Review of “Stir” by Jessica Fechtor

This heartwarming memoir by Jessica Fechtor describes her unexpected brain aneurysm at the age of twenty-eight, and how she redefined her life afterward with the help of her husband Eli, her family, her friends, and her love of cooking.

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I didn’t expect to be as taken with this story as I was, but Fechtor not only has a delightful sense of humor, but seems like a warm, genuine person you wish you knew.

Her story keeps coming back to food, and she shares twenty-seven recipes that were part of her healing. She writes that kneading, salting, sifting, and stirring have both curative and protective powers, “because you can’t be dead and do these things.” Cooking made her feel alive again.

Food has other powers too, she explains: “Food is more than what we put into our bodies when we are wherever we are. It’s the feel of a place, something language can’t get at, the memory of a place as it forms.” And later she adds, “Food is the keeper of our memories, connecting us with our pasts and with our people.”

She believes that home is a verb, that you set it in motion, and part of how you do this is by sharing meals with friends. I have already made two of her recipes – the buttermilk biscuits and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies – and the only hard part was the “sharing” because they were so good!

From the author's blog because my baking is far from photogenic

From the author’s blog because my baking is far from photogenic

If you just want to see the recipes, you could find them on her blog, Sweet Amandine, along with many other recipes. The fact is, however, her story is just as wonderful.

Evaluation: This is a lovely inspirational story, with great recipes included. (She is very into butter.) You will be very glad you made Jessica’s “acquaintance” from reading this book, and you will be rooting for her all the way. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Missing, Presumed” by Susie Steiner

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This is a British police procedural that, like many such books that come out of Britain, are more about the investigators than the crime itself. Manon Bradshaw, 39, is a detective sergeant with the Major Incident Team in the Cambridgeshire Police. She is single and looking for love in all the wrong places, i.e., on anonymous internet dating services. But this activity does provide the comic relief for the more serious aspects of the story, which concern a missing 24-year-old young woman, Edith Hind. Edith is the daughter of very well-connected parents, which makes the job of the police more stressful than usual.

The pace is slow (but thus seems more true-to-life); this is by no means a “thriller.” Alternate perspectives play out in the chapters although Manon’s is the main voice. The twists in the ending were not an entire surprise, but in these books, the process is what matters. In that respect, the author did well in maintaining my interest with a good balance of mixing very realistic characters with common elements of both the humor and pathos of work and dating relationships.

Evaluation: While I wouldn’t race out to the store to buy a second in the series, I would welcome it if there were another, and would consider reading it.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published in the U.S. by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “The Velvet Hours” by Alyson Richman

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The author reports that she based her book on a true story: in 2010, a fully-furnished apartment in Paris was opened after having been shuttered for over seventy years. It was full of exquisite art and artifacts from the Belle Époque, the most magnificent of which was a large portrait of the apartment’s original owner, Marthe de Florian. The beautiful likeness, ascertained to have been painted by Giovanni Boldini, was thereafter auctioned off for a final price of over 2 million Euros.

The beautiful portrait of Marthe de Florian by Boldini discovered in 2010

The beautiful portrait of Marthe de Florian by Boldini discovered in 2010

Richman writes that she was fascinated by the story, and by the fact that Marthe’s granddaughter Solange, who inherited the apartment, not only locked it up and fled Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940, but never returned. Nonetheless, she paid for the rent and expenses until her death in June 2010 at the age of 91. Only a few facts are known about the women, and nothing about why Solange never returned to the apartment but kept it closed and paid for all those years. From her imagination of what might have occurred, Richman wrote The Velvet Hours.

The real Madame Marthe de Florian was born in 1864 as a poor girl named Mathilde Héloïse Beaugiron who changed her identity when she became a courtesan. Richman focuses on Marthe’s reinvention of herself- a theme that recurs for other characters as well – and at what life may have been like for a successful courtesan. She also employs some other themes: offspring who only meet their families late in life, single fathers raising their children, and enduring love that transcends time.

As part of Richman’s fictional conjecture, she creates a relationship between Marthe and her granddaughter Solange in which Marthe tells Solange the story of her life on successive visits. In a parallel plot, Solange discovers she is half-Jewish, and meets an attractive dealer in rare Jewish books. Solange’s grandfather also sold rare books and manuscripts, but he disowned his daughter, Solange’s mother, when she married a Catholic. Solange has gone to the Jewish bookseller to see if she can get more information on a book of her mother’s; it turns out to be a priceless Barcelona Haggadah (a Jewish holiday prayer text), which will later help to save her life just as a rare and priceless possession of Marthe’s saved her’s.

And in fact, a number of the artifacts featured in this story are as much characters in a way as the people, from Marthe’s pearl neckless to the Haggadah, to the rare Oriental vases and *Shunga* – painted erotic hand scrolls, dating from the 13th Century. And of course, the main artifact “character” of the book is the painting by Boldini, central in Marthe’s apartment and central to the story *within* the story.

