Review of “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal

From the first chapter – the first few pages, even, you know this book is something special.

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The story follows the life of Eva Thorvald, from her time as a much-loved infant to her status as a legendary chef.

Eva’s father Lars grew up having to making lutefisk, a traditional Norwegian fish dish, for the Minnesota Norwegians where he grew up. (Lutefisk, as Lars explained, “when perfectly prepared, looked like jellied smog and smelled like boiled aquarium water.”) Lar’s father had Lars and his brother Jarl prepare the fish because they hated it so much, and therefore wouldn’t eat it. As soon as Lars could, he left his home in Duluth for Minneapolis, where he trained to become a chef. He married a waitress at his restaurant, and he and Cynthia soon had a baby girl, Eva, born in 1989.

The way in which Lars adored Eva knew no bounds, and he endeavored to train her to have a palate as sensitive as his own, and indeed, he was successful. (The first chapter is particularly hilarious as Lars plans what he will feed his infant, and describes the droll reaction of the obstetrician.)

As we follow Eva through her childhood, we learn how food and cooking defined her life, and how invitations to her “pop-up supper club” became the hottest ticket in the U.S. Waiting lists were years long, and guests paid thousands of dollars for the privilege.

At the story’s end, many of the characters we met in the beginning reappear in a conclusion that brings this full-course meal of a story to a delightful conclusion.

Discussion: There are some deeply tragic parts to this story, but Stradal never lets you get submarined by them; he ushers you through the rooms of the plot and keeps you moving past them, just as you would have to do in real life. Bad stuff happens and you adjust. In this book, too, you metaphorically keep moving through the chapters, named for the type of food that plays a central role in each. (Chapter One, for example, is named Lutefisk.)

Rating: 4/5

Note: Recipes are included in the book (such as for peanut butter chocolate chip bars), that would make a fine accompaniment to a book club discussion.

Published by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Viking Penguin, 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 “The Precipice” by Paul Doiron

This is the sixth book in Doiron’s crime series featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. (In Maine, game wardens are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers: “They are the ‘off-road police.’”)

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Mike, 28, has been a game warden for four years, and has been dating Stacy Stevens, the daughter of his old friend and mentor Charley, for four months as this book begins. While on small vacation with Stacy, Mike gets word he needs to head up to the the Hundred Mile Wilderness to help search for two missing women. Stacy, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, decides to join in the search party that also includes the Warden Service, the state police, and the FBI.

No one believes the women will be found alive; the question is, if and when they do find them, what happened to them?

Discussion: Doiron is the former editor of Down East Magazine, a Registered Maine Guide, and someone who clearly loves the Maine wilderness. Much of the narrative is interspersed with descriptions of its beauty, and informative background information. For example, at one point, they come across a sugar maple that had been hit by lightning:

“When lightning strikes a tree, the electricity travels through the sap, and the superheated liquid explodes the living plant from within.”

Who knew?

We learn about Thoreau’s expeditions in Maine as well – who knew he left Walden Pond?

And always, there are passages of pure appreciation for the beauty of Maine:

“The sun hadn’t yet cleared the hills in the east, but the sky above the lake was streaked wth pink and gold, and there wasn’t a breath of wind to stir the leaves of the maples. The lake, visible between the sleeping houses, was as flat and blue as stained glass.”

I’m sorry to say I didn’t even know about Gulf Hagas, a stunning gorge located in the mountains of central Maine and known as “the Grand Canyon of the East.”

A view of Gulf Hagas from river level

A view of Gulf Hagas from river level

But as beautiful as the scenery is, there is a lot of ugliness in the wilderness too. As Stacy points out, “People want to believe in big bad wolves. But only humans can be truly evil.”

Mike, Stacey, and their colleagues encounter plenty of evil in their quest to find out the fate of the girls. As Stacey’s dad Charley said of one suspect, “That man is the most unusual specimen of God’s carelessness I ever came across.”

Evaluation: As with Doiron’s previous books, there is so much more than just a crime story in his writing. There is excellent background information on Maine and on what it means to work as a warden there, and a lot of philosophical contemplation. It is not necessary to have read the previous books, but as with any series, the story is more meaningful if you start it from the beginning.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2015

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Review of “Doodle Lit” by Jennifer Adams

There are so many adult books now for coloring and doodling, that the choices for leitmotifs have exploded. These books are said to help transform your mind and spirit by aiding relaxation and helping to relieve stress. Coloring is touted as a form of meditation. So what theme to choose?

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Doodle Lit offers a twist on the usual coloring book by offering outlines and suggestions for what pictures to make. As the author contends:

“There is magic in doodling. when you draw or doodle without planning and thinking you let your creativity reveal itself without your brain getting in the way, so whatever you make has a story to tell you.”

