mini-reviews: celebrity food memoirs

Food is one of my favorite things on earth—I love eating, cooking, trying new cuisines and restaurants, and learning about other cultures through food. Aside from experiencing my own culinary adventures, I usually can’t resist a good Michael Pollan book or memoir by a celebrated chef. Last year, I read to two such books by famous personalities in food and cooking:

I’ve been a fan of Padma Lakshmi from her hosting gig on Top Chef for years. She’s poised but has a sense of humor and shows knowledge of food as a judge. I also have one of her cookbooks, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet. I listened to her recent memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate on audiobook (read by Lakshmi). I really liked the parts about her childhood between India and the United States, as well as her career trajectory from model to TV show host to author. She also talks at length about having endometriosis, her romantic relationships, and becoming a parent. At times she is too self-pitying for her level of wealth and fame, but overall this is an enjoyable, light celebrity memoir. [Listened to audiobook in May 2016.]

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson has been on my radar for a few years now. Samuelsson has a fascinating background, starting with overcoming tuberculosis as a child Ethiopia and adopted in Sweden. I enjoyed learning about his upbringing, and how his race, heritage, and family shaped his love for food and development as a chef. However… I didn’t connect with Samuelsson on a personal level at all. I understand that you have to have a certain degree of self-centeredness, arrogance, and uber-confidence one has to have to succeed on the world stage (whether it’s as a renowned chef, famous musician, or whatever), but his relationships (as an adult) with his adoptive family and daughter—while I can appreciate his honesty and recognize that no one is perfect—are rather off-putting. It was a decent book, though, if you’re interested in celebrity chef memoirs. [Listened to audiobook in September 2016.]

the hearts of men

I’ve had my eye on Nickolas Butler ever since reading his debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, a couple of years ago, and put The Hearts of Men on my list as soon as it came out. And of course I’m going to read another book set in Wisconsin! From Goodreads:

Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths—and the limits—of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption.

I have some of the same feelings I had about Shotgun Lovesongs. I really like how Butler dismantles the stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity in his stories. And he is a fantastic storyteller. I never felt the pace lagging or any unnecessary meandering in The Hearts of Men. Each section is purposeful to the overall story and message. That said, the beginning is stronger than the end, mostly because the main characters, Nelson and Jonathan, seemed so fully realized and lively as children but became flat and somewhat generic in later sections as adults. Perhaps that was intentional, though? Is Butler trying to make a point that we lose something, some spark, as we age? I’m not sure—possibly, or it could possibly have been the narrator’s interpretation didn’t handle the jumps forward in time so well for me. I liked Rachel, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law, but I would have liked her to have been more realistic and more three-dimensional—Butler had a similar issue developing women characters in Shotgun. In this story, women are central to the hearts of these men, after all.

Ultimately, The Hearts of Men is a story about boys becoming men, fathers and sons, bravery and decency, how both romantic and platonic relationships affect you, and the ubiquity of being a flawed human. Butler has a sensitive voice and his storytelling is immersive, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next book.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

area 51

I borrowed the audio version of Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen from the library on a whim, for a road trip last year. I like learning about science, but I admit I can be intimidated beyond a cursory level sometimes. Of course I wanted to learn about secret aliens, though! Area 51 ended up being much more interesting and accessible than I anticipated. Edited from Goodreads:

It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn’t exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas in Nevada’s desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government—but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades. […] Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing itself was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building super-secret, supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror. […] This is the first book based on interviews with eye witnesses to Area 51 history, which makes it the seminal work on the subject.

This was an excellent choice for a road trip. I wanted aliens, but what I got was so much more. In fact, aliens are the least interesting part of Area 51. The real meaty parts of the book that kept me most fascinated was the history of the military base and its black ops, rather than shaky conspiracy theories. Jacobsen does a fine job laying out previously unknown-to-the-public projects at the base about stolen and reverse-engineered technologies, nuclear weapons testing, the development of radar and stealth bombers, and more. There were many dangerous and catastrophic projects being carried out. I learned more about the Military Industrial Complex and corporations had their hands in the government, how compartmentalizing major secret projects is effective but complicates accountability, and how different factions of the military and intelligence community clashed over these projects. There are some insightful, respectful interviews with veterans who worked at Area 51 that add value to the book.

