Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars

Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy SchiffCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN: 0316001945
on September 6, 2011
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 432
Format: E-Book, eBook
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four-half-stars

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

I think Cleopatra can best be summed up in a line from the immortal Beyoncé’s song “Formation.”

Beyoncé Gif

In all seriousness, this is a great biography, and I learned a lot. Schiff argues that Cleopatra’s legacy can be summed up by the fact that “in two thousand years only one or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm.” Unfortunately, her story was co-opted by her enemies, and so she is known to history as a wily seductress, an ambitious temptress, and a deviant whore. Schiff explains that she was none of those things. What she was, however, was a smart, capable, formidable woman—a total badass. Shiff says that “her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy” and asserts that “the turncoats wrote [her] history.”

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Yes, QUEEN! Preach! Shiff’s appropriate eulogy is that Cleopatra “convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This biography is well-written and engaging. Schiff’s research must have been difficult since history has been so unkind to Cleopatra. She must have had to do a great deal of reading between the lines to uncover a more balanced portrait. If Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s life attempts to tip the scales in the great woman’s favor rather than to take the Roman historians at face value, I can’t fault her. The only reason for me that this book doesn’t earn 5 stars is that I didn’t have any trouble putting it down for stretches of time. I wanted to finish it, and I was definitely not bored, however, so I would not argue that it doesn’t captivate. The chapters are really long, and I would have liked more breaks. I think the prospect of opening the book on my Kindle app and seeing that the chapter would take over an hour to read may have been too daunting on a few occasions. I’m not a fan of stopping the middle of a chapter, but I had to sometimes when reading this book. On the other hand, Schiff’s writing style is eminently readable and at times waxes poetic. Schiff paints a fascinating portrait of a much-maligned, highly intelligent, and incredibly ingenious woman.

four-half-stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House ISBN: 1415920737
on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.

four-half-stars

Review: Cooked, Michael Pollan

Review: Cooked, Michael PollanCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Narrator: Michael Pollan
Published by Penguin Audio on April 23, 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Pages: 14
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-half-stars

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The listener learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far-reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

Cooked is the first of Michael Pollan’s books that I’ve read, though I know he has written a few other books about food. I’m not sure I would have found Cooked nearly as interesting about ten years ago as I did this year. I liked the organization of the book into the four ancient elements. The section on barbecue (fire) was fascinating, though to be fair, I devour pretty much anything about African-American and Southern foodways. I am also a bread-baker, so the section about bread (air) was probably my favorite, and it convinced me to go back into Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which I’ve had on my Kindle for some time and started reading a while back and never finished. Stay tuned for a review on that book because I’m nearly done with it (yes, I read cookbooks cover-to-cover on occasion).

I wasn’t as fascinated by the fermentation or braising sections. I’m not sure why because everything about sourdough starter fascinates me. I think it’s just that a lot of the food in the fermentation section isn’t really the kind of thing I like, so I wasn’t as interested to hear how to do it, and braising is a technique I just don’t really use in my own cooking. However, the organization of the book was interesting, and Pollan’s reading is engaging and entertaining.

I agree with Pollan’s conclusions that it’s a shame so few people really cook anymore. I really enjoy cooking, but it does take time. However, what we eat for dinner has drastically improved in quality since I started cooking more seriously. Honestly, I credit a meal subscription plan called Home Chef with teaching me a lot, and Samin Nosrat’s book Salt Fat Acid Heat was also really helpful. The main reason we stopped subscribing to Home Chef is that we received spoiled vegetables a few too many times, and I decided that I needed to be able to select ingredients myself from the store. The actual recipes provided were pretty great, and I still use them all the time to cook meals.

Pollan argues that we’ll eat less processed food and connect more with family (eating together is communion—that’s my argument, not Pollan’s). My husband usually sits in the kitchen while I cook, and we listen to audiobooks and podcasts together. He’s not really a cook, though I think he’s interested. In any case, I think we enjoy these evening respites. I know that regularly cooking dinner has meant we better and saved money, not to mention the time to connect. (We are currently listening to Anna Karenina.)

