Book Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan (another fave)

98e0715b-5bae-479a-89ae-73eb05230a47After I posted my favorite books that I read in 2018, I felt like I had missed one: Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I really enjoyed this book. The story is so odd and the narrative voice offbeat and clever in a way that does not come off as overly ironic or affected. And it’s about sourdough bread. 🍞 🥖

In the novel, Lois Clary is living the life of a workaholic cog at a tech company in San Francisco and questioning why exactly she moved there from Michigan in the first place. Because of her long days, she does not have much time for a hobby or any personal relationships. And she’s getting sick. Her “closest friends” are the brothers who run a food stall that serves a spicy soup and sourdough bread that gives Lois a nearly religious experience. When the brothers suddenly close their shop, they gift Lois a bit of their sourdough starter. Nurturing the starter and making sourdough from it becomes a quickly rewarding hobby for Lois, and the starter seems to have a magical life of its own. As her relationship with the starter and the little microbes themselves flourish, so does Lois, taking her on an adventure into the cutting edge, underground food world of San Francisco.

e167bcb6-26d2-4302-a8e6-10e7802ae8c2Sourdough is a very silly novel, but silly in such a delightful, thoughtful way.  I enjoyed the narrative voice, especially in self-reflexive moments such as:

“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”

I adored how the descriptions of the sourdough starter grew as the persona of the starter did. The starter sort of “sings” after Lois feeds it, and that starts her suspicions that it is unusual. It is also high maintenance and has to be fed and played music. Lois find that it has many quirks:

“I realized suddenly that my apartment reeked of bananas. I followed the scent to the kitchen, where the Clement Street starter had more than doubled in volume and was surging out of the crock, puffy tendrils oozing down the green ceramic. I heard a crispy, crackling pock-pock-pock; the starter was not merely bubbling but frothing. It is only barely anthropomorphization to say it looked happy.”

The relationship with the starter and the bread it produces have slight magical realist elements that reminded me subtly of Like Water for Chocolate.

Other delightful elements of the story include Lois attending a club of other women named Lois and getting to know the women a bit, and her reflections on what amounts to a pretty poor diet. My two major complaints about the book are that the ending left me wanting a bit more (not in a good way), and that the depiction of the brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, made me a little uneasy as it seemed to verge on some stereotypes. I think Sloan mostly skirts this by making the ethic background of the brothers kind of nondescript, but it was nearly problematic.

At any rate, I found this book whimsical, delightful, and very odd and I kept thinking about it long after I read it. I’ve never made sourdough or interacted with a starter, so for all I know they could all be magic. It makes me want to try it out.

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Book Review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

c16a14ff-e93e-4dad-b0df-598aec4b5c34Last year, I listened to an audiobook of Fiona Barton’s The Child and loved the twists in the story and how the narrative jumped between characters, providing different perspectives on the case with very different agendas. That book became a go-to mystery novel recommendation for me.

I jumped at the chance to preview Barton’s new novel, The Suspect. This book sees the return of Barton characters including dogged reporter Kate Winters, her disappointing son Jake, and DI Bob Sparkes. The story opens on the disappearance of two British teenagers, Alex and Rosie, who have gone on a gap year adventure to Thailand and suddenly stop contacting their parents. Based on social media, it looks like the girls are having the time of their lives, so initially everyone but the mums and dads think the girls have just gone off on a lark and gotten a bit irresponsible about checking in at home. Quickly, however, the case turns more sinister, and, when Kate goes to Thailand to report, it all gets more personal than she ever could have imagined.

Like Barton’s other novels, the narration of the story changes perspectives throughout, moving between Kate, Sparkes, Alex, and Alex’s mother. I found all of these narrators engaging except “The Mother.” I know that that portion was supposed to represent the emotions of the families of the missing girls, but I felt the least interested in what she had to say and her portion rarely moved the story forward. I was most interested in Kate’s story and Alex’s. While DI Sparkes provided a lot of good detective work and had his own heart wrenching backstory, Kate and Alex’s narratives were really where the discrepancies between appearances and reality were starkest and most interesting.

I was also a little uneasy about the role Thailand plays in this book. Alex desperately wants to get out of Bangkok and see the beautiful sites around Thailand, but she gets stuck in a crappy hostel in the city, and as a result, Thailand comes off as nothing but seedy and corrupt. Throw in the invasion of British reporters and cops and the colonial implications were kind of iffy.

