Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Orange World and Other Stories

Karen Russell is a highly awarded author whose stories are both beautiful and unsettling. Her newest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is full of tales of worlds that are just a bit more bizarre than the one we live in.

The book starts with a pair of friends hoping to take advantage of a few marks at a fancy hotel, only to discover that the party they've crashed is attended only by ghosts. In The Bad Graft and Bog Girl, characters spend time in nature as a woman pricks her finger on a Joshua tree and a young man falls in love with the body of a woman pulled from the bog. It's not the only pairing, as men consider their purposes in The Tornado Auction and Black Corfu (although careers raising tornadoes and preventing the undead from rising are as different as can be). The final two stories may have been my favorite, though. In The Gondoliers, sisters traverse the dangerous waters of a post-apocalyptic Florida by singing and in Orange World, a new mother encounters a devil who preys on her fears and demands to be fed.

The stories are often funny and always dropping you into strange, new worlds. Russell is a literary wizard who imagines scenarios that could never exist in any other writer's head. Somehow in the midst of ghosts, zombies, and devils, she makes us think about the most vulnerable moments of our humanity and how we make decisions for ourselves and the people we love.  I can't wait to see what strange and beautiful places Russell will take us next.

Orange World and Other Stories
By Karen Russell
Knopf Publishing Group May 2019
288 pages
From the library

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Save Me the Plums

Ruth Reichl was known for her insightful restaurant reviews. But she wasn't sure she was qualified to run Gourmet magazine. When she was offered the job of editor-in-chief, she overcame her hesitation to lead the publication she had loved for decades. She would work at the magazine for ten years, learning that the things that worked in a review column didn't always work when success was determined by the whims of both staff and readers.

Save Me the Plums is the real-life dishy look inside the day-to-day operations of a magazine that you've always wanted. As you read, you feel like you're tasting a cake in the magazine's kitchen or attending a party with the hottest celebrity chefs. She easily throws off references to Alice Waters and James Beard, but it doesn't come across as braggy; Reichl is just showing you her world from her unconventional childhood to making dinner with her son.

Reichl is a foodie who understands there is more to it than creating a beautiful and delicious plate. She believes that food writing should bring to light the damage we do to our planet in the quest for certain foods and the reality that eating well is not possible for everyone. When she ran Gourmet, she insisted that the magazine feature writing that would inspire and challenge people, instead of continuing to be an old-fashioned magazine for the wealthy. Save Me the Plums is an loving tribute to the heyday of magazine publishing, when fascinating and provocative articles about food were the topics of conversation everywhere.

I can't believe I waited so long to read something by Ruth Reichl. Her love for food is evident on every page, and she has a true gift for telling a great story. I will be happily reading through her backlist this summer.

Save Me the Plums
My Gourmet Memoir
By Ruth Reichl
Random House April 2019
288 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: We Will Feast

Kendall Vanderslice grew up loving church and loving the way that eating brought people together. She believed that there was a connection between food and theology and finally found them co-existing at a Massachusetts dinner church. Kendall traveled the country from Texas to Michigan to see how people come together to worship and eat. 

We Will Feast is not prescriptive; Kendall visits a variety of congregations and cautions that this kind of church does not work for everyone. But she does wonder how we bring people into church who feel uncomfortable with traditional practices. "For those who have grown up in a church, the code and language of that specific setting are learned unconsciously. But for those who have not developed such a training, stepping into a community can be awkward or even painful. Holding a worship service over a simple meal subverts all expectations of behavior...It can challenge a church to use the Eucharist not only as a sign of God's abundance but also as a practice that uses God's abundance to bring together men and women from a variety of social backgrounds."

Every two months or so, I invite the women of my congregation to come to my house for dinner. We answer some discussion questions, but mostly we enjoy enchiladas or lasagna together. I've realized that people are much more likely to open up about their lives over a meal. It's easier to really discuss something when we know that there is time to take a sip of coffee or break off a piece of bread and consider our answers. Coming around a communion table or a table in a church basement gives us the opportunity to really see and hear each other in a way we can't when we say that we're doing fine while running out the door.

The Bible tells us not just to come together once a week to have a service and then go home. It tells us to live together, and that includes sitting around a table to eat pizza on a Friday night or share a crockpot of soup after we take Communion together. We Will Feast is crucial reading for those of us who attend church. It asks us to think about how we welcome people and how we can include the lonely, the questioning, and people who don't look or think like us in our feasting.

We Will Feast
Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God
By Kendall Vanderslice
Eerdmans May 2019
176 pages
Received book as part of launch team

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Paragon Hotel

Alice James is fleeing across the country. She makes polite small talk with her fellow travelers on a train to Oregon, while covertly nursing the bullet wound in her side. While she might fool some people, Max can tell right away that something is wrong and she needs a safe place. The porter takes a chance on Alice by bringing her to the Paragon Hotel, the only all-black hotel in Portland. Some of its residents are fascinated by Alice and her ability to instantly change her story and her personality; but others are wary of her presence. They have good reason to suspect white people: the Ku Klux Klan is on the rise in Portland and even the Paragon may not be safe for long.

If you read and enjoyed Lyndsay Faye's book Jane Steele, you already know that she has an uncanny ability to tell a dark story that is also ridiculously fun. She makes the same magic happen in The Paragon Hotel. This is a book about people who had no power and no rights in the 1920s--women, people of color, and gay and transexual people. While modern Oregon is seen as somewhat of a liberal mecca, it was a difficult place in the early twentieth century. In fact, is is the only state that banned black people from living there and it had one of the highest concentrations of Klan members in the United States. The Paragon is based on a real hotel in Portland, which was the only place for people of color to safely stay during their time in the city.

