Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

Amaro

Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

For Christmas last year, my partner and I decided to go to Vedge, a fancy vegan restaurant in town, for dinner, instead of giving each other physical gifts. It was at Vedge that I had Cynar, a digestif made from 13 herbs and botanicals (among them artichokes), for the first time.

The drink was both challenging and delightful and I became hooked on the concept of amaro, herbal, bitter liquors designed to be drunk at the end of the meal to help with digestion. So it was a real delight to get to read through Brad Thomas Parsons’ Amaro, which is both a love letter to and a primer on the wide world of bitters.

First off, let’s define what amaro or a digestif is. Although in the US, we might classify Campari and the like in the same group as Cynar and other amari, Parsons points out that those beverages are technically not classified as amaro in Italy, as they are typically consumed before a meal. Amaro is reserved for the big, heavy bitter drinks, like my friend Cynar, that you drink afterwards.

Along with a section on apertivo, there’s an entire section of fernet, a specific type of amaro that I really have no plans on trying soon. There’s also a section devoted to new world amaro, including a number of beverages created in the US, and lots of stories about bitter bars and amaro-devoted bartenders throughout.

Parsons really did his research here, visiting the manufacturers of some of the more well known amari, trying to wheedle the secret recipes and formulas (and there are a lot of secret formulas) out of the owners. But to no avail. Only a few people will get to know what goes into some of these beverages, ever. And I think that’s OK.

So far, I’ve enjoyed Amaro purely for the information Parsons provides. I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the cocktail recipes included, although there are some classics, such as the Negroni. One recipe that I’m particularly intrigued by features Amaro Montenegro and orange soda. Although there are a few drinks featuring my beloved cynar, I think I’ll probably pass on making those (they contain bourbon or rye, and I’m just not a fan) and will continue to enjoy it my favorite way: straight up, with nothing added.

Book Review: David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

David Bowie changed my life. I think I would be a very different person, not just in terms of my musical tastes, but also in terms of my politics and belief systems, had I not found Bowie’s music and read a biography about him during high school. So I was happy to have the opportunity to review Mel Elliot’s David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book.

The coloring book doesn’t just have images of Bowie’s most iconic looks (and a few lesser known looks, such as from his early days and later years). It also includes a bit of biographical information about him and his work.

The only trouble is that the content is thin at best and the pictures aren’t so great. For one thing, the book is on the small side, about 8 inches square. So the pictures are pretty small. For another, they’re not that detailed. I’m not really into the whole adult coloring book trend, and I got this book purely because I am a Bowie fan. But this is just disappointing as a coloring book because there’s really not that much to color.

While I appreciate the text that accompanies the images in the book, I feel it really leaves you wanting more. The author provides details about who designed some of Bowie’s costumes, and comments on his stylistic choices throughout the years, but the text doesn’t really do much to give you a full in-depth understanding of who Bowie was and why his alter egos and musical choices throughout the year matters.

Well, you  might argue, if the David Bowie Retrospective is for real fans, then just a blurb or two of text should suffice, since they already know all the details. But I’d almost rather that book have more or better images and less text than a few half-hearted images (seriously, there’s one picture that’s just a pair of brogues) and mediocre text.

Although it’s a disappointment as a coloring book, there is one way that I’ve found to enjoy the book. That’s using the images as transfers for embroidery. I copied one of the pictures onto fabric transfer paper and have been working on stitching up Bowie as Aladdin Sane.

David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

All in all, I get the sense that the book was created as a way to cash in on fans’ sadness at Bowie’s death. That’s cynical, I know, but it’s the only way to explain why the book is just so lackluster when nothing about Bowie was.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

Books I Read In October and November 2016

It’s play reading season for me, so I didn’t get to read as many published books as usual. Here’s what I read in October and November, including Hagseed, the Night Manager, and the Language Hoax.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré

Yes, I read the Night Manager because I watched the mini series on AMC. Since the novel was written in the early 1990s and the TV series was set in present day, I was curious to see what had been updated or changed from the book.

I can’t really say I enjoyed reading The Night Manager and there were a lot of  times when I considered abandoning the book. Le Carre’s language is … let’s just say it’s pretty flowery. Despite the fact that the novel was a thriller, it had a really slow pace.

Was it different from the TV show? Yeah, it was, a lot. The night manager of the title was the same, and the main bad guy was the same. But the chief spy, who’s a woman on TV, was a dude in the book. A sign of the times, I guess? The ending was a lot different too, and after seeing the televised version, I felt that the book’s ending was a let down.

Would I feel the same had I not seen the mini series? Maybe. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if I hadn’t seen the show, so there’s that.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

After the mild disappointment of the Night Manager, I enjoyed The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo more than I thought I would. I have a few problems with Amy Schumer’s comedy –mainly her approach to race issues and her insistance on describing herself as fat. But her memoir goes beyond her comedic persona, offering a glimpse at who she is as a person.

It’s also fairly funny while it discusses some pretty dark stuff. In one part, she describes her tendancy to black out when drinking. As part of the chapter, she recounts a relatively recent event, during which she took Ambien after drinking. She ended up eating butter “like it was guacamole” while her horrified boyfriend looked on.

I think people have a tendancy to conflate who Schumer is as a person with the characters she creates for TV and her movie. The book is a reminder that they are not one and the same, and that there’s more to Amy Schumer than her comedy.

Hagseed

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

Hagseed is Margaret Atwood’s re-telling of the Tempest. Instead of simply adapting the story of Shakespeare’s play, Atwood creates a sort of story within the play. After being ousted from his role as artistic director at a theater festival, Felix finds himself living in exile in some hovel somewhere in Canada and teaching drama at a local prison. A highlight of the prisoner’s lives in the annual Shakespearean production they put on. In an interesting twist, the same people who fired Felix now have plans to shutter his prison literacy program. Felix comes up with a plan to get his revenge and convince the men to keep the program going.

