A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail by Suzanne Roberts
Did you enjoy reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed? Then Almost Somewhere is the perfect readalike, about young women hiking in the wilderness. In 1993, Suzanne, Erika, and Dionne finish college and decide to spend a month hiking the John Muir trail from Mount Whitney to Yosemite. Erika is in charge, Suzanne is the slightly clutzy dreamer, and Dionne has never been backpacking before (a secret from Erika). Like Cheryl Strayed, Suzanne has an oversize backpack, but spends much less time writing about blisters or the contents of her pack, just worrying about her swollen knee and Dionne’s eating disorder. The women hike with two guys for the first part of the trip, including a stranger who Suzanne finds disturbing, and there’s concern that their food supply will run short. It’s not until the women start hiking as a threesome that they work as a team rather than competing with each other for attention from the guys. They have interactions with bears, other hikers and campers, and struggle to finish the hike through some stunning wilderness scenery and nine mountain passes. For more about the journey, visit the author’s website.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild describes the real life journey of one woman on a 1,100 mile solitary hike through California, Oregon, and Washington in the ’90s. After her mother dies suddenly from cancer, twenty-two year old Cheryl Strayed’s (a name the author fittingly chooses for herself) life falls apart. Her once tight-knit family soon scatters away from her, she continually cheats on her seemingly “perfect” husband time and again, and after her marriage dissolves, she jumps into a toxic relationship that results in a dangerous heroin habit. Thus, four years later and with nothing left to lose, Strayed decides to hike the massive Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own, despite her utter lack of preparedness (or a proper fitting pair of boots). Strayed weaves her past with her present as she tackles the trail, meets eccentric and amiable characters along the way, and not so amiable characters in rattlesnakes, bears, and other critters. Strayed tells her story with brutal honesty, never sugarcoating her own shortcomings and mistakes, as well as with a skilled storyteller’s voice. You will find yourself rooting for Strayed as she hitchhikes to and from the PCT, small towns and remote campsites, constantly struggling to get by on $20 or less at a time. But most of all, you will root for Strayed to find in the PCT what it is she needs to move on with her life. Wild is an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection.
Candyfreak by Steve Almond
I like the subtitle of Steve Almond’s book: a journey through the chocolate underbelly of America. Even though Steve doesn’t like coconut, you can guess what his nickname was as a kid, which is clear in the name of his website: www.stevealmondjoy.com. He would like readers to know a few important facts about himself, especially that he has “eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life.” He has a high metabolism and isn’t overweight, but spent much of the 1970s at the dentist having cavities filled. He thinks about candy a lot, and has an awesome stash of candy.
Steve wasn’t very happy as a boy or a teen, so he ate lots of candy. Halloween was definitely his favorite day of the year. A journalist looking for his next writing project, Steve wondered what happened to some of the candy bars he enjoyed as a kid that were no longer available. He explores the twentieth century history of candy in America by visiting several family owned candy factories, and meeting other candyfreaks like himself. His writing is both funny and sad, and most of all delicious. His descriptions of how candy is made and how he would go into a trance watching it are well worth reading, especially if you remember spending your allowance on candy and comics. Readers of Candyfreak will be happy to know that since the book was published in 2004, Steve has gotten married and now has two young children. He’s still writing, and undoubtedly, still eating lots of candy.
Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin takes another look at happiness, after her 2009 book, The Happiness Project. When her younger daughter starts kindergarten, Gretchen decides to take the next nine months to focus on happiness within the home and family. She describes herself quite frankly: how she’s trying to use her “mean face” less often to her family, how a perfect day is one spent at home, that she doesn’t like to make phone calls, and dreads driving (not so surprising as she lives in New York City). Older daughter Eliza and Gretchen go on Wednesday afternoon adventures together, often to museums. Gretchen collaborates on a children’s book project with her sister, finally deals with the backlog of family photos, and asks her family to knock on her office door so she can greet them more pleasantly.
I like her suggestions to keep clearing clutter, focus on your family’s happiness, be yourself, and how spending fifteen minutes a day on something you’d rather put off can actually make you happier. I enjoyed her explorations of good scents, having a miniature landscape created for the family, and how she practiced under-reacting to problems. She decided to celebrate minor holidays with festive breakfasts, and make the family happier by emailing anecdotes and cute pictures of the girls, including young Eleanor’s first loose tooth. I suggest starting with her first book, The Happiness Project, but I enjoyed another visit with Gretchen and more ideas to make home a happy, peaceful place. Read more at the author’s website.
Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India by Miranda Kennedy
National Public Radio reporter Miranda Kennedy has reported stories from New York City, Washington, Afghanistan, and tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka. Here she tells her story of living in Delhi, India for several years as a young, single woman. The story she tells is mainly about women; how they struggle with the clash of modern and traditional lifestyles in India, where marriage and children are every young woman’s duty. Miranda has so much difficulty renting an apartment as a single woman that her absent boyfriend is reinvented as her husband. She acquires and learns to interact with bossy servants, hire a driver, and makes friends with Indian women of varied backgrounds.
Slums, rural villages, a Punjabi wedding, and visits to Bangladesh enliven the story. Geeta, modern career girl, resists then longs to be married, her ideas heavily influenced by romantic Bollywood movies. Poor Brahmin Radha looks for a husband for her daughter. Women at her health club spend more time chatting then exercising, but Miranda recognizes this as a much needed social outlet. Parvati has a very modern relationship with writer Vijay, but they maintain separate apartments. Food, family, music, and friendships make for a very lively memoir as Miranda struggles, along with her friends, to figure out her future.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
This is not another Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s funny memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Wild is a raw, moving, and uplifting journey of discovery on the very challenging Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl, 26, newly divorced and still grieving her mother’s death a few years earlier, decides to find herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. Cheryl saves up her tips from waitressing, stuffs everything she might need into a backpack nicknamed “The Monster”, laces up her boots, and sets out to hike 1100 miles in 100 days, from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River Gorge. Cheryl has issues: her love life, divorce from a man she still loves, drugs, grief, and a lack of family ties, but she has plenty of guts and willpower. Cheryl has canoed and camped, but never actually backpacked. Every 100 miles or so, she looks forward to a box of supplies and a little money a friend is mailing to her. Along the way she faces lots of challenges, including bears, rattlesnakes, weather extremes, and detours that require hitchhiking. I had to put this book down for a couple of days and skimmed ahead another time because I was worried about Cheryl. She’s bruised and losing toenails, hitchhiking can be scary, water isn’t always available, money is tight, and Cheryl’s behavior is unpredictable. But she’s also good company, as are the many kind and encouraging folks she meets along the way. Visit Cheryl’s website and watch a video trailer about her journey.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything by Simon Majumdar
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg
Mediterranean Summer: A Season on Frances’s Cote d’Azur and Italy’s Costa Bella by David Shalleck
Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes by Shoba Narayan
Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy by Sergio Esposito
Plenty: One man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
The World in My Kitchen: The Adventures of a (Mostly) French Woman in America by Colette Rossant
Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs
Writer A. J. Jacobs is always ready for self-improvement. He read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible, resulting in the books The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically. A case of pneumonia has A.J. ready to listen to his wife’s pleas for him to shape up, especially as he gets winded while playing with their three young sons. So, at 41, he consults numerous health experts as well as his hippy aunt Marti. A. J. spends more than two years on his project to become healthier, and we follow along as he tries all kinds of exercise programs, including playing cave man in Central Park and literally running to do his errands. He explores many different diets, looks at noise pollution, the dangers of sitting all day, and tries to avoid toxic chemicals, all the while chipping away at a very long list of health related goals. Becoming an Okinawan woman seems impossible, but how about the fact that Academy Award winners live three years longer on average than non-Oscar winners? Always interesting and frequently funny, A.J. comes away from his quest with some very sensible suggestions on how to get healthier.