Author Archive

Cooking, Camaraderie and Courtship   Leave a comment

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Give me a well-written book about food with recipes and I’m a happy reader. Cooking for Mr. Latte is Amanda Hesser’s account of how she met her husband, meals with family and friends and writing about food for The New York Times.

I’m no fan of the cover, but this is enjoyable. Hesser’s sense of humor is self-deprecating, but insightful. Her food knowledge is impressive and many of the recipes included at the end of the chapters are ones I want to try. Although some are more daunting than I’m willing to venture, most are enticing without being too challenging.

Mr. Latte is the name the author ascribes to her now husband. Their ideas about food are not at all on the same plate when they first meet. As the relationship grows, each makes concessions as their palates and dining encounters expand.

Hesser describes meals – those in restaurants and those at home – along with the role they have in creating and maintaining close friendships.

The courtship between the author and Mr. Latte is the main thread of the narrative with each chapter a vignette of her life as a writer, single female and foodie in New York City. Visits to her grandmother on the Chesapeake Bay illustrate the importance of family and the comfort of family meals. Her meeting with her future in-laws includes the combination of excitement and angst many can connect with. This isn’t quite a diary, but close. These aren’t private thoughts Hesser shares, but relatable experiences.

Cooking for Mr. Latte
Four Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2003
336 pages (includes index)

Finding One’s Place   Leave a comment

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A Long Petal of the Sea – the title of Isabel Allende’s new novel, refers to Pablo Neruda’s poem describing Chile. It’s an absorbing story about love, country and belonging.

When introduced, Roser is a young shepherd girl with an impressive ear for music. This provides opportunities far beyond expectations – including an education leading to a music scholarship at university in Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War is well underway.

Roser falls in love with the younger son of her music mentor, but it’s the older son, Victor, with whom she spends most of her life. From Spain, Roser and Victor arrive in France separately as refugees. They reconnect and, with the onset of World War II, realize they need to leave Europe and seek passage to Chile. Naruda led the charge getting Spanish refugees to his country. However, Roser and Victor must marry in order to travel together. What begins as a marriage of convenience slowly evolves into something much deeper.

 As they settle into their new lives in Santiago, Roser pursues her music career and establishes a name for herself in South America.  Victor continues his medical studies and becomes a doctor. He also has a brief liaison with the daughter of an upper class family.

Each chapter begins with a verse from a Naruda poem. The narrative moves through civil unrest in Chile, moments of professional success, parenting, another exile and love. Allende makes it clear, belonging is not just fitting into a place, but being with the right person.

A Long Petal of the Sea

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2020

314 pages

Another Look at Churchill and Others   Leave a comment

Erik Larson’s 500+ page look at Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister in The Splendid and The Vile is, no surprise, exhaustive. The author did his homework. Focusing on the time frame of May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941, is smart. After all, much has already been written about the man who instilled hope in a daunting time.

The work is subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” Of the three, the sections about members of the family and those who worked closely with the prime minister are the most interesting – especially about his younger daughter, Mary; his daughter-in-law, Pamela; and one of his private secretaries, John “Jock” Colville.

Although there’s little interaction between Mary and her father during this time frame, as Larson chronicles. Yet, her love for her father and her realization of the changes facing her comfortable, upper class lifestyle are compelling as told through excerpts of her diary; she turned 18 in September 1940.

From the beginning, Churchill knew U.S. involvement was necessary for Germany to lose the war. His efforts to maintain calm in his country, while appealing to Franklin Roosevelt for assistance and enduring the devastation of London being bombed is well documented.

Interspersed with accounts from and/or about colleagues and family are brief sections about Hitler and his cohorts in Germany. Perhaps photos are all that’s missing. History buffs and anyone concerned about history repeating itself more than it already has should find this book of interest.

The Splendid and the Vile
Four Bookmarks
Crown, 2020
585 pages, includes sources, acknowledgments and index

Traveling Through Grief   Leave a comment

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward made me cry – multiple times with sad and happy tears, and (spoiler alert) not only at the end. Ann Napolitano has crafted a moving novel about loss, survival and choices.

