Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (Biography)

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Ruth Reichl (Adult Biography)

I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story.

Ruth Reichl knows how to tell a good story and her storytelling skills are likely the product of having parents who could transform the most mundane event into an exotic adventure. Her cooking skills however, were born from sheer survival judging from the title of her first chapter: “The Queen of Mold”. Most mothers teach their daughters to be wary of strangers or always carry enough money to cover a taxi ride home. In Miriam Reichl’s case, she taught her daughter that food could be dangerous.

Tender at the Bone delights readers with Ruth Reichl’s memories of growing up in a New York City apartment, spending summers in Connecticut, going to college, working in a collectively-owned restaurant, and living in a commune. She talks about interracial friendships during the 60s, marriage, trying to please an impossible-to-please mother, and her journey to becoming a food critic. Most of all, Reichl teases us with stories about food, food, and more food. The only (small) complaint I had with her book was that she failed to provide any details about her wedding whereas she is very open about other details in her life. Although she included three photos of her nuptials at the end of her book, I was left with many questions: where and how did Doug propose, who cooked on her special day, what was served, and—most importantly—did her mother poison anyone? Although this omission was disappointing, Reichl more than made up for it by sharing such recipes as Claritha’s Fried Chicken, Coconut Bread, Oléro Berry Tart, and Artpark Brownies. I forgive you, Ruth.

Near the end of her book, Reichl wrote about meeting renowned chef, author, and TV host James Beard. Their brief encounter was far from memorable (at least for Beard) and even Reichl admitted that she was clearly out of her depth, but little did she know that she and Beard were more alike than she realized. Beard once wrote, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Food is remarkable in that it can manage to overcome religious, cultural, or political differences while forming a bridge that connects us through aroma, flavor, and texture. Food welcomes and comforts and unites us. Our memories are often formed around food and it is food that we seek in times of mourning, celebration, friendship, and love. With that, I’ll end this review with the Reichl customary toast as I raise an imaginary glass to Ernst, Miriam, and Ruth and say, “Cheerio and have a nice day.”

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Once Upon a Time, There Was You by Elizabeth Berg

Once Upon a Time, There Was You

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

DISCLAIMER: This is going to deviate a lot from my normal review format because I just can’t bring myself to devote any more time to this book, so here goes…

Synopsis: Two people (John and Irene) who never wanted to get married to each other get married to each other, have a kid (Sadie), get divorced, and are brought together again because their now eighteen-year-old daughter did something ridiculously and mind-numbingly stupid.

Why I read this: I read Berg’s Open House and rated it 3/5. It was okay enough that I decided to take another chance and read The Story of Arthur Truluv, which I rated 4/5. I was feeling pretty good and dived into Once Upon a Time, There Was You. I now find myself in a hate-love-hate relationship with Elizabeth Berg. I blame Arthur for this false sense of security.

Questions: First, What was the actual point of this book?!; Second, What in the world was Berg thinking when she wrote the event involving Sadie that sets the stage for her parents’ reunion? It felt forced and came absolutely out of left field. I don’t mind a shocking event if it’s going to add some depth to the story, but this one felt wildly out of place and came and went faster than promises made on election day; Third and Fourth, Who wrote the synopsis for this book and Did they even read the book? When tragedy strikes, Irene and John come together… Tragedy? That’s REALLY overstating what happened. What takes them longer is to remember how they really feel about each other. That might be the case if it wasn’t for the fact that Irene’s mouth has been estranged from her brain for quite a while so that any relationship involving her is doomed as soon as her lips part. There are more examples, but my brain is beginning to hurt a little bit now.

My rating: Every book I read automatically begins with a star. I mean, the author actually published a book and I haven’t so there’s that. I gave it another star because the relationship between Sade and her father was nice and the ending between John and Irene—unlike other parts of the book—actually made sense and was appropriate.

Moral of the story: Always go with your gut instincts, no matter how terrifying or humiliating the consequences may seem to be. Just suck it up, buy yourself an iced white chocolate mocha, hide under the covers, and wait for common sense to kick in…or the sugar and caffeine, whichever comes first.  

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir

Tobias Wolff (Adult Memoir)

It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.

Ten-year-old Toby “Jack” Wolff dreams of escape and freedom. He dreams of transformation. Traveling with his mother from Florida to Utah in their Nash Rambler, their prospects finally seem bright and expansive. The future was theirs for the taking…that is if their luck changed which, in Toby’s case, seems highly unlikely.