From "Shunga
: sex and pleasure in Japanese art" - a 2013 British Museum Exhibit

From “Shunga
: sex and pleasure in Japanese art” – a 2013 British Museum Exhibit

Discussion: Far too much verbiage was expended, in my opinion, on Marthe’s appreciation of her own body, and the appreciation of her body by others. Her self-absorption made her seem weak, vain and shallow rather than sympathetic, and it grew tiring.

The romance between Solange and Alex felt manipulated for plot advancement, and was not convincing. It did, however, allow the story to become more interesting because of the peril posed to Alex and his family by the Nazi invasion.

In any event, I love Richman’s writing, and I love the secret story she discovered and developed. It is not my favorite of her books, but it was intriguing and inspired me to look up further information on the protagonists.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “Leave Me” by Gayle Forman

I feared picking up this book, because ever since reading Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went (both of which I loved), I have been disenchanted with her books. This one, though, thankfully did not disappoint me.

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In Leave Me, a 44-year-old woman, Maribeth Klein, with a demanding job and family life, has a heart attack followed by by-pass surgery. Prior to this event, she had been “overtaxed and overtired,” and the people in her life just kept making more and more demands on her. Musing about all she had to do stressed her out even more:

“…someone had to get the kids to their ballet classes, their soccer clinics, their speech therapy sessions, their playdates, their birthday parties. To take them shopping for their Halloween costumes, to the pediatrician for their flu shots, to the dentist for their cleanings. Someone had to plan the meals, buy the food, pay the bills, balance the checkbooks. Someone had to get it all done, while still getting all the work-work done.”

Maribeth’s husband Jason, head archivist for a music library, always claims to be too busy to help, and he is not all that responsible. In a way, he doesn’t have to be; he knows Maribeth will take care of what needs to be done. So unless Maribeth does it, the house is never clean, the laundry is never done, and the food is never shopped for or made.

Even after her heart attack and surgery, everyone expected Maribeth to go back to taking care of everyone and everything. No one seems to understand that she needs time to heal, and she is increasingly disaffected with her life; Maribeth worries she will never have the chance to recover. The idea of running away and never coming back started to become very appealing to her, in spite of her attachment to her job working for her sort-of-former BFF Elizabeth, to her husband Jason, and especially to her four-year-old twins, Liv and Oscar.

Feeling increasingly desperate, Maribeth concluded the only way for her to heal was in fact to leave, at least for a while. She pulled her savings out of the bank and headed from New York to the Pittsburgh area, where she was born. She took on a new identity, got an apartment, found a new doctor, and made new friends. She even decided to look for her birth mother (she was adopted), because her cardiologist thought she might have a hereditary heart condition, and Maribeth wanted to know.

Her new young friends, Todd and Sunita, are delightful, as is her new cardiologist, Stephen Grant, who has a mysterious background too, and they all become close. Maribeth feels torn. Will she keep her new life, or return to her old?

Discussion: I was so happy to read another very good book by Forman. The side characters are well-drawn, and all the pop-culture references by Todd and Sunita were fun and not overdone. (I especially got a kick out of the very amusing reference to The Hunger Games.)

The ending put me through an emotional wringer, and I cried of course.

Evaluation: This novel is a bit of a fantasy, in a sense, giving voice to secret thoughts many women have, and with an ending not completely tied up, leaving room for a sequel, one hopes.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Emma: An Emotions Primer” and “Treasure Island: A Shapes Primer” by Jennifer Adams

So often, reading books to babies can be, well, pretty boring. The “BabyLit” series, on the other hand, offers something to the adults who are doing the reading, to help keep them entertained as well.

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Emma, a story purportedly by “Little Miss Austen” is an emotions primer. In bright primary colors and simple words, we learn, for example, that Emma is excited, Miss Taylor is happy, Mr. Woodhouse is bored, Jane Fairfax is tired, and so on. Babies have no need to know who these characters are; they can identify the emotion with the picture and the color representing it (for example, the angry character is depicted in red, and the sad character in blue).

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Treasure Island, seemingly by “Little Master Louis Stevenson,” similarly introduces babies to shapes.

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In this primer, babies will need to locate the shape in the accompanying picture. For instance, one side of the spread shows a diamond, and on the other, the diamond is inside a parrot. The cross shown on one side is inside a map on the other. The heart is hidden in two places on the picture of Jim Hawkins (the main narrator of Treasure Island).

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The artwork by Alison Oliver is bright and colorful, and the pictures are simply but clearly drawn.

Evaluation: The BabyLit series makes reading to babies much more fun than it might otherwise be!

Published by Gibbs Smith, 2015

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