Books to Savor – {Keeping the Feast}

keeping-the-feastKeeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing
by Paula Butturini

It’s probably no secret by now that three of my loves in this life include: travel, food, and themes of healing & redemption. So when I saw this memoir, I knew it’d be right up my alley. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love…but for the foodie in me, even better.

The book is about Paula and John, who met in Italy, fell in love, and got married. It was a charmed life–until less than a month after they married and tragedy struck. They’re both foreign correspondents, and they got sent to Warsaw, and then on to Romania to report on uprisings there. First Paula got beaten, then John got shot. The bullet wound tore open his back, requiring several intensive surgeries and a long process of healing.

But that was just the physical trauma. The emotional work had only just begun.

Interwoven through the entire story, is also Paula’s love affair with food. All her memories, from childhood to adulthood, center around food, and it becomes the language through which she communicates comfort and nourishment, as well as pain and despair. Her descriptions are lush and flavorful, and while abundant, never too over the top. Her writing made me crave Italy as much as it made me want fresh-baked bread, aubergines, and a caprese salad.

For a scrumptious read, this is definitely a book to savor, quite literally. However, the one frustration I had with the book was in the area of healing. The book cover description advertises this: “Paula began to reconsider all of her previous assumptions about healing. She discovered that sometimes patience can be a vice, anger a virtue. That sometimes it is vital to make demands of the sick, that they show signs of getting better.” To be honest, those three sentences made up at least half of the reason I picked up the book. Those “assumptions” about healing touch on an issue that I personally wrestle over, when it comes to questions of mental health. When is patience and space exactly what a person needs, and when is it that loved ones actually become held hostage by the threat of things turning for the worse? I had hoped (and assumed) there would be more discussion of this in the book, but alas, it was not to be found. The author barely mentions these discoveries in passing, with no attempt to delve into why or how it helped so much when she reached her breaking point with John. I can understand that maybe even she doesn’t know the answer to those questions…but even some attempt at mild speculation would have been more satisfactory.

Aside from that one caveat, I highly enjoyed this read, and can definitely recommend Keeping the Feast to anyone who wants to dream about food and Italy for a space of time.

 

**Please note: The books I share are all books I’ve read and enjoyed, and bring to your attention only because I like to share the things I love. I’m not paid in any direct way for these reviews and I highly doubt any of the authors or publishers are aware I do them. Having said that, if you are interested in any of these reads, I’d appreciate if you click through the links to Amazon, as any purchases made will send a few pennies my way that I can use to buy more books to read and share with you. Thanks!

 

A Coffee Chat

Fresh home baked bread

Fresh home baked bread

This week has been one of those weeks where I felt like we’ve been really busy, but when I try to remember what all it was that we did, I just draw a blank.

We did go furniture shopping on Thursday and on Saturday. My parents were browsing for items to fill their new house while I was looking for shelving units I can use to store our nice wedding plates once the shipment arrives and to make a couple of diaper changing stations for the baby’s stuff (one for upstairs and one for downstairs). No purchases to show you, though. We just got an idea of what’s available and prices. We didn’t find exactly what we were hoping to find, so I think we’ll just keep looking.

That’s something that’s still a bit hard, living in Thailand. In the U.S., I’d know exactly where to go to find pretty much anything I need and the variety of options is usually more than plenty. In Thailand, especially if you’re looking for something for the first time, it can really turn into a scavenger hunt and luck is pretty hit or miss when it comes to finding exactly what you want. No telling too, because sometimes you can find some really great, obscure items for really cheap. And sometimes it’s a challenge just to tackle the basics. I remember entire months when powdered sugar simply was unavailable.

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

I’ve come across a couple of interesting books this week.  One is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Written by the editor of Wired, it’s a fascinating look at how technology is changing the sale value of items that cater to niches. Before, when products (think like books, movies, music, etc.) had to justify their position on physical shelf space, it made sense for retailers to focus on the mega-hits, so items that cater to niche interests would be hard to find. But now, with online retailers like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, etc., there is virtually unlimited shelf space, which means it costs relatively little or even nothing to make those obscure items more available. They still, individually, won’t sell many units, but in aggregate, it ends up creating a huge new avenue for business. And it’s only growing, as people discover more and more how their tastes and interests diverge from the mainstream and they find new things they like that before they might never have come across. The ideas and observations in this book started as an article written in 2004 (and since then has been developed, with input, data, and insights supplied from leading economists, academics, and retailers).

