[13 January 2014]
End-of-year summaries invariably confound me. How to choose the best books out of 365 days of reading? What makes a book somehow better than its siblings? In this era of declining readership, should we even be making these sorts of lists? Sadly, I find it far easier to determine the worst books, and who wants a list of those? We want good news to start of our New Year.
Here, then, are five books from 2013 that stuck with me through thick and thin, in alphabetical order by title.
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III
Dirty Love’s four linked novellas examines the ways we fail one another in love, in all the old-fashioned ways: lies, adultery, criticism, betrayals, booze. And now, in the newer, sometimes more painful ways, through social media.
“Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed”, describes Mark Welch, a successful project manager. Welch fails to leave his dictatorial management style at the office. The gravity of this miscalculation does not hit him until he learns wife Laura is conducting a serious affair.
In “Marla”, a young, overweight bank teller has a good job, a nice apartment, and close girlfriends. Yet she longs for a boyfriend. When she takes up with the rigid Dennis, she finds herself longing for her formerly solitary life.
Robert Doucette is “The Bartender” of the title, a would-be poet afraid to write. When he meets and marries the quietly trusting Althea, he is unfaithful.
In “Dirty Love”, teenager Devon Brandt is trying to recover after a sexually explicit video appears on the internet. She does this by spending hours logged into Chatroulette and zoning out on her “iEverything”, as her bewildered, aged uncle looks on.
Read full article on Dirty Love here.
Every Grain of Rice by Fuschia Dunlop
There are cookbooks, and then there are cookbooks whose every recipe calls out to you. Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice is the latter. It is filled with simple yet shockingly delicious Chinese food. A little meat goes a long way in most recipes, while others are completely vegetarian. The resulting cuisine relies on inventively seasoned vegetables, tofu, legumes, rice, and noodles. Nor does Chinese food employ dairy, making it a boon for vegans and their friends wishing to serve something besides pasta at dinner parties.
Every Grain of Rice is beneficial to any of us wishing to eat less meat without missing it, or to try something new, breaking out of the eating ruts we all fall into.
Despite a few exotic ingredients, Every Grain of Rice offers food largely within American/European reach. Consider the cover shot of Dan Dan Noodles: pork, greens, noodles, sauce. No food rehydrators, centrifuges or sous vide machines are needed to prepare this. You don’t even need a food processor.
The hardest part of Every Grain of Rice is deciding what to cook first. The book beckons both newcomers and experts while solving the problem of what to feed your vegan and vegetarian friends (or yourself). Just make room in your fridge. You’re gonna need it.
Read full article on Every Grain of Rice here.
Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Hachisu
Twenty years ago, Nancy Singleton met Tadaaki Hachisu, a third-generation farmer. The couple fell in love, married, had children, and restored the Hachisu family’s homestead. Hachisu’s Japanese Farm Food chronicles the result.
Japanese Farm Food is a memoir of a woman’s unexpected life as a Japanese farmwife. Hachisu never expected to spend her life in Japan. Twenty years on, she has never fully acclimated to a country so different from her birthplace. Her tone is often acerbic, even defiant as she reiterates the many ways she will never be a “good Japanese farmwife”.
Hachisu and her husband, a practitioner of Shinto, are deeply connected to their land and home, which she refers to with a capital “H”—the House. Seeing the photographs of their traditional Japanese home, with its ancient furnishings and central beam, the daikoku bashira, one understands. This house, though beautiful, is no magazine showpiece: it is a place where a family lives and works to keep the old ways alive. Theirs is an honorable life. Even if one never cooks a thing from this cookbook—which would be a shame—it is a wonderful read.
Read full article Japanese Farm Food here.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, brothers Subhash and Udayan are inseparable, living in a tiny village outside Calcutta. Subhash is the dutiful, obedient son. Udayan, the rebellious one.
Both excel academically, but the unrest spreading through India captures Udayan’s restless intellect. He becomes absorbed in the Communist party, drifting from Subhash, who is working toward graduate school in the United States.
Once in the US, Subhash receives infrequent letters from Udayan, which he is instructed to burn. Subhash cannot understand Udayan’s activities until he is abruptly summoned home: the police have shot his brother.
The Lowland is constructed around the impact of absence: the hole in the world where Udayan once fit. Now his loved ones must conduct their lives around this space: his brother, parents, wife, and unborn daughter.
The Lowland asks what happens once youth has passed, when pitiless hindsight sets in. When one is alone, ageing, with ample time to revisit a moment in youth forever impacting everything afterward. Fortunately, there is still room for love, for even in the smallest fraction of hope. Without it, The Lowland would be nearly unbearable reading, although impossible to put down.
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
In this final installment of the “Maddaddam” trilogy, readers discover the beginnings and endings of characters introduced in Oryx and Crake: Glenn, aka Crake, Jimmy, aka Snowman, Oryx, the woman they both love, Zeb, Toby, and a host of others. Atwood details the environmental devastation causing the “waterless flood”, how Crake engineered a plague killing most of humanity, and how the survivors are moving forward. Crake’s exquisitely engineered humans, dubbed “Crakers”, evolve in surprisingly old-fashioned ways. There are funny moments offset by deeply emotional scenes.
Have your hanky close at hand. If you aren’t already recycling and carrying your own shopping bags, Maddaddam will ensure that you start.
Read full article Maddaddam here.
Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at email@example.com.