First to Read · mini-review · stuff I read

The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Summary from Goodreads:
A comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated

Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.

Written by a Ph.D. geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity’s drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.

If I said The Mathematician’s Shiva was really funny would you believe me?

Well, it is. This book is LOADED with kooky academic math-nerd humor in among all the my-mother’s-shiva-has-been-invaded-by-non-family-members-and-what-the-hell-all-is-going-on-in-this-house scenes. This is a really wonderful novel that examines how one remembers and honors a parent when that parent isn’t just a private person.  Sasha also discovers a lost part of his family over the course of the week.  Rojstaczer also uses the setting of Madison – a college town in the midst of winter to his advantage.  If you’ve been to UW’s campus, you’ll know exactly where he has put his characters.

And I learned a bit (I think) about Russian-Polish Judaism (I was raised Lutheran so the specifics were all a bit fascinating). I appreciated greatly how words or phrases in Russian/Polish/Hebrew/Yiddish(?) weren’t always translated and that made the dialogue and writing seem very natural.

An excellent debut novel (also, A+ cover design Penguin, I love it).

Dear FTC: I won a copy of this book waaay back when it was published in a Goodreads First Reads contest.  I read it then, but somehow never managed to get it reviewed on my blog.  So I’m doing it now.

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First to Read · stuff I read

You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

Summary from Goodreads:

The author of Don’t Worry It Gets Worse takes on the F-word

Alida Nugent’s first book, Don’t Worry It Gets Worse, received terrific reviews, and her self-deprecating “everygirl” approach continues to win the Internet-savvy writer and blogger new fans. Now, she takes on one of today’s hottest cultural topics: feminism.

Nugent is a proud feminist—and she’s not afraid to say it. From the “scarlet F” thrust upon you if you declare yourself a feminist at a party to how to handle judgmental store clerks when you buy Plan B, You Don’t Have to Like Me skewers a range of cultural issues, and confirms Nugent as a star on the rise.

The subtitle for Alida Nugent’s new book You Don’t Have to Like Me is “Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism.”  And that is precisely what she writes about.  About finding and maintaining friendships with other women and how while she was busy trying to be The Cool Girl (you know, the one who burps, chows Big Macs, agrees with dudes’ BS, and tries to be like a dude while maintaining a Hot Girl Bod) she was throwing other women under the bus.  About the “warning labels” that get attached to girls but not to boys. About the utter uselessness and hetero-normative-ness and obsessed with tab-A-in-slot-B-ness of sex education in public school (if you’re even lucky to get that).

In the piece “Feral” Nugent calls out the utter bullshit whereupon women are taught to “Get Home Safe” and to take their drinks to the bathroom with them lest they get spiked and how presenting oneself as “female” in any way is dangerous yet we do not teach boys and men not to rape (Nugent presents a close call she had while walking home from work one evening).  The pieces “Shrink” and “All the Diets I’ve Been On” present contrasting pictures of the way food and pleasure and body image become twisted and unrecognizable.  “Advice I’ve Received as a Woman” is a hilarious and uncomfortable tally of all the conflicting and constraining (and occasionally amazing) advice Nugent has been offered because she is cis-gendered female.  The book winds up with the fantastic essay “Does This Skirt Make Me Look Feminist?” which reinforces the notion, at play throughout the book, that there is no right way to “do” feminism and that stereotyping feminists is ridiculous.

I was reading a few reviews for You Don’t Have to Like Me and came across one that gave it a 1-star because Nugent was just repeating what others have said and wasn’t saying anything new.  Considering that, on average, women still make less than men (which is the statistic for white women; the ratio gets larger for African-American women, Latinas, etc. as Nugent points out), we still teach women to “be safe” rather than teach men not to rape or feel entitled to sexual attention from women, we still call women “sluts” for having sex (or enjoying sex at all) yet slam women who don’t have sex as prudes, and push a media representation of female beauty that is nearly impossible to achieve or maintain then deride women for taking pride in their appearances it is very clear that voices like Alida Nugent’s, Roxane Gay’s, Rebecca Solnit’s, and others are still needed.  And they are needed to be loud, clear, and real and to repeat themselves.  We can’t say anything new until what we’re saying right now becomes part of the cultural fabric and the norm.  Also, Nugent, as a woman who is both Puerto Rican and Irish, reminded me that the feminism that I need and practice – as a white, middle-class, straight, cis woman – is different than what she needs as a biracial woman, or what a transgender woman needs, or what a black woman needs, and so on.  We still have a ways to go until feminism isn’t a big, red Scarlet F.

