Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In a French Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis

Susan Herrmann Loomis’ ode to cooking in France, In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France, made me smile, taught me several tricks, and had me feeling as if I were sitting at her table or accompanying her on treks to markets in Normandy. In a French Kitchen features 85 great recipes, yet the quintessential ingredients of this tome are the simple ideas it imparts. Designed to answer the question: “How does the French cook do it?” which Loomis notes means “How does the French cook put a multicourse meal on the table at least once every day, and usually more often than that, and still manage to look great, act normal, and do everything else that needs to be done, from working, to raising kids, to taking care of the dog?”

With chapters on leftovers, equipment, and techniques, this isn’t for elitists; it’s for everyone who loves food and wants to eat well. The chapter titled “The delights of French Bread” alone would have been enough to make me buy this book. Join Ms. Loomis as she describes her daily trek to purchase bread:

“I walk to the boulangerie at least once a day, and the pleasure of emerging with a baguette in my hand, rounding the corner and tearing off the quignon, end, to chew on, is indescribable.  But I’ll try to describe it anyway.  It is complete good fortune, laced with indulgence, crowned by the feeling of being absolutely spoiled. After all, a team of bakers has been up since three a.m. baking for me. They’ve prepared the dough in their big, flour-dusted mixers, weighed and shaped it by hand, tucked it into thick, rising cloths, slit it with a razor blade and then slid it into the blustering oven when it’s just the right level of airiness. All of that so that I can enjoy the paradisiacal pleasure of crust and crumb between my teeth. If I ever for one second think I’m in the wrong place, the heel of a baguette brings me back to my senses.”

Yes, fellow readers, Loomis makes every taste explode in your mind just as it does in her mouth.  She delivers us to the places where she loves to shop, shares her secrets for making soups, salads, pastries, and more, and she writes a love note to the people in her adopted land. As an expat American, she also shares a wonderful list of sources to help Americans find the best ingredients, spices, and even wines. 

My husband and I spent several days in Normandy a few years ago and now I’m trying to figure out how I might convince him that we need to return if only to visit Louviers, the town where Loomis and her patisseries and boulangeries reside. I also plan to read On Rue Tatin, Loomis’s previous memoir, and to visit her website often to find new recipes like this one with a video on making the perfect salad

Summing it Up: If you love to cook, read this book. If you don’t care one iota about cooking, read this book for the sheer joy of Loomis’s life in her small French village. If you long to visit France, read this book for it will make you feel as if you’ve been there. Just read this book and give it to someone you love who loves life, recipes, and travel. 

Note: if you’ll be near Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, or the Pacific Northwest in July and August, you may be able to catch Loomis at her book tour events some of which include cooking demonstrations.

Rating: 5 stars    

Category: Dessert, Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition

Publication date: June 16, 2015

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tasty Treats for Dad

Whatever you give your father or grandfather for Father’s Day, it will be just what he wants because he loves you and thinks almost everything you do is perfect. Even when you made him a clay hippopotamus that resembled a piano, he loved it and displayed it. Still you’d like to give him something more personal than golf balls or a tie and you may be a little old to make him a clay paperweight so buy him a book that fits his interests.

Contact your local independent bookstore and they'll even help Dad download one of these titles onto his Ipad or e-reader or they'll help you find just what he wants. 

If your dad is happiest when camping, hunting, or fishing yet he’s also a reader who appreciates fine writing then Nickolas Butler’s Beneath the Bonfire will make him smile more than a Cabela’s gift card. It’s a testosterone packed group of stories that puts the reader alongside the men camping out, the couples at a chainsaw party, and those hunting prized morel mushrooms. This is the rare treasure that celebrates male bonding without trivializing it. If your dad missed Butler’s amazing debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, it’s out in paper and would also be a fine present, especially for Gen X or Millennial Dads.

My husband recently finished Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and he highly recommends it for other Dads. We all know what happened on that 1915 journey when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, but Larson’s skill is in making what we know exciting by showing us history through the people who made it. Larson paints a picture using letters, telegrams, logs, and the statements of survivors that’s historically accurate, informative, and intriguing.

Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain by J Ivy is a book younger fathers will want to read to learn how the Grammy-winning hip-hop poet forgave his absent father and started a program to help inspire healing through writing for children and adults who grew up in fatherless homes. Read my full review here.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton shows how a grandfather’s love can heal.  Fourteen-year-old Kevin’s brother is dead and his mother “had folded into herself” so they go to her Kentucky hometown where her father, “Pops,” works to save them. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will have your father holding his breath as he hikes down the mountain alongside these authentic characters. It’s a debut novel that's simply an old-fashioned good read. Read my full review here.

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova celebrates fatherhood even when it's tough. Give it to a father who likes a great story. It will make you remember that "Every breath is a risk. Love is why we breathe."  Read my full review here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a fairy tale for adults.  Written by Fredrik Backman, whose debut novel A Man Called Ove was one of my favorite books last year, “My Grandmother” shows that stories save us. Precocious Elsa and her grandmother don’t fit regular society and Backman’s words propel the reader into their unique world:

"Elsa is seven, going on eight.  She knows she isn’t especially good at being seven. . . . Adults describe her as “very grown-up for her age.”  Elsa knows this is just another way of saying “massively annoying for her age,” because they only tend to say this when she corrects them for mispronouncing “déjà vu” or for not being able to tell the difference between “me” and “I” at the end of a sentence. Smart-asses usually can’t, hence the “grown-up for her age” comment, generally said with a restrained smile at her parents. As if she has a mental impairment, as if Elsa has shown them up by not being totally thick just because she’s seven. And that’s why she doesn’t have any friends except Granny. . .

Granny is seventy-seven years old, going on seventy-eight.  She’s not very good at it either. You can tell she’s old because her face looks like newspaper stuffed into wet shoes, but no one ever accuses Granny of being grown-up for her age.  “Perky,” people sometimes say to Elsa’s mum, looking either fairly worried or fairly angry as Mum sighs and asks how much she owes for the damages. Or when Granny’s smoking at the hospital sets the fire alarm off and she starts ranting and raving about how “everything has to be so bloody politically correct these days!” when the security guards make her extinguish her cigarette. . . .

She used to be a doctor, and she won prizes and journalists wrote articles about her and she went to all the most terrible places in the world when everyone else was getting out. She saved lives and fought evil everywhere on earth. . . . But one day someone decided she was too old to save lives."

Elsa’s life was complete even though she had no peers, but then Granny died. That meant an end not only to their friendship but also to the tales Granny told about the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas that paralleled the lives of the people in their apartment building. It also meant that Elsa had an assignment; she was to deliver Granny’s letters of apology to the building’s residents via clues to where to find each letter.

In the midst of her grief, Elsa must enlist the assistance of an extremely large, very shy, germ-fearing neighbor known as The Monster, a giant dog, and a cast of unusual neighbors. Elsa must also manage her fears about what life will bring when her workaholic, pregnant mother gives birth.

With multiple subplots and eccentric characters galore, the reader can get lost but Backman faithfully steers the book back to the essentials. Elsa and her companions remind us that stories and our connections to each other matter even when adults are too busy and too self-involved to notice and that grieving isn’t easy.

Summing it Up: Read this fanciful tale to remind yourself that stories matter, that children often see what’s important and that a little suspension of belief can be good for the soul. Read it to slip into Elsa and Granny’s world where charm and tenderness triumph over cynicism and grief. Read it because a book doesn’t have to be perfect to touch your heart.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast,Dessert, Soul Food, Book Club
Publication date: June 16, 2015
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I just looked at the number of separate page views for this blog and here are the current statistics:

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This doesn't include my views so this little blog I started a few years ago to share my love of books is growing.  It started with my friends and the libraries and groups I spoke to sharing the link. Authors and independent bookstores now share it.  

Thanks for reading and sharing your favorite books.   

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

The Truth According to Us is a clever romp tied together by secrets and more secrets seen primarily through12-year-old Willa Romeyn’s eyes as she views her family in their small 1938 West Virginia town. Author Annie Barrows worked with her dying aunt to complete and co-author The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and is the sole author of the Ivy Bean children’s series.This is Barrow’s first adult novel since she co-authored “Guernsey.” The Truth According to Us and “Guernsey” are both period pieces and both feature epistolary aspects with letters telling some of their stories.

