La Gloire de mon père & Le château de ma mère

Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenirs d’enfance were burned into my memory at some point during my French studies—I watched Le Gloire de mon père for class, and I had an abridged or otherwise simplified edition of the book for course literature (that I don’t think I ever actually read, and that I definitely didn’t hold on to). Trying to track them down at the library or at the handful of international bookstores I knew of in Stockholm never got me anywhere. Nor did I think to check at Språkbokhandeln, the absolute treasure trove nestled in Lund, when I was there in 2020. It all worked out, though, because I can’t think of a better souvenir (hah) from Paris: one book from each bookstore we visited!

I packed both books for vacation and assumed that would keep me well occupied, but to my surprise I absolutely tore through each book in little over a day. Usually my reading experiences in French require frequent dictionary breaks just to follow what’s going on (George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir), but Pagnol did me favor and kept it relatively simple—even with all of the terminology for wildlife and hunting, I could keep up with the story. Dictionary breaks could wait until a re-read.

La Gloire de mon père was also a welcome counterbalance to the despair in Världen av i går. Pagnol was Zweig’s junior by fourteen years or so; reading the two alongside each other meant I was getting a bit of a Cubist portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe, two different perspectives presented simultaneously.  The years in Berlin and Paris that Zweig writes about with the nerves of a young man were merely the warm and happy days of Pagnol’s childhood in Marseilles.

I got too cocky, though, and rushed ahead through Le Château de ma mère, which is just as drenched in sunshine and nostalgia as its predecessor…until the very last chapter, which is when it collides with the grim realities Zweig depicts in Världen av i går. A lot of crying, this vacation! Turns out I didn’t really pack as much light reading as I thought I had.

According to English Wikipedia, Pagnol is considered a bit old-fashioned and passé these days, but since I’m not French that context was completely lost on me. To an extent it’s also pretty on brand for me, anyway, considering I’ve been well behind the times for basically my entire life.

The two are collected in a single volume, both translations from Rita Barisse that were more or less contemporary with the original publication in French. Have there been more recent ones? Is it any good? Who knows!

Världen av i går & Amok

It seems I followed much of the rest of the world, or if not the world then just one friend of mine in particular, in reaching for Die Welt von Gestern in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. But since my arbitrary rule of translations is to read German originals in Swedish rather than in English, I had to wait until I came across a Swedish translation (and it never seemed to be available at the library when I remembered to check). Six years later, it appeared in front of me at Söderbokhandeln Hansson & Bruce. I took it with me for vacation reading, and while I was browsing Hubenettes in Östersund I happened to notice Zweig’s novella collection Amok on the shelves. Since they’re the same author and I read them in such close succession, collapsing them into a single blog-thought makes sense.

Amok is not any deliberate assemblage of Zweig’s or time-honored collection that’s seen international release in several languages.  Instead, it’s a collection from Ersatz Förlag, only available in Swedish, featuring “The Royal Game,” “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” “Confusion,” “A Girl and the Weather,” and “Amok.”

The World of Yesterday, on the other hand, is available in several English translations: one from titan among translators Anthea Bell, which seems to be the translation put out by Pushkin Press; one from Plunkett Lake Press attributed to B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger; and finally a translation from Robert Boettcher independently published through Amazon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Zweig doesn’t really discuss his own writing much in Världen av i går, at least from a personal perspective on the process. The only time he addresses the craft of writing more or less head on, he toots his own horn and talks up how one of his strengths as a writer is his ability to murder his darlings and stick to only the most essential elements of a story. After the five stories included in Amok, I have to disagree, but maybe that’s a factor of changing times and literary conventions.

Women are essentially invisible in Zweig’s depiction of Europe in general and of his life in particular. Not surprising for the content or the times, so I’m not exactly mad about it. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Zweig’s first wife (who only gets two incidental mentions in Världen av i går, one of which is when Zweig is trying to divorce her) undertook a significant chunk of research and administration for him; his second wife (whose only mention is in the same breath as the aforementioned divorce) had originally been his secretary. Amazing how being able to outsource drudgery and life maintenance frees you up to be a highly productive writer!

The same lack of women more or less applies to the stories in Amok, which are all deeply anchored in a first-person perspective from a male narrator. Even “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” uses a male narrator to frame the story of the woman in question—a frame that I don’t see much narrative use for. Of course, Amok only contains five novellas out of a substantial body of work; such a limited selection is hardly indicative of an entire body of writing. I just wish there had been more thought on the publisher’s part about which stories to select.

