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

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeepers Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Diane Ackerman (Adult Non-Fiction)

Jan and Antonina Żabiński were Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over three hundred doomed people.  Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do.  But in wartime Poland, when even handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death, their heroism stands out as all the more startling.

The Zookeeper’s Wife takes place in Poland from the summer of 1935 to January 1945 with an Aftermath provided by the author.  Ackerman’s exhaustive and extensive research on the Żabińskis was compiled through letters, interviews, diary entries, articles, memoirs, testimonies, Antonina’s autobiographical children’s books, and numerous other sources.  It should be noted that The Zookeeper’s Wife is not historical fiction or anywhere close to it.  Those disappointed in the story’s disjointedness need only remember that this is an in-depth non-fiction about Poland, its population, and the ravages endured during World War II.  Ackerman’s research is comprehensive and immersive and her book should not be compared to a reader’s preconceived expectations—or worse—the movie version.

With that said, the book does go off on numerous tangents.  In addition to the Żabiński’s story, Ackerman delves into such topics as weaning, Greek mythology, the Ice Age, the migration patterns of birds, animal psychology, and Polish folklore.  Needless to say, the author covers the gamut in subject matter.  If this were a road trip, the Żabińskis would be the main freeway.  Every time they come in contact with a new individual—German, Russian, Polish, or Jewish—our story veers off on a side road where we learn about that person’s background, history, hobbies, talents, etc.  Our journey experiences many of these off-road adventures which may thoroughly exhaust some readers while intriguing others.  If you go into this book with realistic and accurate expectations, you’ll discover how the roads of a pair of Christian zookeepers, a German zoologist with an obsession of reviving extinct species, an ill-fated zoo, and a primeval forest in northeastern Poland all converge to save countless lives—both animal and human.

Jan Żabiński once said, “I don’t understand all the fuss.  If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”  This is the heart of The Zookeeper’s Wife and represents a sentiment that we should never find ourselves keeping hidden away or caged.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket



Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green (YA)

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier

Bette Greene (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It was the most exciting thing to have ever happened to Jenkinsville, Arkansas.  German POWs, maybe twenty in all, arrived by train and would be housed in a camp in the small southern town.  Twelve-year-old Patty Bergen was among the many townspeople there to witness the event.  Each hoping to do their patriotic part to make President Roosevelt proud during this summer of World War II.  During a chance encounter in her family’s store, Patty meets young Anton Reicker, a handsome, educated young man who is one of the POWs.  Although he is German and she is Jewish, they begin an unlikely friendship that will test Patty’s family bonds, as well as question her national loyalty.

Written in 1973, Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier was not only listed on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999, it also made the ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2001.  According to the ALA’s website (www.ala.org), “The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.”  To educate schools and libraries about censorship, they publish these lists which are compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).  With that said, this book (recommended for ages 11 and up) is full of racial slurs, derogatory language, sexual innuendoes, and many instances of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse.  It truly runs the gamut for a story written for fifth graders and up.  These issues alone are enough to give a reader pause, but these aren’t the only reasons that I found myself disappointed with this book.

First, Patty’s father and mother are inexplicably cruel and violent to her.  They fawn over her little sister, Sharon, while Patty endures taunts, intolerance, dismissiveness, and even physical beatings at the hands of her father.  I kept hoping for some enlightening backstory as to why these two people could possibly hate their own child so much, but Greene doesn’t even provide a hint to explain their savage and inhuman behavior.  Their treatment of Patty is repugnant and demoralizing, which serves as the ideal foundation for many of Patty’s choices—which are often hasty and incredibly unwise.  Here is a girl so desperate for acceptance and so eager for kindness that she would say or do anything in order to achieve some modicum of happiness.

Second, Greene gives us a story that seems devoid of any moral lessons.  The Bergen family’s black housekeeper, Ruth—who takes on the role of mother figure—is very religious and is often heard singing hymns while doing chores and encourages the children to pray at lunchtime.  Despite this being a story about a Jewish family, we get a healthy dose of Christianity and the glory that comes with salvation.  Even with this, there really isn’t a central theme tying the entire story together.  We understand the courage of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own and the virtues of seeing beyond religion, ethnicity, or skin color, but these platitudes fall by the wayside with an ending that is absent any sort of clarity, closure, or inspiration.  The reader is left feeling just as bewildered and discouraged as Patty whose only “real” friends are the housekeeper, a POW, and the town’s sheriff.

I read Greene’s Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. (which I rated 4/5) and was so hoping to find that same feeling of hope and triumph in this book.  Instead, Greene delivers a bleak look at family and life and gives us a girl so disillusioned and unsatisfied with her life, that the only thing she clings to is the day she turns eighteen.  Unfortunately for Patty, that’s still six very long summers away.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas   

John Boyne (Young Adult Fiction)

Bruno slowed down when he saw the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.  Although there was a fence separating them, he knew that you could never be too careful with strangers and it was always best to approach them with caution.  So he continued to walk, and before long they were facing each other.

Bruno may have been just nine years old, but he knew something was wrong when he came home from school and found the family’s maid in his room packing up all of his belongings.  His father had received important military orders and the family was to leave their luxury home in Berlin to go someplace that Bruno had never heard of before.  When Bruno saw his new home, he didn’t like it all.  Theirs was the only house on the road.  And it was much smaller than their other home.  And behind it was a big yard with a spiky fence all around it.  A yard that contained small huts, several soldiers, and many, many men and boys all wearing identical striped pajamas with a matching cap.  It was all very strange.  Yes, Bruno didn’t like this place at all.

