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Four Great Books about Mothers — Being one, Having one, etc.

The best and hardest thing in your life just might be your relationship with your mother. It is never simple and it is never no big deal. Just ask Freud–he’ll tell you. Growing up and having kids of one’s own proves even more incredible and challenging, adding layer upon layer to what is already the most complex and possibly important relationship in a person’s life. But don’t take my word for it. Check out these four lyrical, original, gorgeous novels about motherhood.

The hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
hand that firstO’Farrell’s novel follows two women, separated by 50 years, as they experience pivotal points in their life. Lexie Sinclair escapes her boring country life for London and finds herself thrust into the center of the dream  life she’s always wanted. When she finds herself pregnant and unattached, she has no qualms about having the baby on her own and and does so with aplomb. 50 years later, we meet Elina, a brand new mother having undergone a rather traumatic surgical birth experience. Veering unsteadily through her new life as a mother, Elina struggles to regain her balance. Weaving together the two stories into a satisfying conclusion, Maggie O’Farrell has created a winning novel. Her writing is a gorgeous meditation on women’s lives, the creation of the self and what happens when becoming a mother shakes your foundations. I read this about a year after having my first child and it was the only book I read that accurately described how I felt in those first emotional months of motherhood. That part of the book combined with the excitement of Lexie’s story in postwar London makes it an ideal read.


Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Can we just hand this book out on street corners, please? Everyone is always looking for a funny, whered you gowell-written story, and it can be hard to find something that meets both criteria. Bernadette is a famous architect who lives in Seattle with her Microsoft Guru husband and her 15-year old daughter, Bee. Growing increasingly agoraphobic, Bernadette goes to great lengths to avoid the other parents at her daughter’s school and uses a personal assistant in India to run her life. One day, Bernadette disappears and her daughter uses emails, receipts and official documents to piece together where her mother might have gone and what sent her running.  Where’d you go Bernadette is a like a cross between a Wes Anderson Film and a piece written by Tina Fey. Funny, sad, intimate and really, really interesting. I believe they’re making this into a movie, but I don’t want to see it unless it’s a. starring Tina Fey or Toni Collete as Bernadette and b. adapted and directed by a woman.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

reconstructing ameliaKate is reeling from the news that her 15-year old daughter, Amelia, has committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her school. Then she gets an anonymous text that reads simply: Amelia didn’t jump. Kate delves into her daughter’s life, talking with her friends, going through her things, trying to solve the mystery of her life and untimely end. Interspersed with Amelia’s emails, texts and Facebook posts, we learn more about Kate’s life, and the never ending guilt she feels as a full time working, single mom. This engaging story does a fine job toeing the line between indulgent beach read and affecting literary drama. I gulped the whole thing down in about three days.

Everything I never told you  by Celeste Ng

Like Reconstructing Amelia, this graceful novel has something essentially sad at its core: the death of a teenage girl. Written in muted, lovely language, this story follows a Chinese American everythingfamily living in small town Ohio. Wife and mother Marilyn is eternally frustrated by her foiled career as a medical doctor, having chosen to be a mother and homemaker instead. She pours all of her hopes and dreams into her daughter Lydia, pushing and pushing her to be the best at everything and barely paying attention to her son, Nathan. When Lydia turns up dead, having drowned in the nearby lake, long buried emotions begin to leak out of every crack in this tortured family. Despite the heaviness of the story, Ng’s novel is an easy read, and serves as a wonderful reminder to let our children pursue their own dreams instead of ours.

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Delectable memoirs by chefs and food writers

Whenever I find myself in a reading rut–when I have picked up and put down several books without getting drawn in, when I am going through a stressful or unusual time and I need something to sink into that isn’t too taxing or difficult–I go looking for a particular kind of book that rarely lets me down: the food memoir. Despite having a notoriously picky palate, I cannot get enough reading or watching narratives focused on food. Back when I had cable, I spent many a marathon evening on the couch binge watching Top Chef or the Food Network. And when I was pregnant with my first child and feeling very impatient during those last few weeks, I sat in a chair by the window and inhaled Ruth Reichl’s trilogy of food memoirs.