Before he was fired, Felix had plans for a great production of the Tempest at the festival. Those plans were shelved, but not forgotten. Now, at the prison, he sees a chance to bring his plan for the Tempest to life, while seeking revenge on the people who fired him.

The fact that Felix is producing the Tempest while the plot of the play also parallels his life makes Hagseed a particularly fun read. It’s much more than just a straight-up adaptation or retelling. It presents the original work while also imitating and riffing on that work. There’s a lot of room for failure in that premise (I initially thought it would be very cheesy). But, Atwood pulls it off. She makes Felix a character you both feel for and feel annoyed by. Instead of simply rehashing the plot, she turns it into something else entirely.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

I took a linguistics course on Coursera recently and McWhorter’s The Language Hoax was one of the recommended, but not required readings. I’ve read other books by McWhorter and find him to be a fun read. The Language Hoax was no different.

It’s an argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that people’s language shapes their culture. Although it’s a problematic hypothesis that leads to people occasionally making broad and inaccurate statements such as “_____ language has no color for green, thus ____ people don’t see green!” or “____ has simple grammar. Thus, ____ people are simple!,” the hypothesis has lived on. It’s often mentioned in the media (they mentioned in the movie Arrival) in a way that’s overly simplified.

McWhorter argues that it’s not language that shapes culture but rather, if anything culture that shapes language. Or more likely, a series a random of events that form language and have nothing to do with cultural preferences or the intellectual abilities of one people over another.

Take, for example, the use of the definite article. Not every language uses “the.” Does that mean languages without “the” have no sense of definiteness? Or that people who speak those languages can’t pick out one specific object from a group? No, probably not.

At the end of the book, McWhorter stresses that despite our cultural differences, we can look at language to find out what makes people more the same than different.

Book Reviews: What I Read in September 2016

Another month’s gone by! Check out the book reviews for what I read in September:

How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff

I feel pretty conflicted about How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff. A memoir of the year the author spent traveling around (through parts of Europe and Asia, spending a lot of time in Thailand), the book really lives up to its name. Juliff starts her big round-the-world trip off by nearly missing her flight to Croatia. Once she gets to the airport, she struggles at check-in because she doesn’t know what a “checked bag” is. When she finally gets past security, instead of dashing to her flight (she’s late, after all), she dawdles in the bookshop. From there, she has mishap after mishap, some of which are brought on by her complete lack of common sense, others of which (like nearly experiencing a tsunami in Thailand) are just due to bad luck or bad timing.

Yeah, so the book is basically what not to do when traveling 101. My main struggle with it was it didn’t feel that believable. “Really, you’re in your 20s, you live in London and you don’t know what checked luggage is?” That sort of thing. I get that the writer had lots of anxiety and that traveling around and breaking out of her shell was a struggle for her, but the whole “I didn’t realize” schtick gets old pretty quickly.

It was a quick read, and Juliff’s a pretty engaging writer, but after more than 300 pages of “oops!” I’d had enough. Small annoyances aside, the book did make me want to travel to Thailand. So I guess it didn’t entirely fail as a travel memoir, since it did incite some wanderlust.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Years ago, this guy I was going out with gave me a copy of the The Secret History by Donna Tartt, because I was a classics major. I broke up with the guy and never read the book.

Then, a few years ago, I read the Goldfinch and really liked it. So, I figured it was time to revisit the Secret History. Creepy ex boyfriend’s copy was long gone, so I picked one up at the library. I’m really glad I finally read it.

Set at a fictional liberal arts college in Vermont, the book is narrated by Richard, a transfer student from the West Coast. Since he studied ancient Greek at his old school, Richard decides to study it at his new college. The thing is, the classics students at Hampden are few (there are just five) and admission to the program is closely regulated by Julien, an eccentric professor.

Rumors swirl about the school about Julien and his students — that they worship the devil, for instance, but Richard is undeterred. He convinces Julien to accept him into the program and quickly becomes part of the group.

The Secret History is a murder mystery, but a murder mystery that’s been flipped. The murder opens the book, the next 500 or so pages are spent learning why the murder happened and the consequences of it.

More than a thriller, though, the novel takes a look at the effects of privilge on a group of young students. All five of the classics majors, save for Richard, come from cushy backgrounds. Most of them have inheritances to rely on and families to support them. No matter the consequences of their actions, there’s the sense that they will be fine.

Richard doesn’t have that same assurance. He’s cut off from his family (in part by choice, in part not). He has no financial cushion. Although he’s part of the action (he is there at the murder), he’s also outside of it, standing aside the narrator, retelling the story many years later.

When the major consequence of the murder happens, Richard is the one who stands to lose the most, since he lacks that familiar support. Yet, he’s the only who ends up pressing on with his studies, earning a degree. The novel is as much a commentary on the damage having too much wealth can do as it is on the damage of having a single professor be the sole influence over you in college.

book reviews

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

About a year ago, I saw Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library, when The Buried Giant had just come out. He mentioned that he had meant for The Remains of the Day to be a comedy, but few people saw it that way. I don’t know if his saying that influenced my reading of the book, but I did find it quite funny. And tragic. But also fairly funny.

James Stevens served as a butler for Lord Darlington for three decades. Now, Darlington is dead and the great house has been purchased by an American. Stevens, ever the proper butler, wonders often is he should be bantering with his new boss, since the boss is American, and don’t Americans like banter? His uncertainty and his attempts at banter are quite hilarious.

