Saturday, February 25, 2023

Home Cooking: Rick Bragg and Stanley Tucci

I have always loved cookbooks. I even turn first to the recipe section when I read Southern Living or, for that matter, the Costco ad booklet. When food makes an appearance in books I love, all the better. 

My teaching friend Valerie on the North Carolina coast organized her summer school English class around food last year, inviting guest readers to share favorite food writing. I joined them by Zoom to read passages from Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.  I believe I chose Inman's cooking a bear cub he had hoped not to kill. I could have chosen the goat woman chapter. 

 Since that time, I continue to find great food writing I could have selected. A favorite book club nonfiction choice a few years ago was Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I wanted to visit her New York restaurant.

Two food memoirs crossed my radar this year. I love Rick Bragg's writing, whether he is telling his own family tales or writing about Jerry Lee Lewis. I had his book The Best Cook in the World for awhile--waiting its turn--when my sister started raving about the audiobook. If there is anything that can improve on reading Bragg's writing, it's hearing him read it himself.

Going back at least three generations, he weaves stories and food throughout, noting that the two are rarely separate. Since his family lived along the Alabama-Georgia border and he is almost my age, the connections were palpable. The food he is describing is the food of my people. In many ways too, his people were much like my own. I might  have finished listening sooner if I hadn't kept stopping rewinding and making whoever was around me listen to Bragg's singular delivery of his prose.

When I mentioned Bragg's book to reading friends, Tucci's food memoir invariably came up. I chose to listen to him read his story as well. The son of an Italian American family rooted in the Calabrian region, he describes in delicious detail the meals he enjoyed as a child (even explaining how the evening's meal ended up in his daily school lunch, which he sometimes exchanged for his classmate's sandwich of marshmallow creme on white bread.) He also describes his own cooking experience and favorite restaurants--so many out of business.

Tucci peoples his book not only with his parents and grandparents but he also introduces his children. His story includes his first wife's cancer death. He tells how he created a new blended family and moved to England with his second wife. He shares his own cancer ordeal, which threatened his life, his acting career, and his ability to enjoy food.

I know I'll end up adding a hard copy of Tucci's book to my library, but I'm not sure where it will go on my bookshelves. I may need a new section for food memoirs.


Thursday, February 16, 2023

Backman's Book Two and Three: Nothing Lost in Translation


I can trace my first Backman novel to A Man Called Ove. One of my favorite public librarians met me when I entered and said, "I've held this one of you." Anyone who has read the novel knows that it takes a while to warm up to Ove. As I read the first chapters, I wondered why she thought of me. Then as I read, I figured it out.

Anxious People, a story nothing like Ove, captured me immediately too. Backman caught me by complete surprise in that book, and I couldn't wait to talk to someone else about it: "Did you guess?!"

I listened to the audiobook of Beartown a while ago, but somehow missed the second in what would become a series, Us Against You, until book three The Winners was added to my book club list for 2023. I knew I needed to read the second book first.

Even though I cheer for the Nashville Predators, I am by no means a big hockey fan. But reading this book no more requires that I be than reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin requires that I know or care much about video gaming.

Backman knows how to develop characters--complicated,  flawed, multi-layered characters. The Andersson family is at the center of much of the narrative, but the threads that connect all the characters, even across the rival towns borders, are so complicated: Ramona at the Bearskin Pub; Teemu and the Pack who control the standing area of the rink, the grocer Tails, Bobo and Amat, Mumble and Alicia, the young prodigy who finds an alternate family in the hockey club.

As I barreled my way through these two books, hardly able to slow down, I kept reminding myself that I was reading in translation from Backman's original Swedish. How interesting, then, that I have probably taken more notes of favorite quotes from these books than many others I've read recently. 

Backman is also the master of the red herring, doling out just enough information to give the reader a smug sense of dramatic irony (or a foreboding sense of what may have just happened) and then spinning the story. The third book The Winners open with this sentence: "Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending." Then readers have to wait for it. Because we do feel like we know him well enough to call him Benji.

Backman balances the foreboding by letting us know a few will make it. Maya will have her music career, for example. Alicia will go on to be a hockey champion.

Us Against You had much to say about masculinity. The Winners examines family relationships, the never-finished job of parenting, the phases of a long marriage, the identify of home, family ties that develop without the biological benefit of blood kin.  At one point, the narrator points out that this is "a story that was like organ donation."  Maybe that's it: painful, sacrificial, but live-giving.


Monday, January 9, 2023

Back to ThreePines: Louise Penny's A World of Curiosities


For anyone who knows me as a reader, it should come as no surprise that I've just finished Louise Penny's latest novel in her Three Pines Series featuring Chief Inspector Armande Gamache. The only surprise is that I didn't read the book as soon as it came out in November.

This book moves back and forth between the past when Ganache first met the headstrong Jean Guy Beauvoir while investigating a murder and present day when the son and daughter of the murdered woman arrive in Three Pines.

