Books I have read lately (December 2018)

This 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 sure how I am going to blog about it, or if I am going to continue these posts in 2019 (alert me if you want me to continue, though, I’m on the fence about quitting).

Highly recommended

Brandon Hobson, Where the Dead Sit Talking. After his mother is imprisoned for drug violations, a young Native American boy in foster care in rural Oklahoma observes the crumbling world around him, and the death of his foster sister (this is referred to on page one, so you know it’s coming). This was a 2018 National Book Award Finalist, but it hasn’t been getting much attention. Apart from being beautifully written, it sheds a very naturalistic light on the brutality of the foster care experience, even when it goes (relatively) well.

Hermann Koch, The Dinner: A Novel. Originally published as Het diner (2009). Two couples meet at a trendy restaurant for what appears, at first, to be an annoying obligation. As further information is revealed, however, it’s clear that they’re facing a problem with their children that challenges all of their values. Unparalleled as an examination of just how easily liberal commitments can disintegrate when something personal is at stake for one of the parties. And can values really stand in the way of organic, ingrained pathological behavior?

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister: The Serial Killer. A nurse in Lagos has been covering up her sister’s murders of the men she’s been dating. But what happens when the murderous sister gets interested in the nurse’s crush? The novel draws in the characters’ past, and the contrast between brutal past events and the black humor with which the main character addresses her own situation were hugely satisfying to me.

Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir. Recollections of growing up African-American and fat in Mississippi, with all the baggage of the child of a college instructor who struggles to get her relationship life in order. I’d read some of Laymon’s essays about bias against African Americans at Vassar and found them thought-provoking; this book was even more so, and it challenges the triumphalist moments in the writings of some other black memoirists (I’m think of Ta-Nehisi Coates here). Exceptionally well written and observed. I also loved reading his perspective on his childhood, which was contemporaneous with mine but very different.

Kevin Kwan, Rich People Problems. The third in the trilogy that began with Crazy Rich Asians (I read that, and the second, China Rich Girlfriend, in the summer and fall). Normally, I’d never read stuff like this, but I got an invitation to the local film premiere and liked it, so decided to check out the first book. I’d feel guilty about laughing at stereotypes of Asians, but these books are so zany that I can’t imagine even the serious moments are all that realistic. They are also even more satirical than the film was. I found relatable and funny characters, and I laughed out loud while reading — repeatedly.


Mark Gimenez, The Color of Law. A high-priced corporate lawyer in Dallas is tricked into pro bono representation of a prostitute accused of killing a state politician’s son. This was a lot like an early John Grisham novel. I’d read another of his books if I ran into one. Entertaining.

Edgar Feuchtwanger, Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood. Originally published as Hitler, mon voisin: Souvenirs d’un enfant juif (2013). The nephew of the famous novelist (Lion), Feuchtwanger grew up in an apartment kitty corner from Hitler’s in the years before 1939. The memoir describes the moments and milieus of a bourgeois German Jewish existence in Munich in the interwar period, as well as tracking the changes in his city, his school, his friendships and the general atmosphere after Hitler came to power. A brief, interesting read and particularly recommended if you haven’t read other books of this sort. After leaving Germany for England shortly before the war, Feuchtwanger went on to become an important historian.

Lori Rader-Day, The Day I Died. A handwriting analyst uses her skills to track down two kidnapping victims, even as her own son runs away and she has to pursue him, confronting her past. This was a pretty good mystery, although just on the bearable side of woo-woo for me with the handwriting thing and a lot of coincidences that were pretty improbable. I thought it was interesting that the child of a writing analyst would start printing in block letters when he became an adolescent — that was a smart touch.

Anna Burns, Milkman. Most recent winner of the Man Booker. A young woman reports on a coerced relationship with a Northern Irish paramilitary. It’s written a bit in the style of a blog, with pseudonyms for all the characters, and a bit as stream of consciousness, and I think it was intended as a satirical observation of the dystopian qualities of a society where people are always watching you. It wasn’t an easy read, though. I was glad I read it and happy when it was over.

Recommended if something about the book interests you

Angela Jackson, A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks. A biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American Chicago poet (you probably remember “We Real Cool” from high school English in the U.S.), written from the perspective of a poet. A little lighter on details and discussion of Brooks’ cultural and intellectual milieu than I would have liked, but I learned a lot from reading it.

Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk. A book of reportage about Trump administration’s decision to appoint inexperienced people to key government departments or not fill vacancies at all, and the consequences. In several government departments new appointees never bothered to visit their offices, or demonstratively threw away briefings they were given. A frankly frightening read that makes me grateful for what the Trumpsters call “the deep state.”

Mikita Brottman, An Unexplained Death. The author, tracing the suicide of someone in her building, a former hotel in Baltimore, digs into the history of earlier suicides there. Probably most interesting to people who are interested in the tendency of depressed people to kill themselves in hotels, or the history of Baltimore.

David Solie, How to Say it to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with our Elders. Recommended by my dad’s attorney, a book about talking with elderly people in ways that doesn’t generate dismissals, refusals to comply, or a power struggle. I wish I had read this somewhat sooner, although I’m not sure it would have solved all of our problems. I found particularly interesting the insight that the tendency to tell stories comes from a need to (re-)assert control.

Eugenia Chen, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. A run-through of the basic principles of semantic logic, using popular, trivial, and political examples. I previewed this for my winter term course, but it’s a bit too PC for us. However, if you haven’t ever studied logic or want a refresher, and you’re interested in how semantic logic can be used to support or question liberal politics, this would be an appropriate read.