Those are my only two criticisms, though. I was sucked in by the story, kept trying to guess the ending (I almost did) and I really enjoyed the characters and their voices. I thoroughly recommend this novel for those who love a good mystery and an intrepid reporter. You do not have to have read Barton’s other books to read this one. Like Tana French’s books, the characters are consistent, but the mysteries stand alone.

I received an advance copy of The Suspect from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Suspect comes out Jan 22, 2019.

My Favorite Books of 2018

I read almost 200 books this year, and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’ve narrowed it down mostly to books released this year (2018) or in paperback this year (2017), but a couple of older titles I read this year had to break into my list because I enjoyed them so much.

Nonfiction

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (2018). 2018 was the year I accidentally became a bit of a Mister Rogers expert. I saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor twice (and cried both times). I visited the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Pittsburgh (see photos below). And I read three books on Fred Rogers. The Good Neighbor was the most in-depth and also my favorite. I listened to the audiobook narrated by LeVar Burton (who was exceptional) and found myself sitting in the car to listen for longer than my commute. The story and analysis are compelling and moving. I haven’t liked a biography this much in a long time, if ever.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (2018). I’m a true crime junkie and this book was my favorite all year. It got a lot of buzz because of McNamara’s untimely death, and because of the developments in the case not long after the book was published, but it is so well written it will outlive the hype. McNamara’s prose sucked me in and the case was so scary I stayed up all night reading, and triple checked the locks on our doors for months.

The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes (2018). This thoughtful memoir by President Obama’s speech writer turned foreign policy advisor offers a lot of insight into the biggest international projects of the Obama Administration, as well as into Obama as a person. I felt like I learned a lot, but the story was also well told.

The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist by Michelle Morgan (2018). This biography of Marilyn Monroe really starts with the idea that she was more than a sexy, dumb blonde and fleshes it out. It focuses in on a particular period of Monroe’s life and offers cogent analysis of how the culture around Monroe changed and how she herself changed as an actress and a person.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (2011) The follow-up to this book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship was published this year, but I think the original is the best. This book is by Fr. Greg Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries in L.A. In his work he helps gang members transition to jobs, school, and being there for their families, stepping away from the street. In Homeboy Industries jobs, members of rival gangs work next to each other, and often learn to love each other. Boyle’s stories are moving and reflect on the humanity and dignity of each person, including the reader. I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it. Now.

How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery (2018). This memoir features gorgeous prose and illustrations. As an animal-lover, I highly enjoyed Montgomery’s insights and reflections on the animals she’s known and loved during her long career writing about them. It’s a light read, but you’ll need a hankie.

Happily Ever Esther: Two Men, a Wonder Pig, and Their Life-Changing Mission to Give Animals a Home by Steve Jenkins (2018). One of my joys this year was discovering Esther the Wonder Pig. I checked out the first book about her when it caught my eye in a library display and I fell in love. I had to read the sequel when it came out and it hit all the same notes of comedy, compassion, and Esther’s star quality. Check her out on Instagram @estherthewonderpig.

Calypso by David Sedaris (2018). I’m a big fan of David Sedaris’s writing (I even met him once!) and his most recent collection is now one of my favorites. Calypso is more personal than some of his other work, which is saying a lot, and deals greatly with the deaths of his sister and his mother. That’s not to say it isn’t also hilarious in Sedaris’s particular, dark way.

Fiction

I Remember You by Yrsa Siguroardottir (2014). My husband and I went on a trip to Iceland this October and I had planned to do a whole Icelandic reading challenge before we went. For various big and small reasons, that didn’t happen, but I had several books on my Kindle for the trip. I devoured I Remember You while staying up, hoping for an aurora borealis sighting. It is scary, weird, and feels like an old school ghost story.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNiequa Ramos (2018). This book was recommended to me by a prison librarian and she made it sound like a real gut-punch of a novel. It is. I loved the narrator’s voice as much as I hated what she went through.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin (2018). This novel is told from the perspective of a first grader in the aftermath of a school shooting. It pulls a lot on the reader’s heartstrings, but that slight manipulativeness aside, I thought the narration was effective and a smart means of asking some important questions about violence and forgiveness.