Around this time, Steven gets a letter from a former coworker, Miss Kenton, who was once a housekeeper there, but then got married and left. She seems unhappy in her letter, so Stevens gets the idea that he’ll drive out to her and see if she wants to come back and work at the house, which now has a limited staff.

Over the course of his multi-day drive across the country, he reminiscinces about his past at Darlington Hall. His remembrances about Miss Kenton are tinged with the suggestion that he was attracted to her, and she to him, but that his inaction was what led to her to go off and marry someone else. Stevens also begins to question his many decades of devotion to Darlington, who it is revealed in the flashbacks, might not have been such a great guy.

It’s not just Stevens’ love life that suffers because of his sense of propriety and his refusal to act in any way but as an exemplary butler. His relationship with his father also suffers. In one memory, Stevens leaves his father on his deathbed because he feels he needs to fufill  his duties for the day. His father dies and Stevens has no chance to say good-bye.

So, a funny book at times. But also a deeply heartbreaking book about a life lived under so much constraint that you might argue it wasn’t a life lived at all.

 

fates and furies book review

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies closely examines the marriage between Lancelot (“Lotto”), a successful playwright and former struggling actor and Mathilde, his wife. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which (Fates) focuses on Lancelot/Lotto. The second part (Fury) is all about Mathilde.

The pair meet in college and get married pretty quickly. Everyone thinks they’ll get divorced, but the years gone on and they don’t. It looks as though Mathilde is the quiet wife, supporting her husband while he pursues an acting career, standing by his side after he makes sit as a playwright. But there’s much more to it than that and the second part of the book rips off the facade of the first part, unveiling Mathilde and giving more of an explanation for the couple’s relationship. It’s not so much telling the story of a marriage from two different people’s point of view. It’s telling two different stories that happen to contain the same people and events that take place at the same time.

It’s not so much the story of Fates and Furies that made it such a good read. It’s Groff’s style. The words tumble on the page. We’re shown brief, terrible glimpses of the character’s past and future, all in one breath. It’s a beautifully written book, probably one of the most stylistically engaging novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

One day, Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. She’s been having terrible dreams about murder and violence, so she gives up meat.

But it’s not as if she simply goes vegan. She stops eating most foods and wastes away. Her behavior changes too, unsettling her husband and family. At a family dinner one day, things reach a tipping point and Yeong-Hye ends up in the hospital.

Although Yeong-Hye is the title character, The Vegetarian is told from everyone’s perspective but hers. There are some brief descriptions of her violent dreams, from her own point of view, in the first part of the book, but otherwise, the action is narrated by her husband. The second part of the book is from the POV of her brother-in-law and the final part is from her sister’s point of view.

The Vegetarian is some sort of terrifying parable. When Yeong-Hye finally tries to assert herself, by first becoming vegetarian and by doing other considerably more shocking things later on, her family’s reaction is first to force her to eat meat and later to lock her up. No one gets what is going on with her. The response is either to abandon her, to take advantage of her or to have her actions call into question everything that a character once believed or thought important.

The premise of the novel might feel so strange and foreign to us that it can be easy to dismiss it. I think it’s more important not to try to define the “meaning” of the story or to really analyze what it all means, especially the ending. My first inclination was to think, oh clearly, this is a woman throwing off the shackles of society. But there’s more to it than that. Yeong-Hye isn’t just rejecting the expectations placed on her by society. She’s throwing off the expectation that she is even a human, and that is what ultimately terrifies her family and others around her.

 

 

Book Reviews: What I Read in August

Hey! It’s September already, which means it’s time for a few book reviews from the month of August. Let’s start with a book I didn’t like and work our way up to one I absolutely loved.

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

I guess if “These Things Hidden” has one thing going for it, it’s that it was a quick read. Other than that, ugh, where to begin.

Set in Linden Falls, a small town in Iowa, the novel alternates point of view among four characters, Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire, in each chapter. Sometimes the chapters are written in first person. Sometimes in third person. I don’t know why the author made that choice. But that’s how it goes.

Allison has recently gotten out of prison for doing something terrible as a teenager and has returned to Linden Falls to live in a halfway house and start her life over. Her sister, Brynn, has fled their small town and now lives a few hours away with their grandmother. Their parents have pretty much cut the two sisters out of their lives because of what Allison did.

Meanwhile, Claire owns a bookstore in Linden Falls. She’s adopted a son, Joshua, who was left at a fire station as a baby. Charm’s a nursing student who drops into the bookstore sometimes and feels a connection to Joshua.

The novel has a lot of twists and turns, each one more implausible than the next. It doesn’t really develop its characters beyond flat stereotypes. Charm’s mom is the trashy slut. Allison’s and Brynn’s parents have too high expectations. Their grandma seems nice, but that’s all we get. There’s never really a sense of the why behind each character’s action, except for maybe Claire, who seems driven by her need/desire to be a mom. Snoozefest.

SPOILER

So, OK, let’s just do a spoiler here. You’ve been warned. Allison went to prison for throwing her baby in a river. Turns out that not only did she not know she was pregnant or was somehow able to conceal her pregnancy for the entire time, she was pregnant with twins.

You’re putting two and two together. Yeah, Joshua was the other baby. And! Plot twist! Allison gets a job working at the bookstore, where she instantly recognizes Joshua and decides she must tell her sister about him. Oh, and by the way, Brynn’s very  mentally ill. This is depicted by her saying random words out loud sometimes and by her trying to drown Joshua.

From it’s unbelievability to its handling of characters with mental illness, there’s not much to recommend about These Things Hidden.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

I’ll be honest and admit that I picked up Jojo Moyes’ One Plus One off of the library shelf because I really liked the cover. The story inside was enjoyable, too, but it was really the cover that drew me in. So, “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t have much weight here.

