“From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home” by Tembi Locke

Genre:  MemoirFrom Scratch
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: April 30, 2019

I usually feel apprehensive when beginning a memoir. There are hundreds of memoirs written, usually ghostwritten, often from those in the entertainment business.  Tembi Locke is an actress and I wondered if I was in for a poorly written, vanity book. From the first sentence, I knew this was not going to be the case. “In Sicily, every story begins with a marriage or a death.” I was already hooked.

The author is an African American from Texas.  Besides being a mom and an actress, she is also an activist.  She meets her future Sicilian husband, Saro when she is in college and doing a semester in Italy. He is a chef who was born, lives, and works in a part of the world that holds onto their traditions with a firm grasp. Even though the couple has their wedding reception in Italy, his parents do not attend. His father has forbidden anyone in his family from attending because his son is marrying a black, non-catholic woman. Her parents gladly attended, arriving in full Texan gear while dancing the Harlem Shuffle at the reception. The author gives you enough information to make you wonder, how could this cross-cultural couple make it? Yet, “He soothed the places I hadn’t known needed soothing… Together we had engaged life as two forks eating off one plate.”  Tembi writes as if her marriage was a great love affair. “Our undoing was cancer…Pain is part of life. That much I knew.” However, she makes it clear that nothing could prepare her for the years of caretaking and the crippling grief once Saro dies from the disease. The entire book might have been an exercise in catharsis. If so, she made it work.

When Tembi returns to Sicily to bury Saro’s ashes, she develops a new bond with her mother-in-law through the Sicilian food they prepare in Saro’s parents’ tiny kitchen. She writes, “Cooking is about surrender.”  In the tradition of “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Scratch” is a recipe book and love story that is told through cooking a meal.  Tembi and her daughter come to spend their summers in Sicily and she embraces the slow-paced lifestyle.  One of her favorite chores is after a meal, joining the other village women to shake out their tablecloths—in the middle of the road—so not to attract ants into their home.  The author comes to know and understand her late husband’s family. Okay, there are some “Godfather” jokes, but in the end, a Sicilian neighbor, who does not understand a syllable of English, tells her family that their daughter, Tembi, “is one of us.” As Tembi says, “Sicily was the water and sun that fortified me to stand stronger in my life after loss.”

Locke’s memoir immediately reveals to the reader that she is a powerful storyteller. She fills her book with sensory experiences of Sicily. “The hot air was pregnant with jasmine and eucalyptus.”  Although the lyrical prose is glorious, I sometimes found that the vivid imagery throughout the memoir took over her story. I would have enjoyed reading less poetry on the wonders of Sicily (to be fair she also educates her readers on its history) and learned more about the details of her married life in America, which seems to have been skipped over.  I’m guessing this was done on purpose since the author’s tale is really about the salve that she found in Sicily.  Also, sometimes, the connection between food and kitchen wisdom was a bit too overplayed.  But, who am I to contradict her memories and healing process?  I devoured this book.  Once finished, I could not wait to celebrate life by going into my own kitchen to boil water for pasta. The author’s soul-searching words make for a heartfelt memoir that is part devastating, part uplifting, and always a beautiful tribute to life and love.

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A Portrait of an Artist

Sounds wonderful.

The Chocolate Lady's Book Review Blog

Book Review of Notes from an Exhibition” by Patrick Gale.

aad14-notesTo try to describe the plot of Patrick Gale’s novel “Notes on an Exhibition” is as difficult a task as to try to explain a piece of abstract art. In fact, this novel is less of a story than it is a portrait of a personality and the life around her. The action of this book revolves around Rachel Kelly, an artist who came from Canada and lived most of her life in Cornwall. What’s more, Rachel is bipolar (manic-depressive), and this affects not only her own outlook on life, but also all those around her as well as her art. With nothing is truly obvious from the outset of this book, the full story is only revealed once you’ve finished reading the last page.

What’s more, Gale sets up this book in a fascinating way. To…

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“The Island” by Elin Hilderbrand

Genre: Beach Read The Island
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pub. Date: 05/01/2012

Mini Review

I had just lost a pet and wanted/needed a beach read. Something fluffy, something to lift my spirits, and to help me get through the mourning process.  I had read Elin Hilderbrand’s  “Summer of ‘69” as an Advance Review Copy (ARC.)  I very much enjoyed the novel so I went looking for something from her.  I usually don’t buy books.  But, I bought “The Island,” because I thought it would fit the bill.  It did not.  The story revolves around a family of four women—a 50 something mom, her sister, and her two grown daughters. The eldest daughter had a mental trauma surrounding the death of her ex-fiancée and is in a deep depression. They decided to revisit the family’s bare-bones cabin on a tiny island near Nantucket to help her regroup.  The plot sounds like a perfect beach read.  I was expecting lots of female bonding. My issue was with the characters and their love interests.  When it comes to the women’s’ love life, I swear the dialogue sounded like they were all in junior high. How could four intelligent, successful females talk as if they are in the TV series “Saved by the Bell?”  Quote from the middle-aged mom, “My boyfriend doesn’t love me.” From mom’s 30-year-old daughter to her 32-year-old sister (the one who is too depressed to come out of her room), “You are trying to take him from me.”  Enough already. I enjoyed reading about the island and beach life, which did help me forget my sadness, but not enough to enjoy this tedious chick-lit novel.

