Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Publisher:  Putnam
Published:  January 22, 2009
ISBN:  978-0399155437
Pages:  256
Rating:  4.5 out of 5

Book Summary:   The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian's Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students' lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian's food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen. 

My Thoughts:  This is a wonderful book.  It made me feel warm and cozy and hungry!  I adored the characters; especially Lillian who’s not only an incredible chef but she almost seems to be a little bit magician.  Lillian understands food and people and when she gets them together, she weaves a wonderful kind of magic that includes aromatic ingredients that meld together to create delicious and beautiful food.  But there’s something else going on, too.   Lillian’s cooking classes are a kind of therapy.  Her students finish the class able to create delicious dishes and they’ve made some life-long friends.  But even more, Lillian’s students come alive in her class;  they find themselves and whatever was missing from their lives.  Whatever the trouble, pain or angst they were struggling or dealing with when the cooking class began is resolved over the course of the class. 

Lillian lifted the cake pans from the oven and rested them on metal racks on the counter. The layers rose level and smooth from the pans: the scent, tinged with vanilla, traveled across the room in soft, heavy waves, filling the space with whispers of other kitchens, other loves. The students found themselves leaning forward in their chairs to greet the smells and the memories that came with them.  Breakfast cake baking on a snow day off from school, all the world on holiday.  The sound of cookie sheets clanging against the metal oven racks.  The bakery that was the reason to get up on cold, dark mornings; a croissant placed warm in a young woman’s hand on her way to the job she never meant to have.  Christmas, Valentines, birthdays, flowing together, one cake after another, lit by eyes bright with love.

 Erica Bauermeister’s writing is wonderful and delicious.  Her descriptions of the food and the different dishes are sublime and almost had me drooling. Her prose describes a scene in such a way that I was able to picture it almost as if I was there.  She brings the places in the book, such as Lilly’s restaurant and its kitchen to life.  It’s like her words paint us a picture.  Bauermeister does the same thing with her characters.  She describes them with just enough and the right detail, that we can fill in the rest and see them in Lilly’s kitchen or in their home.   Bauermeister’s writing drew me into the story immediately.  I was hooked and didn’t want to stop reading.  This is a delightful story with joyous moments and sad ones.  It’s about love, loss, friendship and life and celebrating it all.  I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Virtual Advent Tour 2013: Day 17 Christmas in NYC!!

Virtual Advent Tour 2013: Day 17

This is a fun and festive blog tour hosted by Kelly and Marg.  Visit their beautiful blog, Virtual Advent Tour, to see the other terrific blog participants and their holiday posts!

Christmas in NYC

When I was growing up on Long Island, a suburb of NYC, my parents would take my sister and I to the city for a weekend.  It was the start of the Christmas season for us.  My father’s firm had an apt for clients to use when they were in from out of town.  My dad would make sure, really early in the year, that we could stay there one weekend after Thanksgiving. 

Friday night was always casual and relaxing.  We’d usually go someplace super casual, like a pub for burgers.  After a leisurely dinner we would walk back to the apartment passing Lord & Taylor’s department store to see their window display.  
Every year their windows are decorated in some type of Christmas theme with each window telling part of a story.  Some other stores do this, too, but L & T’s have always been the best.

Saturday was always a shopping day for my mom, sister and me.  My dad usually went to his office for a few hours to get some work done.  My sister and I would meet him at a store later in the afternoon, usually Tiffany’s and from there we’d go to Rizzoli’s bookstore, to help him Christmas shop for my mom.  

We always walked past the NY Public Library, too to see their stately lion and their tree

On Saturday night, we usually saw The Nutcracker Ballet, a favorite of my sister and I, at Lincoln Center. 

Although, after several years of The Nutcracker, if there was a Broadway show we were interested in or Radio City Hall’s show enticed us, we might see that instead.  It didn't matter.  Anything we saw we enjoyed and the night was always magical. 

This was particularly true after the ballet or show because we would go over to Rockefeller Center to see the huge Christmas Tree there.  Even late at night, there are a lot of people around, but fortunately not the crowds there during the day. And we always stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral across the street.

Sunday was always brunch and a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see their tree and many other exhibits.  This was an especially good day because my dad spent the entire day with us…no work!

One fun place to visit, which we didn't get to every year, is the greatest toy store around -

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you and yours!!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty 

Publisher:  Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Published:  June 2, 2011
ISBN:  978-0425271902
Pages:  496
Rating:  4.5 out of 5 

Book Summary:   Remember the woman you used to be ...

Alice is twenty-nine. She is whimsical, optimistic and adores sleep, chocolate, her ramshackle new house and her wonderful husband Nick. What's more, she's looking forward to the birth of the 'Sultana' - her first baby.