There is something about reading someone’s life as remembered through the meals they ate or the food they cooked that really appeals to me. Because we all have that common, don’t we? Meals eaten alone in misery or shared with joy. What did your parents feed you when you were small? What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? What do you cook when someone needs comforting?  Food is love and food is life, so there should be no surprise that some of the best writing I’ve read has centered on food.

 

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher

MFK fisherThis is that one book about food and eating that you should make yourself read in your lifetime. You know the one–she’s writing about food and hunger, but she’s really talking about the human heart and our capacity to love. Each chapter is a vignette, if you will, about her experiences growing up, the effects of war, death, loss, starting over — many of the usual topics for a memoir, but all are interwoven with the meals she ate and the drinks she had. Fisher was so elegant and eloquent that you can’t help but imagine her sailing around among glamorous settings, impeccably dressed and impossibly cool, eating her way around the world. Her voice is wry and honest and super compelling. If you consider yourself a fan of both good writing and good food and happen to be interested in the cultural and social history of the early 20th century, MFK Fisher is a must read.

 

My life in France by Julia Child

Everyone knows who Julia Child is by now, as they rightly should. Famous for her big, boisterous my life in francepersonality and her strides in cooking, many remember Child from her TV show. Her memoir, posthumously published by her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is tremendous, my friends. Brimming with fascinating details and exciting and drool worthy culinary adventures abroad, this book is equal parts cookbook and travel journal. Child writes honestly about being a big, awkward American among petit French fashion plates and about her experiences in the all male cooking classes she took. By the end of this lovely story, you will be completely aboard Team Julia.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table – by Ruth Reichl

Comfort me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

ruth reichlRuth Reichl’s three memoirs take us from her childhood to her wildly successful career as a restaurant critic. She talks about how food, what and how people choose to eat ,can tell you everything you need to know about them. By turns informative and incredibly personal, Reichl writes entertainingly about growing up with a very eccentric mother who was known to scrape mold off the top of a dish and feed it to her children; about the early days of the organic food movement in Berkeley, California; about traveling the world and learning to cook and eat; about the personal heartbreaks of trying to start a family, of her transition from chef to critic; and about the hilarious disguises she would wear to try and experience a restaurant incognito. All three books are warm hearted, comforting reads. And do they not have the *best* titles ever? Long before I knew who Ruth Reichl was, I wanted to read a book called Comfort me with Apples.

 

Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Chef and restaurant owner Hamilton writes about her unconventional life in this impressively readable memoir. For me, the memoirs I enjoy the most are written by people who I would like toblood bones and butter spend time with, people with interesting stories, who I never want to stop talking. Hamilton has a noteworthy voice and very strong opinions. She makes interesting choices in her life including some that I don’t quite understand or agree with. Still, I wanted to hear her explain those stories and I never lost interest, even when her narrative veers off in a direction I didn’t expect it to. The appeal of this memoir is not so much in the food as it is in the artist creating the food. Anthony Bourdain called this book the best memoir he’s ever read and, coming from him, that is quite a compliment!

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Five fantastic books by female authors you’ve probably never heard of (but should!)

The world of publishing has been notoriously overcrowded with white men since its inception. Female authors generally have to fight for recognition and respect, and if they happen to be writing about women, that fight is even harder. Publishers slap a pastel cover with a stylish drawing of shoes and that just-so cursive font and call it “chick lit”—regardless of what the story may contain. Not that all “chick-lit” is unworthy, it’s just a specific genre of book marketed to a specific audience. And too often, female writers are pushed into this narrow category and never given a chance to break out. It’s a frustrating problem, but one that I hope we are moving away from! The last 5 years have seen some fantastic, glowingly reviewed literature by women. In trying to compose this list of female writers, I had a really hard time narrowing it down to five. A wealth of options to choose from is a good sign, friends. I have chosen five books by five of my favorite female authors, all published within the last ten years.

All of these books have been reviewed well, but you are unlikely to see them in your local Target book section. Allow me to introduce you!

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

monsters of templetonThis entirely original and unexpected story follows a graduate student of archeology named Willie Upton who returns to her hometown of Templeton, NY. Her home life seems to be unraveling as she moves back in with her mother for the summer and learns that her previously absent and presumed dead father is actually alive and well and living in town. Willie’s mother leaves it up to her to uncover his identity. Willie spends her summer digging around in archives, piecing together her family story. While all of this happening, there may or may not be a mysterious Loch Ness –type monster living in the town lake and Willie may or may not be in the early stages of pregnancy following an ill-advised affair with her professor.

