Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Cover Kitchens of the Great MidwestThere are books that I read and remember. There are books I read and forget. But occasionally I read a book that I love so much that I feel like I need to own it, and then lend it out to all my friends so that they can see how amazing it is.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest was and is one of those books. By the time it ended I didn’t want it to end and I wanted to sign up for Eva’s famous dinner and would be willing to wait just for the tiniest chance of meeting her. This desire is planted, grown, and nurtured through a book that is only briefly told through her own eyes. Her presence is felt through the kitchens of the midwest and we see her through the eyes of those that love her, know her, and in some cases are strangers to her. In the chapter “Bars” you will find yourself seeking her out while still enraptured in the story, and you only really see her for one sentence.

The subtlety of this book is one of its best attributes. The author doesn’t smash the idea of a girl rising from tragedy into success over your head, and you will be so thankful for it. Tragedy is also presented in very quick, yet meaningful ways, and as you move through this incredible journey you see Eva as a celestial body, pulling the good souls out of their own darkness into her path to success, happiness, and acceptance. Her movement through the world seems to also separate the wheat from the chaff, and you will feel so satisfied when Eva’s enemies get NOTHING (or the something they deserve).

I was surprised how J. Ryan Stradal had me feeling things before I realized I was feeling things. When I read books it’s like I’m programmed to predict what is coming next, but Stradal provided me with a book that was refreshingly unpredictable but not unsettlingly so. When I reached a point where a few things came together my psyche just said “Of course! That’s perfect! I’m so happy!” You’ll feel so many emotions moving through this book, some positive, some negative, but all satisfying. The ending of the book resonated especially with me, but you may form your own opinions as the experience may not be your own or something you grapple with. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

This book also reminded me how much I love books that take the trouble to include recipes. It engaged my senses so that I could taste the french onion soup, feel the oily peanut butter bars, and develop a healthy fear of spicy pepper oil. I was so sad that I had to return the book before I thought of writing down the recipes, but luckily Minnesota Public Radio did an article on the book and included them here.

Please take a journey with J. Ryan Stradal through the American Midwest through this character-driven, sensory wonderland. You will be glad you did.

Uprooted: A Review

UprootedIt is readily apparent that YA fiction is overflowing with fantasy themes. From Harry Potter to Twilight, to the various vampire diaries and werewolf memoirs available, imagining oneself to be magical or capable of drastic personal change to be special seems to be something that kids are crying out for. Uprooted is not an exception: regular woodcutter’s daughter becomes magical and is an unexpected hero. There are three themes within this book I want to highlight, because at this point I am hoping that anyone familiar with this genre doesn’t need the summary. You can create that skeleton yourself.

First, this book takes place in a kingdom where magical people are highly valued and not feared. They are honored and their existence recorded in an official ledger. They each have special purposes and are afforded anything they need. So when our little village girl is discovered to be a witch she’s TOTALLY shocked (like, totally). But then she suddenly takes to it like she had always been working magic and shocks even her mentor, who has been alive and working magic for hundreds of years. A nobody becomes amazing talent overnight. Don’t we wish.

1B: The idea that she has never learned how to use magic, but then automatically rebels from “This is how it is done” and is able to “find her own path” and be successful anyway is inspiring, but definitely serves as a nice fictional escape.

Second, I am sick to death of the clumsy/dirty girl character. Oh she doesn’t like to wear dresses and be obedient so she must be weird. She comes home with ripped clothes and mud all over her shoes and everyone is disappointed. Better make yourself desirable kid, or you’ll never get a husband. See also: non-traditional woman set up for total shock in plot when she is the most special of them all. VOMIT.

Third, and I say this keeping lots of other mystical YA in mind, I am tired of reading teen porn. Man of over 100 years of age becomes seduced by 16 or 17 year old child. UGH. Ageless vampire fucks 15 year old girl. And don’t get me wrong, the writing is SUPER hot, but whenever I’m done reading it the realization that I basically just read about statutory rape hits me and I try to forget about it. This idea that girls must be paired up by the age of 18 to someone who is obviously so much older and wiser is a common trope in these fantasy YA novels that may be doing more harm than good.

All of this aside it was a beautifully written novel. I love the idea of the corrupted wood and the heart trees and how the kingdoms came to war with each other with the wood at the center. I chose to focus more on the theme that if you become corrupted by fear, sadness, anger, and hatred it corrupts more than just your own mind, it can corrupt all you touch. How Star Wars/Dark Side of Naomi Novik.

