Lisa Grunwald: Whatever Makes You Happy (2005)

Whatever makes you happy is probably a book you either love or hate. It is a blend between fiction and  non-fiction  and very frankly this did not work for me. I found it highly artificial. But it is not boring, so that is one good thing.

Sally Faber, a 40-year-old writer, is trying to write a book about happiness. While struggling with writing she faces a lot of challenging moments in her life. Her little girls leave for the first time for two months to go to summer camp. Her mother leaves her with the challenging task to empty an appartement she owns whose inhabitant, a psychiatrist, has died without leaving any heirs.

Despite all of this Sally seems to have it all. A great live, cute girls, an understanding gentle and successful husband yet she endangers all of this by starting an affair with a megalomaniac self-centered artist who supposedly understands her better than her husband.

The idea to let us dive into Sally’s research was already quite artificial but to sort of test some of the theories by inventing this odd affair was even more so. It just did not make any sense. I did not understand what she did. In the end it felt less like a novel than like an experiment and playing around with the concept of happiness. Sure, there are quite a few insights, views and bits of information that are interesting, which is probably why many readers liked this, but it spoilt the novel for me to have it presented in this way.

Aspiring writers learn to show and not tell, and that is exactly what I would like to tell Lisa Grunwald.

I think it is disappointing because the idea of a novel about happiness appealed to me. The only bit I really liked was the way she described Sally´s feelings for her little girls. That was truly touching.

I should have known what to expect since this novel was recommended by Gretchen Rubin whose Happiness Project I found equally disappointing.  More of that in my next post

Ayelet Waldman: Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2006)

I was so curious to read this. I had heard such a lot about Ayelet Waldman and most of it was fuelled by hate. I still do not understand this at all. Just because she questions motherhood? Because she admits, it is no picnic? Be it as it may, I really liked this book. It just swipes you away.

Emilia is married to the love of her life, Jack, but she is not his first wife. And there is also William, his son from his first marriage. A precocious and at times obnoxious child. Emilia cannot handle him and cannot handle her guilt either. Guilt that she was the reason Jack broke up with his wife Caroline, and guilt because she feels responsible for the death of her daughter Isabel who died on her first day home from the hospital just after she was born. This grief and her guilt overshadows everything. And the fact that her father left her mother for a young Russian prostitute.

A lot of heavy stuff but the prose is very light and funny enough this book is never depressing. I found it extremely interesting. It is also a portrait of the city of New York and a description of what it is like to be a mother in New York. Many things that probably only a New Yorker knows, like, the running moms of Central Park, A Walk to Remember. Movies and books about New York hold a special appeal for me. This one is no exception. I loved to read these insider descriptions of  walks and places that you would visit with a kid or on your own.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a book that will engage you, make you think, make you wanna discuss it. It is courageous and tackles topics that are of great importance to everybody. Even to women like me who have no children.

It is really worth reading and I do also feel tempted to watch the movie.

Some questions that would be interesting to discuss:

How difficult is it to be a stepmother?

Can there ever be a conflict-free patchwork family?

How do you survive the death of your child?

Is it easier to lose a child when it is a bit older?

Is it better to share your feelings with people who have been through the same or should you see a counselor?

Would you want to replace your dead child?

Should you give him/her a name?

There are many, many more… A lot of food for thought as you can see.

Gerard Donovan: Julius Winsome (2007)

What a sad read and yet how true it felt.

If anyone has ever truly loved an animal, this book will get to him or her since the main character finds  his best friend, his dog, shot dead by some unknown person at the very beginning of this novel. Hardly ever have I been so moved by the description of someone´s mourning. But even before this tragic incident Julius Winsome has been grieving for a lot of other reasons.

He´s a loner living in a cabin deep in a forest in Maine, his only companions are the 3000 and some more books his father has left behind. They cover the cabin walls and Julius reads them one by one. He is still not over the loss of his father and is sad about having been left by the girlfriend he had for a few months who, all of a sudden, didn´t turn up any more. Apart from these two facts we hear nothing about his biography. It´s as if his memories were  solely composed of his grandfather´s stories of WWI and his father´s tales from WWII and some odd remembrances linked to his memorizing words found in Shakespeare´s plays and sonnets.

Julius has always been a defender of animals and to find his beloved dog senselessly shot dead triggers something  very dark in him.

In the chapters following the opening scenes we see him take revenge.

Gerard Donovan is also a poet so it is only natural his style should be very poetic and picturesque. You can almost hear the snow fall when it starts to cover  the dog´s grave. You can hear the gunshots from the hunters that so infuriate Julius and you feel the utter loneliness of this gentle man turning into an avenger.

Julius Winsome American edition

Julius Winsome American edition barnes and noble

Julius Winsome (engl.) European Edition uk


Review guardian co uk

Apples for Jam: A Colorful Cookbook by Tessa Kiros (2007)

A cookbook needs to fulfill much more than just provide us with recipes. Ideally it appeals to us visually as well as content wise. I have come to think of cookbooks as the grown-up’s counterpart of illustrated children’s books. We do not just use them, we enter another world by means of opening them. Enchantment is what we are looking for. And advice. Most cookbooks, unless they are of the „How to“ and „Basic cooking“ kind, are conceptual, either dedicated to the cuisine of a country or region or to a specific food group. Many are written by famous chefs.

Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jam: A Colorful Cookbook is unique in its kind. It artfully blends memoir and cookbook and takes us on a voyage back to our own childhood. Apples for Jam consists of  a collection of easily followed recipes interwoven with wonderfully colorful photos and prettily designed pages.

The recipes we find stem from the realm of family cooking. Recipes handed down from one generation to the next. Meals and food that is and was meant to nourish, comfort and console. The type of food mama used to cook when we came home from school worn out or downright crying. You will also find a lot of favourite children’s food that seems to have  stayed remarkably the same over the decades. Children’s palates do not crave for the all too sophisticated fancy cuisine of five-star chefs. And maybe we have gotten tired of it as well. We want the simple things again. Homemade meals with only a few ingredients that are all the more flavourful for being recognizable. You will find recipes for salads and main courses like “Chicken cutlets with parsley and capers”, alcohol free drinks such as “Cranberry syrup” and a wide range of deserts among which there are ice creams, cookies and cakes. No fancy hors d’oeuvre or starter courses.

It is a book that will especially appeal to color sensitive types as it is organised by colors, starting with orange, yellow, pink and green, heading on towards, gold, white and brown and ending with color themes “monochrome”, “stripes” and “multicolor”. Recipes and ingredients  echo and play along the lines of those colors.

But what is maybe the nicest about this book is its capacity to enchant. If you do not feel like cooking you can still enjoy the artwork, relish in the photos and read the little stories and Tessa’s childhood memories and let her take you back on a trip to your own cherished past.

Apples for Jam: A colorful cookbook by Tessa Kiros (2007), Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City