Category Archives: The Book World

The Most Expensive Book I’ve Ever Read

I just finished reading Just Mercyby Bryan Stevenson, a book about his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to overturn wrongful convictions. And it is both the most important book I have read in ages. It made me cry more than anything I’ve read in months. And it was the most expensive, in that it made me immediately pull out my wallet and make a substantial donation to EJI.

Well, not quite immediately. First I checked Charity Navigator, which gives it perfect scores on accountability and transparency.

Then I gave them some money.

You should too.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel has seen something from her window on the commuter train that she thinks might be related to a crime that may have been committed one night when… well, she can’t quite remember, but she’s pretty sure something awful happened. And now a girl is missing, and if only she hadn’t been blackout drunk that night she might be able to help. But the police don’t believe her, and she barely believes herself.

The Girl on the Train is a thriller you could read all at once, late at night. But it’s also a trip inside the emotional cores of people in varying kinds of crisis, and a beautiful illustration of the fallibility of human memory.

I suggest that you not read it while drunk on the commuter rail, though. That might hit a little too close to home.


I read a few books over the last few days that were the sort that when you finish the book, you wonder why picked it up and bothered finishing it in the first place. I feel very ‘meh’ about them and don’t even want to review any of them. They weren’t bad but didn’t wow me either.

I thought one would be a English comedy of manners, but it was way more serious than that. One of the main characters has been raped by her brother and is now pregnant. How is that comedy of manners? I thought maybe I misread the description, but no, just reread it and it even says “comedy of manners” on the back. And the book I’m reading now is the third in a series that has been goings steadily downhill since the original, but I’m reading it anyway. I need to re-energize my reading. But how to do so?

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey plus Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist

I couldn’t resist the hype (or her charming Twitter personality) and have been reading Roxanne Gay’s recent essay collection Bad Feminist. One piece in particular about likable versus unlikeable female characters made me think about reading Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing. In that novel the protagonist Elyria flees her husband and her unfulfilling life with a one-way ticket to New Zealand. She’s not completely unlikeable, but it is hard to like her, if you know what I mean. Elyria is that friend that has bottomed out, the one you feel guilty for not listening to or helping because she’s just a bear to be around. She drags you down. We’ve all had friends like. And we’ve all been that person, too, which is why I felt some empathy for her. Elyria has gone beyond your standard depression into a area if emptiness. She hitch-hikes her way around New Zealand, ignoring the advice of everyone who tells her not to do it. You get the sense that she’s hitch-hiking not for the danger, but because making plans would require her to interact with people, something she’s loath to do.

Why is she fleeing her life, you might ask? There’s back story about her adopted sister killing herself, her lacking-maternal-skills-mother, and a less than compelling husband. You might start feeling a tug in your gut as you read about Elyria’s emptiness, yet the Lacey’s sentences sparkle on the page. It takes a certain skill to write a convincing character like Elyria.

As for Roxanne Gay’s collection, I’ll just say, we’re lucky to have her and her wisdom.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Have you ever read a book that you could swear was written by a seasoned author only to discover it’s their debut? To be fair, I knew going in that Fourth of July Creek was Smith Henderson’s first book, but still! Its maturity was extremely unexpected–you’ll see him compared to Cormac McCarthy for sure.

His main character, social worker Pete Snow, who covers a vast territory near Tenmile, Montana, can’t seem to get his life together any better than his clients. After he encounters Benjamin Pearl, an 11-year-old found on the school’s playground, Snow meets his survivalist father, who lives with his family in the Montana wilderness. Snow slowly begins to win the trust of the Pearls, hoping he can help them before their lives go further awry. There’s back story with his own family, too: Snow is estranged from his remote father, divorcing his cheating wife, his teenage daughter making her own series of bad choices.

Henderson’s assured voice carries you through this painful, unflinching story, and there are glimmers of hope in these troubled characters. This book is stunning, and the characters have stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I’ve read one of Leslie Jamison’s essays in The Believer, and another in Harper’s, but I don’t always pay attention to the author’s name when I read a magazine piece, and I hadn’t connected them. But there is a connection, and having her work all together the way it is in The Empathy Exams brings it out beautifully.

The opening essay covers medical empathy. Jamison discusses her work as a medical model patient: given a set of symptoms, she acts them out for med students to practice basic exam procedures – diagnosis, kindness, empathy, and so on. Her job is quite literally to evaluate and train the empathy of future physicians. Bringing the essay even more into the realm of the personal, she then discusses her own actual medical history, and a heartwrenchingly awkward conversation when she has to call her cardiologist to ask if her heart problems will have any impact on the abortion she’s about to have.

It’s all raw, whether she’s writing about long-distance runners and blisters, or getting mugged, or falling in love, or having sex, or the nature of literary and culinary sweetness (“In Defense of Saccharin” may be one of my favorites in the whole book).

If you read nonfiction, and especially if you want nonfiction that brings emotion as well as fact, you need this book.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison

Since January 1st, I’ve listened to too many friends describe their plans to detox and start healthy new regimens. Paleo, grains, alcohol, smoothies, and dairy, all considered “unhealthy” and worth giving up for a week or a month to become healthy and better people apparently. As a follower of the Aristotelian motto of moderation in all things, I’m skeptical of these plans. What’s the point of living if you’re not actually enjoying said life? Plus cheese. C’mon. I can’t give up cheese! I only started liking blue cheese in the last decade and now have many many cheeses to try in whatever time I have left. This was made all the more apparent to me while reading Kathe Lison’s The Whole Fromage, her odyssey into the world of French cheese.