But this book, a collaborative effort by the team that produces books for “BabyLit” (author Jennifer Adams along with illustrator Alison Oliver), does even more. Most double page spreads have a picture or information on one side, and space for your own doodles on the other. It provides samples of doodles by famous writers accompanied by their quotes about doodling; little historical footnotes about doodle shapes (like coats of arms or weather vanes); and spurs to creative thinking, such as: if you owned a shoe store, what would you sell? If you had a diary, what would you doodle as some of the things you saw or did? What would your garden grow?

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Evaluation: This book has lots of fun information in addition to equipping you with templates and inspiration for fun and relaxation. For example, you can see the bizarre doodles of Lewis Carroll, a map of Huckleberry Finn’s journeys, and find out about the backgrounds of such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, Emily Bronte, Mark Twain, and Bram Stoker. You will be encouraged to doodle shapes as diverse as gargoyles, vampires, ball gowns, and Easter eggs.

This would make a fun gift for yourself or others! Be sure to include a package of markers!

Published by Gibbs Smith, 2014

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Kid Lit Review of “Goodbye Stranger” by Rebecca Stead

This story of seventh grade best friends alternates among several narrators, one of whom is unnamed, all struggling with situations at home; the pressures of peers; dissonance from growing up at different rates; and the need to figure out the boundaries of trust and loyalty and love.

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Bridget (“Bridge”) Barsamian is the main narrator; her best friends are Tab (Tabitha), Em (Emily), and later Sherm Russo. Bridge was in a traumatic accident when she was eight, about which she still has nightmares. At the time, the doctor told her it was a miracle she was still alive, and a nurse said to her:

“Thirteen broken bones and a punctured lung. You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.”

Bridge has pondered what this purpose might be ever since. She hasn’t really talked about it to her family though, not even to Jamie, her older brother, who is in many ways the most entertaining and interesting character of the book even though he is a “supporting actor.”

As the school year begins, Bridge brings into their threesome a fourth friend, Sherm Russo. Sherm is dealing with the unexpected divorce, after fifty years, of his grandparents, and is having difficulty forgiving his grandfather.

Tab’s older sister Celeste also plays a role in the story, acting as sort of a mentor to the girls, helping them navigate the shoals of middle school.

Emily started seventh grade with a “body.” She was now the object of attention of boys, and it threatens to come between her and the others. One boy in particular, Patrick, whom Emily met in the “Banana Splits Club” for kids with divorced parents, has been encouraging Emily to exchange phone photos of increasingly revealing body parts. The other girls are upset, but can’t seem to convince Emily this is not a harmless activity.

Meanwhile, Tab and Em keep asking Bridge if she “loves” Sherm, but Bridge isn’t sure what love is. She sees indications of it all around her though. Her mom told her that love was a kind of music, and that one day, you could just suddenly hear it. Bridge also thinks about love when she watches Tab’s parents, who celebrate Karva Chauth, during which Hindu women fast all day until they see the moon to show their devotion to their husbands. Tab rejects such ideas as antifeminist, having been influenced by her English teacher Mrs. Berman, who has her students call her Mrs. Berperson. But when Tab’s parents take Bridge and Tab along to find the moon, and Bridge observes how they treat one another, she thinks that must be love, too.

Finally, after some traumatic developments shake up the school, Bridge has an epiphany; she knows why she was put on earth, simultaneously realizing what love is.

Evaluation: Newbery Medal winner Stead combines sensitivity with compassion for her characters to weave into the story a number of issues that face today’s kids in school. She also shows how decisions have consequences, and how important it is to try to face those consequences and deal with them in the most “adult” way possible. While the issues raised are serious, they are kept on a “middle grade” level without diminishing the importance of what is happening with the kids. I think this would be a very valuable story for middle graders and could generate some excellent discussions.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House, 2015

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Review of “When To Rob A Bank . . . And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Levitt and Dubner became famous ten years ago when they published Freakonomics, a book with many thought-provoking and counter-intuitive insights on human behavior and society. Most of those insights were stimulated by careful economic analysis. Among their more startling conclusions was that the pronounced drop in crime statistics that occurred in the early 1990’s coincided with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortion throughout the country. They reasoned that the decision greatly reduced the incidence of the birth of unwanted children, who are more likely to grow into adults who commit crimes.

The authors followed up with a sequel entitled Think like a Freak, a somewhat less successful effort to apply similar analysis to a new range of phenomena. They also began to publish a blog. This book is a compilation of their favorite blog posts. Because each entry is short and not likely to be related to the next one, the book is ideal for reading in spare moments. It can be sampled or read consecutively.

