Of tater tot casserole and wilted kale salad: Kitchens Of the Great Midwest (review)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Netgalley)
J. Ryan Stradal

Sometimes my husband and I play “Do you remember eating … ?” We both grew up in the Midwest and church supper casseroles and desserts, as well as our own moms’ cooking, provide plenty of fodder. Do you remember … Tater tot casserole? Chocolate éclair dessert (known in some circles as Better Than Sex!)? Fried bologna sandwiches? Tuna and noodles? Jello salads of all varieties? Mock chicken legs?

We’ve come a long way, baby, which is why “Do you remember eating … ?” is so much fun. Several Kitchens of the Great Midwestyears ago we went clean and local–or as local as one can be when the growing season is all of four or five months. We cut out (or tried to) anything packaged with ingredients we couldn’t pronounce. Five ingredients or less. We joined a CSA and found a source for meat that was humanly raised. Everything we were “supposed” to do. We like restaurants that are farm to table. You know, garlic ramps and kale and charred corn pudding. (You get the idea.) And don’t get me wrong—I think it’s more healthful and more responsible to eat this way. But sometimes my mouth waters for a good old-fashioned casserole with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions.

Ryan Stradal touches the worlds of both the church lady and the new foodie in his first novel Kitchens Of the Great Midwest. Lars Thorvald loved food—real food—and two women: his daughter and his wife. Raised in Duluth, Minnesota, he and his brother were charged with making the annual batch of lutefisk to sell to his father’s bakery customers during Advent. The memory of that odious task stirred Lars to seek out fresh tomatoes, basil, sweet corn—indeed, fresh everything–when he finally became a chef. Wife Cynthia loved wines and together they made a dynamic pair (or so Lars thought) at their small restaurant. When Cynthia becomes pregnant, Lars dreams of the foods he’ll cook for their little one and when he holds daughter Eva for the first time, “his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread.”

But tragedy strikes. Not once or even twice, but three times and Eva’s world is irrevocably changed. In grade school Eva discovers she is gifted at growing chiles, and, coincidentally, can also withstand the heat of even the most potent chiles. Money is tight at home—Eva comes from the other side of the tracks, kids think she is odd. She’s bullied. Gains confidence. Teenage Eva has an incredibly developed palate and starts to hang around restaurant kitchens. Stradal moves quickly through the years, leaping from Eva age eight to sixteen to twenty.

Then after three chapters centered on Eva, I was reading about some chick named Octavia, and Eva was merely a character in the background. I was confused. The next chapter was about a hunter named Jordy whose mother was dying and I was confused even more. Then a chapter on a church lady who won contests for her famous cookie bars …

I was frustrated. I flipped back through the pages. Did I miss a name? Did I miss a connection between Eva and these other people? I ended up deciding I liked the flavor of the plot, so I finally just gave up trying to figure out the structure of the novel, trying to force it into my notion of how a narrative should be composed—and the story came together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Or “wilted kale with sweet pepper jelly vinaigrette”.

In fact, I loved the way Kitchens was written so much, I just might go back for a second helping and read it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Everything I ever learned about blueberry picking, I learned from …

Blueberry season is over now, but I managed to squeeze in a little last minute blueberry picking a couple weeks ago.  And good sport that he is, hubby agreed to come with so that we could make shorter work of those end-of-the-season slim pickings.

I say good sport because we were both required to pick blueberries with our moms as kids and it was (for both of us) anything but the idyllic Blueberries for Sal type of experience with ninety Blueberries For Saldegrees and Mom wanting to fill yet another  bucket. No, it’s hot. Sticky. Mosquito-y. Booooooring.

Let’s just say when I turned twelve and was designated Official Blueberry Picking babysitter for my brother and cousin and I could stay home—even with a seven-year-old and a two-year-old—I was thrilled. I was never. picking. blueberries. again.

But when the time came, I loved reading Blueberries For Sal to my littles all those years ago. The classic is the story of a young girl and her mother, and a baby bear cub and her mother, who are all four of them out on the same mission: finding blueberries. Because of that book, the memory I cherish about blueberry picking now comes from that one story which (in true McCloskey fashion) elicits a longing for a time and place I’ve never even experienced.

Blueberry picking
A perfect summer’s day

I learned everything I ever needed to know about blueberries from Robert McCloskey. “Kerplink kerplank kerplunk” became the sound blueberries always made in my kitchen. I’d even measure them out in my stainless mixing bowl so the kids (and I!) could hear the real deal. I once shocked my husband when on a lakeshore hike I bent down and popped some wild blueberries in my mouth. “You just can’t go eating berries in the woods without knowing what they are!” he said, alarmed. Oh, but I did know what the berries were—I had looked at those pictures in Blueberries For Sal over and over again.