Tobias Wolff’s memoir is not one of those redemptive stories where everyone links arms and watches the sunset over the mountain or one where friends and family cheer as our young hero makes his way across the stage, grabs his diploma, and raises it high into the air signaling triumph. This is another kind of story where the reader bangs their head against the wall as our young protagonist continues to make one horribly bad decision after another. Where the hero doesn’t learn from his mistakes and continually seems to disappoint everyone around him except himself. This horribly flawed and painfully real boy is the reason why I fell in love with this book.

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one’s watching. A lot of what Wolff includes in his memoir could certainly have been softened or even omitted in order to allow the reader to have just a small bit of sympathy for him and his circumstances. Instead, he goes full bore and gives us all the ugly, raw, and sordid details of his early years. He deprives us of feeling any sense of pity although we understand that he is but a product of a mother who continues to be drawn to poisonous men and friends that are a whisper away from juvenile detention.

Throughout this book, Wolff explains that he craved distinction, that he only wanted what he couldn’t have, and that he was merely living off of an idea that he had of himself. Although we understand and accept this, we still ache when he tries to please a parent who neither deserves or earns it and hold our breath and silently curse as we realize yet again that another opportunity has been squandered away. Through all of his pain and suffering, Wolff reminds us that life is messy. It’s gnarled. It’s complicated. Life sometimes is just like that…especially this boy’s life.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

Stars Over Sunset Boulevard by Susan Meissner

Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

Susan Meissner (Adult Historical Fiction)

Unlike most women, Violet Mayfield didn’t move to Hollywood in hopes of being a star. At twenty-two, she made the trip from her home in Alabama because of the promise of a steady job in a studio secretarial pool. She also came to escape the expectations of her mother and father, as well as the sad memories of a life that would never be. Conversely, thirty-year old Audrey Duvall was looking for stardom. It was 1938 and the biggest news around Hollywood was the filming of Selznick International Studios’ blockbuster production of Gone with the Wind. Audrey, who was once on the cusp of stardom, is looking for her breakout chance. At the moment, all she’s looking for is a suitable roommate and this young woman from Alabama seems to be the right fit. Violet and Audrey’s friendship is set against the backdrop of the Golden Age of Hollywood—where dreams are made, stars are born, and all the world’s a stage. But as each of these two very different women search for their own sense of fulfillment and happiness, their friendship is constantly put at odds. Can their relationship endure their individual pursuits of happily ever after?

Historical fiction is my favorite genre and so I really enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look into the making of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic Gone with the Wind. Meissner goes into detail about the film’s myriad obstacles and noteworthy events: the firing of the production’s first director, George Cukor; the clever solution of acquiring additional “extras” for the Confederate Wounded scene; the preparation for the burning of Atlanta sequence; and the excitement when the identity of the film’s leading lady was finally revealed. It’s a wonderful look into cinematic history and I thoroughly reveled in these references.

One of the major plot lines of the book was the tie-in between the past and the present through a prop from the Gone with the Wind movie: Scarlett’s over-the-top green velvet hat that went with her infamous drapery dress. Although an interesting premise, I felt that this connection didn’t really add anything to the storyline. For all the build-up behind this famed costume piece, I eventually viewed the emerald chapeau as more of a red herring. Admittedly, Meissner did use this device to directly draw a comparison between Scarlett O’Hara and Violet Mayfield who both are Southern women willing to do anything to anyone as long as it benefits their own self-interests. However, this correlation did not translate to an immediate “check” in the win box for me. The very reasons I didn’t like Gone with the Wind are the exact same reasons that I wasn’t able to fully connect with Stars Over Sunset Boulevard: a story based around a female protagonist that’s selfish, petty, ungrateful, and petulant and constantly plays the woe-is-me-card in order to rationalize her self-serving choices. By doing so, she manages to hurt those closest to her while depriving them the dignity and decency of making their own informed decisions. While Scarlett seems to pay the ultimate price for her arrogance, Violet seems to have gotten off pretty much scot free. To that, all I have to say is, “Fiddle-dee-dee”.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (YA)

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising

Pam Muñoz Ryan (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Esperanza was the pride and joy of her papa.  The daughter of wealthy ranchers, Sixto and Ramona Ortega, she had everything a twelve-year old could possibly want.  But not far beyond the borders of El Rancho de las Rosas, trouble brewed in Aguascaliente, Mexico.  It was 1930 and the revolution in Mexico had happened over ten years ago, but there were still those who resented the wealth and circumstances of the local landowners.  Soon that hate would spill over into Esperanza’s idyllic and pampered world and would ultimately rob her of everything that she knows and holds dear.

Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us a heartwarming and often heartbreaking riches-to-rags story of a young, spoiled, and arrogant girl who learns the value of humility, empathy, generosity, and kindness.  Inspired by her own grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, Ryan shows us the lavishness and bounty of a prosperous Mexican ranch, as well as the poverty, squalor, and hardship endured by migrant workers living in company farm camps.  She also provides insight into the Mexican Repatriation, which included the deportations of thousands of legalized and native United States citizens to Mexico between 1929 and 1935.  Up until that time, it was the largest involuntary migration in the U.S. with numbers reaching almost a half million.  Ryan also describes the struggles of the workers to compete with cheaper labor from states like Oklahoma, as well as their efforts for a better wage and living conditions through unionization.

In addition to giving readers a story overflowing with moral lessons—Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes or Appreciate what you have before you lose it—Ryan also gives us a character who slowly begins to realize that life is more than fancy dresses and porcelain dolls.  Through humiliation, heartache, and despair, Esperanza understands how life is like her father’s beautiful and precious rose garden: “No hay rosa sin espinas.” There is no rose without thorns.  For despite the beauty and splendor that life often provides, there will also be some degree of pain and suffering.  But like her grandmother taught her as she undid Esperanza’s rows of uneven or bunched crochet, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”  And when Esperanza did, she truly blossomed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)

They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima.  Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old.  Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos.  They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America.  All were going with a promise and a picture.  All were leaving to marry.

Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America.  The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands.  The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves.  The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.

Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance.  She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth.  There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style.  Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective.  Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph.  She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation.  When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father.  One wanted to become anything but.  One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label.  One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.”  And on and on.  The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”.  Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo.  The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss.  As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.

I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story.  Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives.  I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys.  We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.  Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie.  We got one-dimensional versus 3D.  We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.

The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind.  Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience.  These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves.  Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”  I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (YA)

We Were Here

We Were Here     

Matt de la Peña (Young Adult Fiction)

I can sometimes make stuff happen just by thinking about it.  I try not to do it too much because my head mostly gets stuck on bad stuff, but this time something good actually happened: the judge only gave me a year in a group home.  Said I had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how I think.  Dude didn’t know I was probably gonna write a book anyways.  Or that it’s hard as hell bein’ at home these days, after what happened.  So when he gave out my sentence it was almost like he didn’t give me a sentence at all.

Miguel Castañeda had a plan for getting through his one-year sentence in a group home: write in his journal, keep to himself, pretend to call his mom every Sunday, and read every book on the home’s bookshelves.  Just be a ghost—invisible and non-existent.  That plan was changed when he was assigned to share his room with Rondell, a big black kid that was once his cellmate in Juvi.  And then there was Mong, a skinny, tough, and silent Chinese dude with scars on his cheeks and a psycho smile.  Suddenly a year seemed a whole lot longer.  And then one night, Mong asked Miguel to escape with him to Mexico.  Maybe a new start away from California is just what he needed.  Maybe it’s the clean start he so wanted.

We Were Here was one of those books that I kept checking out and returning—always meaning to read it but getting distracted by something else.  Shame on me for not giving de la Peña’s work the attention it deserved.  We Were Here is gritty, raw, candid, bleak, and insightful.  It’s also a stark reminder to never judge a book by its cover.  The author introduces us to kids like Miguel, Mong, Rondell, and others who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for one reason or another.  Each has their own story and shows us how one wrong decision or personal tragedy can set off a series of events that ultimately lands them in a group home, juvenile detention, or jail.  We get to meet these kids and understand that many are more than the sum of their parts and just need what Miguel so urgently desires—a second chance.

We Were Here is filled with heart, honesty, and hope.  The characters are realistically portrayed and de la Peña avoids simply making them ethnic caricatures by giving them depth, warmth, a deep vulnerability, and an underlying desire to make honorable and decent choices.  Narrated by Miguel through a series of personal journal entries, this story demonstrates just how far the bands of friendship can be stretched without breaking and the value of choosing loyalty over personal desire.

Matt de la Peña opened his book with an excerpt from Denis Johnson’s “From a Berkeley Notebook” and I thought it would be an appropriate way to close this review.  It beautifully depicts Miguel’s personal transformation and how events in our own lives can make each of us strangers to ourselves:  “One changes so much/ from moment to moment/ that when one hugs/ oneself against the chill/ air at the inception of spring, at night,/ knees drawn to chin,/ he finds himself in the arms/ of a total stranger,/ the arms of one he might move/ away from on the dark playground.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Jewel by Bret Lott

Jewel

Jewel

Bret Lott (Adult Fiction)

“I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo’ hardship, be yo’ test in this world.  This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel…The Lord smiling down on you this way.”  This is what Jewel Chandler Hilburn was told about her unborn child—her sixth and last.  It was 1943 and she had already been blessed abundantly with a good marriage to a loving man, five beautiful children, and a comfortable life in the woods of Mississippi.  With this child, Jewel just wanted a living, breathing baby with ten fingers and ten toes.  Certainly, that couldn’t be too much to ask?  But life can change in an instant and Jewel soon finds herself with a baby who is both a blessing and a burden and who will forever change the way she views life and love.

