Friday Book Whimsy: Cooking for Picasso

After recently reading a disappointing book that was based on cooking, I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Cooking for Picasso, a novel by Camille Aubray. Still, it came highly recommended by a reliable source, so I gave it a try.

I will admit that for whatever reason, it was a slow start for me. But once I became connected to one of the main characters – Odine – it was a novel I couldn’t put down.

I say “one” of the main characters, because Cooking for Picasso has that now oh-so-familiar novel style of having a main character who lives in contemporary time and a second main character who is connected to the first, but of an earlier era. In this case, the contemporary character is Celine, a Hollywood makeup artist who is somewhat discontent with her life. She learns from her mother that her grandmother Odine had once cooked for Pablo Picasso in the Cote d’ Azur village in France in which she lived. Her mother encourages Celine to travel to the little village and learn more about her grandmother.

It is 1936 and Odine was a 17-year-old village girl who worked with her parents in their restaurant. She is given the assignment of preparing and delivering lunch to the great artist Picasso, who is secretly living in the village to paint and rest. Though she is charged with discretion and privacy, Odine comes to know Picasso initially because he is so impressed with her simple, yet delicious, rustic cuisine. Eventually they develop a relationship, and Odine learns about art and food and life itself.

Years later, as Celine begins to learn the truth about her grandmother, she learns about art and food and life as well.

I must admit that this reader learned a lot as well, mostly because every time the author would talk about a painting, I would quickly look it up to see it for myself. And her descriptions of the delicious meals Odine would prepare literally made my mouth water.

I understand Cooking for Picasso is a novel, but it also painted a picture (did you see how I did that?) of life in France during largely difficult times, and how some survived.

It was a wonderful novel. And now I want to eat French food.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Silent Sister

Despite the fact that I had only previously read only one book by this very prolific author – and didn’t particularly like it – I gave this one a try. I had read a series of books that didn’t satisfy. They were either extremely dull or extremely violent. Sometimes I can take a bit of violence; I can never take dullness.

I found The Silent Sister, by Diane Chamberlain, to be quite enjoyable. It was neither dull nor violent, though the story was action-packed. I’m not sure if I was just in the right mood for the story, but this was a book that, if it wasn’t true that I couldn’t put it down,  I at least looked forward to picking it up and reading it.

The main character Riley’s sister Lisa supposedly committed suicide when she was a teenager, following the murder of her music teacher. Lisa was suspected of the crime; hence the suicide. Now, years later, Riley’s parents are both dead, and Riley finds herself going through their things to prepare the house for sale. In the process, she finds documents that suggest that Lisa is not, in fact dead at all, but merely living elsewhere under an assumed name.

Riley is understandably perplexed and begins to try to find out what’s going on. In the process, she discovers that there are secrets about her family – particularly her father – that she would never have suspected.

The plot had many twists and turns. While the outcome was admittedly not a total shocker, the process getting there, and the author’s writing style, kept me interested until the very end.

I don’t think this novel would fool many people, I still can recommend the book as a very enjoyable read that will keep you on your toes to try and stay one step ahead of Riley.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The School of Essential Ingredients

Erica Bauermeister’s novel,The School of Essential Ingredients, SHOULD have been a book that I really enjoyed. It is all about food and cooking and how the two can shape your life, and that is something I believe and about which I enjoy reading. And in fact, the story started out grabbing my attention.

Lillian is a successful chef and restaurant owner, who once a month closes her restaurant and teaches cooking classes. The classes, however, are not just about food and the preparation of meals. She believes (as do I) that good food and friends and family gathered around the table are essential ingredients for a happy life. So her classes were as much about enjoying life and friends and family as they were about preparing food.

So about the first third of the book, as Bauermeister introduced us to the characters, I was all in. I liked the variety of people and life backgrounds and reasons for taking a cooking class. But unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the characters all started seeming exactly the same. They even talked the same.

