36. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl former restaurant critic for the New York Times shares her experiences in a well written and entertaining book. In order to avoid detection and be treated as any other diner would, Reichl often donned various disguises, which she details in the book. The book is broken up into essay like chapters that focus on her experiences creating a specific review followed at the end by the chapter by a copy of the review while also creating an overall narrative story arc over her time at the paper. The book is also full of recipes either of her own creation (Reichl was previously a chef) or those from or inspired by restaurants she dined at.
Though it was released several years after this book, I read Frank Bruni’s book Born Round a couple of years ago and was disappointed in most of it only really enjoying the end where he specifically talked about his experiences as a food critic. Garlic and Sapphires was everything I had hoped that Born Round would be but wasn’t. I really enjoyed reading this book and can’t wait to try some of the recipes from it. I give it an 8 out of 10.
35. First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart
This book chronicles the history of Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., which as the title indicates was the first public black high school in the United States. Set against the larger backdrop of racial relations, segregation, and the educational system in the country from the end of slavery up through today Stewart walks the reader through how the school was established, how it became an institution that graduated many prominent African Americans, and what led to its decline and current state. It is a very well researched book that includes a lot information not just about the high school itself but the greater history of our country. If this is a topic that interests you at all I would highly recommend reading this book. I give it a 7 out of 10.
34. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Nao is a young Japapense girl who spent much of her childhood in America, but when her father loses his job and his work visa her family must return to Japan where she is now ostracized and bullied by her classmates because she is different from them. Meanwhile her father faces the shame of not being able to provide for his family and continuously contemplates suicide. Nao seeks comfort from her great-grandmother who is a Buddhist nun and as the book starts sets out to tell the story of her great-grandmother’s life, but winds up writing her own story in a sort of diary.
Across the ocean on a small, remote Canadian island Ruth finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shore in a Hello Kitty lunch box possibly as debris from the tsunami. At somewhat of a crossroads in her own life Ruth becomes invested in the diary and trying to track down its owner.
I have a really hard time trying to rate this book because I loved the first 3/4 of it, but then it took a turn into some very weird metaphysical stuff that I guess based on what I’ve read is influenced by the author being a Buddhist priest. At any rate it didn’t resonate with me and really threw off a story that I had been loving, which is almost even worse than the story just being mediocre from the start. If the book had ended differently I would be giving this a solid 8, but I’m going to drop it down to a 6 out of 10 because I really didn’t care for the change in the story. If you are not someone who would mind that a seemingly straightforward story turns into a metaphysical drama at the end then I would highly recommend this book. I still might recommend it if you’re not, but be prepared for the story to take a shift you’re probably not expecting unless you are already familiar with the author.
33. The Night of the Comet by George Bishop
Night of the Comet is a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1973. The protagonist, now an adult, takes us back to that year of his life. His father, an astronomer, is obsessed with the approach of the Kohoutek comet. Meanwhile the rest of his family is taken by the neighbors who have moved in across the way.
I really liked this book. The author did a great job of creating a sense of time and place and evoking a sense of nostalgia for someone else’s life. The characters were really well drawn and I felt invested in what was going on in their lives and could easily relate to how they felt about their lives that while comfortable were less than what they once dreamed they would be.
I give it an 8 out of 10.
32. My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach
This is a short little compilation of all the humor columns Mary Roach wrote for Reader’s Digest over a period of three years. As always Roach is very funny and adept at finding humor in the small things of life. It was a quick enjoyable read and as it is a compilation of short essays its great if you need something to read in bite sized chunks. I give it an 8 out of 10.
31. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
I have never seen the play A Raisin in the Sun performed. One of the theaters I have a season subscription to is performing two plays (Clybourne Park and Beneatha’s Place) that are based off it, so I decided I need to read it in preparation for seeing them. The play was written and is set in the 1950s. It follows a working class family in Chicago over the course of a week’s time in which they weigh their options for creating a better life for themselves. It is a poignant play even today and speaks volumes about how broken our country still is on the topic of race and class. I look forward to seeing how these new plays adapt the themes from it. Hopefully one day I’ll see this play performed live as well.