Raspberry picking
A delight!

Now truth be told, the ten pound box at the farmer’s market did me just fine for many years. And then I got all nostalgic. (Maybe it’s an age thing.)  My daughter and I went raspberry picking. I survived! And then I returned to pick blueberries—not so bad at all. Much more like the Blueberries For Sal now that I was a sentimental old gal.

How life changes us.  A walk through the raspberry canes with my daughter and grandson is a delight, and blueberry picking on a Saturday morning is the perfect way to start a summer’s day.

Kerplink. Kerplank. Kerplunk.

Circling the sun: review

Circling the Sun (NetGalley)
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books

There was a time when I thought I was born in the wrong time and place–a time when I dreamed I was meant to stand on the wide savanna scanning the horizon, when I thought I might have my own antelope calf as a pet and sit on the veranda of a house that nestled at the foot of a mountain.

I read Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa (and saw the movie, too, but it wasn’t nearly so good) and all of Elsbeth Huxley’s books (the best being The Flame Trees of Thika and this time the Masterpiece Theater production was nearly as good!), and Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The sad thing is I read them all in a period of several months and so keeping the women and their experiences separate is nearly impossible these thirty years later. Instead, I have colorful blur of colonial Kenya in my mind’s eye.

Writer Paula McLain, best known for The Paris Wife, writes about the life of Beryl Markham, who, in her eighties, Circling the sunpublished her autobiography–that West With the Night I read so many years ago. Because of my reading muddle, the only thing I could remember about Markham was her accomplishment as an aviator—but Circling the Sun gives us much more than that.

Beryl Clutterbuck had a childhood marked by a sort of wild freedom that we really can’t relate to today. Her father moved the family from England to Kenya to farm and train horses. But Beryl’s mother couldn’t take the rough life and she left the family and returned to England before Beryl was six. After that, her father pretty much left Beryl to her own devices. She had a roof over her head, food in her belly, plenty of native friends to play with, animals galore, and at least one neighbor, Lady D, who tried to mother her as best she could. Beryl was Lakwet, “a very little girl”, living in wild and wonderful Africa.

All that changed when Beryl was nearly twelve and an evil step-mother (of sorts) entered the picture. Mrs. Orchardson (first introduced as the new housekeeper) expected Beryl to wear shoes and take lessons. No more killing snakes or hunting warthogs. English clothes, not her Kenyan shuka.  Beryl is finally packed off to a girl’s school in Nairobi for a little bit of book learning and (hopefully) a lot of taming.

When Beryl turned fifteen, her father lost their beloved ranch Green Hills. She made a disastrous marriage and, in order to deal with the fall out of that, began her journey towards independence: training to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya.

While Beryl succeeded in her professional life, her personal life was another story—hearth and home would not come easy for her. There was that first marriage. An affair or two. An abortion. Another marriage. A son. A rumored affair with royalty. And all the while her greatest love was just out of reach. McLain gives the impression that colonial Africa was very much a place where staid English men and women could throw off the strictures of polite society and live and love more freely–but where a double standard was still in place when it came to looking away from the “indiscretions” of women.

For me, the novel went on too long in those years between Beryl’s early success as a horse trainer and her life as an aviator, which, surprisingly, filled little of the book.

But I enjoyed Circling the Sun in a special way since it gave me a peek into a world I had once loved so much.

The Truth According To Us (review)

The Truth According To Us (NetGalley)
Annie Barrows
Random House

The charm of writer Annie Barrow’s Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is legendary, especially in the book club world. How many modern “literary societies”, I wonder, have read the novel since its publication in 2008? I know it had everything I love in a good book: quirky characters, strong women, slow-grown love, and a happy ending. Throw in a little-known setting and tell the story in a series of letters … what’s not to like?

I approached Barrows’ new novel, The Truth According to Us, with some trepidation. First of all, Barrows was the The Truth According To Uscoauthor of Guernsey, so my guard was up. But it turns out, she wrote that first novel with her aunt—or, more accurately, revised it extensively before publication, as her aunt was quite ill and could no longer work on the book. Her aunt, sadly, didn’t live to see the novel published. (Barrows’ is also the author of the popular series for middle readers, Ivy and Bean.)

Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed with Barrow’s first novel for adults authored on her own.

