Don’t wait too long to read the books on your to-read list

Book Cover: 60 million frenchmen can't be wrong I first came across Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong in the early 2000s, when I was a stay-at-home mom and had a baby. You’d think that I’d’ve had plenty of time to read, but you’d be wrong.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when I saw this book come through the donations at work. (One of the best perks about being a paid employee at a library’s friends organization is that you get to see all the donations.) I grabbed it almost immediately. And then I was disappointed by it.

Why? I’m still not sure: it’s full of cultural observations that made sense, but the last time it was published in the 2000s. A lot has happened in Europe and France and Paris since then – the financial crisis, the rise of social media, the re-rise of the National Front (if it ever really went away). The World War II generation is passing on, and with that, a lot of the things that defined how politics work. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it wasn’t as relevant as it would have been 13 years ago. Which is when I should have read it.

If I had read it then. I’d probably have enjoyed it more and learned more too. That’ll teach me to clear off my to-read list occasionally, and not just let it build up.

Mmm…. guacamole

a bowl of homemade guacamoleThere’s really only one thing to do when you have a bunch of avocados that are about to be too squishy to use: make guacamole!

This is the Alton Brown guac recipe, and yes, it controversially uses tomatoes. I like extra veggies.

3 Haas Avocados (I had a bunch of small avocados from Trader Joe’s – I just used the 4 or 5 I had since they were on the teeny side)
1 lime, juiced
0.5t kosher salt
0.5t cumin
0.5t cayenne (yes, you can lower this amount if you find it too spicy)
0.5 onion, diced
0.5 jalapeño, diced (I remove the seeds – the cayenne gives it enough kick)
1 roma tomato (the recipe calls for 2, but that always seems like overkill to me)
1T chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced

Scoop out the avocado pulp and put it in a large bowl with the lime juice, toss to coat. Add the spices, then use a fork (or your potato masher if you have one) to mash everything together. Fold in all the other ingredients. Let it sit for an hour, then serve.

We don’t all have to like the same stuff

This is the second Adrian Goldsworthy book that I’ve tried to read and failed. It turns out that his books are not for Kates. I do know people who very much like his stuff; your milage may vary.

My main issue was that Pax Romana, instead of being about peace in the ancient Roman world, was actually about war and the military. Now, the subtitle of the book, yes, does state that it was also about war, but for the life of me, I could not find the “how was life during the peaceful times or maybe away from the frontiers where the fighting actually happened.”

And yes, the military is a huge part of Ancient Rome – but that’s why the title of this one intrigued me. I wanted a look from a different point of view, tell me about the other parts. I didn’t get the peace bits, and it bored me after awhile.

Alas, I couldn’t finish it, not even after trying for months. I finally, guiltily put it down a couple of weeks ago.

On the other hand…

I am of two minds about Kitchens of the Great Midwest. On the one hand, it’s about doing something really, really well – cooking in this case; it’s about building your own community; it’s got an interesting narrative structure; and it takes place in a loving version of the midwest, the midwest as an awesome place to be, not the midwest as a place to run away from.

On the other hand, there are no positive depictions of relationships between women – they are all passive-aggressive with each other, even the ostensible friends; and there are very few – maybe no – positive parent-child relationships portrayed either. The only good parent in this book is a dead parent.

Ultimately, what you think of Kitchens of the Great Midwest depends on how you come down on these ideas. For me, they largely balance each other out. My deep irritation of the continued depiction of women not supporting each other outweighs much of the positive.

As always, your milage may vary.

(This actually might be the strongest opinion I’ve ever held about a book I would give 3/5 stars to.)

Women in the workplace

Historical fiction is really about current issues, just placed in a different time to make the ideas more palatable. In this case, The Girls in the Picture is ostensibly a chronicle of Mary Pickford (the first movie star) and Frances Marion (an early screenwriter and director) from the 1910s through to 1969 – but it’s about women who care passionately about work, being the only woman in the room, and female friendship.

I’d like to read more about these topics please. Women who support each other, women who like both work and relationships, and all of the things they go through to succeed? All of them are good.

The characterization and the writing – they were fine. I like the ideas of the book more than I liked their instantiation. The Girls in the Picture wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t so compelling that I needed to finish it immediately. It was a good story to read a chapter or two of before sleeping at night.

