Charlotte’s Best Books for January 2020

Here are my 5 best books for January 2020, including a vegetarian cookbook with 100 tasty recipes you can accessorize with meat, fish or eggs, a psychological thriller that will mess with your head and a Silicon Valley cautionary tale that will make you think twice about our brave new-ish world.

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Modern Flexitarian

I bet you’re going Meatless Mondays, am I right? And why not? A plant-based diet is good for your body and the environment, but going full-out vegetarian may not be your plan.

Or maybe like me, you’re a vegetarian living with a committed carnivore. What to do?

Dive into Modern Flexitarian (DK Publishing, 2020), a collection of 100 yummy – really! – plant-based recipes you can accessorize with meat, fish or dairy.

Modern Flexitarian opens with some backstory – I didn’t know the word flexitarian was coined 20 years ago – and some benefits of eating less meat and more veg.

Then it offers a how-to guide to ensure you’re getting the nutrition you need. For example, an adult needs two or three servings of protein a day. If you cut down on meat, you’ll want to bump up legumes or tofu or seeds and nuts.

The Simple Swaps chapter gives meat, dairy and egg substitutes and you can find all of them in your regular grocery store. And the Meal Planning chapter sets out a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners – including desserts, yay! – to get you started.

But here’s the genius of Modern Flexitarian. Baked Falafel are seriously delish, and healthier than the traditional fried version. But the recipe also offers a version with ground lamb.

Mung Bean Gada Gado – Gado Gado is an Indonesian chopped salad popular in Bali whose name means mix mix – can be made with chickpeas instead of mung beans if they’re not your favourite.

Caprese Salad? Let’s add chewy farro and a pesto dressing – delish!

If cutting back on meat is one of your New Year’s resolutions, Modern Flexitarian makes the move easy peasy. And tasty, ‘cause that’s the payback, right?

Modern Flexitarian by DK Publishing.
Modern Flexitarian by DK Publishing.

Self Reiki

Chances are, some sort of self-care commitment is on your New Year New You agenda.

Self Reiki: Tune in to Your Life Force to Achieve Harmony and Balance (DK Publishing, 2020), walks you through 40 step-by-step practices you can do anytime, anywhere, to alleviate stress and anxiety and promote mind/body/spirit balance.

Self Reiki is divided into four chapters: Introduction to Reiki; The System of Reiki; Well-Being Practices; and Healing Practices.

Reiki (pronounced ray-key) is a healing art and spiritual practice founded in Japan by Mikao Usui in the early 20th century.

At its simplest, Reiki is an energy practice: placing hands over the body shares the unseen life force energy that flows through everyone and everything to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing.

The Five Elements are the foundation of the Reiki: Reiki Principles; Meditation; Healing Hands; Attunements; and Symbols and Mantras. If you’re a newbie, the first three Elements are your starting point. 

The Principles are be-in-the-moment basic: do not anger; do not worry; be grateful; work with diligence; and be kind to yourself and others. Aim to recite them for five minutes each morning and evening, prefacing each Principle with the words . . . just for today. 

If you go to yoga class, you’ll recognize the Meditation how-to’s but the reminders under posture and breathing are helpful.

The Healing Hands Element – palm healing or tenohira – shows you how to share ki – energy – through your palms to heal yourself.

The Well-Being Practices chapter includes really good morning, afternoon and evening meditations with bullets on the benefits, time commitment, what you need, and a caution.

And the Healing Practices chapter offers Reiki techniques to manage physical challenges from back pain to colds and flu.

Self Reiki: Tune in to Your Life Force to Achieve Harmony and Balance puts the benefits of the practice into context and then offers how-to illustrations and practical advice. Kinda like self-care 101.

Self Reiki by Jasmin Harsono.
Self Reiki by Jasmin Harsono.

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The Kobo eReader makes reading much more enjoyable and easier on the eyes. There are also great eReader accessories available, like the Kobo Sleepcover.

If you’re looking for something for the little ones in your life, we recommend checking out these great kids books, baby products and educational toys that will help develop your child’s love for reading.

American Dirt

I could tell you that American Dirt is a story about a Mexican mom and her eight-year-old son fleeing a drug lord to safety in el norte. But that would be giving this powerful story short shrift because it’s about so much more. 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins opens with a birthday celebration in a middle-class neighbourhood in Acapulco. Lydia’s son Luca needs the loo and doesn’t like going alone, so the two wander off to the bathroom together. 

