Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spotlight on: Hearts and Minds

Ohhh, it's a busy week here at Chez Books and Cooks. Did you know my daughter is a performance artist? It's true. She's performing 5 times this week complete with hair, makeup, and costume in front of hundreds of people. That makes me chauffeur extraordinaire leaving me with little free time.

Back to the books. Once Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds was longlisted for the Orange Prize I started seeing it around. And around. I'd read a couple of Craig's books in the past and remembered them as likable but not especially memorable. I thought this might be her Big Book, so I ordered it and began reading it approximately 3 minutes after it arrived. It's really something.

Hearts and Minds is a book about immigration in present day London. Craig focuses on 5 characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. British Born Polly is a human rights lawyer. Job is a taxi driver from Zimbabwe. Anna has arrived from the Ukraine to work as a chambermaid. Katie is an American, living on the cheap and working for a magazine. Ian is a teacher from South Africa, trying to figure out if this life is better than the one he left. Some of these people are legal, others are not. Some are being exploited and live in fear. They are all trying to make a better life for themselves yet the life they are living is not what any of them expected.

Hearts and Minds is not a happy book, in fact it's quite a heartbreaker, but it tells a very real story. While this book is set in London and feels very British, this story is taking place all over the world. These same characters could be in New York, Los Angeles, or even the Twin Cities. Craig tells her story boldly, sympathetically. She includes a body and a murder, thought this is not a murder mystery. She cleverly ends each chapter with a zinger, turning what could have been an ordinary book into a page turner. I thought it was excellent. Sadly, it didn't make the Orange shortlist and who knows if it will ever be published on this side of the pond. Either way, I encourage you to seek it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Worth the Wait

My husband didn't believe me last night when I told him to "Be quiet! I want to finish this book! It's a mystery! And I've been waiting for it for nearly a year!"

But it is true. I finished the fourth book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime series last May and have been waiting expectantly for book five, The Shadows in the Street ever since. I'd had it pre-ordered since October for crying out loud, and it finally arrived in the past couple of weeks. I actually tried to hold off reading it, but it didn't work.

I've written about his series before, here, here, here and here. This is not your typical mystery series. A lot of the story focuses on the people we've come to know over time and about the town they live in. Simon sometimes seems to be a secondary character in his own story! What stands out to me about these books is that the reader usually gets to know the victim before they become a victim. They are never just a nameless, faceless, victim, but a person, sometimes struggling, with a family and job and home and suddenly everything changes.

In this, the fifth installment in the series, someone is murdering prostitutes, but then the pattern changes and other women begin to disappear as well. There are a lot of other things going on, Simon's sister and father have had big changes in their lives, and a new clergyman has arrived at the cathedral who wants to make big changes not appreciated by all.

I cannot put my finger on why I enjoy this series so much. While I enjoy mysteries, it's never just about the mystery for me. I'm much more interested in the people and the setting. Being an anglophile this setting appeals to me particularly. Sadly, I have another wait ahead of me - who knows when or if another book will be forthcoming? I'll be there, ready to read it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big Books

You know the sort. Not just big in size, but big in breadth and depth and meaning. The sort of books referred to in this way:

This (insert name of book) is so-and-so's (insert author's name) Big Book.

I've read a couple of books like this lately. Here is what I thought of them.

Cutting for Stone (Vintage)by Abraham Verghese

It seemed like everyone in blogland was reading this in 2009 and everyone was loving it. It appeared on 'best of' lists left and right, so of course I thought I'd read it too. I couldn't possibly give you a decent summary of this book except to say: a saga of conjoined twins, born in Ethiopia and separated at birth, they are orphans and raised by physicians thus they become involved in the medical field themselves.

Cutting for Stone ticks all the boxes. Well written. Check. Political upheaval. Check. Coming of age. Check. Love triangle. Check. Detailed medical scenes. Check.

This is a book that I thought was very, very, good but it never hit that sweet spot for me. That perfect reading experience/can't put it down/totally blissed out experience that I crave and only comes along a few times a year and I was sort of expecting with this. I never felt completely emotionally invested until the very end and it wasn't enough. 4.5 stars out of 5 if you know what I mean.

Small Island: A Novelby Andrea Levy

This book won some big prizes and was recommended to me by a few people so I finally gave it a whirl. This is the story of 4 people, 2 married couples, whose lives become intertwined. The time is post-war London in 1948. Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants. They are confounded by the fact that everyone seems to think that Jamaica is in Africa. They have come from a country where they look like everyone else to one where they can't help but stand out. Queenie is their landlord and is married to Bernard. He still hasn't come home from the war and while Queenie wonders where he is, she doesn't seem all that concerned about it. We go back in time to get to know these four souls to discover how they came to be where they are now.

