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review 2020-08-04 18:34
'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' by J. Ryan Stradal - highly recommended.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal,Caitlin Thorburn

I fell in love with the cover and the title and the conceit that the book is built around but I half expected to be disappointed, so many books don't live up to their covers and so many clever conceits turn into pedestrian prose, but instead, I was deeply impressed by 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. So much so that I immediately bought Stradal's second novel 'The Lager Queen Of Minnesota' (another great cover and catchy title but this time my expectations are high).

 

The life of Eva Thorvald, from her conception onwards, is le fil rouge that stitches together 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest'. Eva's life provides a sense of connection and continuity but, except for one chapter, when she is ten turning elven, Eva's is not the main focus of the book. Each chapter of the book is focused on and told from the point of view of someone whose life has touched Eva's. Each chapter also involves a dish that Eva will use by the end of the book. 

 

It's easy to imagine how disjointed and burdensome a story structure like that could become but Stradal makes it work brilliantly. He never lets the structure distract from the narrative, like seeing a puppet's strings. He uses it as a trellis, helping the story climb higher. 

 

I think it works so well because each new character is at the centre of their own world, is fully and empathetically imagined and has their own distinctive voice. As each person's story is told, we get only the most indirect view of Eva, filtered through the passions and problems of the person the chapter is about but we get a deeply personal account of a key moment in each person's life and what it means to them. Each character's story is also linked to a dish which acts as a kind of emoji for the mood of the chapter, With each new dish we taste a new life and build up a sort of scent trail of intense flavours wrapped around memories of important moments.

 

Yet 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' comes together as something more than a set of thematically linked short stories. The novel has a shape of its own. The effect reminds me of how Hockney amalgamated polaroids for his self-portrait.

 

Food and food culture are central to the story. Eva has a once-in-a-generation palet and an extreme tolerance for hot spices. Her obsession with sourcing and making perfect dishes coincides with the rise of Foodie culture in the US. I enjoyed watching her lead the charge in sourcing fresh food and getting perfect flavours by having perfect ingredients. I also enjoyed the chapter where we were shown the Foodie culture grown into a pretentious, intolerant cult that was unable to recognise the love in traditional home cooking. 

 

One of the things that I loved about 'The Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' was how accessible the book is. The writing is engaging, honest, compassionate and deceptively simple. It made me smile and it made me cry but it never made me feel manipulated. 

 

Here's an example. When we meet the man who will be Eva's father, he is a chef who, after an extended period of involuntary celibacy, caused mainly by spending his teens stinking of cod from making Lutefisk, finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions.' His reaction to his good fortune made me smile:

 

'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'

 

I recommend the audiobook version of 'Kitchens Of The Great Midwest' which was perfectly narrated by Caitlin Thorburn. Go here to hear a sample of Audible.

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review 2020-03-14 19:00
"The Weight Of Ink" by Rachel Kadish
The Weight of Ink - Rachel Kadish

"The Weight Of Ink" was the fifth book I've read for my 20 for 20 reading challenge (to read twenty books from my TBR pile that are 600 pages/20 hours long or more) and it's the first one where I've felt, "this is a book that was worth every minute I've spent on it."

The book follows two passionately intellectual women, Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, separated by more than three hundred years but connected by words inked on paper and a need to know what is true.

 

Ester, orphaned in her teens, has been taken into the household of a blind rabbi and has moved with him from Amsterdam to 1660s London where, going against tradition, the rabbi permits her to become his scribe. In doing so, he ignites in her a hunger for the life of the mind which, as a woman, she should have no access to.

 

In 2000, Helen, sixty-four years old, in failing health and approaching a mandatory retirement that will end her career as a History Professor specialising in Jewish history, is invited by a former student to view a set of seventeenth-century Jewish documents that were discovered during a renovation of his house in Richmond. These papers lead Helen to piece together not just the truth of Ester's life but of her own.

 

The writing is accessible, beautiful, calm and clear. I quickly found myself being immersed in the worlds of both of these women even though they were equally alien to me. Yet, by the time I was halfway through the book, I felt as if I had shouldered the weight of disappointment and sadness of each of the women.

 

Ester and Helen are both serious, passionate, strong women who have few good choices available to them.

 

The pace was slow but doesn't drag. The circumstances are deeply sad without being melodramatic. I admired Rachel Kadish's ability to engage me in the passion for thought that both women share. I was also impressed at her ability to add an I-NEED-to-know-what-happens-next element to both timelines. Most of all I admired the humanity and compassion with which the story was told.

 

I found the experience was quite intense so I could only listen to a few hours at a time before taking a break. This meant that I spent four weeks with Ester and Helen in my head. I came to value the time I spent with them.

 

I also enjoyed the time I spent with Aaron Levy, the American grad-student Helen enlists to help her. He's not the kind of man I know well and initially I found him hard to like or even understand. His journey of the mind and spirit echoes that of Ester and Helen. He also has to come to terms with the truth of where his passion lies. I thought this was very well done.

