11.13.2018

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (NetGalley Review)

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Publisher: Hogarth (November 13, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for fame. The one thing he doesn’t have is talent – but he’s not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, a would-be writer can find stories anywhere. They don’t need to be his own. 
Working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988, Maurice engineers the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann. He quickly ingratiates himself with the powerful – but desperately lonely – older man, teasing out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. Perfect material for Maurice’s first novel.
Once Maurice has had a taste of literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in pursuit of that high. Moving from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vidal, to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top. But the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall…


Holy moly, y'all! This book was absolutely crazy, crazy good. John Boyne has solidified himself as one of my auto-buy authors, and I definitely want to catch up on his backlist. I was nervous going into this, seeing as how The Heart's Invisible Furies was my favorite book last year, and even in the last ten years. This novel also sounded so very different than his previous works. Yet his ability to create a character study with an utterly compelling plot is spot on.
Each section of the book is told from the point of view of a character that (unwittingly) helps the single minded Maurice move up the ladder of literary fame - including an entertaining interlude with Gore Vidal. The chapters start out quietly absorbing, with witty dialogue and dry humor that begins to take a dark turn with excruciating foreshadowing. The section from his wife Edith's perspective, written in the second person, is utterly haunting and I literally could not put the book down until I finished her story. Then I was riveted until the very end as Maurice narrated the final chapter, and I guffawed at the satisfying and darkly humorous end.
A Ladder to the Sky would make for a superior book club discussion, with a lot of themes to chew on. What are the consequences of our actions when we are young? Should our mistakes color our lives and work as an adult? What kind of mistakes? (Rather timely, no?) Or the concept of ownership and plagiarism - what stories are ours to tell? There was a good deal that was reminiscent of Ann Patchett's Commonwealth in this regard. 
Some readers are turned off by unlikeable characters, and oftentimes I can understand why - I wrote a bit about this subject awhile ago here. But when it comes to a suspenseful novel, they totally work for me and Maurice is a deliciously evil villain that one can't help love to loathe. If this is a stumbling point, I would still wholeheartedly endorse this book, as I do not believe anyone would regret the experience.
Thank you so very much to the folks at Hogarth and NetGalley for a complimentary digital galley in exchange for my honest review!

11.08.2018

Cook it in Cast Iron by Cook's Country and Recent Eats

In my most recent meal wrap up post, I put out a call for good cookbook suggestions. I feel like most of the ones I've flipped through lately are the same ol' thing and that nothing has come close to the unique options of Healthyish. And, boy, y'all delivered! I have a stack of at least five from the library and we started experimenting with some dishes from Cook It in Cast Iron (thanks to a suggestion from my friend Lauren, who is the friend from this fun book story).

Funny thing, though - we don't actually own a cast iron skillet! I know. We do however have a Le Creuset Dutch oven and I figured that would work fine for the time being. The first dish we tried was Curried Chicken and Rice which was pretty easy and tasty. WIN!
I'm a little wary of one pot pasta dishes. Getting the pasta to water ratio juuuuuust right is kind of a pain and you have to babysit the pot. I did have to do a lot of stirring for this Baked Ziti with Charred Tomatoes, but the water to pasta measurements were perfect and it was quite tasty, if a little sweet. I might add some spicy turkey sausage to balance it out next time. I also kicked it up with fresh mozzarella instead of shredded. 
We're looking forward to trying a few more recipes from this one, perhaps even a DEEP DISH PIZZA. Will report back.
I also whipped up this Ceasar Chicken recipe from The Cookie Rookie and is was really easy and tasty. 
It seemed rather rich, with just Ceasar dressing, sour cream and Parmesan cheese. But it cooked down quite nicely and was perfect with some rice and veggies.
Oh, and last but not least - new favorite Trader Joe's finds:
This is now one of my go-to lunches. Just heat up some olive oil, toss it in the pan, and once it's mostly cooked through, add an egg and you have cauliflower fried rice! And these ABC bars are SO GOOD. 
Something about the almond butter filling gives them a marzipan like taste. They're also pretty low in sugar - the perfect sweet, but not too sweet snack. 

11.02.2018

Books I Read in October

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This one absolutely lived up to the hype! I loved how it was a fantastic take on the boy meets girl, boy loses girl framework. And this was not at all what I expected to rise to the surface - a love story. It is that, as well as a mystery, beautifully written. 
"She laughed for his sake, something she'd never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else."
The evocative poetry interspersed throughout was lovely, and the descriptions of the marsh. Kya was such a vulnerable, yet tough as nails, character that I just ached for as she dealt with the hand life gave her. I had to suspend my disbelief at HOW clever and capable she was given the circumstances, but that was an easy sacrifice to enjoy Owens' excellent fiction debut. 

Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri
Since I realized back in April that I actually quite enjoy short story collections, I've been meaning to pick up another. I loved The Namesake and had heard good things about Interpreter. It definitely scratched that short story itch - quick read, full of intense and thought provoking emotions. I loved how the stories were about Indian Americans, but that that their culture wasn't necessarily the focus. The stories were about everyday lives of everyday people that just happen to be Indian. I didn't adore every single story, but each had some interesting food for thought - favorites were A Temporary Matter, Mrs. Sen's and the title story. 

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
I love this author, but her latest was not my favorite. Full review here.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Oof! I went into this one totally blind, and it's stomach churning true crime stuff. If you have any triggers whatsoever, this book seems to hit on all of them. Though I thought that the author crafted an impressive narrative of how the events in her life mirrored those in the life of murderer Ricky Langley, at times I felt like the shift between her story and Langley's confusing and it didn't seem to flow well. Perhaps because I listened to the audio book. Overall I found it to be highly provocative, thinking about the root cause of a crime and how our life experiences can contribute to our future actions. 

Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren
The writing team that constitutes Christina Lauren seems to be all the rage on social media, and I felt like I was due for a romantic read. This love story was so completely adorable, bittersweet, addictive, and so totally unbelievable. Ha! But, in a good way. I think it ought to be categorized in YA, with it's 'ideal boy next door of your dreams' and all of those first love vibes. Though, it gets a little too steamy for the younger crowd, which I guess is their specialty and this was Christina/Lauren's first 'women's fiction' (whatevs that means) novel. They also totally preyed on all of our bookish hearts with a dream book nook in Macy's room, and book nerd bonding with Elliot that brought them together. Of course I loved it, and gobbled it up in a few days. I for sure plan to read Roomies the next time I need a hit of syrupy romance.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
When I learned that the majority of this story was set in the neighborhoods of Chicago's North side, mostly Boys Town, it put me over the edge and I HAD to read it - my old 'hood! Of course, being a finalist for the National Book award is a pretty glowing endorsement. I must confess that it took me awhile to get into the story. There are so many characters and the dual timeline felt confusing at first. The main character of the past set in Chicago is Yale, and I adored him from the get go. His friend Fiona is the main character of the present day timeline set in Paris, but we don't get a good sense of her character in the past until at least halfway through the book. It was excellently plotted, so I could see why we had to wait to get her full story, and it all came together in a beautifully heartbreaking way. It was just hard for me to care as much about her for most of the book because I felt like I didn't know her. By the end, though, she was so relatable and I was absolutely moved to tears by this magnificent portrait of friendship and love.
"How this show might begin to convey it all, the palimpsest that was her heart, the way things could be written over but never erased. She was simply never going to be a blank slate."

10.16.2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (ARC Review)


Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: Harper Books (October 16, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.
In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.
Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.

I adore Barbara Kingsolver, and was ecstatic to get a complimentary advance copy to review. Although, it is been many years since I’ve read one of her books. I think the last one was Prodigal Summer, which is one of my favorites, and The Poisonwood Bible is an all-time favorite. I think that perhaps I had her up on a pedestal and my expectations were very high going into this book. 
As with most dual timeline narratives (of which I am a fan) one edges out the other and begins to feel like the primary story that grabs my attention. In this novel I found the fictional Thatcher Greenwood meeting the naturalist, Mary Treat, in the 1880s the more compelling of the two. Perhaps because she was a real historical figure, and many of the incidents that Kingsolver describes during that time frame actually happened. I find it enlightening to look at events in history and see how they reflect our present. Thatcher's attempts to teach Darwin and the backlash of the town leaders held a perfect mirror up to current issues around the fact of climate change (and apparent disregard for facts in general).
I had a hard time with the present day timeline, mainly because much of it felt like an op-ed and her supporting characters were vessels for each viewpoint. When Willa's son and daughter went on about economic disparity, it felt so cumbersome. Though Willa's story was engaging, as she navigated the ups and downs of the 'sandwich generation' - taking care of children (in addition to a grandchild in this case) as well as an aging parent. It felt very chaotic and messy, like a very real family in this day and age. 
Overall, I would say it was on the didactic side, even for Kingsolver. Although I agree with what she was trying to get across, I didn’t get as swept up in her storytelling like I normally do because of all the obvious messages, of which there were A LOT. It felt like the news these days: a little exhausting. It plodded in parts for me because she didn't focus on a single theme, but what felt like all of them - racism, healthcare, income inequality, climate change, and our current political climate. Current real life figures also play a part, and yes, a Donald Trump character is very thinly veiled as 'The Bullhorn' who makes that infamously loathsome comment about being able to shoot someone on 5th Avenue. The comparisons to the Vineland town leader Charles Landis (another real historical figure) are evident. 
“Somehow he gets them to side against their own.”
“They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.”
It’s all the more striking that the 19th century trial at the end of the book truly happened, and I’ll leave it at that!  
In the end, the various themes can be wrapped up in the fact that they are indeed all heightened right now and can also be distilled to the dichotomy of the struggle between the younger versus older generation: how we can keep progressing forward, unsheltered, and not cling to the past, be open to continual change. My favorite part, when Willa watches her grandson try to walk:
“He fell down on his pad bottom. But he went right back to it, trying again. He would do this over and over until he had it, and today or tomorrow he would walk. Will remembered all this. She’d watched her kids master these first small tasks with an application of effort that seemed superhuman, but of course it only amounted to being human, a story written in genes. First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and that was survival.”
Many thanks to the folks at Harper Books for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!

