My book club selected “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips recently. We found the title on the New York Times list of best books of 2019. This first novel was nominated for the National Book Award, a well-earned accolade.


The novel begins with the disappearance of two little girls in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. However, the focus is on the people who were directly or indirectly affected by their disappearance. It is a study in loss, regret and desperation.


The isolated, wild setting creates a lonely, gray mood for the novel similar to that found in Nordic Noir, such as the Kurt Wallander books and the Millennium series. Located near the Arctic Circle and dotted with volcanoes, the Kamchatka is both beautiful and terrible. Phillips’s imagery contrasts the natural beauty of the setting with the horror of the crime:


“In the sunset, the pebbles on the shore shifted their color from black and gray to honey. Amber. They were brightening. Soon the stones would glow, and the water in the bay was going to turn pink and orange. Spectacular in the city center, where people feared to have their pretty daughters go.” (31)


One character, whose dog goes missing, crystalizes the theme of loss and responsibility in the realization that “[i]t hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.” (205)


A quick read, “Disappearing Earth” will draw you in and keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished.


My weird obsession: Julia Child


I fell in love with French cuisine on a trip to France in 2015. I set out to learn to cook some French dishes, so I naturally turned to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, et. al. Last year, my daughter gave me a copy of “Dearie” (2013) by Bob Spitz. It is a huge and comprehensive biography of Julia Child, beginning with the birth of her grandparents, and ending with her death in August 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.


Child’s life was about more than cooking. She worked for the OSS — the precursor to the CIA — during WWII, where she met her husband Paul. Some have referred to her as a spy or spy-master, but her job was to catalog and dole out secret information to covert agents based on what they needed to know. She referred to herself as a “file clerk.”


I recently read “My Life in France” (2006), a book that Child wanted to write for many years. It wasn’t until at the end of her life that her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, finally convinced her to allow him to help her with the project. The result is a beautifully readable and entertaining account of what Child referred to as the best years of her life. I enjoyed reading it tremendously and was quite sad when I finished it. However, I can console myself with “A Covert Affair” by Jennet Conant, and “An Appetite for Life” by NoŽl Riley Fitch, two more Child biographies that I received this year.


Just finished


I just finished “The Night Tiger” by Yangsze Choo. A book club member selected it because it has “tiger” in the title and we loved “The Tiger’s Wife.” Well, she nailed it. Ji Lin is a dressmaker’s apprentice in colonial Malaya, who comes to possess a mysterious object that is said to bring good luck. Ren is a 10-year-old house boy on a mission to recover the item and return it to its owner, his recently deceased employer. An example of magical realism, this novel has multiple complex plotlines, ghosts, mythical man-eating beasts, and mysterious deaths. I highly recommend this one.


The conversation


What books are on your list for the new year? If you have a recommendation, a question, or want to add to the conversation, please write me at ByTheBookBTX@gmail.com.


Bennett is a retired English and journalism teacher. She serves on the Bastrop Public Library Board.