Amos Oz, Dear Zealots. Originally published in 2017 as שלום לקנאים. It seems a bit unfair to say that I found this one disappointing, as Oz has just died. This is a defense of, and attempt to sell, a vision of Israeli society and Zionism that’s endorsed by ever fewer current Israelis, it seems — one that values diversity and believes that Israelis and Palestinians can get along. I have sympathy for his perspective — but I think it works better as the background for a novel or for memoirs than it does as a political argument.

Meh / not recommended

Katrina Carrasco, The Best Bad Things. A female ex-Pinkerton operative goes looking for a stolen opium shipment in the late 1880s U.S. West. This was on a number of “best of 2018” lists, but I don’t especially like westerns and the fact of a female heroine, no matter how tough, didn’t do it for me. I never felt any “in” to the character. Abandoned after 80 pp.

Hiro Arikawa, The Traveling Cat Chronicles. Originally published as Tabineko Ripouto. A stray cat in Tokyo is injured and taken in — then travels to his rescuer’s friends. I guess. I only read the first few chapters. I’m not sure why I even ordered this one as I don’t especially like cats. Probably cat lovers would love this one.

Yoko Tawada, The Emissary. Originally published as Kentoshi (2014). Ordered because it was nominated for a translation prize. In a dystopian Japan after some vaguely-conceived environmental disaster, elderly people who are mostly unaffected try to save their grandchildren, who are becoming ever more feeble and dying. I read about twelve pages.

~ by Servetus on January 3, 2019.

20 Responses to “Books I have read lately (December 2018)”

  1. I envy your ability to stop reading an uninteresting book. I have a weird compulsion to finish a book, even if I dislike it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just get really impatient. I’ve noticed since dad’s stroke that I am more so — it’s like “why am I wasting my scarce time with this?” It helps that they are library books, though, so no penalty for returning them early.


  2. I for one enjoy the list of books you recommend. When I was back reading your blogs over the summer I made a list of all the books you liked or semi-liked for me to read. As with Richard’s Audible collection your reading list will take me quite awhile! Maybe a seasonal list or a twice yearly list if you don’t want to do monthly or bi monthly. I enjoy the reasons why you chose a particular book and the synopsis of the essence of the book. To me there are multiple purposes at work and the recommendations clue me in to what is being written in the literary world.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a bookworm I love your book posts but please don’t feel pressured to write them if your not in it anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not that I’m not into them — I’m not really reading for the same reason now that I was six months ago. Now it’s kind of “reading as anesthesia,” as opposed to before, where I was trying to broaden my horizons and knowledge and so on. So my criteria for appreciating a book are changing and I wonder if it’s worth documenting in the same way. OTOH I enjoy reading other people’s book posts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The first book is one I would like to read for more than one reason. Just read an article online yesterday about failed foster care. It really breaks my heart to see children go from bad to worse. I have seen foster care fail the children they are suppose to help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Foster care: it is a bad solution but apparently the only one we have (and usually cheaper than putting kids in institutions). But yeah — it rarely works out well.


  5. That Feuchtwanger book sounds interesting. Will check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Please,please continue in 2019…Your insight is Always “spot on “


  7. I always find your choice of books and your mini-reviews interesting. Even if, as you say, your motivation for reading has changed.
    Besides, how else can I get my dose of humility and feel inadequate about the number of books I (don’t) read! (Kidding…mostly. Lol.)


  8. […] from here. Still planning a July-November 2018 post. Most of my free time this month was spent on reading for […]


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


  10. I just read the Milkman and loved it. I was surprised when I saw reviews complaining that the characters are left unnamed and referenced by relationship to the main character instead. It was briefly distracting, but was easy to follow as soon as I accepted it. I loved the stream of consciousness, too. It really felt like unedited thought. I believed we were in her head.
    We just read Next Year in Havana for book club. Ick. It takes place in Havana about two years before B’s family fled Cuba, so I was looking forward to vivid descriptions of the place my in-laws never stopped thinking of as home. And the book has that. But it’s painfully clichéd, a rip-off of Romeo and Juliet set in Havana. But it gets worse. The dialogue is all formal, full sentences, that are simple and overly dramatic, like a Disney film with grown-ups. I imagine this is what Harlequins must sound like. And the male and female assignments in it are like a sexless 50 shades of grey – okay, I didn’t read that, but heard enough about it. The two main female characters are naive and doe-eyed, and the men are worldly. The main female character actually says, “I’m new and shiny to him. And he’s interesting.” The women flit about worrying about nothing but their beauty and dresses, as the men develop their character. The female lead has a career title, but it’s much like in the show Friends. You can’t have that lovely apartment in Manhattan if you don’t have real jobs. She’s supposed to be a journalist, but proves incapable of having a critical thought. I’m waiting for Aladdin to start singing, 🎶”I can show you the world.”🎶 Gag.
    I’m starting The Overstory now, hoping it washes that last one off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Milkman: it’s a lot like a blog in a way, I thought. You’re writing about your life and other people are defined mostly in relationship to you. I did grow weary about 2/3 of the way through, though.

      Next year in Havana: LMAO. Does not sound like my type of book. Have you read Carlos Eire’s two memoirs about Cuba and then being a refugee at all?

      Overstory: I’ve given it a pass so far because the subject matter doesn’t really appeal, but if you think of it let me know what you thought; it’s won some prizes now and I am willing to reconsider if it’s really worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for the rec! I’ll check out Carlos Eire.

    Liked by 1 person

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