Trespassing by Brandi Reeds (2018). I read a lot of this type of psychological thriller centered on a mom or a single woman (Lianne Moriarity, Laura Lippman, etc) and this was the only pageturner this year that really kept me turning pages. The whole time, I couldn’t quite figure out where the story was going. I had to send a copy to my mom for her Spring Break because I found it so perplexing.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (2017). Another gem of an audiobook, this story made me weep and laugh. It spans three generations of Indian-Americans and moves between India, England, and America, dwelling on the complex relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, and people and the places they call home.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017). I found this novel very slow in the moment, but I kept thinking about it long after I was finished. It has so many elements: WWII, a female scuba diver, the mob, a sister with a disability, romance. Yet, all these parts work together in a way that I did not expect.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (2017). I also found this novel pretty slow-going, but the characters really held my attention. It would make a great TV miniseries. Spoonbenders focuses on a family of psychics after they have been outed as frauds on national TV. The next generation is starting to show abilities, which begs the question: were they frauds? How did they end up so down and out?

I read almost 200 books this year. That’s probably too many, considering all the other things I want to get done. And considering that reading that many meant reading quickly, often sacrificing enjoyment. Or power reading a book I didn’t like to begin with. So, I deleted my Goodreads account and plan on doing weekly book reviews on this blog and monthly recaps either here or on social media, so I can share what I’ve liked without doing any reading challenges this year. I found the reading log that I used through middle school, high school, and college, and I think it is more effective for me personally to keep my reading log offline.

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In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe

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Me, King Friday the 13th, and Emily

My Favorite Zero Waste Swaps of 2018

 

Last year was the year that I intentionally went cruelty-free in our household. This year, I focused on making swaps geared toward reducing our waste. Here are some of my favorite swaps we made this year. For 2019, the goal is to keep it up and switch our wornout plastic food containers with glass. I worry a lot about the environment and that we are killing the planet. I don’t take it lightly. At a certain point, I realized that my worry does nothing, but my dollars do. I make these changes in order to do what I can to help, out of solidarity for my animal friends and the poor, who will be most effected by climate change, and to appease my angst monster. I am delighted by how much joy and aesthetic improvement has come as a gift with purchase and want to share some of my switches with you.

The Zero Market

I am so thankful that within a short trip of work or home, we have two shops geared for reducing waste. There’s Refill Revolution in Boulder, which I have yet to visit, and The Zero Market in Denver (pictured above), which I love a lot. The Zero Market is a good place to get products to replace single-use options, but it is best for buying household and beauty products in bulk. While not necessarily cheaper than buying soap, etc. in single use packages, the quality of their refills is excellent, and you save those plastic containers. I take my own glass jars and get refills of hand soap, dish soap, air fresheners, tea, dental floss, and rosewater. Their rosewater is the best I’ve ever tried. I got soap dispenser lids for some Ball jars, so I just bring the refill home and transfer the lid and I am ready to go. I take empty spray bottles to refill on household cleaners (theirs smell amazing). Once I use the shampoo I have on hand (which is nearly 32 ozs), I am keen to try their shampoo bars. They smell great. The Zero Market has a rewards program in which you earn a point for every container you save from a landfill, but they also regularly send out coupons, which helps with the cost/benefit equation.

D20466CD-D981-4377-8140-5EFB1D6C7702Reusable Cotton Rounds

Last year, I changed up my skincare routine. The changes were great, but I noticed that a byproduct was a lot of waste of single-use cotton rounds. The first zero-waste change I made this year was switching to reusable cotton rounds. I bought my set off of Etsy and I wash them in a lingerie bag that gets tossed in with my other laundry. It’s been a year and they are holding up great! The only downside is that they are not very absorbent, so I have to pause for a moment and run by thumb over the rosewater on the round so it soaks in. If the other option is throwing away a cotton round every day, that difference seems minuscule.

514D0020-9362-4A0D-AFB9-45BC9EE17FA3No Paper Towels

I also aimed at reducing our waste by getting rid of paper towels. This was one of the many switches that is an old idea rather than some newfangled thing. Basically, I’m doing what generations back to yore did: using cloths and washing them. I bought a couple packs of cheap washcloths off of Amazon and have been using them, washing in hot water, and reusing them all year. Some of them are kind of stained, largely with the colorful spices I like to use in the kitchen, but they are holding up well. I talked to my friend Cat about her experiences with using rags instead of paper towels and that was the tipping point to me. She said it hadn’t really added laundry, which was my concern, and she was right. I do an extra load every 2-3 weeks and keep the dirty cloths in a little trashpail in the corner of the kitchen in between loads. We do keep a roll of paper towels for emergencies such as dog barfs, but that’s it.

