Author Archive

Imagine cooking in Lincoln’s era   Leave a comment

Rae Katherine Eighmey unites history with cooking in Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times. The author chronologically describes Lincoln’s life based on locale, the people he frequently interacted with and the foods he most likely ate. There are only a few actual accounts of meals and menus, so Eighmey relies on cookbooks from Lincoln’s era and references made in letters to, from or about the Lincoln family.

This is not especially engaging, as cookbooks go, but it does have some interesting elements which should especially appeal to history buffs. Eighmey includes 55 recipes, which she has “updated for the modern kitchen.” Some are basic such as Roast Turkey with only butter and flour as added ingredients to the bird. Others are more complicated, including December Sausages. Consider recipes such as cucumber catsup (also a recipe for tomato ketchup; the spelling changes as do the ingredients).

Several interesting recipes like nutmeg donuts and almond pound cake do tempt the palate, though. Surprisingly, the latter calls for ½ cup of white wine, something I’d not previously considered for a cake. Wine is also part of the Apees recipe, which is a blend of a digestive cookie and cracker.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times

Three bookmarks

Smithsonian Book, 2013

270 pages, including Notes, Bibliography and Index

An Old Lease   Leave a comment

The Paris Apartment proves I never have to read another book by Lucy Foley again. Her perspectives- from-a-handful-of-characters-with-a-motive-for-murder-in-the-early-pages formula is tiresome.

I appreciate a good mystery with unexpected twists. This worked in The Guest List, the first Foley novel I read, but not in two I’ve read since.

This one offers a variation in that one of the characters, Jess, is clearly not the guilty party. In fact, after arriving in Paris, she discovers her brother, Ben, has gone missing and, at great risk to herself, is determined to find him.

Ben had given Jess directions to his apartment of an old Parisian building, so he knew his ne’er-do-well sister was expected. She’s not only taken aback by his absence but also the swanky digs where he’s been living.

As with Foley’s other novels, nothing is as it seems – in more ways than one, as Jess soon realizes. Her fellow tenants include an alcoholic, an unstable young woman, the concierge, a socialite and Nick, Ben’s friend and the only one who’s helpful to Jess. They all lack depth and none spark a connection with the reader.

The focus is on Jess, with references to her troubled past and an inconsistent relationship with her brother. Still, he is her only living relative, which motivates her to learn what might have happened to him.

Foley’s style is tedious. Yes, it’s important to find out what happened to Ben, but Cliff Notes for this one would have worked just as well.

The Paris Apartment

(Barely) Three Bookmarks

William Morrow 2022

358 pages

To catch and release   Leave a comment

Full disclosure: R. Cathey Daniels, author of Live Caught is a friend. We’ve fished, played soccer, strummed guitars and much more. Admittedly, that was all years and a common time zone ago. We know of each other’s losses and joys. For me, reading her debut novel falls into the latter category.

Live Caught is about survival, redemption and the journey young Lenny, a one-armed teenager, embarks on toward a new life on his own. Daniels’ writing is poetic and visual. The element of place, rural North Carolina, is as vividly depicted as her characters.

At 14 Lenny leaves his family home with the goal of reaching the Atlantic Ocean via a rowboat with only his fishing gear, stolen cash, his wits and the emotional baggage bestowed upon him by two older, abusive brothers. However, Mother Nature intervenes and he’s washed ashore following a storm where he’s rescued by an old, foul-mouthed priest; someone Lenny is resistant to appreciating or accepting. Lenny’s judge of character is impressive for a teenager.

Herein is an issue: is Lenny credible? The answer is sometimes.

Despite the detour caused by the elements, Lenny hasn’t given up on his goal of reaching the ocean. Circumstances require new plans, which he hopes won’t take long to set in motion.  As he helps the priest serve the community through food and clothing drives, the reasons why he left his parents, brothers and girlfriend are explained as Lenny’s backstory slowly comes to the surface.

Meanwhile, a cast of characters, including a corrupt police officer, a drug dealing buddy, an infant child and the priest unwittingly contribute to Lenny’s scheme to get back on the water.

The fast-paced narrative is divided into two parts; the second is set 10 years later when Lenny’s past catches up with him in unexpected ways.  

Live Caught

Four Bookmarks

Black Lawrence Press, 2022

300 pages

Insensitive and haunting parenting rehab   Leave a comment

When considering what I know about mothering, I must thank my mother first and foremost. I may not be the stellar student, but she is the exceptional teacher. With this in mind, I found Jessamine Chan’s ironically-titled The School for Good Mothers heart-wrenching. Chan’s writing evokes a range of emotions related to the subject of child rearing, neglect and relationships. The reader is left with much to consider.