The book begins when a glamorous city girl, Miss Layla Beck,  moves into the Romeyn home as a boarder to write the town’s history for the Federal Writers’ Project in order to escape marriage to a man her prominent Senator father has chosen for her. She isn’t happy about writing about “a town full of toothless old hicks” but soon learns many stories including one about the mysterious 1920 death of Vause Hamilton who died in a fire he allegedly set at the local sock factory 18 years previously. The fire, the factory, the death, and other secrets have deep connections to the Romeyn family. Jottie Romeyn loved Vause and isn’t over his death nor is her brother Felix who was Vause’s best friend. Sol McKubin, the current plant manager, thinks Felix was involved in the fire and people in the town don’t trust Felix and his frequent disappearances. Young Willa, Felix’s daughter, is intrigued by Layla until a romance buds between Layla and Felix. Layla’s witty letters to her family help the reader understand the town and the times as well as offering relief from the linear telling of the town’s history and secrets.

Willa has a charming voice and Jottie’s character shines but much of the extraneous information about the town and some of its residents slows the tempo. The story is amusing, but this reader would have enjoyed it more had it been more concise. The American Library Association recommends it for young adult readers and I concur as Willa’s voice and her independence could attract teen girls who want to see what life was like during the depression. It’s also a good book for anyone who’d like to know more about the American Guide Series produced through the Federal Writers’ Project

Summing it Up: This is an appealing tale for readers who enjoy historical fiction, women’s stories, and a touch of romance. Lovers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will enjoy the setting, the way families protect each other, and the tensions caused by the romantic entanglements. 

Rating: 3 stars   
Category: Dessert, Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition
Publication date: June 9, 2015
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Friday, May 8, 2015

Last Minute Mother’s Day Delights

It’s only two days until Mother’s Day and you may still need an idea or two for that Mom in your life. Of course, your mother is smart; she reads. Here are a few suggestions of books I haven’t yet found time to review that a woman in your life will enjoy.

Bettyville by George Hodgman is Mother’s Day personified in the wryly poignant memoir of Hodgman’s life and his return to his small, Missouri hometown to care for his elderly mother Betty. Hodgman, a gay man, whose parents never discussed his sexuality, shows the complicated love a son has for his willful mother. The book also portrays the landscape of disappearing small towns and their churches, diners, and connections.

It isn’t a Hallmark-card-type Mother’s Day book as greeting cards rarely highlight Mother’s Day with a 90-year-old Mother with dementia. Instead, it’s the truth of being the child of someone who needs you. When Hodgman opines that his mother needs more help than he can offer and that he needs to return to New York and his work, his words resonate. “But I cannot leave. I will step up. In the morning, before the fog burns off, I will water the roses. I will get them through this summer. They will not wither on my watch.” GPR/SF/S, BC

The Children Act by Ian McEwan depicts British family court judge Fiona Maye as she wrestles with the case of a bright 17-year-old boy whose refusal to accept a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs will most likely lead to his painful death unless the court intervenes. The troubles in Maye’s marriage and her sadness at being childless along with McEwen’s brilliant writing lift this above the usual such cases. It’s rare when a novel you want to read in one sitting is so powerful. G/SN, BC

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is an inventive universe, a new way of exploring life. It’s a story told through non-linear fragments, bits of poetry, jokes, scientific facts, and quotations. It’s about a wife, a husband, new motherhood, and many random, seemingly unrelated speculations that form a whole. It illuminates the absolutely scattered existence women often experience when first becoming a mother. The fragmented way the story reveals itself is exactly how I remember my inability to complete any thought or action of more than a few moments duration as I first adjusted to motherhood.

You can read this in two hours, but you’ll want to set it down, take a walk, ponder, then return to Offil’s intricate world of desire, fear, connection, disintegration, and life’s rhythmic pace. Offill is a talented author whose works include another novel and titles for young children including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore which is among my very favorites. G/T, BC

Some Luck by Jane Smiley is the first installment in Smiley’s “hundred years” trilogy. It tells one family’s distinctly American story from 1920 through 1953. Each short chapter covers one year and those years show the birth of children and grandchildren, the depression’s effect on farm families, losses in war, and the different manifestations of love. The title is stated on Walter and Rosanna’s first child Frank’s birthday when his Granny replies to his father’s remarks about his birth.  “That was a piece of luck Walter,” said Granny. “But what would we do without some luck after all.” And there is some luck involved as family members die or survive incidents that could have ended either way. I love the distinct personalities of the children and enjoy Rosanna’s take on them. I’ve heard readers bemoan the absence of the great “linear” novel, one that tells a fine story without convoluted lapses into other realms. Here it is friends and it’s a winner. The second installment, Early Warning, just came out and while I haven’t yet read it, I expect it to be wonderful. G/GPR, BC

