Books I have read lately (July – November 2018)

Books 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 this much during this period. I was saved by my local library — which let me put a lot of stuff in a marked list in my patron record during the spring, and just order as many books as I took back every week — and Flower’s stay in rehab, which created a situation in which I’d read for 90 minutes to two hours every day when I took dad there to visit. I also picked a few books at random from lists I glanced at in the post-stroke period. So I had time for a while, and the library list system let me just walk in, pick up a handful of books off the hold shelf, run through self-checkout, and leave again in ten minutes or less.

[In interest of publishing this, I’ve decided not to write as much about each book as I normally would have. Then it will be off my conscience and I can move forward.]

Highly Recommended

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions. Chosen from a list of the top twelve African novels of the twentieth century. A girl in 1960s Rhodesia pursues an education after her brother’s death, but not without costs. I can’t stress how interesting this was, on the differences between rural and “civilized” life in what’s now Zimbabwe, or on the different ways that women relate to African patriarchy. The main character simply has a really interesting internal life and I wanted to know her fate. There are two more books in a trilogy about the same character; I plan to read them.

Olga Tokarczuk, Primeval and Other Times. Originally published as Prawiek i inne czasy (1996). Chosen because another book by this author won the Man Booker International prize, but wasn’t in our library in May. I liked this one better, frankly. It’s the story of a fictional small town in rural Poland beginning in the days before WWI, focusing on the mill owner, Genowefa Nibieski, and her family. The storytelling and the prose have a magical feel akin to Garcia Marquez and I was never sure if I was in history or fairy tale when I was reading it. It doesn’t lack for the brutal or visceral, either. A very satisfying read.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness. This might have been on the Millions’ “most anticipated” list for 2018 or on the Book Marks list of best reviewed books the week it came out. A Ghanaian psychiatrist and trauma specialist comes to London to address an academic conference, track down a missing family member, and take care of a former lover, all in the wake of his wife’s death. In process of finding the relative and the lover, he encounters an expat American urban environmentalist who’s mapping the foxes of London and intervenes in the legal judgment of a woman accused of arson. A very quiet novel that makes a number of observations on the theme of normality and trauma, making a point I appreciate more and more lately: that after a significant trauma you may not be the same, but you’re not necessarily entitled to be, either. I’ve put Forna’s other novels in my library queue.

Raymond Villareal, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising. On a recommended list I must’ve seen just before the stroke. If you know me, you know my knee-jerk distaste for vampire stories, but the notion of vampires as “othered” by the U.S. state, and the question of civil rights for vampires intrigued me. Essentially, it’s a story about how much flexibility the U.S. concept of citizenship will allow (when you have citizens who can’t be awake during the day, can’t be captured on media, need to consume blood, etc., etc.) and how far the state, and groups in opposition, will go to prevent their inclusion. This was interesting, refreshingly unallegorical (I thought he was comparing vampires to undocumented migrants at first, but it gets complicated fast) and way more entertaining than I thought it would be.

Cutter Wood, Love and Death in the Sunshine State. Chosen because I lived not far from Anna Maria Island for four years, and after reading this excerpt on CrimeReads. A young writer from the area who’s just entered an MFA program ponders a local murder, gets in and out of a romantic liaison, and develops a relationship with the murderer. What I liked about this book, if I remember correctly, was (a) the local color of Florida life and (b) the descriptions of the way a relationship disintegrates.

Édouard Louis, A History of Violence. Originally published as Histoire de la violence (2016). Chosen because I liked his previous book. A young man is violently assaulted by a casual sexual partner; in the aftermath he ponders his attraction to the man and the meaning of trauma. Louis is both thoughtful and blunt and not afraid of disturbing insights about himself. This book is auto-fiction at its best: economical and brutal. His next book, about his father, is in my library queue already.

Glynis MacNicol, No One Tells You This. Chosen from a “best reviews of the week” list. The author recounts and ponders the problems of placing her mother in a senior living facility even as she supports her sister during a pregnancy and the weeks after birth, and pursues her own writing goals. I really loved this — it’s the only memoir I’ve ever read that gets at how and in what ways caretaking is hard.

Terrence Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. I’m not sure why I picked this up. I do enjoy sonnets, and I remember being impressed by several of Hayes’, but that’s all I can pull out of my memory at the moment, other than that I read it over a week in the waiting room at the physical therapist’s office. It’s a commentary on contemporary U.S. society and race relations.

Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers. Chosen because it won the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award. A Cameroonian who’s moved to the U.S. via the “overstayed visa” method works to ascend the social ladder. When he gets a job as the chauffeur to a wealthy banker, he thinks his problems are solved — until a secret surfaces that will force his family to make an impossible situation. Readable and compelling, with interesting characters and spicy food talk, this is probably the best novel I’ve read about the Great Recession so far.

S. Y. Agnon, A Simple Story. Originally published as סיפור פשוט (1935). Chosen because I saw this article, and this book was all my public library had of this Nobel Laureate’s major works. A young man, forced to choose between his passion for the poor relation who works as a servant in his parents’ house and the young lady whom his parents want him to marry, descends briefly into madness. This novel reads like a lot of early-twentieth-century Yiddish literature as a comment on relationships in the shtetl, the way that Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire assimilated (or didn’t) into the eastern European bourgeoisie, and the way that Jews encountered modernity. I really love this kind of novel with its simultaneously gossipy and mythic elements.

James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way. Chosen because I read an article recommending his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man sometime this spring. Both were in the same Library of America voume. I knew the author primarily as the lyricist of the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” but he filled his life with many more achievements as theater artist, U.S. ambassador to Latin American countries, and eventually executive of the NAACP. The names of the Harlem Renaissance play big here as well. Extremely interesting read, and maybe I will get to his novel sometime, too, although it did not hold my attention this summer.

Sofi Oksanen, Purge. Originally published as Puhdistus (2008). Chosen because NBK admired it. In 1992, an elderly woman in a remote community in Estonia is confronted with the actions of her past (during the Nazi and Soviet occupations) via the appearance of a young woman who seeks her out while on the run from being trafficked by the Russian mafia. The elderly woman at the heart of the story is unpleasant or at least opaque at the beginning of the story, and the gradual revelation of past events doesn’t really make her any more likable. But the story reminds in the most straightforward way possible exactly how cruel this occupation was (without excusing its collaborators), and also that a good deal of what happens in the region today is still heavily conditioned by the events of (now) eighty years ago. Don’t read this if you’re triggered by depictions of non-consensual sex. I’ve put two of her other books in my library queue.

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Originally published as Konbini ningen (2016). Picked because it was a Japanese bestseller. A young woman who struggles to understand the conventions of the Japanese society she was born in takes a job at a convenience store. She completely assimilates the store chain’s rigid script for employee behavior as a template for her personality — it almost feels like she’s embracing alienation. However, she’s aware that she’s not fulfilling social expectations to marry — and finds someone at the store to marry. The results are hilarious and disturbing at the same time. A fun, provocative read.

R. O. Kwon, The Incendiaries. Multiply recommended in the literary press. A young woman at an eastern university radicalizes under the influence of a religious fundamentalist as her former-fundamentalist boyfriend looks on. This feels like the novel of the moment (just insofar as I can’t tell you how many students I meet who are in fact detoxing from the religious excesses of the last twenty years, but the prose style is crystalline, and unbelievably disciplined. A beautiful read despite the upsetting subject.

Craig Brown, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Chosen after reading this article on Lithub. A biography of the princess that intersperses reportage with parodic episodes, a strategy that works amazingly well because so much of Margaret’s life appears surreal in retrospect. A sort of compulsive, gulp it down read in the way of gossip magazines.

Sarah Smarsh, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke. Ordered because it was a National Book Award Finalist. There’s been a flood of works purporting to explain or contextualize the political sentiments of “flyover country,” which I find a somewhat suspect project, but this is probably the best one I read (and a good counter to J.D. Vance’s obnoxious book, if you’ve read that). In particular I appreciated her Kansan diction (which her copy editor tried to erase) and the way she points out that outsiders idealize and conceptualize agricultural life, in total ignorance of what it’s actually like.

Sydney Taylor, All-Of-A-Kind Family. Reread of a beloved childhood favorite, chosen because I read this article about Sydney Taylor. Five sisters grow up in an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York City near the turn of the previous century. Just as charming and heartwarming as I remembered.


