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.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Length: 5 hours, 30 minutes
What it is: Seven months pregnant, cookbook writer and food personality Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband has been having an affair with someone she knows. Meanwhile, her well-heeled friends spend their time planning events and gossiping about The Other Woman; they suspect she’s having an affair, but they can’t figure out with whom. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes for Rachel’s various comfort foods. Rachel just doesn’t know what to do: she wants to make things work with her husband, but she also wants him to drop dead. The book was originally published in 1983.
Why I listened to it: I was looking for a short, light-hearted audiobook. I’d been meaning to read this for a while now because it seems to be universally loved, and it didn’t hurt that Meryl Streep was the narrator (she also starred in the 1986 film adaptation).
What I thought: I think I might have to come to terms that I love Nora Ephron the screenwriter and director, but not Nora Ephron the author. Heartburn is indeed light and entertaining — I can see why people seem to love it so much, and there were moments that genuinely made me laugh — but it felt very one-note/stand-up comedy routine.
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans
Publisher/Year: Verso, 2015
What it is: A graphic novel about Rosa Luxemburg, who was born into a poor Jewish family in Poland. She was tiny (probably from malnourishment) and sickly (she would walk with a limp for her whole life), but by the age of fifteen, she was rabble rousing on behalf of the working class. She fought to be sent away to receive an education and grappled with Communism in a way that would make it accessible to the people. By her twenties, in a time when women still lacked any authority in important matters, Luxemburg had earned a PhD and made a name for herself in Germany as an important theorist, organizer, and writer whose ideas are still relevant to this day.
Why I read it: I love books on women’s history, and I loved that this one was presented as a graphic biography.
What I thought: First off, I commend Kate Evans for being able to work so much theory into the text in an accessible way! It was still a little clunky at times, but…have you ever read Marx? Overall, though, Evans did a wonderful job of showing Luxemburg as a person — someone with a fiery determination to make her ideas known, but also someone with a rich and fascinating private life. I’d never heard of Luxemburg before reading this, and I am grateful for the introduction.
You can view some of the artwork from the book after the jump. You can also read an excerpt at The Nation.
You know how sometimes you come across an artist — photographer, singer, filmmaker, author, whatever — who creates something offensive and abhorrent, who then gets all self-righteous like, “Don’t conflate the artist with the art,” but deep down you feel it that the person is really just an asshole using the I’m An Artiste and You Are a Philistine excuse to be an even bigger asshole? Yeah? Well. After two Rabbit books, a few short stories, a few interviews, and the synopsis of this book, no one will ever be able to convince me that two time Pulitzer Prize-winning Great Man of Literature John Updike wasn’t a big ol’ racist, misogynist asshole. Like, ever.
I’ve been listening to the Rabbit is Rich audiobook for the better part of a month and finally finished the last of the seventeen discs yesterday afternoon (which I immediately celebrated with this tweet). I don’t usually jump right into review writing when I finish a book — I like to let a book sit with me for a while, you know? — but this book. This book requires a different tactic. So just humor me: I decided to review the book immediately in case of the unlikely event that my hatred begins to dissipate, m’kay?
Rabbit is Rich is part of Updike’s Rabbit series, which follows Harry Angstrom through different parts of his life. I was first introduced to Harry in undergrad when I had to read the first book in the series Rabbit, Run. That book introduces Harry, aka “Rabbit,” at the height of his life: he’s a narcissistic basketball hotshot with his whole future ahead of him. Rabbit is Rich has him in middle age. He’s still narcissistic, but the great — and “great” is debatable here — Rabbit is now a cynical car salesman with a stale marriage and an college-aged son who’s well on his way to recreating his father’s idiotic mistakes. The series made Updike the poster boy of white, middle class, middle American, post-Cold War era realism.
Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun
Publisher/Year: Riverhead, 2008
What it is: Set in the 1980s, a Korean immigrant named Joon is growing up in the Bronx. After her parents’ marriage falls apart and her father leaves, Joon’s mother falls into a deep depression exacerbated by mental illness. A young Joon is left to fend for herself, and at the age of thirteen she ultimately runs away to escape the fraught relationship she has with her mother. The book is told in fragments that chronicle many of her hardships over the next few years.
Why I read it: Find out here!
What I thought: First off, one of my roommates in grad school was a Korean named Joon, so I kept thinking about her even though she has no similarities to the book’s Joon! I miss her. Anyway. I loved this book. I didn’t know much about it when I first picked it up, but I was quickly swept away by Mun’s raw prose. It’s a small book (literally — the spine is like seven inches long and the font is nice and roomy), but the impact is powerful stuff. It’s tense and heartbreaking and unflinching in its realism. I’m happy I discovered this author.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2011
Length: 13 hours, 39 minutes
Narrated by: Jim Dale
What it is: Le Cirque des Rêves appears unannounced from one day to the next. It’s closed all day and open all night, and audiences are drawn to the unique performances that seem like pure magic. Two magicians are using the circus as their stage for a magic competition that they were each bound to as children, but neither competitor knows exactly what the competition entails; everything gets further complicated when the two magicians fall in love with each other.
Why I read it: I succumbed to the hype.
What I thought: Meh. I think part of that meh is that the audiobook narrator was miscast (even though he’s really, really talented); not to sound ageist, but he sounded too old for this particular narrative and its mostly-youthful characters. But a lot of that meh is the last half of the book; the first half builds an interesting story, but by the end I was going, “is that it?” I do have to hand it to Morgenstern, though: her imagery is amazing. I wasn’t terribly wowed by the book, but I can’t wait to see the visuals they create in the film adaptation. (I just said some sacrilege, I know. Sorry.)
It’s intriguing how Ian McEwan is able to turn a single fleeting event into a short novel. On Chesil Beach is about a couple of British newlyweds in 1962; Edward and Florence are virgins, very inexperienced when it comes to expressions of sexuality. All of these sexual inhibitions culminate as they attempt to have sex on their wedding night.
As the couple settles into their hotel room and awkwardly while away the time until they decide to have sex, McEwan goes backwards in time to explore their past. The two undoubtedly care for each other, but it is apparent that one major reason Edward proposed is so that they could finally have sex. He has anxiety about his inexperience, but is eager to finally consummate their relationship. Florence, on the other hand, has always been put off by the thought of sex. She loves Edward and made some sexual advances toward him during their courtship, but always did so out of preconceived notions about what was required of her as a girlfriend.
I’m hesitant to say much more than that so as not to give away the ending. I will say that the book is beautifully written; I was a little apprehensive of giving McEwan another shot after my dissapointment with Atonement. I’ve also seen some complaints about the length of the book—it’s a little too long to be a novella, but feels too short to be a novel—but I think the length was perfect; anything longer would have been pushing it.