Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

by J. Ryan Stradal
Pamela Dorman Books     2015
320 pages     Fiction

From the moment I saw the title, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I knew I had to read it. Then, in the very first chapter, we meet Lars Thorvald who works at the family bakery, Gustaf's and Sons in Duluth, Minnesota. Now, you must know that I grew up in Duluth and went to Duluth East High School with two cousins, Gail and Gretchen Gustafson, whose fathers owned Gustafson's Bakery. When I read Gustaf's and Sons bakery—I was hooked. This author knew my life story!

Lars marries a woman named Cynthia and they have a baby daughter named Eva. Lars wants to make Eva appreciate the best in food, so the first chapter is devoted to the types of food he plans to feed this much wanted child—wanted by him, at any rate. Cynthia soon finds that she is not cut out to be a mother, and leaves Lars and baby Eva for a career as a sommelier. The novel, then is the story of Eva's life and the people who are connected to her—sometimes only peripherally. Eva carries on her father's fascination with food, moving quickly from lutefisk to hot peppers to world class cuisine. Each chapter is almost a stand-alone story. Sometimes Eva plays a large role in the story; sometimes she hardly appears at all. The New York Times reviewer calls this an "impressive feat of narrative jujitsu".

This s just the bare bones description  of a novel that almost defies description. The format is so unique, both poignant and hilariously funny on the same page. Eva and food are the links that hold the entire enterprise together. The food is wondrous. From Lars making the lutefisk in the first chapter to walleye, casseroles, and the wine and food culture that is invading even the Upper Midwest. My favorite chapter concerns devoutly religious Pat and the Lutheran ladies who take their bar cookies to a competition judged by Eva, by now a famous chef. This is one story line that you almost have to be a Lutheran from Minnesota to appreciate fully. Pat is a character right out of Prairie Home Companion

Nothing that I can say can truly do Kitchens of the Great Midwest justice. It is just a great send up of the Midwest, of foodie culture, and of bar cookies made of peanut butter, caramels, and chocolate chips. The characters are wonderful creations, the plot contorted, and the landscape totally unique. Stradal knows these people.  Be prepared to laugh and love!

The review in the New York Times.
J. Ryan Stradal's website.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W.W. Norton     2015
272 pages     Short Stories

In Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of short stores, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, the difficulties of being a woman become quickly evident. Women are resilient, stubborn, and resourceful. Women are used, abused, and discarded. The fates of many lower middle class women rest in their relationship to the men in their lives. And mothers try to tell their daughters how it is going to be for them to become women in a hostile world.

No one writes better about challenged women than does Bonnie Jo Campbell. We were introduced to them in her first story collection, American Salvage. Although the characters are different, the themes remain. The first story that expresses the true nature of the mother-daughter relationship is called Tell Yourself, in which a mother with a young teenage daughter worries obsessively that her daughter may be too much of a flirt and consequently experience some of the abusive relationships that the mother experienced as a teenager. She  breaks up with her boyfriend rather than allow the possibility that he might be attracted to the girl. The girl, on the other hand, is appalled that her mother might suspect that she would be interested in an older man. “Of course, he is just one man of millions out there in the world, one of dozens of men who might take an interest in your daughter. . .” 

The title story, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, expresses with sadness the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The mother in this story is dying of cancer, and her estranged daughter has come to be with her as she dies. No longer verbal, the mother muses about her life and how her daughter never understood the choices that she made in order to survive and to make sure that her children were raised. The daughter has become successful in life but is unable to give any credit to her mother or try to understand her mother’s life choices. The mother muses, “Someday, I hope, you’ll want to cut me down and gather me up in your arms, forgive me even if I can’t say I’m sorry.” 

Frankly, I admire some of the women that Campbell writes about—women who know exactly why they make the choices they make; women who make conscious decisions about survival; women who protect their children at all costs. At the same time, there is a terrible vulnerability in the women in the stories—women who have been abused, and who have so little but wish for so much. In one story, Someplace Warm, the mother seeks to make a safe place for her children but instead smothers them, and they rebel by leaving her.

