Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best of 2012

I feel like I read a lot of mediocre books this year, so I was happy when I scanned through my 2012 posts to find some pretty good books hidden among the dross. Several of them were audible books I listened to, a new format for me. I still listen mostly while walking, but I guess I am a convert, as I currently have six books on my iPod waiting to be "read."

Best Novel
House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. It's unlike me to pick a classic as my favorite novel of the year, but when I think back to what I read in 2012, House of Mirth and its central character, Lily Bart, come immediately to mind. Wharton perfectly captures the world of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 20th century; similarly, we understand exactly the choice that Lily must make in order to maintain her status in that social world--Lily must marry for money. Yet she just cannot force herself to do it, sabotaging herself each time she is close to an engagement. And the final outcome can only be tragic.

Honorable Mention: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell; Faith, by Jennifer Haigh; America, America, by Ethan Canin; History of Love, by Nicole Krauss; The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon.

Best Mystery
Sister, by Rosamund Lupton. No other mystery came close to Sister (and I read quite a few that I didn't bother to write up on the blog). It was well-written, cleverly structured, scary, and moving. The book recounts what happened from the time Bee learned that her sister Tess was missing and boarded a flight from New York to London through Bee's unraveling of the mystery of Tess's death.

Best Short Stories
War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I didn't read too many short story collections this year, but War Dances, which includes poems and brief prose pieces as well as short stories, would be a worthy selection whether I had read two collections or two hundred. Alexie's vision is dark and humorous; most of his stories are about men, many about men and their fathers.  Parts of the story "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" were so well written and so spot on with their description of the function of popular culture in our lives that I literally thought, "This might be the perfect story" while reading it. 

Best Nonfiction
Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.  I'm a bit surprised to find myself listing this book as my favorite nonfiction book of the year, but it's the book I talked about the most and remember most vividly--perhaps in part because I really did not care for chef-author Grant Achatz. But his story, particularly the story of his battle with tongue cancer, was compelling and even inspiring. His co-author and partner in his renowned Chicago restaurant business, Nick Kokonas, kept Achatz's arrogance from becoming overwhelming. It's definitely a book worth reading.

Honorable Mention: Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson; Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell; When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams.  

Best Poetry
As usual, I didn't read as much poetry as I think I should have. However, both collections that I read--The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni and Good Poems, American Places (selected by Garrison Keillor) were wonderful and I highly recommend them both.

Also as usual, I continue to find lots of great writing in magazines, although I don't keep track of magazine articles I have read (perhaps I should). If you're looking for examples, you might start with David Brooks's annual Sidney Awards ( and

Happy reading in 2013.

Goldberg Variations, by Susan Isaacs

Goldberg Variations starts with a character so overdrawn that I immediately thought this was one of Isaacs's comic novels. Seventy-nine-year-old Gloria Goldberg Goldberg Garrison is the head of a company called Glory, which tools semis equipped as mobile beauty salons/boutiques around the Western United States, stopping in small to mid-size towns to give women hungry for beauty advice/services makeovers. Gloria, like her company, is all about appearances (she changed her name to Garrison so people would not know she's Jewish).  She recently split with her best friend and heir apparent, Keith Thompson, when she refused to visit his comatose partner in the hospital. Now she has invited her three adult grandchildren whom she hardly knows--Raquel, Daisy, and Matthew--to fly from New York to Santa Fe for the weekend so she can choose one to take over the company.

The viewpoint rotates among the four major characters, and our first chapters with the grandchildren are also mildly amusing. But then Isaacs surprises us by turning the book into a long conversation among the four characters (with liberal doses of their interior thoughts as well) about who they are and who they want to be. Unfortunately, I found this became tedious rather quickly. Zzzzz.

