Burn the Place: A Memoir – In this memoir, long-listed for the National Book Award, the author tells the story of her ascent from her Midwestern childhood to creating her Michelin-starred restaurant, Elizabeth. It is raw and heartfelt and difficult to stop reading. Her journey is marked by addiction and the travails of a gay woman making her way in a man’s world. She is honest about her own behavior, from throwing pans against the wall to drunk-driving car accidents. But everything about her account speaks of the passion that drove her to culinary excellence, to her lauded restaurant and her first menu, which included, for dessert, Kuamoto oyster ice cream and mignonette gel.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with the Greatest Chef in the World – Jeff Gordinier is a journalist who happened to meet the Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma has often been called the best restaurant in the world. Together, they ended up spending four years traveling the world looking for new foods and new flavors for Redzepi to incorporate into his cooking. They explore local cuisines, seek out unusual ingredients, and meet other world-renowned chefs. The book is part travelogue, part food journal, and part profile of one of the world’s most intriguing chefs.
Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes)– There seems to be something about food which evokes passion. This is another story of a life, of several generations, in fact, that intertwine food and immigration, relationships, identity, and family. The author, who was born in Minsk, Belarus and immigrated to the US in 1988, is an award-winning novelist, and the writing is compelling and moves quickly. As promised, there are recipes, from Cabbage Vareniki (Dumplings) with Wild Mushroom Gravy, to Roasted Peppers Marinated in Buckwheat Honey and Garlic.
I am guilty of checking out cookbooks, declaring that I will make that recipe that intrigued me…and then doing nothing. But occasionally I actually follow through and am happy with the results. Here are some favorites:
The Peached Tortilla: Modern Asian Comfort Food from Tokyo to Texas – Two words: Kimchi Queso. This smooth, mildly spicy, cheesy dip has a nice, garlic flavor and was a hit at my house. (Someone who “hates” kimchi loved this, which says a lot!) Use it with the meat/meat substitute of your choice in soft tacos if you find yourself with leftovers. Also try the Binh Ma Tacos and the Rice Pudding.
Deep Run Roots – Cucumber Ginger Limeade makes me want to sit on the porch on a warm summer evening. Try Citrus Sweet Potato Butter for a zippy take on mashed sweet potatoes. At the end of summer when you have more tomatoes than you know what to do with, it’s time to make Roasted and Fresh Tomato Pie. (I used store bought crust, so I cannot speak to how the pie crust recipe is). Did zucchini magically show up on your doorstep? Make Grilled Squash, Basil Pesto, and Stewed Tomatoes.
Orange World – Karen Russell impressively manages to build rich worlds and characters within a few dozen pages. The people and places she imagines are strange, yet grounded in the mundane interpersonal issues we all deal with. When I finished one story, I could not wait for the next batch of weirdness that Russell had for me. This was one of the most fun (though sometimes dark) books I’ve read so far this year.
Friday Black – These short stories often imagine a near future for our United States, one that is possibly years away, but maybe, more frighteningly, months away. Either way Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah manages to take preposterous fictionalized societies and pulls them so close to our current reality as to almost mirror it. Sometimes the scariest things are those that are most like us.
Exhalation – In this collection Ted Chiang moves beyond the strange to ask the bigger questions about the universe and humanity. It is certainly science fiction, in a way that the other two books are not quite. But in a sense Exhalation uses science fiction to get us to look much deeper into our own reality, shooting beyond the genre to something meaningful.
The Year of Billy Milleris the story of Billy Miller’s joyous romp through second grade. Billy talks through concerns that he has as a young elementary child (like what the first day of school would be like). Billy’s parents and teacher are wonderful adults helping him make the transitions that young children go through. This book would be a great family read aloud!
The Last is the first book in the series “Endling” by Katherine Applegate. This relatively new fantasy series brings the reader though the near end of a species (diarnes) and the main character’s quest to find others of her kind. As in any quest, she encounters other creatures as friend and foe. This well written book is charming and will hold a reader’s attention throughout.
