The Book Jam Blog
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Perhaps it's because, like most, I've spent most of the last year in my own home that now in 2021 I find myself gravitating towards books written by authors from other countries. Missing travel has propelled me to journey and imagine through stories instead. There's something that feels particularly authentic - almost even clandestine - about traveling through books, in being able to see a country through the eyes, words, and memories of a native. To me, reading a book in translation feels like having a local share a recommendation of a hidden beach or a favorite dish or like having them sit down and explain what it was like to grow up in their region. At it's best, reading a book from another country is like eavesdropping on a whole cultural conversation while also having the luxury and time to reflect on all of the obscure references. It's been through reading these four books, one of a long walk through Marseille, another of an Italian widow who lives with her favorite chicken, the third of and of an enigmatic French cemetery keeper, and a fourth of a quirky family of Russians who've settled in Germany, that I feel I've journeyed far from home with no passport or quarantine necessary. And I think it's fair to say that nothing was lost in translation. ~ Lisa Cadow
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (2020). One of my favorite books so far this year. It's not an easy read but it's a beautiful and moving one. The setting is unlikely: a cemetery in the Bourgogne region of France. The main character, Violette Toussaint, is also unusual: she is the cemetery keeper. Throughout the novel we learn what has brought her to this métier as well as how the stories of several resting in the cemetery and those visiting them are connected. Violette is kind and trusted, many stop by her house for tea and conversation but she also keeps much about her own life hidden from the world. The slow unfolding of the story and the series of revelations up until the very last chapter lend this novel the air of a mystery. There are also many references to French music tucked into these pages, some so intriguing that I found myself taking frequent breaks from the book to explore and listen to these songs. Fresh Water for Flowers captivated European readers and was a bestseller in France and Italy during the pandemic. ~ Lisa Cadow
Three O'Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carafiglio (2021). A love letter to 1980's Marseille through an Italian author's eyes. This bulk of this story takes place over the course of two days and follows the footsteps of a father and his teenage son walking through its many neighborhoods while getting to know - and even enjoy - each other's company. The pair are in the city for the son's medical appointment and due to a specific diagnostic test, he must not fall asleep for 48 hours. Told in retrospect through the now adult son's eyes, the duo experiences the sights and sounds of this city by the sea as they visit cafes, witness a crime, meet locals and attend late night parties. A lovely coming of age story. ~ Lisa Cadow
Nives by Sacha Naspini (2021). One night, one very long phone call between a recent widow and the village veterinarian. The conversation between the two is prompted by the widow's concern for her pet chicken, Giacomina, whose presence is the only thing that can help her to sleep since her husband passed away. But suddenly her pet hen has been hypnotized by a television commercial for laundry detergent. She calls the vet for advice but soon more than the chicken is the topic at hand. The reader becomes privy to a whole lifetime lived in a Tuscan village. Secrets are revealed and lives are changed forever. Short but sweet, very funny, surprising, and also extremely serious. The whole time I was reading this I wished I could see this affecting dialogue performed on stage. ~ Lisa Cadow
My Grandmother's Braid by Alina Bronsky (2021). Another gem published by Europa Editions (the press that brought American readers Muriel Barbery's very popular Elegance of the Hedgehog), this tragicomic tale of a Russian family living in a home for refugees in Germany is told by young, endearing, and observant Max. Though his overbearing and eccentric (and anti-semtic) grandmother is convinced that he is developmentally challenged, orphaned Max is actually quite astute and shares with the reader his observations of childhood as well as of the relationship developing between his grandfather and their beautiful neighbor. A meditation on family, what it means to leave behind a life in another country and start from scratch to rebuild it in another, Bronsky offers us a fictionalized account of her own upbringing in this unique novella. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo (2015). Cuba 1963 meant Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest in history. As Flora bears down on the island, women take refuge at the behest of the government in the former governor's mansion. To pass the time, one of the women begins to tell the story of her family's history in Cuba and reveals more than she realizes. This story within a story discusses love, forgiveness, and Cuba's War of Independence. This novel, also from Europa Editions brings us out of this Europe-centric post for just a moment, and is one I hope all can enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie
Some may have let Mother's Day pass by without getting the mothers in their lives the perfect gift. Don't fret. Some of us mothers would honestly prefer to buy the perfect book for ourselves. This purchase might be part of celebrating and honoring our motherhood or, quite honestly, it might be just because. Just because it's Monday. Just because we don't feel like answering any more emails and would rather be whisked away by a gorgeous story. Just because finding yourself the right book at the right time is simply the best.
We have two books to recommend if one is making such a purchase as well as for anyone simply looking for a good book. Enjoy and Happy Belated Mother's Day to all.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl (2019). Speaking of buying one's self the perfect gift, I did just this very thing this morning with Save Me the Plums. And I couldn't be more satisfied with my choice. Though only twenty pages into this book that tells the tale of Reich's years at the helm of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, I already can't wait to return to it tonight. Reichl's writing is, as always, well...delicious. Whenever I start one of her books, I feel as though I've entered a wise friend's warm and fragrant kitchen to hear another interesting tale of a fascinating life spent pioneering in food and publishing. Not only is the conversation easy, interesting, and though-provoking but this friend always prepares us the perfect dishes to accompany our chat (and shares new recipes with me to take home afterwards such as 'Spicy Chinese Noodles'). Many may be familiar with Reichl's other enjoyable memoirs that have been published over the decades such as Tender at the Bone that tells of her eclectic youth and how she fell in love with cooking in the first place and Comfort Me with Apples that chronicles her early adult years in Berkeley, California as a young food writer, hippie, and restaurant reviewer. Then there's Garlic and Sapphires that describes her busy tenure as the head restaurant reviewer at The New York Times all while also raising her young son Nick. They are all three worth going back to and slowly savoring if you haven't had the chance to already. With Save Me the Plums, Reichl pulls the hungry reader in right away with descriptions of taking food tours of New York City with her father as a young girl. There are scenes from German delis and of her, not yet a teenager, cooking a whole suckling pig with what else? A recipe from an old, loved edition of a Gourmet cookbook. I'm now on the page where she's completely caught off guard at being offered the job of Editor-in Chief at Gourmet while still at The Times. Will she take it? Though I think I already know the answer, I can't wait to find out what happens next. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Searcher by Tana French (2020). Prior to The Searcher I had not yet read Ms. French, which I know is almost sacrilege. Perhaps it's because my Book Jam partner Lisa Cadow loves her so much; thus, I know she will review every Tana French book and I just don't pick them up. But for some unknowing reason I picked up The Searcher and well loved it. The Searcher has a quiet pace, that allows you to enjoy living in a small town in Ireland for awhile. This pace allows you to grow to love Cal, the ex Chicago cop who relocated to this town after his marriage fell apart - for reasons he still does not understand - and his job just got too hard after 25 years to successfully navigate and keep mentally healthy. Ms. French also allows you time to think about domestic abuse, the harm of drugs on those who use and those around the users, and starting over (as well as home repair), all while being entertained. (I emerged more empathetic and sympathetic for people in all those categories.) Well written and lovingly paced, it's just a great escape for anyone. ~ Lisa Christie