Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness

by Sasha Martin
National Geographic     2015
336 Pages     Memoir/Cookbook

"We come with all kinds of 'baggage' and almost none of it fits in our suitcases." 

After a hardscrabble, sometimes tragic, childhood, Sasha Martin settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places. She married and had a baby girl but felt lost as a stay-at-home mother. With a flash of ingenuity, she decided that she would begin a blog in which she cooked a meal from one country of the world each week until she had cooked her way around the world. 195 weeks later, she completed her list, had a giant community party, and signed a book contract with National Geographic. That in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the synopsis of Life from Scratch. The memoir, however, is much more than that. It is a meditation on family and on finding a passion as a way of finding self. 

Life from Scratch is basically divided into two parts. The first part includes Martin's childhood, teen years, and marriage. The second part of the book is about her world cooking adventure and the creation of her blog, Global Table Adventure. Martin is still a young woman, so there is much more to come, we can hope.

Martin's childhood was brutal. Among her memories of that childhood were the foods that her mother cooked. As she remembers the things her mother cooked, she fills in the recreated recipes. Although an eccentric, her mother was/is extremely creative, and she did her best to offer her children some of the advantages of families that had more—she did this primarily through food. For instance, a favorite treat was a German Tree Cake, which was so expensive to make that the family had to save money for weeks in order to create it. Those childhood recipes are in the first part of the book.

Martin lived her teenage years with her mother's friend and her family. The husband of the family worked in Europe, so her teenage years were spent in Europe. Tragedy ultimately separates this source of continuity for Martin just as she begins her college years back in the United States. Some time spent in culinary school leads her to a job in Tulsa where she finally is able to settle down and establish a family of her own. The next batch of recipes come from her European experiences.

And then comes a more peaceful life. Martin is a resilient woman, and when she marries and has a baby, she finds ways to resolve the tragedies of her childhood and youth. She realizes that she had lived an insular life as a way of protecting herself, and now what she wants to do was to create community. This she does through cooking and creating her blog. Having completed her first blog journey around the world, she is currently celebrating holidays from around the world. In some ways, Martin's memoir is The Glass Castle meets Julie and Julia. The story is not new, in other words, but it is written in a very appealing way. I found myself compulsively returning to it.

It could be that the reason I enjoyed the memoir was that no one was eating much except roasted rabbit and deer in the magnetic Station Eleven, which I was reading at the same time. I wonder what people eat in Dystopia. (Oh, I forgot, there are a lot of feasts at the capital in The Hunger Games. Now there would be an interesting cookbook: The Food of the Capital.)

One of my students recently gave me a container of Kebsa seasonings, ground by her mother, and I have been trying to figure out how much to use to flavor rice and chicken. (Kebsa, by the way, is the national dish of Saudi Arabia.) I haven't gotten the balance right yet. Kebsa is as adventurous as my cooking has gotten lately. However, on Saturday night, the family is coming over for Grandpa's spaghetti. Now there's an adventure in eating for you! Several years ago, he put kumquats in the spaghetti and the family has never let him forget it! 

By the way, Global Table Adventure is an outstanding blog, and the recipes are intriguing. I read Life from Scratch on a Kindle, and I have discovered that it isn't very exciting to read recipes on a Kindle. I guess I want the security of the nice tidy format that comes from a standard recipe format. However, if you look at the website, the colorful pictures and explicit directions make all the recipes look very appealing. My guess is that when the book appears in March, it will be gorgeous. I would recommend that you buy the hardcover.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf     2014
352 pages     Fiction

In the near future, a pandemic called Georgia Flu wipes out much of the world's infrastructure, and the remaining people are left with nothing. Small colonies of people survive like pioneers in settlements across the landscape. The particular landscape of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is Michigan, although much of the pre-pandemic activity takes place in Toronto and Los Angeles. However, the setting is immaterial to the plot, because what is left is desolation. 

As a little girl, Kirsten meets a famous actor, Arthur Leander, when she was performing in a production of King Lear in Toronto. It happened to be the night Leander died—right before the Georgia Flu destroys everything Kirsten knows. Twenty years later, she finds herself acting in a Shakespearean theater/musical ensemble called the Traveling Symphony. They are a ragtag group of survivors who travel the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron entertaining the small villages of survivors. 

The storyline goes from past to present, weaving the motley group of characters together, until plot lines converge at a former airport that serves as home to 300 people, including children born in the years after the calamity. The children know nothing about electricity, cell phones, or even stiletto high heels, but they know a lot about survival. Arthur Leander is the tie that binds all the characters and the artifacts together—that and King Lear and the saying tattooed on Kirsten's arm—"Survival is insufficient."

