Posted in Book Lists

#Read a Book Day, or How I spent my Summer Vacation

Well, it’s officially curtains for summer and my reading sabbatical. I find it necessary to take periodic breaks from blogging to spend all of my free time reading as many books as I possibly can.  And since today is #Read a Book Day, I thought I would come back and start dishing on all the fabulous things I read and listened to this summer.

But first, a quick word about my reading choices and selection. Like most book lovers, I use reading as my main form of “self care.” I am not religious and I consider myself equal parts introvert and extrovert, so when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety and the news and our Dumpster Fire President, I turn to books. This summer I moved back and forth between comfort reads, middle grade fiction, juicy thrillers and YA. I try to balance the dark with the light when I read, to preserve my sanity.  I read a lot of books this summer, from the super intense to the light and fluffy. I will share many of them in brief reviews over the next month or so, but for now, here are the three adult titles that stood out the most for me.

  1. little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I read this on vacation in a less than stellar hotel room, in which I was kept awake all hours by the stomping feet of the people in the room above, who were partying hard. I’m so grateful I had this book to keep me company. I’m sure you have heard or read about her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, about a dysfunctional family living in the suburbs of Ohio who grapple with the loss of their daughter. It is spectacular and sad and gorgeously written. Ng’s newest, Little Fires Everywhere, is, I would posit, even better than her debut. She has that rare, writerly gift in which she can masterfully control both plot and characterization. She gets people and the intricacies of their emotional lives and manages to balance a fast moving plot at the same time.  Celeste Ng is going to be with us a long time, and I am so looking forward to gobbling up every little thing she writes.  Prescription: An ideal read if you’re in the mood to lose yourself in some other family’s issues, while marveling at the gorgeous prose and storytelling prowess of a great writer. 
  2. The NixThe Nix by Nathan Hill. I also read this book on vacation, and was delightfully surprised at how fast I blew through it.  At 640 pages, this book is dauntingly long and I avoided it for almost a year, thinking I would rather get through my pile of shorter books rather then spend so much time on one big book. What a fool I was! To  borrow an expression from Rebecca Schinksy on the All the Books podcast, The Nix reads like a house on fire. Hill’s humor and tone draw you in to a story that covers a broad range of time and place and people, seamlessly blending pop culture, the 1960s protest movements, suburban America in the 1980s and the 1960s, as well as the modern absurdity of our social media culture. It is a bit too complicated to provide a succinct summary, as it covers and tells so much. At its heart, The Nix is a story about a mother and son that follows the meandering paths of their lives together and apart. Rumor has it that Meryl Streep and JJ Abrams are working together to bring this to HBO. How amazing is that?  Prescription: Ideal for fans of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth who enjoy a sweeping, acerbic and painfully honest look at the culture. 
  3. Rules do not applyRules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy. I had heard some buzz about this book before finally picking it up on a whim one day at the library. Years ago, I read Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs, about the self-objectification of many women in the face of the widespread popularity of porn culture. I found it fascinating and honest and it really helped me understand something I had observed for a long time without being able to explain well. So I was curious to read this memoir of hers that was drawing equal parts praise and criticism.  In short: I liked it a lot. Levy writes so well and so intimately. The reader is immediately invited into her life, which she explores with a clarity and thoughtfulness that I found refreshing. Yes, she is a privileged white woman, and she doesn’t go to great lengths to acknowledge that. She has some interpretations of feminism and the role and impact it played in her life that rub some people the wrong way, but I didn’t see that as an issue. I do understand where people were coming from with their criticism of her tone–I have a similar issue with Lena Dunham, who I just can’t warm up to. Her book annoyed me. Her show annoys me. But I still respect her right to be who she wants to be. Anyway, I digress. Ariel Levy tells the story of her life, including her marriage to the woman of her dreams and their journey to have a child together. She describes her affair with a transgendered man with whom she had formerly dated when he was a woman, and her almost pathological sexual attraction to him. Without giving away too much, I will just say that things happen, tragedies occur, and Levy writes about it in an honest, contemplative voice that made me think about my own life and choices and what could have happened if I had changed one little thing such as taking a different job or getting into a different college. Whether or not you agree with Levy and the interpretation of her own life, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t a great memoir–one that will make you look back at your own life with wonder, awe and a little bit of sadness.