Favorite passage:
I wish, like the ancient Egyptians, I could believe that the furniture I brought into my pyramid would be with me for eternity. Swedish farmhouse-style would wear well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blink:The Power of Thinking without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. Inspired by a personal experience--being stopped by the police because his hair resembled that of a serial rapist--he brings together research and historical and contemporary anecdotal evidence in utterly unexpected ways. Who, for example, would think to compare studies of how autistic and nonautistic people view the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with the performance of police officers under stress (the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo to be specific)?  He then uses all of this information to explain a complex phenomenon in a way that is understandable to the non-genius reader.

In Blink, his focus is on rapid cognition--the thinking that takes place subconsciously and extremely fast (in the "blink" of an eye). Gladwell's research demonstrates that rapid cognition--he also calls it "thin-slicing"--is powerful, sometimes in negative ways. Subconscious racial or gender stereotyping illustrate this notion. Rapid cognition can also be subverted through stress or time pressure, as evidenced by the case of the police officers who suffer a "temporary autism." 

On the other hand, rapid cognitions based on deep knowledge and study can be more effective than extremely logical decisions based on a surfeit of information. To illustrate this point, Gladwell draws on the work of marriage therapists who can predict whether a couple will divorce from watching a brief interaction between the two, psychologists who have studied micro facial expressions and can "see" what people are thinking in a way other observers cannot, military tacticians, and emergency room physicians diagnosing heart attacks. In all of these cases, thin slicing based on deep knowledge is a more effective way to make a decision than gathering and analyzing more and more information. 

Knowing when to use rapid cognition and when to rely on more measured and logical decision-making is important, as is not allowing our thin-slicing to be disrupted by stress and time pressure. When we understand the gift of instinctive decision making, Gladwell would say, we should be responsible enough to use the gift wisely. 

My description of the book does not do it justice--READ IT!!

Favorite passage:
The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes), by Luisa Weiss

My Berlin Kitchen is a memoir not just of Luisa Weiss's life in the kitchen (she is the creator of The Wednesday Chef blog) but of her life generally. Weiss was born in Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father. Their divorce when Luisa was four started her life of ping-ponging across the Atlantic. This life shaped Luisa's vision of herself; near the end of the book, she says, "When you have one parent in one country and one parent in another, when you are the one who travels back and forth, you learn to split your life very carefully."

As Weiss discusses her childhood, she talks about how and from whom she learned to cook; the vignettes about her developing life in the kitchen have a charming warmth. Soon enough, however,  she reaches her 20s, when she lives and works in Paris. While there, she falls in love with a wonderful man named Max and moves to Berlin with him. When she cannot find a job in Berlin, she quickly bails, heading for New York City. There, over the course of nearly a decade, she builds a career in publishing, starts her well-received blog, and builds a relationship with Sam. At the same time, she experiences a deep longing to return to Berlin, something in which Sam has no interest. Over what seemed an interminable stretch, she agonizes over what to do, ultimately breaking up with Sam and (after reuniting with Max) deciding to move to Berlin. The remainder of the book details her efforts to establish anew life in Berlin with Max, their engagement, and their eventual wedding.

In nearly every chapter, Weiss talks about cooking and food and includes a recipe. Generally, the commentary on cooking and food is well-integrated with the narrative of Weiss's life, and there's a deftness to Weiss's writing about food (and about place) that is not always present in writing about other aspects of her life. For me, the writing about cooking and food was the book's strength. As I've mentioned before, I may be too old for the angst of 20-somethings. but younger readers may find both aspects of the book equally engaging.

