The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients is a beautifully written story of friendship, revelation and redemption achieved through food. The scene is that of a cooking class, and each lesson is tied to a character’s personal story and unique difficulties which, through cooking with certain ingredients and eating certain foods, are overcome.

Without wanting to give too much away, I must say that the book as a whole is delightful, but it is the opening chapter that moved this book into my top 10 favorites list. This chapter tells the story of a mother who has buried herself in books to hide from grief and who “enjoys every part of a book…[but] collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across a page like cake batter pouring in to a pan, [and] read aloud to put the words in the air.” I do not think this is the normal way of reading, but sometimes I truly do read this way. I am often bursting to share turns of phrase or searching through books that I read years ago trying to find a single paragraph that moved me so profoundly that I return to it time and again. The title character of this chapter, Lillian, is a young girl who learns to cook through trial and error, gains confidence from observation, and learns to cook based on instinct and to the needs of the person (or people) she is feeding, her mother. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am able to cook in the same way that Lillian learns to, I think most home cooks try very hard to make good food that people enjoy eating and that is certainly true of me.

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Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I recently considered joining a book club until realizing the book of the month was Little Bee. I have read this novel cover to cover, always hoping that there would be some point and some value to the story, but now that I have re-read the book and listened to the audio book I can conclusively say there is nothing but sadness and depression ahead of you if you read this book.

I don’t often come across books that I cannot appreciate for one reason or another, but this one takes the cake. I will say this: the novel is well written and quite emotional. However, in the same breath I feel obliged to say that being well written and emotional but offering nothing but sadness is a bad combination. There is no salvation for the young girl fleeing Nigerian civil war, the British family that the finds falls apart because of knowing her, and the end is violent in an ambiguous way that leaves the reader unsatisfied and in need of hugs and comfort food.

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The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

I’m always looking for unusual forms of narration, and The Lover’s Dictionary has proved to be quite a delightful twist from the norm in that regard. By distilling a relationship in to it’s most defining and/or memorable moments and finding precisely the right word with which each moment could be summarized is one of the most interesting perspectives on relationships that I have ever encountered. Add to this that the words are organized alphabetically, beginning with “abyss” and ending with “zenith,” hitting on each letter in between, and the fact that it creates a narrative at all is beyond impressive.

The narrative is not necessarily chronological is it arcs from the first date all the way to the breaking point(s) of the relationship, and yet, David Levithan skillfully captured a wide spectrum of emotions without actually concluding the relationship, and without ever actually providing closure of any sort. It is so brief, and yet I could spend many hours pouring over the pages with the Oxford English Dictionary pulled up trying to research the root, history, past use, and current complexity of meanings with each word. Piecing together the many ways in which the word is rightfully assigned to each moment. In addition to that, however, what I found most compelling about this carefully crafted narrative is that it reads, in many ways, like a poem, yet it also reads like a conversation you might have over drinks with a friend who just needs to get some stuff off his chest about his relationship.

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"Blackout" and "All Clear" by Connie Willis

While wondering around the bookstore with my boyfriend, I found myself in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy section. This is not normally where I dwell in bookstores, but occasionally I peruse sections other than Cookbooks, Fiction/Literature, and Poetry and I am so glad this was one of those occasions. I was struck by the planes dropping bombs and St. Paul’s spire clouded in smoke pictured on the cover of Blackout. When I read “Oxford 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being send to the past” and “World War II” on the back cover, I was sold. I almost would have left at that, but I was so excited about it that my boyfriend, thank goodness, asked if there were any more books in the series. Low and behold, there was the Hugo and Nebula award-winning All Clear too.

I try to keep my obsession with historical fiction under wraps because, honestly, most of it isn’t that good…but I am consoled by telling myself that having a degree in English literature just gives me a more critical sense of high and low literature. Either way, now that the cats out of the bag, I am prepared to gush about these two books. They are phenomenal. It has been quite a while since I found myself so absorbed with a book that I forget to cook dinner and forego sleep just so I can keep reading. I read just about everything I can get my hands on, but this was quite a treat.

