Thursday, December 31, 2020

My Favorites of 2020

 2020 was trying and books came to the rescue more than ever. Here are my top ten for the year:

  1. Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick

  2. To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

  3. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova

  4. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

  5. Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

  6. A Burning by Megha Majumdar

  7. The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border by Rosayra Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Collazo

  8. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

  9. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

  10. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Setting down roots as a Pakistani Muslim American. Claiming America as home despite constantly being branded as the other. These tropes might sound like worn ground but they’re sheer dynamite in this awe-inspiring, semi-autobiographical novel. Akhtar tears open every wound on the collective American psyche, while chronicling the straight path from the ‘80s to Trump. The process is exhilarating and insightful. One of those rare novels that is as necessary to read as it is enjoyable. I am glad I took President Obama’s recommendation on this one. Warning: the book includes a couple of brief instances of rather graphic sex.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Promised Land by Barack Obama


Full disclosure: I’m a fan. Even if you’re not, this remarkable memoir is worth reading for the quality of writing and to understand how the political sausage is made. Starting with his political ambitions, Obama reminisces about his historic election, the passage of the ACA, the Deepwater Horizon accident, the Arab spring, and the Navy SEALS operation that lead to Osama Bin Laden. For a volume this long, the pacing is incredible — the book reads like a cliffhanger. Even those who are not political junkies will find this to be an illuminating account from an intelligent and deeply introspective president. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It is in the outskirts of Paris, in a drab concrete apartment building, that three generations of Algerians can trace the beginnings of life in their new country. Ali flees his small Algerian town in the wake of the Algerian independence movement in 1962 when nationalists threaten his family. His stature diminishes slowly over his years in France. Told through the lens of three generations of a displaced family, this is a moving exploration of the immigrant experience. “It’s possible to be from a country without belonging to it,” says an acquaintance in Algeria. Truer words have not been spoken.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri


Light and shadow interplay in this much-awaited performance from a legendary writer. Lahiri’s keen powers of observation are on full display here as a 45+ unnamed single woman in Italy narrates her everyday choices. Having grown accustomed to solitude, she reflects on the vise-like grip her parents continue to exert on her psyche. A sandwich from a favorite deli, a purchase of an annual planner, a chance encounter with an old friend, sadness over a store closure, a litany of minor regrets all populate these pages. Together they deliver an impressive chorus but with a tad too many staccato notes.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


Stories of the United States’ atrocities toward undocumented immigrants might have dominated headlines for a while but it’s tragic that, especially in the Trump administration, new daily horrors subsume the essential conversation. A daughter of Ecuadorian parents without papers, Cornejo Villavicencio uses the power of her mighty pen to highlight stories behind the cliches that attach themselves to the narratives. The moments of utter heartbreak — I cannot forgive my government for tagging ankle monitors on any humans — are somewhat tempered by the author’s fierce do-good attitude. A much-needed look at the everyday terrors that undocumented immigrants live with. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa

 Generations of Japanese singed by war form the vital heart of this brilliant novel which reads more like an interconnected set of short stories. Serizawa’s phenomenal debut questions whether we remember history and illustrates the way even distant tidal waves of events have the capacity to remake our lives even decades later. From the Sino-Japanese engagements to World War II and our war with the climate, this is a brilliant exploration of how we are shaped by conflict both internal and external. Set in the remote reaches of Japan, China and the United States, an extraordinary and wholly original accomplishment.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer

The shaky blue fence might temporarily ward off the relentless march of urban landscape change but Michael Meyer finds that precious architecture in Beijing can’t stay for long. Set in the time period right before the 2008 Olympics, Meyer, who volunteers as an English teacher at a local elementary school, chronicles how the centuries-old hutong, small communal living spaces were being systematically torn down. They made room for high-rises that seemingly reflected a more advanced society. Heartwarming stories and pictures of hutong residents sprinkled with the history of Beijing deliver an insightful and heart-wrenching narrative of the cost of globalism.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed Masood