Lou Berney, November Road. Seen on several recommendations lists. A low-level mobster who “knows too much” flees Texas immediately after the assassination of JFK, becoming entangled in the life of a young mother leaving her alcoholic husband. Multiply recommended in the literary press, but it took me a lot to order this one, as conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination are one of my absolute pet peeves as a historian. This book is stunning both in its prose and its level of reflection, and if it had a different topic I’d probably have put it in the “highly recommended” category. Have put one of Berney’s earlier novels in the queue.

Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Originally published as Het verstoorde leven (1981). Excerpts from the diaries of a Dutch Jewish victim of the Holocaust who died in Auschwitz in 1943. The diaries concern the years before her deportation, and spend a fair amount of time on her intellectual and spiritual attitudes and changes in these. Definitely gives one a different perspective on Dutch society than reading Anne Frank’s diaries!

Nick Drnaso, Beverly and Sabrina. Picked up because Sabrina was long-listed for the most recent Booker Prize — the first graphic novel ever included. Sabrina concerns what happens when the video of a brutal murder goes viral, and how the resulting conspiracy theories affect the victim’s nearest and dearest. Beverly, which I enjoyed more, is a comment on the brutality of teenagers’ lives in the suburbs. Both are bitter, cynical stories, but the great strength of his drawing is the way that he’s able to focus the reader’s attention on particular moments of body language.

Jane Harris, Sugar Money. Chosen from the 2018 Walter Scott Prize shortlist. Enslaved brothers in the eighteenth-century West Indies are charged by their French (monastic) masters with the task of recovering slaves in Grenada that they’ve lost due to the British takeover of the island. Some characters’ speech is written entirely in 18th c. English Caribbean and / or Creole, with plenty of archaic English and French vocabulary sprinkled in; the prose is thus not for the faint of heart and will be off-putting to some readers. I thought this was a great story, but just getting it read was at times a serious struggle.

Négar Djavadi, Disoriental. Originally published as Désorientale (2016). Chosen after seeing an excerpt in Words Without Borders. A woman awaiting fertility treatment in a French hospital recalls the history of her family in Iran from the beginning of the twentieth century, from a grandfather with a large harem to dissidents who opposed first the Shah and then Khomeini, to her own escape as a child from the revolutionary regime and her exile in France. The translation feels clunky, but the saga is nonetheless fascinating. I knew some Iranian history but I know a lot more now, and the story of how the country and the people have experienced modernity is gripping.

Sara B. Franklin, ed. At the Table with Edna Lewis and Edna Lewis and Evangeline Peterson, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. Edna Lewis, grand dame of twentieth-century Southern cooking, is having a bit of a Renaissance at the moment; this reissued cookbook seems more of a historical document now, but it documents Lewis’ style. I found more interesting the collection of essays that put her in context and traced the many twists and turns of her life. Both were recommended in Eater.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (translated from the 2013 book of the same title, written originally in Kannada). Chosen due to the recommendation here. A very brief “great Indian novel” about a Bangalore family’s journey from rags to riches, told from the perspective of a son who’s unhappily married and lurks in a coffee shop. The wife’s dissatisfaction has the power to turn the family upside down. Short, dramatic, pithy: it conveys a lot in a small space. I love the long South Asian family sagas I’ve been reading for years now, but the short format was an added bonus this summer.

James Wood, Upstate. Chosen because of this article on the problem of a notorious book critic writing his own novel, and maybe a piece somewhere else (The New Yorker?). I wasn’t in a position to judge whether Wood was living up to his own standards, but I did enjoy this quietly sad tale of an English father (from Northumberland) who travels to the U.S. with one of his daughters to check on the welfare of his other daughter, suffering from depression or some other malaise of the soul. Not an epic novel but not a waste of time, either.

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven. Chosen because I read a blurb about her then-forthcoming short story collection that sounded great, but I hate short stories, so I decided to try a novel. This one won a 2013 prize for fiction in English by women. The plot is absurd, even insane — a struggling professor in New York begins an affair with his sister-in-law after his brother is committed to a mental hospital; when the brother discovers the affair, he kills his wife. The rest of the book works out the consequences of these events on the children, the couple’s finances, and the professor’s career and inner life. The novel is often very funny, although I’m torn about how much “bumbling oversexed Jewish professor” I’m really interested in anymore. The professor’s career focus on Nixon seems derivative of Don De Lillo’s White Noise.

