Monday, June 29, 2015

In a French Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis

I'm deeply ashamed of the state of my kitchen.  Messy cupboards, dishes in the sink; no pantry to speak of due to the size of my teeny tiny kitchen.  My boyfriend set up shelves in my basement for me to use as a kinda-sorta storage space for canned goods and other staples for cooking, but it's no where near the wonderful food spaces described in Susan Herrmann Loomis' book In a French Kitchen.  Susan lives in the small French village of Louviers.  She's a cook, and is in the perfect place to enjoy all the joy that cooking and eating a good meal brings.  It really is one of the most basic of  simple human pleasures.  

Not everyone enjoys cooking; Susan says:

 "Like my friends and acquaintances here, the French love to eat, so they make the time to cook.  But cooking isn't necessarily the part that gives them joy.  Cooking with quality ingredients, using simple techniques and organization, is simply the straightest path to a delicious, warming moment at the table."  

This is a book about the French, and how they eat. It's about having an organized pantry, buying quality foods--small quantities are better than a large amount of so-so stuff.  Eating with all of our senses; slowing down, putting good food in our bodies, enjoying the good stuff every day without eating too much.  The French don't snack much, but when they do, it's small nibbles of a great cheese, or a bit of fruit or bread.  While it is very hard (if not impossible) for most Americans to shop at local markets multiple times a week, it is possible for us to take care in choosing what we put in our baskets and our mouths.  Fresh, simple, and extensive use of leftovers are all part of everyday French cooking.  I enjoyed reading about Susan and her friends; each has a different method of creating delicious meals for their families.  What ties them all together is their appreciation for home, a good meal, and time spent with family. 

 I've come away with a desire to clean out my kitchen, organize my cupboards, and slow down and enjoy my food.  Take the time to cook simple meals using fresh ingredients.  And yes, it's ok to eat cheese and use cream.  A little goes a long way towards flavor and satisfaction.  Grow some herbs in pots.  Try a vegetable garden in your back yard.  Start small.  There's an immense satisfaction from eating food you've grown yourself, even if it's simply fresh basil or rosemary from a pot in your kitchen window. 

Susan has filled her book with oodles of simple recipes, lists to help you organize your pantry, and an ingredient source list at the back of the book for places in the United States to order spices, condiments, and French treats.  

Rating:  7/10 for a delicious walk through contemporary French home cooking.  

Available in hardcover and ebook.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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

This book was not what I expected.  I'm always eager to read memoirs that involve cooking, family traditions, and recipes.  This memoir did have that, but surrounding Sasha Martin's food traditions and memories was a childhood of loss, abandonment, and grief. 

I have always recognized how lucky my siblings and I were to grow up in a household that had a Mom and a Dad, supper on the table every night at 5:30, and every holiday spent at our house.  There were no half-siblings, no far flung parents, no step-parents. My parents were married for 51 years before my Dad passed away.  Surrounded by a society that marries, divorces, marries again, divorces again; has children with each husband or wife; moves far away from family and only connects maybe once a year; well, I've seen how it affects kids.  We all have.  This stretching of roots and family is at the heart of Life from Scratch.  

Sasha Martin grew up in Boston, Connecticut, Paris, and Luxembourg.  Her mother, hoping to give her children a better life, granted guardianship of Sasha and her brother Michael to old family friends Patricia and Pierre.  Wrenched from their mother, with very little contact, Sasha and her brother struggled to fit into their new family, and a new life.  Sasha and her mother had connected over cooking, and even that was taken from her when she lived with Patricia and Pierre.  Tragedy soon visits Sasha, and she unravels in Paris, drinking and partying in her teen years as a way to escape her pain and accept that her mother won't communicate.  In fact, it is years before Sasha ever is able to see her mother again. A move back to the US to attend college results in a severing of ties to Patricia and Pierre.  She is on her own.  

Sasha eventually moves to Tulsa, Oklahoma and finds the peaceful, even keel of Tulsa a balm to her soul.  Nothing happens there, and that's just what she needs.  Buying a home makes her feel, for the first time in years, that she is finally home.  Marriage and a baby follow, and Sasha can't believe her luck.  She waits for the other shoe to drop; after all, that's what always happened before.  