FE00CFCD-2B79-457E-B2DA-DA18C4100D53Bamboo Toilet Paper and Toothbrushes

If you read some Zero Waste blogs, there is often something about getting rid of toilet paper and using a bidet or reusable toilet paper. I’m not there and there is zero chance of me convincing Julio, even if I were there. So, I switched to bamboo toilet paper from Brandless. Bamboo is rapidly renewable. The next step is finding it not wrapped in plastic at a price point that works.

We also switched to bamboo, biodegradable toothbrushes. A plastic toothbrush basically lives forever. I have one I reuse for cleaning tight spaces, but I don’t like the idea of our household putting at least 8 in a landfill each year. Not only do these babies take care of that issue, they also look and feel more chic than a plastic toothbrush.

Biodegradable Floss 

In the same vein, I looked at the pile of floss building in our bathroom wastebasket and didn’t like it. At the Zero Market, I got us each a roll of biodegradable floss. They came in the cutest little glass vials with a screw top lid that makes it easy to replace the roll when it runs out. These switches weren’t cheap, but the biodegradable floss lasted longer than I thought it would, so I felt okay about it in the end. We ran out when I wasn’t planning a trip to the Zero Market soon, so I found a similar product at the grocery store. Reducing waste is getting easier and more popular! I still like the glass vial better though.

D48309F2-1ECD-4FEC-AD6B-1F6040831EC6Bulk Bags

Because we’re vegetarian, we eat a lot of beans, lentils, grains, and nuts. We are very smart squirrels. Although these foods carry less of a carbon footprint, we were hauling many, many cans to the recycling bin. For Christmas last year, my mom got us a Soda Stream, so that replaced our multiple-can-a-day fizzy habit, but I still wanted a way to reduce the number of tin cans going out of our home. The obvious choice was cooking my own beans from the dry bulk bins instead of buying cans. This adds some labor to my batch cooking, but it is slightly cheaper and reduces the waste considerably. Also, I personally find the experience of buying bulk really satisfying, because I am a super nerd. I buy mixes of nuts and seeds to go on salads, beans, lentils, grains, and sometimes a sweet treat from the bulk bins at Sprouts. I bought reusable bulk bags so that I wasn’t just replacing cans with bags.

Our Plant-Based Diet

We also made the transition from being mostly vegetarian to being wholly vegetarian and frequently vegan. That, to me, is perhaps the biggest reduction of our footprint as the meat and dairy industries are huge users of resources (which, for the record, is not my biggest beef with them, pun intended). There’s more to this story, but basically at the beginning of the year, I started tracking my meat consumption. We already ate vegetarian at home, so I was seeing just how often I ate meat. By February, I was feeling bad anytime I had to add a tick to my tally. I wasn’t eating meat very often, just as an indulgence, and that didn’t feel worth taking a life. By March, I had decided that after I visited my family that month, I was making the change. No longer a social carnivore, as I was calling it. Going fully veg has been such a joy to me this year. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it’s a joy that stems from living in harmony with my beliefs. My husband, Julio, made the switch at the end of the summer.  The food I cook for us at home is almost entirely plant-based and we have dairy and eggs sometimes. My goal is to consume an animal-based product at most once a day; ideally much less than that.

 

Book Review: My Sister the Serial Killer

3158BB70-DD19-44BA-B8E4-867A2E47D5CDNote to my real sister: Marissa, you had better not become a serial killer. That shit would stress me out.

Set in Nigeria, My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite tells the story of two sisters. One is a dutiful and intelligent nurse who works with a dreamy doctor. The other is gorgeous, charming, careless, and a serial killer.

This novel is a lot of fun and a quick read at 226 pages in a slightly smaller than normal-sized hardback book. The story is told with flashbacks interspersed, some of them in little bite-sized chapters that give just enough back story to add a shot of suspense or foreboding to the ongoing drama.

I really enjoyed Braithwaite’s writing style. It was light and engaging but also had beautiful images and some real zingers throughout. For example, a line that stood out to me is:

He looked like a man who could survive a couple of flesh wounds, but then so had Achilles and Caesar (10).

