Recent Very Good Reads

I’ve read quite a number of books this year, but many of them were only ho-hum. I find that sometimes when I am caught up in reading st such a fast pace, quality gets lost in the quantity. That said, these are some books I’ve recommend wholeheartedly:

 americanah Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Confession: I’ve read both Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, and liked them fine, but never really understood the gushing over them. Well, now I am gushing over an Adichie. Americanah is the story of a young woman from Nigeria who comes to America for school, then eventually moves back to Lagos. In the meantime, she learns about what it means to be black in America, grows up, has relationships (romantic and otherwise). Through it all, there is a sense of what she left behind, of not quite fitting in despite learning the intricate ins and outs of American culture.

Foreign Affairs, Alison LurieForeign Affairs, Alison Lurie
This book broke the ho-hum. I wasn’t expecting to love this like I did. Essentially, two New England professors go to London on sabbatical, and the novel follows their unexpected romantic liaisons. A rather simple story, but incredibly  masterfully rendered. This book won a Pulitzer, and it is a well deserved award. It reminded me of Edith Wharton’s insight into both character and class. One difference is that Wharton’s characters’ selves are revealed to the reader, they still seem hidden to themselves. Lurie’s eventually seem to come to a bit more self recognition, though they still have further to go. It makes for a slightly more satisfying resolution.

I am Forbidden, Anouk MarkovitsI Am Forbidden, Anouk Markovitz
This one is intense. It is based in the world of the Satmars, a sect of Hasidic Jews. The author was brought up in the sect, but left as a young adult. The book follows the story of two foster sisters, one who stayed and one who left. Since the author left, I expected the narrative to follow the sister that left. Instead, it followed the sister who stayed. Markovitz was able to paint a picture of the religion and its followers are complex, principled people who still hurt each other in such deep ways.

***Edited to add: Um, wow. I didn’t realize this post went live, when it clearly wasn’t finished. Oops!


Month in Review: September

So, it’s been awhile since I last posted a Month in Review. I like these check ins, to see how much I’m reading, and to keep an eye on some categories I care about. This year I’ve been terrible about reading books in translation. September was no exception. Out of the 13 books I read, all were originally written in English.

September actually got me blogging again, so that’s certainly something. It was Aarti’s Diversiverse event that did it. And I’m glad. Not only did I manage to post about three books, I also visited the blogs of other people enthusiastic about reading widely. The book blogging community is really great, and this event was the perfect way to plunge back in.

What’s next for October? I’m committing to reading something translated. I’ve got Hella Haasse’s The Black Lake, originally written in Dutch. I’ve been meaning to get to that one for awhile, so this might be the month. I’ve also been wanting to read a Murakami for way too long.

Do you have any favorite translated books to recommend? I love seeing what other people read.

September in Review

Total books: 13
10 Fiction:                    77%
3 Non-fiction:              23%
10 Women Authors:   77%
0 Translated:                0%

Oh, and I know Gone Girl is now a movie. No, I won’t be seeing it. I absolutely hated the book, and can’t believe the movie would be any better.

A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House (The Agency, Book 1)
Y.S. Lee

Teenager in Victorian dress  looking back at building

We meet Mary as a twelve year old destined for the gallows. Somehow, she is spared that fate, and next time we see her she is seventeen and about to become an undercover investigator for the very people who saved her life.

This is the first book in the “A Spy in the House” series. At first, I was thinking that the series might focus each book on a different Agency spy, but I looked at the cover again and saw that it says “A Mary Quinn Mystery.” That makes me happy, I’m looking forward to seeing Mary grow into her own even more fully.

In this book, she is to play a minor, supporting role in the Agency’s investigation into a shady London merchant. I was rolling my eyes, convinced she was going to swoop in and save the whole case and be the hero, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. And I was glad. We see her as a baby investigator, still with plenty of pluck, but it seems to be a more realistic depiction of how a situation like hers might actually happen.

I *love* that this book is concerned with social justice issues (and in a non-preachy way!) The main investigation centers around artifacts stolen from a Hindu temple in India, possibly brought to London from traders and installed in private collections. Stealing another culture’s treasures is something that pops up in the news now and again, bringing with it questions about where these items belong, and who should have the rights to them.

There’s a scene where Mary comes across obscene materials owned by the merchant she’s investigating. The subject matter is African slaves being sexually abused by masters – and this is recognized as particularly bad, as abuse, not just average titillating images. (It’s not something that is mentioned in explicit detail, and is not a feature of the book, for anyone that might have concerns.)

There are also questions surrounding Mary’s identity, which I won’t go into, but are sure to provide more material for future books.

Glad I read this one for #Diversiverse!



Laurence Yep

Book cover for Dragonwings, showing young Chinese boy holding a kite, standing next to his father, who is looking up towards a plane

This is my second review for #Diversiverse

I originally picked up this book intending it as a gift for my BBBS “little.” I figured I’d read it before I gave it to her so that we could talk about it if she wanted to. I finally got around to reading it recently, but now I’m debating whether or not to give it to her.

One one hand, the book is written in a very simplistic, almost childish tone. On the other, it seems like it might be a bit longer than a ten or twelve year old might want to read, especially since it took a good while for it to start capturing my attention.

Dragonwings  did capture some of the violence and resistance that many Chinese immigrants faced from whites. It also showed a fleshed out Chinese immigrant community, complete with family businesses, codes of conduct, a system of justice, and more. The characters help readers see the community as made up of more than flat characters with funny accents and an odd way of wearing their hair.

