Photo credit. Cusack/Francis Free Lending Library Berkeley
What can we say about a year like no other? Well, we get by with a little help from our friends...and books, lots and lots of books. At a time when our world seems to get smaller and smaller every day, our 2020 Holiday Reading List is our biggest (and dare we say best) ever. Whether you are just curling up at home or sending packages far and wide, there are so many wonderful things to choose from.
Heartfelt thanks to the Berkeley Law Community who brought their A game to this compilation. Here’s to a brighter and better 2021 from all of us at the Berkeley Law Library.
Click on book cover to read review.
Ms. Straub has written a book that seems almost old-fashioned in its setting - a multigenerational family tale set in a small tourist town. The personal stakes are high but there is no brooding sense of an apocalypse. Astrid is a matriarch who is both rigid and controlling. Her three children have traveled different roads; an achiever, a goat farmer and a mellow fellow, none of whom seem to please her. Her granddaughter Cecilia, child of the laid back father and his dancer wife, experiences a trauma in her NYC school and comes to spend a year with her grandmother in the ‘big house.’ It takes most of the book before we discover the nature of the trauma and along the way one comes to admire Cecilia’s sense of right and wrong. Porter, the daughter and middle child is a memorable character. It is an easy read with memorable characters who are quite believable. These days I require a happy ending and one is provided.
The author grew up in California but every year with her parents would visit the family wheat farm in Nebraska to witness the harvest. Upon inheriting part of the land after her father’s death, Mockett learned more about the process but still relied on others to maintain the land and bring in the crop.
Following the 2016 election, a long-time family friend and associate invited Mockett to accompany him and his professional harvesting crew, all Pennsylvania evangelicals, on their journey across seven states, from Texas to Idaho, to harvest the ripening wheat. His idea was to experience and talk about “the divide,” which initially contemplated differences between “city” and “country” but also encompassed religion, race, gender, class, education, and age. Along the way, Mockett also investigated modern farming methods and their relation to the foods that sustain us.
In this personal and in-depth account, Mockett explores her father’s side of her lineage, which complements her previous book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, in which she probed her mother’s side in Japan and the Japanese Buddhist tradition following the 2011 Tohoku Disaster. Both are well-written, enlightening reads.
After an atypically long (for me) streak of reading non-fiction books, I found myself needing to dive into a novel. Fiction is my preferred genre, and these days call for an escape from the news. Ask again, yes pulled me in right away. I was curious about the title, and you don’t really find out what it means until the very end of the book.
The story revolves around two families. Francis Gleason and Brian Stanhope are two Irish NYPD cops who end up living next door to each other in the suburbs. Lena Gleason, starved for connection after moving away from her close-knit family, approaches Anne Stanhope but they never bond. That doesn’t stop Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Anne’s son, Peter, from becoming best friends. When Kate and Peter are in 8th grade, a shocking turn of events forces the Stanhopes to leave town abruptly.
I’m finding it very difficult to explain how much I enjoyed this novel without giving away the plot. I will say that Kate and Peter find each other again after a long separation. Their family histories aren’t exactly conducive to a happily-ever-after story. The author describes Anne Stanhope’s mental illness in a way that gives you an insight into her struggle and how it affects everyone around her. Brian’s alcoholism doesn’t help, and Peter raises himself. You won’t find any one-dimensional characters in this novel. You’ll have a hard time liking some but you’ll find yourself seeing some positives. Likewise, the most likable character will reveal weaknesses. The multi-generational effects of mental illness and alcoholism are extremely difficult to overcome. Do yourself a favor and find out how these two families manage. This novel stayed with me long after I finished reading.
The police procedural has much to offer in the time of a pandemic. In the first place, pick one about a scenic place you’ve never been but want to read more about. Secondly, the sheer predictability of the genre is an asset in a time when you’re not sure when you’ll be stricken with a fatal disease or whether or not your previously dependable country will become a fascist dictatorship. The detective novels of George Bellairs, featuring Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, are pretty good. The one I started with – The Body in the Dumb River – is as good a place to start as any. Bellairs was a banker by trade, so there is often some kind of, to me, realistically described bank fraud. They take place in England between 1940 and 1980, so they’re scenically and historically interesting. They’re perfectly competent, and there are 57 of them which will see you through a long season of insomnia. They won’t put you to sleep, but they won’t keep you up, either – which to me is what you’re looking for in a pandemic when you’ve got enough to keep you up at night. (Actually, if you’re a fan of Midsomer Murders, you will like these.)
Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy, volume 1, La Belle Sauvage (2017) and volume 2, The Secret Commonwealth (2019) are worthy successors (prequels) to the wonderful Dark Materials trilogy of books (a worthy TV adaptation of which is now in its second season on HBO). They’re superb fantasy novels anchored by compelling young tween/teen protagonists. They tell arresting and interesting tales about the close link between totalitarianism and religious intolerance. Though the Dark Materials books tell a version of the story of Milton’s Paradise Lost, one needn’t have read Milton to love the books. I read the Dark Materials books aloud to my son when he was 11, and I just re-read (on my own) the Dark Materials books and am now racing through The Book of Dust trilogy.