Bruno is innocent, naïve, and an unlikely protagonist who neither recognizes nor understands the horrors of the concentration camp located behind his new home.  Through his young and selfish lens, he only sees unfairness when he views the camp for why should there be so many boys on the other side of the fence who have one another to play with while he has no one?  Bruno is absolutely angered by this injustice.  Of course, the reader realizes what the true injustice is, which makes Bruno’s self-centeredness all the more unpalatable.  Boyne doesn’t introduce readers to the boy in the striped pajamas until halfway through the book, which allows readers ample time to become acquainted with Bruno.  During that period, we realize that Bruno’s “faults” are really just him being a small, sheltered, and unworldly boy of nine: he’s thoughtless, scared, self-indulgent, petulant, and irrational.  But Boyne also shows us a Bruno that is kindhearted, inquisitive, and who understands the value of maintaining a secret and the importance of keeping a promise.

I’ve read several books for both juvenile and young adult readers that deal with the Holocaust and concentration camps.  This one is unique in that Boyne shows us the horror through two young boys of the same age, height, and physical features—virtual mirror images of each other.  Bruno is essentially the “before” while Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas, is the “after”.  One is German, well fed, idealistic, and blissfully ignorant while the other is Polish, gaunt, hopeless, and worn down by hate, starvation, and fear.  It’s a stark contrast and Boyne is able to successfully illustrate the horrors of war and bigotry without having to delve into graphic detail.  Although this book is recommended for grades 9-12, its implied acts of violence (there is one brief mention of a dog being shot) and death make it suitable for younger readers although a knowledge of World War II would help put the subject matter into context.  The use of repetition and puns also help to successfully reinforce key points and ideas for readers.

Above its grisly subject matter, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a touching story about two lonely boys who find comfort and security through friendship.  American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Emanuel James “Jim” Rohn said, “For every promise, there is a price to pay.”  Bruno had to weigh the value of a promise he made and although he knew very little about politics or geography or just the world in general, he did know that there was value to be placed on life and that you always, always keep a promise…especially to your best friend.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink

While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill.  Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home.  His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair.  Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private.  All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war.  Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life.  Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial.  Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.

The Reader is divided into three parts:  the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict.  The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story.  Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment.  She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it.   However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity.  The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory.  At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.

Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices.  What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses:  Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom?  Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution?  Is it ever too late to change?  Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions.  The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com


The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman

The Inn at Lake Devine

The Inn at Lake Devine   

Elinor Lipman (Adult Fiction)

“It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal:  They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.”

In the summer of 1962, Natalie Marx’s mother mailed about a dozen inquiries to various cottages and inns along Vermont’s Lake Devine.  All came back with the standard rate card and cordial note.  All, that is, but one.  “Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles” was neatly written on textured white stationery.  This act of blatant and brutal honesty ignites young Natalie’s quest to seek justice and acquire vindication and understanding.

This book was an engaging read, but seems to fall victim to its own misleading marketing.  On the cover, it’s touted as a “witty romantic comedy”.  While there are spots of flirtatious frolicking, describing it as a Romcom might be a bit of a stretch.  Also, in the synopsis, we’re led to believe that Natalie encounters “a small bastion of genteel anti-Semitism” at this particular lakeside inn.  In reality, it is only one individual who openly exhibits this prejudice.  Ironically, we find out that Natalie’s own family is not immune to their fair share of prejudice, which proves to be far more damaging to Natalie than what she experienced at Lake Devine.

Lipman gives us a charming book with enough plot twists and interesting characters to keep the reader’s interest.  However, don’t expect “a tale of delicious revenge” as one reviewer stated on the back cover.  Rather, The Inn at Lake Devine is a light read, which can be made even more enjoyable if sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking a lake.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com


The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness  

Joel ben Izzy (Adult Biography)

“There are some stories that make you feel warm and good inside, leaving you with the sense that all is right with the world.  There are others that simply make you laugh.  And then there are those you just don’t know what to do with, the kind that pass through your psyche like a mouse moving through a snake.”  This is a story about a man who lost so much only to gain even more.

Joel ben Izzy is a storyteller and a very successful one at that.  He has traveled the world delighting audiences with his folktales and stories.  He has a wife, two beautiful children, and is happy…until a routine operation robs him of his voice.  Just when our storyteller believes he has lost everything, his old teacher resurfaces to remind him that what is really important isn’t lost, but has yet to be found.

Joel ben Izzy combines his remarkable journey with tales about a lost horse, a jumping cricket, a border guard, Silence, Truth, and Death.  Through witty, poignant, and heartbreakingly honest writing, ben Izzy demonstrates why he is so remarkable and successful at what he does.  Very seldom does a book leave me absolutely charmed, entranced, and hopelessly smitten.  Such was my gift from this truly skilled storyteller.

ben Izzy’s former teacher once told him that his story was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  There are those of us who believe this about our own story—that it is already written and we are merely being guided, chapter by chapter, to our final page.  Throughout our life, we hope that this storyteller is kind, merciful, generous, has a sense of humor, and perhaps suffers from bouts of amnesia.  But through it all, we pray for the courage to keep turning the next page—ever anxious to discover what the storyteller has in store for us next.

Rating: 5/5

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