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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Even now, weeks since I’ve finished reading Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionists, I’m not sure what to make of it. I picked it up off of a table that was buy two, get the third free (I’m a sucker for those sales!) because it was the only one on there, aside from the two I had planned to buy anyway, that I did not already own. The cover was enticing, with unusual lettering and a tied newspaper at the bottom; however, when I flipped it over to look at the description on the back I found nothing but several additional glowing reviews. A little irritated at the arrogance of designing a book cover such as this, I reluctantly bought it with the other two and let it sit on my shelf for a few weeks.

I picked it up out of desperation, really, since I had created a wish list of books for my birthday and Christmas, and felt that all of the titles on that list were off-limits until after those had past. As usual, people like to get me one book, or maybe two if I’m lucky, but try to stick to presents not on my list because everyone thinks “everyone gets [me] books.” That is fine with me because if I had it my way, I would own a houseful of books and wear goofy old t-shirts instead of the professional clothing that I’m required to wear for work. Alas, my friends and family pretty much keep me looking nice with sweaters and scarves and I appreciate it beyond words, but it still means I spend around 6 weeks each year not buying the books that I most want and then kicking myself for not purchasing them regardless of the list when I only get one or two from the list. To get to the point, I was about three weeks in to the dreadful six to eight week no-book-buying part of the year and I had finished all of my new books…except for The Imperfectionists.

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Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Having focused on modern and contemporary American literature, I was amazed to find that I had somehow overlooked Colum McCann’s writing until only recently. I’d heard of Zoli, and have been meaning to read it for many years now, but it has somehow never made it home with me. It’s supposed to be one of the best historical fiction books about Gypsies in World War II Europe, and after reading Let the Great World Spin I cannot wait to get my hands on McCann’s other books.

With an entirely new time period, cast of characters, and tone, Let the Great World Spin ultimately tells the tale of an unnamed thrill seeker who, on a quest for bigger and greater challenges, finds himself walking, running, dancing, and laying on a tightrope suspended over 100 stories in the air between the twin towers. The novel strives to reveal the slowly spreading reactions of the audience as it spreads from street corner to street corner, then to the news reports on tv,  into the court house, and then into the minds and narratives of the bustling city of NYC. The slowness of people to recognize what was happening above their heads reminded me of just how ingrained it is for us to view the world in view limited to people and shaped by our expectations/definitions of normal. The thrill seeker, by placing himself in an unexpected space, is arguably challenging the confines of the human view and also challenging the assumption that what he is doing is actually a performance. If it is out of the scope of view of his audience, I find myself re-thinking his motives and, yet again, who this adrenaline junkie is and why he has worked so hard for this single stunt.

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Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Colin Meloy is a name you are probably not familiar with, but for any Decemberists fans out there, Meloy is the lead singer. I first hear of this book on the Design*Sponge blog, and decided it was a must have based on Grace’s brief review. I found it difficult to set down the book once I began reading and ended up reading it through the night on my birthday. It was a delight to be pulled in to such an interesting place and story with such ease; I curled up with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate and began reading at 10:30 and looked up after a while only to find that my hot chocolate was cold and it was 3:00 in the morning. I had no idea that many hours had passed, but if the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’ I was definitely having fun!

Wildwood is a coming of age story that reminded me of the best aspects of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Madeleine L’Engle’s the Wrinkle in Time quintet, and still manages to be a lovely and unique story. In addition to this fantastic combination of some of the books I remember most fondly from my childhood, Wildwood charmed me with the beautiful illustrations scattered on pages throughout the book. I don’t often seek out illustrated stories, but the craftsmanship that went in to these illustrations really impressed me from the beginning. The inside cover has a detailed map of the story’s world, but Meloy’s storytelling is good enough that it isn’t necessary to see the map to be familiar with the area. The style of the illustrations and map is demonstrated nicely on the sleeve of the book, but as interesting and nicely done as it is, I find the smaller illustrations embedded within the story much more appealing.

