Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great MidwestKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Told as a series of short stories, but not as well done as Olive Kitteridge. I couldn’t see where this was going until the last story put it all together. Wasn’t at all sure I liked it until the end. Eva is something of a mysterious character. Except for one story where she is a young teen, we don’t get inside her head at all. We see her through other characters, some of whom are not very likeable. The gaps between stories might have been the most interesting part of the book. I couldn’t help but speculate on what had happened to the characters in those in-between times. And I’m betting that will be the most fodder for book club discussions! Warning – there is still much unresolved at the end. I do think this would make a really good TV movie or mini-series. Each section moves around the midwest, though the focus is always on Minnesota, and it skewers some aspect of foodie culture – everything from gourmet baby food, church suppers, and hunting, to state and county fair competitions, Whole Foods afficionados, and lutefisk. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg. For the most part, they captured the Midwest flavor of the story. Interesting that Faribault (MN) was pronounced correctly, but not Pierre (SD). But that’s a very, very minor quibble.

Book description: When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience. Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity.

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1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be honest, I didn’t read the whole book. I made it to page 212 and then jumped to the last chapter. I’m sure this is an excellent and well-researched historical study, but it just was dense and dry. I’m looking more for a good story, not a recital of fact after fact. I couldn’t keep track of all the names without some kind of thread to follow. I liked the political and economic background, but then I just got bogged down in all the minutiae. To be fair, I’m reviewing for a public library audience, not an academic one. The color plates are nice, lots of notes, and yay! a bibliography, but what it really could have used were maps.

Book description: Barker tells how and why a diverse and unlikely group of ordinary men and women from every corner of England―from servants and laborers living off wages, through the village elite who served as bailiffs, constables, and stewards, to the ranks of the gentry―united in armed rebellion against church and state to demand a radical political agenda. Had it been implemented, this agenda would have transformed English society and anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years. Skeptical of contemporary chroniclers’ accounts of events, Barker draws on the judicial sources of the indictments and court proceedings that followed the rebellion. This emphasis offers a fresh perspective on the so-called Peasants’ Revolt and gives depth and texture to the historical narrative. Among the book’s arguments are that the rebels believed they were the loyal subjects of the king acting in his interests, and that the boy-king Richard II sympathized with their grievances.

The Greatest Knight

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English ThronesThe Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enthusiastic 5 stars, with the caveat that this book is intended for the general reader, and not a scholarly biography. Very “readable” but supported by extensive research and notes, maps, genealogical tables, and color illustrations. There is even a Cast of Characters in the back, but surprisingly no bibliography or suggestions for further reading. I loved the digressions about how to become a knight, the history of tournaments, sword-making, going on Crusade, courtly etiquette and manners, etc. There really are not a lot of details known about William’s life, so this is told through his associations with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and his son the “Young King,” Richard the Lion-Hearted, and the evil King John. William dies three years into the reign of Henry III and I was left wanting to know more about this king and how he picked up the pieces after the disastrous reign of his father. I know there is a fairly recent book on Henry III: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III (2013) and a new one by Matthew Lewis coming out in March 2017. I may also have to seek out Asbridge’s earlier books on the Crusades. This was a great start to my review of recent books on the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Book Description: Renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge charts the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honor yet driven by unquenchable ambition. Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era — a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry. As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks — serving at the right hand of five English monarchs — to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician, and, ultimately, regent of the realm. This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review contains spoilers!

I enjoyed listening to this story of a woman growing up and finding a career and love in the 1920s, but I’m struggling to say anything much about it. It is written as an 85-year-old being interviewed by her 22-year-old grand-daughter. You would think she is much younger. Addie keeps it upbeat and optimistic. She never calls her sister’s death a suicide, for example, attributing it to being clumsy in the kitchen, (unless I’m reading more into it than there was). Topics like working in sweatshops, World War I, the Spanish flu, the Depression, and discrimination of Jews and immigrants are minimized. She skips almost completely over World War II and the Holocaust, which must have impacted the Jewish community even in the U.S. She fell into a wonderful career and married a wonderful man, and it’s all a little too good to be true. So consider this an uplifting, even inspirational tale, told by someone who could be your own grandmother, or great-grandmother. My own grandmother wrote short stories about herself and her ancestors for her grandchildren that sound very much like this, just on a much smaller scale.

Book description: Addie Baum is The Boston Girl, the spirited daughter of an immigrant Jewish family, born in 1900 to parents who were unprepared for America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End of Boston, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine—a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture, and new opportunities for women. Addie wants to finish high school and dreams of going to college. She wants a career and to find true love. From the one-room tenement apartment she shared with her parents and two sisters, to the library group for girls she joins at a neighborhood settlement house, to her first, disastrous love affair, to finding the love of her life, eighty-five-year-old Addie recounts her adventures with humor and compassion for the naïve girl she once was.

Wesley the Owl

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His GirlWesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this very touching story of a woman’s experience raising a barn owl and living with it for nineteen years. Their bond was something very special. The book apparently has “wonderful photos” which I will have to seek out. The audiobook was narrated by Renee Raudman and I have to say she did a great job with Wesley’s vocalizations! I laughed out loud at some of her tales. Not for the faint of heart – there are mouse guts galore – and I will never forget her description of testicle soup – how scientists do research on human fertility. I read this because I love animal stories, but also because I consider the owl to be my own personal inner totem. I think her philosophical comments about “The Way of the Owl” could equally apply to “owl” people like me.

Book description: On Valentine’s Day 1985, biologist Stacey O’Brien adopted Wesley, a baby barn owl with an injured wing who could not have survived in the wild. Over the next nineteen years, O’Brien studied Wesley’s strange habits with both a tender heart and a scientist’s eye—and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl’s lifetime). She watched him turn from a helpless fluff ball into an avid com­municator with whom she developed a language all their own. Eventually he became a gorgeous, gold-and-white macho adult with a heart-shaped face who preened in the mir­ror and objected to visits by any other males to “his” house. O’Brien also brings us inside Caltech’s prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes flew freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animals they loved. As O’Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes astonishing discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term “The Way of the Owl” to describe his noble behavior. When O’Brien develops her own life-threatening ill­ness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal.