A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove (CBR6 #45)

I read this and Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork in the wrong order. I should have read this first. But let’s backtrack.

A portion of my reviews this year are books I am reading for research at work. This has been a nice boon for me, since I can use work time towards my cannonball goals. For research to date I have read Voices from the Back Stairs, Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times;  The Irish Bridget, Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and Consider the Fork.  I think you may be able to piece together what I’m working towards.

In all seriousness talking about historic foodways is a niche hobby for me and I have cooked on both an open hearth and a woodstove and in a few weeks will be leading a historic cooking class for homeschoolers. So, I needed to get ready with the background information. To that end, I should have read A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove first since it is a more sweeping view of culinary history by intertwining it with women’s history while Consider the Fork is a study of the implements and therefore the history, of cooking.

Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

Filled with over 50 classic recipes – from federal pancakes to sweet potato pie – and inspirational stories, this book should make you think twice about the food on your plate. It recounts how American women have gathered, cooked and prepared food for lovers, strangers and family through the ages. We find native women who pried nourishment from the wilderness, mothers who sold biscuits to buy their children’s freedom, immigrant wives who cooked old foods in new homes to provide comfort. From church bake sales to microwaving mums, this is a celebration of women’s lives, homes and communities.

Both are very interesting reads, and suggested if this is a topic of interest for you. I felt like I slogged through certain sections of A Thousand Years but I think it has more to do with what I already knew, not what the book has to offer. I also made copies of some of the historic recipes to use in my own cooking, and often found the most interesting portion of each chapter to be the asides about historic recipes and the realities of cooking in different times.

Shotgun Lovesongs (CBR6 #44)

Shotgun Lovesongs caught my eye a few months ago while I was perusing my local bookstore. The book flap synopsis sold me:

“It’s a place like hundreds of others, nothing special, really. But for four friends – all born and raised in this small Wisconsin town – it is home. And now they are men, coming into their own or struggling to do so. One of them never left, still working the family farm that has been tilled for generations. But others felt the need to move on, with varying degrees of success. One trades commodities, another took to the rodeo circuit, and one of them even hit it big as a rock star. And then there’s Beth, a woman who has meant something special in each of their lives. Now all four are brought together for a wedding. Little Wing seems even smaller than before. While lifelong bonds are still strong, there are stresses – among the friends, between husbands and wives. There will be heartbreak, but there will also be hope, healing, even heroism as these memorable people learn the true meaning of adult friendship and love.”

Butler tells us this story through the voices of a group of friends. Each chapter is designated by the first initial of that character and the reader experiences the forward momentum of the story from their perspective, while also being given insight to the events of the past. Perhaps my favorite part of this construction is that we often hear about the same event from multiple perspectives, giving the elusive hint of truth.

But truth, and to an extent loyalty and trust, are the through lines of the narrative. Through much of the early part of the book, I was convinced this was merely a character study, without much of a plot. And perhaps that’s why it took me quite a while to get through it (Goodreads tells me I spent 2 weeks with this book which barely clocks in over 300 pages). But the plot is centered so heavily on what builds a friendship, what destroys it, and how it can be repaired that it felt like nothing was really happening, but everything was happening at the same time.

Nikolas Butler’s first novel is a statement. It’s bold, but not overblown. And for that reason alone, I suggest you read it, I may be giving it 3 stars here, but it’s really a 3.5 book that I just couldn’t quite find my way to giving a 4. Even though it had the following quote:

“America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their life is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing.

Life After Life (CBR6 #43)

Life After Life has been on my radar for over a year. It sounded intriguing – what would happen if you lived your life over and over again, and how would minute changes in your choices and actions affect that life? I was intrigued, but not drawn in. My mom read it with her book club late last year and her reaction to the work was “it was different. Not bad, but definitely different.” With that less than stellar review I pushed it further down my to-read pile. Then the ladies of the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads decided that it would be the October book choice, and I decided it was time to tackle this winner of many awards.

In this tale of alternate life trajectories, we explore the life of Ursula Todd, born February 10th, 1910. In each new cycle of her life we are drawn back to the beginning, and the book itself starts with the duality of Ursula dying without ever taking a breath and Ursula surviving being born with her umbilical cord around her neck. It is certainly a plot structure that takes some getting used to, as the reader bounces up and down the various timelines of Ursula’s life, but to my mind Ms. Atkinson found the sweet spot between an adventurous and slightly experimental story structure and just telling an interesting tale.

There is a lot I liked in Life After Life. Atkinson’s word choice is crisp and evocative. There is certainly a danger or becoming overly repetitive in revisiting the same scenes but this book doesn’t fall victim to this danger. The characterizations of the various members of the Todd family are clear throughout, which is lovely, since it gave the reader something to latch onto.

