Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review - Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes


Shauna Niequist


Category: nonfiction, memoir, food, faith, family

Synopsis: Niequist explores the importance of gathering loved ones around the table.

Date finished: 6 March 2013

Rating: ****

Comments: I’ve looked forward to this book for a long time, and it did not disappoint. There are just a couple authors whose book releases I actually put on the calendar; Shauna Niequist is one of those authors. The only thing I don’t like about her books is that they’re never long enough! Her essays are always like going home to me; her words are like long-lost friends. I smile, laugh, cry, and nod all the way through, and this book was no different. I found myself almost swallowing it whole, and admonishing myself to “save some for later!” It’s hard for me to imagine Shauna Niequist ever writing an unsuccessful book. Anything written as honestly as her work just can’t fail.
     Her books make me feel we’re friends. And in fact, we do have a lot in common. We’ve both Midwestern Christian women of the same age who love to cook and eat and who write about family and faith. But I don’t think these commonalities have to be in place for you to relate to her books on a deep level. I think she writes with a universality that resonates with women of all ages, faiths, and backgrounds.
     It’s difficult when an author writes multiple books about the same topics—in this case, family, food, faith, and home—to not compare the newest book to the ones that came before it. I think it’s important to look at this book separately from its sister-books, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet. In this, her third book of essays, she focuses on life around the table—feeding family and breaking bread with friends. It includes many recipes. I think her previous books may have had more writing on faith and this one has more on family. I recognized some essays from her wonderful blog.
     I’m not an entertainer. I’m not a sit-around-the-table kind of person. I’m shy. Quiet. Social interaction tires me, and the thought of cooking for anyone but immediate family with their myriad dietary restrictions and likes and dislikes makes me itch. Still, this book made me wonder if I was missing out on something essential, like community, like connectedness and intimacy, like thankfulness and sacrifice.
     I was pleasantly surprised by the recipes. I know from following her blog that she has a much more adventurous palate than I do, and I know she tries to prepare gluten-free foods wherever possible. I’m one of the last hold-outs on meat, dairy, gluten, carbs, etc. I eat it all. Since I’m not a butternut squash, feta cheese, almond milk kind of girl, I anticipated skipping over most of the recipes, but I ended up reading all of them with interest. There are a couple things I’d like to try, specifically Jim Lahey’s Sullivan Street Bakery bread (I've been reading about this recipe all over) and her friend Brannon’s Caesar Salad.
     So, all in all, a sweet read that I’ll return to for its warmth and depth and breadth.
     I’ll leave off with a couple of the passages that really struck a chord with me.
In her essay “Hungry,” she writes about battling weight issues:
     And through all that, I’ve made friends and fallen in love, gotten married and become a mother. I’ve written and traveled and stayed up late with people I love. I’ve walked on the beach and on glittering city streets. I’ve kissed my baby’s cheeks and danced with my husband and laughed till I cried with my best friends, and through all that it didn’t really matter that I was heavier than I wanted to be.

In her essay “Enough,” she writes about infertility, but reminds us all to expect good, and to be grateful for everything:
     I want to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, of groundedness, of enough, even while I’m longing for something more.

     Read about the inception of Bread & Wine here, here, here, and here.

     This book will be released on April 9.

     Thank you to Zondervan for the advance reader copy.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review - Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Bob Spitz

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child


Bob Spitz

Category: nonfiction, biography, Julia Child, food, cooking, France, celebrity

Synopsis: An account of the culinary star who brought French cooking to America.