Unlike many dystopian authors, Mandel is not caught up in a specific genre. Although several reviewers were put off by inconsistencies in the level of dystopia, or the details of survival, or even the science fiction references, all were completely enthralled by Mandel's meditations on the value of life, of happiness, of—dare we say it—joy. Mandel objects to Station Eleven being categorized as science fiction, although it is set in a future time. She sees her novel as literary fiction, and I would have to agree with her. Although there are elements of science fiction and there certainly are dystopian elements, Station Eleven is so reflective and pensive that it defies description. It did remind me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but Station Eleven is more encouraging in the emphasis that the author places on human resiliency and the possibility of a better future. The reviewer in SF Gate says:  "The novel is less horror story than elegiac lament; its pacing is slow and its style understated. Station Eleven is terrifying, reminding us of how paper-thin the achievements of civilization are. But it’s also surprisingly — and quietly — beautiful."

I was particularly struck by the way in which the ordinariness of life is emphasized in Station Eleven. These are people who have lived for 20 years without the niceties of life in the past civilization. They do not even choose to live in abandoned houses. The old life is completely abandoned. One reviewer remarks, "Station Eleven implies that a major collapse might cripple the world, but would not ruin it, nor the people who remain in it." Also significant is the purpose of the Traveling Symphony. They visit the small villages playing music and performing Shakespeare, because that is what people want—that is beauty that they can cling to. 

I wrote an essay about a year ago about why teenagers love dystopian novels in which I mused that perhaps society is preparing itself for an apocalypse. The SF Gate reviewer remarks:  "This is the power of dystopian stories, which remain all the rage this year: They shed light not only on our present anxieties about humanity’s collapse, but on how people act when they’re placed, more or less, in a vacuum." 

As I tramped up and down the familiar Lake Michigan coastline with Kirsten and the Symphony in Station Eleven, I was reminded of something my son told me the day after he and his sister lived through September 11, 2001. He said that all he could think about was that my husband and I would come as close to the city as we could, find them, and drive to the family cottages on Lake Michigan where we would all be safe. 

The SF Gate review.
The New York Times review.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids

by Anne K. Fishel
AMACOM     2015
240 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Psychologist Dr. Anne Fishel has some sound  advice for families about how to create or enhance the dinner time experience. She begins the book Home for Dinner with her own family dinner table and cooking experiences. She realized the value of those dinner experiences and founded The Family Dinner Project as a way to promote the health and psychological benefits of the family dinner.

This is a book filled with sound family-nurturing advice. She includes a few basic recipes that families can make together, some conversation starters, and a lot of great advice for creating the sense of unity that we all want for our own families. Fishel acknowledges that this is not easy to pull off for many families, hampered as they are by sports, work schedules, and finances, but she asserts that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. The dinner table is not the place to discuss undone homework, poor grades or poor behavior. It is not the place for the devices that populate our lives and isolate us from each other. It is a place to talk together, to tell stories, and to relate to each other as equals. She has chapters on simple games that can encourage conversation as well as ideas for story telling experiences that promote empathy, self-esteem, resilience, and enjoyment. Of course, she touts the benefits of the family dinner table as a way to promote healthier eating habits. 

Fishel was preaching to the choir to me because I have created and been a part of a lifetime of family dinners. And I have many stories to tell, including fond memories of dinners around the table at my grandparents, family dinners in my home as a child, and my own family dinners when I was a single parent. My husband insists on family meals; we actually call him "the breakfast Nazi" because he is so adamant about the value of a family breakfast. Now that that everyday breakfast includes just the two of us, we close breakfast every morning by reading to each other. We always have a book going. I know many families that also have that tradition of spending a few minutes reading together after dinner.

A couple of stories to close this entry. Over the years, I have had many family dinners with my son and his family. They eat together as a family several evenings a week. Their family dinner game is called "Best, Worst, Funniest." They go around the table and tell the best thing that happened that day, the worst thing that happened that day, and they end with the funniest thing that happened that day. I love that idea. 

The value of the family dinner resonates with my daughter and family whose tiny house has no room for a dinner table. Both she and her husband grew up with family dinners and she is actively searching for a house with a dining room so they can eat their meals at a real table, rather than the coffee table. One recent evening, they came over to eat at our house. I was going to set the kitchen table, but my 3-year-old granddaughter insisted on setting the dining room table. That, in her mind, is where family dinners happen.
Check out The Family Dinner Project for ideas on how to make your family dinners more successful.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time

by Rory Vaden
Perigee     2014
236 pages     Self-Help

Want to be inspired to make changes in your work and personal life in 2015? Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden may just fill the bill. Rory Vaden is a salesman, motivational speaker, and self-discipline strategist (although aren't we all to some degree or another). Although primarily geared to organizations and businesses, Procrastinate on Purpose is filled with practical advice that nearly anyone can use to their advantage.

