Books released this week: January 18-24

I’ve received advance notification of forthcoming books for so long, I hardly glance at them anymore. When I was a librarian in charge of purchasing, Publishers Weekly and Booklist were my bibles; I scoured them cover to cover. As a reviewer with a couple decades’ worth of experience, I cannot be arsed. And since the pandemic started, publishers are sending out fewer books to tempt me back, so there goes that avenue, as well.

Because I’m an insufferable ass, despite my inattention I grumble I cannot keep up with all the new books being published, that, by the end of every year, I’ve heard of so few notable books on the “best of” lists. I could keep claiming books section editors are making up titles to make the rest of us feel stupid, or I could actually get back to consulting my sources.

I could pay attention. Be present and mindful, as the Buddhists say.

All this serves as preamble to sharing a list of a few notable books publishing within the next week. Some made my coveted list for intrinsic literary value, some for their celebration of diversity and written by an author I respect. Others, the mood just struck me. They sounded like something I’d buy.

The majority is non-fiction, and it’s a pretty stellar crop. Follow the links to sign up for a weekly roundup of things bookish from one of my regular sources. If you read any of them, I’d love to hear what you think.

Enjoy!

ADMISSIONS: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James (Memoir)
Early on in Kendra James’ professional life, she began to feel like she was selling a lie. As an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she persuaded students and families to embark on the same perilous journey she herself had made — to attend cutthroat and largely white schools similar to The Taft School, where she had been the first African-American legacy student only a few years earlier. Her new job forced her to reflect on her own elite education experience, and to realize how disillusioned she had become with America’s inequitable system.
Grand Central Publishing | 9781538753484

Visit this blog to enter a giveaway for this title.

The New York Times

FREE: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Memoir)
For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. When the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime and sex trafficking. With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort — here recounted with outstanding literary talent.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393867732

The New York Times

This, about the backlash the author endured, from The Guardian.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J. Shields (Biography)
Written when she was just 28, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark A RAISIN IN THE SUN is listed by the National Theatre as one of the hundred most significant works of the 20th century. Hansberry was the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway, and the first Black and youngest American playwright to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award. Charles J. Shields’ authoritative biography of one of the 20th century’s most admired playwrights examines the parts of Hansberry’s life that have escaped public knowledge: the influence of her upper-class background, her fight for peace and nuclear disarmament, the reason why she embraced Communism during the Cold War, and her dependence on her white husband — her best friend, critic and promoter.
Henry Holt and Co. | 9781250205537

Kirkus (a venue I personally find borderline offensive, but it has name recognition, doesn’t it)

MANIFESTO: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo (Memoir)
Bernardine Evaristo’s nonfiction debut is a vibrant and inspirational account of her life and career as she rebelled against the mainstream and fought over several decades to bring her creative work into the world. With her characteristic humor, Evaristo describes her childhood as one of eight siblings, with a Nigerian father and white Catholic mother, tells the story of how she helped set up Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, remembers the queer relationships of her 20s, and recounts her determination to write books that were absent in the literary world around her. She provides a hugely powerful perspective to contemporary conversations around race, class, feminism, sexuality and aging.
Grove Press | 9780802158901

The New York Times (apologies if you hit their paywall – I did and it reminded me I need to re-subscribe to digital)

The Guardian, as an alternative

THE BLACK CHURCH: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (History)
For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, residentially segregated West Virginia town, the church was a center of gravity — an intimate place where voices rose up in song and neighbors gathered to celebrate life’s blessings and offer comfort amid its trials and tribulations. In this tender and expansive reckoning with the meaning of the Black Church in America, Gates takes us on a journey spanning more than five centuries, from the intersection of Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade to today’s political landscape. At road’s end, and after Gates’ distinctive meditation on the churches of his childhood, we emerge with a new understanding of the importance of African American religion to the larger national narrative.
Penguin Books | 9781984880352

Streaming on PBS

The Washington Post

THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura (Biography)
Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of “ordinary” womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849, she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, who was actually the more brilliant physician. Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies and enduring partnership, Janice P. Nimura presents a story of trial and triumph.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9781324020202

