Thursday, September 29, 2011

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Lillian holds cooking lessons at her restaurant.  This book follows one group of students and their adventures into the cooking world and their subsequent memories along with their progressing relationships with each other.  Each chapter follows one student and one ingredient or dish.  The students include; Claire, a young mother of two small children; Carl and Helen, an older couple, very in love and very together; Antonia, a kitchen designer and recent immigrant from Italy; Tom, a recent widower; Chloe, a young woman who can’t seem to find her place in the world; Isabelle, an older woman with beginning dementia; and Ian, a young accountant.

I especially enjoyed the story of Ian and his dealing with a Chinese Restaurant close to where he lives.  The first time he goes there and gives his order.  What shows up at his table is something else entirely. He tells the old Chinese woman who is the waitress.  She goes away without responding.  Not knowing what to do, he eats what he was given and finds a delightful meal.  When the waitress finally returns she asks, “You like?”  After that it becomes the norm.  He orders something from the menu and is brought something else.  Something he probably would not have ordered on his own.  One day, when he is trying to learn to cook rice and not being very successful he goes to the restaurant for advice. 

“Do you know how to cook rice?” Ian blurted out as he was sitting down. 

The waitress stared at him.

“I mean, of course you do; I was just wondered if you could tell me how.”

“Why? You eat rice here.”

“I want to learn how.”

The old woman noted the urgency in his voice; she looked at him more closely, nodded.  “You don’t cook rice, you take care of it, she stated.  “I’ll get your dinner now.” She returned to the kitchen without even the pretense of asking for his order.”

Interestingly, Lillian, the character who brings them all together, we are told very little about. She remains as mysterious as her abilities with food are mystical.

Ms. Bauermeister writing about food is sensual, as is evident in this sentence about making a cake.  “The mixer began its revolutions again as the liquid blended into the sugar-butter, the yolks turning the batter darker again, loose and glistening.”  Or this, about eating crab.  “She took another bite and felt her feet settle into the floor and the rest of her flow into a river of ginger and garlic and lemon and wine.

I dare you read this book and not gain five pounds!

Here Speeching American by Kathryn & Ross Petras

This is just a short little “travel guide” about English in other countries.  The authors take care at the beginning to state they are not making fun or saying that others are not as intelligent.  That if we were to reverse the situation (look at how we as Americans translate other languages) there would be just as much at which to laugh.

Here are few examples (taken from the Goodreads review):

• Feel like shopping?
We have no good things to sell.
–shop sign, Lovina Beach, Bali

• Feeling sick?
Are you haunted by the horribles? Do you run after your own nose?
–Japanese medical form

• Wondering what to wear?
A sports jacket may be worn to dinner, but no trousers.
–in a French hotel brochure

• Wondering where to eat?
Grill and Roast your clients! Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday Brunch.
–slogan of the Hibiscus restaurant in the Jakarta Hilton International

3 stars (Rated PG-13, some of the translation are a bit crude)

All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein

Why does Holocaust literature draw me in so much?  This is the author’s story.  Greda grew up in a loving family in a small town in Poland.  We watch the progression of the infiltration of the Nazis.  First, her brother has to leave, and then they are made to sell their belongings and move to the basement of their family home.  Then they are moved to the ghetto. Then the fateful day comes when they are rounded up and sent to the ‘camps’.  At this point Gerda is separated from her parents and they are sent to three separate camps.  Gerda goes to a labor camp that is not too horrible and likes to imagine that her parents are in the same sort of place, all the while knowing that that is probably not so. 

Gerda reflects, “Why? Why did we walk like meek sheep to the slaughterhouse?  Why did we not fight back? What had we to lose? Nothing but our lives.  Why did we not run away and hide? We might have had a chance to survive.  Why did we walk deliberately and obediently into their clutches?

“I know why. Because we had faith in humanity.  Because we did not really think that human beings were capable of committing such crimes.”

I have thought quite a bit over the years as I read many books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Holocaust and what we need to learn from this episode in history.  Certainly there are the lessons of tolerance and humanity, but I personally feel an obligation to these people to not let this happen to me or anyone within my reach.  We cannot let someone else take control of our very existence.  We must be aware and fight against the first little offenses and not let them become greater until we have given up our freedom to others.

Loved the book.

5 stars (Rated PG for horrendous cruelty)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

We went to the café and drank some absinthe, we went down the street to another café and had some wine, we went to bed ‘tight’.  The next day we did the same thing.  The girl comes into the picture, we all fawn all over her.  We drink some more and get tight.  Then we go fishing and to the bull-fights and drink at both of those as well.  We fight over the girl and then set her up with the bull-fighter (all the while drinking until we are tight). 

