The Voyage of the Book Sommelier

It’s been too long since I wrote one of these, readers, and I’m a bit rusty. I hope you enjoy these bookish combinations!

Broken People, by Sam Lansky v. Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko

Coping with mental illness is so multi-faceted that it’s no wonder so much of Western literature uses it to create characters and plots. (I’m leaving out other world literatures because I don’t know enough about them to generalize.) But I saw a connection between Broken People and Ceremony because the protagonists seek out traditional indigenous ways of healing to be able to function in the wider world. The difference between the two is that where Tayo of Ceremony is able to access an authentic experience with a medicine man of his own tribe, Sam of Broken People seeks out a healer who has cobbled together various philosophies from South America and Asia, combined it with ayahuasca, and is now a guru for people able to afford his fee. The contrast between the healing experiences in these two books had me thinking hard about lost knowledge, conditions Western medicine struggles to understand and treat, and who has the right to call themselves a healer.

Thin Girls, by Diana Clarke v. The Lightness, by Emily Temple – self-annihilation of young girls

Both of these books are troubling, triggering reads featuring what I see as young girls trying to annihilate themselves so that they can be a perfect reflection of someone else. The protagonist of Thin Girls, Rose, so wanted to be like her twin that she developed a near-deadly case of disordered eating. Olivia, of The Lightness, wanted to be what she thought her father sought for himself so much that she took on the identity of a spiritual seeker and disciple. Both books show these girls subsuming their own needs and desires until they find a way to break out of their self-denying thinking to realize that they, themselves, are worthy of expressing and living their own personalities.

A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black v. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

This one’s a bit of a cheat because I mentioned this pairing in my review of Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, but I’m going to recommend it again. Both of these novels are based on real accusations of witchcraft in Germany, told in two different ways. A Demon-Haunted Land is straight-up historical nonfiction about the rise of faith healers and witch denunciations after World War II. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is a fictional account of the legal trials of Katharina Kepler, mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. Looking at what leads to neighbors accusing each other of witchcraft from outside (A Demon-Haunted Land) and inside (Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch) is a fascinating way to understand the sometimes deadly phenomenon.

We Keep the Dead Close, by Becky Cooper v. Somebody at the Door, by Raymond Postgate

Authors who write mysteries tend to go for taut plots that race along in an effort to increase narrative tension and keep readers turning those pages. True crime authors often do the same, with some allowances for deeper discussions about larger social or legal issues. These two books throw that model right out the window to show us how messy an actual investigation might be. In We Keep the Dead Close, Cooper investigates a long-cold case from the late 1960s. Without DNA and very little forensic evidence, investigators were stuck looking into everyone’s business as they tried to find a killer. Raymond Postgate’s novel, Somebody at the Door, contains a case where everyone had a motive to kill the victim. Lots of dirty laundry comes out in both of these books, making me wonder how on earth detectives discern between clues that are genuinely evidence, red herrings, and stuff that just looks bad.

The Book Sommelier Strikes Back (Part VII)

It’s been a while since the last episode of the Book Sommelier, but I have some fresh combinations for readers looking for a bookish shot and chaser.

The Volunteer, by Salvatore Scibona, and East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Sometimes when I read book, Bible verses bubble up from the depths of my brain, from when I was being brought up as a Lutheran. (This is particularly weird given that I’m an atheist. Funny how words stick in my brain.) In the case of The Volunteer and East of Eden, I couldn’t help but think of the verse from Exodus, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (KJV). The sins of the fathers in both The Volunteer and East of Eden are definitely visited on their descendants, though not quite all the way to the third and fourth generations. Both of these books had me thinking about the ways that a father’s expectations for their sons and the way that father raises those sons can work at odds. I would recommend this pairing for fans of generational sagas.

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, and The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

Both Ella Minnow Pea and The Memory Police begin with small, isolated communities. And both deal with the slow disappearance of meaning. Without language (in Ella Minnow Pea) and without names (in The Memory Police), we loose our grips on the world around us. Things becomes strange and unsettling when we don’t have words with which to understand them. Both novels are fascinating thought experiments, grounded in excellent character development. Ella Minnow Pea has a lighter tone than The Memory Police; I often found it funny, until events get completely out of control.