I love so many things about Penny's books, particularly the character development, but I also enjoy how she weaves literature, music, and art into the narrative. In this case, a hidden room is discovered above the book store in which they find what at first appears to be a work of art known as "A World of Curiosities" or the Pastan Treasure. Closer inspection, though, shows that while at first glimpse the painting resembles the seventeenth century painting, it actually includes myriad details from modern day, from a digital watch to scratches that are found to be made in shorthand. Soon Gamache recognizes them as messages from a serial killer he put behind bars.

In addition to the beloved recurring characters from the village, Penny also reintroduces Amelia Choquet from a couple of years back, a tattooed and pierced young woman who survived life on the streets and was eventually brought into Quebec law enforcement. 

After spending so much time in the homes in Three Pines, I can recognize the smell of sandalwood, the family pets, and even Rosa, the profane pet duck of the crotchety old poet Ruth. 

When I read Louise Penny's books, I find myself tearing through them, pulled along by the suspense, but then sad when they end, knowing I'll have to wait until November for my next visit.


Sunday, January 8, 2023

Demon Copperhead: Kingsolver Always Delivers


I know I promised to share highlights of my 2022 reading, but I finished Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, on New Year's Day, and I am still thinking about it.

The title (and the author's notes) invite comparison to David Copperfield, but in anything but a derivative way. Set in a poor town in what had been Virginia coal mining country in modern day, the title character is one of the most compelling narrators I've read in awhile.  I wouldn't go so far as to call Demon a naive narrator, though his  youthful perspective is part of the attraction. I'm tempted to listen to the audiobook to see how that voice translates.

I've long been a fan of Kingsolver's novels. I've read everything she's written, including her poetry, starting with The Bean Trees. Reading her novels always led me to slow down and pay attention to her writing chops. Unlike some books I read when the author's process gets in the way of the story, Kingsolver's novels make me just a bit envious of how she uses literary elements in a way that seems so effortless and natural.

The protagonist was born to a teenage mom and named Damon, which naturally was changed to the nickname Demon by the time he got to school (as his best friend was stuck with the nickname Maggot.) In a series of misfortunes, he experiences abuse and neglect by his mother and stepfather, leading to a years or rejection and loss. Demon shows the dark side of foster care abuse and pitfalls of the systems intended to protect children.

This is also a story of drug and alcohol abuse, which is often so rampant in areas of economic decline. I recently read Margo Price's memoir Maybe We'll Make It, in which she writes candidly of some of the similar patterns of addiction she fell into. 

While Demon Copperhead is a hard read, it is not without hope. A number of caring, though flawed, people offer him surrogate family, encouragement, and opportunity. Two of his teachers, a mixed-race couple with whom he maintains contact, are examples of the power of educators who not only see their students but are willing to be seen as people. And who can't love characters who name their dog Hazel Dickens?

As I made my list of books I read last year, I was struck again how some slip away right after I read them, and others stick with me. I think I'll be thinking about Demon Copperhead for a long time, and I can't wait to have the opportunity to talk about it with my reading friends.


Monday, January 2, 2023

My 2022 Reading List

When I sat down this week with my wall calendar where I write the authors and titles of the books I read during the year, I found that even with the classes I am taking and teaching, I still managed to read 86 books during 2022. A few on the list are textbooks--at least those that I actually read in their entirety. You'll notice none of my statistics textbooks are listed. That does not mean I didn't spend a lot of time with them. I also focused on poetry one month, which was such a pleasure. 

Over the next few days, I will add a few posts focusing on specific books, but for now, here is the exhaustive list. Just going through and writing down the titles was a nice mental journey.


Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names

Kirk Wallce Johnson, The Feather Thief

Jessamine Chan, The School for Good Mothers

Mary Beth Keane, Ask Again, Yes

Nick Courtwright, The Forgotten World (poems)

Jane L. Rosen, Nine Women, One Dress

Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Deb Spera, Call Your Daughters Home

Sophocles, Antigone

S.J. Bennett, The Windsor Knot

Rothstein and Santana, Make Just One Change

David Epstein, Range

Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake

Jason Mott, Hell of a Book

Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart

Nita Prose, The Maid

Elise Hooper, The Other Alcott

Jennifer Egan, Candy House

Bruce Neidt, The Bungalow of Colorful Aging (poems)

Rosemary Sullivan, The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation

Joseph Mills, Bodies in Motion (poems)

Diane Chamberlain, The Stolen Marriage

Carole King, Natural Woman

Ted Rose, The End of Average

Mary Laura Philpott, Bomb Shelter

TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Hernan Diaz, Trust

Anne Tyler, French Braid

Lily King, Five Tuesdays in Winter (short stories)

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility

William Kent Krueger, This Tender Land

Ann Patchett, These Precious Days

Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights

Emily Henry, Book Lovers

A J Jacobs, Puzzler

Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence

Elizabeth Stout, Oh William

Marie Benedick and Victoria C. Murray, The Personal Librarian

Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry

Danusha Lameris, Bonfire Opera (poems)

Dorianne Laux, Facts about the Moon (poems)

Jeff Hardin, Small Revolutions (poems)

Kathryn Stripling Byer, Descent (poems)

