Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

I cherish my friends and firmly believe that friendship is one of the best things about living. But, I also recognize that friendship takes work.  It requires one to stay in touch, to be proactive, to plan that lunch date, and to go out when you’d rather stay home and read a book.  I’m not perfect, some friends have drifted away — others, I don’t see enough and I sometimes wonder if I prefer the concept of friendship to the actual participation.

With that preamble, you’ll see why I found Rules for Visiting immediately intriguing.

Here is May Attaway, a middle-aged landscape gardener who is introverted, socially awkward, and living with her father and a cat. She and her father live in a small town and have their routines.  May and her father are equally unconventional and often cranky, but try not to be:

My father and I aren’t great at doing things at the same time as other people:  planting on the last frost date, reading the latest bestseller, eating turkey [at holidays].  I don’t know if it’s chronic procrastination or a dislike of team sports.

May planted a Yew tree on the university grounds where she is employed as a landscape gardener.  She carefully started this Yew tree with a cutting from a famous 3,000 year old specimen in Scotland and has carefully tended it for years.   The beautiful tree inspired one of the university’s professors to write an award-winning poem which has brought the university many accolades. To reward May for her part in cultivating the tree, the university grants her a month of paid vacation.

May takes her time and many pages to figure out what she wants to do with this gift of unscheduled time.  She reads an article about the death of an author, who sadly died while on tour promoting her first novel.  The outpouring of grief from her friends was overwhelming and shared on a webpage which May obsessively pours through.  People shared beautiful stories about Amber and it wasn’t her book or her writing, so much as her ability make people feel good being around her — to be a good friend:

What was obvious in post after post was that Amber had a talent for friendship, which, I suddenly understood, was something that one could be good at, like cooking or singing.  You could be good at being a friend, and no sooner had I had the thought, than I knew I was not.

Inspired to learn to be a friend, May decides to visit four friends from her past.  While she has uncertainties about these friends and her friendships with them — armed with hostess gifts, Emily Post’s guide to etiquette, and her rolling suitcase named Grendel — she sets off.

Her journey is filled with contemplation and mental journeys into the past.  Her mother was a recluse and, as May herself is venturing into this uncomfortable territory, she ponders the plight (and perhaps the advantages) of being sequestered:

People feel sorry for the housebound, but it can be a position of strength, a refusal to meet the world on its terms… The recluse decides when and to whom she will speak, access is limited.

After perusing Emily Post, May makes some rules for her visits, and shares some delightful musings about visiting.  She recounts that Hans Christian Anderson ruined his friendship with Charles Dickens by staying with him three weeks longer than planned.  And these great quotes:

It was a delightful visit — perfect, in being much too short (Jane Austen)

Fish and visitors stink in three days. (Benjamin Franklin)

I won’t go into the details of her visits, except to say that she meets with perfectly appointed guest rooms with matching guest towels and planned itineraries, often including tours of local gardens — afterwards followed by the host’s Facebook posts about her visit.  May muses on this:

…one of the questions I most wanted to ask my friends was: Can I see an average day in your life right now? A real day, not one curated for social media or filled with the best activities to entertain a visitor. On the one hand, it’s a simple question. On the other, it’s almost too intimate. And it might be impossible, because the presence of a visitor changes a day, no matter how close the friends are.

But May also gets to see her friends’ troubles — she wipes some tears, deals with precocious children, and receives unexpected affection.  Her friends aren’t perfect and can’t possibly meet May’s expectations.  But, she soon realizes one of the most important facets of friendship – overlooking the annoyances, the sharp edges, the unintended hurts — and learns to enjoy these friends just as they are — themselves.

This novel is not only about friendship and families — but also plants. Ms. Kane uses botanical interludes throughout the book. Delightful sketches of trees introduce each section with Latin names given in parentheses. These plant narratives provide cogent analogies between human and plant behavior.  These were entertaining for me, but may not be interesting for non-plant people.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rules for Visiting — it’s a quiet gem of a novel about a complex, wry, yet insecure woman in pursuit of friendship and human connection.  And this reader came away with a renewed sense of the importance of friendships — and gently reminded they require attention, forgiveness, risk, vulnerability —  but mostly love.

In the last chapter we are given May’s Rules for Visiting:

1. Do not arrive telling stories about the difficulties of your trip.
2. Bring a gift.
3. Make your bed and open the curtains.
4. Help in the kitchen, if you’re wanted.
5. Unless you are very good with children, wait until you hear at least one adult moving around before getting up in the morning.
6. Don’t feed the pets.
7. Don’t sit in your host’s place.
8. If you break something, admit it.
9. Say goodnight before bed.
10. Always send a thank-you note.

