Bookish – In Which I Offer Mini Reviews for Many Books

Nobody reads my book reviews anyway, so I figure it’s totally okay if I cheat and pile a bunch into one post. I just want a place to record everything I’ve read because otherwise I’ll pick up the same title five years from now and read it again, and seriously, there are too many books to read, I’m not reading something twice unless it changes my life in some way.

So here’s what I’ve been reading lately…

Crow Winter
Karen McBride
This novel about a young Anishinaabe woman returning to her family home after the death of her father reads more like a young adult novel with traditional characters from the spirit world coming to life to help her come to terms with her loss and save her community. Beautiful artwork throughout by the author. A good entry point for readers of colonial descent to learn more about First Nations culture.

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Book Review — Recipe For a Perfect Wife

Recipe For a Perfect Wife
Karma Brown

I flagged Recipe For a Perfect Wife after a review (or maybe it was a press release) made it out to be a bit of a thriller. While there was murder and mayhem, it was of a more genteel sort, served with tea sandwiches and cake, that was not much of a challenge.

A dual storyline — Nellie in the 1950s and Alice in 2018 — tells of both women’s lives in the same suburban house. Both women have secrets, and are living unhappy lives, making choices mostly to please their respective husbands. Nellie’s mid-century marriage is full of abuse, belittlement, and even rape, while Alice is a modern working gal who has torpedoed her career and agrees to move to the burbs as some form of self-imposed penance.

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Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.

March Reading List

The German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Fascinating topic, but the execution is clunky. Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner full of Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 that arrived in Cuba only to be turned back, with a mere 28 passengers (out of more than 900) permitted to disembark. Correa works to create many correlations between modern-day Anna and her great-aunt Hannah in 1939, but writing both parts in the first person voice offers little differentiation between the two character’s voices. Timelines feel off but work out as the plot progresses however there’s no clear answer to the main plot point of the story, which is why did Hannah’s mother, and Hannah herself after her mother’s death, remain in a country they hated, especially when they had the money to go to America after the end of WW2 and at the onset of the Cuban revolution? With better editing (again, this work is clunky, often slow, and long-winded) this could have been a great YA novel. Geared to adults, it’s less engaging, although, again the topic itself is both fascinating and horrible, so kudos to Correa for giving it light after so many decades.

Sweet Expectations
Mary Ellen Taylor
A food-themed romance/chick-lit/mystery/ghost story that had a reasonable plot (even with the ghosts), but which was short on continuity and spell-checking. Seriously, this was published by Penguin, but was littered with misspellings that any version of spellcheck should have caught. Characters’ ages change from one chapter to the next. Most of it felt like an awkward first draft. I was ready to forgive the clumsiness until I discovered that this was the second in a series, and the synopsis for the first book sounds almost the same as the second, complete with a found object and a ghost who needs the heroine to unravel their mystery.

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Book Review — The Belly of Paris

The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart #3)
Emile Zola
originally published 1873,
reprint with introduction and translation by Mark Kurlansky, Modern Library, 2009

We all have that one book that we feel that we should have read but just never got around to. For me, that book was Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or The Fat and the Thin, as it was originally titled. This is a disappointment, because, having finally read it, I regret not having made the effort sooner, if only so that I would have had more opportunities to read it over and over again in my lifetime. This is an issue that I fully intend to address in future, but still, had I first read this as a teenager, I’d surely have read it at least a dozen more times in the interim years, so brilliant is this work of fiction.

Set in and around Les Halles market in Paris just after the new buildings were erected in the 1850s, The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent Quenu, wrongly arrested and sent to prison, escaped and returned to his brother, a chef who now runs a successful charcuterie shop on a street near the fish monger section of Les Halles.

The third book in a 20-part series, (The Rougon-Macquart books follow the lives of a fictional family over multiple generations), The Belly of Paris speaks to the politics of the day (plenty of uprisings and upheaval in the years after the French Revolution), and Zola offers both serious and comedic characters as he tells the story of two brothers and their disparate lives and life choices.

In a setting of so much plenty, Zola explores the disparity of the Fats (the well-to-do bourgeois) and the Thins (those always struggling, often with not enough to eat despite their environment). Malice, jealousy and petty gossip propel the story to its heartbreaking but not unexpected ending.

The selling point here is Zola’s detailed, breath-taking imagery. The descriptions of food throughout the market last for pages at a time and in other works of food fiction, this might get tedious, but Zola is so adept at his descriptions, the reader can’t help but imagine themselves there, amid the chaos and bustle, surrounded by the noise and smells of the market. One particular scene, set in a fromagerie and since referred to as “the cheese symphony” is so vivid, so enrapturing, that if the reader can’t place themselves in that shop, smelling those strong, moldering cheeses in the hot summer afternoon, then that reader should give up reading books altogether.