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

Pet Sematary and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes have similar theses, shocking thought it might seem. Both of these books reveal just how strange we are about death in an age with so much life-extending medicine. We don’t encounter death as much as we did in previous centuries. King’s novel provides evidence of the way that parents squirm when it comes to explaining death to their children. As I read Pet Sematary, I was strongly reminded of Doughty, who wrote that we’ve lost our rituals for dealing with death. This may be my strangest pairing yet, but I think readers will get a kick out of reading these books back-to-back.

The Bride of the Book Sommelier (Part VI)

It’s time for another edition of the Book Sommelier! Here are some new pairings for you:

Mother Country, by Irina Reyn, and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky

A lot of American literature is immigrant literature. There are so many novels about people leaving (or fleeing) to other countries for safety or economic opportunity that it’s refreshing to find stories that have a different version of the immigrant experience. In Mother Country and The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, we see two women—one Russian and one Ukrainian—doing everything they can to get their children into a better place. And both of these stories have twists. In one, Mother Country, the mother forgets to consider that her child might want something different than what they planned. And in the other, we see a mother who believes that the ends always justify her unscrupulous means. 

Atonement, by Ian McEwan, and The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay

I usually scorn books about rich people. I have a very hard time relating to them because, even though their problems are real, I struggle to sympathize with people who have money to smooth their paths through life. But it seems, with these two books, I have found an exception to my aversion. These masterfully written books feature characters who create catastrophes with their unthinking, entitled actions, but then later have to face up to the consequences and seek to make up for those actions. The settings in these books are also fantastic, with bonus points to Atonement for the way it plays around with time lines. 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman and The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke

I mentioned in my review of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura the coincidence of reading these books close to each other, but I wanted to bring it up again because the pairing is just so perfect. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down presents a nonfiction account of a (very) young Hmong with severe epilepsy caught in the middle of Hmong culture and Western medicine. Fadiman’s book floored me—and I liked it a lot—but The Fox and Dr. Shimamura‘s fictional version of the same conflict added a perspective I needed. Where Fadiman clearly portrays the opposing sides, who will not budge, Wunnicke gives us a story of a person actually caught in the middle. Wunnicke’s Dr. Shimamura provides a glimpse at the possibility of hybridity. (Sorry to get academic right there at the end, but I couldn’t think of a non jargon word for “creating something new out of one or more ways of life in an effort to survive conflict.”)

A Flavorful Menu of Books

Genre doesn’t always capture what to expect from a book. Sometimes, some books have something ineffable about them, like a flavor. So, based on the popularity of the Netflix series, based on the book by Samin Nosrat, I offer a menu of salty, fatty, acidic, and hot books. (This also gives me a chance to recommend books that I really liked that I don’t often get a chance to talk about.)

Salt: These books are books with an arch sense of humor, books that are more likely to make the corner of your mouth smirk than make you laugh out loud. Salty books are witty, that say something we’ve all been thinking but don’t want to say because it might be a little too mean.

Fat: These books are unctuous, rich. They make you feel like you’ve had a full meal and, possibly, leave you with a book hangover.

Acid: These books burn. They’re not for everyone, but they are the kind of books that Kafka advocated to break through our frozen, internal seas. (It turns out I read a lot of this kind of book.)

Heat: These books warm us up, comfort us, and leave us with a cozy glow inside.

The Book Sommelier Rides Again (Part V)

It’s time again for the Book Sommelier! Here are some pairings I’ve thought up since the last Sommelier post.

342752321In the House in the Dark of the Woods, by Laird Hunt, and The Hazel Woodby Melissa Albert

We tend to think of folklore as pretty well established (though pedants might quibble about urban legends). When it comes to fairy tales, we can all pretty much recognize the archetype and predict what will happen by the end of the story. But in these two novels, the authors give us background stories that have the feel of folklore but have new details. These new details almost stole my attention away from the actual plot. They certainly had me wishing for more.

