Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books, 2016
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!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Narrators: Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and 164 others
Length: 7 hours, 25 minutes
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.
Zelda 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.
These were my favorite ten fiction reads of 2016. The first three are my absolute top picks; everything else is listed in alphabetical order.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
Lonesome Dove remains my biggest shocker: I was extremely reluctant to pick it up, but it ended up being my favorite book of the year (and one of my favorite books, like, ever). At face value, it’s about a ragtag group of cowboys that drives a massive herd of cattle from South Texas to Montana, but it’s also about bigger ideas like duty and friendship and mortality. And it’s a helluva wild adventure.
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2015)
The Big Green Tent is about an unlikely trio that bonds as LORLs — Lovers of Russian Literature — an informal school group led by a popular but subversive teacher. They come of age in 1950s Moscow under the threat of Stalin, where brazen independent thought is dangerous. The book follows the boys throughout the rest of their lives. It’s a modern version of the classic, sweeping Russian novel (but way easier to read).
The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen (2017)
I feel kind of weird putting The Gringo Champion on my 2016 list because it won’t be out for a couple more weeks; I got an advance copy. It’s an immigration story that’s unlike any other immigration story I’ve read, in the most surprising and refreshing way. I’ll write more about it on its release day, but I will say now: OMG, the vocabulary in this book is insane! And the author was only nineteen years old when she wrote it!
Victoria McQueen was born with a special gift; whenever she’s riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, a bridge will appear can transport her wherever she needs to go. Once there, she can find things that are lost. It starts out innocently enough, with Vic looking for things to keep her parents from fighting, but the temptation to do more with her trick is always there.
Meanwhile, Charles Talent Manx is out on the prowl for children. He has a special vehicle of his own, a Rolls Royce Wraith, which he uses to transport children to Christmasland, a ghoulish twilight zone of yuletide cheer where soulless children revere Manx unconditionally. Hundreds of children (and sometimes their parents) have mysteriously disappeared over the years, and when Vic figures out that she might be able to find them, she goes looking for trouble. She ends up barely escaping from Manx’s Sleigh House, the only child to ever have done so. In the process of her escape and subsequent rescue, Manx is caught and imprisoned for life, assumed to be a pedophile and serial killer.
Now Vic is an adult, and Manx has never stopped thinking about her. But rather than come for her when the opportunity arises, he decides to come for her son, Bruce. Meanwhile, Vic is convinced that she’s always been mentally ill; once would have to be schizophrenic to actually believe that magic bridges and places like Christmasland exist. Unless she can find a way to trust her instincts and her sanity, her son’s life is on the line.
Ever since 2010, I’ve been working my way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. To make it more manageable, I set a goal to read all the winners for the years ending in the current year’s number (so in 2016, I focused on the winners for the years ending in 6). I’ve yet to actually complete those mini-tasks, but they serve as good reminders to not just focus on recent contemporary winners. They also not-so-gently nudge me into reading the books I know I’ll probably hate, just to get them over and done with. *cough* Updike *cough*
Which brings me to Lonesome Dove, a cowboy Western that’s 850+ pages long. I don’t really do cowboy Westerns, and the thought of one that’s the size of 2-3 average books put together was just not my idea of a good time. But there it was, sitting on my Pulitzer TBR list for this year. What finally pushed me towards it? On Goodreads, several people whose reading tastes I trust had all reviewed the book with variations of, “Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.”
Y’ALL. Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.