Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister

I can't tell you how excited I was to hear that there would be a sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients.  Bauermeister's debut was a favorite of mine a few years ago when it came out.  I gobbled most of it up one morning during a snowstorm when I couldn't even be bothered to pause long enough to move to a comfier seat than my wooden chair at the kitchen table.  I also very much enjoyed Bauermeister's sophomore effort, Joy for Beginners, which made the train ride home from BEA a total pleasure.  That was great, but it was very refreshing to revisit Lillian's food-filled world in The Lost Art of Mixing.

The Lost Art of Mixing returns us to Lillian's kitchen, but things aren't going so terribly well.  In the opening pages, Lillian discovers some news that will turn her life upside down.  Lillian's accountant Al and his wife Louise are discovering maybe theirs is not quite a match made in heaven.  Lillian's former student, current sous chef, Chloe thinks she might've found someone to love in the guise of the restaurant's new dishwasher, tall, silent Finnegan, but there's more to him than meets the eye.  Not to mention, Chloe's aging roommate Isabelle is slowly losing her memories to Alzheimer's disease. 

As Isabelle wisely observes of her friends, "They were like ingredients that had become chemically incapable of mixing with each other, or perhaps had simply forgotten how, when she knew it wasn't the case and didn't need to be."  Isabelle's memory might be slipping, but fortunately, she still has a few tricks up her sleeve that could heal the rifts between the people she loves. 

Unfortunately The Lost Art of Mixing didn't pack quite the same emotional punch for me as did The School of Essential Ingredients.  I loved how, in School, Bauermeister drew Lillian as a wise lady whose instincts for which foods would re-awaken the spirits of her cooking school students.  Not only was it an interesting concept, but it proved to be a great way to unite the several different stories Bauermeister was telling.  In Mixing Bauermeister spends more time on Lillian as a character in her own right, but also explores the lives of various other characters, which is interesting, but the story is not quite so naturally cohesive as when Lillian's cooking school was anchoring it.

That said, Bauermeister's magic is still there.  Like Lillian, Bauermeister has a keen instinct when it comes to people and the experiences that shape their lives, and in her writing, she does a fantastic job of drawing out the pasts that have damaged her characters and the things that each of them need to move forward.  She also has a keen eye for the seemingly small things that can renew the human spirit - how physical labor can serve as a cleanser for the soul, how a listening ear and a cup of tea can be all it takes to set a person on a new path, and how a simple object can hold a wealth of memories.  Readers will fall in love with this set of characters just as easily as the ones that graced the pages of School, and the glow of Bauermeister's beautifully intuitive prose is sure to win her more fans.

(This is the part with the gratuitous, illicit ARC quoting.)

It made Chloe wonder, how much could you hold in your arms if they weren't full of the constantly falling pieces of yourself?

Silence didn't appear to bother Finnegan, the way it did some people, who seemed to think that airtime should be claimed like property.  Jake had been that way, always reaching for the conversation as if it was the last slice of pizza in the box and the next meal was uncertain.

Isabelle was used to surprises these days, to playing hide-and-seek with the world.  She didn't even need to count before words and ideas, faces and memories would scatter off into corners where she couldn't find them.  Sometimes they came back; other times they were simply gone.  Isabelle liked to think that perhaps some of them had found each other, had struck up friendships, and gone out for coffee, or were hidden behind the couch making love.  It was better than thinking they were never coming back.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Loose Leafing: The Books or the Reader?

I'm worried about myself.  You see, it's been months since I've really loved a book.  I feel that I'm firmly in the grip of a reading funk.  Even the books that I hope and expect to love are leaving me with a "meh" feeling, and I'm starting to worry that it's me and not the books at all.  Does this ever happen to you where you worry that no matter the quality of the book you read you won't really like it because something is wrong with you as a reader?

I mean, it's not that I'm not still totally in love with the idea of books.  I came back from this week's library book sale with an impressive selection of plunder.  It's not as much as I usually get (I tried to be very picky!), but it's still far more than I probably should have gotten (but look at the shiny books!).  Plus, ever since I got my sparkly new e-reader, I have been totally in the thrall of cheap e-books.  I've already blown an obscene amount of money on Kindle deals two and three bucks at a time to get books that I'm very excited about. 

My enthusiasm for books, in general, is totally untainted, but I'm kind of nervous that all these fantastic books that I'm super-excited about are going to fall flat with me, too, because I just haven't been able to get truly absorbed in and love any stories lately. 

