Tuesday, March 27, 2012

275 (2012 #20). The Kitchen Daughter

by Jael McHenry

Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger syndrome, finds after her parents' deaths in an accident that she can conjure up the dead by exactly following a recipe written in the dead person's handwriting.  In the process, she learns some family secrets, deals with her grief, and finds out that she is "normal," in her own way, that she can manage her Asperger's and live alone - and in the rest of the world - if she chooses.

Author Jael McHenry is a self-described amateur cook and food (and writing) blogger who was also a high school valedictorian, a semi-finalist in the Jeopardy college tournament, and earner of a masters of fine arts degree in creative writing.  This is her first novel, but it doesn't read like one.

Some years ago I worked with a bright little boy who was diagnosed with Asperger's, and I wondered if McHenry also had that diagnosis or knew someone who did.  No on both counts.  In an excellent guest post at Beyond the Margins, she said,
I started out researching Asperger’s because this character needed to be isolated by both circumstances and by choice, but I felt like standard shyness or awkwardness wasn’t enough. I’ve always been interested in how other people think, how the human brain works, how we all interpret and misinterpret each other because of what we each separately bring to our interactions. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to wonder if Asperger’s might fit the story I was trying to tell.
McHenry has done an excellent job at portraying the spectrum that is Asperger's, the fact that the condition has a range of manifestations, and, according to her guest post, "there isn’t one pure 'experience of Asperger’s,' the same way there’s no one 'experience' of being a woman or an 'experience' of living in the United States."

Since Ginny is a foodie, just like the author, Ginny uses a lot of food metaphors to describe people and events.  In an interview, McHenry explains,
Food is the lens through which Ginny sees the whole world....She isn’t comfortable with people, so she filters them through this lens, and everything about them becomes food-related, and that makes her comfortable. A voice like orange juice [or spearmint or espresso]. Someone’s shoulder like the shank end of a ham. There’s a point where she analyzes the color of someone’s skin as "what other people would call olive," but because olives are different colors, she has to pin it down to a particular type of olive. It’s another coping mechanism, something she can do internally to deal with the unpleasant external. 
The metaphors also help emphasize Ginny' point of view, from which the story is told (in first person).

Most (but not all) chapters begin with a recipe, which also serve as illustrations, since they are printed in different handwriting styles on a recipe-card background.  This is very effective as it ties in well with the plot mechanism of conjuring spirits by making a recipe written in that dead person's hand.

I also LOVED the whole concept of the "Normal Book"!  In another interview, McHenry describes it:
The Normal Book is a collection of snippets cut out of advice columns that Ginny has pasted into a blank book, phrases and sentences that include the word "normal." When you read them all together, there’s this sense that "normal" is something everyone’s worried about being, but it really has no set meaning. Ginny needs rules and evidence and guidelines to feel comfortable, so the Normal Book was my way of giving her that comfort.
My book club had a great discussion of this book last week.  I made the (yummy and easy) "Midnight Cry Brownies" (a Jael McHenry original, on page 47), which begin chapter 4, the one where the scary and mysterious Evangeline appears.  We talked about the recipes, food blogs (Kitcherati.com does not exist), the food metaphors, the power of food to evoke memories (the "spirit") of a person, dealing with grief, Asperger's, sisters (and parents), and the idea of "normal."  We also talked about the different covers (hardbound pictured above, paperback below - I love both, the hardbound for the artistic imagery and the softcover for the remembrances of my own and my offspring's childhoods that it evokes).  A lot of fodder in one little book!  The publisher's reading group guide is one of the better ones I've seen.

I will certainly be watching for Jael McHenry's next book.  Five-plus stars for this one!

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received a hardbound copy of this book as a gift.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

274 (2012 #19). Sonoma Rose

by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is #19 in the Elm Creek Quilts series, but you really don't have to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this one, since it's historical fiction.  The main character here, Rosa Diaz Barclay, was introduced in The Quilter's Homecoming, and this book is also set in California in the late 1920s, in the midst of Prohibition.

Rosa married John, a Southern California rye farmer and postmaster, a man she didn't love, to legitimize her true love's baby.  Eight children later (with yet another by her lover), Rosa is miserable - half of her children are dead of a mysterious wasting disease, and her husband has become abusive and won't let Rosa take the surviving sick children (who are the two who are his) to specialists in the big city.

In a jealous rage, John beats Rosa and threatens to kill her lover, Lars Jorgensen, who Rosa did not marry all those years ago due to her family's prejudices and Lars' drinking problem.  This time, though, Lars and Rosa run away with the children to San Francisco.  Rosa finds John's stash of cash from bootlegging and takes most of it with her.  John, meanwhile, is imprisoned for bootlegging and initially thinks Rosa and the children perished in a flash flood in a nearby canyon.

Rosa and Lars, posing as Rose and Nils Otteson, ultimately find work in a family vineyard in Sonoma County.  The sick children are diagnosed with celiac disease, and a diet of bananas (with no wheat products) improves their health.  Rosa/Rose and Lars/Nils face other problems though, with more bootleggers (including their employers), dirty Prohibition agents, and the fear that John (or the police or gangsters) will find them.