As a reader, you are going to be worried about these characters on almost every page. But you are also going to embark on a colorful, joyous adventure with larger-than-life characters. And at certain moments, it does feel like too much. Surely not every single person can be so charming, so fascinating, and have such an unexpected backstory. As you read along, it feels almost as if you are watching a movie because the stakes are always so high and the characters are always bright and compelling. Lyndsay Faye has written another story you won't want to put down.

The Paragon Hotel
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 26, 2019

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

Aiden wakes up to the shock of his life: he is inside someone else's body. He is told that tonight a murder will occur. It is up to him to figure out who will commit the murder. If he can correctly name the killer, he will be released from this English estate. If not, the entire cycle will start again tomorrow with Aiden in the body of a new guest.

I am in the minority on this one. Many readers loved this very unique story, but I found it incredibly frustrating. Because Aiden bounces around from one person to the next, it is difficult to remember who is who and next to impossible to really care about any of the characters. In the last bit of the book, the reason for Aiden being there is revealed, along with the framework that holds him on the estate and sends him into the different people. While that was the most interesting part of the story for me, it is quickly case aside in favor of getting back on the merry-go-round of discovering who committed the murder.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
By Stuart Turton
Tantor Media September 2018
Narrated by James Cameron Stewart
17 hours

Assistant extraordinaire Emily Charleston has left New York City with her husband and now works as an image consultant to the famous and extravagantly wealthy. Lately she finds herself missing her work at Runway magazine, especially when her pop star clients keep turning to younger consultants. Her friend Miriam introduces her to Karolina, a former model turned senator's wife whose life has imploded over a faked DUI, and Emily sees a golden opportunity to turn someone's life around and ascend back to the top of her game.

I have to confess I chose this book specifically because Laura Benanti was the narrator. She is a Tony-award winning actress who most of you know as the actress who plays Melania Trump on the Colbert Show, but I will always remember as the actress who shone brighter than even the great Patti Lupone in Gypsy. When she is narrating as Karolina, you can hear shades of her work on the First Lady. Benanti takes a somewhat predictable novel about the extravagances of the wealthy and choosing between your children and your work and elevates it to a fun listening experience.

When Life Gives You Lululemons
The Devil Wears Prada #3
By Lauren Weisberger
Narrated by Laura Benanti
10 hours, 14 minutes

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: The Far Field

Shalini had a complicated relationship with her mother. When she dies, Shalini is devastated and angry. Uncertain about what to do next, she decides to travel to Kashmir to track down Bashir Ahmed. Ahmed was a traveling salesman whose visits seemed to bring her mother rare moments of happiness. But the towns and villages of Kashmir are very different from her privileged upbringing in Bangalore. Shalini doesn't know if she wants to be involved in the complicated relationships and secrets that permeate the Ahmed home, but she may not have a choice.

It is almost difficult to write about The Far Field, because it encompasses so many things. It's a story about the shift from naive childhood to adulthood, about grief and finding the edges of your knowledge of someone you loved and lost. It's a story about privilege and poverty and politics, and realizing that you know so little about the world around you. In the opening pages, Shalini tells readers that "I am thirty years old and that is nothing." After that, the book moves in parallel timelines, as she remembers growing up with her unpredictable, vibrant, sometimes cruel mother, and tries to learn more about her mother and herself in the present.

The book is beautifully written. It's hard to believe that this novel is Madhuri Vijay's debut, because she reveals human emotion and failing so well, while simultaneously making you feel that you are really walking narrow mountain pathways or wandering through the streets of Bangalore. The Far Field is an intimate and sprawling story at the same time, as Shalini comes to terms with the loss of her mother and learns what her place is in a tumultuous, uncertain world.

The Far Field
By Madhuri Vijay
Grove Press January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 12, 2019

Review: The Bird King

Fatima lives an unusual life as a concubine to the sultan. While her body and decisions are not her own, she does live a life of privilege in the palace and has plenty of time to spend with her best friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan is gay and Fatima is the only Circassian who lives in the palace, so they don't fit in with the rest of the court. They spend their free time exploring the world through the magic doors Hassan can draw onto his maps. When the Spanish Inquisition arrives at the palace, things change very quickly. The sultan is willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace, starting with his mapmaker who is seen as a sorcerer by the Inquisitors. Fatima and Hassan escape the palace, searching for a place where they will be safe and accepted.

The Bird King is unlike anything I have read before. The magic in this story is apparent on every page, but its true focus is the friendship between Fatima and Hassan. While both of them will have romance in this story, their relationship is the heart of this story. It's wonderful to read about friends and see how the two of them support and fail each other in new and dangerous circumstances. There is a push and pull throughout between a blind faith and the work of putting one foot in front of the other, between kindness at your own expense and the expectation of pain and betrayal.

Every few chapters, I could point out another place where the story could have diverted and revealed the history of a relationship or a certain kind of magic. But the 440 pages are devoted instead to Fatima and Hassan's search for a mythical island where they will finally be free from the Inquisition. Fatima is certain that with Hassan's gift for creating places and helping them to get there, they can reach the island they have read about and live under the protection of the Bird King.

When I knew the end of the story was coming, I found that I was sad that my time with Fatima, Hassan, and all of the other characters was coming to an end. Surely this is the mark of a well-told tale, but G. Willow Wilson can also take this as my suggestion that she write another book set in this world!

The Bird King
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press March 2019
440 pages
Read via Netgalley