Surely, there may be plenty of reasons for the reading funk and general malaise and my sucking at both living and blogging. 

Exhibit A:

Recently adopted kitten
This is Eenie, formally of Eenie, Meanie, and Mo of the lately adopted porch colony (see Exhibit A1).  Eenie, arguably the friendliest and most adorable of three kittens, is the one surviving member of her litter.  Poor Mo died of feline parvo virus (FPV), and Meanie was really sick with it, too, so we ended up putting her down.  That left Eenie who didn't seem so sick but was.  I vowed as we drove home from the emergency animal hospital that if Eenie lived (which seemed highly unlikely at the time), she would be my very own housecat.  She was sick, but with some medicine and a lot of time and effort, we saved the story of the little kittens from ending in complete tragedy.  She was quarantined to our bathroom for a month over the holidays, so I ended up spending a lot of time there when I was busy doing holiday-ish stuff, too.  Now she is well and getting big and wreaking unexpected havoc throughout our household.
Exhibit B:

Day Job
We are so busy at my day job these days that by the time I get home I have I hard time doing anything that requires conscious thought and even the television puts me right to sleep.  A side effect of this is that after I spend all day typing away on my work PC, I have next to no desire to turn on my computer at home and even less to write a blog post.  (PS, yes, I'm aware that the pictures are really terrible quality.  Alas, my choice was bad pictures or no pictures, and I made my decision.)
Exhibit C:
(Are you kidding?  There's no picture, only shame.)
The Dump
The House
It's a new year, right? And everybody has their thing they want to do better in the new year.  For me, I desperately wanted to be liberated from a lot of extraneous stuff that I have been too busy or too lazy to clean out for a long time.  Hence, when I'm not working or taking care of one or several members of our chaotic menagerie, I'm deep cleaning something that has been neglected for far, far too long.  I rooted out about two boxes and two trash bags full of stuff from just my bedroom alone, not to mention a pile of outdated electronics that require a bit more effort for disposal.  I've gone through my CD collection, my desk junk drawer, the surface of my desk, and, let me tell you, I've barely scratched the surface of what needs doing and what needs thrown or given away, and I feel like I won't feel good until it's done, now that it's been started.
All these things conspire to make it so I rarely open a book for more than ten minutes at a time, and that's no way to read.  I'm deathly afraid that reading this way is wrecking reading for me, but it's reading this way and or not reading at all, and that proposition is even worse.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Hopefully I'm wrong, and the books that I'm reading would have been "meh" for me even under better circumstances, and I'm just not finding the right book for me right now, and one will come along soon and knock me loose from this funk. 

Until then, well, I've got plenty of cleaning to do.  ;-)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh's debut novel features the three distinctive stories of women who are wooed by and marry the same man. We meet Ken's first wife, Birdie, just as he has abandoned her for a love affair with a student at the college where he is a dean. Birdie herself fell for the Reverend Kimble when she sang in the choir he directed at her bible college, and was pregnant before he married her. When he leaves, all she can think to do is drink, and her children go hungry as she crumbles under the crushing weight of a life lived alone.

Next, Ken marries Joan, a woman who would have been Birdie's polar opposite when she was in her prime, making a living as a journalist, the only woman reporter in her bureau at the Times, unencumbered by society's ideas of a stereotypical female, uninterested in keeping house and having babies, that is, until breast cancer makes an appearance in her life. The cancer spares her life but robs her of more than one breast. When Ken shows up in her life, she's desperate for companionship and to have the children and the life that she never wanted, but as they marry and Ken begins to excel in his real estate career, things don't turn out anything like she was expecting.

 Finally, there is Dinah. Dinah babysat for Ken and Birdie's kids when she was a girl and chances to meet Ken again years later in Washington, DC, where she works as a chef, when he hits her with his car.  Having suffered a broken ankle that keeps her from working and makes living in her dangerous neighborhood even more dangerous, and with the promise of the possibility of surgery to erase an ugly birthmark that has marred not just her face, but her whole life, Dinah feels she has no choice but to accept the help Ken has to offer.  One thing leads to another until Dinah becomes elderly Ken's final bride.

