Saturday, March 23, 2019

Recalling How Much I Love Food Memoirs

It all began with Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." Long before he was the superstar TV personality traveling to places unknown, Bourdain described trudging home from school during a rainy afternoon to be greeted by the finest meal he's ever had, his mom's lovingly prepared Campbell's tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I was hooked.

From there I went to France with Julia Child and to the Culinary Institute with Michael Ruhlman before venturing into the sensuous writings of M.F.K. Fisher. But it was Ruth Reichl's "Comfort Me With Apples," and "Tender at the Bone" that convinced me that those graced with an artistic bent excel across the board. This creative chef, critic, and business woman has a glorious writing style and thanks to my relationship with publishers like Random House I was able to get an early copy of Reichl's marvelous memoir of her ten years at the helm of Gourmet magazine.

"Save Me the Plums," begins as Reichl is facing one of the most important decisions of her life. A plum position has been offered, editor-in-chief of
Gourmet, along with a stunning salary and ridiculous perks. Accepting would mean leaving her job as renowned food critic at the New York Times. On the other hand, she deludes herself into thinking, this career change would allow her to spend many more evenings at home with her husband and young son.

The dazzle of joining the Conde Nast family wins and Reichl takes readers inside the world of test kitchens, corporate shenanigans, world-wide travel, and five-star dining. From New York City's finest restaurants to the intimate little bistros off the beaten path in Paris, Reichl whets our whistles describing the joys of tasting foods that are both cutting edge and down to earth home-grown. She leaves no doubt as to which hat she prefers wearing. She may adjust well to being the chief, receiving the accolades to prove it, but her heart is always in the kitchen.

Many chef/writers allow their egos to get in the way. Not so, Ruth Reichl. She is as approachable and likeable as ever, even as she caves in to the use of a driver and trades her signature hippie, thrift shop clothing for the uncomfortable sin of an expense account at the finest stores in the city. She is generous with praise for her co-workers and equally generous with sharing her simplest yet finest recipes. Reichl is a joy to spend time with! Readers get the feeling that she'd be so much fun to dine with - not in a Michelin-starred restaurant but in a dive in the Village - and she'd never judge your alcohol intake!

If you enjoy food and wine as much as I do, and the foody memoirs that result from these earthy pleasures, then look for this wonderful addition to the genre coming out the first week of April. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sometimes the Movie IS Better!

Don and I caught an interview with the Nigerian/British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah a couple of weeks ago and were very excited to see the film he directed and starred in.

"The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," was a huge hit back around 2008 in the library. Many book groups were discussing this beautifully uplifting memoir by William Kamkwamba about his childhood in Malawi, the years of drought followed by flooding rains that ruined the crops and caused widespread starvation, and the way young William convinced his disbelieving family and village to help him construct a windmill as a means of generating electricity.

But sometimes our limited imaginations simply cannot wrap themselves around this kind of poverty, nor can we visualize the schools and libraries that the children of poor farmers pay to attend. To Ejiofor's extreme credit, not only does he bring passion and compassion to the screen, filming not on a studio set but in Malawi using indigenous children, he also took the time to learn the local dialect, Chichewa, sprinkling it liberally throughout the film, thereby demonstrating his respect for the people of that country.

Ejiofor brings so much humanity to this project. William Kamkwamba's family and the villagers exude pride even as they struggle. We learn about the politics involved in bringing money to the small towns where corrupt politicians spend little time and local chiefs often find their hands tied. Because of a generous hearted librarian, William is allowed to spend time with his nose in dated science texts, but not so dated that he can't teach himself the basics of wind powered generators.

William's greatest challenge is convincing his family, still steeped in tribal superstitions, that his brainstorm just might work, bringing water to starving fields and food to a starving country. We are witness to a deeply loving family
and a father/son dynamic that swells the heart. In these troubling times a film like this is balm for the soul. And better still, the memoir will get even more attention, selling more copies, and guaranteeing that William will be able to take care of his village for years to come. Head to your library or Netflix now!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Jennifer duBois' Cartwheel

I recently reviewed a book for Library Journal by an author with whom I was unfamiliar. "The Spectators," review coming soon, is a timely, insightful take on the influence of celebrity, the public persona versus the actual human being behind the mask. In scouting out interviews with the author, gathering background information, I discovered that she had written two novels prior to this one and each had won numerous awards. Where had I been?

"Cartwheel" came out in 2013 to much acclaim. It, too, examines celebrity and the pernicious, powerful effect that the media wields on our perceptions of people. This book is a
sophisticated and intricate character study that belies the youth of its author. It's about judgments made based on tabloid fodder, based on indiscreet social media posts, based on appearances, or even on body language, for instance, a cartwheel. You will find yourself guilty of pronouncing on these characters before the author has doled out all that she wants you to know about them. But if your emotional IQ is high, you may just find that you'll step back from the judgments for a little while and be very grateful that you're not on the jury.

