Books I have read lately (January 2019)

Continued from here. Still planning a July-November 2018 post. Most of my free time this month was spent on reading for the philosophy class I taught, so this isn’t very interesting, but in line of the “not losing track of myself,” I’m publishing this anyway.

Highly recommended

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions. (I think I saw this on a list of recommended books from small presses in the fall sometime.) An elderly widower confronting the end of his life and his many personal failures meets a woman who upsets all his convictions and offers him new hope; meanwhile, his estranged daughter, a member of the stolen generations, confronts a similar series of problems. The short synopsis sounds “As Good as It Gets”-trite, but this book is just excellent — it’s heavily concerned with the theme of endings of various kinds (personal, environmental, species, cultural) and it gives plenty of time to those things, but it’s also hopeful in the end without being gooey. The observational level of the widower thinking back over his life and seeing his failures is brutally honest and moving.


Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind. The most recent Armand Gamache novel, in which Gamache is forced to deal with the consequences of his decisions made in his last novel about how to stop drug trafficking in Quebec. I wrote about my appreciation of this series here. I felt this novel was stronger than the previous one — and really did deal with consequences in more than a hypothetical way. Fans of Penny will also be glad about the epilogue, in which she promises to keep writing Gamache novels.

Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant. A family that owns a locally well-regarded Chinese restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, is thrown into turmoil when one of its sons tries to sell it to “move up” in the culinary world. There are some stereotypes here, although the characters themselves also struggle with them. Still, I liked lots of things about this book, perhaps first and foremost the “behind the scenes” glimpse into the kind of restaurant that I like to frequent. Many of the more popular novels about the Chinese-American experience tend toward nostalgia, and I appreciated that this one doesn’t — the characters aren’t especially likable and the outcomes aren’t especially positive. The minor characters are just as interesting as the main characters. And if you like plot, this is the book for you. Also a positive for me: lots of food talk. Recommended in Asian Review of Books.

Recommended if something about it interests you

Robyn Stein DeLuca, The Hormone Myth. Interesting commentary on the extent to which medical knowledge about female hormones gets popularized and misinterpreted in order to create myths that sexists use to disadvantage women. (And women cooperate with it.) Read because I heard an interview with the author on a public radio program. In the end I wasn’t entirely convinced by all of her argumentation (for instance, it’s fascinating that Chinese and Indian women don’t suffer from PMS, but the mere fact that much hormone research is produced by for-profit corporations in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean all of it is only junk science). I finished it because I am convinced by a major point that I heard in the interview — that the whole idea that female anger in the US is only allowed to manifest itself once a month is troublesome — and for that reason, I would character this as a worthwhile read.

Jodi Picoult, A Spark of Light. A police officer is forced to handle a standoff at an abortion clinic while his daughter is inside. Picoult’s novels are automatic bestsellers now — she’s very good at creating a fictional narrative around a social issue with compelling characters that complicates every philosophical, religious or ideological perspective around it. In that way, she’s a bit like Dickens, and her books are developed in similar ways. This book’s “issue” is abortion rights in the U.S. It was okay but I have liked some of her other novels more (Nineteen Minutes, My Sister’s Keeper, House Rules), probably because I didn’t really find any main character to sympathize with this time around.

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind. Summary here. A classic work of philosophy that argues against the mind-body distinction. Somehow I missed this in grad school but an excerpt was on my students’ syllabus, so I read it.

Patricia O’Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. A biography of the WWI-era president that focuses mostly on his presidential terms and in particularly on his foreign policy and his decisions at the Versailles Conference after WWI. Picked up because I read a really positive review of the book and then a more skeptical one (sorry — I don’t remember where anymore!). Wilson often ends near the top of the list in rankings of U.S. presidents. The main thesis of the book is that Wilson’s inability to relax from his principles or compromise affected / damaged U.S. entry into the war and the peace negotiations afterwards. The skeptical review criticized the author’s neglect of Wilson’s views on segregation (a significant omission, as the U.S. civil service was resegregated under Wilson) and I have to agree with it, although she does note the irony of his fight for principled stances on freedom in the wider world that he was unwilling to support at home. Anyway, if you like this sort of thing this is a solid read. I did leave it wanting to know a lot more about Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, who ran the U.S. government sub rosa after his debilitating stroke in 1919.

J.S. Mill, On Liberty. Summary here. Read because my students were reading excerpts out of it. I read this the first time when I was twenty, and again in graduate school, so this was a re-read. The main theme is how to protect personal liberty from the tyranny of various kinds of authority; the section on the “tyranny of the majority” is deservedly well-known.

Meh / Not recommended

Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A pre-9/11 trust-fund baby living in NYC decides to disengage from her job in an art gallery and uses pills and alcohol to anesthetize herself. I didn’t think I was going to like this, but it was on so many “best of 2018” lists that I checked it out anyway. To me this book fully exemplified the trend of an overfocus in American letters on a particular social segment of Manhattan society. The book is boring, self-involved, and tedious.

~ by Servetus on February 13, 2019.

9 Responses to “Books I have read lately (January 2019)”

  1. Oh, I’m going to have to grab a copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant. I can’t resist food talk and unlikable characters.
    The Hormone Myth sounded interesting, too. I remember going to listen to Dr. Weil talk once. It was back when he released 8 Weeks to Optimum Health (That one’s a mixed bag for me. I love most of it, but I find some of his recommendations are over the top.). Anyway, he mentioned that increased tofu consumption can reduce the negative symptoms of menopause. My little 25 year old self put a sticky note on that for future me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tofu has phytoestrogens. The jury is still out, apparently. But this book was interesting. I do think there’s something to the idea that the whole “women have PMS so they get to go a little crazy” thing is harmful to women who work outside the home. The percentage of women who experience intense systems related to monthly hormone changes is really small, apparently.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps of interest:

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! That was a great read. I always feel more connected to people when I taste what they taste. Our book club read Michelle Obama’s Becoming this month, and my head went straight to food pairings to bring. In Red Rooster Harlem, Marcus Samuelson shares the whole decadent dinner he prepared for the Obamas. Sam Kass was the chef Michelle hired, and his book is filled with healthy stuff he made them. And I have a chili book with Obama’s chili in it. It is the one and only thing he cooks. But that’s not about Michelle. I’m leaning towards Kass.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m supposed to be reading Becoming right now (not sure I will finish before it has to go back to the library). I’m surprised she eats decadent things, she seems so focused on health.


          • The chef she hired (Sam Kass) makes nothing that’s not body fuel. By the complete 180* shift, I’m thinking Marcus decided what to serve that night. His stuff’s amazing when you want to make bad decisions that are well worth it, though.
            I felt embarrassed when she complained that people noticed her body. I know I’m guilty. I think it was the first time I had arm envy or was arm aware. Who doesn’t want her arms, though?? I get when she complains about being sexualized. They do that to all First Ladies and female politicians, and it’s just so gross.


  2. If you enjoy Jodi picoult, I highly recommend Change of Heart. It’s one of her older ones but the moral dilemma presented was,imho, fascinating

    Also, as a vegetarian for almost 30years, I can testify to the ability of soy products to lessen the symptoms of menopause. I don’t know if there is any documented medical proof, but I firmly believe that my high intake of soy made my experience fairly easy


    • I have not read that one!

      Soy: I was looking at this last a few years ago when Michelle Forbes was preaching the vegan gospel. At that time anyway it was unclear; apparently soy is also suspected as a culprit in breast cancer, but that’s not proven either.


  3. […] from here. Still planning a post from the lost months last year — sometime. Another very slim month […]


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