Mr. Kimble is, by all accounts, a selfish jerk, a pervy guy with a taste for younger women who should be forbidden territory. He is that guy that charms a bit at first but soon reveals himself to be a liar, a cheat, and worse. Readers will hate Ken Kimble, and they should, because it's in their eagerness to be seduced by and married to Ken Kimble, that his wives' characters are most revealed.

In the three wives, Haigh has created three memorable characters whose frailties are revealed and badly exploited by the husband they choose.   Each character is both irritating and sympathetic as Haigh draws out their respective pasts and their relationships with Kimble.  A vulnerability is displayed in each of the three characters that every woman should find as relateable as it is frustrating.  If you're anything like me, you'll find the voice in your head crying out at these women not to get involved with this guy, just like it cries out at those boneheads in horror movies who hear that sketchy noise and venture to the basement to investigate while the power is out on a dark stormy night only to be brutally murdered.  The women in Haigh's book aren't about to be murdered, but their respective marriages to Kimble are certainly poisonous. 

Mrs. Kimble has something profound to say about women and perhaps even about feminism.  It makes it altogether apparent that there is a line to be walked between being a woman who chooses to be a housewife who lets her husband stand between her and the world and being the woman who puts aside home and family to chase after a career that may or my not fulfill her.   Haigh seems to be drawing out the possibility that erring too much in either direction can leave a woman dangerously vulnerable.

Mrs. Kimble is an interesting read, but not a quick one.  The stories of Mr. Kimble's three wives bear a lot of contemplation.   I would hardily recommend Mrs. Kimble as a great book group read and wish that I had read it in a book group.  The books is good and stands up on its own, but the possibility it opens up for conversations about women's lives in the past and in the future is much more tantalizing.

 (Random.org picked this one from my own shelf.  Interesting change of pace, no?)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Goals for the New Year

It's a new year, time for new goals.  Or maybe the same goals from last year, except this year I'll totally accomplish them (with a new one or two thrown in for good luck).  I've been meaning to write this post since the new year started, so it's great that the crew over at The Broke and the Bookish gave just this topic for this week.  Here's what I'm wanting to accomplish bookishly this year...

1. Read more books. - Simple, right?  Considering the amount of books I read last year, it sure should be.  I think there are monkeys that are more well-read than last-year-Megan.  I'm not sure I'm still fit to even call myself a book blogger.  But that's enough self-derision - I want to read more book (For fun, not to avoid public or self-shaming.  Really)

2. Acquire fewer books. - Well, the paper kind at least.  I just got my Kindle for Christmas, so I'll probably give myself a little "honeymoon" before I ban myself from cheap e-books.  The point is, the house is on the verge of collapse, and it'll probably take me until my mid-70s to read all the books I have in the house right now.  Even if I never acquire another one.  Which is unlikely.  Which brings us to...

3. Get rid of more books. - I hate to do it, but I probably need to do at least one more great bookshelf cull wherein I try to grasp the reality of the books I am likely to read at some point and the books that I'm probably not.

4. Embrace the DNF. - I think I did a much better job of this last year, which may be part of the reason why my reading totals are a pretty down.  I put a little time into a bunch of books that I ultimately decided not to finish.  Good for my groaning bookshelves, not so great for enjoying reading.  Nonetheless, I need to continue to be (even more?) ruthless about not finishing books I'm not invested in.

5. Read more YA. - I really fell off the YA wagon last year for some reason, which is a serious shame considering how much I enjoy it, not to mention the pleasure of reading something that's good and reads fast.  I've already loaded a bunch of juicy YA onto aforementioned Kindle in support of this resolution.

6. Read more books that I've had for a long time. - There are some books on my shelves that have easily been there for a decade.  It's time I got around to some of those.  I know there are some really good books there, but I'm always getting distracted by the shiny new things.

7. Review every book I read. - This is always an unspoken goal of mine that I never quite achieve.  If not review every book I read, then at least casually comment (on blog) on every book I read.  ;-)

8. Keep up with my reviews. - I'm a raging procrastinator.  Always have been.  It would be so nice to get to the end of the year next year and not be like 5-10 reviews behind.

9. Rein in the review copies. - I'm always biting off way more than I can chew when it comes to review copies (see "distracted by shiny new things") until I make myself miserable because reading's become work.  I gotta "just say no" a lot more this year.

10. Read the whole Bible. - This is something I've meant to do for years.  I know some parts of the Bible inside and out, but others I haven't even read once.  I'd love to finally be able to read it through completely at least once.  I'm told it only takes 3 or 4 chapters a day to do it.  Should be manageable but I always seem to wander off around Leviticus.  Maybe this year?