What I find interesting, though, is that although notice of this phenomena is basically 10 years old, publishing houses are still trying desperately to cling to the old model of business, touting themselves as gatekeepers, instead of service providers for authors and readers. They like to pretend they’re the arbiters of taste…but the real irony is everyone knows a lot of what “sells” is total crap, catering to the lowest common denominator. Silly, because they’re just continuing to shoot themselves in the foot as the way we do business as top hits garner less and less in actual sales and niche markets take up more and more of the profit stream.

The other book I’ve come across is Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). The author let her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway by himself, a trip that left him unharmed and totally thrilled with his adventure and burgeoning sense of independence, but caused her to be nationally vilified as a horrible, lazy mother. She then set out to explain how crime statistics are at the lowest they’ve been in decades (if not longer) and how thoroughly she prepared him for the trip in advance, arguing that we over-estimate risk and helicopter-parent our kids, leaving them unable to do for themselves what kids growing up in previous generations (or even different cultures) had no problems doing on their own. As she says in a post about outdoor play reducing ADHD, “outdoor play is probably very key, and taking it away in favor of more “safety” or more “education” has caused us a number of ills. Ironically, our kids are LESS safe (from depression, diabetes, obesity…) and LESS educated (about the natural world and all the things it makes you wonder about).” I haven’t actually read the book yet, only perused her website. I’m not sure how much I need to read the book when I pretty much already agree with the philosophy she espouses, but maybe it will help add more fuel to my fire if anyone ever accuses me of negligence when I let my kid play in the dirt, teach him to help himself in the kitchen, or, God forbid, have him ask a stranger for directions.

I was telling my husband about this book last night and he said, yeah, and we wonder why kids these days never go play outside, when we don’t let them actually go anywhere or do anything.

As far as I see it, part of being safe in this world is about being at home in the world: confident and capable at managing essential tasks like reading a map, talking to people you don’t know, and knowing how to take care of your own basic needs. If you don’t learn that when you’re young, when do you learn it? If you’re always waiting for Mom to do for you, you won’t know how to do for yourself, and eventually, all your future relationships could become about finding a Mom surrogate to fill a hole you’re too scared or inexperienced to be able to fill yourself.

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Anyway, that’s a bit of our week. How has yours been going? My mom and I have been practicing yoga together, which is fun. And it looks like we’ve got a couple nights of dinners out with friends coming up. Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the grand opening of a new mall, the Promenada Resort Mall, in just over two weeks. It might seem silly to get so excited about a mall opening (when I lived in the U.S. I would have scoffed at myself), but this one will be huge, much closer to where we live, and will hopefully have more variety of shops so we might be able to get some items (like possibly shelving units for baby stuff…??) that we’re having trouble finding now.

Happy Wednesday!

Books to Savor – The Boy In The Suitcase

suitcaseThe Boy in the Suitcase
by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

I recently noticed a discrepancy in my personality/habits. I LOVE to watch political thrillers, whether movies like The Bourne Identity and Spy Game or TV shows like Homeland and House of Cards, but I almost never READ them. I don’t know why. The closest I usually get are books like The Da Vinci Code–which I loved, critics be damned, and which was thrilling but not really political. Or academic books on politics, which are…political, but not exactly thrilling (except to the nerd buried deep, deep inside me).

So I’ve decided to try to rectify this discrepancy and see if I can find some good books in this (new-to-me) genre. In my search for something gripping, I came across this book.

The Boy in the Suitcase, which is probably more accurately called crime fiction, involves a Red Cross nurse whose friend calls her out of the blue, begging for help, asking her to pick up a suitcase. She finds the suitcase, and inside it, is a three-year-old boy, naked and drugged, but alive. Thus begins a race to find out who he is and where he comes from, and the nurse, Nina Borg, is thrust into the dangerous world of child trafficking, caught in the crosshairs between those with the guns and those with the money. There are multiple narratives in the book (including the mother of the missing child and the perpetrators of the crime), and through them the story unfolds from different perspectives.