Overall, I was touched by Zweig’s humanity and empathy, which was just as much on show in the above stories as it was in his memoirs. They are all deeply psychological, character-driven narratives rooted in human struggles, suffering, and resilience. But in all honesty, his knack for characterization is actually on better display in Världen av i går than in most of the stories in Amok. Zweig’s sketches of his contemporaries are precise and cutting, unambiguously sympathetic to the person involved but clear-eyed about their flaws or failures. The characters in the stories collected in Amok, on the other hand, are muddier and harder to pin down. I cried at some point in every chapter of Världen av i går, but I shed no tears over any story in Amok.

The reason I was so unmoved by, and ultimately a bit disappointed in, Zweig’s fiction might be the same reason I could lose myself so easily in his memoirs: they are a product of a specific time. Sympathy for an amorous widow scorned by a younger lover, or for a closeted gay English literature professor, might well have been scandalous or at least unusual upon publication in the 1920s, but close to a century later those stories are fairly tame and predictable. So the wheel turns; with any luck, in another hundred years, stories like “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” will seem confusing or just banal because we’ll live in a better world where fluid gender identities are a matter of course. While Världen av i går might as well be subtitled “Plus ça change,” stories like “Confusion” with their now-dated and unremarkable plot twists make you realize that things can get better.

A Waiter in Paris

I’m back from a whirlwind vacation in Paris, my first-ever trip to The Continent proper. I quickly realized that tourism in The City of Light leans a great deal on its literary history: the exclusive, posh Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris; the ascension of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore into sightseeing destinations; the queue to get into Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a post about my vacation, though. It’s about a book I bought (and read) in Paris. I mention Paris and my vacation because that’s the only reason this book fell into my lap. I was unaware of it, wasn’t looking for it, and wasn’t necessarily intending to ever read it.

Cover of the UK edition of A Waiter in Paris
Image courtesy Monoray

Even though my travel companions and I stopped by Shakespeare and Company shortly after it opened for the day on a Thursday, the store was already crowded. Between the jostles and the bumps of people, and the knowledge that there was likely a queue building outside, it was hard to get into the mindset of leisurely browsing the books. In the stress of the moment I decided to focus on getting something either in French or about Paris, rather than something I could buy any old time. Et voilà: A Waiter in Paris.

Edward Chisholm and his girlfriend move from London to Paris and he decides, for nebulous “I’m going to prove something to myself” reasons, to become a waiter. A Waiter in Paris is his account of an eight-month stint at a fashionable bistro and a book-length expansion on his 2013 piece for the New York Times, “Notes from a Parisian Kitchen.” (Link is to an unpaywalled PDF version for your ease of reading.) Less generously, it’s an overly self-serious version of Rob McKittrick’s 2005 comedy Waiting.

A Waiter in Paris has glowing reviews everywhere. Publishers Weekly, Radio New Zealand…even the 3-star reviews on GoodReads are still faintly positive. Most of them seem spellbound by one, or both, of the following:

  1. Chisholm’s depiction of the labor conditions in a French bistro
  2. Chisholm’s observations of French (or at least Parisian) society

While I won’t fault reviewers who haven’t lived or worked in Paris, I’m concerned that anyone in the Year of Our Lord 2022 could be genuinely shocked and appalled at restaurant labor practices. Did anyone writing these reviews ever work a service job?

Bereft of the one-two punch of “working class tourism” and “cultural observations,” there isn’t much left of interest in A Waiter in Paris. Chisholm’s writing is fluid and readable, certainly, but there are a couple tics he has that border on purple prose (overblown Greek mythological allusions) or just plain “trying too hard” (too many attempts to work “liberté, égalité, fraternité” references into the narrative). He also cites Down and Out in Paris and London as a major influence, which—never remind people in the middle of your own book that there’s a better one they could be reading instead. You’re only going to invite an unfavorable comparison.

The unfavorable comparison in this case is that Chisholm could learn a thing or two from Orwell about narrative distance and detachment. Down and Out leaves plenty of room for the other people Orwell encounters, while A Waiter is essentially The Edward Chisholm Story, with his fellow restaurant staff as background characters. This reaches its peak in a couple episodes that have a very powerful r/ThatHappened vibe. Not that I doubt they happened, but rather that they serve no purpose in the book except as evidence that the other waiters like Chisholm, maybe even see something special in him.

