Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen describes life and food in 20th century Russia, the Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics. Born in Moscow in 1963, Anya and her mother Larisa moved to Philadelphia in 1974. By telling the stories of her grandparents and parents, Anya describes each decade of the 20th century, along with the food popular then. Her Jewish grandmother Liza was from Odessa on the Black Sea, her grandmother Alla was an orphan born in Turkestan and raised by a Bolshevik feminist in Uzbekistan. Her grandfather Naum was an intelligence officer, and her father Sergei helped preserve Lenin’s body through science. Through visits to family with her mother and later travels in the former republics with her boyfriend, Anya immerses the reader in the food and culture of each place and time. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, she became a James Beard award-winning food writer. We learn that standing in lines in Moscow could be a social event, as was the case when her parents met in a line for ballet tickets. The alternating availability and scarcity of various foods, such as bread and corn, could make anyone obsess over food, especially if forced to use a communal kitchen or eat caviar in kindergarten. While I don’t know if I’ll be trying any of the recipes at the end of the book, Anya’s memoir really kept my interest.
Maeve’s Times: In Her Own Words by Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy fans rejoice! A new collection of her articles from the Irish Times has just been published. A wide variety of topics are included, most humorous but some serious, and the articles were written over a period of five decades. Maeve, who died in 2012, was a born storyteller who wrote for the paper’s London office, bringing an Irish viewpoint to stories set in England and abroad. Maeve writes about royal weddings, Margaret Thatcher, clothing, travel in Europe and Australia, life as a young teacher, boring airline passengers, daily life, and getting older. In case you missed it, her last collection of connected stories, Chestnut Street, was published earlier this year.
Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg
Molly, a food writer, marries Brandon, a graduate student in music composition. Brandon has lots of interests and ideas, but Molly is surprised and somewhat dismayed when his dream of owning a pizzeria becomes reality. They both love wood-fired pizza, but Molly prefers to cook at home for friends and family. This engaging, honest memoir gives the reader a close look at the challenges and accomplishments of finding, renovating, and opening a pizzeria in Seattle. Molly starts out as the salad and dessert cook, but finds the pace overwhelming. Cooks come and go, servers become friends, and Molly and Brandon learn to be true partners in Delancey, their restaurant. Molly writes a very popular blog, Orangette.
Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe
Mid 1980s London comes to life with Nina Stibbe’s letters home to her sister. Funny, poignant, refreshing, and thoughtful, I really enjoyed reading this memoir. At 20, Nina becomes the live-in nanny for Sam and Will Frears, who live with their mother, editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Sam has some significant health issues, and they are mentioned but not a focus of the book. Literary celebrities like Alan Bennett frequently stop by, and this makes for some unusual dinner table conversations. Great books are discussed, as well as how to swear in German. Nina’s sister sends her recipes, and some are more popular with the family than others. Nina and the boys have adventures in London, comment on Mary-Kay’s dates, and casually refer to Nina’s trouble parking the family car. Nina is encouraged to consider college, and struggles with the recommended reading list in English literature. Even after she starts school, she maintains her close connection with the family.
Adventures in Yarn Farming by Barbara Parry
No, I don’t plan to raise sheep, dye wool, or harvest hay. But I really enjoyed reading about the seasons on a hillside fiber farm in western Massachusetts. Transitioning from a suburban house with 2 sheep to a large farm with dozens was far from easy, and Barbara and Mike are still learning what not to do after several years. One of their original ewes, Cocoa, is almost 17, and leads a pampered life. There are gorgeous photos throughout, of the seasons on the farm, the sheep, llamas and goats, and yarn. Some knitting patterns with photos are also included. I don’t knit, but they look enticing. Lots of planning and outside help are needed with shearing and harvesting hay. Lambing season is exhausting, though helped by a baby monitor and video feed of the barn on a screen in her fiber studio’s bedroom, 2 miles by road from their hilltop house. Working with small mills to process the fleeces into yarn is explained, and the time-consuming dyeing process is described. Annual trips to sheep and wool festivals and markets give Barbara a chance to see regular customers, and even to see her yarn turned into socks and sweaters. For more about Springdelle Farm, visit Barbara’s blog, sheepgal.com.
Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall
Carol Wall writes a moving memoir about how a slowly developing friendship with her Kenyan gardener, Giles Owita, helps her embrace life. Carol’s writing is very frank; she is a cancer survivor and does not pretend to be optimistic. She worries about her health, her marriage, and her parents, and argues with her husband Dick when stressed. Resistant to flowers, especially azaleas and roses, Carol doesn’t want to work in her neglected yard, and is frustrated when Giles doesn’t follow instructions. An English teacher, she is surprised to learn that Giles has a Ph.D. in horticulture, even though he works part-time at a grocery store. His formal, distant wife Bienta has a secret she can’t manage to share with Carol, even though she considers her a friend. After three years, her yard is gorgeous, Carol enjoys flowers and gardening, and counts Giles as a close friend and confidant. Family and major health issues affect the Walls and the Owitas, but Carol’s outlook on life is forever changed.
I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn
At the end of 2009, Lu Ann Cahn is feeling stuck. She’s happily married, on good terms with her grown daughter, a long-time cancer survivor, and respected for her work as a news reporter in Philadelphia. But still, not happy. And also not happily embracing new technology or social media. So she begins 2010 with a project to embrace and blog about a Year of Firsts. For 365 days in a row, she tries something new, or something (like hula hooping) that she hasn’t done in over a decade. Her firsts include: a polar bear plunge, taking a ballet class, baking a chocolate cake, zip lining, using an ebook reader, paying other people’s parking meters, sewing on a button, and going to the opera. Some were fun, others took more daring, some days weren’t very successful, but every day Lu Ann tried something new. She learned to embrace change, say “yes” more, got recharged and changed her life in surprising ways. Read more about her firsts on her website, and link to short video clips of her experiences. Looking to make 2014 different from last year? Lu Ann’s book may inspire you to embrace change, too.