I really enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced and engrossing, and (perhaps not surprisingly, given my job) I really appreciated a story about the trafficking of women and children, told in a way that reveals so much about the characters–who are complex and three-dimensional–without slowing down the action.

If other books in this genre are so well-written, with so much thought given to character development and complex motivations, I might be a new convert to this genre! If you’re looking for a read that will suck you in, in a crime thriller kind of way, I’d recommend you try The Boy in the Suitcase.

Books To Savor: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

guernsey The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I had been eying this book on bookshelves almost entirely since it first came out. I had heard others rave about it, yet every time I tried to pick it up, I didn’t see the hook. It’s really only by accident that I finally read it—and am glad I did.

I was desperate for new reading material, and again came across this one with the funny title. The description seemed mildly intriguing (an author in search of a new book idea stumbles across a literary society and a part of history that most never knew about), but mostly it seemed like the book was stalking me, cropping up in my consciousness randomly but repeatedly. I read the reviews on Goodreads, and saw people generally loved—no, raved—about the book, except for the people who hated it. That’s about as useful as most Goodreads reviews are, I must say. I wonder why I bother with them anymore.

Anyway, I finally downloaded a sample. That’s when my Kindle started getting ornery. The sample wouldn’t show up anywhere. I tried searching in my archives. I tried redownloading. I tried restarting. I did a search, seemed to have found it, and then, when I tried to access it, ended up buying the book somehow, upon which time both the full book and the sample appeared right where they belonged, all innocent-like. Enter curse words aimed at technology. I almost cancelled the order, but then I figured…well, I should at least read the sample and decide whether I would have bought the book anyhow.

So I read the sample. It was slow going at first, me being unused to epistolary novels as I am. It took a little to figure out who was who and what was what and whether I should care, but by the end of the sample, I found the story thus far charming but not entirely compelling. If I hadn’t already bought the book, I might not have continued.

And thus I learned one ought not to judge a book by its sample. Well, I was right about it being charming, but the compelling part came later. It takes a little while to develop a relationship with the characters—I suppose one ought to owe that to British reserve—but they are darling once you get to know them. The book deals with some heavy topics, namely German occupation of British isles, and what the people suffered, but the dark parts are snuck in so blithely in with the light you hardly notice.

Primarily, this book is like getting to sit in with an utterly adorable family. You learn a bit of history from the family elders, but essentially you’re too busy getting caught up in their shenanigans. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the perfect kind of read to make you feel warm and cozy towards your fellow human beings, great for a leisurely, good time, so long as you don’t mind spending some time to become friends with everyone first.

Books to Savor {The Fault in our Stars}

The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars has been on my TBR list for quite a long time. I’m a fan of John Green and this story definitely sounded too good to pass up.

The story is about Hazel, a witty and sarcastic sixteen year old girl with cancer, who meets Augustus, a hot, yet honor-driven seventeen year old boy, who also has cancer – and they fall in love. It’s a story about two star-struck teens grappling with universal questions like, “Can I be loved?” and “How can I make my mark on this world?” all while faced with a situation that is anything but ordinary. It’s a tale about love, in the face of fear, existential questions burning against the backdrop of mundane tasks like making it up the stairs one more day, and finding connection in people whom the rest of the normal, healthy world leaves behind.

It’s humorous, poignant, touching, and feels very real. I’m not sure it quite hit me as deeply as his other works did, but he definitely moves bravely into a world most of us hope we never see. I was afraid it would leave me a sobbing wreck; it didn’t. It’s a story about cancer kids, so of course, it has its tear-jerker moments, but overall it’s far more heart-warming than heart-wrenching.

If you’re looking for a book to keep you company over a cozy day or weekend, something that’s light but still feels poignant and true, I’d recommend The Fault in Our Stars.

Books to Savor {The Icarus Deception}

The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?
by Seth Godin

Some of you may already be familiar with Seth Godin and his blog or other writing. In case you haven’t heard of him, though, I definitely want to give you a heads up, and his new book is a great way to kickstart the new year.

I just started reading it yesterday and I already have found so much insight and inspiration from it I want to share it with anyone who dreams of daring to try something different or bold – whether it be art, a life change, or a new approach to the way you do business.