Editor’s note: Volume 3 of the trilogy, as yet untitled, is expected in the Fall of 2021 although no official publication date has been set.
A detective series which is popular among people I know is the Bruno, Chief of Police series by Martin Walker. They take place in the Perigord, which is the part of France full of limestone caves like Lascaux, so scenically interesting. They also do go on a bit about cooking and wine. Come to think of it, it’s people who are interested in cooking and wine who have recommended them to me. (Personally, I am tired of cooking.) Bruno is an ok guy. They’re a bit sexist, to be honest. But there are interesting parts about how to ensure the survival of a small town in France as a real place and not a tourist museum as industry moves away. They’re not bad. There are 16, though since Walker is still alive that number may increase.
My favorite non-fiction book of the last year was Emily Bazelon’s Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration. The last several decades have seen a tremendous growth in the power of prosecutors. Bazelon tells this through two stories: Kevin, who picked up his friend’s gun as the police burst in, and Noura, a teenage girl charged with murder. Bazelon traces each case every stage through the criminal justice system from the charging decision through the completion of legal proceedings. Bazelon writes beautifully and uses these stories to demonstrate the tremendous power of prosecutors: the damage that overzealous prosecutors can do and the second chances they can extend. She uses this to discuss the election of reform-oriented prosecutors and the difference they can make.
These two books tell the Classical Greek stories, but you needn’t have slogged through the Odyssey, or know the myths, to love them. There’s adventure, magic, nature, and plenty of decent (and some loathsome) characters. These are great books once kids who loved the Percy Jackson books and the Edith Hamilton tellings of the Greek myths have grown up and are looking to return to the mythological characters and adventures they loved.
Tim O'Brien is the novelist of the American soldiers' experience in Viet Nam. His two great Viet Nam novels are The Things they Carried, and Going after Cacciato. His fine post-Viet Nam novel is In the Lake of the Woods.
His book that I recommend now is Dad's Maybe Book. Worried that as an older father, he would not live to see his son (then sons) grow up and get to know him, he began writing notes and letters shortly after the birth of his first son, and then periodically returned to expand on them. At some point when his oldest boy was about five, he asked his father what he was doing, and O'Brien responded, writing notes for you to read when I'm no longer here. Knowing his father all too well, he asked, "Is it a maybe book?" Hence the title. It's a wonderful rambling and disjointed book of sixty short chapters that does reveal the father to his sons, and breath-taking love he has for his late-in-life children. Perhaps I like it because like O'Brien, I was regularly mistaken for my youngest son's grandfather. But in the midst of this pandemic, when we acutely understand that life is unpredictable and fleeting, it might serve as an instruction for us all to put the things we carry in order.
I’ve doubled down on police procedurals during the Covid lockdown, and one of my favorites has been listening to the DC Smith Investigation series by Peter Grainger. Set in Norfolk, England, the protagonist DC Smith is a former Detective Chief Inspector who is now working as a Detective Sergeant (his choice) and nearing retirement (not near enough for some of his superiors). In the first book, An Accidental Death, what appears to be the accidental drowning of a young man becomes much more complicated but not in a gory or far fetched way.
DC has a wonderfully wry and ironic sense of humor that he brings to his dealings with his superiors as well as his team - many times I found myself laughing out loud. But DC is not a stock character. He has a complicated past as a former British army intelligence officer working undercover in Belfast during the Troubles. He was also profoundly affected by a prior case in which he eventually caught a serial killer but only after a protracted investigation during which several women died. The fall out from that case recurs throughout the series. There are 8 books in total and as with any series not every book is as remarkable as the first one, but DC is an endearing character and a crackerjack detective. Gildart Jackson, who narrates the series, is brilliant (as the Brits would say). Binge on DC Smith this holiday season.
Deacon King Kong is a fun novel about a community of church ladies, drug dealers, mobsters, janitors, and assorted other people trying to get by in a New York housing project in the 1960s. There’s a mystery thrown in, but the vivid characters and pungent writing are what make this a delightful story about people struggling and sometimes surviving grinding poverty.
Dinosaurumpus is a bouncy, rhythmic, in-your-head-for-weeks book that will entertain young and old alike (but mostly young)! This book has been a crowd-pleaser for all of our babies; the dazzling dinosaur characters, the sing-song of the rhyme, and the ever-captivating denouement (they all go to sleep - YES!) make for a winning combination for bedtime, storytime, anytime.