Anvar and Safwa might be from different parts of the world, their outlooks shaped by different worldviews, but their paths intersect in California when Safwa’s fractured past begins to catch up with her. The smartass lawyer Anvar, who veers dangerously close to being just plain cocky, must figure out how American ideals apply in his client’s most trying circumstances. Sprinkled with plenty of masala, and a voice-y attitude in Anvar, this is a rollicking tale that is both entertaining and wise. Pot-bellied uncles, hysterical moms, jazz-loving Dads, the story has all the ingredients for a heartwarming if formulaic Bollywood-style blockbuster. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Likeness by Tana French

The fingerprints might have been wiped clean but Agent Cassie Maddox doesn’t get easily fazed. Not until she finds that the murder victim in a small Irish town is a spitting image of her own self. The likeness delivers an opportunity that Maddox and her squad exploit. There’s a lot of distracting nature buildup (rustling in the deep woods, house-creaking) and French takes her time to place all the ducks in order. Nevertheless those who love mysteries that are rich in atmosphere and character studies will appreciate French’s sophomore novel. Proof why she’s such a hot ticket in crime fiction.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

 The relentlessly brilliant Barbara Demick delivers another round of knockout reporting. After her illuminating insights into North Korea, she travels to Tibet, specifically the volatile town of Ngaba. Infamous for numerous monks’ self-immolation, Ngaba is the frontline of the resistance against Chinese imperialism. History comes alive through the stories of the people featured. Through Demick’s intrepid work, the reader walks away with a nuanced portrait of a people who have often been portrayed in one-dimensional caricature. A revealing narrative of the slow march of China into Tibet and how Tibetans are balancing the advent of capitalism while preserving their culture. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Summer 2020 Reading

 Sunday, August 9. It’s Book Lovers’ Day today. I thought it’s as good a day as any to take stock of my summer reading. My summer reading usually doesn’t vary much from my rest-of-the-year reading. But of course this year’s different. At the beginning of the summer, I heard of a “20 books over the summer” challenge. Not knowing what my pace would be and not letting that number guide my reading, I decided to jump in. I intentionally sought out many travelogues over these three months as I knew I would only be doing armchair travel this year.

Here’s the list, in no particular order, of books I have read only over June, July and August. I’m guessing I’ll be up to 30 by the time August is done. I have also marked the books I had to read for reviewing in Booklist and Kirkus. A few others have links to my reviews in my book blog, Booksnfreshair.

  1. The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border by Rosayra Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Collazo

  2. The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

  3. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp

  4. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova

  5. Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova

  6. The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

  7. Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (reviewed for Booklist)

  8. Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

  9. Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

  10. Luster by Raven Leilani

  11. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban

  12. The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

  13. Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles

  14. The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

  15. To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

  16. The Burning by Megha Majumdar

  17. The Museums of Whales You Will Never See and Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums by A. Kendra Greene

  18. Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

  19. Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey

  20. Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick

  21. Truthtelling by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (reviewed for Booklist)

  22. To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss (reviewed for Booklist)

  23. A Million Aunties by Alicia McKenzie (reviewed for Kirkus)

  24. Likes by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

  25. Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking by Bill Buford

  26. The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (reviewed for Booklist)

  27. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (reviewed for Booklist)

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

An air of menace always lurks through Osborne’s novels. It’s here in this absolutely stunning novel as well. Bangkok, with its tropical monsoons and accelerating civilian unrest threaten to envelop Sarah Mullins, a criminal farang on the loose from New York. The Kingdom, the high-rise where she lives, is its own brooding entity throwing the already uneasy Sarah off her game. As Sarah befriends two women in the building, she gets sucked into a whirlpool of missteps. Always suspenseful, never overwrought, this brilliant novel illuminates how survival of the fittest plays out on the bottom rungs of the food chain.