It’s too bad the final chapter, which finally ties in Roswell and aliens, was a letdown. Honestly I hardly even remember the details of this part compared to the rest of the book. Truth is definitely stranger (and more interesting) than fiction in the case of Area 51. This would be a great companion piece to Drift by Rachel Maddow.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

exit west

I’ve been looking forward to picking up Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ever since I first heard about it. I enjoyed his last one, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a few years ago, and just look at that gorgeous cover! Unfortunately, this did quite live up to the hype for me. From Goodreads:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

I loved the premise. I thought Hamid does get a powerful message across by leaving the country Saeed and Nadia are fleeing unnamed—it could be any country. Also, giving the characters in Exit West names, personalities, and backstories read loud and clear to me as a personal, worldwide problem, shattering negative stereotypes people (read: Westerners) may have about refugees. Nadia is great. I felt she had the most individuality and “real” personality of all the characters. I found the first half of the book much stronger than the second, when Saeed and Nadia meet and develop a relationship, and the circumstances of changing daily life in their war-torn country is illuminated for readers.

The second half, however, lost momentum for me. I thought the magical realism element of the portal doors was clever, but didn’t translate for me so well. I get that maybe they serve as a metaphor for globalization, with some doors being guarded and others not, and the ubiquity of the Internet making the world feel more connected and smaller. Maybe Hamid didn’t want to make this a “quest” story. But leaving out the perilous, harrowing journey refugees take to find asylum took away a sense of urgency and danger due to the war. At first, I was enchanted by Hamid’s prose—there are many achingly beautiful passages—but by the second half, his extremely long run-on sentences became detrimental to the storytelling when it took a speculative turn into magical realism. My mind would wander, I’d lose track of what was happening, and I’d have to go back and re-read trying to insert periods and separate out these paragraph- or page-long sentences.

Exit West was middle-of-the-road for me. Again the first half is gorgeous, and I will remember Nadia and being gripped by a country slowly-then-all-at-once devolving into violent civil war. But the second half for me… meh. I’m still interested in trying Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I have on my iPad and will get around to eventually!

Read in April 2017.

the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic

With the ubiquity of online shopping, I really miss wandering into a bookstore and “discovering” a new book for which I’ve never seen a review, never heard of before, and just picking it up on a whim. Do you miss that sometimes? I know I can still do that, but still. It’s somehow not the same. Anyway, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper was a rare pleasant bookshop discovery for me last year. Edited from Goodreads:

Jessica Hopper’s music criticism has earned her a reputation as a firebrand, a keen observer and fearless critic not just of music but the culture around it. […] Through this vast range of album reviews, essays, columns, interviews, and oral histories, Hopper chronicles what it is to be truly obsessed with music. The pieces in The First Collection send us digging deep into our record collections, searching to re-hear what we loved and hated, makes us reconsider the art, trash, and politics Hopper illuminates, helping us to make sense of what matters to us most.

I was initially attracted by the cover and assertive title when I came across it at A Room of One’s Own, my favorite bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, which I have to hit up every time I’m in my hometown for a visit. I admit I had never heard of Hopper before, not so much because she’s a critic that is a woman but because I don’t read Pitchfork or other music ‘zines—not regularly anyway, not enough to follow or even become acquainted with the names of certain writers. As a music reviewer in Kansas City myself at the time, I simply couldn’t resist buying The First Collection. I’m so glad I did because not only did this collection speak to me as a reviewer and critic, but also as a feminist and a woman whose adolescence was shaped during a certain period of popular music history covered here by Hopper.

Right off the bat, Hopper clarifies that she is, of course, not the first female music writer. The title serves as a call to recognize those who came before her and question why women aren’t more visible in this field. Hopper’s writing throughout the essays in The First Collection is pointed and distinctive, and I especially enjoyed her personal musings on her relationship with music. I wasn’t a Riot Grrl in the ’90s and punk isn’t my taste per se, but the feminist messaging certainly spoke to me then and Hopper’s insights on this subject affected me now, too. I don’t remember every essay (there are many), but the ones that still stand out to me a year after reading The First Collection are those about Miley Cyrus, the commercialism and corporatization of punk and alternative music festivals (Vans Warped Tour, Lollapalooza), the making of Hole’s Live Through This (even though I can’t stand Hole!), and her trip to Michael Jackson’s hometown after he died. The best and most thorough piece, though, is her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct and assault of underage black girls, who received no justice and whose lives were basically ruined (DeRogatis is the one who originally broke the story).

The First Collection was one of the best books I read in 2016, and I sure hope this book, Hopper, and her predecessors inspire a new generation of women music writers in the future.

Read in March 2016.