Dragon Hoops, the latest graphic novel from MacArthur Genius, Harvey winner, New York Times bestselling East Bay author and all-around good guy Gene Yang, tells the story of the 2015 Bishop O'Dowd High School basketball team. As the librarian at Bishop O’Dowd (check out page 354), I expected to love the book simply because I know (and love) all the characters in the story and I experienced the thrill of watching from the stands as the team worked its way to a state championship. But readers don’t have to know a thing about Bishop O’Dowd High School or give a darn about basketball to be moved and entertained by this book. The power of Dragon Hoops lies in Yang’s ability to illustrate and narrate the stories behind the stories. Stories that tell not only what brought each kid to the court, but also the history of basketball, women’s rights, persecution, racism, loyalty, moral dilemmas and Yang’s own struggles with when to pull stories from people and when to let them keep their stories to themselves.
If you’re new to graphic novels, Dragon Hoops is a great introduction to this genre which requires readers to use their visual literacy skills to extract the nuances of the novel from Yang’s clean, bold, expressive lines. If you’re already a fan of graphic novels, you know Gene Yang is the best, and you’ll enjoy every minute as he delivers both the exciting story of O’Dowd’s long-denied quest for a state championship and a reminder that the strength to take the next difficult step in life comes from knowing yourself and knowing you belong. (For more insight into O’Dowd basketball and Gene Yang, ask Berkeley Law student Michelle Dold ’23, a proud O’Dowd Dragon.)
Editor’s Note; In addition to the natural acclaim which goes with being the librarian at Bishop O’Dowd High School, Annette is married to Tom Counts, Berkeley Law Class of 1990, who is also a Dragon Hoops fan.
Eat a Peach, a memoir by James Beard Award winner David Chang, was not on my reading-list radar until I stumbled upon a recent Fresh Air interview about the book. I didn’t know much about Chang before listening to the interview, but I now see that he is everywhere! Not only is he the uber-successful head of the Momofuku restaurant empire, but he also has a hit Netflix show, a successful podcast, a bestselling cookbook, and numerous other creative ventures.
What drew me to downloading Chang’s memoir after listening to the interview was not the discussion of his successes, but rather his self-deprecating humor and his candid answers about his mental health struggles. In Eat a Peach, Chang chronicles his rise to chef stardom and gives a gritty account of the grueling restaurant business. But, for me, the heart of this memoir is Chang’s candor about his struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, and his determination to learn from his personal failures. Chang covers tough subjects with humor and self-reflection. Even if you aren’t a foodie, I think you will find this memoir to be well worth your time over the holidays. I especially recommend the audiobook version (read by Chang).
Published in 1944 in response to requests for an English translation of his 1929 Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which remained in the original German until the mid-’50s, An Essay on Man [sic] condenses the 3-volume older work into a single volume intended for both general and scholarly readers. Cassirer himself wrote the English text. An Essay deals with big, traditional philosophical questions to which Cassirer had devoted his academic career. Steeped in Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophical systems, and in the history and philosophy of science, Cassirer here interrogates “the nature of man,” how man differs from mere animals, and how humanity can not only achieve self-knowledge, but use it to wield power over the world. Cassirer’s innovation was to focus on the “symbolic forms” that comprise human culture and society, forms evident in human enterprises such as myth and religion, language, art, history, and ultimately science. He views these enterprises in terms of their evolution from the most primitive, myth and religion, to “the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture,” science.
Cassirer was among the most respected philosophers of the 20th century, but as it waned and academia promoted radical specialization as the apex of expertise, his star dimmed. He is due a revival, even if a critical one that adapts his thinking for an era in which culture is always multicultural and man is but one coordinate on a polygender spectrum. An Essay on Man [sic] is an ideal starting point for the Cassirer-curious.
I suppose saying “I don’t like science fiction” is akin to saying “I don’t like country music” — a statement that, to the philes, clearly indicates an ignorance about the diversity, depth, and nuance of work within the genre. Even so, I’ll admit: I’m guilty of often repeating the line. After reading Exhalation, I’m not sure that I can.
In „em, Ted Chiang offers a series of short stories that recall an earlier exception to my sci-fi rule: The Martian Chronicles. For those who haven’t read the latter, if you enjoy a good existential haunting resulting from the hubris at work in rapid technological innovation — er, “advancement” — this may be the book for you. Or, to put it another way: in terms of messaging, this is the Westworld of books. Unlike Westworld, though, Chiang delivers his commentary with a light-handed subtlety that I would imagine is difficult to master when you have something quite specific to say. Beyond its philosophical thrust, Exhalation is simply a pleasure to read. And who couldn’t use a little bit of literary escapism right now?
Tempted though I have been during this Covid era, I have not taken up birdwatching. But if I ever do, I will take encouragement from Julia Zarankin, whose self-deprecating narration of her mistake strewn journey to birdwatching competence is unexpected, amusing, sometimes embarrassing, and often moving. I find myself looking at even what I may have considered quite an ordinary bird with a new eye and appreciation. A lovely read for a difficult time.
