Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Recipe Box

Title:  The Recipe Box
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Thomas Dunne Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250146771 / 978-1250146779

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Alice washed her hands in the kitchen sink, looked out the window, and smiled."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is divided into shadow and light ... You can see it either way, based on your own perspective ... Based on your own light level."

Sometimes, I just need a feel good book that reminds me of the priorities in life and the bonds of family. This is one of those books. Since I love to cook, an added bonus is the fact that it is also a foodie book centered around a recipe box passed down from generation to generation.

The plot of the book is a simple and predictable one. Samantha "Sam" Mullin grows up in a strong and loving family with multiple generations on her family farm in northern Michigan. As is often the case, her struggle is the pull of family tradition and a need to define herself separately and distinctly from that heritage. So, she leaves the family business to seek education and a career as a chef . Circumstances come together to bring her home again. Part of Sam's story, as you might expect, is a love story - sweet and predictable.

Surrounding Sam's story is the story of the recipe box and the generations of strong women who have both contributed to and worked with the recipes in the box. The book weaves in their stories and their choices through vignettes and flashbacks. These women's are both Sam's anchors and the ones who give her courage to find her own path. As the author's note states, "The book is a tribute to our elders, especially the women in our lives whose voices were often overlooked in their lifetimes."

Anchoring each section of the book is a recipe from the recipe box with smells and flavors that rise up from the page. The recipes include apple crisp, peach-blueberry slab pie, cider donuts, cherry chip cake, triple berry galette, thumbprint cookies, ice cream sandwiches with maple spice chocolate chip cherry chunk cookies, the perfect pie crust, strawberry shortcakes, rhubarb sour cream coffee cake, apple and cherry turnovers, and pumpkin bars wit cream cheese frosting. All are made with farm fresh ingredients of course. The recipes do not tie exactly to what may be found on a farm in Michigan at that time of year, but that does not really matter. The recipes sound delicious!

Now, the practical stuff. The story is predictable. The life advice is full of cliche reminders. Certain themes - family, history, choices, regrets, joy, relationships - repeat again and again throughout the book:

  • "Life's an adventure ... You have to keep your eyes open or you'll miss it."
  • "Love isn't a game in which you give up control. It's a partnership."
  • "Only you can decide what makes you happy."
  • "There's always beauty to be found."
  • "I need to be grateful for the simplest of things."
  • "But don't live with regret, sweetheart."
  • "We are who we are based on the history and sacrifices of all those who came before us."

Regardless, the book works because sometimes we all need those reminders. At least I do.

Also, the images of the Michigan countryside are serene. The idea of history and continuity passed through generations of strong women is an appealing one. Recipes and gatherings of family and friends conjure up cozy images of a warm hearth. Mind you, there are hints of seriousness with harvests lost, crops destroyed, and even the challenges faced by migrant workers. However, the heart of the story is a sweet, simple, feel good tale perfect for a summer beach read (or really a cozy fall read with cup of cider and a baked goodie in hand!).

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Melody

Title:  The Melody
Author:  Jim Crace
Publication Information:  Nan A. Talese. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0385543719 / 978-0385543712

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was not unusual for Alfred Busi - Mister Al - to wake up in the shallows of the night and overheard a cacophony of animals, hunting for food in his and his neighbors' metal rubbish bins or drinking water from the open drain, water that the residents had used to clean their teeth or wash their clothes and dishes."

Favorite Quote:  "Death does not tidy up or sweep as it departs. We all of us leave traces other than the ashes and the bones. "

I am not entirely sure what this book was about exactly; I do not understand it. Several threads of stories carry along, but for me, they don't come together, and they don't seem to individually conclude either. I am still looking for the connections and the main idea.

Alfred Busi is an old man, a widower still living in the villa he shared with his wife. He is a musician, but now performs only for small events in his local community. This description predicts a story of a curmudgeonly and older character, perhaps reflecting on life or finding that a new beginning can be found even now as many other current books have shown. The book does include thoughts of his wife, a determination to stay in his home, and flashbacks of childhood. However, I don't seem to know him any better at the end of the book than I do at the beginning. The book begins with sad and eccentric and ends there as well.

The first page of the book talks about Alfred's fear or and fascination by the things that go bump in the night. He watches creatures eat from the rubbish bins and keeps a record. Towards the beginning of the book, he is attacked in his own kitchen by one such creature. Is is a ghoul? Is it an animal? Is it a naked, feral child as Alfred thinks? A lot of time is spent on this attack and Alfred's interpretations. The book has flashbacks to other encounters in Alfred's childhood. Yet, who or what this creature is or its significance to the story is never completely resolved. A second attack on Alfred occurs later in the book, but it seems entirely unrelated to this story line.

