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Feeling Bookish

Book Recommendations February 2015 | Umami GirlOh, winter. Can you be over soon, please? My fingers poked through the tips of this year’s gloves weeks ago. (Not unusual for me — don’t wanna talk about it.) Yesterday my new e-tip gloves arrived. They look like robot monster claws and are nine sizes too big, but I already took the tags off. Instead of nimbly tapping touchscreens, I’m mashing everything in sight and scaring small children with my wave. I’ve been trying to think of how to market them secondhand. Do you have embarrassingly large lady hands? Does your husband need a new pair of women’s gloves? I’m still working on it. Meanwhile, all I want to do is assume the fetal position on the nearest couch and escape into a book.

So this week I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading over the past few months. It’s a real highbrow/lowbrow mashup from a handful of my favorite genres: literary fiction, memoir, humorous essays, and the kind of nonfiction that explains the world in a way that makes you feel smarter than you were…or is that smarter than you are. Some of these books were published very recently, and some date back decades. I’ve tried to offer what I’d be looking for in recommendations: a voice to trust and just a few words to help you decide whether you should pick this one up or sit it out.

If you’ve been reading for your sanity this winter too, and if blog comments aren’t too 2008 for you, please let us know what you’d recommend. 

Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 2014. I learned ten million things from reading this novel about a young Nigerian woman who becomes a professor and blogger in America, including some uncomfortable things about myself. Since it’s fiction, I don’t know if any of them are true, but I don’t care. This book deserves all the praise it’s gotten. 

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2012. A short, compelling page turner that’s full of mystery and self-examination. You’ll probably read it in one sitting. Winner of the Man Booker prize. 

A.S. Byatt, Possession, 1991. This novel is long and dense but rewarding. It’s more romancy than my usual schtick, but it’s cloaked in so much fake Victorian poetry and lit crit wit (whoa, rhyme it, sista!) that all is forgiven. I’m sure everyone but me realizes that this book was made into a movie of the same title in 2002 that starred Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m glad I didn’t figure that out until after reading it.

Joseph Connelly, England’s Lane, 2012. Another long one that’s literary and divey at the same time. It’s set two blocks down the street from our London flat, but 50 years ago, so a lot of the appeal for me personally was the peek at the neighborhood’s imagined history. The characters are compelling if slightly cartoonish. I left my copy in France on purpose. It just felt right. 

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, 2014. Not my favorite of the author’s three novels, but incisive, enjoyable, and culturally relevant in its own crackpot way. A story of dentistry, identity theft and living in the modern world.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, 2013. I avoided reading this book for a year because it was so popular that I thought I’d hate it. Not the right move. (And yes, I do hear what I sound like with that attitude. Still, know thyself.) A deeply compelling story worth its Pulitzer and every one of its 775 pages. Plus, it’s partly set in Amsterdam, and we all know how I love Amsterdam.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing, 1960. It’s impossible to overstate how much I love John Williams’ writing, or how recently I discovered that. I slightly preferred his Stoner to this beautiful and restrained novel about a one-horse town and the buffalo trade in the west in the 1870s. You should really just read them both.

Nonfiction, Memoir & Essays

David Carr, The Night of the Gun, 2008. With the recent passing of journalist David Carr, I’ve been thinking a lot about this memoir of addiction, career, and family. It’s unusual in that he reported his own past like the thorough journalist he was. It’s an uncomfortable read at times, but it’s one of those vivid texts that sticks with you in the best of ways.

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, 2014. A funny, sad, and insightful memoir about aging parents by the inimitable New Yorker cartoonist. Quick to read, beautifully illustrated, and full of what unites us as people.

Sloane Crosley, How Did You Get This Number, 2010. I learned of this author when I impulse bought her first book of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, purely based on the title. Her “essays about nothing” are fabulous, though I somewhat preferred the first book. I’d kinda like to be her. 

Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” 2014. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book or find it all that well crafted, but I liked it more than the feeling of not having read this book. That’s the thing about Lena Dunham’s work. It’s the same reason I’ve watched every episode of Girls. Stop me if the only insight here is my own increasing age. 

Jordan Ellenberg, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, 2014. This book is glorious in its accessible nerdiness. The author is a math professor with a great sense of humor and broad interests in the world. His love of math is contagious. The whole thing reminds me of my sweet dad trying to communicate the beauty of mathematics to my idiot self in high school. Equations, laughter, and tears. What else is there, really?

Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, 2013. The author is a prominent psychoanalyst in northwest London. The book is a collection of anonymized tales from his practice that tie together nicely into studies of love, life and death. A quick and enjoyable read.

Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, 2013. A psychology professor takes urban walks with various subject-matter experts and lets us in on the magic of human perception. How does a typographer see this walk, compared to a geologist or a toddler? Interesting stuff.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, 2011. Yeah, I got kinda into TV writer memoirs for a little. This book was fun to read on the beach. If you already feel like you know Mindy Kaling, this book won’t shatter the illusion.

BJ Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, 2014. Oh my gosh, you guys. Read this book right now. They’re very short essays and bizarre little stories, and they’re so so so much better than you think they’ll be. Better than most everything I’ve read this year. I’d be embarrassed to say that I’d shortchanged the author based on the character he played on The Office, but I’ve heard too many other people say the same. So I guess it’s just a thing. A thing that’s wrong. Read this book. 

Amy Poehler, Yes Please, 2014. A few great feminist ideas, a few insights into a wildly successful career, a few too many names dropped. A peek into this fabulous lady’s life that might not be quite as interesting if she weren’t famous. Her exceptional gift for screenwriting doesn’t translate to memoir, but I enjoyed it anyway.

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013. I was reading this book while waiting for my girls to get haircuts, and an elderly couple stopped into the salon just to say that I sure looked like I was enjoying it. In London I finally got to see David perform live, including an awkward two minutes out on the sidewalk an hour before the show, just him trying not to be exasperated as he explained a Fitbit to someone he didn’t know well (“A Fitbit is a Fitbit!”) and me trying not to act like I was listening. No one else on the whole block. I nearly died. I love how he’s aging into a different kind of quirkiness than he started out with, as reflected both in this book and IN REAL LIFE BECAUSE I STOOD NEXT TO HIM. Whatever. 

 Carolyn xx

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WELCOME TO UMAMI GIRL!

Hi there, I'm Carolyn, and I'm delighted you're here. I'm a NYC-area food, travel, yoga, coffee, wine, running, music making and book obsessive with a great family and a love for sharing it all with you. Grab a drink and come on in. Learn more.

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