Many women have neither strong role models, nor good maternal instincts. Both are true for Frida, mother of a toddler, whose limits are tested thanks to a lack of sleep, her job and the recent separation from her husband and his relationship with a younger woman.

One day, Frida leaves her young daughter, Harriet, home alone to run an errand. Frida is gone for two hours.

Of course, this is irresponsible and unforgivable. However, what evolves is also unacceptable. Frida is subjected to 24-hour surveillance and limited supervised visits with Harriet.

The only way for Frida to be reunited with Harriet is to undergo a year-long program designed to teach her, and other mothers, to be a better parent. Here’s where things go off the rails. Some of the women’s infractions are horrendous, others accidental. The mothers are incarcerated and given robotic dolls on which to hone their skills. The staff is unsympathetic and the parenting courses are often unreasonable (ie., speaking “motherese”).

Chan’s characters are vividly portrayed. Their losses are palpable. Child abandonment warrants repercussion, but not through draconian means.

The School for Good Mothers

Four Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2022

324 pages

Shouting Out to Book Lovers   Leave a comment

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel is subtitled “The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life.”  For anyone who’s ever been called a book worm, a book lover or a bibliophile, Bogel’s nonfiction narrative serves as affirmation of the joys and quandaries associated with reading. Yet her tone is a superior rather than embracing or endearing.

In several short chapters across less than 200 pages, the author addresses everything from being asked for book recommendations to organizing bookshelves and much more. It’s relatable to those who’d rather be in the throes of a good book than almost anything else.

Although I associate with many who feel the same way I do about reading, I’d like to think I’m not a snob when interacting with those who don’t. I don’t consider myself better than anyone who enjoys other activities, perhaps just more enriched. (This is not intended to sound disdainful.)

Bogel’s book affirms what we readers already know: we are drawn into well-written stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. Well-crafted sentences, vivid images and compelling tales are hard to beat.

Nonetheless, this book is for those interested in a quick read about all there is to love about reading — even if much is common knowledge. It also recognizes the occasional pitfalls that can come with preferring fictional characters to some living, breathing ones. (OK, so I can be a snob sometimes, too!)

I’d Rather Be Reading

Three Bookmarks

Baker Books, 2018

155 pages, including Works Referenced and Acknowledgements

Living With Tragedy   Leave a comment

I recently discovered the unexpected pleasure of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One, which had been buried in my nightstand stack. (The unforeseen is or should be, after all, one of the joys of picking up a new book.)

Through richly developed characters, smooth transitions of the progression of time and several relatable subthemes, Anshaw has crafted a meaningful story about the impact of tragedy – even when there are degrees of separation from it.

Soon after Carmen’s wedding reception, five guests including her siblings Alice and Nick and their partners Maude and Olivia, who are all on drugs or drunk, are involved in an accident. On a dark, deserted road their car runs over a young girl.

Each passenger, as well as the wedding couple, deal with the accident in different ways. Olivia, who was driving is sent to prison where she undergoes a dramatic personality change. Alice immerses herself in her art by painting portraits of the deceased girl as she would have grown up. Carmen, who was not in the car, engages in community activism; and Nick, who is overwhelmed with guilt, tries to overcome his addictions in order to be the man Olivia insists he become.

Their success in their respective endeavors varies as time passes. This progression is smooth. It’s subtly indicated through someone’s birthday, a current event and the age of a beloved dog – among other observations.

Anshaw incorporates wry humor in this engaging, relevant narrative while portraying vivid emotional pain through familial and romantic love.

Carry the One

Four+ Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2012

253 pages

Lives collide through writing and reading   Leave a comment

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being philosophically considers the relationship between writer and reader. It’s an intriguing idea connected to numerous topics shared from the two main characters’ perspectives: one from Nao writing a diary; the other through Ruth as her reader.

Nao is a 16-year-old girl whose family recently returned to Tokyo from Northern California where she’d lived most of her life. She plans to write in her diary about her 104-year-old great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. However, the more Nao writes, the less it’s about Jiko. Instead, she details the bullying she endures in her new school, her father’s depression and his suicide attempts. As Nao writes, she addresses her reader as if it is a single person. After all, reading is a solo experience.

Through unknown circumstances, the diary washes up on a sparsely populated island in Western Canada where Ruth and her artist/naturalist husband live. The book is in a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a collection of letters and an antique wristwatch. The letters are another cause for intrigue as Ruth discovers they were written by Nao’s uncle, a kamikaze pilot.

Ozeki describes the unforgiving conditions of island life; it’s not a place of sandy beaches and calm seas. Rather, the threat of powerful storms, rocky terrain and limited access to goods and services requires resilient residents.