Like Dinosaurumpus, we’ve been reading this for years to various children, and it is a household favorite. Onomatopoeia, rhyme, and a set of inventive, active jungle animals make this a fun experience for all. Depending on your (my) level of sleep and exhaustion, this tale of a giraffe who finds his way--who discovers how best to dance to his own tune, despite what others may think or say--has been known, even, to evoke a grown-up tear or two (ahem).
This novel imagines the life of Shakespeare’s family and the death of his young son, Hamnet.The beauty of the book isn’t any insight you gain on Shakespeare, but the fully realized and entrancing character of his wife (here called Agnes), the texture of daily life in Stratford, and the immediacy of Hamnet’s last hours.
The novel starts with the time just prior to and following Hamnet’s death from the plague and then chronicles his parents’ life together. We’re first plunged into Hamnet’s desperate search for someone to help his twin sister, who has fallen ill, while trying to suppress his curiosity about everything around him. We want to follow this boy for the rest of the book, but he’s dead too soon. Agnes then becomes the focal point and she is calm and wisdom and containment. Whether she bears any relation to Shakespeare’s actual wife, I neither know nor care. She’s a fully realized character on her own. There are allusions to Shakespearian themes (the brother-sister twins who are mistaken for each other) but it’s all done subtly. The language and the images are rich but somehow measured. The grief that fills the time after Hamnet’s death pierces the reader. I was a bit disappointed in the ending but that only made me want to return to the earlier parts of the book, when no resolution has been attempted.
I am not generally an avid reader of nonfiction, so this book—passed on to my husband from his parents and then eventually to me—sat on my nightstand under my copy of Just Mercy for quite some time. It was not until Netflix created a film based on the book that I moved it to the front of the line. (I have a hard and fast rule about not seeing any movie before reading the book it was based on.) This book’s subtitle is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Vance, a self-proclaimed “hillbilly” from industrial Ohio with family ties to rural Kentucky, tells the story of how he overcame the obstacles of poverty and an abusive, drug-addicted mother and goes on to graduate from Yale Law School.
Despite the author’s Yale pedigree, the book does not take on a scholarly tone but is a rather quick read. Vance refers to a research study here and there, but most of the story is narrative and the examples he gives are from his own life and the lives of those in his immediate circle. Though the book for me fell short of providing “a great insight into Trump and Brexit,” as the book jacket promises, the author does offer some generalizations about why many poor whites throughout the Rust Belt and Appalachia struggle to thrive in America’s meritocracy and the factors that determine who will succeed. I did finish this book with increased empathy with the communities he describes. I haven’t yet seen the movie, which reviewers indicate focuses more on the memoir and less on the culture, but if you are at all interested in seeing it, I recommend following my rule and reading the book first so that you have a deeper understanding of the main character’s mindset.
Homeland Elegies is part novel, part memoir about the relationship between a Pakistani-American writer and his immigrant father, a cardiologist who once treated Donald Trump. It’s a beautiful written musing on being Muslim in America at this moment in history. The audiobook is narrated by Akhtar, who does a fabulous job with accents.
Japanese fiction and society have for a long time seemingly had a thing for cats. This book, along with The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, are recent examples of charming little stories about isolated people finding meaning in small joys and kindnesses—and cats. Kawamura’s quirky story has fantasy elements but is essentially a gentle, thoughtful tale about impermanence, acceptance, and appreciation, all common themes in Japanese aesthetics. Any or all three of these cat books would make great gifts or stocking stuffers for the holidays.
This novel follows the lives of the haenyeo, the women sea divers of Jeju Island in South Korea, from the 1930s to the present day. These women have trained their bodies to become diving machines and they harvest food from the seafloor to provide for their families (while the men take care of the children). The novel focuses on the friendship between Young-Sook and Mi-Ja, two childhood friends who become sea divers. Despite their intense bond, differences divide them (Mi-Ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and Young-Sook one of a long line of respected sea divers). Eventually, a tragic political incident ruptures their friendship.
See’s exhaustive historical research is evident throughout. The people of Jeju Island are caught between warring empires and suffer constant political upheaval throughout the Japanese colonization, WWII, the violent post war period, the Korean War, and the anti communist 1950s. There are many harrowing events (some in which the United States is complicit), but what comes through is the fortitude of the haenyeo and their eternal solace in the sea. The descriptions of the haenyeo diving collectives are completely absorbing.
If like me you finish the book wanting to know more about the haenyeo, check out these links - https://www.diveoclock.com/destinations/Asia/South_Korea/Haenyeo/, https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/the-female-free-divers-of-jeju/, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk7DQLMKBTE, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ko5dFx_xgs
Our own Amanda Tyler collaborated with the late Justice Ginsburg on this book tracing the long history of Justice Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality and a “more perfect union”. Frankly we could not be prouder.