A delight of a book

Remember last month when I said I needed some light fluff to relax during a particularly stressful time? The Wedding Date was the book I needed. It’s a lovely romantic comedy in book form that was sweet and talked about food a lot.

The central romance is between two hard-working professionals – a black woman who is the Chief of Staff to the Berkeley mayor and a white man who is a new doctor down in LA. They have a meet cute in a stuck elevator, and everything goes from there. The tension comes mainly from their busy careers and the idea that their relationship isn’t ever serious, despite them both wanting it to be.

It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was a goddamn delight. Recommended.

Gritty + Glamour makes things interesting

I want to talk about two different things that were going through my head whilst reading Murder in Belleville.

The first is quick and easy to dismiss: The Triplets of Belleville is a goddamn delight of a song and would pop into my head at completely inappropriate times.

The second is that blurb on the cover, the one that says the book is so very “French.” I spent much of the book trying to figure out why that was the case. Why? Because France was dealing very much with immigrants, many of them Algerian, in the early 90s (well, it still is, just in different ways now)? Because I suspect you could lift this storyline and put it into a city in modern America, you wouldn’t have to change it very much. (Perhaps that’s a product of America becoming more French – this was published in 2000.)

Otherwise, Murder in Belleville is a perfectly fine mystery/thriller. You don’t know what’s going on; there is governmental intrigue, a hunger strike, and eventually a hostage situation; this is a gritty world, and you don’t normally see Paris portrayed as dirty and gritty. The juxtaposition of gritty and glamorous is one of the things I quite enjoy about Paris in real life. I stayed up later than I intended last night so I could finish it before I went to sleep.

I’ll probably read the next one in the series at some point, too.

Sometimes you want brain candy

I swear I didn’t plan on having a sort-of romance novel publish on Valentine’s Day.  And yet, here we are.

Falling is the type of book I was looking for when I said I wanted something lighter and fluffier than I’d been reading. Something about relationships, where, even though there is angst along the way, there is ultimately a happy ending. It wasn’t the ending I expected – not in the slightest – but it was the right ending.

The writing wasn’t great, the character development wasn’t great, and I wanted the book to be better than it was, but I also kind of didn’t care that it wasn’t. It was… fine.

It was a respite from my stressful January, and that was exactly what I wanted.

You guys, War and Peace is a soap opera

This is the first time I’ve read War and Peace. I never read it for school, and to read it on your own… It took some courage-building on my part.

But I loved it! Here’s what I’ve come to realize about War and Peace: people think it’s dense and complicated because it ends on a 40-ish page meditation on the nature of free will. The other 1160 pages of it? Are action-oriented and often very soap-opera-y. There’s a scene towards the beginning where two women are literally fighting over the will of the wealthy man who is dying in the next room. (And, really, they’re both poor and the way society was structured at that point: whoever inherited from him would be fine and whoever didn’t would probably be in the poorhouse for the rest of her life. I have some sympathy.) That kind of thing happens a fair bit – it makes for a good story.

The story dragged a bit when Napoleon was invading Moscow; but maybe it was that my life got busy. Overall, it was a much better read than I thought it was going to be. Two thumbs up.

Universe Building

I need to re-read La Belle Sauvage. Were I a real book reviewer, rather than just an enthusiastic amateur, I’d re-read it before writing this short review. Why? Because I was so caught up in what was happening and what was going to happen next that I didn’t have time to properly appreciate the world and its weirdnesses. Not the faeries, not the river spirits, not the fact that a part of people’s souls live outside themselves and take animal form.

That description makes it sound fantastical and weirder than it is. In truth, it’s populated by very practical, pragmatic people. Maybe that’s why the fantastical elements work so well.

This is the first book in a prequel series to His Dark Materials, which I highly recommend. La Belle Sauvage is part set-up, part quest to save baby Lyra from the evil Magisterium – organized religious fanatics with political influence. They might run Switzerland? It’s unclear, and the Swiss association always makes me think they’re Calvinists.

The whole universe is entertaining and thought-provoking to explore. If for no other reason than to think about what animal your dæmon – the part of your soul  that lives outside your body – would be.

Definitely recommended.