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in how cooking works—you’ll get a dose of science and history along with some fascinating cultural education.

four-half-stars

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi Harris

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi HarrisDarius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Narrator: Michael Levi Harris
Published by Listening Library on August 28, 2018
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 8
Length: 7 hours and 33 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Darius Kellner doesn’t make friends easily. He gave up on the Boy Scouts years ago—to his father’s lasting disappointment—and after being diagnosed with depression, he quit the neighborhood soccer club, too. As the only Persian boy at his Portland high school, he’s an easy target for Trent Bolger and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy.

Then Darius goes to Iran for spring break (and despite what the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy say, it’s not to join ISIS). He’s visiting his mother’s hometown, Yazd, to meet his family—and his ailing grandfather—for the first time. But Darius speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows the Silmarillion better than the Shahnameh. Even surrounded by Persians, he can’t fit in.

Not until he meets Sohrab Rezaei, his grandparents’ Bahá’í neighbor. Darius is drawn to the lonely boy who helps water his grandfather’s fig trees, and the two strike up a tentative friendship, filling their days with pick up soccer, trips to the Jameh Mosque, and walks through Dowlatabad Garden.

But things in Iran are far from perfect. Darius’s grandfather’s health is failing. His dad is more distant than ever. And when Sohrab faces family issues of his own, Darius is powerless to help—or to hold their hard-won friendship together.

But he still has to try.

My school is considering this book as an all-school summer read, and as an avid reader and English department chair, I agreed to check it out to see if it would be a good candidate. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book. Darius is a great character, and the book’s setting in Yazd, Iran offers a counterpoint to other texts set in the country. Khorram depicts the country’s beauty and heritage, and Darius quickly falls in love with it.

I loved Darius’s interest in tea and geeky pursuits such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I especially approve of his fandom for Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was my show, too. I also liked the way Khorram handled Darius’s navigation of questioning his sexuality and getting to know grandparents he has only ever seen on Skype.

I teared up when Darius and his father finally have the talk that has been brewing for most of the book. I definitely want to read the sequel, especially since the audiobook version of Darius the Great Deserves Better is also narrated by Michael Levi Harris, who did a superb job with Darius the Great is Not Okay.

four-half-stars

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer MacallisterThe Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark ISBN: 1728215692
on December 1, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 300
Format: E-Book
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four-half-stars

In early 1853, experienced California Trail guide Virginia Reeve is summoned to Boston by a mysterious benefactor who offers her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: lead a party of 12 women into the wild, hazardous Arctic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition. It’s an extraordinary request, but the party is made up of extraordinary women. Each brings her own strengths and skills to the expedition- and her own unsettling secrets. A year and a half later, back in Boston, Virginia is on trial when not all of the women return. Told in alternating timelines that follow both the sensational murder trial in Boston and the dangerous, deadly progress of the women’s expedition into the frozen North, this heart-pounding story will hold readers rapt as a chorus of voices answer the trial’s all-consuming question: what happened out there on the ice?

My first book of 2021! I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge. Before I share some thoughts about the book, I’d like to thank the challenge hosts for two things: 1) offering a list of recommended books for each region in the challenge, and 2) recommending this particular book, which brought me out of a reading funk and kept me up late wanting to find out what would happen next. I love participating in challenges, but I find it difficult sometimes because I don’t know what to read for the challenge, and it is refreshing to have a list of books to consider at least. I probably wouldn’t have heard about The Arctic Fury if not for this challenge, either, or at least I wouldn’t have heard of it for some months.

This book is just the kind of historical fiction I love. It puts women at the forefront of a plausible, well-researched story. I admit I struggled a bit with the notion that Lady Franklin would sink her hopes into an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of her missing husband, but I was willing to go with the premise. However, without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Lady Franklin’s actions make much more sense by the end, and I wound up finding the premise more plausible.

