Men and Women, living together

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

What’s it about?
The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and their marriage from her point of view. It’s a counterpoint to A Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s own account of those years. The Paris Wife isn’t written as well – how could it be – but it does bring Hemingway’s life into view. We know about his writing and who he wanted to be, his projection of himself. We have less insight into his thoughts and very little information (at least from A Moveable Feast) of how he affected people around him. This posits how his first wife might have dealt with Hemingway, the man vs Hemingway, the author. Ms McLain goes to great pains, the afterword assures us, to be historically accurate.

Why should you read it?
Because Hemingway is both a brilliant writer and kind of an asshole. The Paris Wife documents his magnetism, but also his infidelities. Hadley was a naive, unworldly girl; she grew up because of him.  Hemingway turned 20th century literature into a man’s man’s world – so much of the literary establishment after him was men obsessed with themselves. I like to think The Paris Wife shows what happens to other people, particularly the women, in atmospheres like that. Perspective is important.

What’s a synonym for charming?

Isla and the Happily Ever After

What’s it about?
Isla and the Happily Ever After is a YA romance. Which means there’s a boy and there’s a girl and it takes place in freaking Paris. Of course. That said, it’s also about impostor syndrome. Josh and Isla, our couple, get together quickly for a romance. Most of the rest of the book is Ilsa convinced that her own insecurities make her an unworthy person. She is unique in the Stephanie Perkins books in that she doesn’t have a driving passion in her life, and that makes her feel less than worthy. So the rest of the book is about her learning to love herself.

Why should you read it?
Isla and the Happily Ever After could easily be schlocky, but it’s not. Isla isn’t as charming as Perkins’ other heroines (they’d be Anna and Lola), but the book is noticeably better written. Anna was a charming book, but you could see the outline in the story. Isla is slightly less charming, but a much more robust book. If you’ve read the first two, it’s worth picking up.

Are you asking the right question?

Think Like a Freak by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

What’s it about?
The previous Freakonomics books were both kind of the same: they told stories of surprising findings about society by looking at a problem differently. The first book was responsible for pointing out that swimming pools were more dangerous than guns, that legalizing abortions in the 1970s lead to a crime drop in the 1990s, and how sumo wrestlers cheat. How to Think Like a Freak sets out to teach you to get at underlying issues in your own life, by asking the right questions, by thinking more creatively, by saying “I don’t know,” by getting rid of preconceptions, and by getting yourself better feedback mechanisms.

Why should you read it?
Well, I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t. But for me, it inspired me to change a project that I’ve been working on already, specifically, to take on a series small improvements rather than fix everything all at once. It reinforced the idea that I should be admitting that there are aspects I don’t know about. I have grandiose ideas about how to change things, but grandiose will almost certainly fail. How can I make small changes that will hopefully add up to a larger change? I like that it had an immediate, practical impact on my life. How to Think Like a Freak might do something similar for you.

Glimpsing Western Civilization

God of Olympus by Barbara Graziosi

What’s it about?
The Gods of Olympus shows how the ancient Greek Olympians are portrayed throughout Western history, from archaic Greece (~800 bce) to the Renaissance (1500 ce), with many stops in between. It talks about historical realities (Augustus was portrayed as Apollo, Antony was Bacchus, to his detriment as the two were warring for control of the Roman Empire), and how the Olympians as characters changed and stayed the same.

Why should you read it?
It turns out that the history of the Olympians is a useful proxy for a history of Western civilization. As different cultures become ascendent, they tend to adopt the gods and portray them as their own. The Romans’ gods transformed from civic deities into cults of personality after they conquered the Greeks. The gods became personifications of nature during the Renaissance. I’ve never read another book quite like this one – there are plenty of stories about the Olympians, but not another book that traces their characters through history and reflecting that back on the culture. It was interesting.

Your favorite detective is back

Veronica Mars and the Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

What’s it about?
Veronica Mars and the Thousand Dollar Tan Line was written to appeal to fans of the series – it came out around the same time as the movie. It takes place after the film, so it’s a way for fans of the series to continue to get a glimpse into Neptune, CA. The actual plot is probably irrelevant to its target audience. (It’s Spring Break, all the undergrads have come to Neptune to party and tan, and a girl goes missing. The sheriff is particularly incompetent, so the local Chamber of Commerce hires Veronica.)

Why should you read it?
It turns out that Rob Thomas actually wrote a couple of YA books before moving on to television. While Veronica Mars and the Thousand Dollar Tan Line isn’t great, it is enjoyable and well constructed. All the plot threads tie up at the end. All your favorite characters are back. (Though there’s a depressing lack of Logan. Ah, Logan…) If you haven’t seen the show and movie, you’ll probably be at least a little confused – it doesn’t do much world building. Yes, it appears that this will become a book series, and yes, I’ll read the next one.

Darkness and Light

A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama

What’s it about?
A Hundred Flowers is about a family in a formerly well-to-do section of Shanghai. The grandfather is a retired professor. The father has been arrested, taken away, as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution because he wrote a letter suggesting improvements to the local government. It is amazing how much he’s in the story, given his absence. The mother is a healer. She has patients, prescribes them herbs and remedies, and sends them to the doctor when their problems are serious. The son is young and ambitious and climbs a tree, which he then falls out of. He breaks his leg and is bedridden for months. There are neighbors who help out. Another young woman, homeless, gives birth in the house and is taken in, adopted along with her baby.

Why should you read it?
Because Gail Tsukiyama writes about terrible, heavy subjects lightly and gracefully. She takes a huge thing – China during the Cultural Revolution – and turns it into a lovely story about a family and how much they love each other. The seriousness – the Cultural Revolution, sexual abuse, loneliness – combined with her light, lilting writing style is a wonder. Her characters are people whose anger and love are both portrayed intimately and realistically. Her books are amazing.

Derring-do in WWII

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinWhat’s it about?
A young woman – about 20 if my math is correct – becomes an Allied spy in WWII Britain. Her best friend, Maggie, is a pilot. The young woman is captured by the Germans whilst on a mission in France and forced to write a confession. The first half-ish is her confession, and the rest is Maggie’s experiences of the same time frame. It is, as the NYTimes says, “intricately plotted.” After you finish, you want to go back and read it again, just to make sure you got it all.

Why should you read it?
Code Name Verity is a rich story and a great thriller. Will they make it through?  What, exactly, is going on anyway?  I certainly hope that Hollywood adds it to their growing spate of movies from YA novels. It could make a great female action movie that passes the Bechdel test in spades; there would be plenty of women having conversations about war and jobs and family amongst all their derring-do.

The Yummiest Snack

avocado slices on toast with a sprinkle of salt
My new go-to snack

Avocado toast is simple and delicious! It’s the perfect snack, tasty and full of healthy fats. Throw a piece of gluten-free bread in the toaster. Once it’s done to your liking, smear a touch of mayo on the bread to help the avocado stick. Put your avocado slices on top and sprinkle a pinch of salt, and you’re done! Om nom.