Audiobook: Save Me the Plums

by Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I adore Ruth Reichl and have since I read Tender at the Bone a very long time ago. (While I was listening to this, I was wondering if I knew who she was before she became the editor in chief of Gourmet, or after. I’m still not quite sure.) She has a way with telling a story (granted: I have not read her work of fiction) and with writing about food. And this book — the memoir of her time as Gourmet editor in chief from 1999-2009, when the magazine folded — is no exception.

Reichl weaves the story of how she became the editor in chief and her experiences with Condé Nast with memories of growing up and her family, both her parents and her husband and son. She tells stories of how stories came to be, of working with editors and art directors and photographers and chefs. As someone who once studied journalism and who has an affection for the profession, I adored this. I loved seeing the inner workings of a magazine (and was wistful: in another universe, I am a food and travel writer, I think) and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she talks about food.

I know some of my co-workers haven’t enjoyed this as much as they liked her other books, but I disagree: this is quintessential Ruth Reichl, talking about what she knows best: food and community.

I especially loved it on audio: she is a fantastic narrator, and knows how to make you feel like you’re sitting with her as she spins these tales. I absolutely loved it and am very sad that it’s done.

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Monster

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some frank talk about what goes on in prison, the use of the n-word as well as f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Steve Harman is a 16-year-old black kid in Harlem who is in jail waiting trial for murder because of a drugstore robbery gone bad. He’s not the only one on trial; his “acquaintance” is also on trial for the same murder (I found myself wondering about the legality of this). Because Steve is an aspiring filmmaker, the book is written as a screenplay, covering the trial with flashbacks to Steve’s life as well as the night of the incident, interspersed with handwritten journal notes from Steve.

The most fascinating thing about the book, for me, wasn’t the format (which took a bit of getting used to). It was the way the story unfolded. We were basically the 13th juror, albeit with a bit more information, listening in on the trial from the opening arguments to the testimony and cross-examinations through the closing arguments. I don’t feel like Myers biased the reader in one direction or another (or maybe he did, wanting us to be more sympathetic to Steve), but instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.

On top of that, it’s a scathing look at the justice system. Sure, people are just doing their jobs, but when a 16-year-old kid ends up in an adult prison just because of who he knows, or what lawyer he can or can’t afford, when the guards don’t do much to protect the prisoners from each other… no wonder we need prison reform in this country!

It really was a fascinating and enlightening read, and I’m glad I did.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.

Sold

by Patricia McCormick
First sentence: “One more rainy season and our roof will be gone, says Ama.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence toward women and a (non-graphic) rape scene. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl in the mountains of Nepal who is just getting by with her mother and step-father and baby brother. Their existence isn’t great: they depend on the weather to make sure their livelihood — growing rice — is secure, and Lakshmi’s stepfather is a gambler and a drunk, spending all their money on cards and booze. Still, it’s not a terrible life. That is, until one monsoon season wipes out their entire crop. There’s nothing else to pay their debts with, and so Lakshmi’s stepfather sells her to a buyer that’s passing through. Lakshmi thinks she’s off to be a maid, and that the wages will go home to her family. Turns out, though, that she’s been sold into slavery, and that her “job” is prostitution. (I loathe to use that word, because I feel it implies some sort of choice, and Lakshmi has NO choice in the matter; in fact, she’s drugged and repeatedly raped at the beginning since she’s unwilling to do what she’s told.)

Eventually, some well-meaning Americans come in and shut the business down and rescue the girls who want to be rescued (go white savior moment?) but there’s a lot going on culturally with the girls.

This is such a hard book to read. Not technically; it’s written in loose prose verse (they weren’t simple enough to be poems, but it wasn’t really a prose book either), and so it went quickly, but emotionally? It packs a wallop of a punch. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy and class divisions are going to kill us all. That someone would sell their child to be a sex worker, that men would want to come visit them, that women would imprison these girls for their own gain? It’s a lot to stomach and it makes me feel both incredibly angry and incredibly hopeless.

It’s an excellently written book, and I’m grateful someone told their story (even if it’s a white woman). Even if it is emotionally draining and difficult.