NPR

The New York Times

LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester (History/Economics)
Land — whether meadow or mountainside, desert or peat bog, parkland or pasture, suburb or city — is central to our existence. It quite literally underlies and underpins everything. In LAND, Simon Winchester examines what we human beings are doing — and have done — with the billions of acres that together make up the solid surface of our planet. The book examines in depth how we acquire land, how we steward it, how and why we fight over it, and finally, how we can, and on occasion do, come to share it. Ultimately, Winchester confronts the essential question: Who actually owns the world’s land — and why does it matter?
Harper Perennial | 9780062938343

The Washington Post

A PREVIOUS LIFE by Edmund White (Fiction/Humor)
Sicilian aristocrat and musician Ruggero and his younger American wife, Constance, agree to break their marital silence and write their Confessions. Until now they had a ban on speaking about the past, since transparency had wrecked their previous marriages. As the two alternate reading the memoirs they’ve written about their lives, Constance reveals her multiple marriages to older men, and Ruggero details the affairs he’s had with men and women across his lifetime — most importantly his passionate affair with the author Edmund White.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577273

The New York Times

Bookmarks/Lit Hub

VIOLETA by Isabel Allende (Historical Fiction)
Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920. From the start, her life is marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth. Through her father’s prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses everything and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling. She tells her story in the form of a letter to someone she loves above all others, recounting times of devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, poverty and wealth, terrible loss and immense joy.
Ballantine Books | 9780593496206

Publishers Weekly

LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN by Joan Didion (Essays)
These 12 pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. Here, Joan Didion touches on topics ranging from newspapers (“the problem is not so much whether one trusts the news as to whether one finds it”), to the fantasy of San Simeon, to not getting into Stanford. In “Why I Write,” Didion ponders the act of writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” From her admiration for Hemingway’s sentences to her acknowledgment that Martha Stewart’s story is one “that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men,” these essays are acutely and brilliantly observed.
Vintage | 9780593312193

NPR

A SAINT FROM TEXAS by Edmund White (Fiction)
Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters, born on a humble patch of East Texas prairie but bound for far more dramatic and tragic fates. Just as an untold fortune of oil lies beneath their daddy’s land, both girls harbor their own secrets and dreams — ones that will carry them far from Texas and from each other. As the decades unfold, Yvonne will ascend the highest ranks of Parisian society as Yvette gives herself to a lifetime of worship and service in the streets of Jericó, Colombia. And yet, even as they remake themselves in their radically different lives, the twins find that the bonds of family and the past are unbreakable.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577051

The New York Times

Washington Independent Review of Books

THE SWALLOWED MAN by Edward Carey (Historical Fantasy)
A lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, Giuseppe — better known as Geppetto — carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams…and the boy, Pinocchio, escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories — whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away.
Riverhead Books | 9780593188880

The Washington Post

The Chicago Review of Books

la cuisine du weekend: baking, roasting, and dehydrating

Aside from work and things book-related, I actually have a few other interests. In winter, especially, indoor diversions keep me from going stir-crazy as I continue to respect the wildly-contagious Omicron variant, hoping with spring comes better understanding what to expect from 2022.

Double-vaxxed and boosted, I’m still not messing around.

This marks two weekends in a row my interest in cooking has reared its head. If you follow me on Instagram (and if not, why not), you may recall the rather impressive array of gourmet cookery that went on in the tiny lockdown kitchen I had at my former apartment. An inability to concentrate kept me from enjoying books; I needed something to keep me from screaming, apart from binging ridiculous TV and engaging in ill-advised, socially-distant dating I’m still struggling to forget.

Apparently extreme domesticity was a fairly effective antidote to compulsively watching the CNN body count. While I am capable of cooking well, I’ve never managed to sustain it. Binges like that in 2020 aren’t uncommon for me. I’m also not great at following recipes, in part because buying loads of specialty spices and cookware is cost-prohibitive; if I’m going to blow large wads of cash, this isn’t generally where I’d start, though I did order a mandolin slicer today. And some mason jars.

Okay, fine.

The last time I followed a very complicated recipe was Christmas 2020, when I made that outrageous English Christmas cake – essentially a boozy fruitcake. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ingredients cost upwards of $ 40. I didn’t keep track, to be honest. The thing weighed at least five pounds (I “fed” it peach brandy ever day, adding to the weight), and hung around so long I became heartily sick of it and had to chuck it. Had that been a normal year, I’d have forced pieces on friends and family. If I make it again, I’ll either cut the recipe in half or have a better distribution plan. Or both, actually. That was a whole lot of cake and very calorie-dense.