From the publisher’s website: In the fall of 2019, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited the University of California, Berkeley School of Law to deliver the first annual Herma Hill Kay Memorial Lecture in honor of her friend, the late Herma Hill Kay, with whom Ginsburg had coauthored the very first casebook on sex-based discrimination in 1974. Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue is the result of a period of collaboration between Ginsburg and Amanda L. Tyler, a Berkeley Law professor and former Ginsburg law clerk. During her visit to Berkeley, Justice Ginsburg told her life story in conversation with Tyler. In this collection, the two bring together that conversation and other materials—many previously unpublished—that share details from Justice Ginsburg's family life and long career. These include notable briefs and oral arguments, some of Ginsburg's last speeches, and her favorite opinions that she wrote as a Supreme Court justice (many in dissent), along with the statements that she read from the bench in those important cases. Each document was chosen by Ginsburg and Tyler to tell the story of the litigation strategy and optimistic vision that were at the heart of Ginsburg's unwavering commitment to the achievement of "a more perfect Union."
My favorite novel that I read in the last year was Scott Turow’s The Last Trial. This is among Turow’s best courtroom dramas. It is the story of a trial, but it also is about getting older and about relationships (father and daughter, among friends). It continues with characters that Turow introduced in Presumed Innocent and who have appeared in many of his books. The protagonist, Sandy Stern, now in his 80s is in his last major trial, defending a Nobel Prize winner accused of murder. Turow is an experienced trial lawyer and his descriptions of the courtroom are vivid and realistic. But what really makes the book special is how the characters are drawn and how they interact with one another.
Leon Battista Alberti was the proto-Renaissance Man [sic], a polymath inventor, classicist, humanist, engineer, painter, philosopher, city planner, architect, consultant, and pre-social media influencer. His life throughout Italy, primarily in Florence and Rome, spanned three quarters of the fifteenth century, setting the stage for a wannabe, Giovanni-come-lately Leonardo da Vinci, fifty years Alberti’s junior, and scooping courtier fashioner Baldassare Castiglione, who was born more than six years after Alberti’s death. During the early Renaissance they didn’t call the Renaissance “the Renaissance,”* thus at the time Alberti had no idea that his life and career would prove archetypal, but historian Anthony Grafton makes it clear that he was deeply sensitive to his station in a rigidly hierarchical society for which he had high ambitions.
Grafton’s study is equal parts biography, art history, and cultural history, his thesis being that the received understanding of Alberti as a self-made artistic and mechanical genius neglects the religious and political contexts in which he worked to forge his career. Yet Grafton gives Alberti his due as a driven achiever whose innovations established new modes of creative work for ages to come. He depicts a man whose principles, expressed throughout an extensive catalog of written works, frequently conflicted with concrete real world opportunities, yet who nevertheless managed to sidestep hypocrisy in favor of solutions that balanced the ideal and the practical.
In a sense Alberti’s biography writes itself. His legacy of print and built artifacts reflects his achievements. He even produced an autobiography, penned in the third person. But Grafton notes numerous gaps in the historical record that prevent establishing the degree to which Alberti was involved with works we commonly attribute to him, due in part to the difficulty of assigning credit to an individual engaged in inherently collaborative enterprises, such as the construction or renovation of churches. Grafton also shows how Alberti routinely sought and applied feedback from his colleagues.
Stylistically, Grafton’s prose ebbs and flows in a surfeit of repetition, for example, when (on virtually every page, it seems) he frames a point “in other words.” In other words, Grafton deploys other words to restate formerly stated statements. In short (another transition of which he is too fond), these verbal tics distract from his historical project, but in the end do not defeat an enjoyable book about a singular, fascinating artist who lived during and helped to define the Early Italian Renaissance.
*But cf. Gerhardt B. Ladner, Vegetative Symbolism and the Concept of Renaissance, in 1 De artibus opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky 303, 307 (Millard Meiss ed., 1961) (noting the use of the Italian rinascita by Vasari in the mid-16th century as the earliest known, but not likely the first, reflexive occurrence of the concept of rebirth).
Leonard and Hungry Paul is a charming little novel about a friendship between two single men in their 30s. The characters are likable and decent, the writing is witty, and it’s solace to read about the comforts of friendship, family, and a quiet life. It’s a bit like Austen without the marriage plot.
Lately, I’ve been doing more listening than reading. There are many reasons, but mostly it’s because my eyes are bugging out of my head from so much computer time.
Before the pandemic, we watched the Longmire series on Netflix (it was originally on A & E). Then came the shutdown and we decided to listen to the audiobooks and we borrowed some from our local library and purchased some from audible.com. As is the case with many books that are turned into movies or series, the books are much better. In my opinion, the books bear little resemblance to the series except for the basic characteristics of the main players. Of all of the stories in the book, I think only one or two of the story lines are in the series. The characters in the books, especially Walt Longmire, are more interesting, witty, and multi-dimensional than the same characters in the series.
