October Book Club Feature: The 13th Gift

The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith

The 13th Gift Book Club Banner FL2W

We’re finishing up the month with The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith for our next October book club selection. With the upcoming holiday season, it’s easy to become sucked into the materialist frenzy. Smith’s memoir reminds us what is the most important gift should be:

After the unexpected death of her husband, Joanne Huist Smith had no idea how she would keep herself together and be strong for her three children–especially with the holiday season approaching. But 12 days before Christmas, presents begin appearing on her doorstep with notes from their “True Friends.” As the Smiths came together to solve the mystery of who the gifts were from, they began to thaw out from their grief and come together again as a family. This true story about the power of random acts of kindness will warm the heart, a beautiful reminder of the miracles of Christmas and the gift of family during the holiday season.

After reading the book, you might even be inspired to give someone the pleasure of these 13 gifts.

The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith

Learn more about the author and The 13th Gift  on its website. You can even see photos of Smith’s family and pictures of the cards she and her family received from their “True Friends.”

Pre-order the book now and join us on October 28 as From Left to Write members discuss the book!

Review: Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Flinn

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Flinn

Last week Kathleen Flinn’s newest book Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family got me out of my reading slump. Flinn friendly voice and writing made me feel like I was one of her girlfriends. Her family’s story made me wish I grew up with her and her family.

Flinn’s memoir recounts family adventures such as taking Route 66 on their move to California to help run a family pizza restaurant and then back on the scenic highway once again to return to the midwest. The youngest of her three siblings, Kathleen Flinn spent her early childhood living on a farm. Due to necessity and debts, her parents lived off the land by raising chickens, hunting, and gardening. In a time where frozen dinners were trendy and a sign of wealth, her family still cooked every meal from scratch. Each chapter concludes with a recipe either created by the family member highlighted in that chapter or a recipe that Flinn associates with that memory.

Flinn_Grandmother quote

I absolutely loved reading this book. And I flew through it! I finished it in just a few short sittings. My parents are immigrants to the United States, but reading about Flinn’s family made me wish that I’d grown up on a farm with chickens and orchards full of fruit trees. Can you tell I like to eat?

After reading Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, I’m feeling inspired to learn about my family’s history and adventures. And, of course, the food involved in those adventures. If you like cooking or eating food, you’ll love Kathleen Flinn’s memoir. The book releases this Thursday, August 14 but you can pre-order it.  Here’s a recipe from the book to whet your appetite (click image for bigger size and to print):

Apple Crisp Recipe by Kathleen Flinn

 I discovered Flinn when I was considering culinary school, in her first book The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. You should pick up that one too. 

Review: Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson audiobook

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson audiobook

Four days ago, I finished the audiobook Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, but I cannot stop thinking about it. Samuelsson’s voice still runs in a constant loop in my head. His eloquent words bounce around my mind as I recall how he spoke of his his inspiration, his journey, and his ambition. I’ve read many books and it’s rare that one sticks with me for so long.

I knew a little bit about Samuelsson’s life before reading his memoir. I first heard of him while watching Top Chef Masters, a favorite reality show of mine. Soon after he was named the season 2 winner, I met him at BlogHer in 2010. I was drawn to his story: Ethiopian born, Samuelsson and his older sister were adopted by Swedish parents. My children, while not adopted, are biracial, and I was fascinated by the dichotomy of Samuelsson’s life. My children will probably face similar challenges as they straddle their different cultures and races.

Thien-Kim cooking with Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef opens with Samuelsson’s memory of his Ethiopian mother, who was one of many tragedies in a tuberculosis epidemic that hit Ethiopia. Both he and his sister were stricken but survived. Samuelsson doesn’t mince words as he describes how life must have been for his mother, yet his calm, strong voice hit me hard:

I have never seen a picture of my mother.

I have traveled to her homeland, my homeland, dozens of times. I have met her brothers and sisters. I have found my birth father and eight half brothers and sisters I didn’t know I had. I have my met my mother’s relatives in Ethiopia, but when I ask them to describe my mother, they throw out generalities. “She was nice,” they tell me. “She was pretty.” “She was smart.” Nice, pretty, smart. The words seem meaningless, except the last is a clue because even today, in rural Ethiopia, girls are not encouraged to go to school.”

(You can listen Samuelsson read the opening chapter on Audible.)

Samuelsson shares his journey with complete honesty. He’s a chef, so of course the text is peppered with expletives that are probably thrown around in restaurant kitchens. His observations of race and of being black as he travels throughout Europe and America are gut wrenching because there is truth to them.  Being black in the restaurant business was almost as bad as being female, but Samuelsson didn’t let the racism stop his ambition. In fact, he aimed to prove that he was the best, no matter his skin color.

The topics he covers in his memoir are weighty but he adds levity in the right places. I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. I”m sure my fellow Amtrak passengers thought I was crazy!