Dear FTC: I first received a DRC of this book via Penguin Random House’s First to Read program, but it expired so I ought a copy instead.

First to Read · stuff I read

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Summary from Goodreads:
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

Might it be possible for a parent to groom an infant’s gourmet palate by feeding her things like braised pork shoulder? Puréed, of course, since she hasn’t any teeth, but chef Lars Thorvald wants his baby daughter Eva to share in his passion for good food.  (Ok, parents before you come after me or the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest with your pitchforks, this is a novel; feeding an infant puréed pork shoulder would probably land you in colicky baby hell.)  Unfortunately for baby Eva, shortly after her sommelier mother asks for a divorce via letter her father suffers a heart attack and dies; she is subsequently adopted by her father’s brother and his fiancée.  Thus begins Eva’s peripatetic journey around the Midwest from Minnesota to Iowa to Chicago back to Minnesota.

As Eva grows up and develops her unique palate, her story is told by a collection of narrators sometimes only tangentially related to Eva: Eva’s father, her cousin, a first boyfriend, a jealous rival (rival? spoiled attention seeker? crazy person?), a good friend’s feckless brother, a Lutheran Minnesota housewife entering her bars in a state fair baking contest (I dare you not to read that chapter with Marge Gunderson’s voice in your head, I dare you), and, finally, Eva’s mother.  Only one chapter is told by Eva herself, at the age of eleven, when she is cultivating habaneros (using her cousin Randy’s marijuana growing operation after he goes to rehab) and being abused by other kids on the bus (that chapter takes place in Des Moines, IA, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy; the kids got off lightly, in my opinion).  Eva’s talent at building unforgettable flavor combinations and meals are a combination of her father’s passion for food and her mother’s passion for wine.  On a first date with her high school boyfriend, she makes the acquaintance of the restaurant’s chef when she suggests the dish has too much rosemary – the chef asks her to identify all the ingredients and Eva does, in the way an experienced oenophile can tell what type of wood was used in the wine cask just by taste.  Kitchens of the Great Midwest is filled with a love of food, and taste, and texture, and family, and kitchens, a room where famililes are meant to come together.

Only one thing is missing from Kitchens of the Great Midwest and that, in my opinion, is Eva herself.  Eva is the wunderkind of foodie culture, a self-taught chef and restauranteur with an innate talent for creating unforgettable meals.  She is considerate, humble, driven, eager to learn, and unhampered by ego.  She is the manic-pixie-dreamgirl of this novel and I wanted to hear more of Eva’s voice from Eva herself.  She becomes so insubstantial at times – the narrators all have such amazing voices and stories that they begin to overpower her.  Where is the eleven-year-old who could eat peppers so hot that others needed to go to the hospital?  One could argue that the final menu in the book is what author Stradal was building toward throughout the narrative but I wanted so, so badly to hear Eva’s voice again.  What did she really think of Cynthia (the crazy one)?  Why Pat Prager?  What did Eva really think about her parents?  The MPDG does not grow or change or have flaws but causes others to change simply by existing.  Eva Thorvald deserves more.

This minor issue aside, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a great summer read.  The voices are good, the idea of the structure for the novel is great.  The settings – suburbs and crummy apartments in the Twin Cities, lower-income Des Moines, rural Minnesota – are spot on.  There’s a scene skewering hipster, neo-yuppies (no idea what the offical label for those people are, that’s just how they struck me).  There are recipes – I suggest the bars (there’s also a preparation for lutefisk, I ate a bite of that once on a dare – do not recommend as an edible).  Also, the cover art for the US edition is excellent.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is out today, July 28, 2015, in the US wherever books are sold!

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this book via the First to Read program from Penguin.

First to Read · stuff I read

The Hundred-Year House

Summary from Goodreads:
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.

In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.

Old houses seem to have a life of their own.  Laurelfield, the crumbling Chicago estate of an estranged offshoot of the Canadian Devohr family is no different.  The Devohrs seem to be a cursed line, plagued with suicides and mysterious deaths.  The last of the Devohrs are Gracie and her daughter Zee, born Zilla. Zee has returned home (reluctantly) to teach at the local college.  She and her husband Doug live in the Laurelfield carriage house, soon shared by another couple Case and Miriam, Zee’s step-brother and his wife.  Things seem fairly orderly: Zee will teach (and try to get Doug hired at the college) and Doug will finish his monograph of Edwin Parfitt.