 

I recommend investing your time in "The Weight Of Ink". If it's available to you, I recommend the audiobook version which is narrated with great skill by Corrie James.

https://soundcloud.com/corrie-james-4/hb1481-weightink
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review 2020-02-05 23:50
"Special Topics In Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Janice Card,Marisha Pessl

A unique, beautifully written book about that I fell in love with, got frustrated by and ended up being just good friends with.

 

I've decided that the best way to do justice to a book as long and complex as this one is to start by offering up my overall impressions and then sharing the detail of the experience of reading the book, based on the notes I made as I went along. There are no spoilers.

 

Overall Impression

 

"Special Topics In Calamity Physics" is a book with a personality all of its own. Reading it was like meeting a very charismatic person for the first time and being dazzled by their larger-than-life not-afraid-of-anything personal style, seduced by their erudition and left hungry for more of their stories and views on the world.

 

For the first half of this book, I was in love. But it's a very long book, nearly twenty-two hours of audiobook, and, just as with people, long exposure meant that, by the second half, some of the glamour rubbed thin, the erudition began to seem compulsive and irritating and I became hungry for the author to GET ON WITH IT.

 

By the end of the book, my admiration for it was more considered. I admired the depth of characterisation, the boldness and originality of the idea, the unashamed intellectualism of the delivery and the persistent vein of humour that kept everything human. It was an experience I wouldn't have missed.

 

On the other hand, I was frustrated that the book seemed to meander rather self-indulgently at times and that the impact of the bold idea was almost lost under the weight of the writing style. I was reminded of an interview with Dennis Hopper where he said that the hardest thing about making "Easy Rider" was knowing which of the perfectly shot scenes to leave out. With "Special Topics In Calamity Physics" nothing was left out.

 

Then there's the last chapter, "Final Exam". I hope that was humour but it felt more like a sneer.

 

This book may not be for everyone but I strongly recommend that you give it a try and see if it's to your taste.

 

My experience reading "Special Topics In Calamity Physics.

 

I've already posted most of these comments on BookLikes. If you're interested in seeing them in one place, please go HERE

 

 

 

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review 2019-12-11 15:02
"The Adults" by Caroline Hulse - Book for Door 19 Festivus
The Adults - Caroline Hulse,Sarah Ovens,Penelope Rawlins,Peter Kenny

Book for Door 19 Festivus: Read any comedy, parody, or satire

 

 

 

A fun book that mixes humour, real people and the stresses of spending Christmas together.

 

 

"The Adults" is a story of two middle-class English couples spending Christmas together at a cabin in a forest in Yorkshire (this is England, so think very, very small forest). The twist is that the party is made up of two people who are divorced from each other, Scarlett, their seven-year-old-daughter, her imaginary friend ( a very tall stuffed rabbit called Posey) and their current partners. What could possibly go wrong?

 

This had me laughing even before I made it to the first chapter. The prologue  defined the word adults, then gave an extract from the "Happy Forest" holiday brochure, describing the forest as "a place where you make memories that will last a lifetime,"

Then we go straight to a phone call that goes something like.

"Hello? Is that emergency services? He's been shot. We're at the archery course, next to the Elves smoking shelter. Please come quickly. There's so much blood."

This juxtaposition of marketing and mayhem, delivered entirely straight, had me laughing into my morning coffee.

 

The book then winds back in time to when each of the new partners discovers who they're going to spending Christmas with. Bit by by bit, mostly through the eyes of the two new partners and the little girl, we build up a picture of the five people (six if you count Posie - which you should) who are going to be locked in a small cabin together over Christmas.

 

The book is structured into two narratives that don't converge until the final chapters: one telling the story of the Christmas in the cabin as it unfolds, including some reflections on how the new couples met, and a second one composed of present-day interviews that are part of the police investigation into the shooting.

 

The interviews are a clever way of increasing tension by referring to things that haven't happened yet, each one of which makes you cover your eyes and go "How could THAT have happened?" Who has been shot and by whom becomes a little clearer with each interview but remains a topic of speculation.

 

The characters, although not always likeable, are beautifully and empathically drawn. All of the adults have flaws, most of which they're perfectly aware of but which they can't overcome. The people seem real, even when their behaviour makes you cringe.

 

Claire and Matt, the divorced couple, have a strong shared history but have probably outgrown each other, Patrick, Claire's new partner is still stunned that he's able to be with someone as attractive as Claire and will make whatever changes are asked of him to make sure he keeps her. Alex, Matt's new girlfriend is fighting her urge to get drunk, her discomfort at being manipulated into this Christmas set up and her growing irritation with Matt. Matt is... well, happily oblivious most of the time, or at least pretending to be. Relationships between the four of them are... complicated.

 

Scarlett, the little girl at the centre of Matt and Claire's lives, is perhaps the most interesting character of all. There's no schmaltz or Disney-Princess slant here. Scarlett is a real girl trying to figure out life with the aid of her only friend, her imaginary rabbit, Posey. I thought Scarlett's relationship with Posey required less imagination and self-deception than that between some of the couples.

 

The tone of the book stays light but manages to deal with themes that many of us will recognise as real. The plot unfolds at a well-planned pace that adds tension while re-inforcing the humour.

