Roger Rosenblatt: Making Toast (2010) A Memoir

Family tragedy is healed by domestic routine in this quiet, tender memoir. When his daughter Amy died suddenly at the age of 38 from an asymptomatic heart condition, journalist and novelist Rosenblatt (Lapham Rising) and his wife moved into her house to help her husband care for their three young children.  Building on the small events of everyday life, Rosenblatt draws sharply etched portraits of his grandchildren; his stoic, gentle son-in-law; his wife, who feels slightly guilty that she is living her daughter’s life; and Amy emerges as a smart, prickly, selfless figure whose significance the author never registered until her death.

I read memoirs for many different reasons. In some cases because of the topic but mostly because of the writing. Some of the most original and powerful writing nowadays can be found in life-writing. I’m fascinated by the diversity of memoir writing and the different approaches. The memoirs I like best are those written by writers or poets. I didn’t mind the topic of Making Toast but it isn’t why I chose to read it. I was intrigued because many reviews of Making Toast mentioned the style. I agree, it is beautifully written, very subtle, diverse and it works on many different levels. I took my time to read and savour it. You can’t really read it in one go, as every chapter, be it a few sentences long or a few pages, has another rhythm. The individual paragraphs read like micro-fiction but they still form a homogenous whole.

Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies unexpectedly at the age of 38. Nobody knew she suffered from an extremely rare heart disease. One morning, while working out in the basement, she collapses and dies on the spot where she is found by her eldest child. Amy was a doctor, a wife and a mother of three little children, the youngest barely one year old.

Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny decide to move in with their son-in-law Harris and the three little children. They want to help them cope with the multitude of daily tasks and duties and try to assist them in overcoming the tragic loss.

One of the core themes is how the children deal with their loss and the huge responsibility and also the strain it means for an elderly couple to take care of small children.

The book is touching, thoughtful, poetic, sad, but also beautiful and moving. Some paragraphs contain thoughts and musings, others describe scenes and anecdotes. Many chapters narrate Amy’s childhood and the past, others render everyday life and how to deal with the loss of a cherished person.

I was slightly taken aback by the unfriendly reader reviews.  Especially the German translation triggered a lot of spiteful comments. People remarked that he didn’t “mourn properly” that he sounded full of himself and they also criticized his mentioning of their wealth, that they can afford a nanny for the children and own houses.  I can’t understand these comments. Rosenblatt wrote this book in a restrained way which I found very appealing. He is neither weepy nor whining and especially not exhibitionistic, still you feel the grief in each line, you sense the bewilderment in every word. The family’s wealth doesn’t make Amy’s death any less tragic. I really don’t think Rosenblatt is self-publicizing unless you consider every personal essay or memoir to be an indecent display of someone’s life. But if so, why read it?

I found this book wonderful. It contains a lot of little endearing episodes like the one that gave the book its title, in which Rosenblatt states that the only thing he is really good at is making toast for the whole family in the morning. He describes how he gets up very early and, taking into consideration each family member’s taste, he produces a multitude of personalized breakfast toasts.

Making Toast is a book for readers and writers alike. If you like memoirs you will enjoy reading this well-written, lovely book. If you would like to write a memoir you will find this book inspiring in its original approach.

31 thoughts on “Roger Rosenblatt: Making Toast (2010) A Memoir

  1. I don’t usually gravitate toward memoir, but your description of Making Toast makes it sound like something I would be interested in reading. I’ll be putting this one on my TBR list.

    • All sorts of life-writing, memoir, biography, autobiography are my favourite non-fiction genres. Also diaries and letters. But they must be well written.
      I found this absolutely charming, capturing the beauty of every day life but at the same time mentioning the grief and honouring his late daughter. I’ve never seen a memoir written like this with such short paragraphs and the longer ones. Some read like poetry.
      I hope you will enjoy it.

  2. You really have a lot of skill for writing book reviews. Im reading you.. and trying to soak up your knowledge. Although this book sounds not my type, I can tell it is a quality book by the way you write.

    • Hear hear…Caroline sure has great talent to review something. I don’t usually read reviews of books I don’t know and not of the genre I like, but Caroline able to make me read her reviews 🙂
      There are less than 5 book bloggers that I always read their reviews, Caroline is one of those few.

  3. I loved this book. Your review is wonderful, too! I wasn’t aware of the criticism from readers. It really surprises me since I thought Rosenblatt wrote a beautiful tribute to his daughter. I also thought he and his wife put the children and their son-in-law first before anything else. Did those readers miss the part about how Rosenblatt drives to Long Island every week to teach and then back to Virginia? Did readers expect he and his wife to sell their house on Long Island? And how do they want him to mourn? There are 3 very young children who’ve just lost their mother and need to be taken care of. Ugh! Sorry, people just drive me nuts sometimes, Caroline. They don’t properly read the words on the page and they don’t bother to think. You said it best, too, if they don’t rlike reading about a person’s life, don’t read memoirs!