Date finished: 2 March 2013

Rating: ***½

Comments: Like most people, I’ve always enjoyed Julia Child. I now regard her even more highly. She’s a national treasure, tireless in her quest to bring good (French) food to the American palate. Before reading the book, though, most of what I knew about her was her 1999 Emmy Award-winning PBS series with Jacque Pepin. They disagreed on everything, sometimes playfully, sometimes vehemently. She was advanced in years, and she didn’t look well, was physically unstable, but still full of, to use my grandmother’s expression, “vim and vigor.” Not knowing much about her long, illustrious career, I thought Jacque was there to teach her about French cooking. I laugh to think of this now.
     I tend to have a healthy distrust of biographies for several reasons. They’re too apt to slant one way or another, and it’s too easy to edit a life to fit the writer’s agenda. So, I admit, I distrusted Spitz just a little bit all the way through. Known for his pop culture biographies of such stars and events as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Woodstock, I wasn’t sure he was invested in his culinary subject. Come to find out that he knew Julia late in her life, so I softened a bit—although that fact didn’t come out until the Sources and Acknowledgments pages way in the back of the book. Throughout (though more in the beginning), he seemed to be bored by his own prose and would add odd puns, bawdy jokes, and ill-fitted swearwords (e.g. “hard-ass” when referring to her father, “shit-faced” [page 69], “balls” [page 522], “more connected than an IBM mainframe” [page 433], and this odd sentence on page 12: “An omelet had to be exciting in the mouth, she purred, making it sound like oral sex.”) Those instances made it seem just a little too much about him and his self-perceived literary prowess, didn’t fit with his tone, and, frankly, annoyed me. I was also annoyed by the gratuitous, random italicization.
     It’s hard for me to grade a biography; what are you grading, really? The biographer’s writing? How much you come to like the subject? You can’t really rate it on how factual it is, since the author is likely more an expert than the reader is. I don’t really know, so I had to go with an overall gut feeling, combining these three. I’m glad I read Julia’s Cats before this biography, since I’m not sure I would have appreciated it for what it was knowing so much more about Julia.
     Would I have liked Julia Child had I met her? Likely, I would have adored her as a star but disliked her political persona and some of her moral decisions. She very much disliked Republicans (likely because her father very much disliked liberals), and she even considered declining the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2003) because it was offered to her by President George W. Bush. While her husband, Paul, was nearing the end of his life in a nursing home, she was dating (though she didn’t call it that) another man. These actions made her human, but diminished her a bit in my eyes. (Though, to be fair, after a brief chat with President Bush, she decided maybe he wasn’t the terrible person she’d always thought.) I will always enjoy her practical nature, her bawdiness, her unusual height (6’3”) and voice. I also appreciate her first three decades (plus) spent utterly rudderless, adrift with no great passion, and how her first Parisian meal of sole gave her entire life purpose and direction. As someone still waiting for her plate of sole, so to speak, this gives me hope. And after reading this book, I especially appreciate the tremendous, painstaking work she did to bring French cuisine (and technique, she would hasten to add) to the states.
     Some of my favorite stories from the book: It was well known that Julia Child was listed in the phone book, and she’d spend her entire Thanksgiving day answering frantic calls from culinary civilians. (Never apologize, dearie!) Another favorite was Julia’s distrust of Meryl Streep for Streep’s campaign to examine the ill effects of a certain chemical used on apples. Julia said Streep was no scientist, and she’d be better off butting out. Meryl Streep, of course, went on to play Child in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia.” (And, she was right about that chemical being hazardous.) My least favorite part of the book: the last few chapters describing Paul’s decline and then Julia’s. Although Spitz handled the telling of them well, they were uncomfortable nonetheless.
     All in all, Dearie was a good chronology of Julia Child’s life (in the U.S., France, and other countries), cookbooks, and television career. I doubt that much was glossed over. Spitz quoted many family members and friends, though I was surprised at how little was in Julia’s own words considering she’d produced a memoir (My Life in France, 2008) and left behind reams and reams of personal papers.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review - Cheaper by the Dozen

Cheaper by the Dozen


Frank B. Gilbreth & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Category: nonfiction, memoir, families, humor

Synopsis: Two of the twelve Gilbreth children tell their family’s story, reared by an efficiency expert father and a psychologist mother, set in the early part of the 20th century.

Date finished: 16 February 2013

Rating: *****

Comments: What a delightful book! Long a fan of large families, this book really satisfied. It is not often that I can describe a book as “hilarious,” but this was. I actually laughed out loud. I have enjoyed the “Cheaper by the Dozen” remakes starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. This Thanksgiving I watched the original movie. Frankly, I don’t know how the remakes got away with calling themselves “Cheaper by the Dozen.” They are nothing alike. Both great in their own way, but nothing alike. While watching the original movie, though, I was sucker-punched when Mr. Gilbreth, very suddenly, died. My jaw actually dropped. Not realizing the movie was based on a book, it seemed like a huge Hollywood blunder. Now I know the book is exactly like that. The last chapter is a quick, cheerless account of the father’s passing. The movie was faithful to the book. At any rate, there’s nothing to say other than “read this book.” You’ll enjoy the quick, humor-filled romp through life with 12 children (actually 11—they don’t really mention that the second child, Mary, died quite young).

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, enthusiastically. And this would be a great book for tween readers (though they may need as much help as I did with the 1900s references).

Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review - The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Jennifer 8 Lee

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food


Jennifer 8 Lee

Category: nonfiction, food, China, Chinese-Americans

Synopsis: Lee explores many facets of American Chinese food.