DuBois tells us that the inspiration for this book was the headline grabbing murder trial in Italy of American foreign-exchange student Amanda Knox. If you followed the news at the time you may have held a strong opinion regarding Knox's guilt or innocence. "Cartwheel," takes place in Buenos Aires, the student being held in prison is Lily Hayes. Her roommate, Katy Kellers, is dead.

From those facts the author sets out to muddy the waters, introducing readers to Lily from the viewpoints of her father and sister, her landlady, Sebastien, her strange and ethereal lover, and the prosecutor. As each of these characters ruminates on the Lily they know, we the readers realize how extraordinarily difficult it is to truly fathom another soul's deepest reaches. 

How does a parent begin to cope with the thought that maybe, just maybe, his child is capable of murder? How horrible it must be to examine all the years that came before, looking for that tiny indication that something was awry. The joy she took in killing bugs? The lack of emotion at her grandmother's funeral? And if it's true, what does it say about us, the mother, the father, the genetic trail?

And what, the author asks, are the ramifications of the cultural barrier? Lily, a cosseted American in the eyes of the Argentinians, seems on the surface to embrace the cross-cultural exchange but are her actions perceived as condescending by her hosts. Does her attitude toward the politics, mores, and laws of her host country smack just a bit of arrogance?

Guilty? Innocent? Let's talk.

This smartly written, psychologically astute novel is a propulsive read and would lend itself well to a book discussion, as would her new one due out in April. As for me, I'm headed back to the library for "A Partial History of Lost Causes," finalist for a Pen/Hemingway Award.

Thursday, March 7, 2019


March, it is said, comes in like a lion. That has certainly been the case here in Maryland, snow, sleet, and freezing rain, where I've been suffering from seasonal affective disorder for the past six weeks. Yes, it is real! Added to this is the fact that many of my family and dear friends are currently facing severe health crises. There's a feeling of helplessness in these situations that can feel overwhelming at times, even though I know in my heart that my strength and presence may be all that's needed.

Florida's politics may be terrible but this girl has lived there now for, impossible to believe, thirty-five years, and I'm spoiled rotten. There isn't a day that sunshine doesn't beam down on me, not a day that my bare feet don't relish the feel of grass or sand, and rarely a day that I'm not digging in the dirt. My mental health depends upon it.

I haven't written in six weeks because my opinions seemed so irrelevant in the overall scheme of things, and the truth is I haven't honestly found a book that seemed worth sharing. I guess I could call it reader's block. That isn't to say that I haven't been reading at all. I indulged in a very light and breezy reunion with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana,  learned a little bit about Russian music in The Weight of a Piano, and grossed myself out listening to Mary Roach's trip down the alimentary canal in Gulp.

But today, my friend Don is walking the neighborhood with his new hip, the sun is shining even if it is only 32 degrees, and I followed the advice of my dear friend of fifty years, my college roommate Catherine Jones, and finally read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I seldom trust a novel that sits on top of the best seller list for this long, assuming that if everyone else likes it, my ornery self won't. I was wrong, wrong, wrong!

Delia Owens is a renowned naturalist and her knowledge of the environment informs every page of this lush, lyrical novel. Set in the marshes of the North Carolina coast, this is an exploration of extreme loneliness and disconnection. Kya Clark is still a child when her sisters and brothers begin to disappear one by one into the world. When her mother finally walks away from the abuse and neglect, Kya has only her brother Jodie to protect her from their dad. Then, unbelievably, Jodie goes, and Kya's salvation rests in the birds, fish, bugs, and plants that surround her.

It's been a long time since a character tugged at my heart as Kya did. She is wise beyond her years, resilient, brave, and stronger than any child should need to be. When Jodie's friend Tate comes into her life, it takes a long time for her to trust his intentions. They feel each other out, not with text messages or phone conversations, but with tentative gift-giving, items like shells and feathers left anonymously on a tree trunk, treasures from the natural world that they both love.

But as Kya matures, learning from Tate to read and write, the so-called real world intrudes on her solitude. The townspeople fear and denigrate the girl in the marsh, failing her on so many levels, neglecting to recognize her brilliance even as Kya becomes a successful artist and writer, sharing her world with the public through her gloriously crafted reference works.

Delia Owens has given readers something that's so hard to find any more - an original story, a novel that you simply can't put down. Combining poetry, mystery, character analysis, and enduring love amid horrifying abuse, this beautiful book tops my list of favorites for the year even though it's early days. I was on the wait list in Lee County for three months and never received it. You may just have to buy your copy.