In this book, Seth Godin discusses the Icarus myth – you know, the one about the guy who builds wings, flies too close to the sun, and comes crashing down to his death on earth. Lesson: listen to your elders and don’t fly too high. Well, Godin argues that what is forgotten from that myth is that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low. Flying too low is even more dangerous because it feels deceptively safe. From there, Godin issues a call for courage and art (broadly defined) and explains both how to move forward and why it is so necessary in this modern time, when technology is fundamentally changing societal needs and the way we interact.

If you’ve ever done anything bold in your life, this book will feel like vindication. Whether you have or not, though, The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? will spur you on to do more bold things, to seize new ground, make connections with people and ideas, and to work without a map.

Books to Savor – {Steal Like An Artist}

Photo courtesy of Austin Kleon (steallikeanartist.com)

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Austin Kleon

Yesterday, I told you about how refreshed and inspired I felt for the new year and how I cleaned up house to prepare for all that creative flow. Well you know how that happened? I owe it all to this book.

I was in a bookstore in Bangkok, passing time until my flight, when I saw this book. I read the whole thing standing up in the bookstore while other unfortunate shoppers had to crane their necks around me to see the stacks better. I was enthralled. Kleon is just such a personable writer and his book is just full of stories and tips that speak to your inner-creative and whisper to her that it’s okay to come out.

The book initially started as a talk Kleon gave to a group of college students. The video of the talk went viral, so he sat down and put it in a really visual, fun to peruse book. Pages like this, I want to staple to my walls:

Photo courtesy of Austin Kleon (steallikeanartist.com)

Steal Like An Artist  is full of great tips to incorporate into your creative practice, it’s a fun, engaging read that makes you feel like the author is totally not an asshole (sadly, something that cannot be said about a large number of artists), and it really makes you just want to get out and do. This is a book I’ll hold on to, for use whenever I need a refreshing kick in the butt to either just write or to put myself out there more.

I might also possibly steal his music.

*     *     *

In other news: I’m hosting another Reading Circles Goes LIVE! event on January 31, 8 p.m. CST where a small group of book lovers can join me (via Google Hangout) reading & discussing a book to delve into how an author works his or her magic. It’s like a virtual Book Club – for writers! Full details on Bigger Picture Blogs’ website HERE. If you want to join in, be sure to RSVP and vote on which book you want to read!

Books to Savor: I Know This Much Is True


I Know This Much Is True: A Novel
by Wally Lamb

I picked this book up at my mother-in-law’s house while we were in the States and I meant to just thumb through the first little bit of it to keep myself occupied in quiet moments. It was 900 pages. I wasn’t going to really read the whole thing. Or so I thought. Before I knew it, I was in several chapters deep and I ended up stealing borrowing the book from her to bring it on the plane with me. I read it all the way from South Carolina back to California. I finished it before we got to Santa Barbara.

This novel opens with the narrator’s twin brother walking into a public library and performing what he believes is a sacrifice in the name of God. From that stunning and horrific opening, the book unfolds into a tale about twin brothers: one, a paranoid schizophrenic, the other, the “normal brother” who tries to save him.

Dominick has always been Thomas’s protector. After Thomas’s actions in the library, Dominick wages a war against the public mental health system on Thomas’s behalf. However, as he fights against the system, the reader is treated to flashbacks on their childhood, the abuse they suffered, the demise of Dominick’s marriage after the loss of a child, and the devolution of Thomas as his mental illness takes over.

Readers might initially feel daunted by the 900-page book, but it is a gripping page-turner, full of incredibly realistic and poignant details of love despite dysfunction and humor in the face of tragedy. The characters feel so complex and real it reads more like a memoir. More importantly, it is a tale of self-destruction, sacrifice, and redemption. It is about twin brothers who need each other to feel whole, and the points at which they each have to sacrifice the other in order to save themselves.

If you’re looking for a book to get lost in (or a Christmas gift to occupy a loved one over the holiday season), I’d highly recommend I Know This Much Is True.