As for the story itself, the main character, Prue, must venture in to the Impassable Wilderness (aka the I.W.) in order to rescue her younger brother who has been abducted by birds. Similar to Narnia, the Impassable Wilderness is inhabited by speaking animals that have organized themselves in to governments/fractions, but there is conflict brewing and Prue finds herself in the middle of it. The Impassable Wilderness is a place that is enchanted in such a way that humans are not supposed to be able to wander in, but Prue’s journey teaches her about family, responsibility, and something new about herself along the way.

I think this novel is something than could be appreciated by young readers and adults alike, especially is you’re looking for an engaging, imaginative, and indisputably well-written story. For people interested in artistic illustrations and a flashback to the books of a bygone era, this is a book to add to the shelves. I have no doubt that this will be a book to share with friends and families for many years to come. I hope you enjoy it!

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

I rarely trust people who urge me to run out and by a whole series of books because I’ll not only be unable to put them down once I start reading, but I’ll be desperate to keep reading as soon as I finish these books. Today, however, I am going to be that person. Suzanne Collins has created one of the most engaging and though-provoking worlds that I have ever encountered. Add to this the incredibly interesting, somewhat unlikeable, and at times tragic characters that react so believably and yet often unexpectedly to the plot and the The Hunger Games series is among literary giants in the top tier of fiction that I have read.

Suzanne Collins has said repeatedly in interviews that the concept for these novels was born out of flipping channels between reality shows and news reports of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add in a dash of mythology (Theseus) and viola, we have a spark that rekindled my ability to and love of getting completely absorbed in a series. I think the idea of merging and/or juxtaposing reality tv and war reports, two very socially complicated things, would create an interesting and challenging discussion in and of itself, but Collins takes it to a new level. She has created this dystopian future in which there are, essentially, twelve towns (districts) completely isolated from each other and one all-powerful capitol that create the country of Panem. Once a year, during the harvest festivals, the capitol unites the country by collecting two “tributes” from each town to compete in the Hunger Games which are televised and required viewing for every citizen. I will not explain the many questions that the above sentence probably raises, because to say more is to detract from the phenomenal, moving experience of reading the novels.

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Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I have long enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, and was thrilled to finally sit down with his book: Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.). Admittedly, there are plenty of moments that caused me to cringe, but there was also a lot of interesting information to be gleaned about the insides of the restaurant business (at least as he portrays it).

The book is hilariously outspoken and treads a line between conversational and a series of stories thoughtfully strung together. I loved that so much value was placed on the sanctity of a chef’s personal organization of his station/workspace. When I was in college one of my biggest pet peeves was roommates changing the way the kitchen was organized. The ability to cook efficiently is certainly not as important at home, but on a tight schedule it certainly helps; even more than that, however, knowing where things are without needing to search through drawers and cabinets to find what ingredient or utensil that you need makes cooking a much more enjoyable experience!

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Great House by Nicole Krauss

I anxiously awaited the paperback release of Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss and the instant I bought it the instant I found it on store shelves. I absolutely loved The History of Love and was sure that I would feel the same about Krauss’ other works too. For the most part, this was an accurate guess on my part, except that I might not have fallen in love with The History of Love during my first reading of that novel; despite a memory that indicates otherwise, I find it likely that it was probably the second or third time through that I really learned to appreciate the incomplete/withheld, multi-narrator, often childishly naive story telling.

Great House: A Novel plays with similar narrative techniques. Where The History of Love unites children and their widowed mother’s translation work with an elderly Jewish refugee fled to America in the 40′s and with a friend entrusted with the elderly man’s manuscript of a novel which the friend published later under his own name, Great House brings together a lonely, divorcée American writer, an antiques dealer in Jerusalem obsessed with obtaining the original furniture from his father’s room destroyed by the Nazis, and a man desperate to know more about his wife who was a powerfully silent writer. Joining these three very different story lines is an immense desk, towering over every room it resides in and filled with drawers of all sizes, some of which have been locked since it’s original owner entrusted his son with a key to a single drawer. Rather than being continuously bought and sold, this desk is given away, loaned, and stolen; all of which echo the ongoing exploration of the inheritance and haunting of loss passed down from parents to child. The inheritance is made larger than life in this desk and is not limited to a single family or part of the world, but rather disperses across the globe with every writer adding their own confessions of doubt, tears for the lost, and news of destruction.

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