blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

Tag: travel

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple

I tore through this wry slice of a book, centered around Bernadette, her precocious daughter Bee, and their foibles in my Seattle hometown.  Bernadette is a brilliant architect, though barren of artistic projects since being scorned from the LA architecture scene early in her career.  She and her husband, a Microsoft prodigy, move to Seattle, into a dilapidated former Girl’s School on a coveted piece of land in Seattle’s Queen Anne, with the thought that Bernadette would apply her architectural magic to it.  Instead, roots continue to grow through the floorboards and vines insinuate their way through the roof, creating a living forest for young Bee, who is the good-natured star of her local middle school.  The middle school politics are amusing, and will resonate with Seattleites.

When Bee gets a perfect report card, she cashes in on her parents’ promise for a gift of what ever she wants, and Bee chooses a family trip to Antarctica.  Somewhere in between ordering special fishing vests with pockets and astronaut-grade anti-nausea medication for the trip, Bernadette goes AWOL.  Bee and her father are left with a trail of emails from Bernadette’s virtual assistant in India, who may or may not be connected with the Russian mob, and some confusion about Bernadette’s mental state. What ensues is an exceptional adventure that ultimately brings dad and daughter closer, Bernadette a shade closer to sane, and reunites an imperfect family.  Thoroughly enjoyable, often hilarious, and imaginatively written.

*Thank you to my friend Lindee who recommended this excellent book

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Give me the World

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Give Me the World by Leila Hadley

Leila Hadley’s autobiography is set in the 1950’s, a time when women did quotidian women things like marry the right man, raise their children, and host bridge parties. Lee is an educated woman determined to shatter the glum expectations of her preordained life. She packs up her young son Kippy from their beautiful home in New York, and they embark on a container ship across the Pacific Ocean.

When they port in Bangkok, Lee meets a troupe of four Californian men who have been attempting a circumnavigation of the globe aboard their 50 ft schooner. Enchanted with the way these men live, love, and breathe the ocean, Leila begs her way aboard to experience the unfettered joy of sailing the seas between exotic ports.  Even though it’s not all mai-tais and bikinis (Leila’s bunk is the size of a small locker, and she gets the lions share of the chores), Hadley has her head in the clouds and is ecstatic for the education this trip providing for her young son, who is learning languages in every place they port.

Later on in India, Leila is uneasy with both the grandeur of the wealthy Hindus she stays with, and the shocking every-day poverty on the streets. To her credit, she finds small slices of beauty in the squalor.  She takes a taxi through an arduous desert to see the Taj Mahal, where she witnesses its luminous splendor, only to shortly after to succumb to a fever that wracks her with hallucinations and leaves her near death.  In a stroke of celestial luck, she survives her fever to meet the graceful Indira Gandhi.

Further travels take Leila and Kippy to Pakistan, Dubai, Iraq, Lebanon and Malta. Hadley writes in a straightforward but detailed tongue that conveys all of the little details that make a place come alive. Fine writing, and an exceptional story from a 1950s pioneer.

Yes, Chef

27book-img2-articleInlineYes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

I’ve been reading a lot of chef memoirs lately. I like the grime and the glamor of the professional kitchens.  Anthony Bourdain provided my first salacious foray into the world of haute cuisine.  Marcus Samuelsson, on the other hand, is the anti-Bourdain.  Where Bourdain is a foul mouthed, loose cannon, who is an occasional genius in the kitchen, Samuelsson is quietly hardworking, channeling the Nordic values of his adoptive Swedish family into his ironclad work ethic, with tremendous results.

Born in Ethiopia in a small village, his family was ransacked by tuberculosis, which ultimately killed his mother.  After her death, small Marcus and his sister were adopted by a kind, grounded Swedish family.  Marcus thrived in Sweden, becoming an adept athlete and loving all things outdoors.  He also fell in love with cooking, a heritage imbued by his grandmother.  After graduating high school, Samuelsson spent the requisite time in France learning the rigid traditions of professional cuisine.

When Marcus eventually landed in New York, at Aquavit, a highly celebrated Swedish restaurant, he quickly rose through the ranks to become executive chef, and grew the franchise to world renown.

Sprinkled throughout the 18 hour days at the restaurant are astute observations of African American culture as informed by civil rights, in contrast to Marcus’s experience as an African Swedish man, now thriving in America.  Though content with his time in NYC, he yearned to connect with his home continent and bring some of Africa’s complex flavors and misunderstood ordeals into the limelight.  He built a restaurant focusing on regional cuisines from Africa, to astounding success. Later, he built “Red Rooster”, an upscale staple in Harlem today.

In between cooking for President Obama, winning Top Chef, and accruing a James Beard award, Samuelsson proves to be a hard working, humble man, with talents to envy ; talents he brings to work for social change in Harlem.