Kitchens of the Great Midwest

shopping    Reading J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest had the same unexpected effect as Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough – both inspired me to get into the kitchen to make something from scratch.  This slim paperback has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a few years, but its surprising mix of melancholy, humor, and satire surrounding the life of a food prodigy is still fresh.

Eva Thorvald grew hot peppers in her closet as a child, and grew up to be a world famous chef.  Her journey was not easy, first abandoned by her mother when she was only a few months old, followed by the sudden death of her father, a chef who started his cooking journey making Scandinavian lutefish.  She’s raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child in a poor but loving home.

The first chapters chronicle Eva’s life from toddler to pre-teen to young adult, as she matures into an independent and creative person who seems focused on a life with food.   Her hot pepper revenge on middle school bullies is fun to watch and her reinvention of the caesar salad will make your mouth water.  She has a knack for combining an amazing taste for  the unusual with expert marketing skills, quietly learning from the best chefs as she grows into her own style.

Although she is the heroine of the story, Eva disappears in the second half of the book, as stories of those who know her and know of her take over the narrative.  The names are not always familiar and it takes attention to realize how their lives are connected to Eva. When she resurfaces in short appearances, the story is better for it, and when, finally, in the last chapter Stradal forces an unexpected reunion with Eva’s mother, the outcome is not as expected but realistic, and still satisfying in its possibilities.

Throughout the book, Stradel inserts a satiric note on foodies with their idiosyncracies and gullible palates. Stradel makes the point of how paying more for labels does not necessarily result in better taste, but freshness always counts.  Eva outmatches a fellow chef by driving to the fields to pick the kernels off the stalks the morning of the dinner for her own version of a succotash dish.  Later in the book, she grows her own.

With Eva’s career culminating in serving five thousand dollar a plate dinners to eager patrons who have patiently survived an incredibly long waiting list for years, Stradel takes a poke at elite restaurants with exorbitant prices.  Not surprisingly, the last dinner served in the book has all the flavors of home cooking, but masked with descriptions warranting the high price.  The dessert includes a simple five ingredient bar – here’s the recipe – you might have made a version yourself.

Strudel’s story reminded me of those first amazing bites of an old world recipe from my grandmother when I was a girl as well as the seven course meal from an award winning chef at a restaurant with a long waiting list – both were worthy of respect and both captured the essence of what food is supposed to be.  But Eva’s coming of age and her fabulous cooking also inspired me to try something old with a new twist – maybe some chocolate grated into mac and cheese?

Adult Books That Appeal to Younger Readers – Alex Awards

UnknownThe American Library Association annually awards the “Alex” to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.    The books are not necessarily easy reading, and often include coming of age themes, dysfunctional families, and sometimes aliens.  Among this year’s winners is Brewster by Mark Slouka.

Winners for 2013 included some of my favorites. Recommend them to your favorite teen or read them yourself, if you haven’t already. You can find my reviews by typing in the title to the “Search” on this website.

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Among this year’s winners, two have gone on my reading list:

  • Relish by Lucy Knisley – a graphic novel telling the author’s life around food, complete with family recipes.
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – a boy’s adventure after he is hit on the head by a meteorite.
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Talk Amongst Yourselves

chat_icon_clip_art_7491 When asked to recommend books for discussion in a small group of “intelligent and fun ladies,” I scrolled through my reviews to find fare for a local book club.

I found:

  1. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  2. Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
  3. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed
  4. Kent Haruf’s Benediction
  5. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life
  6. Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot
  7. Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early
  8. B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger
  9. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
  10. Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
  11. Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Some I will probably reread whether or not anyone wants to discuss them.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

How could any reader resist this book title – the idea of a 24 hour bookstore is better than eating at an all-night diner.  With a mix of fantasy and today’s world of digital magic, Robin Sloan creates an adventure of rivals – electronic books vs bound pages –  in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Out of work computer geek, Clay Jannon,  finds a new job on the night shift of a strange indie bookstore in San Francisco.  Few customers want the books on display by Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, and Dashiell Hammet; the attraction for his night visitors is the collection high on the dusty shelves in the back.  Curious to understand the lure of these old books, Jannon digitally scans the log book and cracks a code that uncovers a secret society of readers.  With the help of a new girlfriend who works for Google,  Jannon follows the book store manager, Ajax Penumbra, to the headquarters of the Unbroken Spine group on Fifth Avenue in New York City – and starts the adventurous quest for a secret 15th century message that may be the key to immortality.

Although the ingredients of long black robes, secret staircases behind a bookcase, coded messages hidden in books,  have the flavor of a mysterious fantasy, Sloan cleverly inserts the modern adult world and ancient artefacts into the dilemma.  Google plays a key role, along with experts in simulation, video technology and professional hacking.  You will be googling “The Dragon-Song Chronicles” and  Gerritszoon font to see if they are real.  A suspenseful moment has all the modern technology available working together to crack the code.  Google does not yet have the answer to eternal life, but Jannon finds the solution reveals itself unexpectedly…

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”

Depends on how you define immortality…Sloan’s solution happily creates a balance of the new and the old that will please readers who like the smell of new book pages as well as the convenience of the Kindle.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fun light read – all those familiar landmarks in San Francisco and New York City could lead you to believe that the adventure is real (I plan to look for the building across from Central Park), and the search for the puzzle pieces will keep you reading.