this on the shelf sometime in late May. It’s a very pretty book, but I remember thinking that it’s not that different than a lot of coffee table books about German regional cuisine that I’ve seen over the years. I read this basically the night before dad’s stroke and didn’t take notes so I don’t have anything else to say about it.

Rosamund Young, The Secret Life of Cows. A book by an English farmer who gradually (if I recall correctly) transitioned an inherited farm from a commercial farm, producing milk and beef for mass consumption, to an organic farm producing milk for smaller consumption, to a farm where the cows are not milked at all but only slaughtered for beef. The book describes the behavior and makes deductions about the inner emotional and intellectual lives of cows. The tone of the book suggests that cows are beings equivalent to humans, and so Young’s been criticized for continuing to produce beef if she really thinks her animals have independent emotional lives. As the grandchild of dairy farmers (before BGH) and the aunt of at least one aspiring dairy farmer, I ended up with mixed feelings about the book. She’s probably crunchier than I am (or most dairy farmers I know) — she seems a bit of slave to her animals — and I wondered how she keeps her farm afloat. Something about the book left me marginally bemused.

Meh / not recommended

Andrew Sean Greer, Less. 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. An obscure novelist dealing with aging and the rejection of a younger lover arranges a world tour of readings at equally obscure events and festivals. Read first chapter and the Berlin chapter, neither of which rang true for me, and gave up. I don’t get it, and I’m the same age as the protagonist.

Nathaniel Rich, King Zeno. As WWI ends, New Orleans tries to clean itself up, but is shocked by a series of ax murders. Abandoned after fifty pages. If a historical novel about The Big Easy can’t get me involved in that space of time, all hope is lost.

Heather Abel, The Optimistic Decade. A Berkeley undergraduate is forced to work in a hippie Colorado wildness camp, where she confronts a former crush and deals with threats to the camp and the demands of her campers. Abandoned after eighty pages. The nineties, depicted entirely through its consumption patterns — astounding in a novel that’s apparently about the late-stage disintegration of the counter-culture. None of the characters are even remotely relatable. Blah.

Noémi Lefebvre, Blue Self-Portrait. Originally published as L’autoportrait bleu (2009). Recommended here. A stream of consciousness reflection on philosophy and history as the narrator flies from Paris to Berlin. I was flummoxed by this because it’s actually the type of novel I should love — lots of ideas, lots of philosophy, lots of neurosis, lots of inner life. Abandoned after thirty pages as I found myself rereading the same page six times, but if you read the linked review, you’ll see a description of everything I thought I would like about it.

D.B. Thorne, Troll. Found on a list of recent novels about crime related to the cyberworld. A father tracks down the fate of his troubled daughter, who had been followed and pressure by an online troll. I wanted to like this, but it’s just an awful novel. It’s not well plotted; there is no suspense; a clue on p. 78 suggests the ending, and the author is apparently a total misogynist. When I got to p. 78 I was annoyed enough to read the final chapter to confirm what I had guessed, and then I returned the book.

Lynne Tillman, Men and Apparitions. Abandoned after fifty pages. A cultural anthropologists rambles on about pictures he’s looking it. I honestly could not tell you any more than that about it. Happily forgotten.

~ by Servetus on November 17, 2018.

10 Responses to “Books I have read lately (June 2018)”

  1. So I immediately went to The Book Shop synopses thinking oh my gosh that would be a great movie for Richard yep yep then I googled the title and oh darn it’s been made into a movie already w Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy
    which granted Richard is too young but still .., 🙄😩


  2. I will need to pick up The Bookshop sooner or later. I have Angela Carter on my radar too.


  3. Oh, thank you! I think I need to pick up The Bookshop. I may give The Secret Life of Cows a try, too. It sounds like it questions without crossing that line into emotionally manipulating you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep me too! I was thinking the same thing! 👏👍

      Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t feel manipulated — I did feel a little bit like, really? that’s how you interact with your cows? It romanticizes cows a bit, which can be a bit hard for me to take, admittedly. I don’t think cows should be abused, and I have mixed feelings about BGH, but I’m not sure I’m as crunchy about them as she is.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] post follows June 2018 and skips the summer and fall months; I have a list of what I read during that time period but not […]


  5. […] I read between June 2018 and December 2018, or during the five months of deepest stroke-related chaos. Normally, I would […]


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