 

What about you ? What were your favorite books of the summer?

In my next post, I’ll share my favorite middle grade and young adult reads from my summer sabbatical.  Cheers! And Happy #Read a Book Day!

 

 

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Delectable memoirs by chefs and food writers

Whenever I find myself in a reading rut–when I have picked up and put down several books without getting drawn in, when I am going through a stressful or unusual time and I need something to sink into that isn’t too taxing or difficult–I go looking for a particular kind of book that rarely lets me down: the food memoir. Despite having a notoriously picky palate, I cannot get enough reading or watching narratives focused on food. Back when I had cable, I spent many a marathon evening on the couch binge watching Top Chef or the Food Network. And when I was pregnant with my first child and feeling very impatient during those last few weeks, I sat in a chair by the window and inhaled Ruth Reichl’s trilogy of food memoirs.

There is something about reading someone’s life as remembered through the meals they ate or the food they cooked that really appeals to me. Because we all have that common, don’t we? Meals eaten alone in misery or shared with joy. What did your parents feed you when you were small? What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? What do you cook when someone needs comforting?  Food is love and food is life, so there should be no surprise that some of the best writing I’ve read has centered on food.

 

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher

MFK fisherThis is that one book about food and eating that you should make yourself read in your lifetime. You know the one–she’s writing about food and hunger, but she’s really talking about the human heart and our capacity to love. Each chapter is a vignette, if you will, about her experiences growing up, the effects of war, death, loss, starting over — many of the usual topics for a memoir, but all are interwoven with the meals she ate and the drinks she had. Fisher was so elegant and eloquent that you can’t help but imagine her sailing around among glamorous settings, impeccably dressed and impossibly cool, eating her way around the world. Her voice is wry and honest and super compelling. If you consider yourself a fan of both good writing and good food and happen to be interested in the cultural and social history of the early 20th century, MFK Fisher is a must read.

 

My life in France by Julia Child

Everyone knows who Julia Child is by now, as they rightly should. Famous for her big, boisterous my life in francepersonality and her strides in cooking, many remember Child from her TV show. Her memoir, posthumously published by her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is tremendous, my friends. Brimming with fascinating details and exciting and drool worthy culinary adventures abroad, this book is equal parts cookbook and travel journal. Child writes honestly about being a big, awkward American among petit French fashion plates and about her experiences in the all male cooking classes she took. By the end of this lovely story, you will be completely aboard Team Julia.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table – by Ruth Reichl

Comfort me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

ruth reichlRuth Reichl’s three memoirs take us from her childhood to her wildly successful career as a restaurant critic. She talks about how food, what and how people choose to eat ,can tell you everything you need to know about them. By turns informative and incredibly personal, Reichl writes entertainingly about growing up with a very eccentric mother who was known to scrape mold off the top of a dish and feed it to her children; about the early days of the organic food movement in Berkeley, California; about traveling the world and learning to cook and eat; about the personal heartbreaks of trying to start a family, of her transition from chef to critic; and about the hilarious disguises she would wear to try and experience a restaurant incognito. All three books are warm hearted, comforting reads. And do they not have the *best* titles ever? Long before I knew who Ruth Reichl was, I wanted to read a book called Comfort me with Apples.

 

Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Chef and restaurant owner Hamilton writes about her unconventional life in this impressively readable memoir. For me, the memoirs I enjoy the most are written by people who I would like toblood bones and butter spend time with, people with interesting stories, who I never want to stop talking. Hamilton has a noteworthy voice and very strong opinions. She makes interesting choices in her life including some that I don’t quite understand or agree with. Still, I wanted to hear her explain those stories and I never lost interest, even when her narrative veers off in a direction I didn’t expect it to. The appeal of this memoir is not so much in the food as it is in the artist creating the food. Anthony Bourdain called this book the best memoir he’s ever read and, coming from him, that is quite a compliment!