Small Island grew on me. I was feeling iffy about it at the beginning, there was a fair amount of dialect/slang/improper English (sorry cannot come up with the right word here!) that I am really not a fan of reading. I worried that it would carry through the entire book but it wound up being an amount that wasn't too distracting. As I got to know the characters I liked this book more and more. I was most moved by Gilbert's story of joining the British war effort as an airman. The surprise and dismay he felt at the discrimination he experienced made my heart ache.

I thought the story flowed really well until we got to Bernard's back story. His experience of war was so jarring compared to the other stories and he was a harder character to feel warmly towards. The end of the book came together so well. It was surprising and heartbreaking, tender at times and even a bit karmically mysterious. It was a good solid read. Like Cutting for Stone, it wasn't perfect for me but still highly recommended.

In other bookish news, have you seen this?? Frightening times indeed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Moment

Last week I was having one of those good reading weeks. You know, when you have a few books going, and you don't even know which to pick up because they are all good and appealing and satisfying. Unlike this week, when everything I start is just so-so. Here's what I was reading last week.

Learning to Swimby Clare Chambers

Danielle has written about Clare Chambers several times and about this book in particular once or twice. My sense from Danielle was that Clare Chambers was one of those rare authors, who combines comfort reading with real intelligence and poignancy. Knowing that my tastes are often so in line with Danielle's, I knew I had to try this author.

Learning to Swim is a coming of age story in retrospect. Cellist Abigail runs into Rad, a man she used to know years ago when she was a teenager. It's obvious they have some sort of past together and thus we go back to Abigail's girlhood. She was a lonely child and her only real friend growing up was Rad's sister Frances. Abigail loved the eccentricity and seemingly romantic life Frances' family led, so different from her own middle class existence. As we read, we get to know everyone better and then there is a turning point, Something happens, relationships are shattered, everyone moves on, eventually coming to present day and this acquaintance of Abigail and Rad.

Learning to Swim was everything I expected. Easy yet smart. Satisfying and thoughtful. I'm looking forward to reading more Clare Chambers and have already procured two more of her books.

Bleeding Heart Squareby Andrew Taylor

I won this book in Librarything's Early Reviwer's program in February of 2009. It arrived in January of 2010! Sheesh. But in this case I say, better late than never! Bleeding Heart Square is just the sort of book I like. Set in London in the 30s, it is packed with eccentric characters that are difficult to read. No one is exactly what they seem.

Lydia Langstone has left her abusive well-to-do husband to live with her down-and-out father in Bleeding Heart Square. It is definitely a step down for a lady such as herself. We also hear from another gentlewoman, Miss Philippa May Penhow, though it seems she is no longer among the living. How she and Lydia and the various characters living at Bleeding Heart Square all tie together is the heart of this tale. It's a mystery but not of the usual sort. It's much more about the characters, the setting, the relationships and how everything is connected than it is about who-done-it, though we think we know, but are we correct?? It's the sort of mystery which mystery lovers probably get annoyed with, the sort of mystery that might actually be better placed in the Literature section of the store, the sort of mystery that I actually like quite a lot.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dutch Baby Pancake

5:30 Thursday - "I don't want to share a GIANT pancake! I just want regular pancakes! UGH!!"

6:15 Thursday - "This is gooooood! I don't like it - I love it! There isn't any more? UGH!!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Congratulations to JoAnn, Winner of The Season of Second Chances!

I hope you enjoy the book!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ah, the Foodie Memoir

Thanks for all your comments and support last week. That was a low point for me and I actually thought about deleting the personal part of the post but decided in the end to let me be me. Starting on Friday I had backup - Daddy - and we all went to Iowa where I was able to see how a holiday meal for guests can be prepared entirely from processed food. Three varieties of canned soup were involved.

Speaking of food, if you know me, you know I love food, I love cooking, and I love reading about it. The food memoir is one of my favorite genres and I'm always on the lookout for what's new.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

This is the story of an American Woman who has married a Frenchman and how she acclimates to France and her new family. This is one of those books that is easy and breezy to read, fun, cute at times, yet in the end sort of forgettable. It was fine, if you know what I mean. Throughout the book the author muses about her lack of clear career goals for herself, and it seemed as though someone suggested to her 'hey, food memoirs are popular, Americans in Paris stories are popular, you should write a memoir!', thus a career in writing blossomed. The food is not necessarily central to the book and there weren't any recipes that I was drawn to make. Reading over this, it seems like I'm being pretty critical of this book. It's more that I feel ambivalent about it, and you might love it whereas I thought it was okay.