But now Alice has slipped and hit her head in her step-aerobics class and everyone's telling her she's misplaced the last ten years of her life.

In fact, it would seem that Alice is actually thirty-nine and now she loves schedules, expensive lingerie, caffeine and manicures. She has three children and the honeymoon is well and truly over for her and Nick. In fact, he looks at her like she's his worst enemy. What's more, her beloved sister Elisabeth isn't speaking to her either. And who is this 'Gina' everyone is so carefully trying not to mention?

Alice isn't sure that she likes life ten years on. Every photo is another memory she doesn't have and nothing makes sense. Just how much can happen in a decade? Has she really lost her lovely husband forever?
My thoughts:   I loved this book.  I expected a fun, entertaining book but it was much more.  What Alice Forgot is smart, funny, complex and thoughtful.  It’s a light, humorous and charming book on one level but there’s a much deeper and more thought-provoking aspect as the narrative progresses.  About one-quarter into it, when I reluctantly put it down for a while, I realized the story had stuck with me.  I was thinking about some of the issues it raised.  Author, Liane Moriarty, successfully incorporated serious issues affecting women and marriages into the story without interrupting the easy flow of the book or its readability.   Moriarty’s success comes as a result of her ability to create main characters that are three-dimensional and fleshed out.     

Moriarty tells Alice’s story from the point of view of Alice and two other women.  Elisabeth, Alice’s sister, writes daily journal entries to her psychologist.  She’s seeing him because she struggled with infertility issues for many years while she and her husband tried to get pregnant.  Alice’s grandmother, Frannie, writes a letter each day to an old flame, regaling him with stories about what’s happening in her life.  Elisabeth and Frannie tell their own stories, with Alice’s occasional help, offering further intrigue and interest to this book.  Through Alice, Elisabeth and Frannie, we learn all about Alice’s past, as well as her situation currently, about Alice’s other family members, particularly her eccentric and interesting mother, Barbara, and her friends, especially Gina.  There’s much about Alice, her family and friends that I’m holding back because ‘meeting’ them through reading this book is a treat.   

The characters alone make this book worth reading.  Moriarty created compelling characters familiar to us and with whom we can relate.  I found it easy, as I read this story, to imagine Alice and her family and friends around a table at the local coffee shop, enjoying Alice’s daughter’s performance at the talent show or chatting casually at a summer BBQ.  The fact that Alice, her husband, Nick, and her family and friends aren’t perfect but have flaws and eccentricities makes them all the more appealing and interesting.  Moriarty uses Alice’s memory loss as a vehicle for looking at the way Alice, Elisabeth and the others have changed over the years, for better or worse.  We get a much more thorough perspective of the characters and who they are as a result of Alice’s amnesia.  This is because Alice’s memory loss has caused her to regress. In other words, at the time of the memory loss, she wakes up thinking it’s ten years earlier, but Alice’s family, friends, even Alice, as well as the world around her, have not stopped changing and growing.   This brings many serious issues that affected Elisabeth, Alice and some of the other characters, over the years, to the forefront for exploration.   Alice asks different people in her life probing questions she wouldn’t normally ask if she hadn’t suffered memory loss.  This provides for many interesting and varied viewpoints (everybody has an opinion!) on the different issues that would be more difficult to smoothly incorporate into the story, otherwise. 

Many of themes in What Alice Forgot are culled from current life by Moriarty.  If women aren’t already discussing the topics in this book, I expect they will after reading What Alice Forgot.  Moriaty’s themes, particularly those of of identity, change and growth, individually, and within relationships and marriage, speak to most women. They were on my mind, as I read Alice’s story, well before I finished this book.  And, I continued to think about them once I finished the story.   I think many women will think about these issues just as Alice does. Alice is fortunate, in some ways that she’s able to revisit her younger self and, eventually, see how she’s changed and grown over time.  We don’t get quite the same opportunity Alice does but we can look back on our lives and think about how we’ve changed and grown in individually and within our relationships and marriage.   

I “unburied” What Alice Forgot on my bookshelf when Liane Moriarty’s current book, The Husband’s Secret was published and began receiving wonderful reviews from bloggers.  I didn’t know when I would get a copy of The Husband’s Secret to read and, if I don’t read an extremely popular book when it’s first published, I usually like to wait until the fervor has died down before I read the book.  I remembered What Alice Forgot also received fantastic reviews. And now I know why!