The formula for One Plus One is pretty similar to Moyes’ Me Before You. A down-on-her-luck single mom, Jess, ends up with a wealthy, but seriously flawed, tech entrepreneur, Ed Collins.  Although the two initially don’t get along, their romance has a chance to bloom over the course of a days-long road trip from their home town on the coast of England to Scotland, where Jess’ daughter, Tanzie, a math whiz, has the chance to win a math contest. The prize money from the contest would be enough to cover the cost of her going to a posh private school.

Of course, there are a lot of literal and figurative bumps in the road on the way to the contest. Turns out Tanzie can’t ride in cars going more than 40 mph, which is why the trip takes so long. Jess doesn’t want to pay for hotel rooms and won’t eat in restaurants, because of concerns about cost. The whole reason they’re riding with Ed is because their rickety Rolls Royce broke down on the side of the road. Ed himself is running from his own demons (and possible jail time for insider trading) at home.

The novel alternates point of view and narration between chapters, giving Jess, Ed, Tanzie, and Nicky, Jess’ stepson, a chance to tell their stories. The change in narrator actually does give you a multi-faceted view of the situation and helps create a deep and engaging story.

Although One Plus One does have a happier ending than Me Before You, it’s not all smooth sailing on the path to love or whatever. Ed doesn’t simply swoop in and save Jess from her financial troubles. Jess doesn’t just jump in and make Ed a better man instantly.

That’s what I love about Moyes’ books. They’re sappy romances, sure, but they aren’t all hearts and love and mush. Her books feel hopeful, but still depict the day to day challenges all people face.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

I read about Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes in Tom Wolf’s take down of Noam Chomsky in Harper’s in July and decided I really wanted to read it. Chomsky has this theory that language and grammar are innate, that every person has the ability to learn grammar and that all language share things in common, even if those languages are very different. This is an over-simplification, but I’m not reviewing Chomsky here.

Anyway, along comes Everett, who’s spent 30 years of his life living among the Pirahã tribe along the Maici river in Brazil. Everett’s also a linguist and has dedicated himself to studying the Pirahã language. What he’s found is a grammar like no other, with thoughts pretty much exclusively in the present tense and each sentence containing only one thought.

His book, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” is part memoir of his time with the tribe and part linguistic discussion and analysis. It caused a stir in the linguistic community when published, because it did bring Chomsky’s theories into question.

But even if you’re not interested in the intricacies of language and how a culture shapes the language it creates, it’s worth a read. One for the evolution of its narrator, who originally traveled to down the Maici River as a missionary, intent on converting the Pirahã to Christianity, and two, because it’s important to learn about other cultures, particularly about those that are on the brink of being lost.

As Everett argues, every time a language dies, the world loses something. Knowledge about how cultures can think differently, for one thing. A different way of looking at daily existence, for another.

 

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Underground Airlines is a controversial book. Written by a white guy (this is part of the controversy. The other part is the mostly tone deaf NY Times review), it imagines a world where the US civil war never happened and where slavery is still legal in four states, even in the present day. Not only is slavery still legal, but the Fugitive Slave Act is still in effect, meaning if a slave escapes to another state, he or she can be brought back to the plantation (or factory or slaughterhouse) and re-enslaved.

It’s an interesting story, of a former slave who’s been forced to be a bounty hunter for the US Marshals (the government arm in charge of chasing down and recapturing escaped slaves). There are twists and turns, including a particularly chilling revelation at the end.

Although it was set in an alternative world, it was a world with a lot of similarities to our own. Michael Jackson still existed, for example, and was a famous pop star. LBJ became president (although Lincoln was assassinated before he was president, preventing the war). There’s an Internet, there are cars, and so on.

I guess the similarities are important for making the book feel relevant and timely to us. We can’t just be like, ‘oh this isn’t happening, it’s completely fiction,” because there are a lot of parallels between the novel and with how black people are treated in our actual society. The chilling revelation at the book’s end might never be real in our world, but the similarities between how free black people are treated in the book and how they are treated in our society (I’m talking about the shootings, the suspicions and the disregard) are chillingly real.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

About a year ago, I was with a group of theater people who were discussing a project that commissioned contemporary playwrights adapt or rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. It seems Hogarth has done a similar thing, but in novel form. The Gap of Time is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

A quick recap, in case you’ve never read The Winter’s Tale (there’s a more fully fleshed out version in the novel itself): A king, Leontes, becomes convinced that his best friend, Polixenes, is having an affair with his wife, Hermoine. Leontes is absolutely sure that the fetus Hermoine is carrying is actually Polixenes’. Sadness and death follow, as the baby, Perdita, is left and Hermoine is killed.

In Winterson’s version, Leontes is Leo, a jealous hedge fund manager and Polixenes is Xeno, a video game designer. Hermoine is MiMi, a singer, and Perdita, is, well, Perdita, a baby found and raised by Shep and his son Clo in New Bohemia (think of it as a fictional form of New Orleans).

I really loved this book, more so than I thought I would. The Winter’s Tale is one of those  Shakespearean plays people don’t know what to do with, since it’s neither purely a tragedy (although there is death and stuff) and it’s not fully a comedy (there’s happiness and marriage at the end, though). The novel tries to figure out what to do with the subject and plot of the challenging play.

Winterson’s version is fully modernized. Leo and Xeno are former lovers (they went to boarding school together). Although Leo is now married to a woman, Xeno identifies as gay. MiMi isn’t just a woman who’s stuck with her husband. She’s a singer, she has her own money, she can make her own decisions. That makes Leo’s treatment of her all the more terrifying.