If this book suffers from anything, it’s a little bit of a kitchen-sink approach—the author tackled just about every aspect of being a woman in the 1850s, from race to gender to pregnancy to sexuality to limited options to the threat of violence from men. Some of the aspects included didn’t feel strictly necessary to the story but rather an effort to be inclusive. I appreciated this about the book, but I think including the spectrum of experiences should be purposeful, and it didn’t always strike me that way in this book. Some pretty serious liberties were also taken with the protagonist’s (a known historical figure) story. Even though I understood the rationale for doing so, it bothered me, and I think the only other solution would have been to invent a person who didn’t actually exist to have a similar past. Once I figured out who she really was, I was able to find out what happened to her after what she calls the Very Bad Thing after about a minute’s search.

However, the other aspects of the novel are well-researched and feel authentic, which Macallister attributes to ensuring that “each woman [on the journey] had a real-life counterpart, an inspiration from the mid-nineteenth century [she] could point to and draw from” (401). As a result, each woman was believable. I particularly appreciated that the women each had their own strengths and flaws. They seemed much more human for being well-rounded. Each woman was also given at least one chapter in her own voice, which gave them even more depth and humanity.

I also appreciated the way the story alternated between Virginia’s murder trial and the voyage in the Arctic. The alternating timelines added more suspense to the story. I actually tagged this as a mystery in addition to historical fiction, even though it’s not a traditional mystery per sé. Like some of the best mysteries, neither what truly happened nor how it will all turn out was revealed until the climactic ending.

Bottom line: I definitely recommend this one to anyone who likes historical fiction, particularly with strong women characters. The Arctic Fury is well-written and researched, but most of all, the characters are memorable, intriguing, and real. 

four-half-stars

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon, David GrannKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0307742482
on April 3, 2018
Pages: 321
Format: Hardcover
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four-half-stars

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER - NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
A New York Times Notable Book

Named a best book of the year by Amazon, Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, GQ, Time, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Vogue, Smithsonian, Cosmopolitan, Seattle Times, Bloomberg, Lit Hub, and Slate

From the #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history. In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including a Native American agent who infiltrated the region, and together with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.


I read Killers of the Flower Moon on the recommendation of a friend. Some of my own family lived in Oklahoma at the time of the events described in this book, though they lived near the Texas border in the southern part of the state rather than near Osage County. This is not history you will likely hear about in school, partly because the victims are subsumed into the greater genocide that white Americans perpetrated against Native Americans.

The book has all the drama of a true crime story. In spite of the fact that the book opens with several Osage murders, the pace is a bit boggy until Grann begins to unravel the web of deceit and murder at the heart and uncovers the vast murder conspiracy to defraud the Osage of their money and oil headrights. It was also difficult to keep up with the large number of people in the story, and a table or glossary of some kind would have helped. Still, the story is riveting, and once the pace picks up, the story is hard to put down and moves swiftly. Punctuated with photographs throughout and descriptions of Osage County, the story also evokes the setting, placing the reader right there in the midst of the events.

Reading this book for me had me wondering about my own family history. Many of my ancestors lived in Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” My great-great-grandmother is listed on the 1900 U.S. Census as living in “Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory.” I have never heard any stories about their relationships with Native Americans. Of course, there is the ubiquitous untrue story about having Native American ancestry in the family. Later on, my grandmother was born in the same area of the state, and I remember visiting my great-grandparents while they were living in Ardmore, OK. In fact, I still have a lot of family living there. I remember my great-grandmother’s younger brother Willard, who grew yellow watermelons and sold them. I remember his twin sister Wilma, who introduced me to German chocolate cake. Looking at the faces of white people in the photographs in Grann’s book was like looking at my own family members. It reminded me again how connected all of us really are and how much of what happened in the past still touches us in the present.

four-half-stars

November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
ISBN: 0553328255
Pages: 1796
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four-half-stars

Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world.