Stella Rose by Tammy Flanders Hetrick shows the consequences of making a promise that you may not be able to keep. Abby’s best friend Stella Rose is dying and she asks Abby to assume custody of her daughter, Olivia. Abby says yes because what else can she say and when Stella dies, Abby moves to rural Vermont to rear Olivia, a grieving, willful teenager. The book is partly an epistolary novel in that its narrative thread is sewn with the letters and gifts that Stella leaves for Abby and Olivia to open in each of the twelve months following her death. These letters and carefully selected gifts share what a mother wants to impart to her child and to her beloved friend. Complications arise though as grief can’t be manipulated no matter how carefully one plans. Romance and unexpected twists make this much more than an easily predictable romp. GPR, BC 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On this night in 1915, Armenian leaders and professionals were captured and most of them were executed by the Ottoman Turks. In the next few years approximately 75% of Armenians, 1.5 million people, living in the Ottoman Empire were dead. Most Armenians living today descend from the 25% who survived that genocide.
Aline Ohanesian’s timely novel Orhan’s Inheritance shares this relatively unknown history through the lives of a survivor and a Turk. Author Chris Bohjalian’s 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, made many readers aware of the genocide which he called “the Slaughter You Know Nothing About.” Ohanesian continues his legacy by taking readers into the history that Turkey still refuses to acknowledge. Ohanesian told Lynn Neary on NPR’s Weekend Edition “There’s only about 6 to 8 inches between an open book and a human being’s heart.”  Orhan’s Inheritance bridges those inches with a compelling tale of Orhan Turkuglu who finds that he’s inherited his family business after his grandfather’s death in a small Turkish Village. He also learns that his grandfather has left their family home and its cherished mulberry tree to an 87-year-old Armenian woman who lives in a retirement home in California. Orhan takes his grandfather’s sketchbook to Los Angeles where he meets Seda who slowly shares the painful story of her connection to his family and their lives in 1915. Orhan wants to learn her story yet, he’s fearful as it could mean that his family would lose their home and all they’ve believed.
As Orhan sits before Seda he realizes “This woman before him is like an ancient tapestry whose tightly woven threads could tell quite a tale, if only he knew how to unravel them. One loose thread and the whole thing could come tumbling out of her pursed lips.” Seda’s story untangles the carefully constructed history that Orhan grew up believing but in its place comes a realization that acknowledging reality was one purpose of his grandfather’s bequest.  
The book’s settings: Orhan’s village that seems so unchanged over the years, the Armenian retirement home with its muted colors and expectations, and the 1915 world of the Ottoman Empire infuse the novel with color and a brightness that contrasts with the horrific scenes of war and atrocities. As the novel wends its way between the annihilation of the Armenians and the fears of the Turks today, Orhan learns of family secrets and of a history he never knew existed. Ohanesian recounts the war through the eyes of both Seda and Orhan’s grandfather, Kemal. In a flashback to the war, Kemal tells his fellow soldier Hüsnü, “You know what’s nice? What’s nice is shooting blindly into the dusty unknown, with your comrades flanked on both sides, so no one need take responsibility for ending a life. That’s what’s nice.” Hüsnü is brave and jaded yet later when a fellow soldier dies “Kemal feels as if he’s swallowed a piece of shrapnel. His tears so often shed for paltry birds and strangers, are no longer at the ready.  It is Hüsnü who breaks down, hiding his face in his sleeve." Ohanesian’s ability to show both the Turks who were killing and the Armenians who were dying as real people makes this novel palatable and engaging.
When the novel returns to the present, it shares the concerns of today’s younger Armenians who beg for recognition alongside women like Seda for whom revisiting the past is so painful. Using art as a metaphor allows both the survivors and the descendants of the perpetrators to understand “betrayals and resurrections." Seda talks of the need for both empathy and action and Ohanesian’s words provide a glimpse into a long forgotten world where readers respect the past and honor those who were lost.
Summing it Up: Orhan’s Inheritance is a powerful novel of love, loss, war, and denial. Ohanesian makes unpalatable subjects captivating by sharing the lives of caring, compassionate people who did what needed to be done in untenable times. This is a perfect novel for book discussion groups.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: April 14, 2015
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