And that’s kind of where it falls apart for me. Underneath the razzle-dazzle, it’s just The Edward Chisholm Story, and Chisholm is, demographically speaking, exactly the kind of guy I went to college with—the kind of guy reading this book to begin with. A kind of guy with which I’m well familiar by this point. The real interesting part is the other people working in the bistro, but at the end of the day we don’t get all that much about any of them.

Of course, eight months isn’t exactly long enough to build enough trust with someone to find out their life story. Especially in a chaotic atmosphere like a restaurant where there’s not necessarily a lot of downtime to make smalltalk, and when you haven’t yet mastered your French, and when people will come and go at random. But whatever part of personal biography you can’t access or divulge, you can make up for by providing larger context and history, even if a nutshell version, and there’s nothing of that in here. What conflict was our Tamil Freedom Fighter actually involved in? What’s the prevailing French attitude towards the Portuguese? Are there historical or social reasons the Maghrebi waiter is so (seemingly hypocritically) dismissive of les africanes? The intersection of politics and history in the kitchen of just about every restaurant in Paris (and probably in most of Europe, if not the world) is a great lens through which to examine colonization and globalization. Missed opportunity, in other words.

At the end of the day, though, it was the writing that put me off A Waiter in Paris more than anything else. I’ll close out my thoughts by returning to that aspect of it, because this was the most damning aspect of all.

There is a sort of arch tone that expats take in their writing, including yours truly. (I’m the guiltiest of all.) On one hand, we make evident our limitations by conceding we don’t speak the language well enough yet, or loudly bemoaning that this or that thing is utterly opaque or impenetrable to us. But on the other hand, we relish the idea of others considering us insiders or experts, since from their perspective that’s exactly what we are, and so we continue to hold forth. Maybe I recognized too much of myself—or projected too much of myself—in the writing and in my imaginary version of Chisholm to really enjoy the book.

In other words: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

The Crying Book

In one of life’s small serendpities, on the same day my mom let me know about a death in the family, a newsletter I subscribe to about mental health (Sanity by Tanmoy) featured a write up on  The Crying Book, which sounded all the more appealing as I scrolled, sniffling and snot-nosed, through my email. On a whim I spent the 10 kronor to put a hold on it at the library (no digital version available) and by the following Monday it had come in. It’s a short book, without any chapters but with very frequent section breaks, so I offered to read it out loud to my sambo.

I finished it in two nights, in two marathon reading sessions.

I walked away from it with mixed feelings. On the minus side, I didn’t always care for her style. Christle is a poet, which you can tell not only by her explicitly mentioning it fairly regularly, but by her writing. This kind of “assembled snapshots” brevity also gives the whole book a sort of Instapoetry vibe, even if Christle is a bit too old and a bit too establishment to go with that crowd. Needless to say, I don’t like Instapoetry. For every Nayyirah Waheed (good) you get a million Rupi Kaurs (less good). About a third of the way through, I also picked up that Christle had a very annoying tic of sandwiching long asides—entire independent clauses, sometimes—in between two em-dashes, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and all I wanted to know was why didn’t anyone notice this and edit a few of them down, or cut them entirely? To be fair, this might have only made itself apparent because I was trying to read the book out loud—you can imagine how that kind of writing would make deciding on the right cadence and intonation difficult, while reading silently you might more readily gloss over it.

On the plus side, I was very taken with the actual content. The book is something like a folk history of tears and crying, and the 200-odd footnotes at the end make it clear that Christle did a lot of research, which I appreciate. I also appreciate how seamlessly the personal reflections are intertwined with the historical subject matter—I enjoy that tack in popular nonfiction and I don’t think I’ve read anything that does it quite how how Christle does it. The first thing that comes to mind is Ålevangeliet, or in English The Book of Eels, which is on the surface about eels but is also about a bunch of stuff tangential to eels: the author’s childhood fishing (eeling?) expeditions with his father, the long and embittered scientific battle to find their reproductive organs, weird “facts” surrounding them from people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, our impending climate catastrophe, etc. The GoodReads reviews, at least in Swedish, seem frustrated with this approach (“I wanted to read about eels, not fishing with his father!” is the short version of a lot of them) but I really liked that kind of thematic meandering within and alongside a particular topic. The Crying Book does that but on a much smaller scale.

