Books On My Bedside Table

Monday, June 22, 2009

Food.  Books.  Family.  But not necessarily in that order.

These are without doubt the reigning interests in my life, with the first two informing the way the third takes shape.  

So far I've only written about children's books (see here and here).  Time for some grown up entries.

Here is a snapshot of what's sitting on my bedside table right now.  The bedside table is where all my recent reads wind up (when they haven't been loaned out).  Happily, all recent selections have been eminently recommendable.  Here's a quick summary:

On a spontaneous visit to my favorite bookshop last weekend, I must have looked a directionless as I felt.  Seeing me pick up and put down a quick succession of books, the shopgirl came out from behind her desk to put this in my hands.  She said, "This won't change your life, but it's fantastic for reading in bed at night and it will leave you feeling happy."  She was right.  

The story behind the making of the book is just as compelling as the story itself.  It is a first novel from 70-year-old former librarian Mary Ann Shaffer, who was goaded into writing it by members of her writing group.  Sadly, Mary Ann became seriously ill before the book was published (though she had completed and sold her manuscript).  Enter her niece, writer Annie Barrow.  Annie made the changes required by the publisher, and got the book to publication.  Mary Ann died in 2008 without seeing her book in print, but with the satisfaction of knowing that it would be published.  It is a stunning legacy, from two gifted women.  

This book is, by turns, inspiring, harrowing, challenging and unnerving.  It was a struggle to put it down each and every night.  It left me with more questions than answers.  After reading it, I proposed it to my book group and it inspired (I think) our most robust discussion to date.  

From the book jacket:  "In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia to her intellectual awakening in the Netherlands, to her life under armed guard in the West."

If I had to chose my favorite books of all time, this would be in the top five. Or top three.  Possibly number one.  It is deeply original and achingly beautiful.  

From the book jacket:  "It is 1939.  Nazi Germany.  The country is holding its breath.  Death has never been busier, and will become busier still."

It really isn't fair that this much wit and eloquence should be allocated to a single man.  Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic for Vogue and the food correspondent for Slate.  I would love to sit next to him at a dinner party.  I dip in and out of this book, for a bit of deliciously comic relief following heavier fare.  

As the Los Angeles Times enthuses "Only a reader with ... an incurious stomch or a hopelessly dormant sense of humor will fail to charmed."

Helen Garner's unflinching exploration of the dynamic between two friends - one dying and the other caregiving - is stunning, humorous and brutal in its honesty.  Her prose is surgically precise - not a word is wasted.  It left me feeling bruised, and in awe of Helen Garner's talent. 

From Peter Carey: "How is it that she can enter this heart-breaking territory - the dying friend who comes to stay - and make it not only bearable, but glorious, and funny?  There is no answer except: Helen Garner is a great writer; The Spare Room is a great book."

Whenever I read Ruth Reichl, I know exactly what I'm going to get: a witty romp and cravings for foie gras.   And while she writes enticingly about food, she never descends into mere gastro-porn.  Her stories are about so much more: her life.  

From the book jacket: "When Ruth Reichl signed up to be The New York Times restaurant critic, her picture was posted all over town.  She received special treatment whether she like it or not.  Yet to be a good critic, anonymity was surely a prerequisite....  Reichl adopted a radical way of eating incognito....  The resulting reviews were her "adventures in deception' - hilarious and sobering, full of fascinating insights and delicious gossip."


  1. The Book Thief is one of my all-time favorites as well. Do you get any Bravo programming in Oz? There's one of the only shows I watch called Top Chef (now Master Chef) and Ruth Reichl was just a guest critic. Only episode I saw and it was great.
    Looking forward to seeing you in NY.

  2. Oh... and Kate ... if on a WWII fiction bent as I was recently, please read "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemerovsky. Prescient and amazingly objective. And there's an exhibit in NYC while you'll be here (crap can't remember where will look it up again)about her life.

  3. Kate I so enjoyed reading yr book reviews. I must agree that the Book Thief is by far the best book I have ever read evoking a myriad of emotions. I will read some of those others too. They seem interesting. Continue yr reviews as I really enjoy them. I think you have a flair...Love Priti

  4. I always love getting titles of new books to read so thanks Kate. I have added a few of these to my ever growing amazon shopping basket to buy and ship to Vietnam. I remember how hard it was to get decent books in Brunei so I am going prepared this time. I have just read The Return By Victoria Hislop and loved it. A really easy book to read with children around but also very interesting. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is in my top 5 books to read so if you have not read it gave that a go next time you are in the book shop. Simon has just finished it and loved it too.


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