It's been almost three weeks since my surgery and after one busy day last week with resultant swollen purple foot, I realize that there's no negotiating with the recommendation to keep my foot elevated. Which means all I've been able to do is read and knit and it's been a long time since I've posted any book titles. Here are a few of my recent favorites:
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
I rounded up to make this five stars because it was the escape reading I was in the mood for. Chandra is a smug, self-congratulating Cambridge professor who is in a headlong pursuit of the Nobel prize in Economics which he has spent his life chasing and has chased friends away in the process. He expects it any time now. Even his colleagues assume he’ll receive it. His smugness and drive have wrung out whatever humor and compassion he might have once had. He has alienated just about everybody, including his family.
Once again denied his coveted award, he returns to his classroom, wishing he had at least one Swedish student he could torment mercilessly. After a student reports him to the Master of the College for persistently calling her an imbecile in front of her peers, a sabbatical is suggested/ordered. And this is where the fun begins. It’s not a romp, there are serious moments of introspection and not much bliss. Chandra begins a slow journey, learning how to listen to others and to listen to himself and in the process goes from insufferable to sympathetic. It’s when he has to swallow his pride and work to restore relationships with his four children and stop telling them how to run their lives that he really becomes interesting.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
I have no idea what first attracted me to Ruth Reichl’s books since I’m not much of a cook, live on the West Coast and don’t read food reviews or magazines like Gourmet. Yet I’ve read all her books and was absolutely delighted to discover she had written a new one. Thank you Random House and NetGalley for allowing me to read this literary treat in preview.
It’s not the food that I’m attracted to but her experiences and relationships with people, Michael and Nick included. She’s not a self-avowed feminist, yet she has confidently and carefully negotiated realms traditionally manned by men. In her ten-year tenure as editor-in-chief at Gourmet she became accustomed to a generous budget, clothing allowance and a driver, which was in stark contrast to the Paris-on-a-shoestring trip she took in the last days of the magazine where she rediscovered the kindness of strangers. She recounted an occasion when she was stranded in an airport and was invited by a fellow traveler to her home. She mused, “Those things never happen when you travel on the excess express. The more stars in your itinerary, the less likely you are to find the real life of another country. I’d forgotten how money becomes a barrier insulating you from ordinary life.”
One of my favorite moments in the book was when Reichl met a widower while dining and realized that the very expensive dress she had declined to buy in a speciality shop had belonged to his wife. Years later she met him again, but at a small restaurant and expressed surprise to see him “slumming..” He responded, “When you attain my age you will understand one of life’s great secrets: Luxury is best appreciated in small portions. When it becomes routine it loses its allure.”
She concludes with an acknowledgement: “This whole book is , or course, a thank-you to the late Si Newhouse, but it can’t be said often enough. If only the world had more people cheering for excellence.” Indeed.
Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynn Olson
I read this in two days, though admittedly I was down with a new cold. I can’t imagine any book that could have kept me better company than this. I don’t know how Lynne Olson does it, write nonfiction that is as thrilling as a spy novel. I’m a big BBC fan which introduced me to the ladies of Bletchley Place, but where was this code and intel coming from? I never stopped to ask myself that.
It’s truly remarkable that a group of intelligence gathering volunteer citizens known as the Alliance was successfully led by a woman in a time when a woman’s role was to tend the home fires and raise children. Some recruits initially chafed at a female leader and quickly got over it. Her woman’s intuition saved her and others many times and her role remained uncontested until after the war when her biggest opponent was none other than Charles De Gaulle. Olson expresses frustration that after the war, the male members of the Alliance were acknowledge and rewarded, and the women were overlooked, in spite of their significant contributions. She admits that part of her motive in writing this book is to bring their contributions to light.
I’ve heard of Vichy France. Who hasn’t?! And I’ve read about it in context before, but I’ve never understood how it came to be and what it came to be, and it’s complicated! Patriotism and selfless sacrifice was required of the Alliance network as the agents grew to over a thousand French citizens, who provided M16 with movement of submarine and rail traffic, making them hated and targeted enemies of the Gestapo, and that’s complicated too.
Olson in her epilogue writes: “They served as an example from the past of what ordinary people can do in the present and future when faced with existential threat to basic human rights. As Jeannie Rousseau (volunteer) noted many years after the war, ‘Resistance is a state of mind. We can exercise it at any moment.’”
The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May
Five-year-old Meredith and three-year old Matthew are moved from the east coast and removed from the father whom they love by their unstable and unbalanced mother who takes the three of them to Big Sur on the West Coast and to her parents’ home for a “vacation.” It becomes apparent that the vacation is permanent as it stretches into years. Sally, their mother climbs into bed and stays there, reading movie magazines and watching television, leaving her children to their grandparents.
