Book Review: Mastering the Art of French Eating

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I will admit, I bought this book after a friend recommended it solely based off the title. I had a vague idea of what it was about, a woman eating dishes known for their French roots,  I like food and I dream of international travel so I was sold. But what I was not prepared for was her honest look at being married to someone in public service, and the emotional hurdles that come with it. Some might find it similar to that of a military spouse… Hm… It may or may not have struck a nerve.

The author, Ann Mah, is married to a diplomat, who gets the dream station assignment of Paris. It was a life they had wanted, Paris together for a few years to explore and find their neighborhood spots to eat and drink and be merry. Unfortunately, soon after the move her husband was sent to Baghdad where he was needed (the book takes place during the early 2000s to give refernce). This left Ann alone in Paris for a whole year by herself, with her shaky French and few acquaintances. With a background in writing, a love of food and some encouragement to follow her curiosity, Ann delved into the history of classic French dishes.

She explored the origins of Steak Frites in Paris, Andouillete in Troyes, Crepes in Brittany, Salade Lyonnaise in Lyon (duh), Soup au Pistou in Provence, Cassoulet in Toulouse/Castelnaudaey/Carcassone, Choucroute in Alsace, Fondue in Savoie/Haute-Savoie, Boeuf Bourguignon in Burgundy, and Aligot in Aveyron. Before I read this book, I had heard of and/or was vaguely familiar with 5 of the above dishes, French cuisine is somewhat uncharted territory for someone who hails from the land of Tex-Mex. In each region, Mah speaks to local experts on the dish about where it came from, who ate it, why these ingredients to give a well rounded story of the region and the food, before trying them all herself.

While I enjoyed learning about the French food and history of the regions, it was really Mah’s honesty about her emotional experiences during this time of separation and exploration that made me enjoy the book the most. While spending a year in Paris traveling to the different regions to eat may sound like a dream come true, I thought Mah’s expression of her nervousness for traveling alone, self-consciousness about her speaking ability, and struggle to enjoy balanced with the worry over a spouse in a conflict zone made it an honest account. It did not read as a privileged person bragging about their travels and name-dropping. Instead we find Mah in humble settings with locals. Much more relatable. I haven’t read that much about Julia Child (shame on me) but Mah referenced her often, and

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

In the ever-buzzing hub of Seattle, there is Bee and her eccentric family. With two successful parents, and a free spirit of a mom–Bernadette, as an example, Bee excels in school and her reward is a family trip to Antartica. But amidst all the chaos of Bernadette’s job and her ever growing dislike of Seattle and its population, Bernadette disappears before the trip even starts to take form. It’s up to Bee to find her mom by piecing together what emails, messages and documents she can find to make sense of her mom’s life that lead her to leave.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (by Maria Semple)

I wish I could begin this review with a sigh (sigh). This book had so much hype about it and I kept hearing great reviews first-person, face to face was told that they’ll just loved it. So why did I not enjoy it? What happened? Oh yeah, it never got past the surface. Why did no one warn me?? I feel like I would have enjoyed it more, going in knowing that it would be that shallow and far-fetched. I get it, it’s satirical, criticizing a certain population of Seattle, but it wasn’t clever enough. I barely cracked a smile. Gone are the days of Wilde and Moliere.

I found Bee to be the only truly likeable character and the story kept my interest even with so little consequential action but don’t go looking for anything deeper than a series of correspondances and official papers can go. Unfortunately, we do not get a glimpse at how all of this information about her mom affects Bee and her relationship with Bernadette. It’s a quick read and just lightly touches on mother-daughter roles and what genius looks like. Overall I think my expectations might have tainted what could have been a nice “fluff” read but there still was so little going on and I could not get attached to any of the characters that I found it frustrating. You can read the GoodReads reviews/summary here.

Has anyone else read Where’d You Go, Bernadette and found it as wonderful as so many others did? Or did anyone share my opinion or part of it?