But the shoe doesn't drop, and Sasha reawakens her passion for cooking by deciding to cook one meal a week for all 195 countries on the planet.  She starts a blog, The Global Table Adventure to chronicle her recipes and travels around the world from the comfort of her home.  In this, she begins to find some peace, forgiveness, and the realization that home is all around us in the people we meet, our neighbors, and our community.  We just have to open our eyes.  

The book is full of recipes that you can make if you feel like traveling the world from your house, too.  I was quite moved by Sasha's disconnected childhood  and everything she experienced and felt in her struggle to find home.  An incredibly strong woman who could have made so many bad choices, but chose instead to embrace life in all its messy glory.  Part food writing, part memoir, Food from Scratch is an excellent book club choice.  Visit Sasha's website to see all her recipes, meet her husband Keith and daughter Ava, and prepare to cook!  

Rating:  7/10 for a moving memoir about family, love, grief, and food.  

Available in hardcover and ebook.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

Do you ever wish you had the guts (I'm using the word "guts" instead of my preferred word "b*lls" 'cause I'm a lady ;) ) to drop your normal, routine life for a few months and do something completely crazy?  Follow your radical, makes-no-sense-but-I- want-to-do-it-dream?  Rinker Buck and his brother Nick do just that, and chronicle their "crazyass passion" in The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.  

Rinker and Nick outfit a covered wagon, gather a team of mules, and over the course of four months follow the Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City, Oregon.  They travel a trail that hasn't been visited by a covered wagon in over 100 years. In this journey, Rinker and Nick find adventure, teamwork, sheer dogged determination, and an America most of us never have the privilege of seeing, and probably never will.  We're so busy driving our cars everywhere, rushing around, that we don't take the time to slow down, walk, and look at what's around us.  We don't listen to the birds chirping, the sound of the wind rustling leaves, or any of the quiet sounds of nature that are a peaceful tonic, just waiting for us to slow down and enjoy them.  

I loved this book.  I'm a history fan to be sure, but Rinker is a mega-history fan, and he writes about the Oregon Trail in such a way that you completely realize the social and economic impact the great migration to the West had on our country.  It made our country in so many ways that it boggles my mind. The parallels between pioneers and people today are staggering. The waste of goods, recycling, and money-making enterprises were very much in place during the 1830's-1860's, and it's pretty interesting to see that people haven't changed much at all in this country.  That drive that homesteaders had to succeed and thrive is still with us today, but in a different way.  I think that kernel of determination and grit needs a renewal and reawakening.  Reading Rinker's journey just may do it for you.    

 I can't say I'd survive a 2,000 mile journey in a covered wagon.  I'm convinced my boyfriend would have not only made the trip, but thrived on the challenges, setbacks, and sheer physical strength it took to survive.  I told him I'm convinced he was a pioneer in a previous life.  His response was to let out a gentle snore as he fell asleep listening to me drone on about the settling of the West.  

I've read some reviews about this book, and people compare Rinker to Bill Bryson.  I can see that, but while Bill Bryson writes about all the ways he comes near to disasters as he travels around, Rinker grabs onto those challenges and beats them into submission.  He quickly realizes he's no different than the pioneers, and that the trail will be chock full of surprises and potential disasters.  You can plan, but that doesn't mean everything will go according to plan.  Rinker writes with humor, and I found myself laughing out loud at his conversations with Nick.  Anyone with a sibling knows they're the only people you can swear at and call stupid idiots, but they'll love you anyway, and stick with you through thick and thin.  One of the highlights of this journey is the team of Rinker and Nick, along with Nick's dog, Olive Oyl.  Olive Oyl works just as hard as the men and the mules to make the trail ride a success.

And there are the mules: Jake, Beck, and Bute.  They are characters that literally drive this journey forward.  I have to say I got a bit teary-eyed at the end of the trail, saying goodbye to the mules.  This book is a journey that will keep you enchanted, laughing, swearing with Rinker and Nick at the mishaps along the trail, and reluctantly turning the last page.  It truly is the journey that is the important, most memorable part, and not the final destination.  Fans of American history, pioneers, the West, memoirs, and humorous travel writing will enjoy this book.  What an accomplishment to make in your lifetime:  to ride the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail with a wagon and mules.  Makes successfully weeding my garden in one day seem kinda trivial!  

This book is available the week of June 30th in hardcover and ebook.  

Rating:  9/10 for a purely enjoyable read, a great history lesson that won't bore you, and a reminder that we all  have moments of crazyass passion that drive us to reach for those grand-but not impossible, dreams.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright

I've ranted about covers that don't match stories, and this is another one that should have a completely different cover.  The cover didn't stop me from enjoying the story, however.  