Eddie Adler is 12 years old when he boards a Los Angeles-bound flight from New Jersey with his older brother Jordan and their parents. He’s the only survivor when the plane crashes; thereafter he’s known as Edward.

Alternating between Edward’s recovery over the span of three years, are chapters chronicling the flight ranging from the mundane (seating arrangements and in-flight meals) to the captivating (vivid descriptions of some passengers and conversations).

Although he survived, Edward is emotionally broken. He was close to his parents and Jordan, only three years older. He moves in with his maternal aunt and uncle. All grieve their losses.

The personalities of a few passengers are richly portrayed. The more the author invests in their development, the harder it is to accept knowing they die in the crash.

Edward develops a connection with Shay, the no-nonsense girl next door. She has a history of being on the fringe with her peers, which is where Edward finds himself; as a survivor he’s an oddity. Their friendship is a thing of beauty. Many challenge Edward’s reluctance to move forward, but Shay is the most consistent.

His discovery of a cache of letters written after the accident provides glimpses of his fellow passengers, the good and bad of human nature, and reasons to look ahead.

Dear Edward
Five Bookmarks
The Dial Press, 2020
340 pages

The Breakdown of a Family   Leave a comment

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It wasn’t a single element of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker that captured my attention. There’s the Colorado Springs* setting; a family with 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia; and the nature vs nurture argument. Ultimately, all of the above held my interest.

First, it’s difficult to image a family with 12 kids; it’s mind boggling. Like most parents, Mimi and Don Galvin excelled in some areas and failed in others. Their first 10 children were boys; neither of the two youngest, Margaret and Mary (aka Lindsey), suffered from mental illness. They were, however, the victims of parental benign neglect and abuse from their brothers. The parents were successful at falconry, but their parenting techniques left much to be desired.

Don was often away on business. First when in the military and later in the private sector. He was only peripherally involved in family life. When issues arose, his attitude was a reflection of the times: boys will be boys. Mimi was left to sort out problems, and her approach was to project a glossier image than the facts portrayed.

Eventually, Mimi’s aversion to facing truths gives way to an inordinate amount of time dealing with physicians, clinics, medications and averting blame. Descriptions of the physical battles among brothers, the inability to accept what was happening to the family and the impact on the healthy children are harrowing.

Along with the Galvin family experience, Kolker details the medical community’s evolving response to schizophrenia through the years.

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
Four Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2020
377 pages, includes notes and index

*I live in Colorado Springs.

A Daughter of the Kitchen   1 comment

Always Home: A Daughter's Recipes & Stories by Fanny Singer

Always Home by Fanny Singer is a beautifully-written homage to her childhood as the daughter of renowned chef and food activist, Alice Waters. The inspired black and white photos and recipes are a bonus.

Singer was born after Chez Panisse opened its doors. The Berkeley restaurant, at the forefront of using locally-grown, organic ingredients, is where California cuisine and Waters garnered international attention. The book reveals as much about Waters as the author; it creates a sense of envy at their lifestyle. Not only because of the food prepared and eaten, but their travel experiences. Summers in the south of France, vacations in Italy and Mexico are vividly rendered through descriptions of the landscapes, along with meals and those with whom they were shared.

Yes, Singer is close to her mother but Waters isn’t the only influence on this accomplished writer. A host of honorary aunts, uncles, grandparents and those with direct connections to the restaurant, considered “La Famille Panisse,” fill the pages in much the same way they contribute to Singer’s life.

Each chapter is filled with humor – some self-deprecating. While this might be considered a memoir, it flows more organically, as if Singer is having a conversation with the reader. Her memories are recounted in no specific, chronological order as vignettes: a Christmas here or school trip there. The result is an engaging and fun read.

Brigitte Lacombe’s photographs enhance the pages. Consequently, a coffee table seems a better place than a bookshelf for showing off this work.