Date finished: 13 February 2013

Rating: ****

Comments: Not since Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife—when I wanted Chinese dumplings for a month—have I been so hungry for Chinese food. I think I had it for six meals during the reading of the book. This was a very enjoyable, well researched, and passionate collection of “essays” about Chinese food. I learned a lot. Food delivery began with a Chinese restaurant in New York. Crab Rangoon is a Midwestern invention; folks in other parts of the country have no idea what it is. The all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet only exists in the Midwest and South (heaven help the rest of the country!). Chop Suey has been around in America since the late 1800s. General Tso (pronounced with more of a “J” or “Z” sound than an “S” sound) is an American invention. As is the fortune cookie, which most of us know, but what we don’t know—what the jury will forever be out on—is who invented it: the Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans? The book seems to come down on the side of Japanese. Lee travels around the world to interview people about American Chinese food and searches the world over for the best Chinese restaurant outside of China. While at times there were too many names and facts to keep straight (in fact, some of what I reported here may be incorrect, my apologies), the journey was a lot of fun. I love to read books by authors who are passionate about what they’re researching, and Ms. Lee is definitely one of those. Written with intelligence and wit, this was a fun adventure.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, especially to Chinese food lovers.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review - Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, Joe Mackall

Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish


Joe Mackall

Category: nonfiction, Amish

Synopsis: Mackall tells of his friendship with a conservative Swartzentruber Amish family, the nephew of which has just left the Amish.

Date finished: 5 February 2013      

Rating: ***½ 

Comments: Yet another book that tries to give an honest look at the Amish while divorcing Amish life from Amish religion. The two are the same to the Amish, and trying to separate them does a disservice and simply isn’t factual. I got the feeling that Mackall, a journalist, thought he was writing a hard hitting Dateline expose here, but it was very average. Average in writing and average in information. I learned very few new things about the Amish way of life and very much about Mackall’s biases toward it. He, like most English, focuses on the freedoms the Amish don’t have that we do have: we can drive, use electricity and birth control, dress sexy, wear red, be capitalists, reject God. They can do none of these things, therefore, they must be “deprived.” I believe the word for this is ethnocentric.
     He goes one step further and says that we English idealize the simplicity of Amish life, hereby cutting any good feelings about Amish life off at the knees. I don’t know how anthropologists work, but I would assume that one must put aside his own prejudices in order to fully learn the culture being studied. For instance, when discussing Jonas’s excommunication after leaving the Amish, Mackall is angry and judgmental. How can one be angry at a society for enforcing its rules? Jonas knew the consequences; his parents knew the consequences; Mackall knew the consequences. But Mackall insists on holding this rule up to English society standards and calling it heartless. Another instance, the English view that the Amish are denying their children of a proper schooling by only giving their children an eighth grade education. If the Amish are anything, they are practical. An eighth grade education is enough to run a household, run a farm, and to raise a family. Their education is, for the most part, apprenticeship and modeling. Amish children are educated for their life, not for the English life. There is no need for advanced degrees—or even a high school diploma.
     Lastly, I didn’t find this book all that well written. At the end, it seemed that he reached page 200, figured he had enough pages, and just tied up the whole Jonas leaving the Amish subplot with: Jonas got his driver’s license. The end.
     I did learn one very shocking tidbit I’d not read elsewhere: these Swartzentruber, the most conservative of the Amish societies, have dating rules more lenient than most English families. On a date, a young man goes home to a young woman’s house, and they lie in bed (fully clothed) all night and talk. Even the Victorians were more strict about propriety than this! It was sort of charming.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Not really, no.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review - Julia's Cats: Julia Child's Life in the Company of Cats, Patricia Barey & Therese Burson

Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats


Patricia Barey, Therese Burson


Category: nonfiction, biography, celebrity, Julia Child, France, cats

Synopsis: A biography of Julia Child, focusing on her all-abiding love for cats.

Date finished: 30 January 2013        

Rating: ****½

Comments: I believe the word for this book is “charming.” Utterly. What a nice little book this was, full of humor and happiness. It offered a nice overview of Child’s life. I was charmed by her confidence and by her playful relationship with husband Paul. I took a chance on this book; I worried that it could be too cutesy (it was, after all, about cats) or too much a literary stretch just to sell another book about Julia Child. It didn’t come across as either. The authors knew their mission and knew how much material they had. They didn’t overwrite or underwrite. My only complaint was all the French with no explanation. I’m sure I missed some witty jokes, but not all of us read French. People! I’ll add My Life in France back to my “To Read” shelf, I think.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, especially if they’re Julia people or cat people.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review - Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, Conor Grennan

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal


Conor Grennan

Category: nonfiction, memoir, orphans, Nepal

Synopsis: Grennan volunteers at an orphanage in Nepal and ends up reuniting trafficked children with their parents.