Strange the Dreameris book one of a sci-fi series. Author Laini Taylor creates a story of legend, of lost cities and a curious young mean who wants to find them. This book received a Printz Award in 2017 – be prepared to want to read the book and forget everything else. (Remember to eat!)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan reads like a more empathetic Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The story begins with slave boy, Washington, becoming an assistant to a scientist and inventor, Dr. Christopher Wilde. After a brutal accident and suicide, Wilde and Washington are forced to escape the plantation, together fleeing to the arctic where Wash is left abandoned and alone. This story follows Wash as he finds his way in a world that has no place for a disfigured runaway slave.
Smoke by Dan Vyleta takes place in an alternate Victorian England where humanity suffers the condition of smoke emitting from their pores, exposing their true motives whenever they sin. In a world where classism has run rampant, the rich live controlled and spotless lives, while the poor are drenched in their own soot and guilt. We follow three young adults as they discover the root of the smoke and try to liberate their society from the rule of the elite and the church.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is the perfect read for fans of Egyptian mythology and The Arabian Nights. Alif is our Arabic protagonist, a hacker who provides security services to customers in their unidentified surveillance-state. He falls for an aristocratic woman who is instead betrothed to a rich price, followed by his own security system being breached by the state government. As Alif is put on the run to save his own neck and his customers’, he discovers a secret book of the jiin, A Thousand and One Days. With high-stake consequences he can hardly imagine, Alif struggles against state foes, aided by forces the spirit world.
Our Towns – Deborah and James Fallows provide rich and textured profiles of 29 American cities, the results of their four-year tour of the United States via their single-engine propeller airplane. Far from the national narrative of decline, they find many American cities are reinventing themselves, and thriving. The authors paint a beautiful picture of our nation and suggest that perhaps we are in a transition, on the cusp of doing great things.
Factfulness – In Factfulness Hans Rosling explains in clear language how even the smartest among us can hold mistaken beliefs about the state of our world. Using simple charts and graphs the author explains how we all get wrong issues of poverty, education, demographics, and health. Picked by President Obama for his 2018 summer reading list, Factfulness shines a ray of hope on a world that seemed darker by the day.
The Better Angels of Our Nature– Going off the whole darker by the day assumption mentioned above, psychology professor Steve Pinker explains that in fact violence worldwide has declined, and declined significantly. Blending psychology, history, and hard data, Pinker provides a much-needed perspective on our modern world.
The Poacher’s Son. Newly minted warden, Mike Bowditch, is devoted to upholding the Maine Game and Fish laws even though his estranged father makes a living as a poacher. His dad is also an alcoholic who frequently has made his son’s life miserable. However, when his father is accused of murdering a timber company executive and a state trooper, following a contentious meeting over the sale of vast tracts of paper company land to developers, Mike is forced to decide whether his loyalties lie with family or the law. Doiron knows the politics and the people of Maine well, and it shows in this first in a now eleven-book series.
A Cold Day For Murder. After having almost died while she was an investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney’s office, Aleut native Kate Shugak has reluctantly returned to her home in the Alaskan wilderness simply known as “The Park.” When a National Park ranger goes missing and the state trooper sent to find him also disappears, Kate is asked to use her knowledge of the park and its mix of natives, misfits and outcasts to help find the missing men. Her search quickly leads her right back into the park life she thought she’d left behind and into more danger than she imagined. This first book in the Kate Shugak series is full of details about the remote Alaskan environment and the folks, both good and evil, who call it home.
The Golden Scales. Makana, a former Sudenese police detective, who’s been forced to leave his native country is now living in contemporary Cairo and somewhat reluctantly trying to support himself as a private detective. Against his own better judgement, but in need of the money, Makana agrees to take on the case of a corrupt Cairo soccer team owner whose star player has disappeared. Soon, Makana finds himself caught up in the maelstrom that is modern Cairo, full of avarice and greed, wealth and poverty, secrets and desires. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of modern Cairo are everywhere in this book in the Makana series, and Makana himself is a wonderfully developed character, as are his friends…and enemies.