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“The Motion of the Body Through Space” by Lionel Shriver

Genre: Literary Fiction/SatireThe Motion
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: April 20, 2020

I have enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s previous books but this one disappointed me.  “The Motion of the Body Through Space” is an okay read if you remember that you are reading a satire regarding the many Americans who take physical fitness to extremes and how easy it is to fall into mass conformity. It can get truly tiring to read an entire novel with a one-message theme pounded into your head nonstop.  If you are not in on the joke, the novel will drag on and on.  And, even if you are, the story still can get on your nerves.

The tale revolves around a happily married couple who are in their early 60s, living in Hudson, N.Y. Due to profession and physical bad luck, their senior years are not going as smoothly as their earlier years. The husband is fired from his job.  His self-esteem goes out the window.  He decides to run a marathon although he has never had any interest in any physical activities before.  That was always his wife’s gig until recently when her knees gave out.  However, she did her running by herself not part of a spectator’s sport. He makes his announcement to his wife. “In a second-rate sitcom, she’d have spewed coffee across her breakfast.” Adding more tension into the marriage after the marathon, he announces a new goal: a triathlon, under the guidance of an extremely toned, pretty, personal female trainer.  The author’s fictional MettleMan triathlon is her tongue in cheek way of not even bothering to hide the comparison to the real-life Metalman triathlon.

The novel is good at establishing the us-versus-them mentality. Wife to husband: “You do realize that organized sport is an industry?”  Husband to wife: “Soft drinks are an industry. We still buy soda water.” The trainer puts in her two cents, “anyone who says a discouraging word about MettleMan: you’re just gutless, indolent, and weak.” Suddenly, the wife is out of the window along with her husband’s job.  She wearily cries, “MettleMan isn’t just an exercise regime it’s a cult…The man I fell in love with has been kidnapped.”   The argument made throughout the book suggests that extreme sports might be a form of mental sickness.  Once at the multisport event race—that could do permanent physical damage to most of us— the founder of MetalMan gives a speech that leans more Nazi than motivational.  The wife thinks, “Leni Riefenstahl, where are you?”

Although the book can be funny, the punchline wears thin.  The story had the makings of a good romp regarding our weight-fitness obsessed culture, but the satire falls short.  In “Motion,” Shriver also attempts to take on parent-child issues, racial tensions, and politics, but they are hard to find due to the nonstop fixation on physical fitness. I do give her points for daring to write a novel with no likable characters. It is interesting getting into the psyche of those who train for marathons. Still, you might want to run, as fast as you can, away from this novel.

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“Virtue” by John Moot

Genre: Literary FictionVirtue
Publisher: Roads End Books
Pub. Date: August 4, 2020

Itsy-Bitsy Review

The media department for this novel reached out to me, via email, on reading and reviewing this novel. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in this book.  First, the genre is not literary fiction as marked. “Virtue” is more a contemporary family drama intertwined with politics. Secondly, and this is my own entire fault, the email reads, “Virtue is similar to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.”  But, I was thinking the novel, “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is modeled after the life of Laura Bush as recorded in Ann Gerhart’s biography “The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.”

“Virtue” revolves around a marriage in trouble and their struggling teenage children.  The wife wants change.  She is sick of being an at-home mother. The husband is a college philosophy professor who is writing a political book. The President of the college wants him to tone down his political views, for fear of losing donors.   He refuses and may lose his job. Since a good chunk of the plot revolves around politics, I didn’t realize my mistake until I started to write this review. Possibly, if I went in knowing I was about to read a family drama, which I can enjoy, I may have enjoyed the tale more than I did. The novel has some thought provoking elements. Still, I do not usually care for novels that end neat enough to be wrapped up in a bow, as this one does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“A Good Marriage” by Kimberly McCreight

Genre: Murder Mystery/ThrillerA Good Marriage
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: May 5, 2020

Thrillers are usually at their best when read in the summer, while on vacation, on a beach, or just relaxing in the yard. At this time of year, many of us are not interested in books that require effort.  Unless you are a student, there is nothing thought-provoking on our summer reading list. We are looking for unadulterated entertainment.  At least, until we return to the real world.  But, until then summer, for readers like myself, means spending a lot of time doing nothing but lounging around while getting lost in escapist fiction.  “A Good Marriage” is a good summer thriller.

The story is a combination of Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and any legal thriller by John Grisham. In a nutshell, “Marriage” is the tale of a white-collar criminal defense attorney, Lizzie Kitsakis, who takes on the case of a millionaire, Zach Grayson, accused of the brutal murder of his wife, Amanda, in the super-wealthy section of Park Slope, Brooklyn NY. Zach and Lizzie knew each other back when they were in law school.  Although they haven’t had any contact in almost twenty years he tells her that she is the only lawyer who can represent/help him. Yes, you should be wondering why a now stranger is his only hope.  Lizzie, who has her own baggage, is swallowed up in a whodunit case revolving around women who are forces to be reckoned with, a ritzy private school, a hacking scandal, blackmail, and a sex party.  There are so many secrets that they pile up on top of each like a multi-car collision.