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation

It might make sense today that Lady Liberty is holding aloft a bunch of arugula but remember when President Obama got flak for complaining about the rising cost of the greens? This rollicking book, published in 2006, chronicles how U.S. French dining made way for California and New American haute cuisine. It profiles a series of chefs along the way; Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters all get prime time. The book misses connecting the dots between these chefs and everyday people though: what changed in society that made people embrace microgreens and kombucha? An entertaining if incomplete history.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova

The restlessness that attends the immigrant experience is a familiar trope in writing. Sofia native Kapka Kassabova’s sharp and wistful memoir/travelogue is hands down the best I have read in the genre. For the longest time, Kassabova’s favorite outfit as a child was a pair of orange trousers her scientist parents brought back from Amsterdam. In describing even that one acquisition, Kassabova captures much of the simple joys of childhood. Decades after the family moves to New Zealand, Kassabova returns to a changed Bulgaria. The country, Kassabova finds, has moved on, but she hasn’t. Just brilliant. Read this book.

The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin

Get your silverware ready and tuck into these wry tales with one of America’s favorite food writers. I love Calvin Trillin’s work in the New Yorker and admire his passion for chasing after good eats. These volumes are peppered with an empathetic look at food and the people who love it, like Fats Goldberg, the pizza baron.After digging into this trilogy I realize though that his food commentary is best eaten like an amuse bouche, a little at a time to whet the appetite. Too much gluttony makes even the best food too rich and you tire of it. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen

The delightful premise of chasing down a cup of coffee around the world is not enough to rescue the tone of this food history and travelogue, which looks at its human subjects with detached amusement at best and outright harshness at its worst. The author labels India “dirty, undereducated, lazy, muddled, poor etc.” and mocks Islam as a religion that “insists half the species walk about with a bag over their head…” The writing is supposed to be “sardonic” — I can’t believe the empathetic Anthony Bourdain actually endorsed this book — but it’s just the white gaze cloaked as humor. Just like bad coffee, it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova

The fevered dreams that travel writer Ute experiences in Villa Pacifica might be related to the wild animals or the tropical environs she and her husband Jerry are trapped in. Traveling to a South American country, the couple find themselves in a strange mansion run by a couple of firangs. A suffocating sense of doom weaves itself throughout the narrative until Ute finds herself slowly doubting the play of events. Is everything not as it seems or is she going mad? While built on an intriguing premise, Kassabova’s fiction packs less of a punch than her powerful nonfiction travelogues do. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Migrations by Chalotte McConaghy

The Arctic tern’s migration is legendary: it travels all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle every year. Franny Lynch is determined to track these threatened birds as a way to redeem a past filled with her own flight from tragedy and the people she loves. As the story unfolds against the backdrop of accelerating climate change, we learn of the parallel reason for her ice-saturated voyage. Swashbuckling ride on rough seas notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary novel with plenty of room for quiet meditation, one that explores grief and familial bonds. Proof that still waters run deep. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