What is this series about? Well, the books are a combination of western (not my favorite genre) and mystery. Walt Longmire is the sheriff in a small county in Wyoming and he solves crimes and murders with the help of his deputies, his daughter (she’s a lawyer), and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear (a member of the Cheyenne Nation). Like I said, the series is pretty good, but you will laugh out loud and get immersed in the books and wonder why the series is so very different. If you want to know some of the differences, read Impressions of a Reader, TV vs. Books: A&E's Longmire vs. Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson.
The narrator of the books, George Guidall, is wonderful and he has done all 16 books. The website I noted above says the following: “What we found is that unlike the television program which targets western aficionados who love action, mystery and drama, the book series that begins with The Cold Dish is a western mystery that includes all of the above, but that is geared toward, and I feel would be highly enjoyed by, mature adult readers.” Hmm, I wonder if “mature adult reader” means what I think it means?? In any event, read or listen to the books, they are a good escape from the daily dose of news, podcasts on the Supreme Court and the pandemic, and all of the other real-life stuff we consume every day.
Before I switched almost exclusively to audiobooks (see my review about the Longmire series), I read this novel after reading about it in a Washington Post article in September of Covid Year One. The combination of wine (an important staple during Covid Year One), a hidden wine cave filled with precious vintages, and a mystery about a young French girl living in Burgundy during the Nazi occupation all contribute to this delightful read. Yes, there’s romance for the primary character, Kate, but the description of the family owned vineyards in Burgundy, the details of the wine that is produced in that region, and the history of the family during the occupation (with a major focus on the wine collection and the artifacts found in the wine cave) are much more interesting. Throughout the story, you wonder if Kate’s family assisted the Resistance or collaborated with the Nazis. There is also a good dose of family drama as they grapple with what they think is the true history.
Ann Mah may be familiar to many since she is a regular contributor to the New York Times travel section (remember when we could travel?), as well as other publications.
This wasn’t the best novel about wine or the Nazi occupation in France, but it is an enjoyable vineyard blend and a definite distraction from the days of Covid Year One.
God knows Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) doesn’t need me to shill for her, but I am loving her latest cookbook - the well-timed Modern Comfort Food. To my mind, Garten’s genius is in taking an everyday recipe and turning it into the very best version of that dish, and nowhere is this more evident than in her latest cookbook. Her artichoke dip makes you realize just how many bad ones you’ve had over the years. The tomato bisque, beef stew, and crispy chicken with lemon orzo are sublime. Friends have passed on great reviews of the spaghetti squash arrabiata and applesauce cake with bourbon raisins. Take comfort and cheers to all of you during this holiday season - toasting you with a pomegranate gimlet from Modern Comfort Food.
To call Lara Maiklem’s obsessive journeys of discovery along the muddy banks of the Thames, searching for any piece of London’s past a “habit” does her narrative an injustice. It may not be a profession, but it is certainly a vocation. Find yourself a good map, or maps of the Thames as it flows through London, and let the curious, meticulous and respectful Maiklem take you through the history of the great river and its city piece by mosaic piece. Every piece, Roman tiles, pins, chainmail links, pipes, bottles, whale bones, buttons, medals, etc., has a story, though often speculative, which illumines the history of the city. It’s called mudlarking for a reason. It involves lots of walking, climbing, slipping and sliding in lots of mud. Success requires the right clothing and equipment, physical stamina, patience, and a very good eye. Experience helps too. You will never see the Thames in quite the same way after following along after her. The Kindle edition of this book does a very poor job of reproducing the maps of the Thames, and, unfortunately, other than the cover, there are no photos of Maiklem’s many interesting discoveries.
Natasha Tretheway, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012-2014, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for this collection of poems. This book, composed primarily of sonnets, is divided into three parts. In the first part, Tretheway reflects on the death of her mother, who was killed by her stepfather when Tretheway was young. In the second section, she tells some of the history of the Louisiana Native Guards. This section contains the titular poem, itself a crown of sonnets, which explores three episodes in the history of the Native Guard: an 1863 episode near Pascagoula where Union soldiers fired upon a regiment of the Guard retreating from Confederate troops; an 1863 battle in Port Hudson where a Union general refused to claim the corpses of the Guard as his own when burying the dead; and the 1865 massacre at Fort Pillow, where Confederate troops slaughtered black troops who had already surrendered. The third group of poems explores the author’s own biracial heritage and Southern identity in general.
Through both her subject matter and the structure of her poetry—she stretches the form of the sonnet to its absolute limits—the author is challenging our concept of monuments. The author is questioning and critiquing existing monuments in her own history and the history of the South, as well as shaping new monuments through her poetry. She questions whether we can trust our own memory of history, and encourages us to look at what our monuments conceal as much as what they reveal. This book is perhaps even more poignant today than in 2007 as the U.S. seeks to reopen its history and look at our understanding of history through a new lens.