As in “Lies,” there are three female best friends and a newcomer to the neighborhood, which is Amanda. She is constantly struggling to understand her Park Slope friends’ ways. “The ladies of Park Slope prefer calculated indifference in matters of dress, a contrast to the glossy perfectionism of their Manhattan neighbors.”  Upping the ante for a delicious summer thriller, a chunk of the murder investigation revolves around the parents’ annual party, which they call “Sleepaway Soiree.”  The name refers to the fact that the kids have all left for summer camp meaning the parents can run wild. The Soiree is a wife swapping party just like in the 1997 movie, “Ice Storm” where appearingly wholesome couples experiment with casual sex. There are actual invitations, caterers, and everything else that goes into putting together an expensive party. “It’s harmless. And no one talks about it after.  It’s like it never happened.” The author enjoys poking fun at her rich characters.

In “Marriage,” McCreight manages to keep the “Lies” theme fresh without having a copycat feel by not retelling, “Lies” but rather repeating its great tensions. “Marriage” is told through multiple points of view. Amanda is killed off early in the book.  The author cleverly keeps her in the plot by using intermittent chapters, on how she spent her last week alive making for further dark suspense. McCreight does a good job of weaving multiple storylines together. However, a few characters felt like walk-ons and did nothing to enhance the story. In the tradition of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, the story is told in different formats such as grand jury testimonies, inner-company memos, school emails, and diaries. This reviewer can usually guess who the murderer is—not this time.  I applaud the author for changing directions so often that she keeps her readers on their toes.

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“Redhead by the Side” of the Road by Anne Tyler

Genre: Literary FictionRedhead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

If I was to host a dinner party with my favorite female authors whose first name is some sort of derivative of “Ann” my guests would include Ann Napolitano, Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Anne Tyler. In Tyler’s latest novel, the narrative’s tone is overflowing with laugh-out-loud dry wit.  Her protagonist, Micah (an example of a difficult name to remember that I just switch to Michael in my mind) Mortimer is another likable yet quirky character, the kind that the author favors. It takes talent to write comedy with a rather dull hero.

Micah is a fastidiously well-organized 43-year-old tech geek who follows his routines to the point of bordering on OCD.  He heeds all rules, big or small, believing that this gives his life a sense of order. He pretends that there is a Big Brother-like Traffic God watching his every move in the car, which is why he always, always signals—even in his own driveway! When those living in the building he manages do not follow the guidelines, he writes them “friendly” reminders. Most residents get one or more per week. And the poor guy can’t figure out why women keep dumping him.

Micah is the extreme opposite of his lackadaisical family, which makes for some very funny dialogue between himself and the other Mortimers. His brother-in-law asks him “What day is it today? Is it [your] vacuuming day, a dusting day? Is it a scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-Q-tip day? In all seriousness, Micah replies, “it is kitchen day.” His family roars. Halfway through the novel, we meet a new character. A teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. Since Micah is not built for life’s unexpected developments, his world becomes unmanageable. It is not a spoiler to inform you that the redhead in the title is not referring to the boy. Tyler cleverly uses the word redhead throughout the novel as a metaphor for the protagonist’s powerlessness to see clearly.  Is that a redhead child? No, it is a fire hydrant.

Micah fails to understand the ‘need’ to accept—or at least try to accept—the yin and yang of life. He stubbornly refuses to see that he might be the problem.  In the hands of a lesser author, he could easily come off as Mr. Magoo. Tyler keeps him human. She also makes us wonder. Is Miach even capable of change?  Are any of us capable of change?  In the tradition of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue, or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, “Redhead” is a feel-good story about having second chances in life. Wouldn’t we all like a do-over? Yes, you have read this story before. Still, right about now in these crazy times, can’t we all benefit from a heartwarming tale?

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“Little Disasters” by Sarah Vaughan

Genre: Mystery and ThrillersLittle Disasters
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date: August 18, 2020

Mini-Review

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book is not a mystery (though this might be upsetting if you had your heart set on one). You may be able to call this a thriller but only because you will wonder the fate of a nine-month-old baby.  The novel is actually about examining mental health issues concentrating on postpartum depression at its most severe. The author does a wonderful job of showing how shocking the illness can be. This is also a story about female friendships being tested.  A doctor is faced with the dilemma of abiding her Hippocratic Oath when her good friend’s baby is in the emergency room.  The baby is there with a head trauma and there is reason to doubt the mother’s explanation of how the accident took place. The author does an excellent job writing on the baby’s mother’s feelings of shame, anxiety, and trying to keep her baby safe from herself—Heartbreaking.  However, I was disappointed when the author throws in side stories about the two women’s childhoods with abusive parents. It is the author’s attempt at writing on the differences between actual abuse and thoughts. Insight into mental illness is always good, but this came off as obvious.  As if the reader couldn’t figure out the differences on their own.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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