 

It's a great setup for an audiobook. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of the characters and each character has its own narrator, one of whom is one of my favourites, Peter Kenney.

 

You can hear an extract here:

https://soundcloud.com/orionbooks/the-adults-by-caroline-hulse-read-by-multi-voice
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review 2019-12-03 12:23
Door 2 Book: "The River King" by Alice Hoffman - highly recommended
The River King - Alice Hoffman,Laural Merlington

 

As soon as I started "The River King" I was smiling at having found something distinctive and wonderful.

 

I luxuriated in surrendering myself into the hands of a dryly witty, joyfully articulate and completely omniscient narrator who curated my journey through the lives of a small group of people at a long-established boarding school in a tiny Massachusetts town.

 

The form is close to that of a well-edited early twentieth-century novel but the sensibility is that of the early twenty-first century.

 

Even from the beginning, it was clear that. beneath the apparently benign narration, something darker lay in wait for these people. The setting seems to be one of civilised tranquillity but the respectability is no deeper than a coat of paint. Scratch it and a culture of violent misogyny and corrupt privilege is revealed that compromises both the school and the town.

 

The writing style is new to me and I'm not sure what to call it. Atonal lyricism perhaps? 

What I'm trying to describe is a duality that means the surface of the text is as fixed and calm as ice on a lake but beneath that layer moves a strong current of emotion that the ice somehow amplifies rather than hides.

 

I'm listening to the audiobook version. The narrator, Laural Merlington, is very skilled. She could make the text into many things but she manages her inflexions so that the authorial voice narrating the story is always calm, no matter how emotional the dialogue becomes. This doesn't dampen down the emotion. it creates a quiet in which it can be heard more clearly. I'm sure this is deliberate. I wonder if she picked it up from the frequent references in the book to listening well enough to hear what silence is telling you? 

 

Anyway, it's like a really effective soundtrack, one that sustains the atmosphere of a film without bringing attention to itself.

 

Although it was written nineteen years ago, it seems to me that "The River King" understands the culture that has given America Trump as President and has turned the GOP into carrion crows, pecking at the corpse of the body politic.

 

The story takes place in a private co-ed school, attended mainly by the privileged. It deals with what happens when two people who are not privileged and who have no desire to join, encounter the unwritten but ruthlessly enforced rules of the prevailing hierarchy. It describes a culture of Patriarchy established by the schools wife-abusing and possibly murderous founder and preserved by traditions passed in secret from boy to boy. It shows the price paid by the victims, by those who collude with the perpetuators of the system and those who stand by and do nothing. It isn't a polemic but it is unflinching in showing the dynamics of corruption.

 

There is a part, early in the book, where the best looking, most privileged senior boy is brought to the reader's attention by the omniscient narrator.

 

The narration is chilling. What it describes lies at the heart of corruption. It's the infection that rots a society. Yet it's described in the accurate, unemotional, judgement-free tone a vivisectionist might use when dictating their observations on how the heart of the animal they have just sliced open still beats.

 

So the handsome and privileged boy is described as being aware of his privilege, of being grateful for it and of being greedy for more.

 

Grateful and greedy. That's a disturbing combination in the privileged. I think I'd prefer entitled and self-satisfied.

 

The boy revealed in this way will do anything and get others to do anything necessary to protect and expand his privilege.

 

The narrator then explains the group the boy leads. Through their dishonest response to an unfortunate circumstance that affected them all, these boys, who already valued conformity and loyalty, have learned that, while following rules may breed unity, breaking the rules together ensures it.

 

So they have institutionalised rule-breaking, built it into a hazing that ensures loyalty and fundamentally corrupts all who carry out the task required to earn acceptance into the group.

 

It seems to me that this captures the values and behaviours of the US Senators who have kept Trump in power while enriching themselves. Grateful and greedy for privilege and willing to sacrifice their own integrity/morality if it buys them membership of the Big Boys Club.

 

The story hangs from the death of two people, decades apart: the wife of the school's first headmaster and a present-day pupil. Both are deemed to have committed suicide. Both haunt the school, either literally or in the memories of the people who knew them but did not save them, depending on how you read the text.

 

Yet the story is not a whodunnit. The deaths aren't these to be solved or avenged. Their function seems to be to present the main characters in the book with choices about how they will react to deaths. What will they take responsibility for? What will they sacrifice? What will they bury and try to live with?

 

The core characters are a scholarship girl who knows the boy who dies; a teacher at the school whose photographs show her things that shouldn't be there and who is questioning the path she's chosen of a safe marriage and a quiet life; a third-generation policeman who lost someone he loved early in life, went wild for a while, is tolerated on the Force for the sake of father's and grandfather's memory and who cannot find it in himself to let go of things that feel wrong to him, and an older teacher approaching the end of her life, who lives with her regrets for the things she did not do.

 

The narrator displays these people to us candidly, sharing their thoughts, their doubts and their hopes. Yet the narrator is not the advocate of the characters. The narrator isn't trying to win the reader over to the side of a character of a set of characters. The narrator's sub-text seems to me to be: the world is as it is and it often isn't very nice. You may not be able to make a difference but the choices you make will change you even if they do not change the world.

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