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.

State of Wonder

State of WonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 stars, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder why? It was okay – exotic setting, some interesting characters, some moral dilemmas, and basically well-written prose, but on the whole I was really underwhelmed by this novel. Her depiction of Minnesota had me wondering what century she was writing about. She kept extolling the “prairie” as the characters drive from the Twin Cities airport to Eden Prairie. Huh? I drive there quite regularly and it is not even remotely rural. Her depiction of the Amazon was evocative, though I can’t judge her accuracy. The science was extremely dodgy, I didn’t care about any of the characters, despite this being a book about a great adventure, nothing happened. The characters don’t grow, they don’t make any better choices at the end of the book, and I had guessed the end of the book. There was nothing that even remotely elicited a “state of wonder” for this reader. I still want to read Bel Canto, but except for that, I would not be reading any more by this author.

Description: Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug. Not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina’s research partner, has been reported as dead of a fever. Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend’s death, the state of her company’s research, and her own past.

Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another winner. Perhaps a bit too good to be true, happy-ever-after, but who cares? We all need a good Hallmark movie of a book now and then. My great-grandmother was sent to Canada at age 6 as one of the “Home Children” so this is a topic that interests me.

Book Description: Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both. Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

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The Land of Dreams

The Land of DreamsThe Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first book in the “Minnesota” trilogy, this won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel in 2008 and was named by Dagbladet as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. My three-star rating probably reflects my fatigue for current reading projects and book club books, and it’s time to read something just for fun! Although written by a Norwegian, the author spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. This is a brilliant evocation of the people, history and culture of the area. So 5 stars for atmosphere. The style I think is typically Scandinavian – spare, dark, and haunting. It’s as much a psychological study as it is a murder mystery. The pace drags and gets bogged down in details from time to time. If you don’t live in Minnesota, the details of history and geography could be boring. We learn far more about Lance and his conflicted life than anything to do with the murder. And, as the final line shows (“This is just the beginning, he thought.”), nothing is resolved by the end of the book. If you really, really like atmospheric noir and conflicted narrators, this is probably a great book and you’ll go on to read the other two. I want something different now.

Book Description: The grandson of Norwegian immigrants, Lance Hansen is a U.S. Forest Service officer and has a nearly all-consuming passion for local genealogy and history. But his quiet routines are shattered one morning when he comes upon a Norwegian tourist brutally murdered near a stone cross on the shore of Lake Superior. Another Norwegian man is nearby; covered in blood and staring out across the lake, he can only utter the word kjærlighet. Love. FBI agent Bob Lecuyer is assigned to the case, as is Norwegian detective Eirik Nyland, who is immediately flown in from Oslo. As the investigation progresses, Lance begins to make shocking discoveries—including one that involves the murder of an Ojibwe man on the very same site more than one hundred years ago. As Lance digs into two murders separated by a century, he finds the clues may in fact lead toward someone much closer to home than he could have imagined.

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Safe From the Sea

Safe from the SeaSafe from the Sea by Peter Geye

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lots of “R” words come to mind with this book: relationships, reminiscences, reunions, reconciliation, and redemption. This is the story of a shipwreck that scarred the lives of the survivors and their families. I liked the setting and the author does a good job of evoking a Minnesota winter on the north shore. A good book, but I wanted to like it more. Perhaps, like the Norwegians he is writing about, emotions are treated a little too cerebrally, the drama too carefully contained. There is a lot below the surface here though, and it is ultimately a very satisfying and uplifting read.

Book description: Set against the powerful lakeshore landscape of northern Minnesota, Safe from the Sea is a heartfelt novel in which a son returns home to reconnect with his estranged and dying father thirty-five years after the tragic wreck of a Great Lakes ore boat that the father only partially survived and that has divided them emotionally ever since. When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other. Meanwhile, Noah’s own struggle to make a life with an absent father has found its real reward in his relationship with his sagacious wife, Natalie, whose complications with infertility issues have marked her husband’s life in ways he only fully realizes as the reconciliation with his father takes shape. Peter Geye has delivered an archetypal story of a father and son, of the tug and pull of family bonds, of Norwegian immigrant culture, of dramatic shipwrecks and the business and adventure of Great Lakes shipping in a setting that simply casts a spell over the characters as well as the reader.

Audiobook narrated by David Aaron Baker.

Iron Lake

Iron Lake (Cork O'Connor, #1)Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe a 3.5. I like the literate writing, the setting, the characters, and the Native American take on things. Not a cozy, and not a police procedural. Cork is the ex-sheriff with a huge chip on his shoulder and a talent for getting into harm’s way. But he is likeable and people talk to him. He can bridge both sides of the white vs. Native American distrust. Despite his faults he does seem to have a strong moral center. A strong start to a popular series. I did think the plot was a bit convoluted and contrived. The red herrings didn’t fool me, but there were too many bodies, too many crimes and killers even though they were all connected in a way. The ending was kind of disappointing and clichéd. I enjoy learning things, but the occasional back story, history, and Native American exposition seemed dropped into the story in large chunks which was a little distracting. I was also very disappointed that he killed off a very promising character and one of my favorites. One presumes that Cork will get back together with his estranged wife in future stories, but in this one she is cold and rather unlikeable. So I don’t really care if he does or not. I am not invested enough to want to continue the series. I’ll go back and read more David Housewright first.

Book description: Part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor is the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota. Embittered by his “former” status, and the marital meltdown that has separated him from his children, Cork gets by on heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, and guilt. Once a cop on Chicago’s South Side, there’s not much that can shock him. But when the town’s judge is brutally murdered, and a young Eagle Scout is reported missing, Cork takes on a mind-jolting case of conspiracy, corruption, and scandal.

As a lakeside blizzard buries Aurora, Cork must dig out the truth among town officials who seem dead-set on stopping his investigation in its tracks. But even Cork freezes up when faced with the harshest enemy of all: a small-town secret that hits painfully close to home.

Freedom

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am reluctantly giving this one three stars, because I found it very thought provoking. It is a story that will stay with you, although you really can’t stand the characters, and find them highly selfish and disfunctional, and yet you keep reading (or listening) because you want things to work out in the end. Franzen examines the theme of freedom through the often agonizing choices (mostly bad) made by the members of an affluent liberal midwestern family. At the same time he is giving us a very satirical look at contempory America and our obsession with personal liberty at the expense of everyone and every thing around us. The more we seek to be “free”, the more unhappy and disillusioned we become. The personal plays out against history in a kind of parallel breakdown of what it is that holds us together as families and as a nation. Freedom is explored from every possible angle: sexual freedom, the “freedom” of having lots of money, the freedom of divorce, suicide as freedom from pain and despair, and even the mundane choice of letting pet cats roam free outdoors without regard for their bird-loving neighbors. Although he borders on becoming preachy at times, it is clear that this is a carefully crafted novel.

Description: Before now, Patty and Walter Berglund were living a great life – Walter, an environmental lawyer and dedicated family man, and Patty, the perfect wife. But their carefully crafted tapestry of a home with their two children has begun to unravel. Their son Joey is obsessed with the Republican neighbors, with whom Patty is feuding. The presence of Walter’s best friend is making Patty divulge eager attentions elsewhere than to her husband. And Walter’s moral compromises at work are beginning to haunt him.