An advanced readers copy was provided by Penguin/Random House.

A little romance

I don’t often read romance novels — at least not intentionally, but this spring I happened to dive into a couple of romantic tales which turned out to be praise-worthy, so here we go

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Here at Book Barmy, I’m often asked to review debut novels.  This always presents a quandary, as many established, award winning authors and their books await me.  But I admire any first time author who has the talent and perseverance to complete a novel – not to mention, weathering the gauntlet to publication.  So I’ll give these first novels a good 50 pages to determine if I’ll carry on.  Sorry to say, many don’t pass the 50 page test and I sadly put them aside.

Not only did Letters to the Lost pass my test, I was instantly sucked into the story from the first page and, in the end, was quite bowled over.

Normally, I try not to appropriate a book’s publicity blurb,  but will make an exception — just read this:

Late on a frozen February evening, a young woman is running through the streets of London. Having fled from her abusive boyfriend and with nowhere to go, Jess stumbles onto a forgotten lane where a small, clearly vacant old house offers her best chance of shelter for the night. The next morning, a mysterious letter arrives and when she can’t help but open it, she finds herself drawn inexorably into the story of two lovers from another time.

In London 1943, Stella meets Dan, a US airman, quite by accident, but there is no denying the impossible, unstoppable attraction that draws them together. Dan is a B-17 pilot flying his bomber into Europe from a British airbase; his odds of survival are one in five. In the midst of such uncertainty, the one thing they hold onto is the letters they write to each other. Fate is unkind and they are separated by decades and continents.

In the present, Jess becomes determined to find out what happened to them. Her hope – inspired by a love so powerful it spans a lifetime – will lead her to find a startling redemption in her own life in this powerfully moving novel.

Not another dual-timeline story I thought, but Letters to the Lost is nicely constructed.  The story seamlessly alternates between the homeless, frightened Jess trying to re-build her life, while hiding (squatting?) in her borrowed house and the romance of Dan and Stella during WWII — and is mostly told through their letters  (I love me a book told through letters.)

During WWII, Stella’s marriage has proven to be loveless and she falls hard for Dan, an American pilot.  Their affair and secret rendezvous take place in the abandoned house where Jess is hiding in present day.  Jess opens a letter that arrives in the mail slot from Dan, now elderly and dying in America.  He is writing to the last address he had for Stella in hopes of finding her again.  This discovery leads to Jess finding the letters Dan wrote to Stella.  Thus starts the journey that grabbed me, spanning sixty years and over 500 pages.

Stella’s story was the more fascinating for me, ranging from the frightening blackouts and bombs falling on London.  But there are also church fetes, arguments over scones, the effects of rationing, and the luxury of canned peaches.

Jess modern story is bit more contrived.  Will, working for a company that finds lost heirs, uses the company’s keys to enter the house in order to find any inheritance papers.  He discovers Jess hiding in the house and after a few strange conversations agrees to let her continue to hide in the house.  Together Jess and Will try to solve the mystery of what happened to Stella and grow closer and closer.  As Jess reads the letters we read them with her, the gaps are filled by our visits to Stella’s world, and the story unfolds for both worlds.

Letters to the Lost is not a perfect novel, but its shortcomings are overshadowed by its many strengths. The ending left me both choked up and melancholy.  The characters stayed with me long after I finished.  I must admit it took me a while to recover from this engrossing read.

An digital advanced readers copy was kindly provided by St. Martin’s Press/Griffin via Netgalley

 

 

Marriage for Rosamond by Louise Platt Hauck

As Book Barmy fans already know, I volunteer at the Friends of the Library Bookstore…and every so often we get vintage books with delightful covers. Like Marriage for Rosamond – just look at the cover.  Can you blame me for wanting it?  For five dollars I took this home. (Volunteering yet still buying books — this is why Husband has gray hair.)

Marriage for Rosamond was written in 1937 and published by Madison Square Books which sports the following marketing blurb on the back with a listing of their titles:

Books for every taste and mood — outstanding novels, delightful romances, thrilling mysteries, two-gun Westerns.

I closed my eyes and pictured these books on musty bookshelves in knotty pine lake homes, with comfortably shabby furniture, porch swings, and long afternoons reading these novels in the shade. 

 

Turns out this was one of their romances — the chick-lit of the 1930’s.

The plot revolves around the innocent but privileged Rosamond who falls in love with Jim.  But in this period piece they don’t just fall in love they ‘woo’, for pages and pages.  I almost gave up but when they get married and Rosamond moves to Jim’s grand home in Kansas City the plot actually got more interesting and there were some simple, but unforeseen developments.  Turns out Jim has a sickly brother Rich, who Jim dotes upon.  Rich moves into their house and while he doesn’t seem that ill, he has trouble recovering from small health setbacks.  Rosamond has mixed feelings, recognizing that Jim is being manipulated — but she decides to stick with her role as a loving and devoted wife:

The young wife learned hard lessons during these weeks.  She learned to sit quietly by while Jim talked of Rich; his accident, the possible weakening of his reserve strength, his childhood illnesses.  She learn to eat her meals with Jim sunk into depressed silence or starting up when one of the nurses came downstairs.  She learned — and this was the bitterest lesson of all! — that she did not count at all with Jim, at least while Rich was so ill.

When Rosamond is called upon to be Rich’s full time caregiver — the situation becomes intolerable.  Rosamond leaves, fleeing back to her devoted grandfather and their vast family home.  All seems over with the marriage — but in the end the story revolves around to a satisfying ending.

What I found most interesting about Marriage for Rosamond was the author’s writing style — typical of the period.  The literate vocabulary was a joy with proper usage of words such as ~~ benighted, quiddity, indubitably and vivant.  And the often sentimental passages, which I found lovely, old-fashioned and somehow touching:

She dropped a velvet cheek against his hand…

Jim was too close to the weaving to see the pattern…

For me, this romantic novel was a master-class in 1930’s American domestic drama and while it was sometimes over-dramatic, it was never overwrought.  I had a grand time reading Marriage for Rosamond.

Paris By the Book by Liam Callanan

I am truly hopeless.  Despite a house full of books, I’m nonetheless tempted by the librarian recommendation shelf at my branch library.  Often there are gems that haven’t received much publicity.  Paris by the Book seemed like just such a gem.  The cover called my name and the description reached out to shake my hand.  A setting in Paris, a cozy bookstore and a family mystery. Then there was the first sentence: “Once a week, I chase men who are not my husband.”  

I had it checked out and under my arm in no time.

Milwaukee novelist Robert Eady is gone, but his wife, Leah and daughters aren’t too concerned. They’ve become accustomed to his ‘write-aways’ — when Robert, an author of children’s books, leaves for a few days of writing, and then returns. He always left a note saying when he’d be home again, and he always came back.

But this time he doesn’t leave his usual note but instead leaves his wife and daughters plane tickets to Paris.  So to Paris they go and one of their leads takes them to a small, floundering English-language bookstore whose aging proprietor is eager to sell the shop.

So what do they do? They buy the shop and decide to live in Paris.  Okay I really like these people. Especially Leah our narrator, who is usually hapless but always funny, honest, and snarky.

The daughters, who are mature beyond their years, integrate themselves easily into Parisian life and their new school — all while they continue to search for their father.  But, we soon learn from Leah’s story  that her marriage had its issues, and past hurts reveal themselves to her daughters:

We should have stayed in Milwaukee. Or we should have moved to the desert. Jupiter. Some place he’d never find us. Some place we’d never find him.

So the reader is drawn into the mystery — Robert may or may not be dead.  Is Leah abandoned or widowed? Does she really want him back?

We learn about Paris through two of the couple’s favorite Paris things. Robert admired the Madeleine books and their fanciful  depiction of Paris.  Leah, on the other hand, adores the film The Red Balloon and its realistic version of the city just after the war.

Some parts of the story are nonsensical, but Paris by the Book is a fast-paced read and I didn’t bother to ponder the logic of the story line.  I got caught up in Mr. Callanan’s depictions of Paris which are breathtaking and his unique characters who aren’t always likeable, but compelling in their own right

I didn’t love this book, but I certainly enjoyed it.  Paris by the Book is a clever concoction — a rickety marriage, a faulty mother, a family mystery — all stirred up with books, bookshops and the stunning beauties of Paris as a backdrop. 


I’ll leave you with this photo from the top of Notre Dame before the fire.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

I’m a fan of Ruth Reichl – from her restaurant reviews, to her time as editor of Gourmet magazine, to her memoirs and cookbooks – I’ve read most everything she’s done.  So I was highly excited to read her latest memoir mostly because it gives more insight into the great, late lamented magazine  — Gourmet  (I subscribed for many, many years and miss to this day).

Save Me the Plums opens as an 8-year-old Ruth finds an old Gourmet Magazine in a used bookstore while accompanying her father on errands. She is transported by its descriptions of foreign lands, exotic foods and ingredients. She begins to collect the magazines and starts cooking.  Her cooking skills expand as her mother brings home strange new foods and her father takes her through different ethnic neighborhoods to  search for ingredients.

Forty years later and Ms. Reichl, now the restaurant critic for the NY Times, gets an unexpected offer from Condé Nast to run Gourmet Magazine. There are many adjustments in this new career, one of which is her delight to once again cook and eat at home rather than reviewing  restaurants most every night.   She is excited but also intimidated and overwhelmed during her first few weeks as editor of Gourmet Magazine. 

She’s suddenly thrust into the role of highly paid executive, flying and traveling first class, having a limousine and driver, and most astonishingly, having a clothing allowance.  Ms. Reichl is surprised how quickly she adapts to the monied, glitzy world of Condé Nast –her portrayals of the lavish Gourmet parties are some of her best food writing.  She also gleefully sprinkles in snide and sometimes snarky gossips about the staff . 

There’s a chapter on a business trip to Paris that made me clench my teeth with unseemly envy.  Ms. Reichl travels in Condé Nast style, with lunch at at the famed Pierre Gagnaire , a suite at Le Meurice hotel and a shopping trip to the original kitchenware emporium E.Dehillerin where the staff loads up on copper pans. This wild trip results in one the best selling Gourmet issues on Paris (an issue I saved and still have).

In one of my favorite parts — she opens the door to reveal the famous Gourmet test kitchen(s) – and from her description they are (whoops were) everything I imagined.  She writes of 9/11 and how in those same test kitchens the staff at Gourmet cooked for the first responders and firefighters.

Save Me the Plums presents a different Ruth Reichl, once a Berkeley hippie who palled around with Alice Waters seeing the beginnings of the slow food movement — this Ruth Reichl is now a sophisticated publishing executive who, for ten years thrived on everything Gourmet both gave her and demanded of her.

At a small Paris restaurant Ms. Reichl re-encounters a well-known-in-French-society widower, and when she expresses her surprise to see him ‘slumming’, he responds:

When you attain my age you will understand one of life’s great secrets: Luxury is best appreciated in small portions. When it becomes routine it loses its allure.

In Save Me the Plums Ms. Reichl gives us a rich portion — a glimpse into the luxurious world of magazine publishing, and shares her decade at the helm of Gourmet with warmth, candor, and humor. 

And for dessert, she even includes a few of her favorite recipes.

 

 

 

An Advanced Readers Copy was kindly provided by Random House

—————————————————————————————————————————————

Also recommended:   My Kitchen Year and any of Ms. Reichl’s memoirs.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Hello Book Barmy followers ~~

I know, I know — it’s been ages since I posted here.  No excuses, merely laziness combined with doing other things.  My apologies. Good news, I have finished several books and they’re stacked up right here by the computer.  I promise to try and do better, to post more often, and tell you about my reads.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Remember THIS post wherein I made a vow to read more critically acclaimed books?

Well, folks here’s another one. 

I caught an interview with Ms. Nunez on NPR when The Friend was published last year.  She was smart, charming and eloquent. Later, when it won the National Book Award, I thought I’d better give it a try.  I finally found it in my huge teetering stack pile of TBR’s and opened it one evening.

A short novel, at a little over 200 pages, it reads as a writer’s journal.  The ‘friend’ in the title is our unnamed narrator’s ex-lover and literary mentor — a reprehensible womanizer with three wives (two ex; one current).  As the book opens, the friend has recently committed suicide, leaving our narrator, his current wife, and his huge Great Dane, Apollo, traumatized.

No one wants to take Apollo.  Our grieving narrator, living in a no-pets-allowed New York City apartment takes the giant dog home until something can be sorted out:

“It’s not his fault he’s not a cute little puppy.  It’s not his fault he’s so big.  And it might sound crazy, but I have this feeling that if I don’t keep him something bad will happen.  If he has to move one more time, he could develop so many problems he’ll end up having to be put down.  And I can’t let that happen.  I have to save him.”

Wife One says, “Who are we talking about?”

The dog and our narrator both are suffering with grief and depression. The narration meanders around several major themes, the unexplained suicide of the mentor, the struggles of writing and teaching writing, and the narrator’s relationship with the Great Dane.

There are some very funny bits — as when our narrator takes Apollo to her therapy session and when she discovers that the languid dog perks up when she reads to him out loud.  Simultaneously, there are some beautiful, heart wrenching passages, such as this one written in the writers journal style:

The dead dwell in the conditional, tense of the unreal. But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.

Together our narrator and Apollo struggle through and come to a somewhat reluctant relationship — but just then the book ends abruptly and the last chapter left me up in the air. 

In the end, this book is a stream of consciousness about love, friendship, life, suicide, pets, and writing.  

There is no real plot, there are no resolutions, and the only fully developed character is the dog.

Yes, it won the 2018 National Book Award and yes, The Friend is beautifully written,

                        but I found it a beautiful disappointment.

 

 

 

 

 

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

The Language of Food A Linguist Reads the Menu

by Dan Jurafsky

 

Fellow foodie friends loaned me this book.  We share a love of cookbooks, cooking and seeking out new foods — but they touted it as a completely different type of food book ~~ The Language of Food is just that – like nothing you’ve ever read.

Written by a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University, Mr. Jurafsky (and his team) devoted many (many) hours exploring the origin of food terminology — from food names to the nuances of menu writing — and happily melded it all with computerized linguistic tools to evolve the genesis of this book.

Whoa, I first thought — way above my mental pay grade, but I was instantly fascinated by the introduction, in which the author explains his fascination with food linguists and how it involves the science, history, and culture of many regions.   He explains the origin of  ‘ketchup’ which derives from a pungent Chinese fermented fish sauce pronounced ke-tchup in Cantonese. This sauce was brought back to Europe by English and Dutch explorers and evolved over 400 years to suit Western tastes and become today’s ubiquitous tomato based condiment.  Macaroni descends from a Persian almond pastry which intermingled with the pastas of the Arabs to become pasta.  And toasts at weddings historically involved toasted bread.

The first chapter of The Language of Food is devoted to menus and their language. You will both chuckle and be struck at restaurant menu manipulation  Back in the 1970’s the use of French denoted expensive and swanky meals – such as ‘Fried Chicken a la Maryland’ or ‘Ravioli en casserole’.  Today fancy restaurants do the same thing with often ridiculous descriptions of the origins of the food — grass fed, pasture raised, green market cucumbers (this is especially rampant here on the West Coast and was lampooned in a very funny episode on Portlandia — watch clip HERE.) 

But I digress…

Restaurant price points are so ingrained in their menu language that we’re not even aware of it (at least it never occurred to me before).  Expensive restaurants use ‘chefs daily selection’  or set prix-fixe menus.  In contrast, cheaper places give the diner a lot of choice – not only do they have far more dishes, they also prepare meals to your liking ‘prepared your way’.  In fact Mr. Jurafsky points out that the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ appear much more often in cheaper restaurants. And what about middle-priced places?  — well they tend to use lots of adjectives such as this mouth watering description of an apple pie:

Rustic Apple Galettte: Hand crafted tart in five inches of butter flaky french puff pastry.  We layer fresh ripe apples and bake to a golden brown.

I’ll leave this menu chapter now, but not before I point you to something mentioned which I almost missed – the NY Public Library Menu Collection. I had great fun wasting time one rainy evening.  Just take a look and click on some of these wonderful old menus that have been digitally preserved – such as from ocean liners back in the early 1900’s or you can enter a favorite restaurant from your memory and there it is.  Such fun.

Okay back to the book.

Sex, Drugs, and Sushi Rolls is an eye-opening chapter on the power of language in restaurant reviews –  and how reviewers often use words connected to sex or drugs to hype — such as ‘the chicken wings are addicting’ or  ‘the ice cream pastry was just orgasmic’.  Perhaps most interesting was the scientist’s investigation into often rigged on-line reviews (such as Yelp) which can sadly bring down a perfectly good restaurant.

In other chapters, you’ll get to read about junk food marketing and how advertising copy got us to crave potato chips and kettle corn at festivals.  You’ll learn why the Chinese don’t have dessert and how today’s group cooking/dinner parties evolved from cooking clubs in a mouth watering region in Basque.

I think it comes with the territory, that a food linguist/computer scientist can and will get pedantic.  So I must admit I didn’t entirely get through each and every chapter, but I did read quite a bit more of this book than I originally thought I would – (see Mental Pay Grade above…)

The Language of Food is sometimes geeky but more often actually quite fascinating, and I applaud Mr. Jurafsky for devoting so much effort to bring us such delightful insight into the language, history, culture and origins of our food and eating experiences.


 

I’m off to make our dinner and it’s definitely going to be chefs choice….