Books I have read lately (March 2019)

Continued from here. My plan to read more has not borne much fruit. I was thinking about trying to go to bed an hour early to read there, but I still have so much work, and it’s not very comfortable to read there, and so I tend to just fall asleep. So I’ll have to keep trying in other ways to return to the required number of pages for Servetus sanity.

Highly recommended

Sunita Puri, That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour. I heard an NPR interview with the author, I think. A palliative care physician and professor at USC discusses her decision to pursue this field of medicine and the sorts of cases she regularly encountered. Separate review planned.


Cara Hunter, In the Dark. Seen on a recommended list somewhere. Builders discover a woman and child walled into a basement in a suburb of Oxford, and the hunt for their abuser disrupts both the results of a previous disappearance investigation and the life of DI Adam Fawley. Setting aside that this novel is written exactly as if it should be for turning it into a television script next week, it’s a page turner and it has strong characters with relationships that leap off the page. I also liked that one of them is on the verge of being a “bad copper,” something that there should be more of in crime novels if you ask me. I found out too late that this is the second in a series, but I’ll be looking for that novel when I get a chance.

Priya Satia, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Read for the purpose of refreshing my lecture on the industrial revolution. This one is well-written, if you’re interested in the topic, and the book is appropriate for an educated general reader. What’s interesting to the historian (which industries drove British industrialization? and on which timetable?) is probably less interesting to non-specialists than the thing the author spends a lot more time on: how was it that pacifist Quakers gradually became the leaders in UK gun production? In any case, my students found my discussion of it interesting.

Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. The author tries to identify the murderer(s) of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who “disappeared” in 1972 during the Northern Irish Troubles. McConville’s death was particularly cruel, as many of her children no longer remember her at all apart from the last evening they saw her, and only one photo of her survives. I had been alerted to this story years ago by an article somewhere (Vanity Fair? The New Yorker?) about the Boston College Oral History project, which had begun in 2001 to collect oral histories of the troubles in Belfast and had promised its informants complete confidentiality for their statements until after their deaths. The Northern Irish police sued successfully to gain access to some of these transcripts (which created a brouhaha about ethics among historians and especially oral historians, and led to the removal of many oral histories deposited at Boston College). So my ears pricked up when I heard an NPR interview with the author about this book. He was apparently prompted to write it after reading the obituary of Dolours Price. In the end, he does come to an (unprovable) conclusion about who murdered McConville (it seems that everyone alive who still knows who did it isn’t saying, but there are several pieces of evidence that can be put together, which point in one direction). But that was a less interesting piece of the book to me than the depiction of the atmosphere in Belfast in the 1970s (the McConvilles were a poor, mixed-confession family and so despised by all their neighbors) and the way that paramilitaries and radicals developed and pursued their agendas. I thought it was particularly interesting to read about Dolours and Marian Price seen against other women who turned terrorist in the same period (the RAF comes to mind as well).

Peter Robinson, Children of the Revolution. The murderer of an impoverished college teacher leads Inspector Banks and his team to long-hidden secrets from the early 1970s that disrupt local power arrangements. Will Banks back off in order to protect a promised promotion? I’ve been reading these novels for twenty years or so, and I really loved the first ones a lot, with Banks wrestling with his marriage, family life, his job, and his fear of the past and of growing older. The book also has a really strong female supporting character (Annie Cabbot). I got less interested when the story sidelined Cabbot and Banks started dating a much less interesting woman who was younger than his own children, but eventually I always go back as the books are extremely logically and convincingly plotted and yet the solution still evades me regularly. Also, I usually pick up a few music tips. It had been a while since I’d read one of these and I see there are four newish ones, so I’ll probably pick up the other three shortly. If you are not already reading this series, I’d suggest starting at the beginning as the earlier ones are better reads than the last few have been.

T Kira Madden, The Tribe of Fatherless Girls. Memoir of a queer, biracial teenager growing up in Boca Raton and dealing with troubled, drug-addicted parents. This is a definite exception to my general impression that the current crop of memoirs published by twenty-somethings are mostly uninsightful. I particularly admired: the point-blank speech; the way in which Madden explores the differing cultural and social contexts she navigates; the non-linear presentation; the way that she reflects on some of the worst points of her life. There’s an interesting profile with Madden here. I think I picked this up after seeing it on a list of positively reviewed books.

Jonathan Weisman, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. Target of a Twitter harassment campaign takes the temperature of prejudice against Jews in the U.S. today — concluding that something in the atmosphere has definitely changed since the 2016 presidential election. Jews are not in significantly greater danger, yet, but more awareness should be necessary (the book was completed before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting). Argues that the solution to the upswing in anti-Semitic moments for Jews is less tribalism and more identification with all of the troubles of those marginalized by current populist politics. Since this is more or less my position, I found the book agreeable. The most interesting parts treated how the experience of anti-Semitism heightened the author’s perception of his own Jewishness. Picked up off the new book shelf.