In January 2017, I undertook a reading challenge to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: all 56 short stories and four novels. The idea behind the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is to read the stories in the order in which they are set. I have had some quibbles with the exact order of these stories established in the chronology the challenge used, and it’s likely that disagreement regarding the exact chronology exists, though I admit I haven’t delved much into the matter. In any case, chronologically is not how Conan Doyle published them, and I wonder if something is lost when attempting to order them by the time setting rather than reading them as Conan Doyle collected them.

Of the collected stories, here is my personal top ten:

  1. The Hound of the Baskervilles: I love the atmosphere in this one. It seems to capture some of the best aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it is easily far and away the best of the four novels (the other three aren’t very good, in my opinion, as two are set partly in America, a place which Conan Doyle does not understand, and the other, while introducing Mary Morstan and having some good moments, is pretty racist).
  2. ” Scandal in Bohemia”: One likes to imagine Holmes was in love with Irene Adler, but he mostly presents as asexual. I like this one because it is one of the few stories in which a woman is a strong character. The Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” was one of the best.
  3. “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”: I liked this one for two reasons, 1) Holmes didn’t figure it out and came away with egg on his face, and 2) Conan Doyle wasn’t typically racist. If I noticed one theme over and over, it’s that the white English characters find themselves to be superior to all other people in the world, and South Americans, Asians, and Africans are frequently described as barbaric in comparison. I am not a fan of that racist stereotyping, even in Victorian/Edwardian writing. The only problem with this one is its premise falls apart if you know that anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented the marriage at the heart of the mystery.
  4. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”: I liked this one for the setup and masterful way Holmes deduced what happened. The Sherlock episode based on it was great. Also, Mycroft!
  5. “The Adventure of the Final Problem”: Who can forget Homes and Moriarty going over the Reichenbach Falls?
  6. “The Five Orange Pips”: A famous one in which Holmes does not prevent his client’s death. Not so sure I buy the KKK angle, but I liked the setting.
  7. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”: I liked this one for the codes. It was fun to see Holmes turn cryptographer.
  8. “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”: This is one of several governess stories, but I liked it the best of that lot.
  9. “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: I liked the opium den. So seedy.
  10. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”: This one is a good setup for the reader as an amateur sleuth. There are red herrings and the reference from which the title of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is drawn.

The order is a bit arbitrary, particularly at the end. Something I have noticed about my own preferences is that I seem to like the stories when Holmes and Watson pack up for the countryside best. Not sure why because I also like the setting of 221B Baker Street. Re-reading the stories also demonstrated (at least to me) how clever the BBC Sherlock series is. They do a brilliant job showing the timelessness of the stories, adapting them for a modern era. They seem to approach capturing the character of Sherlock Holmes better than just about any other adaptations I’ve seen. Holmes can be arrogant, annoying, dismissive (especially of Watson), and those characteristics shine through most in Benedict Cumberbatch’s representation of the character.

And what a character. No wonder we are still reading these stories. Conan Doyle’s detective is the model for every detective character who has followed him. He’s the kind of character most writers would see as a gift. I understand Conan Doyle felt his Sherlock Holmes stories “stood in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That did happen. Because whatever that other stuff was, no one is reading it today. It is the character of Sherlock Holmes who ultimately established Conan Doyle’s legacy as a writer. One could do much, much worse.

Some passages in the stories move well past utilitarian and reveal Conan Doyle to be a skilled writer at the sentence level. In “His Last Bow,” The final story I read for the challenge and a tale in which Holmes foils the plans of a German spy by posing as one himself, thereby aiding in the war effort, these sentences: “One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open would lay low in the distant west.” However, I admit that I didn’t care much for that story by the end. It smacked of inserting Holmes into World War I in a weird way. It’s not that it was implausible, but it was sort of like Conan Doyle was looking for an excuse to let Holmes fight the Germans and rescue the British. Not that he completely does: it is open-ended, with Holmes musing that “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.” Later, he adds, “such a wind never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” I admit to a feeling of wistfulness when Holmes draws Watson to “Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”