Can you tell me how many French cheeses there are today? No? Well, officials in France can’t either. There are more than you can imagine, from the well-known Camembert and Roquefort to little-know cheeses only sold locally in the small village of France. Lison’s journey isn’t a thorough tour—which doesn’t even seem possible–but it’s a fine examination of the changes in production methods the last century has brought to the world of cheese. Modernization isn’t terrible unto itself. Many artisanal cheesemakers have embraced labor-saving devices without sacrificing flavors, according to Lison, but they face pushback from consumers, who embrace the idea that the harder it is to make, the better it has to be. Of course, this hasn’t stopped some large conglomerates from using modern equipment and technology to churn out bland wheels of cheese.

I picked this book up expecting light travel/food writing with perhaps some sort of personal growth angle, but instead found Lison’s book both entertaining and educational. While reading it, I hungered for the cheeses she painstakingly described and found myself wondering if I could find the more obscure ones made on the farms she visited. Luckily for me, I live very close to one of the best cheese shops in the country, Formaggio Kitchen, a place I plan on visiting this weekend.

Botany of Desire, on Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

I read the ARC of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love months before it came out and thought it a pretty tremendous book. I had read The Last American Man and fallen in love with her writing. Yes, Eat, Pray, Love was a bit of navel-gazing but give me a break. Haven’t many other, way more horribly written books gotten onto bestseller lists (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades)? When it came out, I tried to handsell it, featured it in as many displays as I could, and generally talked it up to those who might listen. We sold it modestly. And then as you all know, it happened. Word of mouth, Oprah, what-have-you, everyone read this book. And the backlash began. Sales soared. Haters hated.

It was with bated breath that I cracked opened Gilbert’s newest novel The Signature of All Things. My Penguin reps swore it was amazing. At BEA this past May, several bookseller friends highly recommended it. I began. And reader? I didn’t want it to end. This is not to say that it’s a perfect book, but it’s so terrifically absorbing. Gilbert adopts a sort of George Eliot meets Dickens meets ????? tone, which somehow works. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the New World, noted botanist particularly of moss, scholar of repute.  The strength of Whittaker’s scholarship and extent of her freedom in the 19th century seem somewhat anachronistic, but her family and background make it just plausible .

Some of the descriptions tickled me, like the description of her father’s finances: “Money seemed to love Henry. Money followed him around like a small, excited dog.”

It’s only when Alma is in her late 40s that a plot arises. An engraver named Ambrose Pike arrives, who captivates our heroine. He’s no money-grubber however, but looking for spiritual completion. He thinks he’s found it in Alma. I won’t spoil the plot, but she does light out for Tahiti.

Science plays a huge role in the novel–it’s a character in its own right. Gilbert has done extensive research and knows her botany, and it shows in the way she makes bryophytes interesting.

I think I’m just trying to find reasons to convince people to read this book. I’m afraid that many who read Eat, Pray, Love will take one look at this novel and be turned off by its length and depth, while the haters will dismiss it as another “chicklit” entry. Both are wrong. Normally I’m an advocate of judging books by their covers, but in this case, opening the book up and starting on page one is the best choice. You won’t regret it.

Off to New York

Tomorrow kicks off the biggest book convention in the country, Book Expo, otherwise known as BEA. It’s always fun, full of booksellers, publishers, and authors. I also look forward to it because I get to take the train. A four hour journey, where I can get up whenever I want to stretch my legs, forced to do nothing but read? Paradise! And of course, as I’m heading to a place where galleys will be as bountiful as pollen at the moment, I don’t have to bring tons of books with me. I’m bringing along Idiopathy by Sam Byers and The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova, both debut novels. There will be the usual buzzing about certain books coming this Fall, but I hope to discover some overlooked gems.

Speaking of overlooked gems. I visited San Francisco recently and made my first trip to Oakland. There’s this great bookstore called Walden Pond Books on Grand Avenue. Someone had written a staff recommendation for Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter, part of the NYRB Classics series that I love. Devastating. That’s the word that best describes this novel. It’s the story of Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager, eking by as a pool hustler in Portland, Oregon. He meets Billy Lancing, a young black pool hustler. Levitt bounces around from reform school, to a psychiatric facility, seedy hotels, and prison . Back on the street, he finds himself finding himself a girl, a job, and perhaps a life worth making a go for, before life gets him again. Some of the best writing is of Jack’s re-encountering of Billy in prison. The opening sequence is worth buying the book to read alone. Just don’t plan on doing anything when done for a while. The ending will make shake your head and wonder why a man can’t get any breaks.

Mr. Bookdwarf Reviews

Gulp: Mary Roach has done it again. One of our friends says she won’t read it because she’s grossed out by Roach’s ongoing anal fixation issues, but I don’t much care. I’m not sure what it says about me that I loved the section speculating about whether Elvis died of constipation (or rather, megacolon caused by a congenital neurological disorder in the lower intestine). Besides, only one chapter, maybe two, is really about defecation. Most of the book is about chewing, swallowing, and digesting. Both informative and hilarious, Gulp is easily as good as Stiff and Bonk.

(editor’s note: I’m a huge fan of Packing for Mars as I’m a space geek.)

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway: DeWitt is going into darker and darker places in her own life. This time, her friend and former lover is murdered. We also get a great view of her early years and her friendship with two other girls who want to be detectives. In fact, despite the fact that the key decedent is a man, the thematic focus and strength of the book is the nature of female friendship. As narrator, DeWitt keeps dropping the names of other cases (each case she takes has a Funny Mysterious Name, which somehow seems charming instead of pretentious, because everything seems charming when Sarah Gran writes it), and the sole complaint I have is that I’m going to have to wait to find out about the Liminal Landlord. I guess while I wait I’m going to have to go back and read Gran’s 2003 horror/madness novel, Come Closer.