Allison Pearson, How Hard Can It Be? Amusing fact: Maybe the only major novelist I’ve read who’s interviewed Richard Armitage. Picked because it was predicted to be a best-seller last summer and the plot interested me: a woman about to turn fifty is dealing with a flaky husband, flaky teenagers, flaky in-laws, a flaky mother, unemployment and menopause. This was just hilarious and I found so much of it true to life (why does no one every tell you these gritty facts about menopause?). I did order the previous book in the series, but reading a bit about Pearson’s politics has kind of put me off reading any more of her stuff, as she seems like a bit of a nativist; I sent it back unread.

Nigella Lawson, At My Table. Recommended by my Twitter buddy Christine. Despite Richard Armitage’s crush on Nigella, I had never read any of Nigella’s cookbooks before, and I have a fear of these celebrity cookbooks — they think things are really simple that I find laborious or too time consuming. There were actually four or five recipes out of this that I thought dad would eat, but I can’t find my photos of them at the moment. In any case, I did enjoy the tone of the cookbook and would probably buy it.

Deborah Feldman, Exodus: A Memoir. Chosen because NBK reminded me that I hadn’t read the sequel to Feldman’s earlier memoir, Unorthodox. After leaving the Satmar sect with her son, Feldman tries out the contemporary world, including dating / casual sex and traveling to Hungary to pursue her family’s history and roots in the years before and during the Shoah. In some ways this was a risky book, just because in the previous memoir, Feldman was clearly the victim of both history and religion, and in this title, as she steps out onto the terrain of her own life, she takes the chance that readers will judge her (at times fairly edgy) choices. I was somewhat frustrating with the Hungary chapters, just because she seemed incredibly naive to me about Hungary, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. What the book does in terms of her own life, though, is to explain a great deal about the behaviors and personalities of the grandparents who raised her, and in that sense it is a narrative success.

Akhil Sharma, Family Life. This was on a list of recommended novels about the American immigrant experience that I can’t locate at the moment. A semi-autobiographical novel about a young boy whose family immigrates from Delhi to New Jersey; shortly after the journey, his elder brother suffers a disabling accident and the family is forced to cope. What’s interesting about this is its depiction of how immigrants negotiate the immigrant South Asian community and how they deal with the U.S. in a situation where their story can’t be seen as triumphant. A compact, thoughtful read.

Jonathan Kauffman, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. This must have been recommended on Eater, but I can’t find the reference at the moment. It’s a history of how the kind of eating associated with the U.S. ultra-Left and cults, etc., entered the mainstream. I knew some of this (the Moosewood Cookbook material) but not all of it (especially the parts on Austin grocery stores were interesting to me), and I thought valuable the insight that when “hippie eating” made peace with dairy products it moved much closer to the average American. An interesting, quick read that you could enjoy with a bowl of hummus at the ready.

Gaël Faye, Small Country. Originally published as Petit pays (2016). Seen recommended in The Guardian, and I used to lecture on this topic and it occurred to me that this might be a good course reading in future. A semi-autobiographical novel about the unfolding of the Rwanda genocide, narrated from the perspective of a small boy evacuated in its course, now living as an adult in France. The boy’s perspective is truly shocking and moving. The author is a rapper; one hopes he has more novels in him.

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights. Originally published as Bieguni (2007). Chosen because it won the Man Booker International Prize. Roughly 100 short vignettes are connected via a sort of associational logic that involves idea, metaphor and image, leaving to the reader to decide how to connect its pieces. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t develop the coherent, magical atmosphere in Primeval and Other Times, mentioned above. And I suspect I’d have enjoyed this more in a year when I was feeling more contemplative than I was last summer. I didn’t have the intellectual space to appreciate this work. I just saw that another book of Tokarczuk’s is nominated for the Man Booker International Prize this year! Will be checking that out, too.

Chibundu Onuzo, Welcome to Lagos. Ordered after seeing an excerpt in Lithub. A Nigerian army officer deserts in order to avoid executing an illegal order, joining a subordinate, a woman fleeing her husband, and a traumatized teenager in traveling to Lagos. When they squat in an unoccupied house, they find a surprise that demands action. The more novels from Africa I read, the more I see (and appreciate) that African authors are not afraid of plot. This book is a great example of that tendency: stuff happens, and it kept me reading, but so did the panorama of life in one of Africa’s largest cities. Will be looking for more of this author’s books.

