Life from Scratch

by Sasha Martin
First sentence: “This is not the book I meant to write.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up from the Random House rep.
Content: She didn’t have an easy upbringing and she doesn’t hold back on that. But, other than that, it’s suitable for anyone who’s interested in a culinary memoir. It’s in the biography section (for lack of a better place; it also fits in our creative non-fiction, which is kind of a catch-all) of the bookstore.

I know I’ve told y’all how much I love foody books How much they feed my soul, and how, when they’re wonderful, they just make me happy. Last time our Random House rep came to the store, he held this one out and said it’s a food memoir, I snatched it. I took too long getting to it, though: it wasn’t until it actually came in (the actual cover is so much more appealing than the ARC cover, trust me) and I actually read the first sentence, that I knew I would love this book.

Sasha had a hard life. Seriously. The daughter of a single mom struggling to get by in Boston, she and her older brother, Michael, didn’t know how hard their life was. They had Mom, they had each other and as far as they were concerned, things were good. Then the state decided that what they had wasn’t enough, and sent them into the foster system. Which, in the late-80s, was a terrible place to be. Sasha’s mom, however, was — is — an incredibly concerned and passionate person, and she fought to get them back. However, the state (I can see people’s objections to the state here) deemed their mother unfit, and decided that the kids needed to be raised elsewhere. Sasha recounts her mom sending out tons of letters, looking for a home for her children. And it was an old friend and her husband who took on the burden of raising the children.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with food? Well, the one thing that kept Sasha going throughout her life was a love of food and cooking. Her mother is Italian and Hungarian and she believed in the power of community coming together to eat, so very early on, Sasha helped out in the kitchen.

Her years with the friends weren’t happy. She missed her mother. Her brother committed suicide. Which propelled Sasha into a life of drinking and drugs and avoidance. The upside was that the family moved to Europe, so Sasha was exposed to culture there. So, when she finally landed on her feet, after years, in Oklahoma (I’m condensing here; there’s a lot going on), she decides that what she needs to do is cook her way around the world.

Sasha’s a compelling writer, telling her story with love and understanding, when no one would have faulted her for being bitter. She was angry at her mother for years, but somehow forged a new relationship with her. And I loved how this city girl found solace in a smaller community, finding the interesting and unique things about Tulsa. (She actually made Tulsa sound like a pretty cool place.) But the best thing, hands down, about this was the food. Sasha has a way of making the food leap off the page, of capturing not only the flavor of every day dishes, but also of the exotic ones she made from around the world.

It’s a delightful book, one that I’m sure will stay with me for a long, long time.

Two Transgender Books

I thought about reviewing them separately, but then I realized that the authors of the two books actually dated at one point, and I think Simon & Schuster kind of meant for them to be a pair. So, here they are, together.

Rethinking Normal
by Katie Rain Hill (with Ariel Schrag)
First sentence: “I really, really hate flies.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a few f-bombs, and some frank talk about genetalia. Also, some frank talk about having sex, though it’s not graphic. That, and the subject matter (which isn’t necessarily not for younger kids, but maybe parents want to have a chat with the younger set while they read this), put this in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Katie is a trans girl. Which means — if I get this correctly — she was assigned the male gender at birth, named Luke by her parents, and as she grew up, she felt increasingly at odds with her physical body. She didn’t feel “male”; she was attracted to males, but wanted them to see her as a woman. This is the story of her journey.

It’s not an easy one for her. For her first few years, she was okay, but as she grew older, she became depressed. She didn’t know what was wrong with her, or why she didn’t feel comfortable in her body. Why she wasn’t compelled to do traditional “guy” things. She went to therapists, but they didn’t help. Most just threw medication at her. It wasn’t until she was 13 that she discovered a transgender website that opened the doors to what she was experiencing. She found a support group, a doctor who was willing to take her seriously (turns out that she was intersexual; she had high levels of estrogen in her body and undeveloped ovaries as well as a penis), and she was on the path to becoming who she truly felt she was.

I was hoping, I think, for this to shed some light on transgender(ism? Can I say that?) for me. It didn’t; but then I think my expectations were too high. One person’s story is going to shed light on just that: one person’s story. And even though the writing style was overly casual (imagine Katie sitting down and just rambling her story at you), I was fascinating by her experiences. And ashamed; this was set down in Oklahoma, and unfortunately, the religious people Katie knew did not treat her well. That always makes me feel sad; I do hope that there would be more acceptance and charity and kindness in these sorts of stories.

I am glad Katie wrote this book, though. The first step to making the unknown more knowable is to learn someone’s story. And this book does just that.

Some Assembly Required
by Arin Anderson (with Joshua Lyon)
First sentence: “Getting dumped at prom sucks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Same as above.

I didn’t have as positive an experience with this one. I’m not quite sure why, so this is mostly going to be me ruminating about why I bailed on this memoir, when I found the other one fascinating

First off, Arin is a trans boy, which means he was assigned the female gender (and had female body parts) when he was born. He struggled with this, but unlike Katie, his struggles seemed to come off as “I don’t like the clothes/pageants my mother is putting me in.” He was a tomboy as a child, even though he enjoyed the dance classes his mother insisted he take. He didn’t want anything to do with anything else about being a girl, and was repulsed when his body started to change.

I’m not asking for a justification or an explanation, but this seems weak to me. Especially in the light of the experiences Katie had. The way Arin presented himself (to me) came off as much more shallow. Or maybe it was because I’m a woman, and I had some of the same struggles with expectations and my body image. (I just turned feminist instead of trans, though…) I wanted to know what made his experience DIFFERENT from mine. How I could have a similar reaction to clothes/pageants/activities/my body changing and NOT be trans. Maybe I was expecting too much

Growing up in Oklahoma, Arin had a tough time. He came out as bi, and then trans, both of which were strongly rejected by the community, the religious school he was attending, and his mother.  (Of course, since religious people are closed-minded, duh.) In the end it was the the way these so-called Christians treated him that made me put down the book.

But, I also had to admit that my perception of Arin was skewed from the beginning; he shows up in Katie’s book, and while she isn’t cruel, he comes off as a whiny, clingy, needy boy. I couldn’t shake that image as I tried to read this one.

So, maybe the best thing is to pick one or the other, and immerse oneself in that individual story, recognizing that it’s just that: one individual story. Even so, it’s something that isn’t talked about much, and both of these books would be good for discussion.