Recently, the two women who work for me were able to get an apartment after many years in rooming houses and homeless shelters. The apartment isn’t much; just two rooms in a subsidized duplex, but their complete joy in having a place that is theirs is heartwarming. These women have cared for abusive spouses, slept in unlikely places, and fought mightily to raise three children together. I am so grateful that they are finally experiencing a bit of peace. These are the women of Campbell’s world. As a protagonist of one story says, “Our own home, a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us, where each of us has our own room and closet.”

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is not a pleasant, warm read, but several of the stories are unforgettable. The summary paragraph of the Kirkus review reflects that the book is “a fine showcase for this talented writer’s ability to mingle penetrating character studies with quietly scathing depictions of hard pressed lives.”

Campbell is a local author. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is the third book by her that I have read. The novel, Once Upon a River is based in Kalamazoo, and I was amused that so much of Kalamazoo shows up in Mothers, Tell your Daughters, including Campbell’s donkeys. I have followed Campbell on Facebook since our book club skyped with her when we read Once Upon a River. Check out her Facebook page and you will find her journey to this book and the guest readings connected with its release in October. I have included the advertisement for the book release party.

In addition to everything else I loved about the book, I was extremely attracted to the cover. 

The review on the Kirkus website. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In a Dark Dark Wood

By Ruth Ware
Simon and Schuster     2015
320 pages     Mystery

In A Dark, Dark Wood with its ominous cover appeared on several “Best of Summer” reading lists early in June, but I decided to wait to read it until we went on our Alaskan cruise in August. So here I am, a few days after finishing it, and I can’t remember the murderer’s motive. That probably tells you a lot about the book right there. Although those people who loved the book would probably say that my brain is a bit addled from being on vacation, I have concluded that In a Dark, Dark Wood is probably a perfect, forgettable summer vacation read.

The setup for the novel is great! Leonora (Lee or Nora, depending on who is addressing her) has received an invitation for a “hen party” (we would say bachelorette party} for a friend, Clare, who she has not seen for ten years. Nora can't imagine why she has been invited, but another university friend is also invited, and so the two women decide to venture out to a glass vacation house deep in the Northumberland woods where the party is going to take place. Only a few invitees arrive for the weekend, and Nora feels very apprehensive about the arrival of Clare, the guest of honor, because Clare knows something about Nora that no one else attending knows. Is that why she was invited—so Clare can expose her?

The plot is very atmospheric. The house is eerie; the woods foreboding. The guests are all narcissistic, and the party hostess is crazy. Very Agatha Christie. Early on we know that there is going to be a murder; the scenes at the house are interspersed with scenes at the hospital where Nora is suffering from amnesia following some terrible something—we don’t know what. We also don’t know if she is the murderer or a victim. 

One telling moment in the plot setup occurs when Tom, a playwright and one of the guests, gazes out the glass wall at the woods and muses “The audience . . . the audience is out there.”  Aah, now I get it! We are the audience for an unfolding drama, and the people in the glass house are like the actors in a play. And this, friends, is the failing of the book. The characters in this drama are rather wooden, and forgettable.

That being said, I enjoyed In a Dark, Dark Woods on three levels—the setup, which I have already mentioned; the setting, which is very appropriately introduced; and the suspense which builds nicely. On the other hand, two of the plot devices are mechanistic—amnesia and lost love. Ware rather beats the reader over the head with the amnesia plot device, telling us again and again why Nora is suffering from amnesia. The other device I dislike for more personal reasons, and that is lamenting over lost love. I just don’t believe that a young woman could be still holding on to the memory of a teenage love affair, no matter how tragically it ended. Nora is too unbelievably damaged. Clare, on the other hand, may be the most believable—an actress who is always on stage. I have known some of them.

The reviewer in USA Today feels the same way I do about the book and its author. Ruth Ware is a first-time author full of potential, which can be seen in her deft use of mood and setting. One would hope that she could develop character and plot better in the next go around.

Well, dear readers, if you are on an Alaskan cruise and looking for something to read in between glaciers and mountains, all-you-can-eat buffets and wildlife sightings, I can recommend In a Dark, Dark Woods. Otherwise, pass this one up. Read The Girl on the Train—the amnesia is better.

The review in USA Today.
An interview with Ruth Ware on NPR.