The Belly of Paris is the ultimate work of food fiction which all other novelists choosing to include food in their works must aspire to. I recommend buying a copy (the entire series is now public domain and can be had in ebook format for under $2), so you can read it again and again, as I intend to do. However, the 2009 printing — translated by food writer Mark Kurlansky — is worth seeking out, as Kurlansky’s notes offer a very comprehensive and detailed exploration of the political issues of the time, which might not be known to readers unfamiliar with French history and politics of the era.

Final thought — why has nobody made The Belly of Paris into a film???

Book Review — Pomegranate Soup

Pomegranate Soup
Marsha Mehran
Random House, 2006

It’s 1986 and three Iranian sisters find themselves in the small town of Ballinacroagh, County Mayo, Ireland. They arrive suddenly, taking over a long-closed bakery space with plans to rush an opening of a Persian-themed cafe in only five days. They have escaped Iran via Pakistan and London, fleeing both the revolution and some personal demons.

Not all of the small town is receptive to their presence, including their neighbour, the publican, who had his hopes set on taking over the former Italian bakery to open a disco, never mind that the disco trend has long since passed.

Over time, with welcoming food, exotic spices, flavourful tea, and a desire to be part of the community, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla find acceptance and safety, but not without some small town drama to spice things up.

What starts out as a seemingly cozy story with a touch of magical realism (it’s rural Ireland, so there’s references to leprechauns and spirits, plus some allusions to the medical and spiritual aspects of the spices Marjan uses) goes to some dark places as we learn the story of the trio of women and how they have come to be in this town. They each have their own memories of Iran, and most of them are haunting. Behar is plagued with headaches and lives in fear of putting her sisters in further danger.

Mehran wrote this novel intending it to be the first in a series of seven books. She completed a follow-up, Rosewater and Soda Bread, but died tragically during the writing of the third book, leaving the story of the sisters incomplete. While Pomegranate Soup (named after the traditional Iranian dish which twice plays a vital role in the plot) ends on a happy note, the overall story feels incomplete — tied up with a bow, albeit a very loose one — with some characters requiring more fleshing out; presumably Mehran planned to do this with further titles.

As a work of food-themed fiction, Mehran creates good flow between the very descriptive passages about the food and the rest of the non-food bits of the story. Her descriptions of the flavourful, heady-scented Iranian dishes and teas are evocative and inviting, and she makes the food central to the overall plot. Recipes for pertinent dishes are included after each chapter as well and are a really nice touch.

Many reviewers on sites such as Goodreads have compared Pomegranate Soup (often unfavourably) to stories like Chocolat — the idea of the foreign or outsider woman setting up a food business in a small, conservative town and winning over the people there. But many of the aspects of the plot come from Mehran’s own life. Her family fled Iran during the revolution in the late 70s and ended up in Argentina where her parents ran a small Persian cafe. She married an Irishman and ended up living in a small town in Ireland, no doubt where she got the idea for the town and likely many of the townspeople. She even gives one of the minor characters an illness related to her gastro-intestinal system, which the author herself suffered from and later died from.

Rosewater and Soda Bread is in my “to read” pile, and I’m interested to see where Mehran takes these characters. There were enough loose ends here that the plot has many places it could go. I’m just sad that the world lost Mehran before she could complete the whole series.

Book Review – Friday Food Fiction — Pasta, Pinot & Murder: A Willa Friday Food & Wine Mystery

Pasta, Pinot & Murder: A Willa Friday Food & Wine Mystery
Jamie Lee Scott
LBB Company, 2017

There is a whole food and wine sub-genre of mystery fiction, and it ranges from incredibly well done to rather horrific (the writing, that is, not necessarily the plot line; most of these types of mysteries and known as cozys because the murder takes place off-scene or is not described in all its bloody, gory detail). This first book of food fiction by best-selling mystery writer Jamie Lee Scott falls somewhere in-between.

Willa Friday is a food blogger and stylist who still lives with her ex-husband and his family at his Sonoma Valley winery and restaurant. Willa discovers the body of of another wealthy vineyard owner and takes it upon herself to try and find out whodunnit, mostly because she suspects the young chef she’s just hired as an assistant, whose last gig just happened to be working for the deceased where words were had before his departure.

Willa butts into police investigations (and then is pretty much welcomed by the local police chief, I’m never really sure how mystery writers get away with this bit of plot manipulation), and unwinds the convoluted story to find the killer. It’s all a bit of a leap of logic, but it’s fine if you don’t think about it too much.

While I’m not familiar with Scott’s other works, I’d offer that this first attempt at food fiction is a bit clunky. While she’s got an easy setting to work with, the transition from the food stuff to the mystery stuff is not smooth and while Scott has obviously done a lot of research into food styling and photography, details about running a blog for money, and restaurants (both front and back of house), it still feels like two different stories at various points. There’s also a lot of references (and overly-detailed descriptions) of coffee and cocktails, which begin to feel like filler.