Because I have the metabolism of a sloth, I cannot keep large quantities of rich food lingering in the kitchen. When I have these weekend cooking binges I try to limit the size of each dish to allow me to eat one portion over the weekend, then store the rest in containers for meals during the week. On weekdays, my calories are much more restrictive than on weekends, another challenge when it comes to making the right amount of food. I came upon the term “small plates” while searching cookbooks today. If not exactly Spanish tapas, the concept is the same. It consists of small quantities of very tasty food, which is exactly my goal – small dishes, as well as versatility in using leftovers and/or safely storing for a period of time.

This book’s on my shortlist to buy, exactly the sort of menu I’m shooting for:

This was the second weekend running that I made the same small-loaf crusty bread recipe. Last weekend it didn’t rise enough. Though it came out tasting well, it was a bit dense. I let it rise in a warmer place this time, throwing in fresh-ground Italian herbs. It was cooked through, but lacked the same crispy crust. I baked it with a pan of water on the lower rack, as suggested in the recipe, but I’ve read several places a dutch oven is the best way to achieve optimal crust and uniform baking. I expect I’ll cave and buy one, seeing how much I do like having fresh bread on weekends. Dutch ovens are also great for stews and roasts.

Not quite a fail – isn’t it pretty?

Thanks to an over-zealous Instacart shopper, my last grocery delivery brought too many clementine oranges, sweet peppers, and gala apples. My lovely convection oven/air fryer/toaster oven also has both dehydration and rotisserie capability I’ve never used. The clementines were the first fruit I dehydrated. They’re good as a snack as they are, in other recipes, and as a garnish. I made an orange cake, using some of the grated clementine peel and juice, and still have loads more of the fruit.

It came out delicious, even better the second day after it had been sealed overnight. I ate some of it, slicing the rest, wrapping it well, and throwing it into the freezer for a future treat. As for the other clementines, those I don’t put aside for consumption as is – some of the fruit is a bit soft, not yet spoiled but on the way – I will either dehydrate or make into a marmalade. I’ve done that before, making a very simple recipe that doesn’t require pectin. It’s wonderful used in muffin batter or just spreading on bread. It’s a nice extra sweet topping to have on hand and stays fresh for weeks in the fridge.

Thought I’d overbaked it, but overnight it improved a lot

The sweet peppers are so versatile I wasn’t concerned how I’d use them all. I’ve had 8 oz in the dehydrator at least twelve hours now, which seems ridiculous, but it takes a very long time at low heat. Once they’ve dried they can be crumbled into soups or stews as a flavoring agent, in eggs or other savory dishes, or eaten as is. I’m going to put them in canning jars to seal tightly while I mull over how to use them.

The other 8 oz from the same bag I roasted with mushrooms in the oven, in an olive oil, herb, and parmesan cheese marinade. The intent was originally blending it into a soup, but then I opened the cabinet door and saw pasta. I don’t eat it often anymore, which is weird because I was married to an Italian for 25 years and used to consume pasta in various forms all the time. I roughly blended the pepper mix and tossed it on the noodles. It was so, so good.

Some of the Italian herb bread became homemade croutons, for salad. Those were tossed in pretty much the same marinade as the peppers and mushrooms, added with fresh, chopped parsley. I have at least two more meals’ worth of pasta, plus plenty of salad to go with it.

Peppers chopped in half with sliced mushrooms, roasted half an hour in the oven, thrown in the blender.

My company gives us MLK Day off, so spending all of Saturday and Sunday in the kitchen still leaves me time to clean my apartment, plus spend time reading my third book of 2022. I didn’t go into the weekend intending to make this much food. It just kind of happened. Looking back, it’s satisfying having created all these tasty things.

January and February always feel eternal. The older I get, the more I despise the cold and wonder why on earth I’m still living in the Chicago metro area, when my job leaves me free to move anywhere in the country. Cooking helps the winter months pass quicker, leaving enough time to plan vacation when it warms up, work on my reading list, and dream of warmth.

Plus, my apartment smells heavenly.

