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.
It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the fiction category. It made the final cut for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. It’s basically on like…every Best Of list out right now. And even before all that? There was the nonstop buzz around the book when it was published. And I bit. I borrowed Tenth of December from the library a couple of times, but it went back unread each time. So finally, at the end of the year, I was determined to get this thing squared away.
This was my first encounter with George Saunders (and I’m the kind of person who picks up random books without fully examining — or even reading — the summary). I had no idea what I was getting into.
Talk about a What the hell am I reading? moment.
There’s some David Foster Wallace-type strangeness going on in this book. And much like my reaction to DFW, some of the writing in Tenth of December blew me away while other parts just didn’t work quite work out for me. The stories are dark and weird but also optimistic and hopeful; it’s a difficult mix to pull off, but Saunders (mostly) does it.
I think the thing I admired the most about his work was the shocking effect he leaves you with when he switches narrators. You’re exposed to this immediately with the first story, “Victory Lap;” the two young narrators, each with their own distinct voice, have fanciful inner lives that probably make their daily reality much more entertaining. Then something happens that introduces some actual drama into their lives.