I was probably the last person to read the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes trees and modern day David-and-Goliath stories. However it made me cry so anyone who is averse to sadness might want to avoid it.
Part love story, part political thriller, part intellectual history. Need I say more? Oh, it’s also set in Paris and Palestine and tracks the development of the Palestinian and Syrian national movements. The characters speak multiple languages and struggle with the limitations of singular national and cultural identities, even as they fight for them. Sort of colonial and postmodern at the same time. There are disappointments and betrayals, both romantic and political, along with plenty of tragedy and violence — but also fashion, art, and witty, intellectual repartee. Anyway, I liked it a lot.
I recommend The Searcher by Tana French (ex-cop moves to a small town in Ireland to lead a peaceful life, and finds himself getting drawn into a missing person search that turns out to be not peaceful at all).
For my book review I chose a dystopian novel called The Selection by Kiera Cass. This book is about a girl named America Singer who lives in a province called Carolina in the kingdom Illea. Where she lives there is a thing called castes. The castes are numbered 1-8. The higher your caste is the more power you have. What caste you have depends on who your ancestors were. For example if your ancestor was kind of poor you would be a 5 like America. In this book she is secretly dating a boy named Aspen who is a 6. She has to do this secretly because she does not want her mom to find out because her mom wants her to fill out a form for the selection. The selection is an event in which 35 girls, one from each province, compete for the hand of the handsome prince Maxon. However Aspen convinces her to try even though she doesn’t want to because she deeply dislikes Prince Mazon because he looks extremely boring. She doesn't want to be a princess because it means she won't be able to marry Aspen. Much to America’s surprise she is selected, to the joy of May, her sister and Magda, her mom. On the plane ride to Angeles where the palace is located, she meets Ashley Brouillette and Marlee Tames whom she befriends.
In this book we follow America’s journey of developing affection for Maxon, while still in love with Aspen. Join her as she realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined. There are two more books in this trilogy called The Elite and The One. On a scale of one to 5, I would give it a 7/5 - I know that it is impossible but that is how much I enjoyed it.
Did you catch on too late to the brilliant snarkiness of Pete Souza’s instagram posts accompanied by selected photos from President Obama’s administration? If not, were you sometimes left feeling you missed the tweet or news story that prompted the shade he was throwing? Never fear! Pete Souza, Obama’s Chief Official White House Photographer, has released a book where he puts the offending tweet or news story up next to his instagram post. The stark contrast between the 44th and 45th presidential administrations is readily apparent. Paradoxically, analog technology, i.e. a print book, proves superior to Twitter and Instagram when trying to focus on a specific theme. No need to enlarge anything you can’t see on your tiny phone screen. No need to search for the tweet or news story prompting the post or to risk diving into a time-sucking rabbit hole of recommended links and forgetting what you were searching for. I highly recommend this beautifully designed and edited book. Available in our Popular Reading Collection at https://lawcat.berkeley.edu/record/665012.
Also, if you missed the documentary about Pete Souza’s life and career which included a stint as Ronald Regan’s official photographer, look for “How I See It” which aired originally on MSNBC. You can watch for free on Peacock or buy it on YouTube or Amazon.
Shuggie Bain is the debut novel from Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart and winner of this year's prestigious Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award. The story revolves around a sensitive young boy - Hugh "Shuggie" Bain as he navigates his working-class childhood in the deindustrialized Glasgow of the 1980s. Shuggie is dealing with the crippling alcoholism of his mother Agnes while also exploring his own sexuality. While the book is most certainly tragic there is always a sense that somehow Shuggie has the inner strength to come through in the end.
I recommend The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. From the publisher’s website: The Silent Patient is a shocking psychological thriller of a woman’s act of violence against her husband—and of the therapist obsessed with uncovering her motive.
I am not a baker, but even I can get behind Snacking Cakes, a dessert cookbook that seems designed for pandemic snacking. These are not complicated recipes and require little in the way of special utensils or ingredients. Each recipe makes a 1 layer cake that is quickly eaten, so you don’t have a huge leftover cake just sitting on the countertop taunting you with all its empty calories. I’m partial to the swirled jam cake and salty caramel peanut butter cake but can understand the appeal of the nectarine and cornmeal upside-down cake and oatmeal chocolate chip cake. According to the author the leftover cake makes a great breakfast treat but honestly they’ve never lasted that long in our house.
Modeled as a noir murder mystery, Southland is set in Angeles Mesa, later renamed Crenshaw, a once vibrant, middle-class, diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles that has since gone downhill. We follow Jackie Ishida (a UCLA Law 3L) and James Lanier as they amateur-sleuth their way through the unreported/unsolved murder of four Black youths in the neighborhood—an event that is deeply personal to them both but occurred nearly 30 years earlier.