As Ruth reads she comes to care about Nao and her family; she even searches for their whereabouts.  Nao, of course, knows nothing of Ruth’s existence.

A Tale for the Time Being

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2013

422, includes appendices

Murder, cabinetry and amateur sleuthing   Leave a comment

The Grenadillo Box by Janet Gleeson is a fast-paced mystery blending intrigue with humor while providing a glimpse into 18th century British social standings and related expectations.

Nathanial Hopson is apprenticed to renowned master cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. Although by all accounts, much of the artistry is at the hands of his many apprentices, including Hopson’s dear friend John Partridge, who’s suddenly gone missing.

Chippendale sends Hopson to complete work on an elaborate library in a country estate. Soon after his arrival, the lord of the manor is found dead. The cause of death is ruled suicide, however, Hopson suspects foul play. When another body is found on the property, Hopson believes the two deaths are related. An investigation ensues led by amateur sleuth Hopson. He’s a thoughtful young man but not averse to enjoying good times when they surface.

Among the clues is a small, intricately-carved box, which in itself is a puzzle with no obvious way to determine its contents. Meanwhile, the Lord’s gambling debts, his son ready to lay claim to the estate and its anticipated riches, along with a much younger wife provide plenty of motives.

Adding further intrigue are missing sets of Chippendale’s original drawings, which the celebrated craftsman charges his apprentice to locate.

In the midst of Hopson’s search for answers, Gleeson vividly describes the noises, sights and odors of the seediest parts of London. These images are contrasted with the wealth and comfort of the upper classes.

The Grenadillo Box

Four+ Bookmarks

Bantam Books, 2002

416 pages

Grief Among the Living   Leave a comment

When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River, the impact of her death weighs heavily on her parents, her older sister Johnnie Rae and the Black community in Georgetown where they live.

Although Breena Clarke’s novel, River, Cross My Heart could more easily be titled River, Break My Heart, how pre-teen Johnnie Rae processes her sister’s accident is the most interesting aspect. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes describing the residents, many who moved to this Washington, D.C., neighborhood from the south seeking a better life. By all accounts, their situations were greatly improved: jobs for the adults and schools for the children.

Johnnie Rae was tasked with caring for Clara, something she both resented and took seriously. She had only taken her eyes off the younger girl for a few minutes, and despite multiple efforts to save Clara from in the fast moving water, Johnnie Rae has no clear memory of what happened. Later, she is certain the new girl in school is Clara incarnate.

Unsurprisingly, though they were better off, the jobs were menial and opportunities were both limited and unequal. The latter is something Johnnie Rae finds especially irksome in the form of a nearby whites-only swimming pool. The Potomac is the only place she and her friends can swim and play in the water. Johnnie Rae is a natural born swimmer; something she does with ease and grace. It’s never clear how she came to be so adept. Nonetheless, being in the water is where she feels she is most herself. Eventually, a new pool opens for Blacks where she joins the swim team.

Clarke’s descriptions of the circa 1925 neighborhood, its residents and the Bynum family’s loss are vivid. However, framing this as a series of short stories rather than a novel would be more effective; there are too many detours to form a clear plot.

River, Cross My Heart

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Little, Brown and Co., 1999

245 pages

A luxurious meal in many ways   2 comments

I’d like to say I was nonchalant about dining at the exclusive Polo Lounge where I was recently the guest of a generous friend. Except I wasn’t. From the moment we turned into the drive leading to the entrance of the Beverly Hills Hotel, it was an effort not to gape at the beautiful surroundings and of the luxury represented.

As awe-inspiring as the setting is, it was overshadowed by the meal. We started with hummus. This, like everything we were served, was beautifully plated. Creamy, house made hummus sprinkled with feta is surrounded by fresh, raw vegies and grilled pieces of pita. This, also like everything served, was a substantial appetizer easily shared among four.

The lunch entrees range from salads to fish tacos, from pasta to prawns, from burgers to steak – and more. I opted for the American Wagyu hamburger. This not only took two hands to hold, but two napkins were needed in an effort to keep juicy messes from running down my chin onto my clothing. This was no ordinary burger. It featured onions caramelized in sherry, a bright orange heirloom tomato, white cheddar cheese, arugula – and for extra measure avocado slices. The brioche bun was slathered with Dijon aioli.

We finished with a decadent strawberry shortcake sundae featuring fresh strawberries, cotton candy, strawberry ice cream and more.

Polo Lounge is the place where celebrities come to be seen and ignored. I was there for the food ambiance and shared friendship: none disappointed.

Polo Lounge

The Beverly Hills Hotel

9641 Sunset Blvd.

Beverly Hills, Calif.

(Unfortunately, there were problems with my camera that day.)