If anything, Winterson’s version fills in the gaps created by the play and helps solve some of the confusion. One of the big issues with the Winter’s Tale is that Leo’s sudden jealousy isn’t really understood. Winterson has him install cameras in his wife’s bedroom and spies on her and Xeno together. Their interaction is innocent, but Leo twists and perverts it in his mind, setting the events of the book into motion.

It’s worth noting that The Gap of Time isn’t strictly an adaptation. I don’t know how clear the story would be without the introduction that recaps the plot of the Winter’s Tale. Winterson also jumps into the novel at the end, to share her reason for rewriting or covering it. That was a  little jarring, but I guess makes sense if you’re going to look at the book as a cover version, and not just an adaptation of the story.

*I received a free copy of The Gap of Time from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Books: What I Read in July

And … I’m back. Decided to take a bit of a break from blogging for July, so I’m going to skip reviews of what I read in June and get right to the books I read last month. Except for the first book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because it’s really five books and I read them over the course of June and July, along with a few others.

Ready? Let’s begin.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I have a bit of a hypothesis about Douglas Adams’ books. I like the Hitchhiker’s trilogy (it’s actually five books. Just let that sink in and you’ll get the humor found through the books). But I love Dirk Gently. And I think that’s because I read the Dirk Gently series first. Meanwhile, people who read Hitchhiker’s first love it, but only like Dirk Gently. My hypothesis that whichever Adams series you read first is the one you like more could have nothing to do with anything and could just because we are different people, and so we like different things.

Anyway, Hitchhikers. The basic premise: Right before Earth is destroyed so that an intergalatic superhighway can be built, Ford Prefect (an alien) whisks Arthur Dent (a human) off of the planet. Hilarity ensues, over the course of five books.

Admittedly, some of the books are better than others. I found the third book, “Life, the Universe and Everything,” to be a bit of a slog, while I thought the fifth book, “Mostly Harmless,” was the most enjoyable (after the first book, which is absolutely hilarious). “Mostly Harmless” is a little on the dark side and the ending is a bit, “whoa, OK, did that just happen?” But I liked it.

If you’ve never read Hitchhiker’s, go read it. But first, I’d recommend reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Just to test my  hypothesis.

 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

July was all about re-reading books I’d enjoyed in the past. I first read The Children Act, a slim novel from Ian McEwan, when it was published in 2014. It’s been on my re-read list ever since.

Fiona Maye is a high court judge in the family court in London. She’s earned praise and recognition for her level headed decisions in challenging cases, most notably a case involving conjoined twins. Severing the twins would save the one, but kill the other. Leaving them attached would kill both.

In The Children Act, Fiona faces another challenge. A 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness has leukemia and is refusing blood transfusions, because of his religion. The transfusions would most likely save his life. Fiona has to decide whether to accept that his wishes are valid or rule in favor of the hospital giving him the transfusions.

At the same time, her personal life is going to shit. Her husband has announced that he’d like to have an affair (but stay married) and promptly leaves their shared flat. Fiona’s constantly wondering if she made the right choice in not having children. Although she ultimately makes a decision in her case, a few of the choices she makes at the same time come back to haunt her.

Although The Children Act is a short book, it packs a powerful punch. Fiona’s a character steeped in regret. She’s done well professionally, but she’s not sure if she made the right choices throughout her life. The books not only focuses on the big choice she must make and the ramifications it will have for Adam (the teenage boy) and his family, but also how the small choices and decisions she’s made and continues to make have affected her life and those around her, for better or for worse.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Not only was July re-read a few favorites month. It was also “man month,” in that I only read books by male authors. I guess it happens sometimes. The last book I read in July was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I first read the book in 2003,  after the Oprah’s book club debacle (my copy actually has a small label on it announcing the book as a book club pick. Oops.)

If you’re never read the book, it centers on the Lambert family. Albert and Enid, the dad and mom, live in a small town in the midwest. Their children have scattered, with their oldest son, Gary and their only daughter, Denice, in Philly. Their middle child, Chip, is in Lithuania by way of New York City and some terrible life choices.

The first time I read the book, I was a super naive 20-year-old. Now, I’m a less naive 33-year-old, a year older than the youngest character, Denice. So, I guess I got the book a bit better this time around. There were parts of it that I found funny, and I don’t remember there being so much humor the first time I read it. There were parts of it that were more relatable.

Although The Corrections was Franzen’s third novel, it’s interesting to re-read it and note how much like a first or beginning novel it feels. There’s a lot of heavy handedness about it, in terms of metaphors and symbolism (true to its title, the book sure talks about things being corrected a lot).  It’s like you can feel him trying to write the Great American Novel. There’s a sense of strain throughout, like he’s trying to achieve greatness. I’ll have to re-read Freedom and Purity, but I don’t remember getting the same sense from those two books.

 

Books: What I Read in May

Hey, I kinda read a lot in May. I mean, I think so, at least. Is five books, one of them a graphic novel, a lot? It seemed like a lot, and as if I was onto a new book every week. Let’s review:

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil

Dept. of Speculation was a strange little book. Short and fragmentary, it traces the beginning and break down of a marriage. A woman and a man fall in love, get married, have a child, get bedbugs, have or contemplate affairs, move out of the city.

Each of the book’s short paragraphs is a concise observation. It reminded me of the books of Buddhist proverbs my partner has. I’d read one of the paragraphs, think, oh that was profound, forget what it was, and not be able to find it again.

Although it was a quick read, there was depth to the book. It was more about the sum of the short paragraphs than each of them on their own. Reading about the couple’s baby daughter, for example, you get the impression that the wife finds her annoying. But, keep reading, and it becomes clear that despite the baby’s irritating behavior, the mother has nothing but love for her.

