Book Review

You Had Me at Pet-Nat: A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir by Rachel Signer

When requesting this book to read and review, I thought it was a novel, but I have since learned from Googling the author that it is a memoir. I’ve read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs over the years, and this book reads more like a novel to me.

It was great learning the difference between natural wines and wines that were not made using the natural process. I didn’t know any of this before; I drink wine, of course, but I only know that I like all reds and only some white, and that rosé is my favorite. Now, I will look at labels and the names of vineyards in a different way.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it was less technical with respect to the world of wines. For me, the abundance of information on certain labels, and some of the terminology unique to the wine-making industry, were a bit overwhelming, and the story of the author’s life took a backseat. However, it is clear that the author knows a great deal about wine in general, and about natural wines specifically. I also felt like at times the author was trying to shock me with some of her decisions, both those planned as well as those spontaneous.

Overall, a novel about a waitress-turned-wine expert and her journey through Europe might be more entertaining to me. Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced ebook edition of this book to read.

Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

By Anthony Doerr (Published June 12, 2007 by Scribner Book Company)

I realize I am late to joining the Anthony Doerr fan club, but I tore through this piece of nonfiction in less than two days. I probably would have finished it in one day had I not stopped so frequently to admire his wide breadth of knowledge in many different subjects as well as his just outright beautiful command of the English language. He may not be fluent in Italian after living there for an entire year, but man, oh man, can he write!

Years ago I discovered the British tv series A Year in Provence based upon a book of the same title written by Peter Mayle, a British advertising executive who retires to an ancient farmhouse in Provence, France, to try his hand at writing a novel. The novel doesn’t happen, and when his deadline for turning in the novel arrives, Mayle submits instead his journals of his four seasons in the French countryside, where he renovates the farmhouse with limited use of the French language. Novels do come later, but his reputation as a writer is secured with his anecdotes of the people in the nearby village, the glorious meals he and his wife share, and his outsider’s view of the beauty of the Provence countryside, earning him an award for best travel book of the year and eventually Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.  

Part memoir, part travelogue, part nature journal, Four Seasons in Rome comes about in much the same way as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is the story of how Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna come to live in Rome for one year, after learning a mere twelve hours after his wife gave birth to twin boys of winning an award he had not applied for nor knew existed. Doerr is shocked to learn that he was anonymously nominated based upon his collection of short stories and debut novel. The award he won was none other than the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that comes with a one-year stipend to live and write in Rome. Along with the stipend comes a furnished apartment next door to the Academy, where he is also given a studio as an office from which to write a novel of historical fiction about occupied France during WWII. 

Much like Mayle, however, he does not actually write the novel, which he later completes back in Idaho, and which subsequently brings him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What he did write was a journal of his time in Rome, his love affair with the city itself, and his journey as the father of bambini gemelli in a foreign land. 

While strolling his twins over nearly every square foot of Rome, he observed nature–especially trees and birds, architecture, and the many fountains of Rome. It is here that his writing really shines. I’ve been to Rome twice, and I might as well have been blind-folded both trips as I didn’t see any of what he so eloquently describes. His descriptions of the birds and trees reminded me of one of my favorite books, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which also won Dillard the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. 

Doerr doesn’t actually come out and say he is Catholic in this book, but if he isn’t, he is the first non-Catholic I have heard of who was so consumed by the health and ultimate passing of Pope John Paul II. Having myself attended the outdoor Mass on Easter Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in 2004, which was the last time Pope John Paul II celebrated Easter Mass, I could feel what he was experiencing in a poignant way. Standing in the brilliant sunshine, we could see how frail and pale the Pope was, and we feared that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey. I really enjoyed reading Doerr’s memoir of his year in Rome, even the difficult parts surrounding his wife’s hospitalization. And now I’ll do something I should have done much earlier, read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Yummy – Sweet and Savory

Yesterday I made the cookie dough for the “Rye – Chocolate Shortbread” from Dorie Greenspan’s forthcoming cookbook. Today I sliced and baked. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one says it all!

They were everything shortbread should be: crumbly, sandy, buttery, melt in your mouth goodness. But, they also have the crunch of the rye flour and the swooning feeling you get from really good quality dark chocolate. Not overly sweet and just perfect with a pinch of sea salt on top. An unusual cookie, but a lovely addition to afternoon tea!

Thank you again to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

Book Review: Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan

You had me at rye-chocolate shortbread! 

I love to read and I love to cook, so it is only natural that I read cookbooks like some people read novels: devouring them and savoring every last headnote, ingredient list, recipe, footnote, and photograph. Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan is no exception. I can't wait to purchase a copy of this glorious compendium for my very own, and bake my way through it. 

I enjoy apple pie and chocolate chip cookies like the rest of us, but I really love cookbooks that have great recipes for the all-American standards combined with favorites from other parts of the world. This brings me to the rye and chocolate shortbread. In a recipe named "Tenderest Shortbread Four Ways," Greenspan pushes us way out of our comfort zone (and what could be more comforting than a piece of buttery sandy shortbread with a steaming hot cup of tea) into a recipe for "The Rye-Chocolate Shortbread." I love rye bread, and during the pandemic have spent some time trying to copy the Harvest Loaf from my favorite farmers' market. I know it's part rye and has lots of other seeds and grains in it but I'm not there yet. Now I know just what to do with one cup of the rye flour I ordered for those experimental loaves. I can almost taste that Rye-Chocolate Shortbread now!