    • Thanks Amy, I’m gald to hear you liked it as well. I tought it was lovely and very rich. I was already in the middle of the book when I saw it had just been published in Germany and read a few reviews from readers and two from critics. Without any exception they criticzed him. In one woman’s magazine the jouralist wrote, “You might like it if you can live with his annoying tone…” Maybe the translation did absolutely not work. I’m clueless. He sounds like such a nice man. He is a writer and a teacher and he loves the craft of writing and writes about it. I loved the idea of the “word of the day”. Maybe they thought it was just some “ordinary” person’s memoir. More sensationalist which it really isn’t.

  4. It’s funny how often memoir draws fire from the critics. I think there must be a lot of readers who need stories to correspond to the inside of their minds, or to how they think people ought to act and react. Which makes you wonder why they read in the first place! I do like memoir a lot, and find it a fascinating genre. This one sounds very intriguing.

    • The reactions were more than odd. It sounded as if they wee looking for stereotypical reaction. He writes in a very unassumig way. Too unassuming for some readers it seems.
      I like the way he has written this, alternating short and longer chapters.

  5. I love memoirs, but I usually read memoirs from people who have survived WWII. I think you know I’m a history nerd. But lately I’ve been reading more recent memoirs.

    I find it odd that other people think everyone should mourn losses the same way. All of us are different and all of us handle situations differently.

    • I quite like very psychological memoirs. That isn’t what you would find here but it still has a lot to offer.
      You might like the one that Jaquelin Cangro reviewed recently “Unbroken”. Seems like a very moving WWII POW survivor’s story.
      I think what people didn’t understand that the fact that Rosenblatt doesn’t press our buttons in oreder to make us cry doesn’t mean he isn’t mourning.

  6. Memoirs are not always for me, but this sounds incredibly beautiful. Sad, but beautiful. I had not heard about this book before, even if your review suggests it is quite known, so I’m very glad you pointed me towards it.

    • I hadn’t heard about Rosenblatt before but he seems to be well known in the US indeed. He teaches writing.
      He wrote another memor on the Art of writing “Unless It Moves the Human Heart” which sems less accomplished but I’m still interested.
      I hope you will like ti, should you try it.

  7. Sounds great and I’m sure the style is great but I can’t read a book about a mom who died suddenly at 38 leaving three young children behind. I’d have nightmares.

    I have The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion at home. Have you read it?

    • I understand that.
      I started Joan Didion but then got distracted by Susan Sontag’s and her son’s books and now will have to start it again. I found it very interesting. I have slight obsession with death and dying or probabaly rather a healthy interest that isn’t common or appreciated in our culture…

      • I was also going to mention Joan Didion’s book, which I thought was fantastic. Your review reminded me of it, not only because of the subject matter but because of the reaction – I remember reading some reviews complaining that she flaunted her wealth and privilege. My response to that would be that she was writing an honest memoir, and that the fact of her wealth doesn’t diminish her loss. Surely death is the one thing that renders all of that irrelevant.

        I think your interest is perfectly healthy. Everyone commenting on this post will be dead one day, but the thing we all have in common is the thing we never like to talk about. I was chatting with a therapist recently who said he thought that the unacknowledged fear of death is at the root of a lot of the problems his clients experience.

        • I really need to read Joan Didion. It’s amazing how often especially memoirs of grieving people get so many negative reviews.
          It certainly makes coping with the daily life a bit easier when you are not poor but the loss is felt the same way.

          People have told me I was obsessed or too much interested in the topic of death, well, I think I’m not and think the therapist you spoke to has a point.
          I don’t think you can separate life from death like we do this in the West.
          Tibetan Budhhists say that the aim of life is a good death. I agree, and that has nothing to do with obsession but just with acknowledging the fact that all of us will be dead one day.
          When I studied cultural anthropology this was precisely something I found fascinating, that most cultures integrate birth and death in their daily life.

  8. Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog a little while ago. Love your blog name! I actually just finished Making Toast last week. I thought parts of it were very lovely, but I actually did have some criticisms about it – not about how the family mourns and I certainly don’t think their loss is less sad because they are wealthy. But I was uncomfortable with the amount of name-dropping for such a small book. I didn’t want to be bothered by it but by the end of the book I was. It’s just how the book hit me.

    • Hi Christy, thanks for visiting and thanks for the kind words on the name. I bought Hotel du Lac meanwhile btw.
      I didn’t really pay attention to the name-dropping to be honest. That’s not something I like usually. Unfortunately the negative reviews I read had nothing to d with that at all but really about his being wealthier and others and taking himself too seriously.

  9. It sounds like a touching book, I bet a lot of cries are there. I might not look like it, but I cry easily when reading sad book.

    Talking about memoir, I am also currently reading (just started) a memoar of a western woman living in Indonesia for years.

  10. Strange how some books get the oddest and meanest critiques from readers, but it’s good you weren’t put off as you got on so well with it. I’m often unsure whether to read a book when I find so many reviews like that. This sounds really sad, but worth it for the writing style. I’ll add it to my nonfiction list–I’m doing really terrible with NF books this year!

    • I read the negative reviews after I had already started and couldn’t understand what they meant. Depending on the type of comment I don’t pay too much etention. If someone had said it is badly written or sensationalist, that would have kept me from reading it.
      Because of the short chapters and paragraphs you can easily read a few pages here and there. It’s not dense at all.

  11. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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