Favorite passage:
And when I got home in the dark afternoons in these first few weeks, I ate scores of Christmas cookies, softened in hot tea and chewed on the couch, my feet curled up under me for warmth. Biting into a chewy, fragrant Basler Leckerli, I tasted my childhood, a hundred cookies munched by a candlelit tree, and I tasted the longing for home I had felt each time the cookie-baking season rolled around in New York. I tasted the struggle of sky-high expectations. And I tasted a little bit of triumph too, because at the end of the day, I was home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Short Takes

One of the benefits of an Audible subscription is that Audible from time to time offers freebies--less than book-length downloads at no charge. Recently, I listened to two of these freebies. One was an Arthur Conan Doyle "holiday" story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," read by Alan Cummings. To all the Sherlock Holmes aficionados out there: sorry, but this story is just tedious. I was listening to it while walking and--despite the fact that the story is less than an hour long and beautifully read--I kept realizing that I had completely tuned out and missed numerous brilliant deductions and plot twists.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts from Listening Is an Act of Love, a selection of excerpts from StoryCorps oral history interviews. If you, like me, blink back tears as you listen to the StoryCorps pieces on NPR's Morning Edition, you will love this collection--undoubtedly selected to pull at the heartstrings. Or, if you need to be reminded that people can be loving and giving, this collection might be an appropriate and uplifting holiday gift to yourself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments, by Alex Witchel

While the breezy subtitle of this book might suggest that it is a humorous take on having a parent with dementia (is that even possible?), such is not the case. All Gone is a very sad memoir focused on the author's relationship with her mother, from childhood to her mother's old age. While that relationship was essentially strong, other family relationships were problematic--Witchel's father was habitually cold and angry; she and her sister became estranged while her sister was going through fertility treatments (they reconciled when her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer); and her brothers do not seem present in her adult life. Meanwhile, trying to oversee her mother's care while working full time had serious negative effects on Witchel's own health. I repeat: A sad story.

Promotion for the book has emphasized the cooking aspect of the story--Witchel does talk about making her mother's signature dishes (and provides recipes). But she does not find cooking the soul-restoring activity I was expecting. In fact, she says, "The transcendent comforts of cooking had completely escaped me. . . . There was no healing, no salvation." So, one might ask, why bother to include the food element? Perhaps because Witchel is a food writer and writing about food is in her comfort zone--whereas writing about her family isn't. It's not clear to me.

Overall, there's not a lot of comfort in this story. The book is a quick read, but I'm not motivated to make the recipes, didn't get any insights into how to handle your parents aging, and didn't feel particularly moved by the author's story.

Favorite passages:
It is an intimacy to cook with someone else, inhabit his space.

Part of what defines a person is who they are to you. As long as you're still there, so are they. . . . That's why it's difficult to see a parent in any other role.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao is a Dominican sci-fi/fantasy nerd growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s.  The high point of Oscar's romantic life comes when he is seven and has two girlfriends for the span of a week. By the time he reaches his teen years, he is overweight, believes he is destined to be the Dominican Tolkien, and so geeky he seems destined to be a virgin forever.  He goes to Rutgers, where he continues to have a stunted social life and tries to commit suicide; the attempt is unsuccessful, however, and he graduates from college, returns to live with his mother and teach at the high school he hated. Then, on a fateful summer visit to the Dominican Republic, he falls in love with a semi-retired puta, whose boyfriend is a brutal police officer.

Despite this recounting of the events of Oscar's life, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is really the story of Oscar's family, the de Leons. Diaz creates a cast of seemingly cursed characters (the fuku) that includes Oscar's beautiful and talented sister Lola; his mother Beli, whose tragic and rebellious youth is unknown to her children, who know her as rigidly strict and chronically ill; his physician grandfather Abelard, who was killed trying to protect his daughters from the rapacious dictator Trujillo. Through the multigenerational family history, Diaz also recounts the history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's brutal regime--as well as the story of the diaspora.

The story is told by two narrators. The first--and most prominent--is not identified until well into the book, although it is clear he knows both Oscar and Lola well. He is Yunior, a sometime boyfriend of Lola's and Oscar's college roommate. He, too, is an important character in the novel--and his relationship to the de Leons clearly shapes him. Yunior's narration is liberally laced with untranslated Spanish; obscenities and hipster street slang; pop culture references--to sci fi/fantasy/anime novels, movies, and comic books;  ruminations on Dominican history and mythology; and references to serious literature. Yunior tells Oscar's story in chronological order but intersperses it with the family history told from the more recent past to the most distant.