It’s through the wisdom and love from Grandpa Frank that Meredith learns about family through beekeeping. Grandpa has bee hives in many locations throughout the area and the Honey Bus is a converted military bus turned into a workroom where he processes hundreds of jars of honey for sale. Meredith becomes his shadow and learns about the social structures in a hive, how the bees follow the queen because they can’t live without her. She realizes that “even bees needed their mother.”
She followed her grandpa everywhere, climbing into his pickup in the mornings, going to work with him to the bee yards of Big Sur, where she learned that “a beehive revolved around one principle—the family.” She knew it wasn’t normal for a mother to permanently withdraw but it was through Grandpa and bees that she understood what Grandpa had been trying to explain inside the bus—“that beautiful things don’t come to those who simply wish for them. You have to work hard and take risks to be rewarded.” She also learned that rather than withdrawing from living like her mother had done, “honeybees made themselves essential through their generosity.”
This memoir is Meredith’s journey, through hard work and with the support of the family that her grandparents and her friend Sophia provided, from a little girl to a college student. Grandpa explains to her that while he is her step grandpa, that only means she has two. One of my favorite moments in the book is when he draws Meredith and Matthew into a hug, and explains that since he and Ruth hadn’t married until he was 40, he just assumed he would never have children. “Then, lucky for me, you two showed up.” It was a tissue moment. We learn near the end the why of Sally’s behavior and why Ruth lets her get away with it, but if I told you...well, who needs a spoiler alert?! I absolutely loved this book, and I do remember when the San Francisco Chronicle put bee hives on their roof.
I loved this book and find myself still thinking about it.
On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family by Lisa See
In 1867, Lisa See's great-great-grandfather arrived in America, where he prescribed herbal remedies to immigrant laborers who were treated little better than slaves. His son Fong See later built a mercantile empire and married a Caucasian woman, in spite of laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Lisa herself grew up playing in her family's antiques store in Los Angeles's Chinatown, listening to stories of missionaries and prostitutes, movie stars and Chinese baseball teams.
With these stories and her own years of research, Lisa See chronicles the one-hundred-year-odyssey of her Chinese-American family, a history that encompasses racism, romance, secret marriages, entrepreneurial genius, and much more, as two distinctly different cultures meet in a new world.
This is an astonishing history of the American West told by a popular author whom I have read, actually several times. I ended up skimming the last chapter and epilogue because I simply could not keep track of the family. The family history is fascinating and in this time of questioning America’s immigration, it’s good to remember what immigrants have contributed to our society. I remember well the Chungking brand. A couple of cans was a dinner treat when I was growing up. And who hasn’t picked up “Chinese” for a takeout meal? The fabulous Calinese furniture came straight out of Ray See’s imagination! I read this on the heels of Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” - Los Angeles has many many tales. I think will be more interesting to West Coast readers or people who are familiar with Southern California.
And speaking of The Library Book, here it it:
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
I didn’t want this book to end. Like the author, I grew up going to the library with my mother. We lived rurally so I looked forward to going to town, returning our books and checking out new ones. At that time there was a two-book limit! As a young and broke military wife, our Friday night “date” was the library.
Orlean has written a history of Los Angeles Public Library from the beginning, through the devastating fire in 1986 and it’s phoenix rise from the ashes six years later, remodeled and with a new wing. We meet many of the staff and directors over the span of its 100-year history. From it’s inception in 1872 a preponderance of head librarians were male but that has changed over the years. Another change is the library’s active role in dealing with the homeless. Today 80% of librarians are women and 80% of homeless are men which has required the introduction of security officers and the creation of library social welfare programs.
Orlean defines “the library” very simply as “a storehouse of books,” but going deeper, she reminds us that books are an expression of culture, that books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. President Roosevelt gave the keynote at the American Library Association’s convention in 1942. “Books cannot be killed by fire,” he declared. “People die, but books never die.” No bibliophile needs convincing of this. She concludes with, why she wrote this book, “to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels like a marvelous and exceptional thing.” Ray Bradbury wrote, “The library was my nesting place, my birthing place, it was my growing place.” This is a library/book-lover’s book.
The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva
This book has been on my shelf for years and because it's quite long, I just never got around to reading it but it was fast-paced and the perfect distraction for my Narco-addled brain. It came out in 2003 but with the resurgence of spy novels and TV miniseries, this felt like it could have been written yesterday. This a one-off and not part of his long-running Gabriel Allon espionage series.
"For Britain's counterintelligence operations, this meant finding the unlikeliest agent imaginable-a history professor named Alfred Vicary, handpicked by Churchill himself to expose a highly dangerous, but unknown, traitor.
The Nazis, however, have also chosen an unlikely agent: Catherine Blake, a beautiful widow of a war hero, a hospital volunteer - and a Nazi spy under direct orders from Hitler to uncover the Allied plans for D-Day... "
11 hours ago