Revoyr deftly jumps back and forth in time in this terrific book, from present day (1994) to the WWII years and Japanese American incarceration, up through the civil protests of the 1960s, including the 1965 Watts Uprising, and beyond. There’s a large cast of characters, but Revoyr deals with this by devoting entire chapters to each of several principal characters to interweave unique perspectives and personal histories.
In part nostalgic but also vitally relevant today, Southland shows a side of Los Angeles that is rarely depicted. Note: The online literary journal Alta has announced Southland as its California Book Club selection for March 2021, which will be capped by a Zoom discussion with author Nina Revoyr.
I know, I know, we're all pretty tired of pandemics these days. But this epic tome will make you feel a bit better about how bad this situation could be - society hasn't completely collapsed (yet) and Las Vegas hasn't become the seat of evil (yet). The audiobook is well done by Grover Gardner, and at almost 48 hours it will keep you busy while you try to revive your sourdough starter or go for a long walk to escape your family. Plus, there's a miniseries version coming out with Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail! Also, James Marsden, Amber Heard, Alexander Skarsgard, and Fiona Dourif, but really, it's all about Whoopi.
A stately old Virginia manor with a ghost, a secret society, supernatural elements and a pair of quirky relatives who show up to inherit it all: what more could one ask? The intrepid couple are young Englishman A. and his mute partner Minh, a young Irishwoman. The author works these rather worn story elements into a fascinating read. With the exception of the Epilogue everything in the book is a document, journal entry, letter or taped conversation. The device of the mute girl, who writes messages on a pad, works really well. If only people like her existed we would all be better off! The text flowed really well, and I had trouble putting it down.There is some violence at the end but most of it is off-stage. The book meets the good ending criteria I so value. The ending fooled me!
Hilary Mantel has provided a fresh look at the court of Henry VIII in her trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. She brings us the intrigue of the court through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant and ruthlessly effective lawyer who becomes Henry’s most trusted advisor. If you don’t know much English history, this is a great way to learn it, as Mantel has an eye for rich detail. If you do know your history, you will enjoy her interpretation of the characters. Her writing is terrific – each of the first two books won the Man Booker prize, and the third was nominated.
Transcendent Kingdom is a readable, if slightly flawed, novel about the daughter of Ghanaian immigrant single mother. A brilliant and perceptive student from an immigrant community in Alabama, she goes to Harvard and then completes a PhD in neuroscience at Stanford, always seeking to navigate her outsider status as a student with her love of science. Her research on addiction in mice — obviously driven by her desire to understand her beloved older brother’s struggle with heroin addiction -- is thoughtfully described, as is her effort to understand her mother’s struggles with depression. I particularly liked the passages describing the different ways in which mental illness manifest in people of different cultures.
The Twilight of the Gods is Volume 3 of an excellent trilogy on the war in the Pacific in World War II, ending with the surrender of Japan over the strident objections of the military notwithstanding Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first two books in the series are Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 and The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944.
This is an oldie but goodie; this collection of short stories is as captivating and page-turningly-gripping as it is heartwarming and tear-jerking. Jhumpa Lahiri is a Bengali American writer with a gift for capturing the raw emotion and aching reality that accompanies South Asian/Bengali immigrant life in the western world and the equally raw poignancy of love--romantic, familial, communal, and beyond. The book is comprised of several short stories--admittedly, not my favorite genre--but during these endless pandemic days and amidst the groundhog-day backdrop of homeschool/baby care/work/repeat, I have especially appreciated the richness of each story and, at once, the speed at which I can complete and conclude each one. These days, it's the little things!
This is the memoir of a young woman who broke away from an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn -- not an easy thing to do. The book was the basis of an excellent two part movie of the same name on Netflix, which departed somewhat from the book.
I loved this deeply imagined and adventure-filled story of an eleven-year old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation who becomes an extraordinary survivor, artist, scientist, naturalist, and explorer – all on a quest for freedom. It’s an old-fashioned book, rich with narrative detail and invention (his many adventures include building a hot air balloon that is also a gondola!), that takes you all over the globe and somehow also manages to take the reader on a bittersweet and intensely insightful journey into the complexities of friendship and family. Edugyan is a gifted storyteller and the writing is beyond beautiful. Let it take you away.
I love historical fiction so I was eager to foray into this genre of historical mystery (it has also been dubbed a thriller--I'm not sure I agree?). What I appreciated most about this book was how Massey carries the reader back to the streets of Old Bombay and life there in the Zoroastrian community. The main character, Perveen Mistry, joins her father's law firm at a young age. She takes on what appears to be a straightforward trust and estates case, only to end up enmeshed in the annals of a much-deeper history of murder and revenge. I love that the book is centered on one of India's first women lawyers and I look forward to reading Massey's next in the series, The Satapur Moonstone.