Layla Beck arrives on the doorstep of the Romeyn family as a boarder; she’s  to  write the history of the small West Virginia town of Macedonia working for the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project. Unbeknownst to the Romeyn’s, Layla is an imposter of sorts. While she is working for the Depression era social works agency, Layla has really been tossed out of her senator father’s D.C. home for living the life of a socialite, but refusing to marry a befitting (read, “wealthy”) suitor. She needs to make her own way in the cold, cruel world.

Macedonia’s sesquicentennial is approaching and a history is just what is needed to memorialize such a grand affair. The town’s elite (I use the word loosely) want their family trees to be reflected on with proper dignity–it might even be acceptable to stretch the truth a bit.

But most Macedonians don’t put up with fools lightly. And in her white suit and silk dresses, Layla looks just that in the oppressive summer heat. Her landlady Jottie Romeyn is closing in on spinsterhood, raising her brother Felix’s two girls, Bird, 9, and Willa, 12. Felix comes and goes on mysterious business trips, and it is pretty clear the Romeyn’s have seen better days.

It isn’t long before the work Layla so resisted begins to give her a purpose—and her research begins to reveal that the history the city fathers have in mind is often far from the truth.

Layla also discovers that she isn’t the only one pretending to be something she’s not; the Romeyns also have secrets. And it’s twelve-year-old Willa who starts to unravel the mystery of the family’s past, first to feel closer to her father and then to “protect” Felix from (as Willa sees it at least) the wily Miss Beck. But like most histories, the Family Romeyn’s has a dark side.

I was put off, at first, with what seemed an awkward narrative style—one chapter would be written in third person narrator, then the next might be a first person account by one of the characters. I’d sometimes forget who the “I” was. (I did, however, finally settle into the style.) And while I loved Willa, I couldn’t help but see her as some sort of hybrid of Scout Finch and Flavia De Luce–and I couldn’t decide whether or not this was a good call on Barrow’s part, or if I felt like she was a bit heavy-handed with her parallels.

It’s true for so many of us that the story we write is often the story we’d like to tell about ourselves, rather than the truth … but in the end, Layla Beck, the Romeyn’s, and Willa work it all out.

The Sound Of Glass (review)

The Sound of Glass (NetGalley)
Karen White
New American Library

You’re strong at the broken places.

This novel starts with a bang–literally–on a hot summer night in Beaufort, South Carolina. Edith Heywood senses an eerie change in the night sounds as she works in her attic studio, then sees a flash of fire explode across the sky. A thump hits the roof and something scrapes along the shingles, sliding into the yard with a thud. Grabbing her young son C.J. from his crib, she opens the front door to chaos: neighbors running, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Still not quite sure what has happened, Edith locates the object that landed in her back garden: a suitcase. It’s then Edith realizes she had witnessed a plane crash. Nervously, fearfully awaiting her husband’s late night return, Edith almost seems to expect the knock at the dreaded knock on her door. The police officer. The chaplain.

Fast forward fifty years and we meet another Heyward widow, Merrit, in the office of the lawyer who is in charge of transferring that same house–her late husband’s childhood home– into her care. A Maine native (who is blissfully unaware of her Yankee-ness, at first), she has left everything to take on the job of restoring the three-hundred-year-old home and cataloguing its antiques. She must also take on the job of restoring herself after her brief marriage to a hard and difficult man. Merritt is a woman who doesn’t want to call attention to herself, content to blend into the shadows.

And then another widow enters the scene. Loralee Purvis Conners is packing her ten-year-old son Owen into the car and moving from Georgia to—you guessed it—South Carolina to meet his older sister for the first time. One Merrit sound of glassHeyward.  Loralee is a Southern gal through and through, right down to her high heels, big hair, and flawless makeup. She records bits of wisdom and lessons learned in the Journal of Truths she is writing, everything from “Sometimes it’s necessary to tell a lie when the truth will break a heart” to “Never give a lady a tube of lipstick without a mirror.” Loralee is as vibrant and alive as Merrit is bland.

And so Loralee and Merrit’s lives intersect, but not without some considerable conflict. Both women have secrets. Merrit’s secret has shattered her past and Loralee’s, her future. But like the sea glass wind chimes that hang on the porch of the Heyward estate, they tumble and toss together until they lose the sharp edges and become something beautiful. We learn about the death of Merrit’s mother and her estrangement from her father after his September-May romance with Loralee; we learn about the secrets Edith kept in her attic studio and buried in her garden. Throw in an adorable (and very precocious) little brother and a drop-dead gorgeous brother-in-law, and the novel is perfect summer reading.

This is a story about coming to terms with our past. Loralee and Merrit and Edith don’t suggest that we reinvent ourselves, really, but rather we come to find out the who our past may have obscured.