The first few pages of the book also confirm Alfred's love for his house for it is a physical manifestation of his life. His home is one of the few remaining villas on this seaside promenade in this unnamed town. Others have sold to developers. "The offers from housing factors, architects and agents - none of whom had any desire to live in the villa and enjoy it, but only plans to knock it down and built - were delivered to the door in stiffly embossed enveloped, but most left unread." This is a town in the middle of a destruction or a revival depending on your perspective. From Alfred's perspective, his house is home, and it is a link to his wife. Age and other factors though impact his ability to stay. However, this conflict too is not fully addressed or resolved; it simmers along.

Finally, the last section of the book switches narrators. The switch is not explained, and neither is the connection between the new narrator and the story. It is a marked and abrupt switch and begs the questions who and why? It leaves me a little confused at the end. The only thing I am sure of is that I clearly missed something in this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Small Country

Title:  Small Country
Author:  Gaël Faye
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1524759872 / 978-1524759872

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I don't really know how this story began."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of them fails to ask me the same loaded question ... 'So, where are you from?' A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite-of-passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin - the colour of caramel - must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. 'I'm a human being' My answer rankles with them. Not that I'm trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee-high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again."

The "small country" referenced in the title is Burundi in the 1990s. Burundi is a small land-locked nation in Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Bujumbura is the capital. The country's three main ethnic groups are the Twa, the Hutu, and the Tutsi.  Struggle between the ethnic groups have unfortunately long been part of the region's history. In 1993, an election lead to an assassination which in turn led to genocide. The result was years of violence and an estimated 300,000 victims. This is the historical context of this book.

Interestingly, this book is a novel but reads very much like a memoir. To a great extent, the story line seems to parallel Gaël Faye life. Gaël Faye is a rapper, singer, and writer. He was born in 1982 in Bujumbura, Burundi. His mother was Rwandan, and his father was French. In 1995, after the outbreak of civil war, he fled to France where he spent the remainder of childhood.

The book begins with the main character Gabriel as a young man in France reflecting on his childhood. It then proceeds to ten year old Gabriel, the son of a Rwandan mother and a French father, growing up in Bujumbura. The book describes an idyllic childhood that descends into the atrocities of war up to the necessity to flee. The story then cycles back to the older, although still young, man.

The parallels are clearly there. This may not be completely the author's own life, but is heavily based in that reality. A statement is clearly made. "I'm neither Hutu nor Tutsi ... Those are not my stories. You're my friends because I love you, not because you're from this or that ethnic group. I don't want anything to do with all that!"

This story, to some extent, is like reading two different books. Most of the book sets up Gabriel's childhood; the story reads like a coming of age story of a young boy. There are tales of friendships, of playing in the street, grabbing fruit off of trees, riding bikes, and even of childhood arguments. Then arrives the brutal story of war, genocide, and its innocent victims. Even for such a short book, the first component becomes a very long lead up to what felt like the real story. Hints are dropped and I know what is coming, but the wait seems long.

The second part is the story I was expecting from the book, but the depiction seems a little rushed. Perhaps, however, that is the story of itself. It goes from leisurely childhood days to a frantic fear and a struggle for survival. Innocence is lost, and all the realities of the world come rushing in. The ending surprised me, and I am left with the question if that too parallels Gaël Faye's own life.

Sadly, the need exists for another book that yet again documents the cruelty of mankind against itself. I still hope that one day it will not. Meanwhile, we as readers count on writers and journalists to give voice to the history all around us.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Mirage Factory

Title:  The Mirage Factory:  Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles
Author:  Gary Krist
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451496388 / 978-0451496386

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The gatehouse blew shortly after one a.m. - a powerful blast that ricocheeted off the wall of mountains to the west and resounded across the dark, lonely valley."

Favorite Quote:  "That this megalopolis had grown up in such an unlikely place was, in retrospect, little short of miraculous - a bravura act of self-invention reooted in a culture of titanic engineeing and cunning artifice. Beginning with its conjuring of an oasis in the desert, an achievement itself made possible only through a campaign of deception and elusive intentions, the city had attracted the population it needed by selling another mirage:  a lifestyle image of leisure, health, easy prosperity, adn spiritual fulfillment, all in a a place where it never rains or turns cold."

Say the city name Los Angeles and it conjures up an image. Sunny days. Beautiful beaches. Crowded streets of a buzzing metropolis. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Hillside homes of the rich and famous. What it does not conjure is the image with which this book begins. "Little more than a century ago, the southern coast of California—bone-dry, harbor-less, isolated by deserts and mountain ranges—seemed destined to remain scrappy farmland."