Andre Dubus III, Gone So Long. Picked because I enjoyed A House of Sand and Fog many years ago. A dying convict tries to renew contact with the daughter whose mother he murdered decades earlier, as she tries to write the story of her life and resolve her problems with her partner. What I appreciate about Dubus is his refusal to avoid the worst results of any unresolved conflict, and we definitely get that here. Like his earlier novels, this is also a very “slow” book, with plot elements and feelings simmering long before their expression comes to fruition.

Recommended genre fiction

[I took this out as a separate section so that if you don’t enjoy mysteries / crime novels, you can skip this part.]

Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend. Discussed in my December summary. I just laughed and laughed.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead and The Language of Secrets and Among the Ruins and A Dangerous Crossing. One of them was on this “world cup of crime novels” list, and I decided to go back to the first one when I saw it was a series. This was the second series (after Crazy Rich Asians) that caught my attention this year. We’ve got a Canadian pair here — Esa Khattak, from a Pakistani family, and Rachel Getty — that remind a bit of Lynley and Havers before Elizabeth George decided she hated all her characters, or maybe Kincaid and James. There’s a bit of a sense in which the novels seem designed to provide a nuanced showcase of how world political problems are affecting Muslims in various places, but the plots and the recurring characters are strong enough that the underlying formula doesn’t bother me. There’s a new one out this spring.

Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder. Chosen because I enjoyed one of his earlier books. This one was even funnier: a woman is found strangled in her flat shortly after arranging her own funeral, and Horowitz is called in by a rogue police inspector assigned to the case (who may also want a deal on the story). It all has a wonderful meta quality and it seems like there could be more of these.

Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Found by googling after reading a crime novel about India by Sujata Massey made me wonder what crime novels by Indian authors are like. It turns out that Khan is actually a native Londoner (who lived in Mumbai for a decade). Inspector Chopra has just retired from the police force when he’s confronted by a murder — and by the weird gift of a baby elephant. This isn’t a thriller, but it’s a loving novel with a gentle humor. Will definitely read the next one.

Sara Paretsky, Shell Game. I’ve been reading her novels since 1992, so reading the new one was a no-brainer. This time Detective V.I. Warshawski has to rescue the nephew of her guardian angel, Lotty Herschel; he’s been implicated in a murder. The story takes Vic through a refugee community and the analysis of stolen archaeological artifacts. Apart from really identifying with Vic, since the beginning, I always enjoy the Chicago panorama that these books paint. A solid contribution to a series that has never, ever disappointed me.

William Kent Krueger, Sulfur Springs. Chosen after reading an article on crime novels set around Lake Superior. A former law enforcement officer and his Native American wife from Minnesota go looking for her missing son in an area along the U.S. border subject to a conflict between U.S. border enforcement and drug cartels. So I didn’t quite get my “Lake Superior” novel, but I would read more from this series.

Mindy Mejia, Leave No Trace. Recommended on a recent list of midwestern crime novels. A speech therapist with a troubled past is charged with treating a potential witness to a high profile crime when he reappears after ten years spent without leaving a trace. This novel has the plot acceleration of a thriller, but not the atmospheric qualities of a true noir. I wasn’t sure if that was because the Boundary Waters weren’t the appropriate site for that, or if the author’s language wasn’t pitched at the right level. But I did enjoy it and will read more of her work.

Sophie Hénaff, The Awkward Squad. Originally published as Poulets grillés (2015). TR Picked after reading this excerpt. A French commissar is charged with building a cold-case squad with those constant denizens of the European civil service: the people who don’t work out but can’t be fired, either. When seven of them show up, they investigate two seemingly-unrelated cases that, cough, turn out to be tied up together: a dead sailor and an apartment robbery / murder. Jussi Adler-Olson wrote a series like this for Sweden, if the premise sounds familiar. This one was fun and lighter in tone than the Department Q novels. I would read more of these.

G. M. Malliet, Wicked Autumn. Read and enjoyed this excerpt of his then-forthcoming novel, so decided to start at the beginning of the series. A vicar (who’s really a former MI5 officer) solves the mystery of who murdered the bullying woman who runs the parish fête every summer in his village of Nether Monkslip. I enjoyed this edgy, slightly wacky take on the “cozy” and ordered the next book in the series but haven’t had time to read it yet.