Since the pandemic has all but frozen us in place, I loved being able to dream about all the places I'd love to travel to, where I could eat all of the goodies from those places that are detailed in Greenspan's book, like the "Biscuits Rose" sold all over the Champagne region of France, the "Glenorchy Flapjacks" straight from New Zealand, or the "Szarlotka" apple dessert from Poland. 

This is a beautiful cookbook, with gorgeous photos of almost every recipe in it, but what I really appreciate is what Greenspan includes at the end of each recipe: Playing Around. Here she details how to add/delete ingredients to make the recipe your own, or to bring it back to what it was originally, like the updated World Peace Cookies 2.0 recipe on page 160. In the Playing Around section at the end of the recipe, she gives instructions on how to go back and make the original World Peace Cookies. But, hey, since the 2.0 version calls for 1/2 cup of rye flour and a pinch of cayenne pepper, I'm going to start with the updated one!

The publication date for this beauty is October 19, 2021. Being a Libra, I think this would make a wonderful birthday present that I will gift to myself!

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Sweet Taste of Muscadines by Pamela Terry

This debut novel by Pamela Terry represents authentic Southern storytelling. It unfolds slowly and the reader gets to know the characters and plot as it is peeled back layer by layer like a Vidalia onion. So much of the story resonated with me as a Louisiana native whose mother was first generation Scottish-American. Lila’s descriptions of Scotland are so on point and very similar to my exact feelings when I visited my mother’s homeland for the first time. While I have never tried my hand at weaving, I have visited a sheep farm in the Highlands and purchased wool that I later knitted, so I feel as though Lila and I share that connection. Terry’s descriptions of the Highlands and of the rocky coast of Maine drew me in as much as her pitch-perfect portrayal of Southern customs.

When I first started reading The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, I was struck by how Terry’s writing reminded of the style of writing and quirky characters of Beth Henley, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart dealt with family secrets, loss of parents, and siblings/cousins trying to deal with it all. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that Terry was a fan of Henley’s work. The opening line of the prologue to Terry’s book, “The first time Mama died…” is so very intriguing and so very Southern.

I loved this book, and I look forward to future works by Pamela Terry, especially if she continues with her unique blend of Southern and Scottish themes. My only criticism, and it is slight at that, is I would have preferred that there be some unsolved business at the end, or at least one end of the ribbon not completely tied in a neat bow. Otherwise, a very enjoyable read indeed.

Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel (Ballantine Books-March 16, 2021) in exchange for this review.

Tween and Teen Book Recommendations

March 12, 2021, marks the one year anniversary of the last day I was teaching in my classroom last school year. It seems like eons ago, doesn’t it? This pandemic and quarantine business has been very difficult and challenging for all of us. With the third quarter of the 2020-2021 school year almost over, we will soon be starting our summer break!

Here are some interesting pieces of literature that would make for perfect summer reading for tweens and teens. Some of these titles are for more mature teens, and some may be considered middle grade reading level, but the stories were compelling enough for me to want them on my list. These are things I’ve taught, read and enjoyed, or highly recommended and/or award-winning titles. Newbery winners are always a good choice! I will continue to add to this list, so check back often! If you have titles you’d like to suggest to me for adding to the list, please let me know!

Fiction – Classics:

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck
  • Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • The Complete Works of O. Henry (short stories) by O. Henry
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Mythology by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Little Women by Louisa Mae Alcott
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Fiction – Contemporary:

  • House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Rebound by Kwame Alexander
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • Anything (many series to choose from) by Rick Riordan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
  • Countdown by Deborah Wiles
  • The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  • Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner
  • Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner
  • Silver Jaguar Society mystery trilogy by Kate Messner
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
  • Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
  • Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Drama:

  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Our Town by Thornton Wilder
  • Fences by August Wilson
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Monsters are Due on Maple Street by Rod Serling (screenplay)

Non-Fiction:

  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa’ud by Robert Lacey
  • Apollo 13 by James Lovell
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown
  • Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong
  • Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Boys in the Boat: Young Readers Adaptation by Gregory Mone (or the adult version by Daniel James Brown)
  • All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team  by Christina Soontornvat
  • Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (or sequel More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin)
  • A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Book Review: The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton by Eleanor Ray (Gallery Books, June 2021)

I’m glad I persevered with this book. When I was at 27%, I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. But, I hate leaving books unfinished out of respect for the author and the hard work involved in bringing a book project to fruition.

The beginning of the book focuses a lot on Amy’s hidden life behind the firmly closed door of her home. Once someone who collected pretty things, she has slipped past that into collecting everything. She can’t let go of anything because she can’t grab onto the one thing she sorely wants and needs to move on in her life: closure.

The writing in this book is fine, but I felt the exposition dragged on a bit for my liking. It seemed to take forever for us to find out about her backstory and why she is so damaged. Once that story starts unfolding, my interest in this book really took off, especially as her relationship with her new neighbors develops.

I requested this book because of the description: “For fans of The Keeper of Lost Things and Evvie Drake Starts Over comes a funny and tender debut about a reclusive artist whose collection has gotten out of control—but whose unexpected friendship with a pair of new neighbors might be just what she needs to start over.” Since I loved both of those books, I was hoping to feel the same way about this one. In the end, I loved this book. I think there is a bit of Amy in most of us, and letting go is a difficult thing to do, whether it is a material item or a loved one. The lesson to be learned in The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton is that in letting go, we make room for something new and wonderful to enter our lives.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read an early e-book edition of this book.

February 26, 2021