The stories are often funny, as well, which is something BBC’s Sherlock also captures. Here are my top ten Sherlock quips:

  1. “Cut the poetry, Watson,” said Holmes severely. “I note that it was a high brick wall.” (“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”)
  2. “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” (The Sign of Four)
  3. “We have got to the deductions and inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies,” “You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)
  4. “And a singularly consistent investigation you have made, my dear Watson,” said he. “I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere and yet to discover nothing.” (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)
  5. “I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column. The latter is always instructive.” (“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”)
  6. “He can find something,” remarked Holmes shrugging his shoulders; “he has occasional glimmerings of reason.” (The Sign of Four)
  7. “I knew my man, however, and I clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable.” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”)
  8. “By George!” cried the inspector. “How ever did you see that?” “Because I looked for it.” (“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”)
  9. “But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them.” (“The Adventure of the Three Gables”)
  10. “I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.” (The Valley of Fear)

Watson has a fair few good ones, too:

  1. “You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  2. I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” I said severely, “you are a little trying at times.” (The Valley of Fear)
  3. “I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.” “Why do you not write them yourself?” I said, with some bitterness. (“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”)
  4. [T]he page had shown in a tall, clean-shaven man with the firm, austere expression which is only seen upon those who have to control horses or boys. (“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”)
  5. He was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow lodger to distraction. (“The Musgrave Ritual”)

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI have now read all 60 stories in Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge.

This challenge was enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave me an excuse to re-read all the stories. It had been quite a long time since I had done so.

If I re-read this series again, I think I’ll try it audio, and I will skip the stories I liked less. I will also not try to read it chronologically again. I think it was an interesting experiment, but Conan Doyle was a bit too sloppy with his timelines to make it work. Watson’s marriage was the most confusing aspect of the timeline. What Conan Doyle needed was some kind of spreadsheet to track events. In any case, it reminds me a bit of the inconsistency in J. K. Rowling’s books. One thing I definitely want to do whenever I finally get to visit London is see the site of Sherlock Holmes’s lodgings at 221B Baker Street, though I understand the Abbey National Building Society is on the real site of the address, while the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which has a blue plaque claiming it is at 221B Baker Street, is actually between 237 and 241 Baker Street.

 

four-half-stars

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya Joseph

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya JosephThe Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey, Maya Joseph, Squire Fox
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393247287
on November 7th 2017
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 240
Format: Hardcover
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four-half-stars

Founded in 1994, Sullivan Street Bakery is renowned for its outstanding bread, which graces the tables of New York’s most celebrated restaurants. The bread at Sullivan Street Bakery, crackling brown on the outside and light and aromatic on the inside, is inspired by the dark, crusty loaves that James Beard Award-winning baker Jim Lahey discovered in Rome.

Jim builds on the revolutionary no-knead recipe he developed for his first book, My Bread, to outline his no-fuss system for making sourdough at home. Applying his Italian-inspired method to his repertoire of pizzas, pastries, egg dishes, and café classics, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook delivers the flavors of a bakery Ruth Reichl once called "a church of bread."


I think I ordered this book after reading about it on some sort of best-of-2017 cookbooks list. I am trying my hand at baking bread, and I really wanted to step up the challenge by trying sourdough baking. Back in December, I made my own sourdough starter using this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Jim Lahey includes his own starter recipe in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. I followed Lahey’s instructions to make my starter into biga, the stiff starter Lahey uses in many of his recipes. After I made my biga, I tucked it away in the refrigerator because I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to experiment with it. Lahey says that unlike regular starter, biga doesn’t need to be “fed” and will keep pretty much as long as you want it in the refrigerator.