Books to Savor – {Gone Girl}


Gone Girl: A Novel
by: Gillian Flynn

I meant to post this on Friday, but, well, life got in the way, so you’re getting this on Monday instead. This book is, I’d probably say, not one of my typical reads. But it’s one I could not put down. It also happens to be one I read along with a couple other ladies from Bigger Picture Blogs in our very first Reading Circles LIVE session, where we talked about our reactions to the book and analyzed the author’s work together via Skype. I can tell you my friends were also totally engrossed by this book.

Gone Girl is about a marriage gone horribly, fantastically wrong. On what would be their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s beautiful wife, Amy, disappears, leaving behind a scene of what looks like a massive struggle and, potentially, her murder. Fingers begin pointing at Nick, and he does little to help himself. But entries from Amy’s diary suggest there’s more than meets the eye with her as well. Nick insists he is innocent, but clearly he’s not going to be winning any Husband of the Year awards. The question is…was that enough to make him a killer?

Gillian Flynn is truly a genius when it comes to suspense. Her characters are intense and believable, even at their craziest, and I found myself rooting for them, even when they make me cringe. I can honestly say I could not even remotely anticipate the twists and turns this book’s plot takes. Meanwhile, her prose is sharp, witty, with some surprising and thought-provoking social commentary smuggled in along the way. The book is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason.

If you’re in the mood for some gritty, tight-jawed suspense that’ll keep you turning the pages well past the depletion of the midnight oil, I’d definitely recommend you check out Gone Girl.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy


The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Being the unapologetic and incorrigible fan of Harry Potter that I am, it was pretty much inevitable that I would pounce on JK Rowling’s new book the minute it was released.

I knew going in to reading it that it was a book meant for an adult audience, and so I tried to keep that perspective in mind as I read it. The story begins with the death of a central character, Barry Fairbrother, an upstanding citizen and member of the Parish Council. With his death comes chaos as he was, in many ways, a linchpin holding the little town together. The question arises: who will fill his seat – one who continues his policies or one who will dismantle all he has built?

Over the course of the story, we’re introduced to various members of the city, including, among others: Fairbrother’s opposition and his simpering wife; Cubby Wall, Fairbrother’s friend and loyal supporter; Kay, a social worker with a penchant for chasing emotionally unavailable men; Dr. Parminda Jawanda, who may or may not have been in love with Fairbrother; and Samantha, a drunk with a clear eye for others’ flaws and no control over herself. The story progresses through the eyes of each of these very flawed characters as well as a few of their children. Though we bounce from each character’s perspectives, the result is not a sympathetic view – even if there are a few characters we (sort of) come to like. Instead, the book is a rather scathing critique of the community and its foibles; in a sense, a dark comedy of errors. Mental illnesses, drugs, sexual exploits, masturbation, poverty, and abuse all come into play.

The high point of the book came for me, about two-thirds of the way in, when the underlying themes became clear. I read an interview with Rowling where she admits “Responsibility” was in her head as the book’s title through much of the time she was writing it. It would have been an apt title, as the characters’ actions, even when meant for the best, spiral outwards and lead to unintended consequences. It was a powerful message and effectively delivered.

However, I have to say, as neutral as I tried to be, it was still awkward to read about things like a mother shooting up heroin and a teenage boy experiencing an erection in a voice that reminds me so forcibly of Ronald Weasley. Rowling’s voice as an author is just so strong and distinctive, I couldn’t escape it or the memories it conjures.

But the real irony is, as much as the book purports to be for adults, it doesn’t quite attain the realism of adult literature I personally like to see – except with regards to the kids in the book. Most of the time, the story came across a tad cartoonish. Though the subject is very adult and real, I didn’t find the book to have a very gritty, raw, or real feel, and I believe that’s mostly due to the adult characters being too flat and one-dimensional. True to form, it’s Rowling’s adolescent characters (especially Andrew Price, who seeks retribution against an abusive father and thus causes communal uproar, and Sukhvinder Jawanda, a shy Sikh cutter who turns almost-a-hero) who are the most interesting, complex, and evolved – and they are the ones who shoulder the burden of bringing the story to life.

I wanted to love the book and congratulate Rowling on her foray into adult genres. It was an okay read, but I can’t say I loved it. In any case, as a writer, I find it really interesting to read another writer trying to branch out of their genre and flex different muscles, so it was worth reading in that sense. But if I want to read JKR, I think I’m going to stick to the Harry Potter books.

 

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