Then things start to go weirdly wrong.  Zee is obsessed with forcing out her elderly colleague, then imagines Doug and Miriam are having an affair. An old dress re-appears in a wrong place.  Doug writes and writes but not on his monograph – he is ghost-writing Baby-sitters’ Club-type books.  Case suffers a series of accidents.  Gracie becomes fanatical about guarding the arts colony files from Doug.  Bruce begins hoarding supplies to survive the Y2K meltdown.  Is the house causing all these things to happen?  The ghost of Violet Devohr?

As the wheels begin to come off normality we find that the characters wear their identities like cloaks, one under the other, much like the history of the house reveals that it has been a home, a prison, and a haven of creativity.  Lies are created and lies are uncovered.  Relationships are made and broken.  At the end of each section we step through a doorway in time as the house sheds another layer to let us out into another one of its secrets.  It’s a bit like a counter-part to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  How much crazy is lent by the environment and how much is lent by the inhabitants?

Makkai’s progression through Laurelfield’s history is very interesting.  A reverse first-half of Cloud Atlas, if you will.  I only have one very minor bone to pick and that has to do with a very short (perhaps 10 pages) section where Makkai does a very neat wrap-up of all the previous characters’ lives.  It’s redundant, in my opinion, because readers who pay attention have already pegged what happened, it pulls you out of the established narrative of the book just before you get the very last bit of information that you need.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai is available from Viking Adult on July 10.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via the Penguin First to Read program.

First to Read · stuff I read

One Plus One

Summary from Goodreads:
American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted stateside, she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation, Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story that reads like a modern-day Two for the Road.

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

Confession time: I have yet to finish Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You.  I’m about halfway through and I’m absolutely terrified of the ending because I’m not sure if I will “like” the ending as a critical reader or whether it will feel trite and manipulative and then I’ll be ragingly annoyed.  There is a level of social realism in Moyes’s writing that conveys an “anything might happen” situation.  So there was a bit of trepidation when I put in my name for a Penguin First to Read DRC of One Plus One and got lucky in the drawing.  Would I like it?  And, more importantly, could I finish it?

The above blurb doesn’t quite do One Plus One justice because it gives a sense of zaniness or a madcap adventure.  And while there are moments of levity and goofy circumstances, this is not a funny rom-com where people dash all over England and Scotland in attempt to get a special child to a contest that she is guaranteed to win and a Happy Ending For All.

No.

Jess is a single mother living on a council estate where she works two low-paying jobs (bartending and cleaning houses) to try and juggle the bills so that she and the kids can eat, pay rent and utilities, and have a bit leftover to take care of the dog and maybe have a small treat now and then.  She is ever the optimist, believing that being a good person and constantly working hard will bring rewards (she even avoids nagging her husband who, two years ago, went to live with his mother in what sounds like a bout of severe depression).  Her current desire is to get the hell out of that council estate because Nicky (her stepson) is being terrorized by a local crowd of bullies who have so terrified the neighborhood that witnesses to the abuse evaporate, even when an attack lands Nicky in the hospital.  If Nicky is beaten for being different (a little alternative, maybe a little glam, a good kid) what will happen to eight-year-old mathematics prodigy Tanzie when she gets to the same school?

Ed, though he works hard, grew up in a solidly middle-class family, went to a good school, and recently sold the software he created with his best friend to make a mint.  He had it all – until he made a spectacularly bad decision in giving an annoying booty call some “financial advice” (caveat: it’s the Queen Bee from college that nerdy Ed couldn’t ever hope to be with and he got played).  Now he’s being investigated for insider trading, ostracized from work, and isolated at his beach house.

Jess is his house cleaner.  Later, he vaguely recognizes her at the pub when she calls him on being a jerk.  Through a series of plot machinations – chiefly, Tanzie’s ability in maths, her acceptance at an elite school, Jess’s desperation to cover the remaining ~2,000£ with a series of poorly thought out bad decisions, and a Maths Olympiad prize that could cover the amount and then some – Ed offers to drive Jess, Nicky, Tanzie, and Norman (the family’s very large, drooly, smelly dog) to Scotland for the maths competition.

And this is where Moyes’s social realism brings the issues of income and social class to a head.  Ed literally cannot wrap his head around why Jess makes sandwiches, avoids incurring expenses, and insists on paying him back.  When she says that he is rich, he demurs.  He describes the banking software he sold as costing the average person less than a penny per transaction (it sounds vaguely like a universal PayPal something or other); when Jess asks Tanzie to do the addition it comes out to over 100£ per year.  Ed protests that this is a rather paltry sum but Tanzie reels off exactly, almost to the penny, how much food and clothing the family could buy and how much Jess could stretch that amount for a family of three.