Book Review: A Marker to Measure Drift

A young Liberian woman, Jacqueline, who has escaped the civil war to Greece, is on her own in a strange new place. No food, no home, no money, she is forced to make her way on an island where it is not certain if she will be greeted with pity and hospitality or by suspicion or even harm. To escape the haunting memories of what she left behind, Jacqueline focuses instead on her most basic and sensory needs: protection from the sun, water, a bath, enough food to make it through the day, and dignity. But it is these solely physical feelings that drag her back through the vivid nightmare of what she is trying to forget, each relief from an ailment bringing flashbacks of sensory equivalence from home. Her companion when she needs it the least, is her mother’s nagging voice in her head, or is it exactly what she needed to hear to keep her in check? Jacqueline’s story is one that brings to question whether it is better to strive to forget what has hurt us with a blissful facade or to confront them head on and tackle them with all our consciousness.

I found Maksik’s novel quite simple to read. You’re never confused as to where she is in time or place and the prose is not strewn out, but rather choppy. It does follow her conscious thoughts with very little dialogue with the occasional banter with her mother’s voice inside her head, but who doesn’t have that going on. The story, although not a light one does have a satisfactory ending that left me content. I found Jacqueline to be a strong female protagonist that although we don’t see her rise out of the ashes like a phoenix, she certainly prevailed by leaving safely from a doomed fate. I didn’t love it but I certainly didn’t hate it. I thought it was a good read and for some reason I keep picking up stories about refugees or people who have escaped from civil unrest, which I find enlightening. I enjoy books that transport me into different cultures. Is that not one of the joys of reading: To experience countries and cultures without actually leaving our homes?

Has anyone else had the chance to read A Marker to Measure Drift? Any thoughts? (Goodreads link through the title if you would like to read another synopsis and/or reviews)

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed

Oh Khaled Hosseini! How your words both move me to go see the places so dense with history and warn me of why I shouldn’t. And the Mountains Echoed is a beautiful paradox composed of the tenderest emotions shared between family and confidants and the harsh reality of a war torn country and what it reduces it’s inhabitants to. In a expansive web of characters spanning the US, Europe and the middle East, Hosseini weaves together generations of life-altering decisions that all culminate in coming face to face with the truths that have been kept from them.

This is definitely one of Hosseini’s lighter books, especially after reading A Thousand Splendid Suns (which I balled through the entirety of) because it touches on softer emotions like the love between brother and sister, the devotion of a daughter to her ailing father, and the kindness of a foreign doctor. What I loved about these characters is that their struggles were actually approachable for someone with “first-world problems”. And their struggles weren’t viewed as flaws but instead as what makes them the strong, if not stubborn, individuals that they are. I am a big fan of this whole trend in literature where stories cross generations and come to a satisfying ending which is what I got from And the Mountains Echoed. No, it wasn’t exactly a happy ending but I think that all the pieces fell into place neatly and no story was wasted or used as filler. And to be fair, it was a bittersweet ending. My personal favorite character was the Greek doctor Markos and his story of growing up in Greece and what led him to Afghanistan.

Everyone in the story has a family story clouded by poor judgement and each chapter delves deeper and deeper into how far the consequences of those poor judgement reach. I enjoyed reading this book and I recommend reading it.

Has anyone else read And the Mountains Echoed or any other of Hosseini’s books?

Book Review: An Officer and a Spy

One of the things about myself that I have learned since graduating and finally getting to read what I want to, is that I love historical fiction. Which is really odd because I wasn’t the biggest fan of history in school (from the beginning all the way through college) and I think I took one history class while in college. But it’s true. I find it fascinating. Maybe it’s the personal touch from reading from someone’s point of view instead of cold hard facts or maybe it’s the embellishment that adds more life to the story. Whatever it is, I’ve been digging in. An Officer and A Spy was recommended to me by GoodReads due to my interest in Erik Larson books, and I think the recommendation was spot on. If you’re familiar with European history, specifically French history, then the Dreyfus Affair will be familiar, which is the basis of this novel.  For those of you who may slept through this section of World History, the Dreyfus Affair in short was a political scandal in which Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier, was accused and convicted of treason and sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. The “scandal” part of the story is that he was innocent and when evidence of who was the real traitor came to light, the French military began an elaborate cover-up to frame Dreyfus instead of convicting the true traitor.

