Saturday, November 22, 2014

6 Good Books to Check Out This Winter

Looking for a good book to curl up with? Here are six great reads, three of which (marked with an asterisk *) are among my favorites of 2014. (As per usual, books are listed alphabetically by author. Also, if you want to see my previous recommendation, just click on the BOOK NOOK label at the bottom of the post.)

*Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander. Nonfiction. This book is for everyone who has ever attempted to brush up on their high school language skills or tried to learn a new language after the age of 40 (or 35, or 22).

More than a memoir, Flirting with French chronicles Alexander's attempt to master French at the age of 59 and shares some of the science behind language acquisition and its effect on the brain. As per usual, Alexander, the author of 52 Loaves, about his adventures in bread-making (which I also recommend), imbues his tale (and struggles) with frankness and humor. Highly recommend (and not just because I happened to read it while trying to learn Italian and could totally relate.)

*Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Fiction. A powerful, moving, beautifully written coming-of-age story about two motherless teenage girls, half-sisters, trying to make a life for and support themselves in 1940s America. The older sister, Iris, whose mother has just died at the opening of the book, and has no idea she has a half-sister, harbors dreams of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. The younger sister, Eva, the illegitimate daughter of Iris's philandering, no-good-but-charming father, doesn't know what she wants -- and is unceremoniously dumped on Iris's doorstep, or in her parlor, the day of Iris's mother's funeral, by her mother.

Eva quickly forms a bond with Iris and commits to helping her in her quest to become a movie star. Soon, the girls are fleeing Ohio, and their father (who has been stealing from Iris), for Hollywood. Soon, Iris gets noticed by studio executives and seems to be on her way -- until circumstances conspire against her. Soon after, she is forced to flee, traveling back across the country to New York, with the help of a studio hairdresser, Diego, who has befriended her, dragging along Eva -- and her father, who shows up on her doorstep just as she is about to leave.

With the help of Diego and his sisters, Iris and her father land jobs as a governess and butler to a nouveau riche Italian family in Great Neck, while Eva works in Diego's sisters' hair salon in Brooklyn. However, once again, Iris's ambition (and passion) wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of others around them, and as Iris is sent off to war-torn London, Eva is left to pick up the pieces in New York and find a way to support herself.

I can't adequately put into words why I loved this book, but I did.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. Romance. I love a good Indian novel -- and I love a good romantic tale. So I was predisposed to like A Bollywood Affair. A humorous yet heartfelt tale of mistaken identity, and mistaken assumptions, A Bollywood Affair tells the story of Mili Rathod, a good, naive girl from a small village in India who is married at four to a boy not much older than she is -- and never sees again. After waiting nearly 18 years, however, she decides on a whim to apply for a grant to study in the United States, thinking that she will become more desirable to her estranged husband, a pilot, if she is better educated. 

Her betrothed, however, has no idea that he and Mili are still married, thinking the marriage was annulled long ago. And is, in fact, expecting his first child with his beautiful wife. When he discovers that his current marriage may be void, he panics and turns to his brother, Samir, a bad boy Bollywood director with movie star good looks, to help him. Soon after, Sam tracks down Mili in Michigan, where she is studying Sociology on a grant and slaving away in a Chinese restaurant, washing dishes. But he finds he is unable to serve her with the papers that will annul her marriage. 

You can probably figure out the rest, though the story features many unexpected, often poignant, sometimes very funny, twists and turns. 

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer. Fiction. When “Sasha” Karnokovitch's mother, Rachela, a mathematical prodigy considered one of the greatest mathematician's of her time, or of any time, passes away at her home in Madison, Wisconsin, in the dead of winter, a kind of Pandora's box is opened. For it is rumored that before she died, Professor Karnokovitch may have solved one of the greatest unsolved math problems. As a result, her death and shiva become an excuse for dozens of  her (eccentric) fellow mathematicians to fly in from around the world to mourn her and celebrate her -- and dig around her house and office to find the elusive solution.

Both poignant and funny, The Mathematician's Shiva, is part (fictional) biography, with flashbacks to Rachela's hardscrabble childhood in Siberia, part mystery, and full of wonderful characters.

Note: You don't have to be a mathematician, or fond of math, or a Jewish intellectual of Eastern European or Russian descent to enjoy or appreciate the book, but it vouldn't hoit.

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers. One of the better, and better written, memoirs I've read in a while. (No doubt in large part thanks to Ms. Chambers.) You don't have to be a gourmet chef or a foodie to enjoy this book, but it helps.

The memoir begins with Samuelsson's hazy recollection of his biological Ethiopian mother, who he doesn't even have a picture of, and how he and his sister are adopted by a kindly Swedish couple who cannot have children. He then describes his childhood in Sweden, his love of food, developed while cooking with his Swedish grandmother, his desire to travel the world and embrace the flavors of other cultures, and his ambition to be not just a good chef but a great one.

While food and cooking feature prominently, Yes, Chef is also the story of a young man finding his way in the world -- his disappointments and mistakes, his challenges and triumphs. I didn't always like or admire Samuelsson while reading this book, or at least the young Samuelsson, but I could appreciate his journey.

(FWIW, The spouse and I actually met Samuelsson at a dinner years ago and were pleasantly surprised by how gracious and modest he was. And man can he cook! So I curious to read his memoir. Also, both the spouse and the teenager read Yes, Chef when it came out in 2012 and liked it very much.)

*The Heist by Daniel Silva. Mystery/Espionage. This was my first Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon spy novel, and even though it is the 14th book in the series, The Heist stands on its own merits, and Silva does an excellent job of making new readers to the series not feel like they've missed something.

Taking you on an adventure around Europe, The Heist opens in Venice, where we find Silva's protagonist, an Israeli art restorer and spy, restoring  an altarpiece by Veronese. However, when a former (fallen) English spy, known to deal in stolen artwork, is found brutally murdered in his Lake Como villa by a London art dealer friend of Allon's, and word on the street is that the deceased may have been hiding or trafficking a famous missing masterpiece by Caravaggio, Allon is forced out of semi-retirement and sets off to find the Caravaggio and the killer(s).

Lovers of spy novels and books about art heists, especially ones set in exotic locales, should greatly enjoy The Heist. I did.

So what have you all been reading? Anything you'd recommend? If so, please leave a Comment.

And before any of you tell me I have to read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, it's on my list. (Just waiting for my turn at the library.)

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