Thursday, August 2, 2012

I'm Baaaaaaaack!

After a fairly lengthy hiatus (Passover, end of marking period, recovery period, lazy period), the blog for discriminating readers has returned.  One would think that I'd have a bonanza of reading material for you; after all, I can read a lot in four months.  Alas, that is not the case.  While I do have some nice books to talk about, the majority of the books I've read have been terribly disappointing.  At one point, I resorted to reading cookbooks exclusive of anything else for about a week.  I have some recommendations there too, for those of you who are armchair gourmands.

In non-fiction:  Two books I've read in the past few weeks stand out.  One is called On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War.  By prominent historian Bernard Wasserstein, this book was a new (to me) look at Jewish life in the European Diaspora prior to the events of 1939.  It's a fascinating study of the Jewish life that some idealize and others marginalize.  Written in a way that is accessible to one who isn't a historian, this is a compelling read.
The second pick is The Candidate:  What it Takes to Win -- And Hold -- The White House, by Samuel L. Popkin.  Let me point out that I have almost zero interest in national politics.  Abiding by the maxim that all politics is local, I don't usually spend much time reading about politics on the national level.  To be blunt, I find it boring and not a little frustrating.  This book isn't really about politics -- it's about strategy.  Popkin discusses what makes a candidate and a campaign a successful one, and pinpoints the three types of candidates:  challenger, incumbent, and successor.  He goes through famous campaigns of the twentieth century, and discusses what elements of that campaign made the candidate a success.  I was surprised at how riveting this was.
Cookbooks belong with non-fiction, I suppose, so I'll address the best of those I read in this section.  For those who enjoy reading the book as much as cooking the food, Nigella Lawson's cookbooks are just wonderful.  Even the names of some of the recipes are a hoot, and she writes in a lovely confiding way; it seems as though she's your friend and she's giving you all her favorite recipes.  I recommend How to be a Domestic Goddess as a start.  The recipes are spot-on and relatively easy to follow as well.
More interested in the recipes?  Not much of a whiz in the kitchen?  Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything:  The Basics is as good as it gets.  Bittman goes step by step through the various methods and techniques of cooking, and what's best about this book are the step-by-step pictures.  Seriously, a child could follow these instructions (assuming you allow your children to cook).

For those of you who are waiting for the meat and potatoes of this post, I'll cut to the chase and discuss fiction.  Slim pickings, that.  Other than the latest installment of the Spellman family saga (Trail of the Spellmans; not quite as funny as the others but still satisfying), there hasn't been much worth blogging about. Here are three:
The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian, is a personal story within a larger historical context.  This isn't an unusual structure for a book, but what makes this one stand out is the historical setting:  The Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Turkey has never admitted culpability for this action; many deny it ever happened.  The personal story is moving and sad, but to me was secondary to the larger action.
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin, is all about a character who never even appears in the book.  Leo Frankel, the youngest child and only son, is being memorialized by his family a year after his death while on assignment in Iraq (think Daniel Pearl; this is pretty much the same).  The Frankels all descend on the family vacation home in the Berkshire Mountains for the memorial service, and the usual sort of stuff that happens when an entire grown family is under one roof begins to happen.  Except it happens with a bit of a toxic tinge, due to an impromptu announcement from the parents.  This book is rather loaded, emotionally, but it's not more than a reader would expect from the situation.  Some of the characters are better than others (I thought Amram was terribly undeveloped) but it's worth picking up and reading through.
I recently finished True Believers, by Kurt Andersen.  It alternates between the present and the 1960's, and its protagonist is a woman of some prominence who is in the process of writing a memoir.  This woman also has some secrets she's never talked about, and some of her friends from her teenage years are not ready to hear her publicize her idealistic period.  It's a lot of fun to read, and moves quickly from past to present in a way that makes the reader want to finish at one go.  Very enjoyable.  Now, go read and tell me what you think!