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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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 — F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well

F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well
Action Bronson
Abrams, 2017

I’ve been putting olive oil on ice cream since forever, but at Lilia in Brooklyn, Chef Missy Robbins showed me how she puts truffles on top of soft-serve with olive oil, honey, and sea salt.

And that’s when I became the biggest Action Bronson fan in the world. Honestly, I know that the man is a rapper, and that there has been some controversy over his lyrics, but as an old Goth, I’ve never been inclined to check out his music (no judgement, just likely not spooky enough for me), or his television shows. However, before he was a musician, Action Bronson was a chef. With a culinary school background. He knows a lot about food, all of it, from everywhere, and his travels as a musician have allowed him to taste food from all over the world. This book is a list of 100 of his favourite things to eat.

Besides the above mentioned olive oil and ice cream, Bronson offers up a little bit of everything, from high-end cuisine to junk food. He’s as happy eating truffles (“Truffles are only fancy to us because we don’t live where they come from.”) as he is drinking Crystal Light; as happy with a slice of greasy New York pizza as he is with a slice from an authentic pizzeria in Naples. He lists his favourite places around the world to get chicken wings and fried chicken (braise it in mustard, OMG), as well as his favourite bagel joints.

F*ck, That’s Delicious is part biography — Bronson traces his love of food back to his childhood in Queens and the vast array of food from around the world — and part cookbook, with plenty of his own recipes (which look fantastic!) for everything from a cheese bagel to his Albanian nonna’s Pasul (a dish of baked cannellini beans), to Explosive Chicken made with Szechuan peppers.

The writing here is funny, intelligent, and shows a true love and respect for foods of all kinds, and the cultures that they come from. The book is full of photos of Bronson on his travels, but also the odd silly cartoon (look for the one that goes with the story about the bear, the Poconos, and a pair of ladies’ slippers), funny diagrams, and plenty of photos of dishes that will make the reader yell, “Gimme that!”

It can seem a bit name-droppy at points — Bronson is friends with Mario Batali, who wrote the foreword, and mentions him frequently, so there’s some discomfort with the perception of misogyny, whether implied or actual — but he gives props to the places and chefs he mentions.

Overall, a really fun book that covers diverse area of the culinary world, and you don’t need to be a fan of Bronson’s music or television shows to be able to enjoy and appreciate it.

Book Review- Give a Girl a Knife

Give a Girl a Knife
Amy Thielen
Clarkson Potter, 2017

There’s a point in any professional cook’s life where you have to decide whether to keep cooking professionally — to really push for your own restaurant, your own empire, as it were —or whether to move on to another career, hopefully food-related. The human body can’t stand the physical abuse of the professional kitchen past (usually) the mid-30s and by that time, you’ve got to have some other line of work figured out. Amy Thielen very smartly used her English degree, the one she earned before deciding to become a chef in New York City, to take her cooking career into the realm of food writing, and readers should be thankful that she did.

Thielen is a cookbook author and TV host, and is a regular contributor to Saveur and other publications, but it is her food memoir, Give a Girl a Knife that resonated with me.

Growing up in suburban Minnesota, Thielen began cooking seriously when she paired up with artist Aaron Spangler and moved into his off-the-grid cabin in the woods. Growing and cooking most of their own food, Thielen learned about seasonal, local cooking. But this wasn’t enough for her, so when Spangler needed to move to New York to further his career, Thielen went with him, took a quickie chef’s course, and started working in some of the best restaurants of the late 90s, doing time with David Boulay and Daniel Boulud.

Travelling back and forth to their farm every summer, Thielen had the opportunity to explore not only the down to earth cooking she did at home as it compared to the high-end fine dining cuisine she prepared in various restaurants, but the influences of her mother and grandmother as they played into the mid-Western, middle class cuisine of the late 20th century.

Told in a slightly awkward three parts — her time cooking in the 90s in New York, then childhood, meeting Spangler and becoming a couple, and then present day and the decision to leave professional cooking behind to live on her farm full time — Thielen shares the life of a professional cook, interweaving it with her experiences cooking in a rural setting (they initially had no electricity or running water), and flavouring it with family food traditions.

More than the story itself, which is interesting and inspiring, is the way that Thielen writes. She is observant, and able to put those observations into words in the most evocative way, at one point discussing pickles she recounts opening a jar where,

Tons of bubbles hopped from the surface like baby frogs in wet grass.

