The Mother of All Questions

Book cover: The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca SolnitTo say that Rebecca Solnit’s last collection of feminist essays was a success would be an understatement; Men Explain Things To Me was a national bestseller, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone in my feminist circles who hasn’t read at least one of the essays in the collection (namely, the title essay). So, I was delighted to learn that Solnit had a new book of feminist essays planned for publication, the contents of which were written within the past few years; I believe they’re all from 2014 on. As such, The Mother of All Questions feels fresh and timely, part of a larger conversation on feminist issues that continues to grow.

Like its predecessor, The Mother of All Questions is a slim book packed with incisive cultural commentary. It’s split into two parts: Silence is Broken and Breaking the Story. The first part begins with Solnit’s newest and longest piece in the collection, “A Short History of Silence,” which explores the damaging roles that silence plays in society. Its opening paragraph immediately had my attention:

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A Really Good Day

Book cover: A Really Good Day by Ayelet WaldmanAyelet Waldman suffered from severe mood swings for years. She went through a lot trying to get a diagnosis — she was even misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a few years — and she dutifully participated in therapy and tried almost every medication out there. That worked to varying degrees, but it was all taking a toll on her life and her marriage.

In the midst of this, Waldman heard about an experimental treatment in which people microdose with LSD. At about 10% of a typical dose, people who microdose don’t feel any of LSD’s trippy effects and instead begin to experience…nothing. The doses are too minuscule to cause any discernible mood alteration. And yet, the little research that does exist on microdosing points to its usefulness in treating mood disorders and illnesses like PTSD.

A Really Good Day is part memoir, part investigation on the LSD and drug laws in the United States. Waldman, a self-described nerd and chicken when it comes to breaking the law, chronicles the events that led to her finally receiving a little blue vial of diluted LSD in the mail from “Lewis Carroll.” As a former lawyer who often represented clients accused of drug-related offenses, Waldman had personal experiences with drug laws that gave her book some unique insights.

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Quickies: Butter & Lincoln in the Bardo

Book cover: Butter by Elaine KhosrovaButter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books, 2016
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher

What it is: Khosrova takes readers around the world to examine the cultural and religious significance of butter. She also looks at the history of butter making and its subsequent commercialization, then turns her focus to contemporary butter artisans. Only about half the book deals with butter’s history; the other half consists of butter-filled recipes.

Why I read it: Because butter is awesome.

What I thought: I’m glad to be alive now and not back in the day when butter sold on the market was filthy and sometimes loaded with rocks to make the butter seem heavier. But in all seriousness, the science behind butter making is really interesting, and Khosrova packs a lot of information into a few chapters without making it too dense. As someone who travels a few times a year, I kind of want to start hitting up butter artisans from now on to see what I’ve been missing out on!



Book cover: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and 164 others
Length: 7 hours, 25 minutes
Source: Purchase

What it is: Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln was said to have entered his son’s crypt in the middle of the night to be alone with him. On the other side, in the Bardo — a Tibetan term that refers to a sort of in-between place between the living and the dead — Willie Lincoln doesn’t understand what’s going on and why his father won’t take him home. Several other people, who are buried in the cemetery and are stuck in the Bardo alongside Willie, are touched. A plan takes shape as to what should happen next.

Why I listened to it: I preordered the audiobook partly because of the hype, but mostly because Nick Offerman and Carrie Brownstein are narrators. I was also curious about how an audiobook with 166 narrators would sound.

What I thought: I know this is an unpopular opinion because everyone raves about George Saunders, but I don’t get the hype. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments; there were parts that genuinely made me laugh, and there were several parts where the grief is palpable. It’s a unique spin on historical fiction, and I could appreciate what he was trying to do, but I just couldn’t get 100% on board with it. As for the 166 narrators thing, it’s…a lot. I do think that Offerman and Sedaris, whose roles are bigger than everyone else’s, were perfectly cast, though.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Book cover: Z by Therese Anne FowlerZelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whirlwind life is legendary. She was the It Girl of the 1920s; he was the brilliant writer¹ who burst onto the literary scene with This Side of Paradise and later produced The Great Gatsby. In Therese Anne Fowler’s fictionalized account, however, readers meet Zelda Sayre when she’s seventeen and still living at home with her parents in Montgomery, Alabama.

She meets Scott at a local dance. He’s an army lieutenant with grand literary aspirations. Zelda is taken with him, but her pragmatic father is unimpressed. The two fall in love, and after a long-distance courtship, Scott sells his first novel — a sign that he can provide a living for a wife as an author — and Zelda is off to New York to marry him in St. Peter’s Cathedral. The rest is history: he’s a best-selling and in-demand author, and Zelda plays her role as a fashionable scenester with gusto. Hollywood comes calling, and the two are ready to take on the world.

They bite off more than they can chew, living way beyond their means once the royalties from Scott’s first book start to dry up. Scott is under pressure to produce his next novel and he’s frozen with writer’s block. He tries to sell short stories, and though that does bring in some income, it’s not enough to keep them afloat. He needs a new novel.

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Faves of 2016: Nonfiction

2016-nonfiction

I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)

Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)

Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”

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