Always Home
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2020
317 pages

History Makes Good Mystery   Leave a comment

Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was first published in 1951; the reprint in 1979. Yet, this gem of a mystery remains, well, timeless.

The crime and the manner of investigation are atypical. Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is recuperating in hospital with a broken leg. He’s bored, unhappy and not interested in reading. That is until he sees a copy of a painting of Richard III. He’s intrigued, particularly since the king’s face doesn’t mesh with the reputation of the man who killed to gain the crown. This sets Grant on a bedridden chase to learn more about Richard, whose short reign and place in history were tarnished.

Dry humor and rich narrative accompany Grant in his pursuit: was the king truly responsible for the murder of his two nephews to ensure his rise to the throne? The patient is assisted by Brent Carradine, a young researcher at the British Museum, and chronicles about English royalty of the 15th century. Even though all those involved at the time are, obviously, dead, Grant still conducts interviews: questioning his nurses and friends. They confirm Richard’s unfortunate place in history is warranted; Grant isn’t convinced.

Through  Carradine’s research, driven by Grant’s inquiries, it becomes clear Richard has been falsely maligned. In bringing history to life, the author’s description of Grant’s enthusiasm is palpable, as is his disappointment in the account rendered by historians, including Thomas More’s. The patient’s boredom converts to purpose and his recovery is almost as significant as his discoveries.

The Daughter of Time
Four Bookmarks
Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, 1979
206 pages

While We’re on the Subject   Leave a comment

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The life phase Kiley Reid refers to in her debut novel Such a Fun Age could be one of several: mid-20s, high school, early 30s, preschool or all of the above. Each contributes to the plot. Yet this work is far more important than time frames. It’s opportune as we examine our perceptions of race and racism.

Emira Tucker is soon to be 26 and no longer eligible for coverage under her parents’ health insurance. College-educated without a clue what to do with her life, she has two part-time gigs: babysitter and typist. It’s the former that drives much of the narrative. She’s African American; Alix Chamberlain, the woman whose child she watches, isn’t. Late one Friday night, Emira is with Alix’s daughter in an upscale market when confronted by a security guard. He questions why the black woman is with a young, white a child. The exchange is recorded on a bystander’s phone. The incident has the potential to go viral, but Emira’s not interested in taking the situation further and Alix is mortified it happened at all.

Reid’s characters are smart, funny and credible. Even with her lack of ambition, Emira is likable. It’s obvious she enjoys the toddler she babysits, but as a reader I found myself wanting more her. I don’t like admitting it, this is what Alix wants, too. Alix is a character I otherwise don’t want to identify with: she’s clueless and privileged. Yet …

This is an important story told with a surprisingly light touch.

Such a Fun Age
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
310 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Will Write and Love   Leave a comment

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In Lily King’s Writers & Lovers 31-year-old Casey Peabody has been working on a novel for six years. Her mother recently died, she’s in debt and she works as server. She’s ended one relationship and soon becomes involved with two other men.

There’s no smut here. Instead, King creates intrigue and empathy for Casey, who’s kind, good with dogs and kids, and lives on the fringe of Boston’s literary society. She has writer friends, becomes involved with Oscar, an established author, and Silas, a struggling writer, all while agonizing over her own work. King’s characters are warm, likable people.

If this were a play, Casey would be upstaged by Oscar’s two young sons. He’s published, widowed and is several years older than Casey. She deliberately shares little of her writing efforts with him, but his boys are awfully cute. Then there’s Silas who’s closer to her age, teaches and writes in his spare time. Silas is initially off-putting because shortly after meeting Casey and making arrangements for a date, he leaves town for an indeterminate time. Not a great way to make a good impression; although he does return, which when things get complicated.

Casey’s deceased mother is an important character. She’s who Casey would turn to about her life’s dilemmas. Instead, Casey’s left alone to figure out things for herself. The result is a back-and-forth sideline cheering for one man than the other, all while rooting for Casey to not only finish her novel, but publish it.

Writers & Lovers
Four+ Bookmarks
Grove Press, 2020
324 pages