The second narrator is Lola. Although her sections are relatively brief, her voice (especially as read by Staci Snell in the audio version) is winning--vulnerable, tender, and wise. As a female reader who is not  hip or particularly geeky, I wished for more of Lola's voice, as her story was my favorite part of the book. In fact, I wondered if I would have enjoyed Beli's story more if Diaz had given her her own voice  (raising some questions in my mind about why Diaz decided to include Lola as a narrator but left everyone else's story in Yunior's hands).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not for everyone; I know some of my book group colleagues would cringe at he language. Others would find the geek culture references indecipherable. While I certainly did not understand all the references (or the Spanish), I did admire the way in which Diaz put together a rich, multifaceted narrative populated with three-dimensional characters, presented in a 21st-century mash-up style.

Favorite passages:

If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge.

Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s-Be-Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and of women. Perhaps.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar

Araceli Ramirez works for Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, a couple who became wealthy in one of the tech bubbles but has  recently become less wealthy because of bad investments. In fact, they have laid off the gardener and the nanny, leaving Araceli--the housekeeper/cook--as their only domestic employee. A prickly frustrated artist, Araceli is not happy when she realizes they expect her to add child-care duties to her tasks. Of course, Scott and Maureen are not happy either, as Scott is worried about their finances and Maureen is mostly worried about her image. One night, after Maureen spends thousands of dollars to have the mini rainforest in their backyard torn out and replaced with a cactus garden, the two have an argument that becomes a physical confrontation.

The next morning, Maureen takes off with their daughter, not telling anyone she is heading for a spa. At the same time, Scott decides not to come home from work that night without telling anyone. Thus, Araceli finds herself alone for the weekend with the couple's eight- and eleven-year-old sons. After two nights on their own, Araceli decides to try to take the boys to their paternal grandfather's house, but she has only an old picture of the elder Torres, with an address penciled on the back. The threesome sets out on a public transportation journey into areas of Los Angeles so unlike what young Keenan and Brandon have ever experienced that the city seems like a setting in one of Brandon's fantasy novels. After two more days, Maureen and Scott return home, find their children missing, and call the police. The rest of the novel revolves around what will happen to Araceli in the legal system.

We discussed Barbarian Nurseries at book group last night, and the differences of opinion were interesting. Some people found that the first part of the novel--the domestic set-up to the crisis--dragged but enjoyed the unraveling of Araceli's case in the legal system. Others felt exactly the opposite--they thought the beginning of the book was interesting but once the legal system was involved, the book became bogged down in politics and dragged. Some found everything about the situation at the core of the book implausible; others thought it could happen. What we generally agreed upon was that Tobar had a set of issues he wanted to talk about--how Los Angeles is divided along ethnic and class lines, what should be done about immigration, the media's role in exacerbating the city's problems--and  perhaps didn't have the novelistic chops to integrate his commentary on those issues into a novel with a believable plot and well-rounded characters. (One of our members who is familiar with Tobar's work says he is an excellent journalist.) We did, however, give him credit for not making one side heroic and the other side villainous. The major characters in the novel are all equally flawed.

T.C. Boyle's satiric Tortilla Curtain makes many of the same points that Tobar does. (A stronger dose of humor might have improved Barbarian Nurseries.) Mona Simpson's My Hollywood, which focuses on a Filipina nanny, makes similar points about parenting and caretaking of the children of wealth. I preferred Boyle's and Simpson's books to Tobar's, but I do find myself respecting his not totally successful effort.

Favorite passage:
It [the tropical garden] seemed to him it would take a village of Mexicans to keep that thing alive, a platoon of men in straw hats, wading with bare feet into the faux stream that ran through the middle of it. Pepe did it all on his own. He was a village unto himself, apparently.