Book Review: Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

27 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Judy Melinek set out to be a surgeon, completing medical school and starting her residency before realizing it was not the career for her. In the summer of 2001, she changed tack and opted for a career in forensic pathology--what many might recognize from television crime series as a medical examiner. Working Stiff is an account of Melinek's years in training, complete with gory details, heartfelt emotions and plenty of ripped-from-the-headlines case studies.

Melinek, writing with T.J. Mitchell, packs every chapter with a careful balance of scientific fact and personal anecdote, covering topics such as what happens to a body's internal organs in a high-speed car crash with a static object (it's not pretty) and the difficulties of losing a loved one to suicide (Melinek's father killed himself). This mixture of nonfiction and narrative makes for compelling, informative reading as Melinek works through cases of homicide, accidental death, medical error and suicide--and becomes even more powerful as the authors recount the harrowing weeks and months following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, which brought more bodies and death to Melinek's door than ever before.

Though the subject of Working Stiff can be overwhelming and gory, Melinek and Mitchell carefully avoid reveling in the horrors of a medical examiner's work. Instead, they highlight individual case studies as a way to illustrate nuances of the job that might not come through on Law & Order: the humanity of the subjects, the inconclusive results of an autopsy, the lasting impact that working with death can have on an individual's life.


Working Stiff | Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell | Scribner | Hardcover | August 2014

Book Review: A Mouthful of Stars, by Kim Sunee

25 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

In her foreword, Frances Mayes (traveler and author of Under the Tuscan Sun) writes that chef and food writer Kim Sunée (Trail of Crumbs) had gone on more adventures by the age of 30 than most have in an entire lifetime. Consider: Sunée was born in South Korea before being adopted and raised in New Orleans; she then traveled to Sweden and spent 10 years in France. This international background is reflected in Sunée's cookbook, A Mouthful of Stars, which Mayes calls "astonishing" proof of Sunée's aim to "cook as she lives, passionately and expansively."

This passion could not shine through any more brightly in Sunée's colorful, sometimes whimsical cookbook, which compiles reflections from her travels with recipes from places that have played a strong role in her growth as a chef: Seoul, North Africa, Provence, Paris, Sweden, the Southern U.S. and Tuscany. Each recipe here is based on the traditional dishes of these delectable cuisines, such as Pan-Fried Peppers with Coconut and Tamarind (India), Provençal Beef Stew, Spicy Fried Chicken (American South) and Swedish Beet and Apple Salad. The recipes are simple and easy to follow, though home cooks with less experience in the kitchen may miss introductory information like total preparation time and required equipment, which is not included. Details aside, however, lovers of food or travel or both will likely delight in this diverse collection of dishes (complemented by Leela Cyd's stunning photographs) and Sunée's travel anecdotes.


A Mouthful of Stars | Kim Sunee, foreword by Frances Mayes | Andrews McMeel | Hardcover | May 2014

European Adventures: The Reading List

22 August 2014

Last week, I wrote about my upcoming trip to Europe for the month of September (month! This is starting to feel so real...), and picking my reading list. I've finally narrowed down my selections. Seven cities, ten books (more than I'll need, of course, but such is the life of a bookworm, right?):

We've booked the entirety of our itinerary via AirBnB, renting apartments in city neighborhoods rather than staying in hotels, and I'm packing in the most spectacular L.L. Bean backpack I've ever seen (packing for a month in just a backpack will be an adventure unto itself, but one I think I'm fairly prepared for). Let the adventuring begin?

Book Review: Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway

21 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Mancreu, formerly a British colony, is doomed: a political committee has determined that the small island must be burned in order to protect the international community from the bursts of toxic chemicals Mancreu emits. Nick Harkaway's third novel, Tigerman, introduces aging British Army Sgt. Lester Ferris into this strange island. After a difficult tour in Afghanistan, Lester is assigned to Mancreu to serve as the military presence until the island's destruction—a relatively peaceful post to tide him over until retirement. Instead of finding a sleepy community staring down its own death, Lester finds a friend--a nameless boy with a comic-book obsession--and with that friendship comes a purpose; he must get the boy off the island before it's destroyed. When a mutual friend dies in a gang shooting, both Lester and the boy are drawn into a political plot that no one could have imagined existed on an island as inconsequential as Mancreu.

Packed with sharp wit and quick humor, Tigerman will keep readers on their toes. Blink and you'll miss a clever joke or important plot point. Read with a keen eye, though, and Harkaway's novel offers big rewards: a world slightly skewed from our own, and yet still recognizable as the backdrop for a story that asks big questions about parenting, friendship, family, heroes and how to go on living when the world is ending. The resulting novel is a rollick of a read, packing emotion, hilarity and a dose of self-deprecation into a story that is, to borrow a phrase from Lester's young friend, "full of win."