Overall I found the book too slow to get started and too choppy feeling with too abrupt an ending to be to my taste. But to each their own!

Want more like this? Try:

  • Hiroshima, Laurence Yep. I preferred this book to Dragonwings. Short, easy to read novella explores the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II from the perspective of some of the city’s young inhabitants. I appreciated that it also talked about the aftermath, and introduced me to the Hiroshima Maidens.
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luan Yang. Graphic novel in three parts, focusing on the modern day Chinese American youngster.
  • Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende. A Chilean woman immigrates to California in the midst of the Gold Rush.

Twelve Years a Slave

So I know it’s been just a few moments, er, months, since I’ve posted on my poor neglected blog. I needed something to get me writing again, and Aarti’s #Diversiverse event is just the thing. Basically, this is a two week event to get people reading and blogging about diverse books. What does that mean? Here’s Aarti’s take:

Reading diversely is important because we live in a global world.  Period.  If you read books only by white authors, you are limiting yourself to less than 30% of the world’s experience of race and culture.  If you read books only by Christian authors, you are limiting yourself to only about 33% of the world’s experience of theology.  If you read books only by authors in developed countries, you are limiting yourself to a very privileged view of what the world has to offer you.  If you read books that focus only on Western thought, history, and philosophy, you are missing out on many rich and varied traditions and worldviews that have informed and continue to enrich the way we view the world today.”

I tend to read diversely, and I want to make sure I’m blogging about more underrepresented books and authors. It’s important to me, and it’s one of the reasons I originally started this blog.

Without further ado, my first review for #Diversiverse:

Twelve Years a Slave
Solomon Northrup

Book cover for Twelve Years a Slave showing a drawing of a slave man sitting on a wooden box

This slave narrative has recently come to popular attention through the movie based on it. My nerdy, bookish self decided to read the book, of course.

It is a compelling story of a young free black man kidnapped from New York and sold into slavery. Solomon Northrup is fortunate in some ways  – he is in relatively good health, he’s literate, he has a violin that he can play for some money. These assets are a help to him as he survices his long, arduous ordeal. On the other hand, he is wholly unaccustomed to being enslaved, and does not always know right away how a slave is to act. He endures an incredible beating early in his captivity when a slave dealer  hears him talking about being entitled to his freedom.

Northrup recounts the names and biographical details of many of the people he encounters in his twelve years of bondage. For many of his fellow slaves, his tell is likely the only record of who they are as human beings, not just notations in a plantation’s accounting ledger or a slave ship’s manifest.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs. If you were interested in Patsy from Twelve Years a Slave, this narrative could give you more insight about what her story may have been like.
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison. Fiction, but explores the lengths to which a person might go to avoid being wrenched away from their freedom, back to bondage.
  • The Hanging of Angelique, Afua Cooper. Canada was not the idyllic refuge from slavery my high school history class told me it was.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle


Do you ever retread a book that you loved when you were young, and find there were huge parts that went right over your head? That happened to me on my recent retread of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

I loved these books growing up, even though I never read much fantasy/science fiction. The fact that my mother let me read L’Engle should have been my first clue that they were on some approved Christian reading list somewhere. Which, hey, nothing wrong with that. I just loved Meg’s awkwardness, and hoped that one day maybe I would grow out of that gawky adolescent stage. Maybe I would go on some kind of epic time bending adventure where I would save the day and the whole world. I also was enthralled with the idea of time “wrinkling.” This simple illustration has a permanent place inside one of my own brain wrinkles:


As a child, I loved when books presented a way to reconcile my family’s faith with imaginings and creations and, well, science. We practiced a faith that relied heavily on the literal interpretation of the Bible, or at least parts of it. The Earth was 6,000 years old, and anything not talked about in its pages didn’t exist. Unless we wanted it to, of course. I guess books – novels – were the first thing that made me realize that words on a page were open to interpretation.

A Wrinkle in Time is itself a book that is open to varying interpretations. Reaction from religious circles is split – some praise it, some try to ban it. The is certainly support for both positions in the text. Based on this interview with the author, it seems that hers is a more expansive view than the one I grew up with, and for that I am certainly thankful.

Cookbooks and Christmas

This afternoon I started making a list of people I need to buy Christmas presents for along with some gift ideas. I still can’t believe it’s essentially the middle of November. It feels like Christmas was all of five seconds ago. Thinking about this made me remember one of my favorite presents from last year, Heidi Swanson’s cookbook, Super Natural Every Day. And that I’ve only made one recipe out of it this entire year.

Those quinoa cakes were really, really good. I kinda love quinoa.

So, I’m looking through the book for some recipes that I am going to make in the next couple of weeks. The cover recipe, a dish of white beans and cabbage, looks good. The other recipe I’m planning on making is with roasted broccoli and roasted fingerling potatoes.

20131110-201331.jpgSee? Looks delicious!

For my husband…

…who, at 8:41 tonight, made me take him home to go to bed.

A History of the World in Six Glasses
Tom Standage

I read this book back when I was teaching. It’s a great overview of the broad strokes of world history, arranged by the drink Standage identified as the defining one of the time.

Although my husband is usually a big fan of drink number one, beer, tonight it was number two, wine, that did him in. Though I doubt early wine producers were as picky as he can be. Of course, when you’re well into your second bottle, what does quality even mean anymore?

If you want a primer into overarching trends, and maybe a prediction or two for the future, take a look at this book. Very readable, and you might learn a thing or two.