Date finished: 29 January 2013

Rating: ****½

Comments: What a wonderful story. It simultaneously makes you wonder if the hateful hearts of man will ever change and renews your faith in mankind. I love how this heartbreaking story didn’t dwell in sadness; Grennan knew that the story was about much more than pain, sorrow, hardship, poverty, and displacement. He knew it was about hope, joy, peace, love, unity, and harmony. It’s good to read a story like that. That said, I hadn’t wanted to read this book. I’d seen it lurking on Amazon for years, and I knew it got high reviews, but it didn’t appeal to me in the least. It wasn’t until Glennon Melton said it would be her first book club book that I softened. Then I found it for $2 at a used bookstore and knew it was a sign. So glad I bought it and read it. Was interesting to find out in the acknowledgements that he’s the Irish poet Eamon Grennan’s son.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
An enthusiastic “yes!”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review - Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovich

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading


Nina Sankovich

Category: nonfiction, memoir, reading/books, grief

Date finished: 21 January 2013

Synopsis: After her sister dies of cancer, Sankovich leads her life at a breakneck pace. Three years later, she decides it’s time to slow down again, and she sets out to read a book each day for a year.

Rating: ****

Comments: I enjoyed this, but what I enjoyed most was the “memoir” portion, not necessarily when she talks about the books she’s read. She seems to only discuss the fiction she reads—none of which I’ve heard of. And she only discusses a small fraction of what she’s read in the year. The parts about her sister (dead for several years when she begins reading the books) got tedious. I understand that she’s working through grief, but it seems as fresh three years later as it would be right after her passing. This didn’t seem healthy to me. At any rate, she and her family have some great stories, and they were enjoyable to read. I kept wondering, though, if some people are just born fast readers. She reads a 250-300 page book in four hours. I’d read it in twelve. Do I want to read that fast, though? What’s lost when you read a book that quickly? It’s like eating a full meal in one big bite. Is it good for you? Is it respectful to the cook? Is it any good for digestion? My husband made fun of her book-a-day project, wondering if she got anything out of the books or even enjoyed them. But some folks just don’t understand what “insatiable reader” means.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Probably not. The people who would be interested in this book would likely already know about it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review - Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting


Pamela Druckerman

Category: nonfiction, parenting, memoir, France

Date finished: 17 January 2013     

Synopsis: An American bringing up her children in France, Druckerman contrasts French and American parenting styles.

Rating: ****½

Comments: I enjoyed this book. With the clear dichotomies between French and American parenting styles, I realized I am more French parent than American parent. That’s how I was raised, and that’s how I tend to parent and grandparent. Believing in schedules, manners, and a firm “no’s” ability to stop misbehavior, believing permissiveness and too much leniency for a child’s wishes and feelings creates chaos in the family, valuing a strong framework of expected behavior, putting an emphasis on alone time for the child as well as the parent—these are all central to French parenting. They assume it’s common sense. And to me, it is. To most Americans, however, it’s heartless, authoritarian, and impossible. Was glad to see that the parts about how children eat in France mirrored the information in French Kids Eat Everything. Doubly glad to see she has another book coming out this year.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, especially mothers.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review - Almost Amish, Nancy Sleeth

Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life


Nancy Sleeth

Category: nonfiction, memoir, faith, sustainability, simplicity, Amish

Date finished: 11 January 2013
Synopsis: Sleeth examines Amish principles and discusses their place in the mainstream Christian’s life.

Rating: ***½ 

Comments: This book got kind of tedious. And I’m thoroughly convinced that she’s never actually known an Amish person, she’s just read a book about them and started comparing her life to theirs and wrote about the positive matchups in this book. It really wasn’t preachy, per se, but it wasn’t new either. A godly life involves less stuff and more faith? Less video games and more time as a family? Um, not exactly new. Still, she seems like a very nice person with a nice ministry, although this is the first time I’ve read about the belief that Jesus would have been a vegetarian environmentalist. I don’t think I believe that. Also, I wonder which Bible translation she uses—her citations were so different from the KJV that I had to reread them and marvel at the reinterpretations. I’ve made it sound like I hated the book, and I really didn’t; I just found it average.

Would you recommend this to a friend?