This book follows the history of the city from 1900 to 1930, during which time the population grew from about 100,000 to over 1 million. More than that, it follows the contributions of three individulas who were instrumental in that growth:
  • William Mulholland — The Engineer — engineered a marvel and brought fresh water to a basin bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. The Los Angeles Aqueduct   is over 200 miles long and brings fresh water from the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles.
  • D. W. Griffith — The Artist — is considered a pioneer of modern cinema. He was in fact one fo the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars). The cinematic techniques he introduced changed the industry and the future of Hollywood and hence Los Angeles.
  • Aimee Semple McPherson — The Evangelist — came to Los Angeles because of a vision. Sister Annie, as she was known, established The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination commonly referred to as the Foursquare Church. She is also credited for building the first megachurch in the country and for mobilizing followers and contributers through the use of the media.
What makes this story - and it is a story - more fascinating is the flawed and checkered history of these three individuals. William Mulholland's career ended when a dam he inspected and cleared failed. D. W. Griffith was known for and ostracized by many for the racist content of his films. Aimee McPherson was accused of fabricating her own kidnapping. It is these individuals that give this history its Hollywood flair. Despite their failures, these individuals left an indelible imprint on the city. "By the mid-twentieth century, then, the Artist, the Evangelis, and the Engineer were all gone from the scene, but the marks they had left were evident everywhere."

Because of the colorful facts of this history and the storytelling style of the writing, this book makes a quick read. Don't get me wrong. The research and the factual details are all meticulously presented. They are simply packaged in an easy to read narrative.

A note about this reader: I am not from Los Angeles but have visited. I don't have a particular interest in Los Angeles history but rather an interest in history overall. Until this book, I was not familiar with this aspect of history. I don't know if it is because of these reasons or despite these reasons that I found myself a receptive audience for this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tin Man

Title:  Tin Man
Author:  Sarah Winman
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0735218722 / 978-0735218727

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "All Dora Judd ever told anyone about that night three weeks before Christmas was that she won the painting in a raffle"

Favorite Quote:  "And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth."

Two young boys meet by circumstance at the age of twelve. They become the best of friends drawn together by loneliness and grief. Choices of one drive them apart. Fast forward several years. One is married, and the other has seemingly disappeared. The rest of the book is a tortured look at that friendship and what it meant. As the book description states, "This is almost a love story. But it's not as simple as that."

To me, it is more than that. It is one man's search for his own identity. He questions it once as a young man, putting his love at risk. He questions it again years later, again risking his love and this time also his marriage.

Michael. Ellis. Annie.  A pair. A trio. A couple. A triangle. At different points in their lives, they are all these things. There is a permeating love in all the variations of these relationships, and there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and melancholy.

The writing style clearly lends itself to that tone. It is more poetic than narrative. Some things it describes in great details; I am not a fan of graphic sexual descriptions. Some things it leaves completely unexplored. For example, the first chapter is about a woman, an abusive marriage, and a painting as a statement of freedom. It intrigues me, and I want to know if the woman will exert her freedom further. Yet, the book is not about the woman, the painting, or that statement. In fact, the book does not go back to that at all.

Similarly, Michael, Ellis, and Annie's story is presented as points on a map. I don't mind things being left to the reader's imagination, but in this case, the gaps are so wide that I don't really get a sense of them as individuals. That is truly surprising since part of the book is narrated as a first person journal. It is even more surprising that some of those descriptions deal with harrowing experiences during the AIDS epidemic. It should be intense and emotional, but for me, it just always seems at a far distance.

The clear dichotomy between the first half and the second half perhaps adds to the that feeling of distance as does the fact that the book focuses more on descriptions, telling not showing the story. Perhaps, that distance is a deliberate choice given the choice of the title; after all, the tin man in The Wizard of Oz thought he had no heart. Of course, the title could simply be a reference to the profession of one of the men, but somehow, I think not. Unfortunately, deliberate or not, it makes for a challenging reading experience.

I understand the angst that is at the heart of this book, but, for me, it needs to be grounded in a story about people who become real. That is what makes me care. This book feels more like reading a conceptual tale about relationships than a story that comes to life.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown

Title:  Patriot Number One:  American Dreams in Chinatown
Author:  Lauren Hilgers
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451496132 / 978-0451496133

Book Source:  I received this book through Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Zhuang Liehong had made three plans to get from his village in China to New York."

Favorite Quote:  "The biggest fortune in life is not health but freedom."

Hero. Dissenter. Activist. Immigrant. Husband. Father. Leader. Uber driver. Chinese. New Yorker. American. Asylum seeker. Asylum recipient. All these labels are only some that apply to Zhuang Liehong. He came to the United States as an asylum seeker in 2014 to escape persecution in China.