One billion cubic feet of snow fell in Boston during the winter of 2015. There was so much snow that the city just quit plowing alleys after a while and carved out paths instead. You an igloo. After that bruising winter, I remember how excited we all got when we saw the first blade of grass. When my in-laws visited us that spring, she asked why Americans got so super enthusiastic about spring. How to tell her about the snow? The cold? The numbing winds? Instead I said, “Imagine how you feel when the monsoon breaks after that insanely hot summer. It’s much the same feelings that spring brings about.” 
Even more so than spring, monsoon in India is tinged with awe and plenty of romance: the songs, the slow-roasted corn sold on the streets, the mini paper boats that children float on those sudden rivulets.
A native of Mumbai, known for its biting wind-driven monsoons, I was excited by the premise of this book: chasing the first monsoon rains all across India. Frater, an Englishman, starts from the very southern state of Kerala and moves north on to Goa, Mumbai, a huge jump to Delhi, Kolkata and on to Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth. 
The travelogue that emerges is witty and engaging told with generous doses of empathy. I especially loved the sections on Trivandrum and Cherra. Because the author has to chase after the breaking of the monsoon across the subcontinent, he doesn’t linger. Which is a pity because after the initial joy comes the weary dampness that seeps into your very bones, which too would have made for great reading and a more measured view of the live-giving rains.
It’s hard to ignore the white colonial gaze here. Yes, it takes an agonizing two weeks and a painful walk through the notorious Indian bureaucracy for Frater to receive permission to visit Cherrapunji but only a native will recognize how easy it is otherwise for the author to lean on his whiteness to get access. At one point, Frater describes how Herman Kisch, a British Civilian officer, staved off devastating famine in India. While indeed commendable, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Frater’s labeling it as “a triumph of humanitarian engineering and one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on India by the British.” Sure, that might be true but the lack of context is glaring.
All told, this is still a lively and quirky account that’s a revealing slice of India and its people. Tastes better when consumed with samosa and chai.
For the record, my favorite capture of monsoon in Mumbai still remains this Bollywood song from the ‘70s. Moushumi Chatterjee in a sari and Amitabh Bachchan in a suit (!) and the sheer abandon of giving in to the rain. Be still, my heart.
Editor's Note: This review is a departure from my usual 100-word capsules.

The Searcher by Tana French

The Irish countryside seems like the perfect refuge for Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago cop who’s still raking over the ashes of his failed marriage. But storm clouds threaten to take over. Trey, a taciturn teen, worries there’s something sinister behind his older brother Brendan’s disappearance. Soon Cal is knee-deep in the Irish bog and in the mystery. French’s writing is in fine form here but those expecting a fast-paced Dublin Squad-style thriller will be disappointed. The denouement too is more of a whimper than a punch, which is probably just as well, in keeping with the setting’s languid atmosphere.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Young Black Edie’s getting swept up in an affair with an older white man is not typically my jam. But Leilani’s vibrant writing and Edie’s gradual awakening bowled me over: “So, sure, an older man is a wonder because he has paid thirty-eight years of Con Ed bills and suffered food poisoning and seen the climate reports and still not killed himself, but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years, after the ovarian torsion and student loans and newfangled Nazis in button-downs, I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat.” See what I mean?

Monday, July 6, 2020

Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban

A scathing expose of the generic drugs industry, Eban’s reporting, especially in notoriously difficult-to-access India is commendable. The revelations will make you hesitate to ever settle for generics again. My small quibble with the narrative is that too much of it is trained on the misdeeds of one Indian company and too little on lax American oversight. It takes two to tango. Sure shocking manufacturing practices are to blame. But so is our bloated healthcare system which forces us into relying on sketchy outsourcing in the first place. A damning indictment of the lax oversight of the American pharma industry.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

Contrary to the title, Miwako Sumida did not have a perfect world. So much so that she committed suicide. Ryusei, a fellow student at Tokyo’s Waseda university, whose feelings for Miwako go unrequited is determined to find out what drove his friend to kill herself. What unfolds is a surreal otherworldly mystery that travels from Tokyo to a remote mountaintop village. The lurching narrative misses a step occasionally and the storyline’s seams connecting Ryusei’s story to that of his sister, begin to strain after a while. But those looking for a light read might find this one worth their time.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles

I devoured this delicious morsel of a book like a glutton in two hours flat. In a mere 85 pages, Nina Mingya Powles brilliantly explores her mixed racial identity and in crafting an expert travelogue about the pulsing city of Shanghai. Above all, there’s food. There are so many mouth-watering descriptions of dumplings guotie and shengjianbao; zhima bing (sesame pancakes); zongzi, mooncakes and so on, that they made me want to take a seat in one of the tiny mom-and-pop operations studded across the city. Brilliant. Eat it in tiny morsels or stuff your face. I sanction both methods wholeheartedly.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Sylvie used to own a seaside cottage in Australia. But now she is dead and her closest friends, Jude, Adele, and Wendy, all in their seventies, must pack it all up and come to terms with the new calculus of their relationships. Even if a surprise revelation at the end feels gratuitous, The Weekend is a sharp exploration of the evolution of female friendships, the trials of aging and our struggles with mortality. In the end, how do we live out our last years not knowing what tomorrow will bring? A bold and insightful dive into the mechanics of aging.

