Tagged: Algonquin Books

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.


Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

Flirting with French by William AlexanderI took French in high school. I took French in college, and my professor was actually French. I love French movies, I have a Paris-themed umbrella, I have a weakness for memoirs in which women drop everything and move to France — Je suis jaloux! — and I hope to be reincarnated as a classy, scarf-wearing Parisian in my next life. I planned the last part of my trip to Europe this past summer around being in Paris for Bastille Day, and I practiced my rusty French religiously for about an hour each night before jetting off. I knew my French would suck, but I at least figured I’d be able to bust out a few phrases without making a fool of myself.

And what happened?

I spoke English (or, in one instance, I panicked and blurted out Spanish…which, mind you, doesn’t even happen back home).

So I could completely relate to William Alexander’s plight: he fantasizes about moving to France and being accepted as one of them, but he can’t even speak the language. He’s determined to learn it, but there are numerous roadblocks. The biggest one is his age; in his late fifties, his far from the ideal age to be learning a new language (about fifty years too far, according to the experts). He throws himself into the language anyway, completing hours upon hours of Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, language meetups, immersion courses, a French PBS series, and social media encounters with French people, not to mention actual trips to France.

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Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored

Book cover: Notorious Victoria by Mary GabrielIn 1870, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, she and her sister were the first women to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In 1872, she was the first woman to run for president (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate). And at a time when respectable and well-connected suffragists were still strategizing ways to get their foot in the door to address Congress, the mysterious Victoria Clafin Woodhull seemed to come out of nowhere, waltz past the channels that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had so carefully fought to establish, and become the first woman to address Congress on the subject of women’s suffrage.

Not bad for a woman who came from an impoverished family of con artists.

Regardless of her sketchy upbringing — she and her sister were pushed to perform as clairvoyants, among other things — the brazen Victoria Woodhull knew how to stay in the spotlight. After they opened their brokerage on Wall Street, she and her sister became something of a spectacle…who ever heard of women on Wall Street? She channeled her notoriety into a successful newspaper that she used as a mouthpiece for her radical views, but these views would ultimately be her downfall.

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The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue

Book cover: The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue by Manuel MunozAfter being blown away last year by Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, I knew I’d be seeking him out again shortly. Then Tucson, AZ decided to shut down its Mexican American studies program and ban a bunch of books, and lo and behold, Muñoz’s first two books (both short story collections) were on that list.

The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue is Muñoz’s second book. It features ten loosely interconnected stories about Mexican Americans living in a neighborhood in central California. Most of the stories involve gay Mexican American men carrying their own private burdens, but the bigger theme here always comes back to family. As homosexuality is often at odds with traditional Mexican Catholic beliefs, Muñoz’s stories often explore the subtleties of familial relationships and love.

The book opens with the devastating “Lindo y Querido,” which begins with two teenagers who are in a motorcycle accident; one of the boys dies instantly, while the other lingers in fading health. The mother of the surviving boy futilely tends to him as best she can, but fully expects him to die soon. Things happen at the end of his life and in the days that immediately follow that will forever leave her guilt-ridden. Meanwhile, we learn a little bit about the other boy who died; he was a triplet, and one of his surviving brothers gets his own poignant short story (“Señor X”) later in the book. These were probably my two favorite stories in the collection.

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Silver Sparrow

Book cover: Silver Sparrow by Tayari JonesIt’s Atlanta in the 1980s, and Dana Lynn Yarboro and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon are two teens growing up not far from each other. They may run into each other because of school events or occasionally cross paths in public, but Chaurisse is completely unaware of Dana’s existence. “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Dana intones at the beginning of the book; as part of his second family–his hidden family–Dana and her mother know all about Chaurisse, but Chaurisse and her mother know nothing about them. Told first from Dana’s point of view, then Chaurisse’s, Silver Sparrow tells a powerful story of what happens when the walls of secrecy begin to crumble.

Dana has always grown up with the knowledge that she is her father’s “other” daughter. While she and her mother, Gwendolyn, receive regular visits and some financial support from James and his brother, Raleigh, the women have always had to live with the glaring reminders that they come second to Chaurisse and her mother, Laverne. The tolls of secrecy have not only been financial and emotional in nature. Now that Dana and Chaurisse are of age to start thinking about which college prep programs and summer jobs they want to apply for, Dana is especially feeling Chaurisse’s invasive presence in her life; her father won’t allow her to work at any location or participate in any extracurricular activity that Chaurisse wants to be a part of. Dana and Gwendolyn are strictly forbidden from mentioning James in public or going anywhere near Chaurisse and Laverne, and as a result, they live very isolated lives.

Dana and her mother have always discreetly spied on Chaurisse and Laverne, doing things like parking the car nearby and observing them from afar. But Dana can’t stand it any longer and begins to take it even further, seeking out ways to directly approach Chaurisse. She soon is in over her head, developing a cautious friendship with her half-sister, who isn’t aware of Dana’s real link to her. Halfway through the book, the point of view switches and Chaurisse assumes the role of narrator. When everything spins out of Dana’s careful control, it is through Chaurisse’s clueless eyes that the reader gets to experience the dramatic fallout.

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