I don’t know if it matters whether or not your biga is brought to room temperature after it’s been refrigerated, but I didn’t bother with it when I decided to try out the recipe for pane bianco, Lahey’s recipe for a no-knead sourdough bread. Until I used this recipe, the only sourdough bread I’d made was King Arthur’s sort of cheater recipe for “rustic” sourdough bread. I call it a cheater recipe because it uses yeast and doesn’t rely strictly on the sourdough starter to rise, which makes it good for beginners. It tastes fine, but I wasn’t happy with it. In looking through the recipes in Lahey’s book, I settled on the pane bianco because it seemed the least fiddly (there are a lot of very fiddly recipes in this book). Word of caution: it is extremely time-consuming—not in the amount of work you need to do, but in wait time.

Lahey’s instructions said that after combining the water and biga with the flour and salt the recipe calls for, you might need to wait anywhere from eight to eighteen hours for the bread to double in size. 😯 I decided to mix the dough the night before I would bake it so it could do its thing overnight. When I woke up, I checked the bread, and it seemed pretty much ready to go, so I followed Lahey’s instructions for shaping it and then letting it rise again. I have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, and the instructions say not to heat it empty, but Lahey’s instructions say to preheat the Dutch oven. What to do? I didn’t want to risk damaging my Dutch oven, so I did some searching online and discovered I could put the bread into the Dutch oven, turn the oven on, and put the Dutch oven with the bread inside in the oven, which would serve basically the same function as preheating it while allowing the dough to finish its final rise. According to King Arthur’s blog, if you do this, you can just bake the bread according to its directions. I didn’t find this to be true. My crust came out quite a bit darker than I wanted it, as Lahey’s instructions say to bake the bread for 40 minutes. Next time, I will bake it for less time and see if that works better. The bread still turned out great.

My first loaf of “real” sourdough bread

I think given the fact that it was my first one, it really turned out better than expected. I forgot to slash the bread, which you are supposed to do with sourdough, but it didn’t seem to hurt anything.

I was really thrilled to see all the pockets of air. It truly tasted like one of those artisan loaves of bread you get at a bakery. I was ridiculously proud of being able to make a loaf of sourdough bread completely from scratch, using my very own biga created with my own starter. I have been intimidated by bread for a long time, and I credit buying Bread Toast Crumbs with being able to get over my fear of baking bread.

Lahey doesn’t like the tangy sourdough, so he says you don’t really taste that sourdough flavor in his recipes, and that was true of the bread I made. Keeping in mind this is the only recipe I have tried, I still recommend this book for people looking to step up their baking game. The recipes will offer a nice challenge for intermediate or more advanced bakers. It’s not a book for beginners, and be forewarned that most of the recipes will take time. We live in a busy world, and baking bread the old-fashioned way that Lahey uses takes a long time. Lahey also uses a kitchen scale and gives most of his instructions in grams. He gives you the volume measures as well but cautions that grams are better and more precise (and he’s right about that—I learned that lesson making soap). Bread is particularly picky and seems to work much better if you use a scale rather than trying to use measuring cups. It also matters if you are baking in the summer or winter, and you have to adjust. Thankfully, Lahey has good advice for how to adjust for seasonal temperature variances.

I know it’s sort of weird to read a recipe book all the way through, but Lahey’s personality and passion for baking come through, and even the recipes were entertaining to read. I used some of the techniques he describes in other recipes. For example, I found this great recipe for Detroit-style pizza with a homemade crust. After reading about how Lahey makes pizza dough look dimpled by “docking,” or pressing his fingers into the dough, I tried it with my pizza dough, and I achieved the same effect—”a sublime texture—pliant, soft, and bubbly” (119). For anyone curious about the pizza recipe, I make the pizza as is except I omit the cheddar cheese, which seems wrong on pizza to me, and use more mozzarella. I use both shredded mozzarella and fresh mozzarella cut into cubes. The results are pretty awesome.

There are a lot of recipes in the book I’m not sure I’d ever try (that panettone seems incredibly daunting for something I’m not even sure I’d like), but the bread recipes look good, the breakfasts look tasty, and the pizza crust is definitely on my to-d0 list.

I ordered Lahey’s first book My Bread this afternoon because I liked this book so much. I kind of want to visit his bakery if I get a chance to go to New York.

Foodies Read Challenge

four-half-stars