Dept. of Speculation doesn’t develop its characters in a realistic, fully fleshed out way. We get only the mother/wife’s perspective, we only see snippets of other people in her life. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s moving and heartbreaking, I’d recommend the Dept. of Speculation.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

People are getting married later and later (if at all). Despite that, people still associate the beginning of adulthood with marriage and children. All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister, takes a close look at the evolution of the single woman in recent decades, using statistics and interviews to paint a full picture of what life is like for women and what the postponement of marriage means for society over all, and how society should respond.

Don’t let the title (taken from a Beyonce song) fool you. This is not a light read. It’s informative and engaging, but it’s packed full of facts. All the Single Ladies looks at women on both ends of the financial/economic spectrum. It includes stories from those who are wealthy and from those who aren’t so wealthy. It discusses portrayals of single women in the media and how those portrayals have influenced people’s thoughts and feelings about women. Think Murphy Brown in the 1980/1990s, Sex in the City in the late 1990s, Cathy the comic strip. It includes opinions from people who look disapprovingly on women who don’t get married. More importantly, it includes opinions and feelings from real women who are single or not exactly chomping at the bit to get married any time soon.

Get married, have babies isn’t where the story ends (or even where the story goes) for many women today. But, it’s taking a long time for people to realize that.

Patience by Daniel Clowes

I read Patience in one sitting. Which is what I think you’re supposed to do with graphic novels, but I’m never sure. I know I’m not one to focus much on the actual graphics of the book. I don’t study each frame or image carefully, but instead of pay attention to the story.

But, Patience has graphics that demand attention. It’s a sci-fi time-travel tale about a man, Jack who goes back in time to save his wife, Patience, who was murdered in their home. This being a time traveling tale, there are twists and unexpected jumps throughout. It’s stuff along the lines of “what if you go back in time and cause the thing you’re trying to prevent?”

The effects of time travel on Jack’s body are frighteningly and graphically portrayed by the imagery. The panels in Patience are bright, vivid, and grotesque. They jump between being realistic cartoons (is that a thing?) and being technicolor nightmares come true.

First Bite by Bee Wilson

I thought Bee Wilson’s first book, Consider the Fork, about how the development of utensils changed the way we eat, was interesting, so when I saw First Bite sitting on the shelf at the library, I decided to pick it up. First Bite examines how people learn to eat and what influences shape their tastes and preferences, from early childhood to adulthood.

She argues that our tastes aren’t set in stone. Once we decide that we like (or dislike) something, we’re not stuck with it forever. Instead, the book relies on a lot of research and data to suggest that our tastes and preferences can, and do change with time and effort. You can teach yourself to like spinach and kale, even if you grew up on a diet of French fries and pasta.

As with any book that comes out about food, the author touches on her own personal struggles with eating as younger person and there’s a chapter on disordered eating. It’s not all about bulimia and anorexia, though. The chapter brings up adults who are so picky as to have severely limited diets. People who are so picky as to avoid eating in social situations because they aren’t sure they’ll find something that’s on their acceptable list or because they are worried how others will perceive them.

One of the more fascinating sections of the book concerned Japan. Nutritionists and health experts often point to Japan as having a fantastically healthy diet. Japanese live longer because of their healthy diets, right? But guess what — that Japanese way of eating is relatively  new. Before the 20th century, the nation’s diet didn’t primarily consist of fish and vegetables. It was carb-heavy and not so healthy. The point being that, yes, you can get yourself to eat better, and yes, you can eventually get yourself to eat so well that you (and everyone around you) completely forgets that once upon a time, your diet was primarily junk food.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The central premise of the The Nest is “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” It’s a novel about four siblings who are waiting (eagerly) to inherit their trust fund. Their father created the Nest for them, not thinking it would be that big. But, a series of smart investment dramatically inflated its value. That is, until Leo Plumb, the oldest, gets in an accident. To buy the silence of the teenage passenger injured in the crash,  their mother uses most of the fund’s money.

The Nest is one of those novels with overlapping story lines, family resentment and dysfunction, and ultimately, a happy(ish) ending. Things work out for the characters. Not because they become good people, necessarily, but because they find a way to work through their issues or move on.

I felt that the novel’s seams showed through a bit too much at times. (Oh really, there’s are two characters, a man and a woman, who perfectly  match the damaged Rodin statue that one of the other characters has hidden in his apartment?) But all in all, it was a fun, engaging read.

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Books: What I Read in April

It’s time again for another book reviews round-up. I only read three books last month, two of which I really enjoyed, one of which was a bit of a trashy read. Can you guess which was which?
The book reviews:

book reviews animals emma jane unsworth

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals was everything I wanted the Amy Schumer film Trainwreck to be, but wasn’t. Oh man, when Amy’s character did that stupid cheerleading thing to “get the guy,” I wanted to claw my eyes out. Seriously. Can’t we have a movie or piece of media where a woman doesn’t have to completely transform or deny herself to find love and/or happiness?

Anyway, Animals is the story of two girl friends, Laura and Tyler, in their late 20s/early 30s who are struggling with the whole “time to grow up” thing. Laura’s engaged to a guy who, let’s face it, sounds like an absolute bore. She lives with Tyler, her best buddy, a privileged American living in the UK. Tyler’s your classic direction-less, privileged young woman — overly educated, yet not doing much with her life. She drinks a lot (A LOT) and does (too many) drugs. Yet, no matter how messed up her behavior, she’s still charismatic and draws people towards her.

Laura’s feeling a pull between her friend and her fiancé. She goes out and gets wild with Tyler, only to have Jim, the fiancé, disappointed with her decisions.

In your typical rom-com, you’d have Laura giving up some part of herself for one or the other. Not so with Animals. It’s a coming of age tale, it’s bittersweet, but it’s a story that says you don’t have to compromise or be untrue to yourself to figure out who you are.

