Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
I really enjoyed reading this memoir of the year the author spent in Rome with his wife Shauna and their twin babies, Henry and Owen. The day the twins were born in Boise, Idaho, Anthony learned that he won the Rome Prize, providing an apartment, a writing studio, and a stipend for a year. He is best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning historical novel All the Light We Cannot See. Part of that novel was written during that year, but Rome kept distracting him. The subtitle is very descriptive: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Their apartment was in walking distance of St. Peter’s Square, and Pope John Paul II died while they were living in Rome. Struggling to communicate in Italian, the family is charmed by the warmth of the Italians they encounter, and stunned by the beauty and history of Rome. The struggles of writing are well detailed, but the main topics are Rome and life with young twins. I plan to read more of Doerr’s stories and essays, especially involving further travels with his family.
Wide-Open World by John Marshall
John and Traca Marshall were growing apart. Jackson, 14, wouldn’t put her phone down long enough to talk with her dad, while shy Logan was 17 and headed for college soon. It was time to reconnect, and John dreamed of taking the family and traveling around the world for a year of service. This was not the memoir I was expecting to read. They didn’t have a lot of money, and almost gave up on their dream. Finally, they rented out their Maine house and set out for a half year of volunteering. I thought the trip would be organized well in advance. While the author gives practical tips for other families who’d like to volunteer abroad, including how not to rent out your house, the Marshalls didn’t always know where they were headed next. I expected humor, adventure, illness, and increased closeness of the family. No one got sick although John did get attacked by a monkey in Costa Rica, on more than one occasion. They certainly had adventures, traveling to New Zealand, Thailand, India, and Portugal, and the people and settings they visited sound quite appealing. The teens grew and changed during their travels, and are continuing to travel and volunteer. There are some humorous anecdotes, but the family as a whole didn’t reconnect they way they had hoped and not all of the volunteer experiences were positive. A very honest, reflective memoir of a family who followed their dream to make a difference and see the world.
Bill Klein and his wife Jennifer Arnold have won the hearts of many with their television show “The Little Couple”. Bill, an entrepreneur, and Jennifer, a neonatologist and medical educator, both have dwarfism. Their book shares the stories of their childhoods with loving families and their struggles of dealing with surgery almost every summer growing up. Their health challenges, including recent cancer treatment for Jennifer and spinal surgery for Bill, surpass the challenges of being a little person in a full-sized world. Their engaging story is full of honesty and humor. Entertaining anecdotes include Jennifer starting college in Florida during a hurricane, and Bill’s first car. We learn about their first date, wedding, how they were approached to share their story on television, and hopes of starting a family through surrogacy. Through their television show they hope to raise awareness of dwarfism and help prevent bullying. The reader also learns more about the adoptions of Will from Mongolia and Zoe from India, both toddlers with dwarfism, and the continuing support of their families. An inspiring book which is sure to be popular with their many fans.
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.