In China, Mr. Liehong and his wife come from Wukan, a small village in the Guangdong province of southern China. In September 2011, the villagers rose in protest of government corruption. Mr. Liehong was an activist in the movement. The active protests were quelled in December; however, the activism continued. Ultimately, Mr. Liehong feared for his life and the safety of his family and developed different plans for coming to the United States. Once here, the plan was to apply for asylum as US policy requires.

In the United States, Mr Liehong has found a home in Flushing, Queens in New York City. Flushing Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities in the world outside of China itself. This is indicative of Flushing itself, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse communities in the United States. Here, Mr. Liehong and his family's life has centered on creating a new life - job, language, home, community.

The story of any immigrant and/or asylum seeker has two distinct parts - the life they seek and create in their adopted home and the life they leave behind in the home they have known. Going back and forth in time and place, the book attempts to capture both sides of this story. Although the title of the book is "American Dreams," the book becomes more focused on the activism of the group of immigrants that the story follows. In that, the book is presents as much of their life in China as their new beginning in the United States. On both sides of the story, the book depicts a struggle. One is the activism and fight against corruption. The other is the attempt to navigate the US immigration and justice system in a legal application for asylum.

One thing that would add considerably to this book is pictures. So many people and places are described in the book; the images would add to the impact of the book and provide the needed accompaniment to the words. The book references a lot of names; images associating faces with those names would also help in navigating the details of the book.

The perspective of Little Yan, Mr. Liehong's wife, brings in more the aspect of adapting to a new home and a new life. This begins with the heart wrenching decision to at first leave their young son in China, the struggle to reunite with him, the process of learning a new language, and the need to make a living to survive. Her story becomes the individual emotional anchor for the book more so that the bigger struggle against a political regime. As a woman, a mother, and an American proud of the immigrant history of our country, I find myself pulled towards her story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Go Ask Fannie

Title:  Go Ask Fannie
Author:  Elisabeth Hyde
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0735218560 / 978-0735218567

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read Program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If I give her enough rope, she'll hang herself, he thought."

Favorite Quote:  "Was there ever a death that involved no regret? ... more often than not, what he first heard in their moment of grief was the word 'should.'"

The "Fannie" of the title is not a character in the book but rather the culinary expert and cookbook author Fannie Merritt Farmer. For the three Blair siblings, the phrase "Go Ask Fannie" is a memory of their mother. They do not treasure the cookbook to which it refers for the recipes (this is definitely not a foodie book) but for the sometimes cryptic notes that cover most of the margins in the book. Sometimes, their mother wrote notes on the recipes. Sometimes, she wrote reminders.  Sometimes, she wrote ideas for stories.

In real time, this book is the story of a few days as all three siblings - Ruth, George, and Lizzie converge on their childhood home in New Hampshire. Their father Murry Blaire still lives there surrounded by his sunflowers, and a lifetime of memories fill the family home.

Each family member brings their own agenda for the weekend. Ruth is the oldest, the practical attorney who is used to mothering her family. George is an intensive care nurse. Lizzie is the one still trying to find herself.

Over the course of a few days, the conversations and the memories cover the lifetime of this family. As is true of all sibling relationships, there is love and there is baggage. A marriage, a Congressional campaign, a career put on hold, the death of a child, and the loss of a spouse become turning points for this family amidst the myriad details that comprise a life.

The fate of the cookbook itself is almost a side story in the book. It lands Lizzie in legal trouble and prompts some of the conversations about their mother. To me, that plot line is fodder to explain the sibling dynamics and a vehicle to bring forth the secrets of the past. It is not relevant in and of itself.

The heart of this book and the most interesting character in the book is the one least present in the book. The Blaire siblings lost their mother when they were children. Through flashbacks and memories, the reader gets a picture a woman who put aside her aspirations for her husband's career but who tried to create a life of her own in the stolen moments of solitude. The image is one many individuals will relate to.  The current story is about the three siblings as adults beginning to understand the woman and coming to terms with the trauma of their childhood. That image too is one many readers will relate to.

Close to the end of the book, Murray reveals the final piece of her story. It is not shown as a memory but presented as a revelation. He always knew. That revelation and the ending goes in an unexpected direction without a definitive conclusion. It shifts the focus from the siblings and their memories to the actual events of the past and leaves me wondering what actually happened. Perhaps, that is deliberate for it is quite true that sometimes we never find the answer; we simply make our peace.

Overall, the book remains a story of family and relationships that many people will identify with, perfect for a summer beach read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.