This conversation is one of the significant points in the book.  It illustrates how much the system makes a family like Jess’s work for every little good thing.  That even in the face of the family’s financial hardship the school that could save Tanzie thinks that a 90% scholarship is enough and that surely Jess could just fork over 2,000£.  The hidden shame that Jess makes all of Tanzie’s clothes rather than buy them.  That the police can hardly be bothered when Nicky is hospitalized.  That Ed doesn’t realize 100£ dribbled out over the course of a year could take a family from poor to destitute.  Tanzie’s list of much needed items, a very pedestrian list to someone like me who, although I have bills and debts, doesn’t have to worry about choosing between paying for the next meal or paying the rent, reads like a calorie count of food items recited by an anorectic.  Each strange set-back on the trip – motion sickness, food poisoning, Tanzie’s broken glasses – seems like another brick in a wall meant to keep the lower classes low.  Even the maths competition is not the rewarding experience that is promised.

Alongside the issues of money and class, Moyes’s also pulls bullying, cyberbullying, the ostracism of females who excel at STEM fields (I don’t have a tidy word for that – it’s feminism but that doesn’t seem to fit right), slut shaming, and deadbeat dads into the mix.  Jess and Ed each make really stupid decisions, then regret them.  Nicky thinks that ignoring his problem will make it go away.  Even Tanzie makes a decision that could have disastrous consequences.  I was moved to tears at one point when Nicky discovers that the kindness of strangers is a real, true thing.  This is a novel about people who live real, messy lives and don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to happen.  They grab onto their opportunities with both hands and if the ending isn’t Happily Ever After it is certainly Happier and More Secure Than We Were.

Jojo Moyes’s One Plus One is out today from Pamela Dorman Books.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via Penguin’s First to Read program.

First to Read · stuff I read

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

Summary from Goodreads:
August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?

A global phenomenon, with sales approaching a million copies in France alone and rights sold in more than thirty countries, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a fast-paced, tightly plotted, cinematic literary thriller, and an ingenious book within a book, by a dazzling young writer.

The Penguin First To Read program is a bit interesting – offer readers the chance to snag choice DRCs ahead of publication (there’s a way to guarantee a copy if necessary) and submit reviews.  I had been striking out on the random drawings thus far so I decided to plunk down some points to read the much-buzzed The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  A little feedback for Penguin: one month to read a 700 page novel isn’t long enough (particularly when the DRC expires three weeks ahead of the pub date) and your DRCs are really hard to read (I had to borrow a paper ARC off a fellow bookseller so I could finish).  Now that’s off my chest….

Harry Quebert is a breakout novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker (his bios are in French) and is frequently compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.  In some aspects, this is true.  The book’s structure is like a series of nested puzzle boxes: meandering, twisting, and repetitive. Scenes are constantly retold from different points-of-view and with changing information. Different timelines in both the 1970s and 2008 are jumbled around. His chapters can cliff-hanger with the best of them.  Unfortunately, there’s too much meandering at the beginning of the book.  Until the end of part 1, which is a good 300 pages, I was having a lot of trouble even wanting to finish the novel.  First off, the “narrator” of the book – bestselling author Marcus Goldman, aka Marcus the Magnificent – is an annoying, egotistical, self-absorbed, whiney brat with a really stereotypical Jewish mom; I spent much of those 300 pages wishing desperately that he would Get Over Himself and realize that people (him included) are the most flawed creations under the sun.  Second, the level of provincial bumpkin-ism given to the residents of Somerset, New Hampshire, was grating; now, that may have been the translation at work, but so many characters just came off as flat and uninteresting.  Including the two central players in the historical drama: Harry Quebert and Nola.  I just didn’t care what happened.  If I hadn’t been reading-to-review, I might have just set the book down at about page 150.

But I kept going.  I’m glad I did because at about the halfway point someone drops a media bomb into the mix and then everything starts being real (to paraphrase The Real World opening credits).  The characters stop being nice to each other, and oh, so provincially sweet, and get down to the business of being crazy, obsessed, screwed up human beings.  The back half of this book is where the thriller being advertised lies. This is a novel about love, obsession, psychosis, shame, and truth with enough left turns thrown in to make even Agatha Christie dizzy.  And those good twists are too excellent to spoil, which is a shame because this is where I want to talk about SOME STUFF.  (Personally, I would have chopped about 100 pages out of the front half of the novel to get the reader to the good stuff at the back.)

So read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.  Maybe take a small break during the front section of the book if the reading becomes boggy. The second half is worth it.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from Penguin’s First To Read program and borrowed an ARC from a friend.