As a book about the life of Ursula Todd, this succeeds brilliantly. The portions of the over 500 pages which were about Ursula, her parents, siblings, and her adventures in England and Germany around the advent of WWII were interesting and engaging. Once you get going, the narrative easily carries you along, and it can be easy to ignore everything else you’re doing and simply devour huge sections of the book. In fact I found myself enjoying the book much more when I was able to devote a serious chunk of time to reading it straight through, as opposed to having to pick it up and put it down.

Another aspect of the novel which works well is Ursula’s realization of the significance of her do-overs as they begin to deepen her insight into the events of her life and the lives of her family members. She experiences déjà vu and, occasionally a prescient dread which allows her to change the course of (some of) her histories and those of her family. This insight makes Ursula a fascinating character as she begins to be aware that there is more to life than the timeline she is currently in. It’s hard to say that I enjoyed Ms. Atkinson’s description of life in London during the Blitz or Berlin during the siege, but with large portions of the novel center on the war years in Europe, and Ursula’s participation in them Ms. Atkinson does a superb job of rendering detail without weighing down the forward momentum of the narrative.

Unfortunately, once this book tries to figure out what it all means, it gets a little muddled. Since Hitler is always a popular choice in the game of, “If you could go back in time and kill someone, who would you?” (I mean, it’s even in an episode of Doctor Who) it’s pretty clear that Ursula will make an attempt once she figures out that she’s possibly been given chance after chance in order to try to come back and make things right for Europe. It’s just not really obvious in the end whether the choice is what she’s meant to do. Because that isn’t where we end the book, we end it much where we started.

So, what is Ms. Atkinson trying to say with this work? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that it’s more about the small choices we make and not the large undertakings.

A Kiss for Midwinter (CBR6 #42)

I admit I got behind in my reviews; I finished this one over two weeks ago. And it was a delicious quick read so having something to say is proving difficult. The third story in the Brothers Sinister books, A Kiss for Midwinter focuses on Lydia whom we met in The Duchess War, and while this story could stand on its own, I would suggest reading it in order with the other books in the series (seriously, read the series).

Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads: Miss Lydia Charingford is always cheerful, and never more so than at Christmas time. But no matter how hard she smiles, she can’t forget the youthful mistake that could have ruined her reputation. Even though the worst of her indiscretion was kept secret, one other person knows the truth of those dark days: the sarcastic Doctor Jonas Grantham. She wants nothing to do with him…or the butterflies that take flight in her stomach every time he looks her way. Jonas Grantham has a secret, too: He’s been in love with Lydia for more than a year. This winter, he’s determined to conquer her dislike and win her for his own. It all starts with a wager and a kiss…

So what did I think? This is a delightful novella in which Courtney Milan works outside the tropes. Milan takes two characters who probably shouldn’t work together, and in lesser hands would have had a very shallow storyline, and instead in 38,000 words gives us deep backstory, honest connection, and love. It’s a marvel, and at times only serves to make me jealous.

So if I feel that way why am I handing it a four instead of five star rating? Because every so often Jonas’ characterization wobbled for me. His reactions didn’t land, or he seemed to fall back on old habits too hard. But this is truly a fantastic piece of writing and should be added to your list if you enjoy historical romances at all.

The Red House (CBR6 #41)

The best things I can say about The Red House by A.A. Milne are that it is a tongue in cheek locked room mystery with an affable amateur sleuth hero and an amusing sidekick. This book was much more of a why-and-howdunnit than a whodunnit (which was a draw back for me), the charm of the work is more in the wit and friendship of the two main characters and their clever allusions to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The Sherlock and Watson stand-ins are Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverley. Antony is arriving at the titular Red House to visit his friend Bill, who is himself a guest of the owner Mark Ablett. What Antony doesn’t know is that he has stumbled upon a little country-house murder mystery. Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother is found dead in a locked office, with Mark also missing, and Antony decides to pick up the craft of sleuthing.

This novel is set just after World War I, and yet the war is never mentioned, which speaks greatly of its tone. Antony is described as the sort who never settles into any one profession for long, where Milne could have simply had him be a returning soldier to explain his lack of career. This is instead a little bit of escapist fantasy, Milne’s try at a genre that was immensely popular in the interwar period, providing an intellectual puzzle to distract the reader from the fact that their world was completely turned upside down.

While the narrative was entertaining enough, Milne did commit a few sins in my opinion. First, the murderer’s confession at the end of the book in the form of a letter left for Antony is a cop out of the first order. The second was in eliminating most of the possible suspects (including all the women, so that there wouldn’t be any love interests) by sending them away early in the story unnecessarily. This made for too few characters and possible villains to keep my attention over several chapters at a time. I picked up and put down this short novel (only 156 pages in my edition) at least a dozen times.