10.11.2018

Summer Recipe Roundup

It's been quite awhile since I did any kind of recipe roundup - since JUNE! The cookbooks I've been perusing over the last few months just haven't wowed me like Healthyish. Most of the recipes seem to be ones we already have in a regular rotation or a variation on the same old stuff. Any suggestions are appreciated, please and thank you. 
I did try a smattering of cooking blog recipes, only to have most of them come up short, too. This Veggie Packed Buddha Bowl from Tasty looks so lovely, right?

Alas, it wasn't to my liking. The dressing was too mustard-y and I didn't enjoy the clash of cold uncooked vegetables with warm chicken. Since I do enjoy a good Buddha bowl recipe, I moved on to try these Beef and Broccoli Buddha Bowls from The Kitchn. I love a good miso dressing, but this was a weird tasting combo...
Not bad, but not so great we'd cook it again. 
There was one hit with the whole family, this Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Sauce from Erica Julson was a perfect meal in the summer months, easy, and tasty!
And I have been loving this Curried Tofu Salad from Budget Bytes that has been an easy and filling lunch staple.
We did fair amount of dining out over the summer, especially with our fun family Fridays and road tripping, so I have to give a shout out to the best fish n' chips I've ever had at Front Street Grill in Coupeville.
And the Mac n' Cheese Logs (YES) with spicy ketchup from Aslan Brewery in Bellingham. Drool.
I have a few cookbooks on hold at the library, so hopefully I'll have one worth reviewing soon! 

10.04.2018

Books I Read in September

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This was a unique little volume written from the perspective of a character who has Asperger's and how her life revolves around her dedication to her work at a convenience store. It's fascinating food for thought on our actions, the life we lead, and how it relates to societal expectations. How different is someone who intentionally imitates others in order to fit in, versus those of us that just do so subconsciously? The cover is somewhat deceiving, as it conveys light and happy and this was more of a stark and contemplative read.

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan
Kelly Corrigan is my new auto-read author. I have read (on audiobook) two of her books this year and are both absolutely five star worthy. (You can find my review for Glitter and Glue here.) I highly recommend her stuff on audio to process the full range of emotions. I feel like Corrigan can see right into my heart. It’s as if she has a manual for LIFE and is translating it for us all in the most relatable stories. Tell Me More is good reminder to listen, to give yourself grace, to show up for those you love, and cherish them in the short time that we have. In a recent episode of the What Should I Read Next podcast, Anne Bogel included it in a very short list of books she would want everyone to read. I echo this sentiment tenfold.

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette
I was excited to receive this complimentary review copy from JKS Communications and She Writes Press, and to try a debut author with an independent publisher. Alas, this was not the book for me. I felt ambivalent about the main character and there weren't any relatable moments for me to connect with her. I can't imagine the pressure and the situation for college students during the Vietnam War, so perhaps it's a generational gap. Indeed, the Goodreads reviews on this one are off the charts - so your mileage may vary! 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This young neurosurgeon's account (published posthumously) of being diagnosed with cancer was a tearjerker, obviously, but ultimately hopeful. I loved the crossover of faith and science. Sort of supporting my own personal feeling that the belief in miracles of science, of our biology, is a type of spirituality. It would seem that Kalanithi's decision to become a neurosurgeon had more to do with humanity and exploring the soul than just being a doctor and helping others. Thinking about what makes us who we are, and how amazing the human brain is, was absolutely fascinating and gave me so much food for thought.
I wrote a bit more about it here.

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
I listened to this audiobook after reading When Breath Becomes Air, and it felt serendipitous. I'm not usually a fan of self-help like books, but the former made me more open to the teachings of Tutu and the Dalai Lama. They are obviously of different faiths, are welcoming of all religions, and agree that science is intertwined with our spirituality. The ways in which they support the '8 pillars of joy' with such intriguing scientific facts is so compelling. For example, people who have a more self-centered perspective and use mostly personal pronouns ( I/me/mine instead of we/us/ours) run more risk of heart attack, and fatal ones. Apparently it's more of an indicator than smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol! Or that holding grudges increases stress, and that even just THINKING about forgiving someone lowers stress levels. So much good stuff. Also, the pair are adorable and entertaining, always joking with each other, and they have the funniest of idiosyncrasies (Tutu loving rum and Coke, and switching to Coke Zero to ingest less sugar made me smile). Again, I wrote a bit more about this here.