Groff’s masterful prose is the perfect concoction of funny and sad, dark and delicious. She hints at the supernatural but stays mostly focused on real life people and their various peccadillos. Her characters are lovable and complicated and so compelling. My personal literary goal is to write a book just like this. She is, by far, my favorite writing hero. By the way, Templeton, NY is actually a thinly disguised Cooperstown, NY, a detail that only enhances the experience of reading this book.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

commencement imageCommencement follows the interweaving stories of four friends who first meet when they are assigned to the same dorm at Smith College. Smith, that famously feminist, liberal school in beautiful western Massachusetts, sets the scene for these four very different women whose lives twist and turn in ways they never expect. Sullivan examines the shaky feeling of embarking on “adulthood” after college and coming face to face with stark reality. Jobs, changing relationships between friends and family members, boyfriends and girlfriends: none of us are completely prepared for what the future brings. Sullivan takes us through this familiar landscape with four wonderfully drawn and fully realized women, whose life stories she narrates with admirable candor and intimacy. You will feel like you’re out to lunch with your best friend while reading this book. It’s a great vacation read and a great gift for any recent or soon to be graduates you might know.

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

visitation streetVisitation Street takes you to the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, NY during a hot summer. Weaving in the narratives of several very different, compelling characters, Visitation Street tells the story of two teenage girls who, bored, decide to take a raft out into the bay to see what adventures they can have. Only one of them returns, waking up confused on a scummy beach, and without a clear recollection of what happened. The aftermath of this event echoes through the close knit neighborhood of Red Hook as various characters grapple with their part in the tragedy.

Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda’s debut novel, is a quiet wonder, brimming with possibility and menace, and yet a distant ray of hope lights the background of her characters’ bleak lives. This story will appeal to mystery fans, particularly anyone who enjoys Denis Lehane’s gritty urban novels. Lehane hand picked this novel for his new publishing company.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

ten thousand saintsSet mostly in New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, Ten Thousand Saints follows Jude, a teen sent to live with his pot-dealing father after his best friend Teddy dies of an overdose. Raised by adoptive, hippie parents in Vermont, Jude is immediately taken in by the various extreme scenes taking shape in New York City around this time. First falling in with a group of straight edge Hare Krishnas, Jude eventually submerges himself in straight edge, hard core culture, allowing his devotion to abstinence of every kind to become an addiction itself.

Eleanor Henderson’s novel is so tender hearted and sympathetic toward the deeply troubled lost souls at its center, that you will be a better, more empathetic person having read it. I’ve always thought that the great good of books and reading comes from the empathy we learn as a result of walking in someone else’s shoes. This book, more than any other I can think of, does just that. You will love the characters in this book so much; their sorrow and their joy will be yours as well. If this isn’t the mark of a great writer, I don’t know what is! Ann Patchett remarked that this book was the “best thing I’ve read in a long time.” Also, they’re making a movie! Here’s hoping they do it justice.

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

swamplandiaAva Bigtree lives with her family at a gator wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. Daily shows find Ava’s mother performing death defying stunts with alligators in front of a crowd. After Ava’s mother gets sick, the family begins to unravel. Ava’s father withdraws completely, leaving Ava and her siblings on their own. Her brother leaves to work at a rival theme park called “The World of Darkness” based on the Bible, while her spacey older sister falls under the spell of a mysterious character who may or may not be a ghost.   When her sister disappears, 13-year old Ava sets out to find her on a journey through the mystical, gorgeous and terrifying swamp.

Ahh, Swamlpandia. Where to begin? Karen Russell and Lauren Groff are, in many ways, soul mates. Both women sway back and forth between the sometimes absurd, modern world we know and the hazy supernatural places we don’t know. Russell, however, is definitely darker. Swamplandia is such an incredibly inventive and disturbing experience. At the same time, however, and this is what I love about her (and Groff), the characters at the center of the novel will grab you by the heart and make you care about what happens to them—no matter how outlandish their adventures might be.