The Sellout

“How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?” (The Sellout by Paul Beatty)


The Sellout coverSome books are best read indoors. You don’t want to be caught smiling while reading Lolita within 50 feet of a playground, for example. Likewise, you can’t help but wonder if you have permission to laugh aloud at a book about a man on trial for owning a slave and re-segregating a community. The premise is shockingly absurd and the layers – which include finding the lost ghetto of Dickens, growing a satsuma tree, and celebrating a childhood celebrity of a racist TV show – vacillate between pithy, hilarious, and cringe-inducing.

This book is a perfectly executed example of the old writer’s adage: be specific. Everything here – from the characters to the cultural references – is tip-of-the-needle precise. The characters are so idiosyncratic that you have to wonder if anyone so unusual and non-conforming could actually exist, and an unknown piece of slang or pop culture could get a reader lost for paragraphs as Beatty riffs on it ad infinitum. Though the overarching plot gets a bit messy with all of these details floating around (Beaty’s talent is drilling down, not pulling together), you won’t mind the loss of cohesiveness as you revel in the writing.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopefuls
Incidental Learning: California, growing marijuana and satsumas, racism
Further Reading: Goes pretty well with other books about race I’ve read lately, Americanah or Things Fall ApartThe excellent writing + messy plotting combination almost reminds me of Where’d you go Bernadettewhich would be a strange follow-up to this book…

When Breath Becomes Air

“I had attained the heights of the neurosurgical trainee, set to become not only a neurosurgeon but a surgeon-scientist. Every trainee aspires to this goal; almost none make it” (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)


The forward claims that Kalanithi will show incredible honesty, the post-script says he provides insights into death, and reviews laud it for its intimacy, but when reading the book, the only thing the reader can think is: unfair! Unfair that this near-perfect man had to die! He would have advanced neurosurgery, been a beautiful husband and father, and, if I had ever needed brain surgery in the San Francisco area, he would have been the man to do it. You clench your fists, you cry a little bit, and you become one with the millions of people who have read this book and would agree that this man should have had more time on the earth.

Yet, the disconnect between the actual reading experience and the commentary about the experience is jarring. On the one hand, the book itself reaches out to you as a dying man’s plea to be remembered for his best qualities, and on the other hand, everyone else insists that the book is truthful, insightful, and intimate. If the author had included one flaw without defending it or turning it into a learning experience, it might have been truthful. If he had confessed to anything shameful or raw, it might have been intimate. Instead, the book reads as a compendium of perfection, the author underscoring his triumphs and name-dropping prestigious institutions at the expense of focusing deeply into an experience.

I’m glad that he wrote it, glad to have read it, but I can’t see why everyone else insists on pretending it’s something it’s not.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Posthumous post-script
Incidental Learning: Neurosurgery, neuroscience, Stanford, cancer

Stardust

“Adventures are all very well in their place, but there’s a lot to be said for regular meals and freedom from pain.” (Stardust by Neil Gaiman)

Stardust CoverMy recent move across the country, into a city with a big car-culture, has meant that I’ve been driving more than I ever thought I would. However, the problem has been much ameliorated by the fact that the library I am fortunate enough to work at has an outstanding audiobook collection. After several failed attempts, I have found that I distinctly prefer audiobook performers to be male and to have an English accent. If they narrate their own works, even better. This makes Neil Gaiman pretty much the perfect author for me to listen to; fortunately, he is rather prolific. Although I don’t expect to love any of his works as much as I love The Graveyard Book, I look forward to many happy hours listening to his lovely, slow voice.

Stardust was just what Neil Gaiman set out to create: a fairy tale for adults. As do fairy tales for children, Neil focuses on the story over character development. This is not to say that the characters are uninteresting, but rather that this is simply an excellent story. As with other modern fairy tales for adults, like The Princess Bride, it has everything one could want from a story: love, an evil witch, a satisfyingly romantic ending, adventure, and magic. To make it distinct from the children’s variety, it even has a steamy sex scene, some well-chosen language, and an imperfect love interest. This is not a must-read, but if you ever stumble across it and find yourself facing a long drive, pick it up and prepare yourself for an utterly satisfying afternoon.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 6 hours, 27 minutes (Audiobook Quality: Good)

Ending: Satisfying as only a fairy tale can be

Recommended Further Reading: Fairy tales for Adults are few and far between, The Princess Bride being a notable exception.  If you really like the concept of a fairy tale, you could go back to classic ones like the Grimm Brother’s or Italian Folk Tales by Italo Calvino (my personal favorite).

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.” (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin)

Hundred Thousand Kingdoms CoverTo my dismay, I have found over and over again that my taste in books does not necessarily accord with others. This was demonstrated to me most effectively in my teen books class: nearly everyone loved ‘Foreverwhile I remained partial to ‘Seventeenth Summerand ‘The White Darkness’. I discovered only this week that I have a higher tolerance for the weird and macabre than most people, for when I went to shout from the mountain tops about my recent find ‘One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’, my co-worker called to my attention some very disturbing scenes. In my mind, these scenes just made the book more original and thought provoking, but it took that comment to make me see that not everyone might agree. I am starting to come to appreciate how difficult it is to recommend a book to another person. There are so many factors and variables to personal taste that, unless the recomendee knows themselves very well, the outcome is always a mystery.