Joel Dicker, The Truth about the Harry Québert Affair. Originally published as La Verité sur l’affaire Harry Québert (2012). Recommended on this list of crime meta-stories. A young celebrity novelist with writers’ block reinvigorates his career by investigating his college mentor, himself a famous novelist accused of a murder that took place decades in the past. This felt like one of those novels where every character is discretely measuring the length of his penis. It was entertaining but kind of masculine for me and I doubt I would read another novel by this author. Coincidentally, EPIX will be showing the TV adaptation soon.

Abandoned midway with the plan to re-order

[These are all still in my library queue and it’s a bit depressing that I haven’t gotten back to any of them, but they are all relatively long and involved, which isn’t where my mind has been in the last nine months or so. I found them all worthwhile and would like to finish them, however!]

John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. Chosen after reading a review in Eater. I read the section on how restaurants supported the civil rights movement and learned a fair number of things I did not know. Plans to finish it when it resurfaces again in the library queue.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu. It was on a list of “if you liked Homegoing, you will love” that I found somewhere (not this list, but something like it that I saw a year or so ago). A historical family saga of life in Uganda.

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers. Multiply recommended in the literary press (and now nominated and prize-winning). Chicago in the early days of HIV infections.

Leonardo Padura, Heretics. Originally published as Herejes (2013). Not sure where I saw this recommended. A young man goes on the trail of a family treasure when it suddenly resurfaces decades after his family members were turned away from Havana and sailed back to Europe to die in the Holocaust. This is apparently a part of a detective series, too!

Crystal Hana Kim, If You Leave Me. When North Korea invades South Korea, a young woman fleeing the violence is forced to choose between a childhood friend she loves and a relative who will guarantee her safety. The first five chapters were gripping. Recommended in the literary press.

Uvashi Pitre, Indian Instant Pot Cookbook. Picked off the new books shelf at the library while running past. I read it initially and thought, meh, there’s nothing really new here, but then I saw this article, which swears that people in the know about Indian cuisine love this cookbook. So I will probably look at it again. I’ve been looking for a reason to buy an instant pot but haven’t found it yet. In a kitchen crowded with fifty years of gadgets, and after a summer three years ago spent weeding through them and making trips to thrift shops to get rid of them, do I really need another one? On the other hand, one reason I don’t make more Indian dishes (well, apart from dad) is that they are really labor intensive and time consuming, so.

Recommended if something about it interests you

Tyler Wetherall, No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run. Recommended on Lithub. A young woman discovers midway through her adolescence that her family has been one step ahead of the FBI for approximately a decade, and that their peripatetic lifestyle in the U.S. and Europe was the result of flight, not choice. One of few memoirs by a twenty-something that I’ve found really insightful about her life experiences, as she wrestles with the weird ways in which the constant movement of her childhood has affected her family and personal relationships, and tries to deal with how she feels about her father, who caused all the disruption (I found him amazingly self-centered). This also made some true crime recommendation lists.

Ben Lieberman, Odd Jobs. A mystery that takes place in a kosher meatpacking plant. Not sure where I ran across this one. Nothing remarkable about it beyond the setting, but it does have the weird feature of having a jacket blurb from the current U.S. president.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades, River of Grass. Picked up after the Parkland shooting because I wondered who Douglas was that a high school would be named after her (I know, my mind runs in weird directions) and also because I’d never read anything about the Everglades despite living in Florida for five years. It was more a Florida history than an Everglades book, I thought, but I did learn a few things about the conquest that I did not know.

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, The Kitchen Shortcut Bible: More Than 200 Recipes to Make Real Food, Real Fast. Picked up because I was looking for something that would help me navigate my issues with cooking for dad — one aspect of which is that I prefer to cook from scratch but I don’t have a lot of time and while I grew up eating “semi-homemade,” I’d prefer to avoid it except during the winter. This book wasn’t really about that — it was more sort of about how to do complicated things more easily, like making your own gnocchi. OK, great, that’s a shortcut for gnocchi but I gave up that battle long ago; I use packaged ones on all but the most elevated occasions. I did pick up a useful tip I did not know, though: you can bake frozen meat straight from the freezer with a few adjustments.

Nell Irvin Painter, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. Picked up because Painter is one of the leading historians in the U.S. (African-American history). In retirement, she decides she wants to pursue her longstanding fashion for creating art in a more concentrated way and enrolls in art school, where she is not the most talented one. This had a lot of potential just because, until recently, Painter had been teaching grad students and now she is one — but unfortunately she does not bring the insightfulness of her writing about U.S. history to her writing about learning to be an artist. More interesting aspects of the are found in her own experience of aging and dealing with her mother.