Had it not been for the way in which the mystery is resolved, I would have been tempted to give this ½ a star less. Sure, the culprit might be easy to discover but the how’s and why’s of the last 50 pages were much more pleasurable for me to read than the 100 pages which began the mystery. For those 100 pages I really had to push to finish. The characters were often flat, the pacing was slow and way too much of the book, in my opinion, consisted of lengthy conversations which droned on about the various theories of the crime as well as narrator asides highlighting that this was in fact, a book.

Longbourn (CBR6 #40)

I love Jane Austen. I know she’s not for everyone, but I definitely have a soft spot for the author. Due to this soft spot I limit what I partake of in the Austen companion materials, no matter how long they’ve been a part of the Austen experience. The one that seems to have the most is Pride and Prejudice.  I read Mr. Darcy’s Diary for Cannonball Read IV, but that experience and reading less than stellar reviews has kept me from reading Death Comes to Pemberley(read bonnie’s review though, it’s AWESOME), and I have not, as of yet, had anything to do with The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. But, after coming across a couple reviews of Longbourn by Jo Baker which claimed that it was good story on its own, I decided to take the plunge. This was a splendidly good choice.

Longbourn is centered on the staff hiding in the margins of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In her author’s note Ms. Baker highlights the characters which appear on Ms. Austen’s pages by name and which ones she has given names to. She also points out which characters appear frequently, and which are fleeting. From this sketch provided by Austen, and then a reasonably good amount of research about life below stairs (there are a handful of factual errors or anachronisms but nothing that took me completely out of the narrative and I’m pretty well informed) Ms. Baker sketches a story that interacts with the known narrative while simultaneously fleshing out the historical context.

But the best part, to me, is that Jo Baker took her wondering about the characters ‘off-page’ in Pride and Prejudice and crafted a story which simultaneously supports the previous work while standing alone. It has been a number of years since I have either read or watched a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I’ve been spending my time with other Austen indulgences. I was not hindered in my understanding of Longbourn because this is not a Pride and Prejudice retelling. I didn’t need to remember details about Jane, or Elizabeth, or any of the other Bennetts, I was able to sink in and enjoy the story of Sarah, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and James.

And that is the linchpin to making this a book that I was happy to return to over and over again. While Ms. Baker’s style echoes Ms. Austen’s and while the characters we’ve grown to love from Pride and Prejudice flit in and out of the narrative, it’s this new story told across a setting we well know that makes for an enjoyable read. And, on top of that it’s an interesting story at that. Sure, there’s some of the usual basking in the drudgery of the servant’s daily lives, but once the author establishes what daily life was like, and how there was such little time for happiness or joy, and certainly no idea of upward mobility for the servant class. So what happens to a staff when the family they serve will not be the one’s inheriting the property, and then what happens when the daughters of said family start to marry off and the staff is not needed at the same levels? Throw in a love story between Sarah and James, and the reveal of James’ backstory (which I’m sure has plenty of Austen purists getting their pitchforks ready) and I was all in, giving this book one of only my fourth five star rating out of forty books thus far.

Typhoid Mary (CBR6 #39)

After reading Kitchen Confidential this summer I decided to add all of Anthony Bourdain’s books to my To Read pile. Given my slightly OCD nature I went immediately to Goodreads to figure out which book was next by publication date, not knowing which came first, A Cook’s Tour  or Medium Raw (it’s A Cook’s Tour for those equally as worried about these things as I am). While looking for that information I came across another book Bourdain authored.  This one wasn’t an autobiographical work and its publication date preceded A Cook’s Tour. It looks as though in 2001 Mr. Bourdain spent some time researching the infamous Typhoid Mary, and that I would be reading all about it.

I read this book quickly (a few hours over two days), its short (only about 140 pages) and Mr. Bourdain is many things, but a historian is not one of them (he knows it too, and refers constantly to looking at Mary’s life through that of their shared experiences as cooks in New York) but it was certainly a pleasing look into a life I thought I knew a lot about, but it turns out I knew very little. Bourdain chronicles, in an almost diary fashion, the events of 1904-1915 and the rise and fall of the specter of Typhoid Mary. All told with the now easily recognizable Bourdain delivery familiar to those who have read his books or watched his television shows.

This is not a definitive work on the subject, and shouldn’t be looked at as such. It is instead an appetizer of a larger story. It highlights what the culinary world was like at the turn of the last century, hints at the Irish immigrant experience, pulls back the veil about the beginnings of the health commission, and gives a glimpse at the life of Mary Mallon, the woman who would become known the world around as Typhoid Mary. This is a succinct, adroit, and relatable biography about a seemingly unrelatable public persona.