Indian Shoes

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Ray and Grampa Halfmoon traipsed down the cracked sidewalk of a steel and stone city.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (So, this says a release date of 2021. The book is currently out of print — I bought a used copy — but I guess they’re bringing it back?)
Content: It’s a series of short episodic chapters, with illustrations. If we had this, it would be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is a series of short stories — well, episodes really — featuring Ray, a member of the Seminole and Cherokee tribes, as he grows up in Chicago with his Grampa. His parents died in a crash (I think) when Ray was very young, and he and his Grampa can’t afford to go to back Oklahoma very often. There’s not a lot to the, Ray buys moccasins for his Grampa (well, he trades his shoes for them), they go to a wedding (in which there are mishaps), they celebrate Christmas alone, Ray gets a bad haircut (and then dyes his hair to match his little league team colors), and they finally go home to Oklahoma and go fishing.

Even with is simplistic nature (it’s definitely written for younger kids), it’s a good portrait of one Native life. It’s a good reminder that Native peoples aren’t all the same, that they aren’t just historical figures, that they don’t all live on the reservation, and that they have lives and hopes and dreams.

I definitely need to read more of Smith’s work, too.

Return to Sender

by Julia Alvarez
First sentence: “Tyler looks out the window of his bedroom and can’t believe what he is seeing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a bully, and some conflict. And it’s a bit on the longer side. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’m taking a mulitcultural children’s literature class, and this one is on the list. I was a little way in, and I thought it felt familiar, so I looked it up, and yep: I’ve read it before. Except this time, because it’s for a class, I felt a need to finish it.

It’s told in two voices: Tyler, the son of white dairy farmers in Vermont who are going through a rough patch and need to hire people to help out. They go with the cheap option, and hire a family of migrant workers, who are in the U.S. illegally. And Mari, the daughter of the Mexican family.

There are Things Going On: not just the threat of a raid since they hired undocumented workers, but Mari fitting in at school, the fact that Mari’s mom has disappeared (she went home to Mexico for her mother’s funeral and hasn’t come back yet, even though she started), and just general pre-teenage angst in general.

I found it less preachy this time — mostly because I hadn’t remembered that issues of undocumented immigration or the wall was an issue back in 2005-2006. I found that aspect of it interesting. The idea of The Wall isn’t new, it’s just the most recent manifestation of people who want to enter this country and our extreme dislike for letting them in.

But it was’t a great story either. I didn’t like the format; Tyler’s chapters were odd (written in the present tense) and Mari’s chapters were all letters, which I found a bit hard to suspend my disbelief. I don’t usually mind epistolary novels, but this one was just a bit much.

I finished it this time, sure, but it’s not one of my favorites.

The Circuit

by Francisco Jimenez
First sentence: “‘La frontera’ is a word I often heard when I was a child living in El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico.”
It’s out of print, unfortunately. I found a copy at the library.
Content: It’s a series of short chapters, fictional but with an autobiographic feel. It’s in the teen section at the library, but I really can’t figure out why.

This is basically the fictionalized autobiography of Jimenez. He doesn’t bother to change the names of his family (maybe of the other characters?) or even of the situations he finds himself in over the time that his family — he’s the second of seven children — spent as migrant workers in California. This book covers the time they entered the United States (his father had a green card; his mother, older brother, and he were all undocumented. His younger siblings were all born in the United States) through the time when, in high school, his older brother was picked up by ICE. (Though he doesn’t go into what happened after. Just that he was picked up.)

Jimenez does an amazing job making the migrant worker’s life come to life on the page: the back-breaking labor, the constant moving to follow the work. Not just for his parents — there was a scene when his father was sitting in their meager tent, smoking cigarette after cigarette, cursing the rain that wouldn’t stop and that was ruining the crops and therefore their livelihood that really brought it home to me — but also for the children, how they couldn’t start school until after the cotton crop in November, how they moved often so he went to multiple schools in the course of one school year.

It makes one think about where one’s food come from. Who is out there picking the crops, and what kind of conditions they live in. And yes, it made me think about immigration — this story took place beginning in the 1940s — and the way they are treated, not just by the government but also by business owners. It’s not an easy thing, politically, but I think we often forget that there are people on the other end.

At any rate, it was a fascinating little book.