Wolfgang Herrndorf, Why We Took the Car. Originally published as Tschick (2010). Received as a gift for my previous birthday from a German friend. A YA picaresque: a young Berliner from Marzahn falls into the society of a recent immigrant (Spätaussiedler) when both discover they were not invited to the birthday party of their school class’ most popular girl — neither fits in. A car theft facilitates a journey toward Wallachia (although neither of them has a driver’s license), one of those productive journeys where they abandon their illusions and discover themselves — until disaster ensues. Upon return, both look at their lives differently. A worthwhile book but not the kind of thing I’d have enjoyed as a teenager myself.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I put this into the queue over two years ago and I don’t remember in what context. More or less what it says on the label, although written from a British perspective (I did not know this when I ordered it). It’s mostly a history of Black Britain and I picked up a few details but I think a U.S. audience is probably more aware of what the author’s talking about. The book cover is kind of neat.

Oscar Mireles, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin. A collection of fiction, prose, memoir, poetic, and non-fiction writing about the Wisconsin Latin population made by a local activist. Heard about it on WPR. I did know there are Latinos in Wisconsin, but the most interesting selections to me were the ones that dealt with language acquisition (and forgetting) and farms.

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water: Poems. I don’t remember how I picked this up either, but it’s been critically praised. The poems attempt to connect the founding of the U.S., the experiences of Civil War soldiers, and the current moment of race relations. The best ones use an interesting technique: they take segments from Civil War letters and intersperse them with the author’s poetry. I found that piece of the book extremely moving and a novel way of connecting fiction/poetics with its real basis, without erasing the line between source and interpretation.

Keith Gessen, A Terrible Country. I read this and for some reason didn’t realize it was fiction; I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I had. A struggling grad student and first-generation immigrant from Russia who can’t afford life in New York City moves back to Moscow to take care of his (increasingly senile) grandmother, at the behest of his brother who’s a bit of a scam artist. The result is a portrait of contemporary urban Russia. I had the impression that there were a lot of jokes here about classic Russian literature (which I don’t know very well); the protagonist is relatable (especially for anyone who’s ever wondered if their dissertation will be marketable or how they’ll survive grad school financially), but the result never truly came together for me. The author is a relative of the important historian / critic Masha Gessen.

Clare Berman, Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents. Found in the library catalog while searching for advice on my own situation. Essentially the book is supposed to make you feel okay for not being the perfect caretaker and describes different strategies that people use in that situation and how they end up feeling about it. Not hugely substantial but interesting.

Nancy L. Mace et al., The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People who have Alzheimer’s Disease, Other Dementias, and Memory Loss, 6th ed. Found in the library catalog after dad’s summer cognitive assessment scores, as it became clear that his memory problems were negatively impacting a lot of our interactions and other components of his stroke recovery. An interesting read (and now I know the difference between a few different kinds of dementia and memory loss), but not a lot of useful tips for us. I think most people who have dad’s problems must be a lot less stubborn than dad is. These advice manuals make things sound so easy when they really aren’t.

Ken Bugul, The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. Originally published as Le Baobab fou (1982). Recommended on Senegal Daily, which I’ve been reading off and on for years as the blogger transitioned from Africa to France back to Senegal. A young woman, abandoned by her mother, educated in the Senegal schools and not fitting in well, decides to migrate to Belgium in order to pursue her interests, but feels out of place there as well, descending into arrangements of despair before deciding to return to Senegal. This book has also made a number of “best of African literature” lists; it’s a bit shocking and probably qualifies as post-colonial literature. It was an interesting and at times jarring read. The author has certainly had a fascinating life.

Meh / not recommended

Sarah J. Harris, The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder. Also on a recommended list from five days before the stroke. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, except with synesthesia. As a mild synesthesia sufferer, I was interested in the concept, but it failed to hold my attention. Recommended in the literary press.

Anne Mah, The Lost Vintage. A young woman studying for a sommelier qualification travels to her ancestral home in Burgundy where she uncovers secrets about her first love and her family during the Vichy period. Might have been recommended on Eater? In any case, cliché after cliché about wine, history, Burgundy, that primarily interested me when it discussed or referred to places I’ve been.