I started  underlining  his pithy statements and good advice and soon found that I could have  underlined the entire book! Vaden first discusses the concept of prioritizing time. He feels that prioritizing time is a better concept than managing time. He suggests that using his advice, the leader can learn to multiply time. Here are his five prescriptions for stalled productivity:
  • Eliminate. This is an easy to understand concept. This means stopping the behaviors or the tasks that are stifling productivity or saying no to things that will take time but not effectively produce something. Yesterday, I just took on a task, and wondered why I did it. 24 hours later and I still don't know. I should just have said no.
  • Automate. This involves investing in the technology that will speed up the tasks that you do.
  • Delegate. Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Procrastinate. Vader notes that timing is everything. This is what he means by procrastinate. I know in my own work life that if I step away from a writing task and don't return to it for a while, I can finish it much quicker than if I just kept pounding away. My mind keeps working even though my fingers stop writing.
  • Concentrate. Just the opposite of procrastinate. The tasks that fall into the concentrate category are the ones that you fervently desire to get done. These are the tasks that will change the world.
At the end of each chapter, there is a terrific summary to remind you of what you just read and to point out the most important bits of information. Each of the five prescriptions also has an example from the experience of a businessperson. 

Vader's message is as complex as it is simple: "You multiply your time by spending time on things today that will give you more time tomorrow." The part of his message I am going to take to heart is eliminate. I can do a lot more eliminating than I am currently doing.

Read Procrastinate on Purpose, multiply your time, and gain a new perspective on work. Vader's book came to me from the publicist and was on bookshelves on January 6. 

Rory Vader's other book is called Take the Stairs.

Procrastinate on Purpose website with a free video training.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Lost Wife

by Alyson Richman
Berkley Books    2011
358 pages  Historical Fiction

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman is first and foremost a love story. Josef and Lenka meet and fall in love in Prague a few years prior to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Lenka is an art student and Josef is in medical school. They marry so that they can travel to the United States under the sponsorship of one of Josef's relatives, but they cannot get passage for Lenka's family. Lenka refuses to leave her parents and sister, so the young couple separates. Lenka thinks Josef has perished in the sinking of the SS Athena off the coast of Ireland because his name appears on the roster of the dead. However, Josef is rescued and travels to the United States where he keeps searching for Lenka, until all his letters are returned. He believes that she has died in Auschwitz. And so he goes on with his life. 

Meanwhile, Lenka and her family have been sent from Prague to a Jewish ghetto created at Terezin. Terezin is a concentration camp, where Czech Jews are forced into hard labor, but they are allowed to live. Because she is an artist, Lenka works as a draftsman for the Nazis. Much of the story revolves around her work and the work of the other artists interred at Terezin as well. Besides their work for the Nazis, the artists try to document life in the camp, a life far different from the life portrayed by Hitler who says that Terezin is how he and the Nazis are protecting the Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library says, "notable musicians, writers, artists, and leaders were sent there for "safer" keeping than was to be afforded elsewhere in Hitler's quest to stave off any uprisings or objections around the so-called civilized world." In all, more than 200,000 people passed through the gates of Terezin.

It is the artwork that was hidden until the end of the war that tells the story of Terezin. Lenka serves as a witness to the creation of this artwork, but she only created one painting, which she dug up from its hiding place shortly after liberation. The story of the artwork is one indication that the author, Alyson Richman, has done her homework to create a realistic narrative of Jewish life in concentration camps.

 Lenka's story is one of surviving tremendous loss. We do not learn as much about Josef's story because his narrative are his remembrances as an old man after a successful career as an obstetrician. The story of star-crossed love combines with a story of survival, resilience, and endurance. Although permanently scarred by their Holocaust experiences, both Lenka and Josef move on to productive lives and raise families with other spouses.

Richman's writing is almost too rich and poetic. It oozes with sentiment at the same time that it tells a tale of stark horror. An example of the florid language: Josef reminisces: "In my old age, I have come to believe that love is not a noun but a verb. An action. Like water, it flows to its own current. If you were to corner it in a dam, true love is so bountiful it would flow over." At times, this language was almost  too much for me.

All the reviews said that I should be crying my eyes out at this holocaust love story, so when I finally cried a few tears at the end of the book, I felt like my cynical soul had finally warmed up a bit. I am sorry about that, because when I read the reviews on Goodreads all oozy and loving, I realized that I am at heart not a romance novel-reader. I guess I am too much of a realist. 

I felt that much of The Lost Wife was tedious, and frankly, I didn't get into the book until the last few chapters. It may have been because the author tells us in the first pages of the book that Josef and Lenka find each other in old age, and I am thinking, "Oh, for heaven's sake, like that is going to happen!" rather than "Oh, how romantic! I wonder how they found each other?" Publisher's Weekly says, and I agree: "Though the framing device of a decades-long separation can be cloying, this is a genuinely moving portrait." According to Richman's website, the book has been optioned for a movie. You might be interested in Richman's interview on

My book club is reading this book for our meeting next week. We don't usually read romances, so it will be interesting to see what everyone thinks. 

Another view of how some other talented people escaped extermination during the Holocaust can be found in the memoir, Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson. It tells the story of two young piano protégées who survived the Holocaust by giving concerts for the Nazis. You can find my review here.

The Publisher's Weekly Review.
Alyson Richman's website.