If you enjoy reading about magic and underdogs and love and war and overcoming evil, this book is definitely for you, but I would say that any book club or reader that is intelligent will challenge these themes and discuss them to better understand how these kinds of novels present our own world to us through the eyes of the characters on the page.

The Expatriates – A Review

ExpatriatesI recently moved and I finally found the time to get to the local library branch to get a card. I came home and got on the library’s website, blacked out, and then three days later I had 6 books waiting for me on hold. I couldn’t have been happier.

It was easy deciding which one to read first, because The Expatriates was only a 14 day loan, whereas the other 5 were 21 day loans. So I dove into Janice Y. K. Lee’s second novel right away, and it only took me a week to get through. I had never read The Piano Teacher, so this was my first exposure to Lee’s writing. Her focus on women, family, and struggle was well done, however I feel as though she only skimmed the surface of how deep this novel truly could have been.

The book focused on three women: Mercy, Margaret, and Hilary. All transplants to Hong Kong from the states, they make their way through the expatriate society that exists and thrives there. They are linked in several ways, mostly tragic, but each finds their own way independently and then back to each other.

A woman reading this book could find herself in any of the characters. Mercy, a young woman trying to make her way despite a past that says she is bound to be unlucky. Struggling to find and keep a job, earning the approval of those around her, she has not yet found a true sense of self.  Margaret, a married mother of 3, experiences a loss so great that it rocks her entire world and forces her to learn to rebuild, reforge, and eventually forgive. The only character I felt less connected to was Hilary. She was introduced late in the book and I just couldn’t seem to care about her, her marriage, or her childless plight, but I’m sure there are women out there that would identify with that struggle.

The plot is interesting and I love the writing style which takes us in third person form from character to character in separate chapters. You can feel the eventuality of them converging, and they are slowly brought together and into focus as the book goes on. You see it coming, and it makes sense when it does.  What also makes this book interesting to my Western, white, poor sensibilities is that it is set in a place I have never been, in the midst of a level of privilege I have never experienced. I had to stretch my imagination to reach what it might feel like to have nothing to do as a wife or as a mother. What would I do with my time if I didn’t have to do chores, cook, shop, or even drive myself places?

Despite the setting being interesting and the story being good, this book was lacking in emotion. Margaret experiences a level of loss that should shake a family to the core. Mercy feels lost in her life and is also drowning in guilt. Hilary feels empty and insufficient and longing. As a reader, I felt none of it. This book needed a much higher level of vicariousness to be memorable. I was able to see myself in these characters, but I believe that an author of this kind of story should draw a reader in to the point where the reader feels these experiences for him or herself. I wanted to sympathize with each woman while rooting against and for them at alternating times. There are places in this book where I should have been crying while I was reading. This book was good, but it was too emotionally shallow.

So I recommend The Expatriates to expand your mind, to bring to your attention the ways that Americans affect other places in the world just by being there, and to learn about the struggles of families that must exist away from home. It is a beautifully written novel, but it will not tug at your heartstrings very hard.

Captain America: Civil War

Marvel truly has the superhero market cornered. From the Avengers, to Deadpool, to the tv series Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and the upcoming Punisher series enjoyment can be found at every turn. So when the next release date approached, I was very excited to experience the next thrill ride that Stan Lee had prepared for me.

I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed, which is understandable because this is one of those pesky “leading up to the next one” movies. Exciting, but not too exciting because we have things to introduce you to that you need to remember for later. This includes T’Challa/Black Panther. *praise hands*


I honestly didn’t realize that Tony Stark had so many parent issues. The number of decisions he makes on pure reaction instead of calculation in this movie gave me whiplash. And no one ever took enough time to explain to anyone why Bucky Barnes’ situation was less than clear. It seemed like it would be pretty easy to provide evidence about the brainwashing (no real spoiler there…this story isn’t super spoiler filled).

Perhaps the most welcome and fun surprise was the sunshine brought in by the casting for Spiderman. The voice, the persona, the fact that we don’t need his origin story AGAIN (ugh), and the fact that Aunt May is like an aunt as opposed to a grandmother, all makes this fresh and new without getting bogged down in the mud. His innocence also makes him a target for manipulation by Stark, which I think he will learn and grow from in the future.

Also bringing in comedic relief was Paul Rudd, who just rocks the Ant Man character. When you go, bring orange slices. You’re going to need them. 🙂

All in all, this was another enjoyable Marvel romp, however it was slightly disconnected due to the Iron Man emotional issue catastrophe decisions, so by the end you don’t really feel any kind of resolution. That’s okay though, because this movie isn’t about resolution, it’s about leading us to the impending Infinity War. My body is ready.