I am more than willing to suspend reality when reading a novel. But the class consisted of eight people, all of whom it seemed had lives that were coming apart at the seams. But after a class or two, and upon learning the proper way to prepare a roast turkey, their lives changed. No matter their background, suddenly they develop a suburb nose for good wine. They can differentiate between different herbs and spices in a dish simply by a single taste.  All this in a couple of classes.

Bauermeister’s writing is flowery and reminded me of drinking a wine that is just a little too sweet for the meal being eaten. Her characters ended up being boring and annoying, at least to this reader. By the end, I wanted one of them to take a taste of something and not like it. It didn’t happen.

I don’t think I will attempt another of the author’s food books. I’m not that hungry.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: News of the World

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I am drawn to novels that take place in the Old West of the 1800s. I like to imagine what it was like to live in the days before electricity, iPads, Snapchat, and nightly news.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, had an interesting premise. The protagonist, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, served in – and was greatly impacted by – the Civil War. Now, however, he is just an elderly man who makes his money by traveling around northern Texas reading the news to people willing to give a dime or so to learn what’s happening in the world and who can’t read it for themselves. His wife is long dead, and his two daughters live far away. Still, while he’s a loner, he is satisfied with his life.

One day, he is offered a $50 in gold by the United States Army to return a 10-year-old orphan girl to her family in southern Texas. The child’s parents had been killed four years earlier by Kiowa Indians, who for unexplained reasons, took the child and raised her in the Kiowa tradition. The Army rescued her, and despite the fact that she was perfectly content in her new life, decided she needs to be returned to a distant aunt and uncle in San Antonio.

Thus begins a 400-mile journey by an elderly man and a little girl who speaks only the Kiowa language. She is terrified at the beginning, but eventually senses the man’s gentle nature and eventually comes to call him Keh-Pun, the Kiowan word for grandfather. He, in turn, tries to teach her English so that she will be able to communicate with the family she doesn’t know.

While the duo has several adventures along the way south, the book turns out to not be a story about cowboys and Indians; instead, it is a story about love and kindness. The pace is slow, sort of matching the pace of the pair as they make their journey. There are funny scenes as the little girl Johannah tries to learn the ways of the white people.

The twist comes when Captain Kidd and Johannah finally reach San Antonio, only to find a couple who is interested only in using Johannah as an indentured servant. Captain Kidd makes a decision that changes his life, and the little girl’s, forever.

As I mentioned, this is not an action novel, but a novel about relationships, trust, and love. I enjoyed the book, though I found the pace a bit slow at times. Still, it is a very short book, just this side of a novella.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Man Called Ove

I believe I might be the last avid reader to have not read A Man Called Ove, a novel by Fredrik Backman. Part of the reason that I put off reading this book was that I so loved another novel written by Backman —  Britt-Marie Was Here — and didn’t feel that anything could compare favorably to one of my favorite novels ever written.

The comparisons between these two books are obvious. Both protagonists are seemingly crabby people who manage to find happiness despite themselves. Britt-Marie was not so much crabby as simply set in her ways.

On the other hand, Ove is as crabby as one can be, and just wants to be left alone following the death of his beloved wife, who brought out the best in him. He gets up at the same time every day. He eats the same breakfasts and does the same activities. However, he can’t get over the loss of his wife, and decides that suicide is the only answer.

Except that one suicide attempt after another keeps getting thwarted, first by his new neighbors who knock over his mailbox while trying to back up a truck; an estranged neighbor is in desperate need for his help; a scroungy cat seems to think he lives with Ove. Eventually, Ove realizes that he is important to a lot of people.

The novel is – in a word – charming. I don’t think I liked Ove quite as much as Britt-Marie, but the novel was an absolute pleasure to read. The characters are loveable and their funny ways at looking at life – and at Ove – made me laugh.

Anyone who reads this book and doesn’t feel more hopeful and happy after is simply a curmudgeon him or herself.

