The Last Five Books

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment  by Shane Bauer (2018)

Reporter Shane Bauer goes undercover in the South as a guard for a for-profit prison and shares his experiences, most of which are documented via hidden surveillance and notes taken during his time “inside.” What Bauer recounts conjures the plethora of human emotion; his experiences with the administration, inmates and system itself are gripping, shocking, bittersweet, appalling, and beautiful. Reminiscent of In Cold Blood in its narrative style, Bauer leaps ahead of the genre by using source material as opposed to imaginative retelling because oftentimes reality is more heart-wrenching than any mind could create. The chapters alternate between the daily ruminations and experiences of both author and inmates, and a history of slavery and its direct link to the current-day for-profit system, throwing into stark reminder that the institution of slavery in America has never really ceased, only donned new mask.

Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger (2019)

In this haunting book about friendship and memory, author Nell Freudenberger creates a beautifully complex portrait of the intricacies, intimacy and miscommunication that accompanies all relationships, but especially friendships between women.  The entirety of the book details the friendship between Helen (astrophysicist) and Charlie (Charlotte, writer in Hollywood), on and off best friends since college.  We are placed in current day, and then taken back through time and forward again with a bird’s eye view of the ebb and blow of their lives in micro and macro ways, with a subtle emphasis on how powerfully one person can shape us, while continually remaining a mystery.   Freudenberger weaves memory with the wonder of space;  the validity, and lack thereof of what cannot be seen but proven, and the ambiguity of what lies within that space.

The Pandora Room by Christopher Golden (2019)

It was a surprise and delight to see Christopher Golden reprise a number of characters from his previous novel Ararat, about the discovery of Noah’s Ark with an evil presence lurking within.  The Pandora Room is what you could call a “sequel-light,” where it’s not necessary to read the first but if you do, it’s a fun little insider nugget to meet up with some old friends.  The Pandora Room leads us down a literal cave into the depths of  Northern Iraq as archaeologist Sophie Durand unearths (so many puns) a jar that much like Noah’s dubious ark in Ararat, may be an actual Pandora’s Box, containing within it the pleasures of all the world, or the alternative, all of its evil.  This is a perfect “outside of the box” summer read, containing romance, action, history, mythology, memory and longing, family, and most of what you’d want to transport you to another world while reading on your lunch break or sitting at the beach.

What to do When I’m Gone: a Mother’s Wisdom to her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman (2018)

By far one of the best graphic/illustrated works I’ve read to date.  A mother/daughter duo write and illustrate this sometimes day by day, month to month and year by year guide from a mother to her daughter on what she can do/how she can cope following her death.  The illustrations and advice work seamlessly together, giving the reader a clearer picture of how they can take small steps after the death of a parent with visuals that seem to make it somewhat possible.  The advice begins concretely, such as “clean your house,” but is often followed up by tender life lessons, “You are numb. It’s time to put your home in order.  Give everything a place. Make it make sense.  Make your room the exact opposite of the randomness of existence, the mercilessness of mortality.”  This was day five, after her mother’s eventual death, written by her mother.  The book follows the daughter into old age, so that the mother may still impart lessons of moral standing and self-care that she won’t be able to relay in person.  The distillation of the book results in one whose reach extends beyond parent/child grief.  This book is for anyone who needs a guiding hand from a parental figure, and mother/author Suzy Hopkins fills in that space with encouragement and permission to switch jobs, take a mental health day, protest, travel, and pursue anything and everything that speaks to your individual soul.

Eat a Little Better : Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World by Sam Kass (2018)

This is a cookbook and thankfully it stole an entire weekend of my life that I’ll never want back–the recipes were that good.  That makes sense.  The recipes were awesome.  It’s very vegan and vegetarian friendly, and though about half of the book is meat/fish related, as a vegetarian it would still be a valuable part of any collection for the vegetable and grain recipes alone.  The basic tenet is eat healthy food that tastes good, without depriving yourself.  All I can say is that faro risotto with spinach pesto is my new GOD.  Plus, nearly all of the recipes are comprised of simple ingredients, minimal work and Chef Kass uses everyday ingredients to pack a lot of flavor, such as salty cheeses and lemon juice.  In my world, I don’t feel full unless there are carbs, cheese or a particular heartiness to the meal, and these recipes check the essential boxes, and I always felt satiated, for you, “it’s not a meal without meat” people.  For those people, the author advises utilizing meat and fish with a low footprint that’s both healthy for you, the planet and the animal.

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