There's not a lot about quilts or quilting in this book, but I learned a lot about wine making and the sufferings of family vintners during the Prohibition years.  It was also very interesting to read about the early treatment of celiac disease, as I have a number of relatives with this illness.  Chiaverini provides her research sources in acknowledgments at the end of the book.

Rosa isn't always likable, but she is a strong heroine.  There's a lot of sadness and darkness in this book - illness, regret, loneliness, isolation, abuse, rape, alcoholism, adultery, lying, law-breaking - but that, and intriguing supporting characters, are what makes the story.  Ultimately, it's nice to see Rosa find happiness with the man she loves and her growing, healthy children.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

273 (2012 #18). Operation Broken Reed

by Lt. Col. Arthur L. Boyd (Ret)

The subtitle of this book is "Truman's Secret North Korean Spy Mission that Averted World War III," and that's exactly what it's about.  Back in August 1951, 22-year-old Army lieutenant Boyd, a gifted cryptographer and high-speed international Morse code specialist, was chosen to be part of a 10-person team of Army Rangers, Navy Frogmen, Air Force officers, and CIA agents who posed as prisoners from a downed bomber that were being transported across North Korea by Nationalist Chinese posing as Communists.  Along the way, they met various operatives and transmitted messages back to headquarters on Chinese and North Korean troop strength, positions, and weapons.

Boyd is apparently the only survivor of this mostly-successful "black ops" mission in January 1952, that had to remain classified for 48 years.  He and all of his teammates used aliases, so he's not sure if anyone else survived, but no one else has come forward since the mission was declassified in 1998. That was heartbreaking.

The story is compelling.  My dad (a Korean War vet) read the book and passed it on to me, and my husband has also read it.  He has some experience in these matters and feels it is true.  It certainly rang true to me.  Boyd (who was assisted by a ghostwriter) uses some devices, such as conversations during the long convoy rides across North Korea, to convey historical background.  The conversations feel artificial, but the reader understands why this device is used.  The action, though, is thrilling and suspenseful.

I am glad Lt. Col. Boyd shared his story and brought some long-overdue recognition to himself and the men he served with.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my father.]

Monday, March 12, 2012

272 (2012 #17). The Wedding Quilt

by Jennifer Chiaverini,
read by Christina Moore

This book, the 18th in the Elm Creek Quilts series, feels like the last.  Technically, it's not, because #19 just came out, but that one is historical fiction.  This one does appear to be the last of the stories of the contemporary "Elm Creek Quilters."

The book is set in the future, 2028 to be exact.  Matt and Sarah McClure's twins, yet to be born in one of the last books I read in this series (The Aloha Quilt), are now 25, and the daughter, Caroline, is getting married.  Almost all of the Elm Creek Quilters (that are still alive) come back for the wedding, so it's the perfect opportunity to reminisce.

Previous books are recalled in the form of memories and flashbacks, and their storylines brought up-to-date.  Not surprisingly, some of the older members of the group have passed on, and children of other members have taken their places in the quilt camp staff and faculty.  Tying it all together are the typical wedding preparations in the week before a wedding, although in this case, with Elm Creek Manor also serving as a hotel of sorts for most of the wedding guests, preparations can involve a lot more characters.

Because much of this covered material I've already read in other books in the series, the storyline that was of most interest to me was the one about the saving of Union Hall (the building of which was described in The Union Quiliters).  I haven't read all of the books in the series, though, so perhaps that story was covered in a book I hadn't read.

Many reviewers are very upset that the contemporary stories in the series appear to have come to an end with this book.  I personally prefer the historical fiction books in the series anyway, so I'm not particularly upset.  Chiaverini certainly could go back and write a story that didn't get summarized in The Wedding Quilt using the contemporary characters.

Indeed, on her website, Chiaverini says, "Sonoma Rose [#19] is the last book of my current contract, but I have a verbal agreement with [publisher] Dutton for a new three-book deal. At the present time, it looks like a contemporary Elm Creek Quilts novel titled The Giving Quilt will be published in October 2012 as the first book of that contract."

Christina Moore once again does a fine job narrating the audiobook, with variations in voice for the different Elm Creek Quilters and other characters (although the men all mostly sound alike).  The photo at the top of this post is from the audiobook library edition, while that at the bottom is from the hardbound edition.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook and a hardbound copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, March 09, 2012

271 (2012 #16). The Neighbors Are Watching

by Debra Ginsberg

This book is a soap-opera beach read, full of stereotypes like "Desperate Housewives."  You've got your bi-racial pregnant teen surprising her white dad and the resentful wife he compelled to have an abortion.  You've got your "pillars of the community" couple with the self-righteous husband and perfectionist wife, and their troubled teenage son.  You've got your lesbian couple and you've got the neighborhood slut. You've also got your foreign family that keeps to itself.

The background event is the 2007 San Diego wildfires, but I was disappointed that they actually mattered little in the plot.  None of the characters was really likable, except possibly Sam, one of the lesbians.

If I hadn't had to read this for book club, I probably would not have finished it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]