The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove

Cathy Erway has taken a different direction with her food memoir. Erway was in her early 20's and living in Brooklyn when she wanted to start a blog. She came up with the idea of eating only food prepared at home - a huge anomaly in New York City - for an extended period of time. This book is based on that time and on her blog as well, though from looking at her blog my sense is that this book is not just reprinted posts, but a new way of looking at this period in time.

The Good: I found the subject matter of this book interesting and Erway's voice is appealing. She's intelligent and curious, and I appreciated how involved she became with the local food scene. She cooks both off the cuff yet still enjoys much more involved preparations and techniques.

The Not as Good: I felt old when I was reading this book! Erway's youth really shows in her lifestyle and behavior. There are several instances that involve heavy drinking and getting 'wasted'. She writes about the trials and tribulations of dating. Erway sometimes finds herself in situations in which she was perhaps over-extended. Dinner parties where dinner was not served until 10pm. Preparing food for hundreds of people yet not testing your recipes or picking up ingredients until the morning of. It's crazy, but I was actually getting stressed out reading these accounts.

Overall, this was a fun and good read, but I'm left wondering if I'm not the target audience for this book. (And folks, I'm under 40.) There were a couple recipes I've flagged to try and I was curious enough about Erway to check out her blog.

P.S. Don't forget to sign up for my giveaway - see below!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spotlight on: Elizabeth Cadell


Before we get to that, can we talk?

We are on Spring Break here, otherwise known around this house as Spring-drive-your-mother-up-a-wall-because-you-have-opposite-temperaments-week. Oh, my goodness friends, I am feeling like A Terrible Mother.

I, a tried and true introvert, gave birth to one of the strongest extroverts I've ever met. As a baby she cried and cried when I turned my back to cook something and as a toddler stood next to me and screamed for about a year and half while I blew my hair dry. Now it's mom?...Mom?....MOM??....MOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! about every 4 minutes. She talks unceasingly. She climbs on me and touches and pokes me and talks in my face and tries to lick me (sorry). She cries and pouts and whines when she's not winning a game. She badgers me and argues about anything and everything. I faced an hour-long onslaught on why I wouldn't take her to dairy queen for lunch. She even hand copied text from their website about how delicious their food is.

"Mom they have wraps! And sandwiches that use waffles instead of bread!!"

"Someday you will understand why that is not a good thing."


When I took the car to Tires Plus:

"Bring a book in case they ask us to wait."

"What do I need a book for? If we have to wait I'll just talk to YOU!!!!"

God help me. I love her more than anything, I'd lay down right now and give up every organ or drop of blood for her. But I wish she would just 'find something to do!' that didn't always involve me. Thanks for listening. She's now on a play-date so I am thrilled to be able to string two thoughts together without interruption.

Back to the books!

So, Elizabeth Cadell. Have you heard of her? This is the author I teased you with a couple posts back whose vintagey looking books I came across at the library. As you can see, I chose The Corner Shop written in 1966. This book definitely fits into that same sort of category as D.E. Stevenson though this book in particular is a little edgier, more mysterious, funnier, and rather a farcical comedy of manners.

Take for example our first meeting with our heroine, Mrs. Lucille Abbey, on a train:

'she had her own method of dealing with burly gentlemen who pushed; her capacious handbag....could in cases like this become a lethal weapon. One jab from the brass-bound end, and the gentleman, like all his pushing predecessors, gave way. As always, her quiet, deceptively mild air lulled the victim's suspicions and led him to conclude that it had been an accident.'

'She was aware that she was slim, blonde, and beautiful-but her looks, though they might be alluring, were also misleading and raised hopes which she was constantly constrained to crush. She had a clear brain, sound common sense and a capacity for hard work; why these sober attributes had been encased in so fancy a package she had never been able to understand; she knew only that she looked far warmer than she felt.'

Funny stuff! Lucille runs a business that sends secretaries out on jobs and when one client goes through three perfectly good secretaries in odd circumstances Lucille decides to find out whatever is the matter. She finds herself in the country where the rather odd 'professor' is sorting through his deceased father's papers and mother's things. A series of events puts Lucille in the middle of an art heist after which she travels to Paris to help her aunt and meets a bunch of quirky people. There's a lot of running around in Paris then and the plots become briefly complicated and intertwined and eventually we see how all the pieces and characters come together. It's really well done for a humorous book that reads quickly, and I told my husband that if I were move clever I would try to write a screen play based on this material.

I still don't know much about Elizabeth Cadell, thought I did find this fan site. She was writing books from the 40s to the 80s! I'm definitely going to be reading her again.