30. The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti
The last book I read was all about people obsessed with a fictional painting. This book is all about people obsessed with actual cheese. I really wanted to like this book based on the title and description, but man I did not. I am not someone who reads multiple books at the same time, but about 90 pages before the end of this book I stopped and read something else and had to force myself to go back and finish it off. The only thing that would have redeemed this book was if it came with a piece of the celebrated cheese, but it can’t since the cheese at least as described in the book no longer exists and as best I can tell is hard to come by in the United States period at this point.
This is a non-fiction book in which the author becomes obsessed with some fancy, high priced Spanish sheeps milk cheese he comes across while at a deli in Michigan. He decides to hunt down the maker of the cheese and travels to the small town in Spain where he meets the cheesemaker who resurrected an old family recipe for the cheese, rockets it to fame, and then supposedly has the company stolen from him by his best friend while the mass produced version of the cheese degrades what was good about the cheese to begin with. The cheesemaker vows revenge. The author literally spends years and years pursuing this boring story and himself is overly obsessed with this cheese. The book is as much about his pursuit of the story as it is about the actual story. I was just bored. I recommend giving this book a pass. I give it a 3 out of 10.
29. The Center of the World by Thomas Van Essen
The Center of the World is a sweeping tale about a fictional painting of the same name by J.M.W. Turner depicting an erotic scene of Helen of Troy. The story shifts back and forth from 19th century England where we witness the creation of the painting and present day New England where a married man bored with his life stumbles across it hidden away in his family’s lake house. The existence of the painting has been kept secret since its creation, but rumors of it have intrigued many people over the years including an art collector/dealer who sets his sights on finding it.
I really enjoyed this novel and suspect that anyone who has a love of art or background in art history would appreciate it even more than I did. I did find it a little ridiculous how people’s lives were completely taken over by this painting, but I suppose it is a commentary on the power of art in our lives. There is no actual painting so there’s nothing to actually see, but I wish I could have seen it. Despite the many descriptions of it throughout the book I had a hard time visualizing what it would have looked like. I give it a 7 out of 10.
28. Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman
This is a young adult novel that I would say is squarely aimed at teenage boys. The story follows 15 year old James who has grown up in a broken home idolizing his older brother. When he naively gets involved with his brother’s drug trade he winds up in a juvenile detention facility. Most of the action of the story takes place there where James has to try and learn to navigate between the other juvenile detainees and the less than friendly guards. Though fiction, the story is probably all too true for young boys sucked into a criminal life and who are then caught in a system they are probably destined never to leave. I give it a 6 out of 10.
27. No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood edited by Henriette Mantel
As a woman who does not plan on having children myself I was excited to read this book of essays written by women who never had children for various reasons. I did enjoy the book and definitely identified with some of the things some of the authors said. I was amused that almost every single one of them seemed to feel the need to assert vociferously that they don’t hate children and demonstrate it by talking about their relationships with some other people’s kids because it is something I find myself doing as well. At least one of the women also mentioned the idea of people not believing that she knew she didn’t want kids and thinking that eventually she would change her mind. It’s funny because despite knowing that I don’t want kids I do have the same those same thoughts about other people. Why I think they don’t know their own minds as well as I know mine I don’t know.
While I liked the book and appreciated the idea behind it I wish that the book had included stories written by women who were not in the entertainment field. Every author in this book was in some sort of creative field such as writer, actor, or comic that resulted in her not living what most people would call a normal life. Thus, a number of the women didn’t necessarily choose not to have kids they just found themselves living a lifestyle that didn’t support it until life kind of passed them by and it was too late or were people who always knew they weren’t interested in having a husband or kids. I on the other hand always imagined I would have kids until I got to the age I would think about having kids and realized that it wasn’t actually something I was interested in doing (not that I don’t love other people’s kids of course). It’s still worth a read if you’re interested in the subject, but I would have liked to have more stories that I could have identified with. I give it a 7 out of 10.