What’s on the menu for next weekend? I have a few ideas, including plans for some of that rice I bought just ahead of the state of Illinois declaring shelter-in-place back in 2020. Gives me something to look forward to, which is no small thing at all.

2022, Chapter One: In which our heroine accepts a challenge!

End of the story first: I just finished reading my second book of 2022, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I’m not sure when a book last gave me actual chills – not hyperbolic chills but goosebumps, hair standing on end.

Holy hell.

This comes immediately on the heels of the book I finished the first week of January, a collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces by Shirley Jackson titled Let Me Tell You. In contrast to Didion, Jackson’s book was uneven. In contrast to Didion, I don’t see anything else measuring up until I’ve calmed down from the high of THAT NOVEL. But it’s unfair comparing a posthumous compilation of early and uncollected pieces the author may never have consented to publishing with a critically-acclaimed stunner of a novel that slaps you across the face, drags you up the road a piece, then leaves you for dead.

I should not have connected with Play It As It Lays. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, if I were trying to come up with three places I’m less interested in it would take a minute. Fortunately, the book’s not about places. It’s a study of a woman living with the consequences of her choices in 1960s America. Maria Wyeth is an actress who plays the Hollywood game. She sleeps around, throws herself haphazardly into life, literally drives long distances for days with no direction. Already unstable, the inevitable choice to have an abortion upends her world, sending her spiralling. Without sympathy, unmoored, she cracks.

Didion (1934 – 2021) was an admirer of Hemingway, to put her style in context. She was a journalist-novelist: sparing and precise. While learning her craft, she copied out long passages of Hemingway’s writings. I’m not positive the student didn’t surpass the master.

Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), of course, is known primarily as the author of the macabre short story “The Lottery,” as well as her two most popular novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter adapted into a Netflix series. Her themes are supernatural, modern American gothics. Her nonfiction can be charming and witty, as I learned from Let Me Tell You. Though some of the stories did let me down, the pieces compelled enough I pulled out the bio of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Both modern American writers, I haven’t put enough thought into their similarities to pull out the ways they mesh. I’m sure those exist but I didn’t juxtapose these two with an intention to dive in deeply. What brings them together is my list of 12 books I plan to read in 2022, books I’ve had on my shelves over a year and not yet read. Organized by Adam Burgess of the blog Roof Beam Reader, the specifics of the project are explained on his site.

There’s no conscious intent behind the books I chose, though interconnections are everywhere, no matter what you initially believe. As I read more by and about Jackson and Didion – which I’d like to do, having whetted my appetite with my first two reads of the year – I will find elements that resonate with the both of them. I’ve given up not assuming a universal law of attraction. Nothing supernatural, just an acknowledgment of interconnectivity in all things.

Superficially glancing through their respective Wikipedia articles, both these American women writers were born in California, their lives overlapping by some 30-some years (I hate math). Did they meet, I don’t know. Were they aware of each other, certainly Didion would have known of Jackson, though she hadn’t published much before Jackson’s death so it’s not too likely the other way around. Any similarities between a modern gothic writer and a journalist? I’m sure Jackson’s work extends beyond her most popular pieces. Maybe?

Speaking of resonating with gothic horror, welcome to 2022. It’s only the 10th and I’ve finished two books. Not leaving without a fight, 2021 ended with my first Covid test of the pandemic – negative, thank the gods.

My year went mostly well, everyone I love made it through, and I’m trying not to get over-confident 2022 will hold anything grand or I’ll just let myself down, won’t I.

Let’s focus on these beauties:

2022 TBR Challenge Reads – The List

The challenge is to choose 12 books – one for each month – plus two alternates, should any of the 12 prove impossible or just plain too long to finish.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
2. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland
3. Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee
4. Soul of the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life – JC Oates
5. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography – Philip Roth
6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
7. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion – finished
8. Hill – Jean Giono
9. Blindness – Henry Green
10. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings – Shirley Jackson – finished
11. Lucy Gayheart – Willa Cather
12. On Being Ill – Virginia Woolf

Alternates:

Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

I’ve cut down social media – save Instagram – to free up more time for reading and apparently that helped. I’ll be reading other books but these twelve I’ve hand-selected for this specific project.

Welcome to 2022.

Allons-y, y’all.