Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Prostitutes! Vietnam! A radical Irish monk! The historic 1974 World Trade Center tightrope walk! What’s not to love? Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award in 2009; one reviewer writes, “The absolutely best book club discussion book is Let the Great World Spin. Eleven characters are each fleetingly touched by the tightrope walker who walked between the twin towers in August 1974. McCann perfectly captures each voice and creates not only memorable characters and their stories, but also a powerful novel about love, loss and redemption.” This is our book club’s January selection, and I am greatly anticipating the discussion.
Bad Blood, John Carreyrou
I am absolutely fascinated by the story of Elizabeth Holmes: “In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.” She was young, beautiful and brilliant; was she complicit or merely a pawn in a larger game? A compelling, detailed read about a true sociopath; the larger question is, how did she get away with it for so long? And why didn’t more employees speak up? Holmes was indicted on fraud charges in July 2018; the ending of this true corporate house of cards story isn’t yet known.
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam
Every time I teach a cooking class, someone says, “Oh, I don’t have time to cook.” I disagree. Everyone has the exact same twenty-four hours available each day (or 168 hours in a week, as the title references), and we each choose to spend our time according to our priorities. For me, cooking healthy meals, walking, sewing, reading and spending time with family are the best ways I can use my time. Vanderkam argues that we all complain about how busy we are, yet we still waste plenty of time. (Think about every time you pick up your phone for ‘just five minutes.’ Add that up over the course of a day, a week, a month.) Although she and I definitely disagree on certain issues – she does not find cooking to be a worthy use of her time – her ultimate point holds: we’re not actually “too busy” to do something. We just haven’t made it a priority.
The Human Super-Organism, Rodney Dietert
Only recently has there been widespread research on our incredible microbiomes, the collection of trillions of cells in our bodies thought to be responsible for much of our overall health. I love reading about the microbiome and though I appreciated the attention to detail of this book, it definitely veered more towards the scientist than to the layperson. Still, I want people to understand that we’re suffocating our insides with the dead, processed, sugary “food-like substances” we consume, and that is resulting in a host of lifestyle diseases, including Crohn’s, IBS, auto-immune issues and much more. I’d love if the health and medical communities would start paying a bit more attention to our guts (and proper nutrition in general), and I’d love if we’d all do more to care for them. (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”)
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, ed. Jenni Ferrari-Adler
I adored this simple book, a collection of brief vignettes about the pleasures of dining alone. I cannot stand the excuse, “Oh, I don’t cook because it’s just me;” I always equate this phrase to saying that you don’t wear your seatbelt when you’re in the car alone because it’s just you. Why shouldn’t you enjoy delicious, nourishing food even if you’re cooking for one? Whether dining solo by choice or circumstance, I believe that a thoughtful meal prepared exactly according to the cook’s wishes is one of life’s great gifts, especially because many of us spend most of our time cooking for others instead of ourselves. People are scared or uncomfortable about eating alone, especially in restaurants, and I genuinely don’t understand why. (My solo meal of choice would be soft scrambled eggs with scallions and a great heap of peppery pan-roasted mushrooms alongside. And good homemade toast with lots of salted butter, too.)
The Girls in the Garden, Lisa Jewell
I picked this up on a whim at a charity used book sale, and the fact that it was a Target Club Pick should have lowered my expectations accordingly – by definition, their selections must have mass appeal. It starts with a compelling concept: hundreds of people live around a leafy, verdant park in central London; their lives intersect in both beneficial and dangerous ways. Though the characters (and their respective homes) were well-drawn, the story lost momentum and I found it rather unbelievable. Plus, the ending made it seem that the author had reached her established page quota and therefore needed to end things quickly, without suitable resolution. A quick read, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is regularly lauded by literary types as “the greatest English writer currently producing” and other such hyperbole. This is the first of her works I’ve read, and based on this book I’m going to call all of these plaudits a case of the emperor’s new clothes. It started so promisingly, with a spooky, otherworldly atmosphere; now I’d like to forget this book, but its unhappy characters and twisted plot have gotten under my skin, and not in a good way. “The book left me feeling grimy,” read one review, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m still going to give Mantel’s Cromwell series (Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies) a shot, but I’ll admit I’m not looking forward to those. If you’ve read Beyond Black, please let me know what you thought – I’d love to hear someone’s else’s opinion on this nasty, overly long book. Maybe dark, gloomy winter wasn’t the right season for this?
The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty
If you’ve watched (or read) Big Little Lies, you know of Liane Moriarty. As with The Girls in the Garden, above, I’d qualify this book as basically fluff: I read it quickly, then promptly forgot about it. Like Big Little Lies, the story takes place in a close-knit, upper-middle-class area in Australia; there are secrets and betrayals and somehow it all wraps up very neatly in the end. Total junk food, but reasonably entertaining for a couple of hours.
What have you read recently that you’ve loved or not loved? What do you plan to read in 2019? Please share in the comments below!