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.