If you’ve liked other books favorably reviewed at The Booklion, I have no qualms about recommending Jemisin’s remarkable work to you. This book would especially delight the reader who may be a bit tired by the genre’s male-dominated stereotypes, as the book is written in the unusual first person by a strong, contradictory female protagonist. The female-oriented nature of the work actually stretches beyond just the genre of the protagonist, though. Jemisin includes steamy sex scenes with Gods, a thoughtful exploration of feminine strength (and male weakness), and an over-turning of standard genre roles. Yeine might be the first truly believable female character I’ve read in the fantasy genre before. I truly look forward to reading the rest of this trilogy, and to her recently published book, ‘The Killing Moon’.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 11 hours and 46 minutes (The audiobook rendition was excellent).

Ending: Utterly satisfying and, even though it is a trilogy, perfectly self-contained. No cliff-hangers.

Further Reading: While there are a lot of excellent fantasies out there, there aren’t a lot of strong, convincing female leads. I’d follow this up with the rest of the Inheritance trilogy, and then move onto the Dreamblood trilogy.

The School of Essential Ingredients

“The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.” (the school of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister)

The School of Essential Ingredients CoverWe are trained to think of books as Very Serious things. People are always encouraging us to read more, and everywhere research says that books benefit the brain. We tend to borrow or purchase big ones, and slowly chip away at them as though completing a nightly duty. There is always a subtle pressure about finding a ‘good’ book, because they can be such an investment of time and energy. So sometimes, it can be freeing to pick up a medium-looking volume, stay in bed on a weekend morning, and read it all in one fell swoop. Then you realize that books are not so serious after all, and that they can be just as light and ephemeral as any movie.

Though I already have several fantastic sounding books in my pile (such as the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde), I decided instead to bring home this comfortable sounding one. I cannot say that it was brilliant or bettered my life; but it did top off a sleepy, relaxing morning perfectly. The food-oriented modern realistic stories were cozy, well written, and intriguing. While each character wasn’t fully flushed out, the stories left just enough for the imagination to continue with on its own. The descriptions of the cooking lessons were, of course, the real draw of the book. Though I don’t agree with the teacher’s blatant moralizing on not tasting batter with raw eggs in it, the descriptions of slow-simmering sauces and creamy tiramisus inspired me to complete the reading experience with my own baking project – which is the best outcome of a food book anyway.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 255

Ending: Satisfying, but open to the imagination

Further Reading: According to LJ, this book is part of an emerging genre of food related writing. I found out about it because Bauermeister is publishing a new book in January, called ‘The Lost Art of Mixing’. I expect it will be in the same vein.

*Disclaimer: In order to get through my enormous backlog, I’ve decided to do several short posts instead of a big compilation. This is purely for selfish reasons; as it will make it easier for me to search for a specific book in the future. I’ll try to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Excited to Eat Your Books? I am.

Sometimes, weeks have a theme. Most of the time the theme turns out to be something like fatigue, stress, or if you’re lucky, home-made marshmallows, but this week, my theme was bookish resources. Don’t worry – it is not nearly as boring as it sounds.

Eat your Books homepageFirstly, the founder of Eat Your Books came into the America’s Test Kitchen library to talk to us about her delightful database.  Although databases may conjure up memories of desperate research projects from your college days – this one is all fun. Basically, you input your cookbooks into the site and then -magically – search for recipes across all of your books. This means no more looking through 12 cookbooks for how to roast a chicken again! I ended up making green tea butter cookies this week because I searched for ‘tea’ in an experimental mood and found a lovely recipe on Chocolate and Zucchini (a blog I hadn’t bothered to check out until now).

You may be thinking that you didn’t come to this book blog for the chronicles of my cooking experiments, and you would be justified in your sour mood, but Eat Your Books is also an excellent tool for finding more cookbooks. Not only do you see your own bookshelf, but you can also search through any cookbook that has been indexed. Books can be ranked by popularity in order to discover which cookbooks are owned by other home-cooks. You can also witness the living rivalry between Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Julee Rosso’s The Silver Palate Cookbook. Apparently every user has one or the other of them, and they switch places on the popularity lists daily. My unconscious vote was for Julia – what will yours be?

However, in spite of its user-friendly interface, attractive name, and pleasant greens, every database has a downside. It costs the providers money to index hundreds of thousands of recipes and keep up the technical side of things – so this service isn’t free. However, 25$ isn’t too much to pay for a little more creativity and a little less frustration in your cookbook life. It might also make a good christmas gift for that sister-in-law who has every cookbook and gadget save this one.

Secondly, I discovered the incredible, non-academic power of WorldCat this week in a focus group. If you have ever heard about it before, you’ll be wondering why I keep dredging up dingy memories of college in this post, because most of us have used it only to locate an obscure book in Germany for a thesis or dissertation and not given it a thought since. Well, WorldCat is trying to change this perception of itself and has added a host of new features to make itself more accessible. You’ll have to spend a few minutes on the site looking at the genre lists and Identities Network, but I love it because it makes searching multiple catalogs so easy. If you live in a city and frequent multiple libraries, WorldCat will do wonders for your online efficiency – instead of clunking through multiple old public libraries’ catalogs, just search on WorldCat and save yourself a few minutes. They are also layering on a social networking component, with tags, profiles, and the ability to make public book lists. It is an excellent compliment to LibraryThing or GoodReads, because it allows you to track down copies of any books you might be recommended there.

So here you are – I give you the keys to several hours of online, bookish fun, and a whole host of techniques to improve efficiency and decrease frustration.