This fresh, new year of great books, which I first shared on Good Day Alabama on WBRC Fox 6, begins with some gifts from my reading friends.
Menus: A Book for your Meals and Memories written and illustrated by Jacques Pepin
Remember dinner parties? I do, and I wish I’d had this book when we were throwing them every month or so. My friend Sonthe Burge gave this to me for Christmas, and I cannot wait to make up for lost time! It’s like a dinner party diary with pages for your menus and pages for your guests to sign their names and comment. And it’s illustrated by the great chef, himself, with beautiful, whimsical paintings and sketches. Pepin began this tradition for his friends and family some 50 years ago, and he includes a few illustrated examples of his own pages to get readers started on their personal food-memory journeys. “There are no rules—follow your feelings and desires,” he writes in the introduction. “You can start anywhere and choose the border that best suits your menu. Be creative. … You can add illustrations to the ones already here, but be sure to write specific things about the dishes, the guests, or the celebrations: this is, after all, a book of memories. You will soon discover that it has become a very prized part of your life, a reminder of the special moments of togetherness and joy of sharing food and love with family and friends.”
The Social Distance: Poetry in Response to Covid-19 by Highland Avenue Eaters of Words
This is a thoughtful collection of poetry and photographs about the Covid-19 pandemic—the sheltering in place, mask wearing, Lysol-wielding and social distancing. All the things we’ve learned and the trials we’ve experienced these past two long years. It features the work of the Highland Avenue Eaters of Words, a group of writers and readers who get together monthly to share poetry and prose, fellowship and good wine. My friend Tom Gordon, who is a member of the group and who has poetry in this book, gave us a copy for Christmas. Tom is a longtime friend of mine whom I met decades ago at The Birmingham News. Others with pieces featured here work as doctors, lawyers, journalists and more, and so their perspectives are wonderfully varied. But they all have created pieces that bring us together in a shared experience of dealing with isolation and fear. There’s some darkish humor here, too. Ultimately, the pieces are a testament to our shared humanity.
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar
Here’s another timely book. This debut work of fiction follows the journey of a family of Syrian refugees who leave their bombed home in search of somewhere safe. It is a sort of Syrian version of The Kite Runner, which was set in Afghanistan. The modern-day story, with a young girl named Nour in the center, parallels the journey of another young girl—a mapmaker’s apprentice—who lived 800 years earlier. The apprentice is familiar to Nour—she’s from a favorite story that Nour’s recently deceased father used to tell her. And now, in order to keep her father’s spirit alive, she retells herself the story of Rawlya, a 12th-century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to a mapmaker. Navigation—of places and people—is the theme of this book. As Nour and her family flee across seven countries in the Middle East, she’s telling the story of Rawlya’s own time in these places. Interestingly, while Rawlya is fictious, that mapmaker was a real and famous person— Muhammad al-Idrisi who created the Tabula Rogeriana, one of the most advanced medieval world maps. medieval world maps. This book was a 2018 Middle East Book Award winner in Youth Literature, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist in Historical Fiction, and it was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. It’s beautifully done; it’s magical and heartbreaking; it’s impossible to put down.
The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert
This spy novel set in Nazi-occupied Paris features a woman named Clementine who is the perfect gentleman thief. It’s a work of historical fiction that will remind readers of Moulin Rouge, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s also a page-turner. Clementine is a 77-year-old reformed con artist and international thief of strange, scented things. She loves impeccably tailored suits and her friends—all artists and outsiders and hustlers. Her life of crime has taken her to belle epoque Manhattan, butterfly-filled jungles of Costa Rica, the spice markets of Marrakech and finally the bordellos of Paris. Clem has settled down by 1930 and owns a shop that makes bespoke perfumes for the ladies of the cabarets. One of the ladies asks Clem to steal the recipe book of a famous (and missing) French perfumer, and this puts the perfume thief in the sights of a Francophile Nazi bureaucrat who wants the book (which might include poisons as well as perfumes) and Clem’s expertise for himself and the German army.
I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and Books, The Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.