Insurrecto, by Gina Apostal, and Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Both of these novels feature someone trying to solve the mystery of a film maker. The details of setting are different, of course, but the characters end up on a journey that resembles the genre the film maker used. Both film makers worked in horror, so the protagonists of these novels end up on strange and sometimes scary journeys. These two novels also explore revisionism. With each new clue, the protagonists have to find a way to assimilate information that upsets everything they thought they new. For readers who like to get a story plus an opportunity to think about how stories and reputations are constructions. Also, they’ve both got plenty of tension to keep the deep thoughts from slowing things down.

37570619The Kinship of Secrets, by Eugenia Kim, and The Light Between Oceansby M.L. Stedman

In both of these novels, historical events have conspired to separate a child from its parents. The separations have the characters—and us—wrestling with the ethical and emotional repercussions for years. The novels approach these repercussions from different angles. In The Light Between Oceans, the protagonist frets in the middle of a terrible situation where two women have almost equal claims to a found child. In The Kinship of Secrets, the protagonist is a child who as left behind when her parents fled the beginning of a war. The more she bonds with her relatives, the less she wants to reunite with her parents. And yet, she can’t help but wonder why she was left behind and what her life might have been like if her parents had taken her along.

Bon appetit!


Son of the Book Sommelier (Part IV)

The Book Sommelier is back! Here are some recommended pairings for your delectation:

33503519Creatures of Will and Temper, by Molly Tanzer and What Should be Wild, by Julia Fine 

Even though they are quite different, I saw a common theme in these books. Humans, especially women, are trained away from sensuality—by which I mean giving freedom to their senses and seeking out pleasure or fully exploring their connections to the natural world. We are warned away from these joys with terrible consequences. In these two books, we see temptations and warnings both. At the end of them, we are left to recalibrate our own measure of how much freedom we should give ourselves.

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck, and The Question of Redby Laksmi Pamuntjak

Both of these novels explore the idea of whether or not a name means destiny. Amatka is literal about this, The Question of Red more philosophical. I am fascinated by language. It’s the idea that random collections of syllables can contain so much meaning only because the speakers of a particular language decided that they should. Reading the pair of these books gave me a chance to see what might happen when too much meaning is invested in those random syllables. This paragraph might sound too academic, but these two books are great reads.

87280I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis, and Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

Being a terminal bookworm and a librarian, I am drawn to books about books. These two books definitely fit the bill because they book look at what happens when there are too many books. (Fellow bookworms, stop clutching your pearls! This does happen.) In I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, booky people try desperately to save the last copies of books before they’re lost forever. In Too Loud a Solitude, a baler struggles against the tide of discarded books. On the one hand, it’s true that libraries have no place for books that are damaged, obsolete, or outside of the mission of the library. On the other, it’s wrenching to get rid of books. Throwing away a book feels like vandalism. These two books share a passion for the written word and a quixotic quest to save what others have tossed out.

The Revenge of the Book Sommelier (Part III)

A have some new book pairing suggestions for you, gentle readers. Two of the pairings are non-fiction/fiction duos. The non-fiction gives us the reality, while the fiction takes us into the minds of protagonists. By reading both, I think, we get a richer sense of history than we might if we read just non-fiction or fiction. The other pairing is for readers who like their mysteries erudite.

For your reading pleasure, I recommend:

19322250The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, and Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning is a seminal book about the Holocaust, written by Frankl who survived being interned at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. His book discusses how he and other survivors lived long enough to see the end of the war. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel that follows a fictional survivor of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Thailand. It may seem callous to compare the plight of actual Holocaust survivors and victims to fictional characters, but what I like about this combination is that the novel takes us inside the head of a man who lived through extreme deprivation, disease, and cruel guards who would kill their prisoners at the drop of a hat while the non-fiction book provides psychological guidance. The Narrow Road to the Deep North resonated strongly with what I remembered from Man’s Search for Meaning.

