Monday, January 30, 2017

What I'm reading this week (1/30/17)

Last week I finished:

Last week I finished three books that will be vying for top spots on my top ten list this year. First was Carrying Albert Home, the semi-true story of the author's parents' journey in the early 1930s to take their pet alligator home to Florida. I listened to this on audio, and the adventure was amazing. I loved every minute of this book. Not only did it make my winter mornings much easier to face, it was just so much fun. The couple and their alligator get involved in all kinds of mayhem and misadventure, but the underlying story is about them finding a deeper love for each other. They're newly married, and Elsie, the wife, is still carrying a flame for her old beau, Buddy Ebsen (of Beverly Hillbillies fame), which the husband (and the reader) hopes will be extinguished for the sake of the young couples' marriage. I'd put off reading it for a long time because I was a little put off by the "somewhat true story" part of the subtitle. I don't like the blurring of the fact/fiction line (I think of Big Fish), but I think the subtitle in this case actually helped me deal with my discomfort of that blurred line. Also, since the writing was so good, I was able to give myself over to the tall tale. It was just a fabulous adventure just when I needed one. I highly recommend it. My rating: 5 stars.

I also finished the outstanding children's book Wonder last week. Since I'm about the last person in America to read this book (soon to be a movie), I'll summarize the plot this way: a boy with a "facial difference" (according to Amazon) that makes his life different from other fifth graders. This is the story of his first year in a traditional school facing all the situations all kids face but with the added burden of looking very different. It really is as wonderful as I'd hoped it would be. Three things I especially loved about it: It wasn't preachy. It wasn't maudlin. It was very true-to-life. My grandson is in fifth grade this year, so I gave him a copy of this book for Christmas, telling him if he read it, I'd take him to the movie in April. After reading it myself, I'm now thinking of ways of making sure he reads it. But it's not just a book for kids. It challenged me to examine my thoughts and reactions to those different from myself, not necessarily in looks but in outlooks, where a lot of disharmony comes in adult interactions. This book was indeed a wonder. My rating: 5 stars. P.S. Will Schwalbe has an essay about Wonder in his Books for Living, which I reviewed last week.

Lastly, I finished the fabulous cookbook of American recipes, Mario Batali's Big American Cookbook. Batali presents readers with 250 recipes categorized by region (Midwest, Southwest, Great Lakes, etc.). The wonder of this book is there's not much you haven't heard of here, and there's a recipe for most any regional dish you can think of. Recipe selection was so well done. I kept trying to think of things Batali had omitted (as if I'm smarter about this kind of thing than he is), but I couldn't think of a single recipe. I also enjoyed the recipes themselves. There weren't a lot of weird, expensive, or hard-to-find ingredients, and the instructive portion of the recipes were short and straight-forward. Plus, there was Batali's odd sense of humor throughout to keep you on your toes. It was an all-around win for me, and a cookbook I can actually see myself using. My rating: 4.5 stars.

Okay, so I finished all my main January reads by Jan. 22, so I had a whole week to fit in another longish book. So, I moved up one of my February books: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. I finished it this weekend, and I'm kind of glad to be done with it. It is not what I expected at all. Amazon makes it sound like a story about a family in Germany at the start-up to WWII, but it isn't really about a family in Germany, it's about Germany itself. The American ambassador's family is secondary, kind of the American foil to the German changes in the 1930s. I found this book frustratingly dense. I had a very difficult time keeping track of all the key players and really wished there was a "cast of characters" page in the back. Once I realized that the book wasn't a personal account as I expected, but a blow-by-blow account of Hitler's rise to power, I hoped to have one things answered that all the books I've read about WWII don't seem to be clear on: What did America know and believe about Hitler and Germany at this time, and especially, what did they know about the concentration camps? I felt like that's where the book was weakest. The American home front wasn't fully discussed, no doubt a conscious decision on Larson's part, but one that would have given the whole book context for this reader. Also, Larson takes us through 1933 and 1934 month by month, but then skips all the way to 1937, then ends the book. It seems there should have been another hundred pages or so--not that I was wishing for that. It just wasn't what I was expecting or prepared for. It was well done, as all Larson's books are, but it was too clinical and scholarly for my taste. My rating: 3 stars.

This week I must finish:

I finally got some uninterrupted reading time to begin Fredrik Backman's novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

My audio:

I'm back in Botswana with Mma Ramotswe in the second book of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Tears of the Giraffe. It's wonderful.

Next up:


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