Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl: Billie Breslin is a young woman with an amazing sense of taste - she can identify even the most subtle ingredients in a bite of food. She leaves her home in California and arrives in NY to work at the preeminent foodie magazine, Delicious!. Her colleagues quickly learn about her special skill and it earns her their respect and some acceptance into her new world. Billie needs acceptance - she has lived in her older, prettier sister's shadow and considers herself awkward. When Delicious! is suddenly and abruptly shut down, Billie is thrown into uncertainty.  While figuring out her next steps, she discovers a series of letters sent by a young girl, Lulu, to James Beard while he was at Delicious! during WWII. Although only a young girl, Lulu has a lot of lessons for Billie and reading her letters becomes a way for Billie to face some things in her own life which she was tried to avoid.

Lulu lived in Ohio during WWII while her father was fighting overseas and her mother was working at a factory that made planes for the war effort. Although living with constant uncertainty about her father's safety and worries about getting by on the rationed food that was available, Lulu has a sunny outlook which comes right through the letters. With a passion for cooking and baking, she writes Mr. Beard for advice on recipes and ultimately their correspondence develops into one in which Lulu provides updates on her life and even reveals some of her anxieties about the fate of her father and her mother's ability to cope with it all. Billie looked forward to finding each letter (they had been hidden with cryptic clues by a librarian that had worked at Delicious!) and seeing what was happening with Lulu.  As Lulu matured and transformed, so did Billie.

My Thoughts
 This book offers a rich exploration of food, New York City, life during WWII and tops it off with the coming of age story of Billie Breslin.  Like a well-made dish, it has multiple layers and surprises you as you savor it. I was torn between whether I enjoyed the storyline with Billie in current day or the storyline with Lulu set in the 1940's more - both characters have something to hide which is ultimately revealed through the story and that kept me reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will be on my Top 10 for 2014 for sure! I have not read the author's memoirs but I am certainly a fan of her fiction debut.

For other thoughts on the book, you can visit the blogs on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma: Ari Kong is an eighteen year old girl who was adopted from China by her Chinese-American mother, Charlie, when she was an infant. Raised in the San Francisco suburbs, Ari has always suffered from a sense of displacement even though her own adoptive mother is Chinese and she doesn't look as out of place in her own family as some of her fellow adoptees who were adopted by white families. This sense of displacement drives her back to China and the orphanage from which she was adopted where she begins a self-destructive spiral. Meanwhile, her mother, Charlie, worries about her daughter and wonders where the bubbly infant she brought home from China is - their relationship is now fraught with tension and resentment. In addition to concern over her daughter, Charlie is also coping with her own mother, Gran, who came to the US from China as the privileged daughter of a doctor and was educated at Bryn Mawr. Gran is disappointed by her daughter Charlie's choice to adopt from China, especially without a husband, and doesn't hold her tongue. Three generations of Kong women in crisis and unable to understand each other.

Ari Kong is in some ways a typical teenager  - she resists her mother's involvement in her life and shows her little respect. Her issues, however, are deeper and relate to her conflicted emotions about her adoption. She is desperate to know where she really came from and the story behind how she was left on the steps of a department store. The pain of knowing she was left and potentially not loved cannot be assuaged even by the knowledge that she was wanted by her adoptive mother who traveled to China to get her and poured herself into helping her daughter assimilate and ensuring she honored her Chinese heritage.

Gran is a prickly character who prides herself on her education and privileged background and how she elevated herself above other Chinese immigrants. Her goal for her own daughters was total assimilation - she gave them American names and did not celebrate Chinese holidays. She is inexplicably disappointed to learn her own daughter is going to China to adopt a girl - a baby with no history and who may come from poor and uneducated parents. She has been hardened by her own immigrant experience and can show no compassion or support to her daughter or granddaughter. She even rebuffs her daughter for crying when she met Ari and wishes her daughter could display her own stoic reserve

Charlie is the character caught in between - she is trapped between her mother and her daughter and receives understanding from neither. She seems to be sleepwalking through life - working long hours at her job as a public defender and coming home to the strife of a teenager in crisis. Her older sister, Les, also pushes Charlie around and tries to tell her what to do. Despite adopting a child, Charlie seems to have nothing that is hers - no intimate relationship with a man, no satisfaction or respect at work, and no support from her own family - most especially her daughter Ari.

My Thoughts
This book is told from alternating views - each chapter is told from one of the Kong women's point of view. As usual with this device, it is interesting to see how each looks at the same event since their perspectives are so different and they react to things so differently. The author expertly explores issues with international adoption and the process of assimilation. It is interesting to see how the effects of immigration reverberate through the generations of Kong women and demonstrates how much we are shaped by events even when we are not conscious of the impact and how it drives our behaviors.

Throughout the book, my sympathy went to Charlie - she is epitome of the "sandwich" generation and seems to have nothing satisfying her in her own life. She lives for to others - at work and at home - and seems lost. I did want to see some strength from Charlie and got frustrated at times with her passivity and her lack of fight. The book offers a fascinating exploration of family dynamics and how we never truly escape them.

You can read other's perspectives on the book at the TLC Tour Stops

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: On the Rocks by Erin Duffy

On the Rocks by Erin Duffy: Abby is engaged to her college boyfriend and trying on dresses at Vera Wang in Boston's Back Bay when she learns, via a Facebook update no less, that her fiance Ben has announced that their relationship is over. Abby is reeling and slides into a depression during which she isolates herself and develops an unhealthy relationship with Ben and Jerry's. Her close friend Grace, who has her own problems in the relationship department with her boyfriend who is married and also her boss, wants to pull her friend out of the depths of despair and suggests they join a summer share in Newport. Reluctant but hopeless, Abby agrees and, with the help of the Newport sun and shore, begins to pull herself out of the hole. Will she be able to bounce back completely or will modern dating and social media continue to haunt her?

Abby and Grace are joined in Newport by their neighbors Bobby, an unemployed attorney and Wolf, a German recently arrived in the US whose forays into understanding American idioms provides welcome comic relief. Bobby takes on almost an older brother role for Abby - he tells it like it is and generally frustrates her but also looks out for her and senses she was badly hurt and needs a little help. He is determined to push Abby back into the world of dating with all its pitfalls and tries to educate her on how guys operate especially in a dating world filled with tweets, texts and Facebook status updates. Humiliated by her fiance via Facebook, Abby is understandably reluctant to engage in dating and resents how much social media has infiltrated modern dating - she yearns for a more old-fashioned courtship.

My Thoughts
This book was the perfect antidote to the winter blues (which have been particularly long this year!) - even the cover is beachy and summons memories of my own summer beach house shares. Abby is a likable character and it was heartening to watch her find her footing and get her confidence back as the book progresses. The story was told with funny, witty dialogue and you felt as if you were sitting on the couch  in Newport with Abby, Grace, Wolf and Bobby knocking back margaritas and snacking on chips.  I highly recommend this book for your beach bag this summer!

For other perspectives, check out the TLC Book Tour Stops