 

book reviews

The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich

Who doesn’t love a trashy thriller every now and then? I guess I can really take or leave The Hand That Feeds You, a novel that is very loosely based on Les Liasons Dangereuses (or, for those of us who grew up in the 1990s, Cruel Intentions). It was one of those books that was hard to put down, but also one of those books that make you wonder why on earth you are reading it. Morgan Preager is studying victim psychology at John Jay College of Criminology in NY. She comes home one day to find her fiancé dead in her room, apparently mauled to death by her usually friendly dogs.

So, as it turns out her beloved was a fake, a guy with multiple girlfriends and identities along the East Coast. Morgan starts to feel more like the victims she studies for her graduate thesis and also starts to try to figure out who her fiancé really was. She’s also sure that her dogs couldn’t possibly be the ones to have killed him, despite all the evidence, and sets out to prove their innocence.

What makes a good thriller? It needs to be a page turner. It needs to be somewhat implausible, but not so implausible that you don’t buy it or its characters (this one teetered on the edge of that. So many bad things happen to Morgan that you’re kind of like, “really? REALLY?”).

And, I think most importantly, a decent thriller needs to keep you guessing until the end. I came up with a lot of hypotheses about  Morgan’s affianced during the book, most of which turned out to be wrong. But, I did figure out the ending well before the end, so that was a bit of a let down. Also, the structure of the ending was a big letdown. Not just in terms of the big reveal, the big “who did it,” but in terms of how quickly it all resolved. If you like this type of book usually, you’ll probably love The Hand That Feeds You. If not, I wouldn’t recommend reading it.

 

book reviews brief candle in the dark

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins

Hm. For someone who’s all like, “I don’t really read memoirs,” I read a lot of memoirs. Case in point, Brief Candle in the Dark, by the biologist Richard Dawkins (I guess some might know him better as an atheist).  The sequel to his first memoir, Appetite for Wonder (which I didn’t read), Brief Candle traces his life as a scientist, from his early days as tutor at Oxford through all of the books and films he’s worked on.

Although it does touch on personal bits of his life (he’s married to Romana II from Doctor Who!), the memoir focuses mostly on his work, which I prefer. I’ve only read two of his other books (the Selfish Gene and the God Delusion, both of which I’d recommend), so it was nice to get an introduction to the rest of his oeuvre from the man himself. (I’ve put the the Extended Phenotype and The Magic of Reality on my to-read list).

One of the things I like about Dawkins is that he’s really passionate about science. When he’s talking about religion, that passion might come across as a bit pompous or a bit offensive, but when it’s directed towards biology and evolutionary theory, it really makes the subjects come alive. Admittedly, some parts of the book were a bit dense, but it never felt like a slog to read through.

Another think I like about Dawkins is that he shows that one can be scientifically minded and creative at the same time. Growing up, I feel there was a big emphasis on the division between the arts and the sciences, and I think that limited some of the choices I made about school and career, but really there’s no reason the two can’t get along just fine in one person.

Books: What I Read in March

Oops, sorry my round-up of what I read in March is so late! April really got away from me. In March, I read a few new-to-me books and revisited a couple by one of my favorite authors.
what I read

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah

I read The Nightingale for one of my book clubs. It’s the story of two sisters living in occupied France during WWII. The sisters are different from each other in many ways. The older sister, Vianne, is married, lives in the countryside and has a daughter. The younger, Isabelle, is kicked out of school and sent back to her father in Paris. She’s impulsive and impetuous, traits some argue work against her. Both sisters end up helping the Allies, but in different ways. Isabelle leads fallen pilots back to safety across the Pyrenees while Vianne helps protect the children of Jewish families, who would otherwise be taken off to the camps.

At first, I found the book to be slow going, but things picked up and it became an engaging read around the time that Isabelle starts leading her rescue missions. The novel really shows what life was like during the occupation, depicting the challenging choices the sisters (particularly Vianne) need to make to survive.

 

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Numero Zero was the first book by Umberto Eco I’ve ever read. It was for my other book club, and was chosen because of Eco’s recent passing. A short novel, Numero Zero delves deep into (and pokes fun at) the political scandals plaguing Italy in the early 1990s. An erstwhile ghostwriter, Colonna, lands an assignment as an editor for a newspaper in development called  Domani (“tomorrow” in Italian). The mission of the paper is to focus on the stories of tomorrow and to blackmail certain people in power.

During his tenure as editor, Colonna meets a number of other losers, including Bragadaccio, who claims to have discovered a political scandal involving Mussolini, and a young woman who wants to do serious reporting but keeps getting stuck on the celebrity beat.

Although I really didn’t know anything about Italian politics (aside from those weird parties Berlusconi had a few years ago), the book was a fun read. I was expecting something dense and difficult to get into and instead found the opposite.

 

Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

I was staring at my bookshelf one day in March when I glanced on Amnesia Moon, the second novel by Jonathan Lethem, who’s one of my favorite writers. “Did I even like this book?” I asked myself, “or am I just keeping it because it’s Lethem?” To figure that out, I decided to re-read it. Consensus: I didn’t really like it, but it’s not a bad novel.

Very clearly inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick, the novel is set in a post-apocolyptic world. No one really knows what happened, except that something clearly did. There’s a before and after in the characters’ lives, the tricky thing is figuring what the before was. The main character starts out being a person named Chaos, but as the story unfolds and he travels across the country, accompanied by a mutant child named Melinda, he realizes that his  name is actually Everett Moon.