An Officer and A Spy begins at the public degradation of Dreyfus, and follows Georges Picquart, a French Officer, recently promoted to head of Counter Intelligence, as he slowly begins to bring to light the details surrounding Dreyfus’ conviction. The evidence, or lack there of, against Dreyfus uncovers the real spy but Picquart quickly discovers that maybe that’s not the goal anymore and is forced to make decisions for or against his moral standing and for or against his country.

It’s a spy novel with real substance. Even knowing the ending didn’t keep me from reading more and more into the night, wondering the fate of Picquart and his clandestine investigation. It’s historical fiction done right and I recommend reading it if you can give it the time. Here’s the GoodReads summary and reviews if you wish to read more about it.

If I knew how to say “Have a good read” in French, I would. But, instead, all I have is Bon Voyage! Close enough.

“It is better to have your nose in a book, then in someone else’s business” -Adam Stanley

Book Review: Wild

A very honest memoir to reflect a life that was torn apart and then pieced back together. After her mother’s death, her family members scattering after the death, and her marriage falling apart Cheryl Strayed decides to take on the Pacific Coast Trail. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker and really no preparation for what lie ahead but she took it on alone in hopes that it would put the pieces of herself back together.

Spoilers coming…

My review of the book: Meh. I guess I had higher expectations for such a daunting task after being broken into pieces after tragedy but this did not deliver. I don’t know how harsh that is to say, seeing it is a memoir and what’s being said actually happened but it didn’t seem like she actually took away all that she could from that experience. I got so tired of her as a narrator. She was in amazing scenery, surrounded by nature and few material distractions and all she could think about was sex. That was disappointing to me. Sex, the last time she had sex, who she wanted to have sex with, then she had sex with a stranger and then talked some more about it. Oh and the last time she did heroin (right before the trip). Just great…

This was an incredibly empowering achievement to do this by herself and she had the right motive but it just seemed to me that she couldn’t get past the immediate needs, the superficial needs instead of what was to come out of this hike, how this was going to help her or bring her clarity or some kind of enlightenment. I hope she got what she needed from the hike because I’ll never really know from her account. I did enjoy what scenery she did describe and the account about the fellow hikers and her few encounters with the wildlife but they were few and far between. I guess I’ll just stick to Kerouac and Krakauer. It got good ratings on GoodReads here.

Has anyone else read Wild and have a different review? Anyone have this on their To-Read list? I read it for a book-club I’m in.

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Book Thief

Book review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I tried my best not to give anything away!

Note the cover I have but wish I did!

Fascinating. That’s the best word I can use to describe this book but I want to use so much more than that. From the first page you know that this will not be what you were expecting. Without giving anything away, because I want others to enjoy the shock of finding out who the narrator is when they read the first page too, it is a point of view that I had not considered for this time frame before. We’ve seen the perspective of the Jewish people, the Germans, the Americans, and other participants and observers but never before from this point of view. Through the eyes of someone who dealt with the havoc as their sole responsibility and with such a personal touch.

The writing is exquisite. It’s dark. It’s poetic. It brings out the literary nerd inside of you that wants to hi-light and underline and to be given a reason to repeat that line! To anyone! That happens in every chapter. But you have to appreciate the comedic relief Zusak brings. It’s not feel-good humor. None of that. It’s like wincing as you stifle a life. But it’s there to lighten the mood as you start to feel too depressed. It’s a realistic portrait of life. Interjected into a reality painted so thoughtfully are the blunt matter-of-fact details of deaths of characters. You know it’s coming and the narrator does not let you forget it.

You follow the life of Liesel, a girl growing up outside of Munich during the rise of Nazi Germany, who has a talent for thievery that keeps her sane during this hectic time in history. This talent and a love of books connects her to people and gives her power and security.

I’ve heard you either love or hate it. It’s a kind of story. I personally loved it and have been shouting it from the rooftops. Hope you give it a chance!

Any opinions from someone who didn’t like it? Opinions from someone who loved it as much as I did?