April’s been a slow reading month so far…one of those months where nothing’s really grabbed me and pulled me in. I just rode my bike home from Village Lights Bookstore with a basketful of ARCs, and already, my reading luck has turned. Here are some quick reviews of a few winners and losers from this month.
The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, by Rachel Herz. I’ve been thinking about smell a lot lately, and looking for a good book to tell me interesting things about this rather neglected sense. This book is not that book. I did learn some interesting things about smell. But I also learned the difference between a stellar nonfiction book written by an expert in her or his field and a less than stellar nonfiction book written by an expert in the field. If you want to read the stellar version, check out Some We Love, Some We Hate and Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog. If you want to appreciate how well that book is written, read The Scent of Desire.
I could expound on the things I didn’t like about this book, some of them ideological. Herz absorbs the faulty logic and bad research of evolutionary psychology hook, line and sinker without a moments critical pause. She also treats race as a real, biological category, casually mentioning all the physiological differences between “Asians” and the rest of the world. Who are these “Asians,” exactly? Chinese? Japanese? Indians? Mongolians? Bangladeshi? And she extols the virtue of modern technology which allows hog farmers (she avoids calling them CAFO’s, which if they stink that badly, is what they really are) to disguise or reduce the smell of manure, glossing over the fact that manure is really only a problem when you factory farm. Ok, I did expound, but let me just add that Herz is also not a very good writer, and leave it at that.
Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a book group and really liked it. So I picked this book up used from Village Lights Bookstore and thought I’d give it a try. There were definite echoes of The Absolutely True Diary…a nerdy Indian, only now he’s grown up. And there was Robert Johnson and his cursed guitar. Alexie’s style in this novel is pretty bare bones, and this was sometimes alienating. But he plunks you right down in the middle of contemporary American Indian reservation life without much fanfare, and lets you make of it what you will. In the end, I was glad I read the book. I can’t say I loved it.
The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, by Joanne Rocklin. This book I did love. Of course, it’s about a cat, so there’s that. This middle-grade novel tells the story Oona, her brother, Freddy, and the adventures that ensue when their cat, Zook, gets sick. Of course, this is a quick read, but I will warn you, still capable of producing tears. I loved Oona’s voice and the multicultural, real world in Oakland, California where she and her family live. Her Jewish family hangs out with their Indian neighbors next door and attend an annaprasan. Her mother dates the black man across the street, who is also an urban farmer. Well, you had me at urban farming, didn’t you?
Since I started trying to actually write my own novel, I developed a whole new level of appreciation for the well-crafted story, in any genre. You might read this nicely put-together little novel and think, “I could write that.” And maybe you could, but maybe also you could not. The characters are likeable and well-constructed. The writing is lovely and the story becomes a bit of a reflection on the nature of stories themselves, as well as having something to say about heavy topics like death and family and growing up.
This book was one of the ARCs I hauled home from the very kind folks at Village Lights Bookstore this afternoon, who are busy preparing for this weekend’s Poetpalooza: A Tri-State Poetry Summit. Poetpalooza will feature readings by 16 acclaimed local poets, including 5 poet laureates of Kentucky and Indiana. If you’re in Madison or the area, you should check it out.