Bret Lott delivers a poignant and touching story about a mother’s relationship with her special needs daughter.  Jewel is a woman who has lived a thousand lives and has seen hardship and tenderness, cruelty and kindness, but the heart of this story is the bond she shares with her daughter, Brenda Kay.  Lott brings to the surface the gut-wrenching and life-altering moment when a mother looks upon her precious child—when heart and head finally reach mutual agreement—and says the words, “Something’s wrong”.  We feel the heartbreak as Jewel mourns the future that she has imagined for her daughter that will never be and we see her burdened with the regret of not being there for her other children or her husband.  Life is no longer measured in minutes or months, but in milestones and Jewel is there to celebrate each and every one of Brenda Kay’s.  She even organizes a family picnic when Brenda Kay takes her first step at age five.

Jewel is a celebration of the love between a mother and child.  Bret Lott reminds us of the tremendous gift that our children give us.  As each day brings with it some amount of pain, joy, frustration, heartache, sadness, and love, we are also reminded that it is one day less that we have with them all to ourselves for the job of a parent is to love our children, protect them, guide them, and then let them go so that they can make lives of their own.  It is a bittersweet role that we take on willingly and relinquish reluctantly.  Our legacy is often measured through our children.  They carry on our hopes, our dreams, our stories, and a bit of ourselves.  As Jewel said, “My life would never end, I saw, not even in my own Brenda Kay, because of those eyes turned to me and asking what to do, the only true victory any mother could ever hope for: the looking of a child…to you for what wisdom you could give away before you left for whatever reckoning you had with the God who’d given you that wisdom in the first place.”  Our children are indeed a blessing and a burden, but through their words, actions, and deeds, we too are able to see the Lord smiling down at us.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J. B. Cheaney (YA Historical Fiction)

I Dont Know How the Story Ends

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends

J. B. Cheaney (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.”

Matilda Ransom was tired of the dreariness of Seattle and the restlessness of her daughters and decided that the three of them would spend the summer in California.  Isobel (Izzy) wasn’t too keen on the idea, but between her father being in France serving in the Great War and her constant bickering with her little sister, Sylvie, her mother’s mind was made up.  The family was off to visit Aunt Buzzy in Los Angeles.  Izzy would soon find herself pulled away from the security of her books and thrust into the world of early Hollywood—filled with silent screen stars, bigger-than-life directors, Keystone Cops, a moving panorama, and a headstrong boy determined to make a name for himself in film.  For a girl who loves to tell stories, this summer would undoubtedly provide Izzy with more than enough content.

Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, so when I see an interesting topic written especially for younger readers, I am beyond thrilled.  Being surrounded by everything digital, it was a joy to escape to Hollywood’s earliest years and learn more about the world of the silent screen.  Cheaney introduces her readers to such directorial deity as D. W. Griffith, Mark Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as screen legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.  Cheaney allows us to be a part of the action by giving us a first-hand look at staging, lighting, makeup, filming, and post-production editing.  We often forget just how skilled and talented these early filmmakers were and I, for one, am grateful to her for reminding us of their groundbreaking brilliance.

In addition to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, this book also examines the reality of a world at war and the brave men who returned home, but forever left a part of themselves on the battlefield.  During a particularly difficult moment, Izzy’s friend, Sam, once said to her, “Some film can’t be cut” meaning that some things just can’t be fixed and some matters can’t be undone.  While the entire book is informative and entertaining, it is the last few pages that are the most touching, emotional, and poignant.  For the first time, Izzy sees her story told and knows exactly how it ends.  Izzy’s Aunt Buzzy once told her, “Life is like that—the strangest or most unwelcome, even the saddest things that happen can come to make sense in the end.”  Like the movies in early Hollywood, Izzy’s story didn’t need any sound.  All it needed was a picture…a picture of what true love really looked like.

“Remember how small the world was before I came along?  I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.”—D. W. Griffith, Director, Writer, Producer.  Thank you for making the world a whole lot bigger Mr. Griffith.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com