Still a bully: This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (review)

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (NetGalley)
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books

Harriet Chance sits in Father Mullinix’s study. Her husband Bernard, dead for two years, has been showing up unannounced: leaving his slippers next to hers, setting out a can of WD-40 so she could Harriet Chancesilence a hinge, showing up unannounced at the grocery store complaining.

What’s a widow to do when her dead husband still isn’t silent, even from the grave? What kind of a husband does this, anyway? A bully, that’s who. Bernard was–apparently still is–a bully.

And for his part, Bernard Chance is soundly taken to task by heaven’s chief transitional officer for intruding in her affairs.  Apparently, it was made very clear during orientation (and it’s repeated in the manual in Section One) that Candidates are not to return under any circumstances. Or else. Bernard’s motives seem to be pure–he’s just out to spare Harriet from learning things that will hurt her.

Father is concerned. Her son Skip (a successful businessman–or is he?) is concerned. Even daughter Caroline, an alcoholic who has given her parents a pretty wide berth since her recovery, is concerned.

And then there’s the matter of the cruise. Harriet recieved a call from the Nitterhouse Foundation. Seems that Bernard had bid and won a gift basket at a silent auction, but never picked it up. His cruise to Alaska would expire in a matter of months–would Mrs. Chance please come redeem her gift soon?

Quick as you can settle into a game of shuffleboard on the atrium deck, Harriet is off to Alaska. By herself because best friend Mildred Honeycutt has ditched her. And sent that AA daughter of Harriet’s (Surprise, Mom!) instead.

The book’s blurb sounded madcap. What’s not to like about a visiting ghost-husband who’s still a grumpy gus? How can I not be charmed by an unexpected (and quite lavish) mother-daughter getaway? Harriet mu st be a sweet old lady finally getting hers.

Except that life isn’t really all sweetness and light, now, is it?

Author Jonathon Evison peels off the layers of Harriet’s solidly built world slowly and painfully. There’s that first “incident” with Charlie Fitzsimmons on the boat when she was nine. Caroline’s palpable struggle to stay sober. Harriet’s own drinking. The devasting story of Bernard’s last days. His abuse bullying. And the awful truth about the betrayal of her very best friend.

For some reason I was pleasantly surprised that the novel I chose for a bit of light reading turned out to be far heavier than I sometimes wanted. This Is Your Life Harriet Chance was by turns raw and tender, whimsical and nostalgic.

Cheers to 80 years!

My mom turned 80 last week.

mom's bash
The gang’s all here
Team Elaine
Pedal Power

Her life’s story is hers to tell, but trust me when I say it hasn’t been all sweet tea and cupcakes. Growing up in miserable poverty in Cleveland, she scraped and saved and fought for the life she has now–one, I’m guessing, she never thought she’d realize. Especially since halfway through her life she found herself needing to start all over again after a devastating loss. Mom is generous to a fault and has never stopped giving, even when she had nothing to give. She is the proverbial church lady (and I mean that in a good way) and her faith touches everything she does.

Mom and friend Sue outside our bar stop. Every 80-year-old loves a good wall o' skulls, right?!
Mom and friend Sue outside our bar stop. Every 80-year-old loves a good wall o’ skulls, right?!

So my brother and I decided to celebrate the big 8-0 in style. We got all of the grands and signficant others together for a pedal around town on the Great Lakes Pub Cruiser. No, we didn’t bar hop–took the “easy route” (a bit of a euphemism for those of us over fifty!) that stopped only once for a libation and then another stop for shopping at our city’s beautiful Downtown Market.

Mom was decked out in style from her birthday tiara to her sash and beads. Perched on the back no-pedal bench, this Queen for the Day perfected her Miss America wave as cars honked and waved back. Music blasting over the sound system, we sang along. You are my sunshine. Roll out the barrel. Sweet Caroline.

Team Elainemom's bash2At our first bar stop, Mom played the arcade video game Street Fighter with her oldest grandson and apparently disemboweled his character. She played pool with the boys and my niece–and made a pretty sweet shot or two. The two little great-grands joined us for dinner at a restaurant we love. She laughed, smiled, beamed, and got hugs from total strangers.

I often think about what’s ahead for me as I age, especially when, after I turned 50, I realized my time here is over halfway spent. I worry and fret about money, mistakes I’ve made, dreams that are dashed. On each of my birthdays now, Mom tells me I’m “catching up”.

I should be so lucky.

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

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

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.