Saul Friedländer, When Memory Comes. Originally published as Quand vient le souvenir (1978). Memoir of Friedländer’s childhood and adolescence in Prague and France (after his parents fled the Holocaust, then surrendered him to a Catholic orphanage and consented to his conversion to Catholicism to save him before fleeing again — fruitlessly, as they died in Auschwitz not long after that), and then Israel. I’d read and profited from a lot of his writing about memory in my initial phase of graduate school. What I appreciated — the way that one memory leads to another in a chain that is thematic as opposed to linear. A re-read — I ordered this when I read this profile in the NZZ and saw that Friedländer had recently published a followup, Where Memory Leads, which is not yet in our library.

Recommended if something about them interests you:

Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. Made several “best of 2018” lists. A respected essayist reflects on her addiction to alcohol and her journey toward sobriety in light of her relationships and education as a writer. To me, there was way too much analysis of literature about and by alcoholics here and nowhere near enough honesty. If you like Jean Rhys or Malcolm Lowry you will enjoy this but that wasn’t why I was reading it.

Sarah McColl, Joy Enough: A Memoir. A daughter tells the story of her unconventional mother’s life as she cares for her mother during her last months. This book really should have spoken to me, but it just didn’t. However, it’s a short, sweet read and it has a lot of detail about the author’s Texas and New England childhood. I felt bad for not liking it more. Picked up off the new bookshelf.

Leah Koenig, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook. Picked up after reading a review of one of Koenig’s other books by Jennifer Guerrero (our library didn’t have that one), and seeing that Joan Nathan gave the book her seal of approval (you may or may not remember that Nathan is my Jewish cooking guru, or rather, rabbi). It’s a bit of a weird read. Hadassah is a Zionist women’s charity; Hadassah cookbooks were typically sold as fundraisers and covered traditional Jewish foods, often those served on holidays. Koenig has explicitly decided to avoid those commonplaces and stick with “everyday meals,” but in doing so, except for a few things that are fairly obvious (there’s a tzimmes recipe), she’s more or less taken the “Jewish” out except for not combining meat and dairy in the recipes. There were several soup recipes in this book that I tried and liked (especially the orzo and greens, and the mushroom barley), but they were nothing that I couldn’t have found in just about any cookbook. For Koenig, Jewishness is about “the love and care we put into a meal,” but would anyone seriously assert that non-Jews don’t do that? Maybe it’s my anti-Zionism speaking here but I was disappointed.

James Cone, Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian. I met Cone once, in the 00s, and heard him speak and ate dinner with him in a small group, and saw this on the new book shelf. I was sad to hear he had died. (He’s sort of the theological equivalent of Malcolm X.) By now his insight that Black power is the essence of the Gospel is somewhat less controversial than when he made it many years ago, but I was interested in reading his own account of his life.

Meh / not recommended

Joan Silber, Improvement. In Harlem, a young woman with a crazy aunt gets drawn into, and rejects, her boyfriend’s cigarette smuggling plans, with serious consequences. Picked up because it won the 2018 PEN/Faulkner award and her writing’s been compared to Alice Munro. But the characters are all bland and soulless; this book has none of the piercing insights of Munro.

Nickolas Butler, Little Faith. A rural western Wisconsin family confronts the return of their prodigal daughter with a child, and the absorption of the daughter into a faith healing community. Picked up because Butler is supposed to be the new star of “Wisconsin lit.” I felt like the book was sort of a cut-rate Anne Tyler. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the much-lauded Shotgun Lovesongs a few years ago either, so this is probably my last tango with Butler. Abandoned about halfway through.


~ by Servetus on April 2, 2019.

10 Responses to “Books I have read lately (March 2019)”

  1. Hmmm. Yeah, I cringe every time someone says what sets their food apart is the love they put into it. No one’s making hate food. Well, I have one friend who would point out at that remark, that their were tasters long ago to put a poisoning barrier before royalty, but someone you invite? How was the food?


    • I really liked the greens and orzo soup — very flavorful, as was the mushroom and barley soup. There was also a variation on fesunjan (sp?) that was good but not as good. Probably it needed another day to ferment and let the flavors marry. I don’t think I made anything else, at least nothing sticks out in memory. I will definitely make that greens and orzo soup again this summer — the orzo worked really well in the soup which surprised me a bit and I hadn’t heard of putting snap peas whole into a broth. I’ve been in a kind of soup mood lately as dad will reliable eat at least two bowls of anything I make.

      LOL, hate food. There would be an interesting concept for a cookbook. “Dinner for your hated parent-in-law” or “Soup for unwanted guests” or “desserts for the neighbor kid who never goes home.”

      Liked by 2 people

    • oh, and I would still totally try the cookbook in your review, but our library doesn’t have it (yet).

      Liked by 1 person

    • I made this traybake for dinner tonight (except I just used plain old chili pepper flakes) and it was excellent. It did not look that photogenic but the combination of the comforting potatoes with garlic and lemon, the cheese, which held up really texture wise and mellowed in taste a bit, and the sweet peas was really convincing. Will make again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You reading little is more than I read in a year, so well done you anyway!


    • I don’t have the patience to watch TV. I’m sure you are much more familiar with what’s going on in tv drama than I am.


  3. […] Continued from here. […]


  4. […] Sata, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Reread / refresh from last spring. Polishing up Industrial Revolution lecture in world […]


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