The Readymade Thief, by August Rose, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Both of these unusual thrillers revolve around works of art that may or may not have supernatural powers. In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the protagonists follow a trail of clues scattered through a strange series of books. In The Readymade Thief, the protagonist is in a race to figure out the secrets of one of Marcel Duchamps’ sculptures. Both novels are academic mysteries that just delighted me. I much prefer mysterious-cultural-work-that-could-change-everything novels when they don’t have anything to do with Christianity.

36011536On the House, by Helen Maskew, and Damnation Island, by Stacy Horn

Like the first pairing in this post, these two novels work together because one is fiction and the other non-fiction. Damnation Island covers the history of Blackwell’s Island, New York, which housed a prison, an asylum, a hospital, a workhouse, and poorhouses. New York’s indigent population were shipped in hordes to Blackwell’s Island during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The statistics and events recounted in Damnation Island offer background for On the House, which takes place in workhouse in nineteenth century England. The novel brings the history to life and makes all those statistics even more affecting. I particularly like this pairing because I feel that the history of workhouses and how the poor were treated never comes up in history classes, at least until one gets to university. This is unfortunate because it is a piece of social history that I think we still haven’t found a way, as a society, to lift people up out of poverty.


The Book Sommelier Returns (Part II)

For your reading delectation, I present these book pairings:

43944Suite Française and A Country Road, A Tree

Both of these books at set in France in 1940, just after the Nazi invasion in June. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is looks at different characters affected by the sudden coming of war, based on what happened to the author. Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree, is also based on an author’s life. It tells Samuel Beckett’s wartime story as though he was a character in one of his own sparely written existentialist works. The fact that these books are based on real history makes them especially gripping reading.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

These books might have been written just for me. They both explore the tension between the law and justice. The main characters in these novels are criminals. In The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, the eponymous character is on death row for murder, but there’s some question about whether she’s actually guilty. There’s a similar question about the protagonist in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both characters end up punished for what they were accused of, and they both have criminal deeds in their background, but we are asked to ponder whether it’s just to be punished for the wrong crime.

853510Somebody at the Door and Murder on the Orient Express

I think of these books as opposite sides of the same coin. They have similar crimes at their heart: a man is murdered and there are a bunch of suspects, all with good motives for killing the man. There are also trains. While we learn who-done-it in Murder on the Orient Express, we never do in Somebody at the Door. Both novels are masterful explorations of the classic mystery. The murder itself is complex. Every clue might be genuine or a red herring. But the difference in the solutions (or the lack of solutions) makes one wonder about what might send someone over the edge to commit murder.

Book Pairings; Or, I play book sommelier

This post is inspired by Laura Sackton, who wrote about “When the Books You’re Reading Start Talking to Each Other.” In the last two years, I’ve read three serendipitous book pairings that I’d like to share with the group:

8bceddffe3953d07731a586987554c90On Refugees: The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, and Live from Cairo, by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Both of these books feature desperate people who are trying to leave Egypt (or a place like Egypt). The Queue gives us a Kafka-esque battle by locals against a determinedly ineffective government. Live from Cairo also features a frustrating bureaucracy, but from the perspective of outsiders who want to help but can’t. The inside/outside perspectives on refugees casts a critical light on a broken, inhumane system.

On Reincarnations: Reincarnation Bluesby Michael Poore, and The Trials of Solomon Parkerby Eric Scott Fischl

Both of these books feature two men who get the chance to remedy their mistakes. The idea is that they are supposed to learn from those mistakes and become better men, but they go in completely different directions. Reading them close together set me to thinking about questions of human nature, whether we really can learn from our mistakes, and what it means to be good.

On HungerA Square Mealby Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, and Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

These two books cover contemporaneous periods of time, during extreme deprivation, yet show two extremely different government responses to hardship. In the United States, unregulated speculation caused a economic collapse. So many people were out of work that existing charity was swamped and (albeit reluctantly) the government finally stepped in to help. Meanwhile, in Soviet Ukraine, impossible grain policies lead to a man-made famine that killed millions. Aid was deliberately refused. These two books are stark, fascinating contrasts.

Does anyone else have any recommended book pairs?