The Canterbury Sisters is a novel about women undertaking a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in England.  Che de Milan is the main character.  She's just lost her mother, with whom she shared a dysfunctional relationship; her boyfriend has left her for another "She's the One" woman, and her mother's ashes have arrived with a note from her mother requesting she be taken on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, since she didn't get to do it while she was alive. Che had promised her mother they would do this, but forgot while living her busy life. It's a chance for Che to escape her ex-boyfriend's incessant phone calls and her misery in finding herself completely alone and at a loss as to what to do next. 

Through circumstances, Che finds herself joining a group of women who are on a paid guided pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral.  These ladies are a varied group of women from the United States who all have a reason to be on this journey.  Their guide on the sixty-mile walk from London requests that each woman tell a story on the journey--echoing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  The theme is love.  The stories are surprising, and what take this novel from what would appear at first to be a chick lit story to a really great exploration of life, what love is and how it drives us, and where we are in our journey through life.  Are we happy?  Do we regret anything?  Can we change?  Che's journey is one of guilt and grief.  Her relationship with her free-spirit mother was one of angst and confusion. Che's life is the complete opposite of how she grew up, and now she's got to look at her life and decide what to do next.  

Each of the women in this story have remarkable stories to tell, and each story is completely different.  I don't want to spoil any of this book, so I'll leave it for you to discover if your life echoes in these tales of love, loss, and forgiveness.  

This is a great book to read in the summer.  For me it conjured up all sorts of longing to undertake a walking pilgrimage!  It's on my bucket list.  This novel is a good contemporary look at the choices women make and how we can not only live with them, but learn from them.  Don't let the cover fool you; this novel is not a fluffy good time vacation story but a satisfying novel you'll enjoy.

Rating:  8/10 for a refreshing look at contemporary women and the choices we make for love.  The idea of a walking pilgrimage as the framework for a story is what makes this novel work.  

Available in paperback and e-book. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston

Oh Paula Brackston.  Ever since I read The Witch's Daughter a few years ago, I've eagerly awaited each of her novels.  I'm a bit behind, I do admit; but I have all of Paula's novels at home.  Paula manages to create a magical combination of history, witchery, Welsh mythology, pottery, and a bit of romance into a book that I couldn't put down.  In fact, I was lazy today and read all afternoon just because I couldn't wait to see what happened next in this novel.  

The Silver Witch is set in Wales.  Tilda has come home to live in the cottage she bought with her husband, Mat.  A tragic accident killed Mat on their way home from their honeymoon, and Tilda hasn't been able to live in what was to be their new home.  But she finally moves in, and is completely enchanted with the cottage, the view, and the seemingly potent atmosphere that surrounds her.  Tilda is a potter, and she hopes for inspiration after a year of grief and a lack of creativity.  

What Tilda gets is a cottage that keeps losing electricity, a mysterious lake that calls to her, and a growing knowledge that the area has awoken something magical inside her. Does this magic have a connection to Seren, the young witch and shaman who lived by the lake centuries ago?  

An archaeology site has sprung up near the lake, and it could be an exciting find:  there's a grave where there shouldn't be one, and it looks to be very, very old.  There's also the island set in the lake, that dates from 918 AD; it is the only man-made island in Wales.  What to they all have to do with Tilda in 2014?  Dark things are stirring, the legend of the sea horse in the lake persists, and Tilda may be the key to a centuries old curse that is coming to fruition.  

This is a back and forth novel between Tilda in present day, and Seren, Tilda's look-alike in 918 AD.  We see the ancient history of the area and the power in Seren to see visions and use the magic of the ancient Celts to protect Prince Brynach and his people on the island.  But trouble brews here, too.  Can Seren convince Prince Brynach her visions are true and danger is closing in on him?  

I grabbed this book off of one of my piles at home and I'm so glad I did!  I was sucked in pretty fast.  The setting is gorgeous, the mythology and Celtic magic will send you to the mythology section of your library or bookstore,  and the stories of Tilda and Seren will leave you wanting more Paula Brackston!

This has earned a spot in my top reads of 2015.  

Rating:  8/10 for a beautiful setting, an interesting historical background, and strong female characters.  A pinch of this, a pinch of that, all to make a wonderfully blended cocktail of a story.

Available in hardcover and e-book.