Books read, early March

Karen Babine, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer. This is about cooking for her mother, who had cancer. Spoiler alert: her mother did not die of cancer in the course of this book! I know that for some of you I just ruined this slim volume of nonfiction, and I’m very sorry, but for others I have made it possible to read the thing. She’s obsessed with secondhand shop Le Creuset, she’s a vegetarian who’s cooking meat for a sick carnivore, and the sick carnivore does not die at this time. You’re welcome. Come on, some stresses we just don’t need right now.

Claire Eliza Bartlett, The Winter Duke. Discussed elsewhere.

Cinelle Barnes, Malaya: Essays on Freedom. I picked this up because of my interest in Malaysia, even under its British colonial name, Malaya. It turns out that Malaya is also the name of Cinelle Barnes’s daughter! Who, if she has anything to do with Malaysia, does not reveal it in the course of these essays! That’s okay, though, because they turned out to be interesting in themselves. Barnes was an undocumented immigrant to the US from the Philippines who managed to regularize her legal status in the US and has very interesting thoughts on that process; she is fierce and detailed and fascinating.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Orphans of Raspay. Kindle. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, in which Pen and his demon companion–and various others–are kidnapped by pirates and must effect their escape. Fun for fans of the series but probably not a good beginning place, go back to where Pen starts this whole thing.

Roshani Chokshi, The Gilded Wolves. I have enjoyed Chokshi’s middle grade books, but YA is a whole different ballgame, so I was wondering how this would go. Quite well, it turns out! Gilded Age Paris with a whole bunch of magic and some interesting people like a mathematician, a baker, and a spider enthusiast. There are important friendships as well as romances, there are lovely clothes, there is a lot of swirling color and bright lights in the more general scene-setting sense, and I had fun with this and will be glad to find the sequel.

Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America. This is a history of the Lakota in specific and of the Native world around them in general, how they migrated and were pushed. Hämäläinen includes thought and analysis about where and how he uses terms like Lakota, Dakota, Sioux, and so on, and the maps are some of the most sensible maps I have ever seen in books because they are centered on water at all times, so even though north is not always up, you can find Lake Superior or Lake of the Woods or the Missouri River or whatever it is and know just where you are immediately, they’re so intuitive, it’s great. Fascinating, recommended.

Diana Henry, Pure Simple Cooking. I am the wrong audience for this, because mostly I looked at them and thought, well yes, of course. But not everyone is used to thinking in these terms, and if you want to start, this is probably a pretty good place. A few ingredients used quite well, per recipe, probably a good cookbook for that.

Kathy Iandoli, God Save the Queens: the Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop. What a lovely corrective to the hip-hop documentaries that don’t seem to notice women exist at all. (Argh. Argh.) I am not a big hip-hop fan, so for me this is more educating myself than grooving with my faves–although I’m surprised to notice how many faves I already do have–so someone who is better versed in the genre than I am can evaluate it more from that perspective. As a non-expert, I learned a lot, and you might too.

Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman’s Road. Reread. These are such lovely books of inquisitiveness, care, and discovery. I intended to just stop with this volume (which is a two-book omnibus), but I may well just go on and reread all of what’s there, because really…they’re so good. The characters are so focused on learning each other and their world.

Janet Malcolm, Nobody’s Looking at You. I like the personal essay as a form, but it was so nice to pick up a volume of essays that wasn’t focused on how the essayist felt in her early twenties, that instead was external, thinking about how people do things in the world, profiles of others and what Janet Malcolm has thought of them. A few of the essays were more than twenty years old and felt oddly dated to include–I see why she felt they were some really good work at the time, they just sat strangely with the more recent work. But the effect was to make me wish that she’d had more than one collection like this, not to make me wish I hadn’t read them.

Tochi Onyebuchi, Riot Baby. This is a really strong and affecting novella that starts with a very young girl just before the Rodney King verdict and goes into her adult life and her brother’s adult life as Black people trying to work around a corrupt system as best they can. Magic provides a frame, a solace, insight, sometimes relief, but not a fix for that system–which is in some ways more satisfying, acknowledging that we will all have to keep grappling with it from our own angles, that we are not released from the work by having clearer sight of it.

C.M. Waggoner, Unnatural Magic. For me this book demonstrated one of the risks of having multiple points of view–Margaret Atwood has also had this problem–which is that sometimes I like one point of view vastly, vastly more than another. It was only toward the end, as they began to converge, that I was not impatient with one thread of this book and constantly wanting to get back to the other, but as with other competent multi-POV authors (see also Atwood) it would not have made much sense if I’d just skipped half the prose. Still: there is a stubborn and mathetmatically minded magical protagonist here, and she was worth my time.

Lawrence Wechsler, And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? Wechsler was going to be Oliver Sacks’s biographer. Became his friend. Then Sacks realized that he really, truly did not want a biographer while he was alive, largely because of attitudes about his sexuality during his upbringing. Wechsler, as his friend, acquiesced to his wishes and went on to write other things and hang out more with Sacks. For the rest of his life. And this is a very strange book as a consequence. It’s not the comprehensive biography someone should write–Wechsler knows what material there is to go through for that, knows that this is not it. It’s more of a memoir of a friendship, with the notes for what could have been more of a biography of who Oliver Sacks was in his younger years, except he kept going. Worth reading, interesting, funny, sad, sure, but weirdly shaped, and not just in the ways that anything about Oliver Sacks was going to come out nonstandard.

Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone. This is fundamentally a family story. It’s novella length, multiple viewpoints, long timeline, just different views of how a family views their family life. It has major events in it–the birth of an unexpected child is central, but so is 9/11, and yet…I think this is the first book I read that treated 9/11 sensitively but historically. The people who are directly affected are very clearly hurt, but not in a way that is automatically the only thing the book is about, the way it would have been in 2003 or even I think 2010. Just as now we can have stories where World War II changed people forever–it changed my grandmother, and so many people we know–but know something of the shape of how the survivors’ stories go on. Perhaps now is a good time for a story where an event most people who are old enough to enjoy reading this book can be devastating, can be recognized as devastating, but still have an “after”…but perhaps not if you’re a direct survivor yourself, so I wanted to flag that.

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