I highly recommend this book

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan 

Publisher:  Grove Press
Published:  May 2002
ISBN:  9780802117151
Pages:  517
Rating:  4.5 out of 5

Book Summary:  A year after the death of her husband, Henry, Emily Maxwell gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be a last vacation at their summer cottage. Joining is her sister-in-law, who silently mourns the sale of the lake house, and a long-lost love. Emily's firebrand daughter, a recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband, brings her children from Detroit. Emily's son, who has quit his job and mortgaged his future to pursue his art, comes accompanied by his children and his wife, who is secretly heartened to be visiting the house for the last time. Memories of past summers resurface, old rivalries flare up, and love is rekindled and born anew, resulting in a timeless novel drawn, as the best writing often is, from the ebbs and flow of daily life. 

O'Nan has a gift for voicing the inner fears that motivate and stifle us, and his characters move and act as members of a polite society--a family even. Yet each is distinctly alone, with voices and turmoil raging inside. The tension between the characters is keenly drawn, and O'Nan perceptively captures the snippets of thought and memory that follow us around. Ken notes "he assumed more than he knew, not only about the world--whose workings would remain closed, forever a mystery--but even those closest to him." Emily, while preparing dinner, finds her late husband's bottle of scotch, and imbibes: 

“She went to the window over the sink and held it up to the light, long now and mote-struck, casting shadows under the chestnut, firing an amber glow in her hand.... She looked around the kitchen again as if she'd forgotten something but couldn't find what it was.” 

Wish You Were Here is an excellent character study of a family grudgingly plodding forward while believing the best chance for happiness passed by sometime ago.

My Thoughts:    This was the second book I read by Stewart O’Nan.  After reading The Odds, there was no question in my mind I’d read more of O’Nan books.  Fortunately, my library had Wish You Were Here on the shelves.  The fly-leaf summary described a book I would have wanted to read without knowing about O’Nan’s writing.  The author’s observations and understanding of human nature take this book, about an extremely dysfunctional extended family, to a whole other level.  Wish You Were Here hooks you right away and draws you into the story quickly.  O’Nan allows us to meet all of the family members, to watch as they interact with each other and to eavesdrop on their private thoughts and struggles. We watch as their quirks, flaws and characters develop before us providing us with an understanding of human nature and behavior.  Halfway through the book I felt as if I knew the Maxwell Family personally.  I continued reading, anxious to know where Emily, Ken, Ella and Sara’s journey’s, as well as those of the other family members, would take them the rest of their week at the cottage.

O’Nan is a remarkable author who seems to truly understands how people think, feel and how they reveal themselves. One of the things I find most fascinating about O’Nan’s writing and storytelling is he understands all humans: the young, old and middle-aged, both male and female.  It’s the rare author who enables me to understand, Lisa, a completely self-centered and petulant wife and mother.  I strongly disliked the latter character for much of the book.  But, towards the end, due to O’Nan’s compelling prose, I felt myself sympathizing with her.   I realized how lonely she felt everyday with her husband so absorbed by his own interests he forgot she was around much of the time.  O’Nan also made it possible for me to understand a young, intelligent, teenager struggling with her sexuality and lusting after her friend and female cousin.  It was heartbreaking to witness Ella’s struggle over whether or not she should reveal her feelings and her awareness that she was alone with her problem. 

Emily, the elderly matriarch of the Maxwell clan, the mother, grandmother and sister-in-law, was my favorite character.  She’s not a sweet, darling octogenarian.  She’s often controlling, quietly demanding, irascible and prone to nagging.  Her children complain and whine about her to each other. And, secretly, they’re afraid of disappointing her.  Emily is still grieving her husband, Henry’s death.  There are reminders of him everywhere she turns at the cottage.  The relief and sadness she feels at deciding, finally, to definitely sell the cottage is understandable.  Emily’s decision’s made easier when she realizes Margaret needs her help.  O’Nan captures, perfectly, the mother-daughter relationship here. Margaret’s awkward and fearful about revealing to her mother the state of her marriage and how poorly she coped with it all while Emily just wants to be sure her daughter and grandchildren are safe. 

Ken, Margaret and Emily are each individually flawed and there is a tremendous amount of dysfunction in their interactions but, at the foundation of it all is their love for one another.  They’ll take care of each other and watch out for one another when needed.  This may be what Lisa chafes at and despises.  She came into the family an outsider and keeps herself at a distance, allowing anger and bitterness to grow, rather than show love and acceptance to her husband’s family.  She relishes the personal intimacies she has with Ken but refuses to befriend his sister or mother.  O’Nan understands these intricacies of human behavior.  He successfully weaves them into his story, bringing the characters to life.  Their conversations, arguments and silences make sense to us because we recognize them from our own life or the lives of the people around us.   Wish You Were Here is absorbing simply because it feels like it’s about people we know or knew at one time.  This book was a little slow at times, but still an excellent read that I highly recommend to all readers.