There are two more books in the Willa Friday Culinary Cozy Mystery Series, so maybe Scott is able to tighten things up and give her characters more depth.

Having said that, this was a fun, light mystery that I finished in an afternoon, and it would be a fine read for the beach or a rainy day for anyone who likes to read about food even when they’re reading about something else.

Book Review — Sourdough

Sourdough
Robin Sloan
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

It might be too early to call it, being only February and all, but Sourdough is already a contender for my top fiction pick of the year.

This work of Magical Realism (a genre that combines fact with magical elements) is subtle enough on the weirdness that I often found myself looking things up to see if they were true. Does sourdough “sing” while it is rising? Does it emit light or sparkle? (Hey, you never know with yeast and gas.) Is there really such a thing as a Lois club?

Here’s the deets: Lois Clary moves from Michigan to San Francisco where she takes a job at a tech start-up programming robotic arms. Her co-workers often sleep at work and eat a nutritive gel called Slurry instead of real food. One night while at home she orders soup and a sandwich from a not-especially-legal restaurant run out of someone’s apartment and gets hooked on their amazing sourdough bread. When the owners have to leave the country because of visa issues, they show up at her door with their crock of sourdough starter (because she has become their best customer) and give her a quick lesson on how to care for it and make bread.

From there she starts baking, first for herself, then for friends and co-workers, then the cafeteria at her office, where the chef encourages her to apply for one of the local San Francisco farmers’ markets. She doesn’t get into the main market system but is offered a spot in a new underground market (literally – it’s housed in an old missile bunker) where all the vendors are creating food with some combination of old school tradition and current technology. Lois borrows one of the robotic arms from her work to help her knead the bread with the promise that she will teach/code it to break eggs, as this is one of the hurdles for robotic arms in the food prep industry.

It gets even weirder than this by the end of the book, but Sloan does an amazing job of keeping all the elements together while creating a work that asks more questions than it ultimately answers. There’s the whole dichotomy of old skills and traditional ingredients up against technology – once the robotic arms can be used in industrial-scale bakeries, hundreds of people will lose their jobs. There’s also an Alice Waters-esque character, who even owns a restaurant in Berkeley that matches Chez Panisse in description, who represents the old foodways and traditions while the market Lois takes part in has a mandate to help find solutions to feed people en masse.

Throughout all of this is the relationship between Lois and the sourdough. Sloan integrates the food writing part of his work seamlessly with the rest of the story, which can be a huge problem for many writers trying to incorporate food writing into fiction. His descriptions of the sourdough as it rises and sings, as it takes on a personality, becomes depressed, and goes to battle against King Arthur (the flour, not the guy from the round table), are not only charming and engaging but mouthwatering. I dare you to read this book and not want to crack into a boule of fresh sourdough bread and slather it with butter.

Sloan goes beyond a fun story about bread. Sourdough takes on questions about philosophy, technology, tradition, ethics, history, and relationships of many types.

 

Book Review — The Cake Therapist

The Cake Therapist
Judith Fertig
Berkeley, 2015

There are many genres of food fiction that we’ll explore on this site as we go along, but the most prominent are the food-themed mysteries and food-themed romances. Cookbook writer Judith Fertig makes an attempt at combining the two in her first novel The Cake Therapist.

After a failed relationship in New York, baker Claire “Neely” O’Neil returns to her hometown to set up her own bakery. This happens quickly and immediately, as does Neely’s renewal of all her old friendships she left behind.

Neely sets up shop and starts offering baked goods with an extra dash of psychic advice, because she can associate people with flavours and feel their emotions, as you do when you run a bakery (joke). Fertig laces these stories, along with Neely’s own relationship problems (should she stick with the solid, handsome and local Joe, or be lured back to NYC by her charming pro-athlete husband?) with flashbacks to a mystery about a pair of local sisters. It sort of comes together in the end but the historical mystery and the modern day romance have nothing to do with one another and it’s not a smooth melding of stories.

The food bits — vivid descriptions of cakes being made and decorated — are gloriously detailed, as would be expected from a cookbook author, but they have almost nothing to do with the rest of the story other than the fact that the protagonist runs a bakery.

Secondary characters are flat and often cliched (the troubled, black-clad Goth girl who helps out at the bakery, for instance, is written with such a patronizing tone that it was almost uncomfortable to read), and do little to propel the story other than to tie the two distinct story lines together.

Fertig wrote a follow-up book called The Memory of Lemon that is supposed to tie up the loose ends of The Cake Therapist, but the description makes it sound even more complicated and uneven than this title, so I don’t know if there’s enough draw for me to track it down.

The Cake Therapist gets points for some gorgeous food descriptions but overall, it should have had a bit of editorial therapy to tighten up plot lines and fill out one-dimensional characters. Fertig is a good writer, but this is really two or maybe three stories in one. Like an over-decorated cake that needs fewer sprinkles and a slightly better sponge.