Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Improving the Palate   Leave a comment

After watching the HBO series about Julia Child and how she not only elevated American cuisine but also played a significant role in the rise of Public Television, I became interested in Judith Jones.

Jones edited Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As a fictional work, the TV series played with some facts, not just about the Childs, but also Jones. This led me to her memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.

Jones grew up in a privileged family where food was given little attention. If not for the family cook, meals would have been completely uninspired. Food was meant to be consumed not talked about. This makes it fascinating to learn about how not only her palate but also her passion evolved.

Jones approach is unassuming and engaging. Yes, she drops names, as in culinary celebrities, but not before she shares her experiences as a college coed in New York City and Paris. The City of Lights is where she met the loves of her life: Evan who she would marry and fine cuisine.

After spending several years in Paris, The Joneses return to New York, where she worked first at Doubleday and later at Knopf. It was there she saved The Diary of Anne Frank from oblivion and made her name as an editor.

Jones recounts her interaction with chefs, her own cooking endeavors and her efforts that helped home cooks move from the bland to the sublime. Jones also includes many recipes in the memoir.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food

Four Bookmarks

Anchor Books, 2007

290 pages, includes photos and index

Looking forward   2 comments

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible is bleak; it’s not for kids. It’s a cross between Bless the Beasts and the Children and The Road; it’s an allegory about climate change.

Ironically-named Eve narrates. On vacation at a lakeside mansion, she’s one of 12 children whose parents pass the time drinking and doing drugs.  The kids have nothing but disdain for the neglectful adults. Instead, they create their own games and adventures, including a camping trip via canoes to the shore.

These are not your average youths. They carefully plan their excursion ensuring they bring the right supplies. They also know that when weather alerts forecast a major storm it’s time to return to the estate.

To their credit, the parents are aware of the approaching tempest, which evolves into a storm of massive proportions. However, once power is lost and food supplies run low, it’s the adolescents who understand it’s time to go. Unable to convince their parents how urgent the situation is, the kids leave them behind.

Tension builds as the children discover their world is now an apocalyptic nightmare.  Although they encounter kindness from some adults, they also face armed men willing to battle for any resources needed to survive.

Eve’s little brother, Jack, has a picture book of Bible stories with many connecting to the dire conditions.

Relying on the younger generation to first recognize the danger caused by the storm and then seek solutions is symbolic given the existing climate crisis.

A Children’s Bible

Almost Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton, 2020

224 pages

A Holy Matrimony   Leave a comment

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings is the kind of creative and well-researched novel that’s hard to put down. The premise is based on the idea of what if Jesus had married?

It’s addressed with the fictional portrayal of the life of Ana, Jesus’s wife.  As the daughter in a wealthy family in Galilee, Ana is expected to bide her time until she is suitably married. However, this is not what she sees as her life’s objective. Instead, she surreptitiously studies and writes about women whose lives are ignored or silenced. This is her personal rebellion in a patriarchal society.

Ana first briefly meets Jesus in a Galilean markets. She’s drawn to him but can’t explain why.  Through some not-so-chance subsequent meetings, they become further acquainted.

The author draws from the Bible and fills in the blanks with Ana’s life, from her near-arranged marriage with a much older man, to her ultimate union with Jesus, and later her escape from Galilee to Alexandria with her intrepid aunt.

Interestingly, Jesus is a minor character, as are his mother and his brothers. The focus is on Ana. Once married, although she has Jesus’s support and appreciation of her talents as a writer, she is too busy on the family compound near Nazareth to pursue such aspirations.

Tension builds as Ana and Jesus independently evade authorities for different transgressions. Jesus’s fate is known, Ana’s isn’t. However, her intelligence, passion and understanding of Jesus’s purpose, in Kidd’s hands, make her the ideal partner.

The Book of Longings

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2020

418 pages

Love in the time of chaos   Leave a comment

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez  is beautifully written with tough themes portrayed with a disarming touch. Abandonment, betrayal, family secrets, relationships, rebellion and politics are among the many themes throughout this debut work.

Olga and her older brother, Prieto, were abandoned by their mother, a revolutionary for Puerto Rico’s independence. The children were raised in Brooklyn by their father, a former activist, before dying from AIDs, the result of his heroin addiction.  Relatives, especially their grandmother, took charge. Despite this rocky upbringing, Olga and Prieto are seemingly successful adults. She’s a wedding planner and he’s a congressman.

Although their mother never returns to see them, she is aware of their lives as proven in the sporadic letters written to Olga. The letters, sent from 1990 to 2016, are like harsh lectures about Puerto Rico’s history.

The narrative begins in July 2017 leading to before and after the devastating hurricanes that struck the island. Olga’s life is filled with her business, her relationships with her family, clients and a new romance. Prieto is a popular politician in his Brooklyn community, although Olga and others soon wonder about his recent voting record.

The characters are vibrant and the settings, Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, are vivid. Olga is a likeable. She credibly weathers her personal storms. Her circumstances, and her family’s, may be different than those of many readers. Yet, Gonzalez makes them relatable.

Olga’s mother is harsh in denouncements of the status quo. Although her methods are questionable, her cause isn’t.

Olga Dies Dreaming

Four+ Bookmarks

Flat Iron Books, 2021

373 pages

Sherlock Holmes Redux   Leave a comment

The idea of pairing an older Sherlock Holmes with a young woman as a crime-solving duo is, well, elementary!

Laurie R. King has done just that in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, set many years after Holmes has retired to Sussex Downs, near the sea and far from London. There, he has mostly settled into life keeping bees and taking on the occasional case.

One day on a walk, he encounters 15-year-old Mary Russell, a bright girl, whose intellect captures his attention. The two begin a friendship based on mental acuity, powers of observation, science, deduction and a flair for the audacious.

There’s little mention of Dr. Watson, but Mrs. Hudson continues as Holmes’s housekeeper – and Mary’s surrogate caregiver. (Mary is an orphan left in the care of a cold, ill-disposed aunt.)

Through the years, Mary’s education is augmented by her time spent with Holmes. Even after she leaves for Oxford, they remain in touch.  It comes as no surprise when they work together to solve, at first minor crimes, before being thrown into webs of deceit and danger not unlike those once constructed by Holmes’ arch enemy, the now-deceased Moriarty.

Her intelligence, thirst for knowledge and appreciation of Holmes make Mary a likeable character. She understands him without being intimidated.

King injects humor and warmth into her writing and provides a different perspective of Holmes thanks to the strong, female character she has created in Mary. The thrill of the chase is evident in the way Holmes and Mary work together.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Four Bookmarks

Laurie R. King

Bantam Books, 1996

405 pages

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