Audiobook: Save Me the Plums

by Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
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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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The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

by Karina Yan Glaser
First sentence: “In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a wee bit of “romance” (one of the siblings “likes” a boy and ends up going to the 8th grade dance). The chapters are short, and there’s a lot of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Vanderbeeker family — mom, dad, and five children (four girls and a boy) — are perfectly happy in their brownstone apartment (one of three) in Harlem. They know the neighborhood, and even though they’re a bit squished, they love their home. That is, until their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells them a few days before Christmas, that he’s not renewing their lease for the next year and that they have until December 31st to get out. The Vanderbeeker parents are upset and resigned. The kids? Upset, but they’re going to do something about it! They being Operation Beiderman, They set about doing nice things for their grump of a landlord, in hopes that he will realize what a wonderful family they are and not kick them out.

You can probably already guess how this will end, but the plot really isn’t the point of the book. It reminded me of All of a Kind Family or The Penderwicks, where the actual point of the book was this charming, boisterous, delightful family that I loved getting to know. It was sweet and delightful and I loved the family dynamics between all the characters. This one is perfect for those who want a classic feel to their books. And I’m sure this would make a fabulous read-aloud to younger kids.

Definitely recommended.

What If It’s Us

whatifitsusby Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
First sentence: “I am not a New Yorker, and I want to go home.”
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Content: Loads and loads of f-bombs, some mild drinking, as well as some off-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s the summer before senior year, and Arthur Seuss is in New York City from Atlanta with is parents for the summer. His mom is a lawyer working on a big case, and he’s got an internship. But mostly, he’s there to see the city and hopefully a few Broadway shows. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

And then he bumps into an attractive boy at the post office and he’s smitten. The problem? He didn’t get the boy’s name.

Ben is trying to just make it through the summer. He’s come off a bad breakup with his boyfriend, Hudson, and he’s stuck in summer school because he failed chemistry. He just wants to pass the class. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

That is, until Arthur (and the universe) conspires to get them together.

So this is very rom-com-y: a meet-cute, they have to work to get together, ups and downs in a relationship… it hits all the tropes. But, it was still a lot of fun. Especially if you (like me) really like romcoms. I adored Arthur and his extra-ness, and Ben and his great Puerto Rican family. I loved the side characters (especially Dylan; he was so great) and it’s nice to have a couple sets of decent parents in a YA book.

So, while it’s not really breaking any new ground (maybe in that it’s a gay romcom?) it’s still an incredibly fun read.

A Room Away From the Wolves

roomawayfromthewolvesby  Nova Ren Suma
First sentence: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and abuse that could be triggering. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is going to be tough one for me to sum up, because I am not sure what, exactly, happened. The words were very pretty and I read the whole thing, but I, for the life of me, do NOT understand what happened.

There’s a girl — Bina — whose mother remarried when she was nine to a man with two daughters who were quite abusive to Bina. And so, the summer before Bina turns 18, her mother suggests she leaves. Bina goes to a place in New York City her mother had stayed when she was young, before Bina, the Catherine House. There are 14 girls in the house, where weird things happen, and they try to bring the ghost of Catherine back, and Bina’s super confused, and… I just lost the thread of what was going on.

I suppose this was meant to be a grand metaphor for something, and I’m sure there are people out there who like this atmospheric type of book with a hugely unreliable narrator, and I did finish it, to it’s not terrible.

It’s just that I need someone to explain it to me.

Pride

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 18, 2018
Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think a 7th/8th grader who was interested would like it, as well.

I’ll admit this up front: I’m a sucker for Jane Austen retelings. I adore them, especially when they’re well-done. And this one, set in Brooklyn with class tensions (but not race) and feisty girls who speak their mind, this one is extremely well done.

The fun thing about this is that if you know Pride and Prejudice, you smile as Zoboi hits all the notes of the original. A rich family moves into the neighborhood where the Benitez family — of Dominican/Hatian blend — live. The family — the Darcys — are well-off African Americans, and they completely re-do the house all fancy. Because they can. And yeah, they look down their noses at the Benitezes, with their loud, immigrant ways and their spicy immigrant food, and well… everything. Zuri is the second daughter of this crazy family, and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is fiercely proud of her neighborhood and her family, and she doesn’t want a snotty rich brat, no matter how fine he is, stomping on her turf.

And, if you know the original, you know how it turns out. What I loved was that Zoboi paid homage to Austen while making the story thoroughly her own, and thoroughly modern. While I could sense the Austen book in the background, the everything felt organic and natural, and the characters more than just caricatures. Even if you don’t know the original, the plot made sense on its own, and I loved that Zoboi was able to do that. And I thought it was interesting for her to highlight the class differences within the African American community; it gave the book a depth it wouldn’t have if she had gone with a rich white/poor black narrative. And I appreciated that.

It was a delightful dip into a story I love but looking at it in a whole new light.

Cancer Vixen

by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
First sentence: “What happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, single-forever, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist (me, Marisa Acocella) with a  fabulous life finds… a lump in her breast?”
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Content:  There is swearing (no f-bombs), some tasteful nudity, and lots of naked breasts (it is about breast cancer, after all).  It would be in the adult graphic novel section of the bookstore, if we had it.

The first sentence of this one kind of says it all: Marchetto, a cartoonist who works for Glamour and the New Yorker, had a fabulous life with a new Italian boyfriend she was planning on eloping with, when she — out of the blue, because what other way does cancer happen? — is suddenly diagnosed with cancer.

Much of the book is a detailed blow-by-blow of Marchetto’s cancer treatment, and how that affected her life and  relationships. I found it interesting — I’ve never known anyone who’s gone through this before — but I wasn’t enamored with the story. It was very much “it girl” New York: all the right clothes, all the right friends, all the right things. (Though, she had a LOT of friends, which is a great thing!) I was more interested in her body image issues, especially regarding the models who kept throwing themselves shamelessly at Marchetto’s fiance, Silvano. But Marchetto didn’t really dwell on that; she brushed past it as part of her “negativity”. There was also an undercurrent of evidence why universal health care is needed: she was uninsured when she was diagnosed, and was in a panic about having to pay out of pocket for the treatment. Which turned out to be nearly $200,000. But, she didn’t dwell on that, either. It was very self-centric, and, honestly, I didn’t really care for her. (I feel bad saying that, though.) The art was a bit meh, as well, though I understand why she chose to draw it slightly cartoony; if it were more realistic, it’d be a lot more disturbing. This way, Marchetto was able to keep it from getting too dark while remaining honest about the ups and downs of cancer treatment (and her life).

Not bad, but not my favorite, either.

My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
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Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.