Minutes later they hear gunfire. Hiding in the shower, they hear men’s voices as they search the house for “the boy”. They finally leave and when Lydia is sure they’re safe, she leads Luca out of the house to discover that her entire family has been massacred by sicarios – hitmen – of the Los Jardineros cartel. 

Sebastian, Lydia’s husband, is among the dead. A journalist who reported fearlessly on Mexico’s cartels, Sebastian had recently unmasked La Lechuza, boss of Los Jardineros, and it was clear the carnage was retribution.

But Lydia is sure Sebastian’s expose is not the whole story. She has recently discovered that La Lechuza is also Javier Crespo Fuentes, a smart, funny and compassionate regular at her little bookstore; a man she called her friend. She knows that he has also marked her and Luca for death.

So, the two flee north – Lydia has a cousin in Denver – first by bus and then, north of Mexico City, on top of La Bestia, the freight trains the desperate ride to the end of the line. Finally, they must cross the perilous and unforgiving Sonoran Desert on foot. 

American Dirt is a novel; the characters are birthed by Cummins’ imagination. But she has crafted a wholly believable story, giving a voice to migrants around the world who are fleeing violence and almost-certain death in search of what we all want – life.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The Wives

OK, marriage is tough enough when there are only two people in the equation. Imagine the complications when you go polygamist, and have three wives. Welcome to Seth’s life.

He’s a successful developer with an actual wife, a nurse in Seattle, who he sees on Thursdays, an ex-first wife with whom he still cohabits, who he sees on Tuesdays, and a third not-legally-wed wife with whom he is having a baby, who he sees on Mondays. These wives live in Portland, where Seth’s main office is.

Seth travels back and forth between Portland and Seattle, and has been doing an admirable job of keeping his three wives, and the lives he shares with each of them, separate. 

Until Thursday, the story’s narrator, discovers a doctor’s appointment reminder in a pocket of one of Seth’s jackets with the name Hannah Ovark, and an address in Portland. Could Hannah be Monday?

Thursday tracks down Hannah. They have coffee – Thursday doesn’t share that she is the legal wife. Hannah shows up bruises – is Seth physically abusing her?

Thursday begins to realize that she may not know her husband at all. So, she sets out to find Tuesday – Thursday is a damn good cyber sleuth – and tumbles down the rabbit hole, leading to a plot pivot you will not see coming.

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher is a fast-paced psychological thriller that subplots the role men play in defining relationships and the lengths to which women will go to become some other version of who they are in order to please. Totally excellent January read!

You May Also Enjoy Reading…

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher
The Wives by Tarryn Fisher

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

In 2013, mid-twenties Anna Wiener left a low-level – read low-paying – job in publishing in New York to join an e-book start up. The cofounders – men in their 20’s, of course – didn’t read much but were pretty sure other people did. Enough to make a bunch of money. So were their investors.

Not a great fit for Weiner, so lured by the heady promises of the new digital economy, she moves to San Francisco – the heart of the Silicon Valley – and lands a job in customer support at a data analytics start-up. 

Then she moves to a software development start-up. 

Wiener quickly discovers that the tech world is a parallel dimension in time and space. “Offices” are surreal playgrounds for self-absorbed boys (women are rare) complete with perks such as kitchens stocked with high-end snacks and the obligatory flavoured water, cafes that make Starbucks green, bars better than your fave after-work hangout, ping pong tables, interoffice skateboarding, huge TV screens, video games . . . you get the idea.

Wiener experiences firsthand the excesses that have come to define Silicon Valley – and in particular Unicorn start-ups, an environment that hires, promotes and over-the-top rewards men while telling the handful of female employees to “trust karma”. And perhaps even worse, the rise of big data and analytics designed to control consumer behaviour and serve up unregulated surveillance. 

And so, despite her salary, despite her entre to the buzzy, cutting edge digital universe, despite the fact that mostly, she likes her coworkers, she knows she can’t stay.

In 2018 Wiener leaves and forges a career as a tech journalist for The New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic and a bunch of other prestigious print and online publications.

And to write Uncanny Valley, her smart, funny, insightful and hugely readable memoir that posits: Perhaps we’re only beginning to understand the new world order. And maybe we aren’t going to like what we discover.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Written by Charlotte Empey. Illustrations produced on iPad Pro with Apple Pencil by Mark Scheibmayr.

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