Although I thought the descriptions were evocative without being heavy handed, one element of the book that struck me as a little tired was the appearances of the two sisters. Our narrator, Korede, is the good sister—good at her job, good at taking care of her sister, smart, practical—and therefore plain in appearance. Based on a story she tells about her time in secondary school, she is somewhere between unattractive and nothing much to look at. We know she has nice skin, but that she does not wear makeup or make much effort to look pretty. By contrast, most of the descriptions of her sister Ayoola, the serial killer, dwell extensively on how beautiful, sexy, smooth, etc. she is. Her clothing is detailed, her hairstyles, her makeup. Furthermore, her beauty is directly connected to how dangerous she is:

Hers is the body of a music video vixen, a scarlet woman, a succumbs. It belies her angelic face (19).

People think she is good because people often mistake beauty for goodness, but her sister goes to great lengths to connect her beauty to her murderousness. This depiction of a plain, good sister and a beautiful, wicked sister is an old, old trope. It reminds me of Jane Eyre, or the Bible, or the idea that the devil is a beautiful woman, and I’m not sure it added to the story to have Korede fixated on the discrepancy between their appearances.

Aside from that complaint, I really enjoyed the development of the characters, particularly Korede’s friendship with a patient who is in a coma.

This novel reminds me a little of Dexter and was a lot of fun to read.

Book Review: The Female of the Species

25812109 If Veronica Mars is Philip Marlowe in teen girl form, Alex, the protagonist of The Female of the Species is Dexter. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis is one part revenge fantasy, one part teen romance. It pairs angst over stolen boyfriends and uncertain futures with more serious subject matter focused on grief, trauma, and violence.  (Trigger warnings: sexual violence, abuse)

In the novel, Alex Craft works to counteract her rage and animal instincts by volunteering at an animal shelter helping stray cats and dogs. In the meantime, she keeps the secret that she killed the man who raped and murdered her older sister and keeping an eye out for other predators. Meanwhile, she starts her first forays into friendship with Peekay, a pastor’s kid struggling with her own teen issues, and dating with Jack Fisher, a kid who wants nothing more than to get out of their small town for good.

The Female of the Species is compelling and has an interesting plot. What I liked most, however, was the depth and nuance with which McGinnis builds her characters. She moves beyond high school stereotypes and makes even minor characters who might not normally be sympathetic well-rounded and understandable. Sometimes I felt like the narration belabored the point that Alex was different, but the writing about her difference was still pretty delicious. For example: “Tonight they used words they know, words that don’t bother people anymore. They said bitch. They told another girl they would put their dicks in her mouth. No one protested because this is our language now. But then I used my words, strung in phrases that cut deep, and people paid attention; people gasped. People didn’t know what to think. My language is shocking” (146).

Elements of The Female of the Species sound like a cautionary tale. The book all but urges readers to report violence to the police and to intervene on behalf of their peers, no matter the peer pressure involved. Paired with the complicated portrayal of the characters, however, the book also creates space for working through the feelings of fear and guilt that might keep someone from speaking up. McGinnis makes her point without veering into afterschool special territory. The response of the characters toward violence directed at them is also potentially helpful. For example, after one character is assaulted and nearly raped, Alex tells her, “Physical attractiveness has nothing to do with it. You were alone, isolated, weak. The three of them had been watching girls all night, waiting for someone to separate from a group. It happened to you, but it could’ve been anyone. Opportunity is what matters, nothing else” (157). Afterward, the feelings of the character are not brushed aside and there is space created in her friendships for dealing with the emotional toll of the assault.

Although the novel is not wholly original, it is forceful and intriguing. The metaphors about the animal kingdom feel like the author riffing on the “Girl Worl” parts of Mean Girls and the more sociopathic elements seem borrowed from Dexter. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see the darker parts packaged in the character of a teen girl. While not going so far as to condone Alex’s violence, the novel uses her thoughts about it to take poignant jabs at rape culture and its bystanders. It reminded me at times of Jessica Jones and is in keeping with the trend toward anti-heroes that so often leaves the females of the species out of the vengeance.

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We did it!

Greta, Alyssa, José, and I graduated with out PhDs on August 12. I defended my dissertation in May, and am so thankful to my committee, and especially my chair, Anita, for their help and support along the way.

Thanks to you, too, for reading along. You can call me Dr. Kasey now, if you want to.