That’s the plot!  Hemingway’s famous terse prose did nothing for me.  I was bored most of the time. After reading The Paris Wife which was about Hemingway’s first wife, I was very interested in reading this book as it was written during the time frame of The Paris Wife. I must say, I enjoyed the book about the book more than the book itself!

I read through SparkNotes to see what they had to say about the novel.  I was amazed at all the symbolism and imagery they reported was in the book.  I say, you have to dig pretty deep to come up with all that.  What I felt the book was saying to me was that this generation of young people living in between the two World Wars truly lived up to their moniker of “The Lost Generation”, and The Sun Also Rises is the quintessential novel of that time frame.

2 stars (Rated PG for Adult situation and riotous living)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I can’t remember where I heard about this book.  It has been on my wish list on PaperBackSwap for some time. I received it in the mail yesterday and read it last night.  It is a children’s book, probably in the 9-12 years old range. 

Miranda is a savvy New York City sixth-grader. She and her friend Sal know which places are safe and which are not.  One day someone punches Sal for seemingly no reason and Sal seems to withdraw.  Then she receives a note: “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” The notes keep coming and the mystery building.  Miranda realizes the person writing the notes, knows things they should not know. 

Great story and great writing.  If you like A Wrinkle in Time, you will like this.

4 stars (Rated G)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman

Kaaterskill Falls follows a close-knit Orthodox Jewish community from NYC who escapes en masse each summer to the mountains of New York.  The characters and many and varied.  Isaac and Elizabeth have five daughters.  Elizabeth yearns for something more, something outside of her cloistered community.  Andras and his adoring older sisters, Eva and Maja enjoy sitting and discussing the frivolities of Andras’ much younger Brazilian wife Nina.  Then there is the venerable Rav whose health is failing and is deciding which of his two sons to name as his successor, the steady, devoted Isaiah or the brilliant, rebellious Jeremy.  The year is 1976 and the community struggles with the inevitable changes that come to a closed community when the outside world creeps in.  

One concept that I found interesting and a bit disturbing was the comment that the Bicentennial Celebration was “not our celebration”.  They felt they were not part of the United States.  They live here, but it was not their history.  They also complained about their children being taught US history and not Jewish history.  On the other had, this community of Jews were not Zionists either and did not feel that Israel was their homeland.  They felt that Israel was run by a bunch of “atheist, socialists” and was not a place where they longed to go.

I ran across this gem of a sentence.  Elizabeth’s oldest daughter Chaini discovered some albums of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay reading their poetry.  She describes it as, “Old voices that creaked and swung in rhythm, their long phrases like the screen door on the bungalow, closing slowly, partway, a little more, and then, with a long sigh, thumping shut.” 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, but that may have something to do with my love and fascination with all things Jewish.

4 stars, (Rated PG – for a few sensitive subjects, overall pretty mild)

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I like to imagine myself as a great literature connoisseur.  I was excited to read this book and add it to my list of well-loved classic novels.  After all it won a Pulitzer Prize, someone must have thought it was fabulous, right?  Let me say, I would like to meet and speak to those people.  I think of all the Pulitzer Prize winning books I have read this year, this has to be the most disappointing. Someone….please….tell me why this book is so great.

Newland Archer is a young man in New York City high society in the 1870’s.  Society has some very strict rules and Archer seems to think they apply to everyone but him.  At the beginning of the book he announces his engagement to the beautiful, young, very innocent May.  May’s cousin the Countess Olenska comes to New York having left her cad of a husband behind in Poland.  May insists that Archer should be kind to the disgraced Countess.  Archer finds himself falling in love with the Countess.  From there he just continues to act like an insipid ass.  The Countess desires a divorce from her husband, which Archer talks her out of, yet he also insists that she not go back to her husband.  All the while he is pressing May to push up their marriage date. 

I don’t get it!  I couldn’t seem to care about any of the characters as they all seemed to have no spine.  The only person I liked at all was the demanding grandmother. 

2 stars (Rated PG – for adult themes)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

When John and Ricky Ryrie‘s third child lives only fifty-seven hours they are thrown into a tailspin of grief.  They along with their other children 14year-old Paul and 10 year-old Biscuit strive to continue along normally, almost ignoring the birth and death of Simon.  When Biscuit’s truancy from school and odd antics become an issue, they must all deal with the feelings that have been hidden deep inside.  They realize that they can no longer mourn alone, but must come together to heal.

Ms. Cohen does a great job of wrapping the emotions and difficulties of grief with lyrical prose and an engaging story.  At the end of the book there is an essay she wrote on grief that ends with this question, “Isn’t it a funny and a fine thing to realize that: being whole nearly always requires not just the tending of ourselves, but the tending of our bonds with others?”

I received this book as an uncorrected proof. The final version of this book may vary.

4 Stars (Rated R - Brief explict sex and language)