In writing about her mother’s Minnesotan cooking she says,

My mom’s dish of room-temperature butter was more than a mere cooking fat, it was an ointment, filling, spackle, emotional salvo, as essential to combating the deep Minnesota winter as lotion.

A good and interesting story is only as good as the way it is told and Thielen has the knack of a great storyteller. At one point in the book she mentions writing fiction but dismisses the idea because she doesn’t consider herself creative in that way, but I think she is wrong. I think Thielen’s narrative voice would be perfect for fiction; she writes evocative descriptions that allow the reader to feel as if they’re right beside her, whether that is refusing to eat the rabbit that Aaron kills in their garden, or working a station in the hectic kitchen of a high-end restaurant, she makes the event come to life.

Give a Girl a Knife is a first hand look into two (maybe three) very different styles of cooking and eating and should be an inspiration for both aspiring chefs and aspiring writers.

Book Review — The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Emily Nunn
Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017

While it’s generally not recommended to read other reviews of something before writing your own, I was drawn to reviews of The Comfort Food Diaries not for the critique of the writing style or the events depicted, but out of genuine curiosity as to what other readers got out of this book. Because, to me, the main theme was not Nunn’s stated premise of a comfort food road tour and emotional support that she received after her brother’s suicide, descent into alcoholism, and subsequent break-up with her fiancee, but rather an over-arching theme of dysfunctional families, the destruction caused by narcissistic personality disorder, and finding “family” wherever you can. Maybe that can only be seen by someone who is also from a dysfunctional family, but that was a much more prevalent theme for me than Nunn’s search for comfort food.

Nunn is living in Chicago with a man she refers to as The Engineer, along with his daughter (The Princess). She has been made redundant after a great career as a food and features writer. When her closeted gay brother commits suicide, Nunn finds solace in a bottle (or rather a lot of bottles) and has a nervous breakdown of sorts that her partner is not emotionally equipped to handle.

She returns to her family, moving to California to attend the Betty Ford clinic and stay with her sister, but family, despite best intentions, are not always the best people to help and support us, and Nunn finds herself at odds with her sister Elaine once she moves on to stay with other extended family members. This is apparently a typical situation within Nunn’s family with some of her three remaining siblings and divorced parents estranged from someone else at any given point (neither Nunn’s mother or younger sister attend her brother’s funeral, for instance). As the story unfolds, Nunn gives the reader a more nuanced look at her family situation, and I’m happy to award both Nunn’s mother and older sister the official “Piece of Work” award for their head games and narcissism.

All of this leaves Nunn rather more of a mess than she needs to be, and certainly does nothing to help her heal and recover, and much of the book is about her working out feelings towards herself that resonate back to childhood. (Like most auto-biographies, a lot is left unsaid regarding Nunn’s role in the dynamic of these relationships, but I know enough about how narcissists constantly pull the rug out from under the people around them that I can feel real empathy and sympathy for her.)

So wait, where does the food bit come into this? Nunn’s original plan, when she first reached out to friends on Facebook, was to go and visit various friends and relatives, cooking with them and writing about what they consider to be comfort food. And she does do that to some extent, staying with cousins. aunts and uncles, and reconnecting with many friends from her youth, all of whom welcomed her into their homes and lives. One of the key points Nunn discovers is that “comfort food” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and a dish that represents love and caring to one person might bring up terrible memories or distaste for another. This lack of universal agreement reflects the idea that family, the other entity we think of as “comfort” and where we’re most likely to associate food memories, may not be universally accepting either.

There are great-looking recipes throughout, but they feel a bit secondary within this interpretation of the theme, more of a way to avoid the issues Nunn must face on her journey rather than something that enhances it (she admits to avoiding her issues throughout the book), although many of her moments of enlightenment and self-awareness come while cooking and eating the various permutations of southern comfort food she seeks as a form of solace.

I suspect that the rift in Nunn’s family is likely permanent after the publication of this book, but my educated opinion is that she’s probably better off for it. Nunn has found herself and her healing within her family of choice, not her family of birth, and while her journey as an alcoholic and ACON (Adult Child of Narcissists) will always colour her feelings and decisions, the life changes she has made in The Comfort Food Diaries seem like a good base on which to restart her life.

This is a sharp and witty work — Nunn is a great writer — although it leaves a lot unsaid that might have pushed the story in a different direction. At minimum, it will give the reader cause to rethink their ideas of family and comfort and comfort food and how those things interweave throughout the course of a person’s life.