Treat yourself to a few days with Ove.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Elizabeth Street

My husband and I have been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively in Italy. The bulk of our time has been in Rome, the Cinque Terre, and all over Tuscany. However, we were able to spend a bit of time in Naples and Sicily. Enough time to know that even now, in the 21st century, northern Italy and southern Italy are kind of like two different universes. Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano, reminded me that it wasn’t all that long ago when Italy wasn’t the republic that it is today, and the people in the north looked down on the people in the south and people in the south barely tolerated people in the north.

Fabiano’s novel is based on the true story of her family in Calabria – a region that is located in the “toe of the boot” that is Italy. The economy, even now, is largely dependent on fishing.  Being only a stone’s throw from the island of Sicily, the area was impacted by what would now be called the mafia.

In the beginning of Elizabeth Street, Giovanna Costa and Nunzia, the boy she has grown up loving, are married. Nunzia leaves almost immediately for New York City, where he plans to earn money in the land with streets paved with gold and return to his town of Scilla and his wife with comfortable wealth. He unfortunately dies in a construction accident caused by owner negligence. When Giovanna learns of his death, she travels to America to find out what happened and see where he is buried.

Giovanna is surprised to find that the Italian area of NYC is actually fairly segregated in the early 1800s, with Calabrians barely speaking to immigrants from Rome or Milan. She is a strong-willed and intelligent woman, and eventually learns midwifery from a woman doctor from northern Italy who lives nearby. Eventually  Giovanna marries again, this time to a widower, not for love but for more practical reasons. She marries a man who is kind and happy to have a wife to care for the children from his first marriage.

Eventually, she and her husband build a successful grocery business and things look positive. That is, until they come face-to-face with the increasing power of the so-called Black Hand, a group that was the prequel to the Mafia we know today who extorted business owners for large sums of money. The story focuses on the strength of character of Giovanna despite the trials they faced. As it is based on a true story, it was somewhat of a history lesson about life in big cities in the early 20th century.

The author told a fascinating family story with unexpected twists and turns. I loved the fact that, though a novel, it stayed true to course since it was based on her own family history.

Admittedly the story was a bit slow moving at times. But I enjoyed the descriptions of NYC in the early 20th century and, of course, all the descriptions of food and family.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Shelter Me

A few months ago, I reviewed The Tumbling Turner Sisters, author Juliette Fay’s most recent novel. That particular novel may well end up being one of my favorite reads of 2017 (though it was written in 2016). What’s more, following my post, I got a very nice email from the author thanking me for my review. Now, my mom would say that was just good manners, no?

Because I enjoyed that book so much, I decided to give another of her novels a try, and started with her debut, Shelter Me, written back in 2008. First novels can be risky business. The characters can be flat. The story is often somewhat predictable while the style can be unpredictable.

Shelter Me hooked me with the storyline, and kept me with the realistic characters and behaviors. I really liked the novel.

Young mother Janie is still reeling from the unexpected death of her much-loved husband, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Feeling totally unprepared to be a single mother to her young kindergarten-aged son and toddler daughter, and unable to fully accept what has happened, she lives a life full of anger, confusion, and loneliness.

But suddenly a few months after her husband’s death, a stranger shows up at her door holding a piece of paper that turns out to be a contract for him to build a front porch on to their house. Her husband had made the arrangements, planning to surprise her with the beautiful addition to their home.

After getting over the surprise, Janie gives Tug permission to go ahead with her husband’s wishes.

Now, stop right there. Isn’t that a sweet premise for a book plot? There is just something so delightful as the idea of a husband surprising his wife with a front porch. I think I would have loved this novel even if that was the only thing good about it.

But it wasn’t. Janie’s sadness, often displayed as anger, is so realistic that I could practically feel her rage around me. The supporting cast – an aunt who could be annoying if she just didn’t love her niece so darn much, a neighbor who simply won’t let Janie push her away, and Tug, who is using the front porch to hide his own issues – are believable and likeable.

There was a story line relating to the parish priest who tried his best to provide Janie comfort that seemed unnecessary and simply odd, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.