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This installment: a passel of novels: fine dining leads to eating crow; the tangled world of open adoption; polygamous mother/daughters on the run; a memoir of growing up funky; more novels—institutional geriatric  life down South; and finally the one about the joy of cooking.


   The Dinner by Herman Koch


This is a sucker punch of a book.  At first it seems like a parody of fine dining with family tensions stirred in.  Two brothers and their wives meet in a fancy restaurant but this is not a festive occasion, we soon learn.  They have to discuss their kids, teenage cousins who’ve gotten into a world of trouble.  One brother is a politician, being considered for Prime Minister, and of course appearance is everything.  With every too-precious course comes another unsettling shift and breakdown.  They might as well be eating crow.  This is a chilling moral tale, set in Amsterdam, with a bleak, pragmatic denouement that left me staring into the heart of darkness.  But so well done it’s worth the discomfort.


   The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore


The world of open adoption is full of suspense, snares, and grotesqueries.  Gilmore knows about it intimately, and this is her fictional take on the experience.  Jesse and her husband Ramon sign up with an agency and do their best to sell themselves to a wide and dubious variety of birthmothers.  She’s had cancer, long in remission, but at least they’re heterosexual, so they have high hopes.  In some cases they try to overlook less-savory aspects of prospective birthmothers’ lives.  In others they discover they’re at risk for being scammed.  A miracle indeed that someone finally comes through, but it takes a long, tortuous journey to get there.


   Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley


This is one weird book and I kept cycling in and out of disbelief as I read it, but the subject has always fascinated me: polygamous communities.  In this case there’s only one “father” and 50 (1) wives, desperate girls and women on the skids who find refuge with a magnetic preacher, Zachariah.  We meet Amaranth in flight  from him with eponymous teenaged daughters in tow. Sorrow’s pregnant by you-know-who, and she and her sister are bound at the wrist to keep Sorrow from fleeing on her own.They end up at a rundown farm and eventually make a tentative détente with Bradley, the misanthropic farmer.  Even if I didn’t buy into the story completely, I was intrigued enough by the peculiar details and the intense drama to keep reading. So if this subculture interests you as well, Riley will certainly take you behind the scenes.


   With Or Without You by Domenica Ruta


I’m drawn to accounts of growing up hard—crazy parents, poverty—because they make such vivid stories with built in happy endings.  That is the narrator comes out well enough to write about it.  Kathi, the mother in question, is a wild, amoral addict.  Mother-daughter bonding takes place at home, watching old movies when young Nikki was supposed to be at school. Eventually, for a time, there’s an unlikely stepfather and a few more kids. Nikki acts out but eventually manages to haul herself up via academia. Lots of lively, colorful scenes and despite all the bad behavior, Ruta truly loves her funky family.


   Life After Life by Jill McCorkle


The subject interests me greatly: aging (since I’m getting there myself). The setting: a retirement center in the south, conveniently adjacent to a graveyard.  A large cast of colorful characters, some sweet, some eccentric, some seemingly sour but we find out why.  Residents find ways to get through the long days. Like Daisy who crochets “cookies” and passes them along to a Downs syndrome woman who “sells “ them to get quarters for the vending machine. We are taken through various deaths via Joanna’s journal—she’s a hospice volunteer, and a short section with their last thoughts. A number of secrets are revealed.  (Yes, I know this phrase appears in most of my “reviews,” but it’s a primary ingredient for cooking up good plots.) McCorkle writes vividly but sometimes the tone is like heavily sweetened tea—the local beverage. Entertaining despite.


  The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister


This is her third novel that centers around Lillian who’s created a restaurant in Seattle where you can sometimes get almost everything that you want. Lillian now has a burgeoning relationship with Tom, a widower, who came for the cooking lessons she also offers.  Her apprentice, young Chloe, lives with Isabelle who’s slowly entering dementia. Lillian gets pregnant but is afraid to tell Tom.  Chloe is thinking of splitting, her customary m.o. Enter Finnegan, a very tall young dishwasher. He may just change her mind. Bauermeister’s strengths are the way she conveys the joys of cooking (and I have to admit that the dishes she produces are very rich and not exactly heart healthy) and powerful emotions.  Sometimes things feel too easy, like Isabelle’s sweet descent, and Lillian’s out pops the baby, but it’s still tasty and heart-warming. Though the book stands on its own, if you like the sound of it you might want to start with The School of Essential Ingredients, her first.

Back next Monday




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Posted by: Neshama

Neshama works at the Fairfax Library.

This is an official blog for the Marin County Free Library.

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