Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

There is a specific scene in the 2009 film Julie and Julia that I love. Julia Child (played brilliantly by the marvelous Meryl Streep) has just taken a bite of one of her first meals in France and she is exclaiming in utter astonishment and how good it is. Her husband, Paul, (played by the tasty Stanley Tucci) puts his hand on her arm and says, “I know… I know.” His voice is so sympathetic. He understands how her mind has been blown by a simple piece of fish sauteed in butter.

I have always liked Stanley Tucci, but since that scene, I have utterly adored him. So I was delighted to find out that he had written his own food-based memoir recently. I’m not reviewing this because heaven knows he doesn’t need the help (it’s on the New York Times bestseller list) but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this book.

First, I listened to it in audiobook format. I got it from my public library on digital download (if you’re not doing this, you should really learn how. It’s delightful to check out a book sitting at home in your pajamas.) Tucci narrates the book and his voice is so pleasant. Soft and deep, with just a little rasp, he tells his story better than anyone could.

He talks about his childhood with Italian American parents who cooked hearty meals, his holidays with a massive and complicated dish called timpano, to his recipe for the perfect martini. He also describes the absence of enjoying food while he battled mouth cancer. I’m glad to say he survived and is cancer-free, so we can expect many years of seeing his sexy baldness on the screen. He tells his story with humor, wit, and mouthwatering descriptions of food. There are recipes included so you can go make a grand mess in the kitchen and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Read or listen, you won’t be disappointed. But if you listen, his description of the spaghetti carbonara is laugh-out-loud funny. And you better believe I’m trying his martini recipe as soon as possible.

Tides by Sara Freeman

We don’t know her name right away. She’s just “she,” and she is on a bus bound for somewhere else. She doesn’t really care where she’s going as long as it’s away from where she was. She comes to a small resort town on a lake somewhere in the upper Midwest with a few dollars in her pocket, the clothes on her back, and no real plan for what comes next.

We get clues right away that something is very wrong, that a trauma has been suffered. But the clues about the baby and the husband and the brother and sister-in-law left behind are not carefully delineated. “She” checks into the cheapest lodgings, a hostel where a lot of the summer help lives, and begins work at disappearing.

But she can’t completely. She needs money so she finds odd jobs. But she keeps all others at arm’s length and when the summer winds down she is faced with a closing hostel and no place to stay anymore. So her present self goes forth finding a job at the wine shop in town and secretly bunking in the storage room above, and all the while her interior landscape is pulled, like the tides, back to the past where we gradually learn her name (Mara), and her sad story.

Told in micro-fiction chapters that create a mosaic of a whole, Sara Freeman draws a portrait of a woman who is troubled by more than just losing her baby and husband. Little by little the picture forms of Mara, and her life before her arrival in the resort town. As she subsumes her past she plunges ahead into her present where she continues on a path of self-destruction.

This book was so beautiful to read. The tiny portions give us tesserae of the story so when you finish you’re surprised to be holding a fully-realized narrative in your hands. It’s a remarkable feat, and a lyrical story, well crafted.

Tides will be released in bookstores on January 16, 2022.

The School of Mirrors by Eva Stachniak

For those of you who don’t know, I am a sucker for a good work of historical fiction. I adore sinking into family sagas from another time. This particular novel, The School of Mirrors, ticked all of my boxes: palace intrigue, a plucky heroine (this story has two), and lush historical detail.

Thirteen-year-old Veronique is poor, young, and lovely. A Parisian by birth, she helps her mother eke out a living by selling rags at the market. Since her father died there has been little joy in her life. But then her life is changed irrevocably when she is noticed by Dominique-Guillaume Lebel, the premier de chamber du rois (the man who is in charge of Louis XV’s bedchamber). He does the proverbial plucking of a young waif from obscurity and sets her up at Deer Park at the Palace of Versailles where she is groomed to become one of the King of France’s “little birds.” These pre-pubescent girls were the sexual fantasies created by Level, especially for his king. Even the king’s mistress, Madame du Pompadour, had knowledge and a hand in selecting these girls according to the king’s taste.

After many months Veronique finds she is pregnant and is sent away to give birth to another of the king’s bastards. This child, a girl named Marie-Louise, is separated from her mother at birth and the second part of the novel begins with the tracing of her life from a child to middle age. There are a great many obstacles to overcome and triumphs to celebrate all splashed upon the glittering backdrop of eighteenth-century France. Stachniak visits the royal and wealthy as well as the grinding poverty of the working classes and leads us from monarchy to revolution.

Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night (both novels about Catherine the Great), wrote a sweeping historical novel that is perfect for savoring on your fainting couch. This is the first novel I have read by this author but will definitely seek out her previous works for when we have our condo renovated and I have a long Sunday afternoon to spend soaking in my brand new bathtub.

The School of Mirrors will be released on February 22, 2022.

Dietland: A Novel by Sarai Walker

dietlandI don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.

Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.

Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.

A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.

This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.

Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”

This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.

And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.

But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail.┬áIt’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.

I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.

But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.

You should read it.