Finally, on the mixed side, I had mixed thoughts about the actual structure of the book. While there are several narrative or conceptual strands within The Crying Book, no idea is carried for very long: Christle discusses something for a paragraph or two, occasionally a page, and then moves on to something else.  There are no chapters organized thematically, but there is usually an interior logic leading from one brief section to the next and the resulting flow is very much akin to following someone’s train of thought in real time. This works really well to build a sort of tension with her personal trials and tribulations (her pregnancy, the suicide of a poet friend), and when it takes you to unexpected but nonetheless relevant places, the subversion is genuinely rewarding. On the other hand, this approach feels scattershot and confusing when it comes to historic personages and biographies, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alvin Borgquist; meatier, protracted narratives would have served that subject matter much better.

A quick read, all told, though at times unflinching and grotesque. Beneath the Instapoetry conceit there is a wealth of information and depth of thought.

Rien où poser sa tête (Nowhere to Lay One’s Head)

If you’re not subscribed to Asymptote‘s newsletter or following their blog, you’re missing out. Their staff are like magical book sprites who leave little gifts of international literature in your RSS feed or email inbox. Rien où poser sa tête was one of those little gifts.

 

The Folio edition of Rien où poser sa tête
Image courtesy Gallimard

Of course, Nowhere to Lay One’s Head turned up in Asymptote  thanks to Brigitte Manion’s review of the English translation. But since I have a passing familiarity with French, and really should practice a little now and then to keep it up, I opted to read the French original rather than the English or Swedish translations.

Author: Françoise Frenkel

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.94

Language scaling: N/A (I read it in French)

Summary: Frenkel’s memoirs of Vichy France, and her flight from Berlin to France to Switzerland

Recommended audience: Literally everyone

Content warning: It’s Nazi Germany; there is witnessed and described brutality throughout. (If you, like me, are easily stressed and need to know certain things from the outset: Frenkel, a Polish Jew, managed to escape Nazi clutches and find asylum in Switzerland, despite a few close brushes with the authorities. It all works out okay.)

In-depth thoughts: As a student, I had a hard time connecting with the books we read about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Fortunately I’m not a psychopath and so I can understand, on an intellectual level, why these books are important. I could then, too. I just resented them for not being better, considering the topic matter. Now that we’re apparently willing to give Nazis the benefit of the doubt, I’ve been wondering lately: what do I think students should read instead of what I read in school?

I’d argue that Rien où poser sa tête is a good candidate. Trying to convey the horror of what happened through the concentration camps can be a bit much to take in. (Not that it should be forgotten, either.) It’s so horrible as to be unreal, unfathomable. But because Frenkel handles the slow agony of daily life under the Nazi regime, with rations and visa applications and constant upheaval, it becomes easier to understand how these things were able to come to pass, and how they could easily come to pass again.

My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2017, According to GoodReads

I enjoy GoodReads’s little “Your Year in Books” widget they roll out at the end of every year, but my favorite thing to look back on at the close of a year (or more accurately, the beginning of every new one) is how many 5-star books I read. That was only four in 2015In 2016, I handed out only five. I was a little luckier (or maybe a little more generous?) in 2017 and handed out eight. Seven if you don’t count a re-read of one of my favorite childhood books.

This year I’m splitting the nonfiction and the novels into two different posts. Part of it is because I have slightly different criteria for 5-star reviews in fiction and nonfiction, and part of it is because I read enough 5-star books this year that a single post dedicated to all of them would border on unwieldy. This first installment covers the best nonfiction I read in 2017.

Politics and Social Justice

The cover of Kate Moore's "Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Women"

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore. I had already known about the radium dial-painting disaster as a footnote in the history of radium and nuclear science, so I was glad to see the topic get its own full treatment. The radium dial companies’ continuing priority of profits over worker health, and their subsequent refusal to accept blame for so much suffering and to make it right, remains relevant today, nearly 100 years later. Moore’s research is exhaustive, which can sometimes make for overwhelming reading, but it all deserves to be chronicled.*

The cover of Sarah Kendzior's "The View from Flyover Country," featuring a view of the St. Louis Arch through a window.