Each of the towns Moon and Melinda visit have some weird thing going on. One town is covered in a green mist that keeps the residents from seeing clearly. Another is governed by a powerful elite and ruled by luck — residents are judged based on how lucky they are – the lower your luck, the worse off you are.
Amnesia Moon is very much an early work, and it shows a writer still developing his voice. I’m not a super fan of PKD (OK, I’m not a fan at all), and I’m pretty sure that’s why the novel didn’t resonate with me the first time I read it (there are so many parallels and similarities with PKD’s stories in the novel, it’s almost like an author learning to write by imitation), or the second time through, for that matter.

As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem

As She Climbed Across the Table was the first novel I ever read by Lethem, for my senior seminar class in Magic Realism back in college. Is it magic realism or science fiction? was one of the questions we focused on while reading the book. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, as the story is a compelling one.

Philip Engstrand is a professor of anthropology at a college in California.  His girlfriend is Alice Coombs, a particle physicist, also at the same college. At the start of the book, Alice’s department has a major breakthrough, creating a void that eventually becomes known as the Lack. Lack starts eating things, sending them who-knows-where. But, it (he?) only eats certain things, rejecting others. Alice and several other scientists (plus a resident Derrida stand-in) all try to make sense of Lack, to figure out what it (he?) wants.

Philip is left to try to pick up his life after the appearance of Lack. Alice is strangely drawn to the void, altering their relationship forever. In short, the novel is a story of a guy who gets the girl, then loses her, then tries to do what he can to win her back.

It’s a spoof on science and modern academia. But, it’s also your classic romantic comedy, with the guy being a bumbling fool who thinks he’s lost the girl, only to have a (sort of) happy ending.

What I Read: February 2016 Books

Plants, self-improvement, a book about WW2. What do those have in common? They were all themes in the books I read in February. Let’s take a look:

 

book reviews for February 2016

The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

In another life, I might have been a botanist. Or a horticulturist. I really love plants, and eagerly wait for gardening season to begin each year. So it’s no surprise that I found The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey to be a joy of the book. In it, Mabey, a British writer known for focusing on the connections between the natural world and human culture, reflects on the role a variety of plants species have played in human experience. Examining species such as the yew tree, ginseng, and orchids, Mabey notes that although humans have tried to make sense of these plants, in many ways, their meaning and very way of being is perhaps beyond our ability to comprehend. A number of the plants in the book, from the yew tree, which is able to split and change its pattern of growth after hundreds of years, to the orchids that exist completely beneath the soil, demonstrate that point perfectly.

I particularly liked the point Mabey made, when describing people’s obsession with the beneficial properties of ginseng, that it’s common for people to assume that plants have these compounds for the benefits of humans, when in fact, the plants are just looking out for themselves. How anthropocentric to assume that because something exists in nature, it exists for our sake. That the chemicals in certain plants can help or heal humans is really just a coincidence.

 

book reviews for February 2016

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

OK, so Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin both annoyed me and made me feel like I can take on the world. Rubin, who also wrote a book called the Happiness Project (which I couldn’t read more than a chapter of), looks at how we develop habits and what we can do if we want to change certain habits.

She’s really big into separating people into categories. For example, at the start of the book, she describes four tendencies people have: to be Upholders, or those who do things for themselves and to please others, Obligers, those who get things done for others, but struggle to commit to their own projects, Questioners, those who question outside expectations, but can meet their own goals, and Rebels, those who question everything. Figuring out your tendency is meant to help you figure out the best way to launch a new, better-you habit.

Reading this, I got the sense that Rubin is like that friend of yours who’s always trying new things or trying to improve some area of life nd who wants everyone to go along with her. I get it, I’m also always setting goals for myself or trying little projects to put an end to bad habits. But, I dunno, it’s kind of annoying to spend some 200 pages reading about all that. At the end, did I pick up any tips or walk away with a better sense of  how to improve myself? I dunno. Maybe. But, I think I just walked away rolling my eyes.

 

book reviews for February 2016

Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

In Better than Before, Rubin mentions how she read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and managed to get down to her lowest weight ever. I shouldn’t read them because they are triggering, but any time I hear about a new nutrition or diet book, I want to read it. Vegan Before 6, It Starts with Food, name another book about food and I’ve probably read it. So, I checked this one out from the library.

Taubes’ big argument is that we get fat because of carbohydrates. He’s got a lot of science to back him up (actual studies in humans and rats), which makes me feel more confident about his argument than the argument in other books, which seem to rely on equal parts “feeling,” pseudoscience, and some belief that everything people did hundreds of years ago was somehow “better.”

What I didn’t like about the book was that Taubes insists it’s not a diet plan. Yet, at the end, we find a diet plan, which includes instructions such as “don’t eat more than two servings of pickles a day.”

Instructions such as that make me sad. Plus, I’m a vegetarian, and have no interest in eating meat, and it’s pretty difficult to avoid carbs on a veggie diet. So, while I appreciate reading the research and will work cutting down on sugar and starches, I’m not going to stop eating bread. Or start limiting my pickle consumption.

 

book reviews for February 2016

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Finally, some fiction. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is a companion or follow-up (not really a sequel) to Life After Life. The novel explores the impact World War II had on Britain, by zeroing in on the life of Teddy, a fighter pilot in the war, and the brother of Life After Life’s lead character Ursula. Teddy’s experience in the war is reflected in and contrasted with the experience of his only daughter, Viola, who I’d describe as damaged and selfish, and in the experience of his two grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, who are also damaged, but not nearly as annoying as their mother.

While Life After Life played fast and loose with narrative structure, stopping and restarting characters’ lives, A God in Ruins has one continuous arc. It jumps back and forth in time, taking us from the 1920s to 2012 in the space of just a few paragraphs, sometimes, but its characters don’t get a do-over or restart, a chance to make things better, the way they did in the first book.