Julia Heaberlin, Black Eyed Susans. The sole survivor of a serial killer becomes less certain of her testimony against him as his execution nears. I don’t remember why I picked it up or what bothered me about this book — maybe the whole shaky memories issue, which was a concrete problem in my relationship with dad after the stroke. In any case I read about fifty pages and then quit. Picked up because a new novel by the same author was recommended, but the waiting list was fifty people long.

Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day. Picked up off the new book shelf at the library. I thought this would be a how-to book and it was more a historical overview of people who’ve creatively wasted their time. Oops. Read about twenty pages.

Tom McAllister, How to Be Safe. A recently-fired teacher is accused when a school shooting occurs at the campus where she’d worked. A small-town novel that couldn’t hold my attention. Read about fifty pages. Recommended in the literary press.

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing. An unreliable narrator with dementia tries to remember what happened in her garden seven decades earlier. This was not the summer when I could hack a novel about the consequences of memory loss and confabulation. Abandoned after the first few chapters. Not sure how I ran across this.

Matthew Sullivan, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. A bookseller becomes the heir of a homeless man who dies in her store. Picked because fellow Armitage fan Maria Grazia really liked it. I read the whole thing, but it seemed pedestrian to me and in fact, I no longer have a clear memory of it.

Merve Emre, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. A history of the MBTI oriented toward the biographers of the people who developed the test. She seems horrified by the failure of the MBTI to be scientifically valid, but to me she didn’t explore anything that’s interesting about it. You’d never know from this book that millions of people have found it an insightful tool for understanding themselves and their lives. Recommended in the literary press.

Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange. An English countryhouse mystery involving a troubled couple and their mousy neighbor, who observes them. The first chapter was just way too precious for me. The book made an immediate return to the library. Recommended in the literary press.

Tana French, The Witch Elm. Picked because I’d truly loved her earlier books. Sadly for me, this one was a dud. Putting the main plot element to which all the characters must respond on p. 164 or so is a stupid way to write a mystery novel. I got that far, then slammed the book down in frustration and didn’t pick it up again.

Christine Mangan, Tangerine. Picked because it got a lot of buzz and had been optioned for film even before its publication. A young woman . This reminded me of Patricia Highsmith (whom I do not enjoy), and it has a stereotypical “bad lesbians” plot.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry. Memoir of Steve Jobs’ daughter. He was a horrible parent and now we know exactly how and partly why. However, there’s no way we’d be reading this if that wasn’t who the book was really about. I’m getting royally tired of the twenty-something memoir. Picked off the bestseller list, but I will need to be more discerning in future.

~ by Servetus on March 15, 2019.

19 Responses to “Books I have read lately (July – November 2018)”

  1. I love my instant pot!


    • What do you love about it that you don’t already love about your slow cooker?


      • It’s fast, for one thing. You sauté and cook in the same pan. It functions as a pressure cooker or a slow cooker. You can cook frozen meat in it. You can hardboil an egg in 5 minutes and the shell just slides right off. I’m a vegetarian but hubs tells me chicken is incredibly tender. The inner pot cleans like a dream

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am definitely considering it a bit more seriously now. I spent some time looking at them the other night, online.


  2. That’s quite a lot of books, I think, under the circumstances! Nervous Conditions sounds very good, will add it to my list.


  3. I love you book posts but I really should stop reading them for the sake of my already long wish list 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Édouard Louis, merci de faire connaître ses écrits outre-atlantique!
    Dans ses 3 livres, la cruauté du monde actuel est froidement décrite, dans toutes ses composantes, ses vérités.
    J’y retrouve les personnes, les situations que je côtoie chaque jour.


  5. i think the last book I read on the best seller list was “The Reader” but unfortunately my mind finds out early how it is going to go and what the mystery is behind it. I guess it comes from reading too much.


    • I think that happens if you read a lot of mysteries (that is why I like them — they keep my mind operating). I guess a lot of endings, too, but not always.


  6. […] Who Killed My Father (originally published in 2018 as Qui a tué mon père). Picked up because of my appreciation for his previous books. Louis tries to explain the reason for his the disintegration of his father, a prominent figure in […]


  7. […] Malliet, A Fatal Winter. Second in a series I started reading last year. Vicar Maxen Tudor must solve a murder that takes place in a stately home near his parish before […]


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