The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior, Sarah Kendzior. I enjoy her writing for De Correspondent, so I bought an ecopy of this essay collection (predating the 2016 election) to have  as subway reading.

Memoirs

Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk light by a lamp from outside a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. Walden was one of my favorite books I read in high school, and one that deeply influenced me. With the account of Thoreau’s stay in the woods fresh in my mind, I picked up this up at a library sale years ago. But much as I wanted to read it, I somehow dropped off after a few pages every time I attempted until I read it during my trip to the US this summer. Maybe it was a question of needing enough time to get into it; maybe it was a question of age or life path. But I’m so glad I hung on to this book through countless library down sizes.

 

The cover of John Kerstetter's "Crossings," featuring bullets and scalpel in an "X" shape.
Image courtesy Crown Publishing, Inc.

Crossings: A Doctor-Solider’s Story, Jon Kerstetter. Kerstetter’s account of growing up on, then off, then on an Oneida reservation to become a doctor and then a medic in the US army until he suffered a stroke (an aspect of his life curiously absent from the subtitle or marketing text) is gripping and sometimes heart-rending reading.*

A cover of Ester Blenda Nrdström's "Amerikanskt," featuring a college of vintage photographs, including a young woman in denim overalls and a white bucket hat.
Image courtesy Bokhåll.

Amerikanskt, Ester Blenda Nordström. Much like America Day by Day, I found this account of Nordström’s travels throughout the United States in the 1920s fascinating, both as a snapshot of an America long gone by and also as the perspective of an outsider and first-time visitor.

Part 2, featuring the best novels I read last year, coming later this week!

*indicates ebook copies I received free of charge from NetGalley in exchange for a review; reviews were already posted elsewhere and I genuinely loved these books.

Review: Journal of a Solitude

This was a book that I bought at a library sale I don’t know how many years ago. After falling in love with Walden in high school, the similar premise of this book (memoirs of living alone in the countryside) intrigued me. Yet somehow I never got around to reading it until I was going through my books to ship across the ocean. Out of all of the books I hadn’t read yet but really wanted to, this was at the top of the list. So I tore through it during my last days in Pennsylvania and up the highways to Albany, then ended up re-homing it to my friend and hostess in Maine.

The black-and-white cover of Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton featuring a photograph of a desk illuminated by a lamp, as viewed through a window.
Image courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Author: May Sarton

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: May Sarton’s account of a year of living in the country

Recommended audience: Those interested in poetry and memoirs generally; those interested in queer writers specifically

In-depth thoughts: I could tell that I had started and stopped this book at least a few times: the first few entries were familiar to me, and I had dog-eared a page or two. Younger Me wanted to like this, or wanted to be the kind of person who liked this, but I guess she needed a few more years to be able to really get into it. Now Me couldn’t put this book down.

There isn’t much that happens, which is what you can expect from something titled Journal of a Solitude. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine, at any rate. There is also a directness and simplicity to her writing that pulls you along, and which is probably especially beneficial for English students. I think it’s exactly the kind of cozy book that makes for perfect winter reading.

Review: Crossings

I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.

Cover for Crossings by Jon Kerstetter
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Author: Jon Kerstetter

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.24 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor

Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology

In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.

I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.

What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.

As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?

Reveiw: American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. Incidentally, despite my struggles with brevity, I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing other people’s short writing. I have a friend on a short story kick who can attest to the extent of my cuts (and actually, you’ll blog-meet him soon enough). But the only way to get better at short-form writing is to read a lot of it, right? So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?

American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.

Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.

Author: Rick Bailey

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.22 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Those interested in short-form nonfiction writing, whether for its own sake or for the sake of improving their own.

In-depth thoughts: Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love! But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no “surprise” or “sublime” for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was “For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation,” which touches on one of his “non-traditional” (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn’t hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation, Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here’s the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:

“I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?”

It’s my turn to laugh. “Patrick Swayze?”

“In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation.” She gives me an embarrassed look. “Did you ever levitate?”

Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.

There’s probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen’s thoughts about it, and Bailey’s memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey’s own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?

I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.

I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.

While I might be tempted to point to one of these essays if I ever tackle personal essays or memoirs in a lesson, American English, Italian Chocolate was just not my cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to EFL students.

My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.

 

2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.

 

Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.

Novel

5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.