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The articles cover such subjects as an argument for the abolition of the penny, and why it would probably do Pepsi little or no economic good to know the formula for Coke. They discuss why so many Americans over-estimate the probability of a terrorist attack, and make several interesting suggestions to reduce gun violence in America (not including making guns illegal — that, after all, seems to be impossible). They explore what might help you win at poker, why there are so many fake memoirs in the world, and if growing your own food is really better for you and/or for the planet. They point out that companies singled out in business literature as exceptional are often not very successful five to ten years later. And yes, the best time to rob a bank is . . .never – the return on investment related to risk is terrible.

Evaluation: This book is full of very short, entertaining essays (some just two pages long) about everyday phenomena that become less mysterious when subjected to simple economic reasoning. At the very least, you will come away from this book with some fascinating conversation starters.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

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Review of “I Am The Traitor” by Allen Zadoff

This is Book Three of the series that began with I Am the Weapon and continued with I Am the Mission. If you have been following the series, you can figure out what this book will be about from the title. But you can’t guess how it play out, because it can’t be very easy for an individual either to defy or evade The Program, a shady black-ops type organization to which Zach, 16, is pledged.

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In the previous books, Zach actually made a friend (something he is not allowed to do) of a computer whiz, Howard, who Zach enlisted to help him find out what really happened to his father. As Book Three begins, Howard has been taken captive by The Program; they not only want to learn just what Howard knows, but they also figure they can draw back the renegade Zach who presumably will want to rescue his friend. Of course Zach finds where Howard is, and is surprised to discover that another teen, Tanya, is also in captivity with Howard. Zach decides to rescue them both.

But battling The Program is obviously not going to be easy. After some hair-raising encounters, Zach finally gets some answers, only they are not the ones for which he was hoping.

Discussion: The author does a good job in this book both in making scenarios more believable, and in figuring out how to resolve the seemingly unbeatable odds of an entire lethal organization of assassins up against one boy without coming off as absurd. My only quibble is with the romance: there didn’t seem to be any justification for it or even any lead-up to it. Suddenly it was just there. But otherwise, this book shows more writing skill, in my opinion, than the previous books.

Presumably this series was a trilogy and this story ended it, but it could easily be extended.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, 2015

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Review of “Sisters of Shiloh” by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall

This book was written by two sisters, one of whom is best-selling author, and the other of whom is a historian. They combine to tell a story about two sisters who disguise themselves as men and fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

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Josephine had always been protective of her younger sister Libby, and was resentful when Arden Tanner moved near their Winchester, Virginia home and took over Libby’s affections. Eventually, Arden and Libby married, but then the Civil War came, and Arden was killed at Antietam. Libby was disconsolate; wracked by visions of Arden’s ghost wanting revenge, she decided to disguise herself as a male and join the army. Her plan was to kill twenty-one Yankees – one for each year of Arden’s lost life. This scheme re-animated Libby and gave her a raison d’être.

When Libby told her plans to Josephine, Josephine said she was going with her. Libby asked, “You’re going to help me kill twenty-one Yankees?” And Josephine replied, “No. I’m going to keep twenty-one Yankees from killing you.”

And so the sisters transformed themselves into Thomas (Libby) and Joseph (Josephine) from Shiloh, and the Confederate Army, desperate for soldiers of any kind, took the two newcomers without much question.

The writing team create an engrossing account of what it was like for two women to live and fight as men. The plot is further complicated by Josephine falling in love with Wesley Abeline, one of their fellow soldiers. But of course she cannot let Wesley know she is a woman. For her part, Libby seems to slip further into madness, as she has repeated “encounters” with the ghost of Arden.

As the war becomes ever more brutal, disease and death constantly dog the soldiers, even as each girl’s mental struggles become more difficult to conceal.

Discussion: The historical part of this book was well done. The character development received less attention, but the dysfunctional relationship among Libby, Josephine, and Arden was interesting even if not all that well explained: Libby was fully under the sway of Arden, and ready to sacrifice her life for his needs, while Josephine was the same vis-a-vis Libby. The dynamics among the soldiers in camp was also well depicted, and it was fun to read about how Libby and Josephine thought they should act to seem more like men.

There were a couple of aspects of Libby’s character that seemed discordant to me: on the one hand she was almost blindly driven by hatred for the Yankees; for the desire for revenge; and to amass killings for Arden, but on the other, she was loathe to actually kill anyone. She was also curiously cold toward the sister who kept sacrificing everything for her.

Finally, I didn’t find the ending totally satisfactory; there were a couple of aspects to the relationships in the story, including between the sisters, that were not as well resolved as I might have wished.

Evaluation: For the most part, this is a believable and haunting story, and worth reading to get an intimate sense of the daily privations of war not often conveyed.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

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