Do you have any "reading resolutions" this year? 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The 2012 Leafy Awards!

Would you believe I totally blew off the Leafy Awards last year?  This time honored tradition!  This thoughtful analysis (ha!)!  I know, I have shame over the whole thing, but I just didn't get around to it and didn't get around to it until all the sudden it felt too late, like it would be forced, and there's nothing I hate more than sounding forced. 

Happily, it's not a problem this year.  Reading everybody else's end of year "best" lists inspired me to great heights, so I've returned from delinquent bloggerdom with the "feature" I like best.  There are no fancy pictures, no orchestras, no speeches (unless you count my own), and really no sense, rhyme, or reason.  Nonetheless, I bring you the cream of this year's very small crop (let's not talk about that) of reading!

The "If I Believed in Guilty Pleasure Reads, This Would Be One" award:

Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik - Because, you know, it's possible to notice every cheesy flaw a book has and love it anyway.

The "If every non-fiction book was this good, I'd probably read more non-fiction" award:

No Biking In the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene - Because I can count on one hand how many non-fiction books I read this year, and on two fingers the ones that I actually enjoyed.  This one I enjoyed more than most of the fiction, it's full of laughs and profundity, too!

The Random.org Best Selection Award

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale - Because sometimes you join Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon, but are too lazy to even collect a pool of possible contenders for reading on that day.  Then, maybe you wake up on the appointed day frantic with your lack of a plan and flee to Random.org to pick something from the, oh, thousand books you have available/listed in your LibraryThing library.  And of all the books it could possibly pick (hello, War and Peace is in there somewhere...yikes!), it produces the perfect page-turning excellent middle grade/YA choice your bookshelf has to offer.  Random.org, Leafing Through Life salutes you, and you too, Shannon Hale!

The Kissy, Smoochy Award for the Best Love Scene (Seriously, Megan?  Love scenes?  I thought you hated those!):

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman (And you gave the award to a book about, like, a middle-aged historical midwife?  Surely, you've come unhinged at last!) - But seriously, I'm not into physical love scenes.  They're hard to pull off in a way that is convincing and meaningful (not to mention not cheesy), but I was struck by the one in this book, so much so that I almost wrote about it in my reviews, then chickened out. So, here's to Patricia Harman who made me loved love scenes, if only for a moment.

The Oops Award for the Best Book I Read by Mistake:

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck - ...who is not Robert Newton Peck of A Day No Pigs Would Die fame, but can write a really great book despite that unexpected fact.

The "I Tried the Blog Tour, and I Won" for Unexpected Excellence:

Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan - Okay, so I'm not really into the whole book blog tour thing, though I should be.  I need a little more structure in my blogging.  I accepted this one for review, received it, and started reading it, all the time very worried that I would not like it, a fear the first few chapters did nothing to cure.  Much to my shock, Glass Boys became the year's surprise hit and very likely my favorite read of the year.  Here's to taking chances once in a while!

The "Where Have You Been All My Life? Oh, on my shelf?  All this time?" award for Authorial Awesomeness:

Broken Harbor by Tana French - I loved this book, and I'm told it's not even as good as her other books that have been sitting unloved on my bookshelf for, you know, ever. 

And, of course, this year's Dystopian Delight/Amazing Apocalypse (and there always is one, even if I forget to mention it):

White Horse by Alex Adams - A dark story, a fast pace, a Stephen King-esque flavor, and a fierce (formerly ordinary) heroine.  Yes, please.  And don't forget there are two more books to come, and the world didn't end this December, so there's a chance I could still get to enjoy them!

The Review Made Me Love You Award (Who said second thoughts were always bad?):

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen - It was okay when I read it.  When I started digging into the review, all the things I had only noticed in passing suddenly became that much more profound. 

The Self Award for...Myself:

"An award for me??  Oh, you shouldn't have!  But, what is it?"
It's the "You Stood The Stand" award!

That's right, Megan, you win the award!  Sure, it may have taken you all summer to slurp up those 1100+ pages, but you did it, braving every sniffle and cough that made you think the killer flu had really come and finishing that book you'd meant to finish since high school.  Hurrah!

And that's another year of Leafy Awards in the bag, with only a little more talking to myself than is socially acceptable.  Hope last year was a great year in reading for you, and that this year is even better!