Peng Sheperd, The Cartographers

Linda Anas Ferguson, Dirt Sandwich (poems)

Yasmin Kloth, Ancestry Unfinished (poems)

Michael McFee, Shinemaster (poems)

Scott Owens, For One Who Knows How to Own the Land (poems)

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water (poems)

Wendy Cope, Two Cures for Love (poems)

Ron Koertge, Geography of the Forehead (poems)

Kate Quinn, Diamond Eye

Rodney Jones, Elegy for the Southern Drawl (poems)

Michelle Shocklee, Under the Tulip Tree

Cathy Smith Bowers, The Candle I Hold up to See You (poems)

Margaret Verble, When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky

Dan and Chip Heath, Switch

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Silas House, Southernmost

Susan Rivers, The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Alex Michaelides, The Silent Patient

Peter Drucker et al., The Five Most Important Questions

Richard Osman, The Bullet That Missed

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, What Can Be Saved

Stephen King, Fairy Tale

Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow

Ruta Sepetys, I Will Betray You

Nelson Demille, The Book Case

Lois Lowry, The Giver

Elizabeth Stout, Lucy by the Sea

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words

Gary Paulsen, Hatchett

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Nicki Erlick, The Measure

Stephen Fry, Mythos

Jennifer Evans, Kitchen Front

Margo Price, Maybe We’ll Make It

Celeste Ng, Our Missing Hearts

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

 Even though I keep a growing list of book recommendations from fellow readers and from the publications I trust, occasionally I happen upon one with no preconceived notions and it's a treasure. Most recently, I came across Pip Williams' novel The Dictionary of Lost Words. The story is set in Oxford across the time period of the publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary. The protagonist Esme has grown up in the Scriptorium, where her father words editing and compiling words, slowly from A to Z as slips pour in from across the English-speaking world. 

Anyone who read The Professor and the Madman already knows a little about the process. Williams' fiction, however, gives an inside look against a backdrop of the women's suffrage movement and World War I. Esme, raised by her father after losing her mother early enough that she never knew Lily, is tolerated as she hides beneath the table as her father works, inspecting the shoes of the meant who work there and gathering slips that fall unnoticed to the floor.

She begins to stow treasures in the trunk of Lizzie, the "bondmaid" (one of the almost-lost words) who is also her best friend and trusted confidante, despite their social differences. Esme, whom Lizzie calls Essie Mae, recognizes that "women's words" don't find their way into the dictionary, in part because they are not written--at least not in publications that matter. She starts her own collection.

Williams manages to address gender and class differences without becoming pedantic or preachy. The many secondary characters, including Esme's father and his fellow lexicographers, Edith Thompson (whom Esme calls Dieter), the family friend who writes her father and Esme from Scotland where she works on her own history books while contributing to the dictionary, Tilda, her actress-suffragette friend and her brother Bill who show her another side of the world, and finally, Gareth, the compositor who wins her heart before heading off to the battlefield.

Williams' novel achieves what historical fiction writers should hope for--a sense of time travel. She brings her readers into a time and place where her fictional characters interact with historical figures (the OED's Murray and Thompson) to shed light on the past.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

 Whenever I finish a book by Kate Atkinson, I realize I need to read all of them. Shrines of Gaiety was no exception. I was first introduced to Atkinson with Life after Life (published the same year as Jill McCorkle's wonderful novel of the same title). In that book, Atkinson was able to pull off her stunning plot twists--or splits--without coming across as gimmicky at all. The sequel Gods in Ruins, with the brother of the protagonist of Life after Life in focus, was just as cleverly plotted but in a fresh way.

I also found Transcription worth reading. I realize that while some books I read don't take root, hers stick with me, even small details. Her latest, Shrines of Gaiety, is set in post-WWI London. It opens with the release of Nellie Coker from prison on liquor license charges, returning like a celebrity to continue running her businesses--bars and restaurants servingas fronts for her other illegal endeavors. No motherly figure, Coker nonetheless has produced a number of offspring--two sons and four daughters--whom she is putting into position to run her shady empire, to mixed results.

Into her world, Atkinson introduces two runaway girls from York--Freda, an aspiring but mediocre actress, and her best friend  Florence, who comes from a better family but lacks street smarts. Atkinson introduces two other important characters--Gwendolyn Kelling, a nurse during the war now working as a librarian, and Frobisher, the London detective to whom she turns to help find Freda, the half-sister of her friend. 

Some have compared Atkinson's development of the novel's setting as Dickensian. She weaves small historical details through the story in an intriguing way. After King Tut's tomb was disturbed, for example, all things Egyptian are the rage, while much of London fears the curse unleashed in the process. She depicts the debauchery of young revelers, regularly throwing costume parties as an excuse to disguise themselves as Pierrot or as adult-sized babies, the disappearance of disposable young women caught up in Nellie's seedy business, and the levels of corruption of law officers.

What I enjoyed most, though, was Atkinson's ability to write one great sentence after another. She makes me want to underline in my hardcovers or call someone to read aloud. She makes me want to read something else she has written.