Tigerman | Nick Harkaway | Knopf | Hardcover | June 2014

Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

14 August 2014

Ernest Hemingway is known for many things: his stunning, crisp writing; his bravado and charm; his ability to drink obscene amounts of liquor; and his way with women. This last is the focus of Naomi Wood's incredibly researched and delightfully tense novelization of Hemingway's four (yes, four) wives, Mrs. Hemingway.

The novel's title is clever and accurate, as the three-hundred-odd pages are divided into four sections: one for each of the Mrs. Hemingways of history. First there was Hadley, known to most readers as the prominent figure in Paula Maclain's recent hit novel, The Paris Wife, as well as for her shiny, reminiscent place in Hemingway's essays in A Moveable Feast. Then there was Pauline Pfieffer, known to Hemingway and the world alike as Fife, who remained dedicated to Hemingway for over ten years, editing the writers' works, keeping his house in the Florida Keys, and pumping his career full of her family money--and the only of the four not to outlive Hemingway himself. Next was Martha Gellhorn, herself an author and also a war correspondent, whose relationship with Hemingway is aptly book-ended by two wars: an affair that started during the Spanish War and a marriage that ended with the liberation of Paris. And last, Mary Welsh, another war correspondent, the wife who was with Hemingway until his very last, unfortunate days.

"He wants his wife, he wants his mistress, he wants everything he an get. He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything."

Wood has clearly pored over Hemingway's works and secondary materials on both the author and his many wives in great detail; though the passages on each Mrs. Hemingway are necessarily short, as all four of them are packed into one novel, they feel real and fully developed, believably in love with, and in turn exasperated with, Ernest Hemingway. The chronology of each Mrs.' section jumps back and forth through time, which can make each relationship hard to follow in places. Ultimately, though, the humanity of each marriage, and how even Hemingway, whose history makes it easy to paint him a selfish bastard, struggled through them all, makes the stories of this author and his many women alluring to the known but still sadly shocking end.


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this title for review.
Mrs. Hemingway | Naomi Wood | Penguin | May 2014 | 336 pages

On the Fence: Books I'm Not Sure I Want to Read

12 August 2014

I have so many books. So. Many. Books. We all have this problem, of course, but I've found that lately it has me wondering how many of these I'll actually read... and even more so, how many I actually want to read. My criteria for culling my book stacks lately has been harsh, sending books out the door at an astounding rate. But there are a few I've hung on to, or linger over every time I visit a book shop, and yet find I'm unable to commit to:

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: I loved, adored, fawned over, cried for, worshipped Tiny Beautiful Things, and have returned to it time and time again when I just need a little... something. In fact, I love it so much I'm not sure I'm brave enough to read her other work.

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith: I was a fan of The Casual Vacancy, even though a lot of people panned it, but I just haven't found this one calling to me. Has anyone read it? Should I?

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: I admitted defeat on this one when I tried to read it last year. I can't bring myself to get rid of my copy... but I also have no motivation to pick it back up.

The Son, by Philip Myer: I have no reasoning for this one. I saw the author speak at Politics and Prose with Rachel from Home Between the Pages, and he was awesome. I know lots of bloggers, like Shannon from River City Reading, cite it as a favorite novel of 2013. But for some reason, I keep picking it up... and promptly putting it back down again. Someone talk me into this.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen: I've written before about how I don't think Austen is for me, but I keep thinking maybe I just haven't read the right Austen novel... yet. Maybe

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adele Waldman: I've had this since it came out last summer, but have never made it more than a dozen pages in. Anyone read it? Worth pushing through?

This post is part of Top Ten Tuesday,
hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

European Adventures: Help! Assembling a Reading List

10 August 2014

I'm heading to Europe. For a month. Seven cities, 30 days:

This doesn't *quite* feel real yet, though the trip is only a few weeks away. I've gone out and gotten myself a decent backpack, a pair of exceedingly comfortable walking shoes, and a solid raincoat (for the Ireland/Scotland portion of the trip more than anything else). But what I haven't yet considered: my reading list. Which is where I need help, because I know that the combined internet-brain of all my reader friends out there is more powerful than any Google searching I can do.


The Goal: 

Seven books, one set in each city on the itinerary. Plus maybe one eighth book on traveling in general for the flight there/back again.

The Parameters:

  • Because I'm packing in a backpack, I'm only bringing my small e-reader. Which means all books need to be available as e-books from either Barnes & Noble, Kobo or Google Play.
  • I'm looking for books where the setting is an integral part of the story, not just a passing mention and then never considered again.

I've tossed around Tana French for Dublin and Ian Rankin for Edinburgh. Shadow of the Wind for Barcelona and The Count of Monte Cristo for Marseille. But these are all names and titles I've already read (which is why I know them well enough to know the settings), and I'm hoping to broaden my horizons. So... anyone have any suggestions?

And out of curiosity, how do you pick books to read while you travel?