Friday, June 26, 2020

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

“Love’s infinite garden holds other fruit besides laughter and tears.” This Rumi quote comes alive in the inimitable Kapka Kassabova’s newest voyage in book form. She transports us to the twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa among the remote Balkans of her family’s past. Kassabova is one of my all-time favorites so she can do no wrong. Studded with generous doses of regional history, which some might argue is often too much of a digression, this marvel of a book is so well done that it moved me to tears many times. Arguably, nobody weaves personal stories with place better. 

The Burning by Megha Majumdar

A Facebook post is all it takes for Jivan to be accused of a horrific crime: the burning of a few train carriages in Kolkata, India, that leads to many deaths. Fate does not favor Jivan — she is poor and Muslim in a country where Hindu nationalism is on the rise. Against this background, a transgender woman named Lovely narrates her story and we learn about PT Sir, a teacher who once taught Jivan, who gets sucked into the maelstrom of right-wing politics. Scintillating dialog and a sharp eye for the nuances of class make for a spectacular debut.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See and Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums by A. Kendra Greene

The Herring Era Museum. Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum. This delightful and surprisingly spiritual book steeps you in such a strong sense of place that you’ll want to visit Iceland right away. “There are so many flavors of loss. There is deprivation and disappointment. There is sacrifice and grief. There is trifling. There is needless. There is missing and forgotten. There is, though sometimes it is hard to imagine, necessary. There is, though we hardly need reminding, catastrophic. Iceland trades in all of them,” Green writes. There seems to be a museum for each. A book to be savored more than once.

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

Under the tranquil night skies, the Chengs: Liang, Patty, Jack and Annabel are trying their best to cobble together the definition of a family in Plano, Texas. Each brings the weight of his/her experience, however short-lived, to the assemblage. Jack spends his very early years in China while his parents are still trying to lay the foundation for the American dream. That vision threatens to crumble because of Annabel’s forceful personality and the unnamed burdens the rest bear. “Only in America are people naive enough to name everything they see,” Liang thinks. The unexamined life though is no picnic either. 

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Book of Rosy: A Mother's Story of Separation at the Border by Rosayra Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Collazo

Yes, this is Rosayra Pablo Cruz’s story about her migration from Guatemala to the United States and paying a steep price in the process. The moving book also serves two larger purposes: it puts a face to the Trump administration’s cruel zero tolerance policies that have separated parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Second, it explores how Rosy’s life intersected with that of Julie Schwietert Collazo, founder of Immigrant Families Together, a nonprofit that has been reuniting separated families and helping them live full lives in their newly adopted country. Heartbreaking and hopeful, a home run.

Full disclosure: Julie's a dear friend and colleague.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar

Miranda Brand might have been in the spotlight as a famous photographer but who was she really? And how did she die? Did her handsome son have anything to do with it? Archivist Kate Aitken has moved to Callinas, a plush California beachside town to take on the work of archiving her subject’s personal belongings. But as Kate digs deeper the story she finds tends to tear her own fragile self apart. Sligar’s debut is a rewarding mystery centered on obsession, womanhood and fragility told through the lens of an increasingly unreliable narrator. Sure to be a smash summer hit.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett does it again. Her brilliant compulsively readable novel explores the everlasting bond between twins Desiree and Stella Vignes who grow up under the shadow of a vicious hate crime. The Black girls come of age in a fictional Louisiana town populated with people who look like them: they can pass off as white. Bennett explores the fluidity of identity through various angles: “Being anyone else was the thrill. To transform into a different person in plain sight, nobody around her even able to tell,” remembers Stella as she slips into a life unrecognizable even to her own self.