Samuelsson’s curiosity about food and flavors combined with his extensive travel has given him a unique view on cooking.  This is evidenced by the recipes in his cookbook New American Table. He wants to create more than food that tastes good, but he aims to build restaurants and dishes that create and build community, just like the Red Rooster in Harlem, NY.

I highly recommend getting the audiobook so you can hear him tell his own story. My only regret is not purchasing a print copy to read in tandem with the audiobook. There are many passages that I would have highlighted or made notes next to.

Even if you’re not a foodie like me, you’ll enjoy Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson.

For a more personal post about how Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir inspired me, head to my blog I’m Not the Nanny.

50 Authors Celebrate Summer With Original Stories on Biographile

Biographile That Summer Story Series

I recently learned about Biographile, the Penguin Random House website dedicated to biography, memoir, and truth in fiction. It looks like a great site to read about new and distinguished authors, inspiration, and the craft of writing. Currently, the site is in the midst of That Summer, a month-long series celebrating the magic of summer. Every day in July, Biographile will share original essays from more than 50 renowned authors from Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and others, who share personal tales of that memorable summer.

Calling all writers: Biographile, in partnership with Paste Magazine, is running a writing contest for you to share your summer story.  The winner will have their story published on Paste and Biographile plus become the new owners of a curated collection of books. Hurry, though because submissions are due on July 23rd.

Now back to the stories about authors’ memorable summers. Their stories explore themes such as love and sex, rites of passage, and personal growth, while spanning generations, from the freewheeling ’70s to the digital aughts. Authors include:

  • Jojo Moyes, author of One Plus One, remembers a teenage summer in her colorful London neighborhood and the freedom associated with learning to drive.
  • Thomas Cahill, author of Heretics and Heroes, recalls moving to Ireland with his wife, and their adventures involving superstitious country folk and Irish moonshine.
  • Margaret Atwood, author of the forthcoming Stone Mattress, remembers her fascination with stromatolites (fossil-like pillows of stone), which she encounters during a boating trip through the North West Passage.  It turns out, that trip was fodder for a new short story…
  • Lisa See, author of China Dolls, recalls a summer of driving and sex under the stars during the ’70s when she lived at home as a teen without parental supervision.
  • Saroo Brierley, author of A Long Way Home, shares his emotional journey to India in hopes of finding his birth village and family with the aid of Google Earth after a 25-year separation. 
  • Amanda Vaill, author of Hotel Florida, recalls a breakthrough in her writing while conducting research at the New York Public Library during her first job as an assistant for the New Yorker.

Biographile has plenty of great stories to feed your reader this weekend. Come back each for a new story will be like unwrapping a birthday present everyday for a month.

What are you reading this weekend?

Book Club Feature: Dad Is Fat

Dad Is Fat From Left to Write Banner

Dad Is Fat From Left to Write Banner

Our next book club feature for April is the entertaining and laugh-out-loud Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. I’m not sure how he, his wife and FIVE (yes, 5) kids manage not to kill each other in their two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. His family’s tight quarters mean more laughs for us:

In Dad is Fat, stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, who’s best known for his legendary riffs on Hot Pockets, bacon, manatees, and McDonald’s, expresses all the joys and horrors of life with five young children—everything from cousins (“celebrities for little kids”) to toddlers’ communication skills (“they always sound like they have traveled by horseback for hours to deliver important news”), to the eating habits of four year olds (“there is no difference between a four year old eating a taco and throwing a taco on the floor”). Reminiscent of Bill Cosby’sFatherhoodDad is Fat is sharply observed, explosively funny, and a cry for help from a man who has realized he and his wife are outnumbered in their own home.

Just a warning if you read this book in public: people will shoot you crazy looks when your chuckles turn into full out laughs.

Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

From Left to Write book club members will discuss Dad Is Fat (Three Rivers Press) on April 22 in celebration of the book’s paperback release. If you can’t wait until Tuesday, order the hardcover or ebook (for instant gratification), and come chime in our discussion.

Keep up with Jim Gaffigan via his website, Facebook or Twitter.

Book Review: The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parkes

The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parkes

The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parkes

The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting by Clara Parkes is a geek read. Parkes utilizes a variety of knitting metaphors to illustrate personal life lessons in these twenty-two short essays. Although eloquently written, if you aren’t familiar with terms such as steek, Kitchener, and frogging, reading The Yarn Whisperer can leave you feeling a little discombobulated. The themes are universal, but the lens is narrow. It’s a little like trying to describe the joy of basking in sunlight and fresh air to a fish who has known only the cool depths of the sea. You might as well be talking in a foreign language.

Life is a fabric that is made, mended, cut, and embellished. It can be unraveled; it can be reworked. It is a fabric we work on every day, bit by bit. As such, I can appreciate the knitting metaphors – the exciting potential of a new yarn, the slow addition of stitches, and patterns that gradually emerge. However, if I wasn’t obsessed with knitting, I’m not sure I would have made it to the end of The Yarn Whisperer. There were no revelations here – only the indulgence of spending time with someone who speaks my language.

Do you knit? Why do you love it so much?