CIRCE by Madeline Miller
This book sat on my shelves unread for many months. I kept pushing it down the list because I was afraid that despite the awesome reviews that it might not be my kind of book. Oh, man, how wrong I was! If the descriptor 'for fans of Greek mythology' might have signaled 'stuffy and cerebral' to you as well, fear not. Miller's prose is indeed smartly written, but in an accessible way. It reminded me that I did indeed enjoy my college Freshman year lecture class and the ol' book: Mythology and You. The stories have stood the test of time for good reason: they are gripping material! Miller takes it further with her simple and powerful prose, yes. But she also made me empathize and identify with the struggles of a fiercely independent goddess, especially once Circe becomes a mother. From the incessant crying of babyhood, to letting her baby fly the nest, her story felt so deeply human and real. A favorite quote:
"You dare to threaten me?"
These gods, I thought. They always say the same thing.
"I do."
My father's skin flared blinding bright. His voice seared at my bones. "You would start a war." 
"I hope so. For I will see you torn down, Father, before I will be jailed for your convenience any longer."
It for sure will be on my favorites of the year list. 

News of Our Loved Ones by Abigail DeWitt
This was a lovely character driven WWII historical fiction and you can read my full review here

9.27.2018

News of Our Loved Ones by Abigail DeWitt (ARC Review)

News of Our Loved Ones by Abigail DeWitt
Publisher: Harper Books (October 2, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
What if your family’s fate could be traced back to one indelible summer?
Over four long years, the Delasalle family has struggled to live in their Nazi occupied village in Normandy. Maman, Oncle Henri, Yvonne, and Françoise silently watched as their Jewish neighbors were arrested or wordlessly disappeared. Now in June 1944, when the sirens wail each day, warning of approaching bombers, the family wonders if rumors of the coming Allied invasion are true—and if they will survive to see their country liberated.
For sixteen-year-old Yvonne, thoughts of the war recede when she sees the red-haired boy bicycle past her window each afternoon. Murmuring to herself I love you, I love you, I love you, she wills herself to hear the whisper of his bicycle tires over the screech of Allied bombs falling from the sky.
Yvonne’s sister, Geneviève, is in Paris to audition for the National Conservatory. Pausing to consider the shadow of a passing cloud as she raises her bow, she does not know that her family’s home in Normandy lies in the path of British and American bombers. While Geneviève plays, her brother Simon and Tante Chouchotte, anxiously await news from their loved ones in Normandy.
Decades later, Geneviève, the wife of an American musician, lives in the United States. Each summer she returns to her homeland with her children, so that they may know their French family. Geneviève’s youngest daughter, Polly, becomes obsessed with the stories she hears about the war, believing they are the key to understanding her mother and the conflicting cultures shaping her life.
Moving back and forth in time, told from varying points of view, News of Our Loved Ones explores the way family histories are shared and illuminates the power of storytelling to understand the past and who we are.

It has been awhile since I read a WWII novel, as I do try to limit how often I pick them up. The time period is a popular one and I don't want to become inured to the stories, and I also want to mitigate the amount of melancholy in my reading, as I tend to get this way when reading about the war. I barely skimmed the blurb on this when I requested it last month and just dove in without expectations. News of Our Loved Ones was a lovely, quiet and yet powerful book.
I enjoy novels with multiple narrators, and DeWitt employed the voices of the many characters to great effect. Each time the point of view was changed, I had a satisfying moment of clarity about one or more of the other character's motivations, each more enlightening than the last. Sometimes it became a little confusing, especially the chapter written in alternating second person narrative of a Nazi German and French Resistance operative. Yet, by the end of this short volume, I felt as if I connected with each of their inner lives. Her economy of words at setting a scene, conveying a feeling, and describing a character was impressive.
"More discussion would have struck her as ridiculous..." "She was so averse to waste of any kind- of words, time, money- that even the slenderness of her bones was a measure of her thrift."
I couldn't help but feel as if the author had some sort of personal connection to the war, because the families and situations felt so unique and vivid. Alas, upon doing some research, I found that her own mother's home on the coast of Normandy was bombed on D-Day and her sister (the author's aunt) was killed, at only 16 years old. This connection absolutely comes through in her writing.
If you are a fan of WWII historical fiction, and methinks there are a few of you out there, I would highly recommend this quiet and beautiful character driven book. I found it a refreshing take on a subject written about often.
Many, many thanks to the lovely folks at Harper for a complimentary advance copy in exchange for my honest review!