Redhead By the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s quirky characters always resonate with me, from the annoying travel writer in The Accidental Tourist to meddling Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Her setting in  Redhead By the Side of the Road is once again Baltimore, and again she has family as the fulcrum for examining the life of her hero.

Micah Mortimer is a forty something bachelor who manages an old apartment house for the free rent in the basement, and dabbles in computer repair with his small company Tech Hermit.  Micah has a structured and organized life, bordering on obsessive – the kind of guy who must have all the pencils sharpened and lined up, if he used them, and has a schedule for cleaning, eating, waking up, and most of his life.  Although he has had girlfriends, Cass, an elementary school teacher, is the latest he has lost, and he is befuddled by what he did to make her leave him.

Brink, a young freshman in college, and the son of Micah’s first love, appears suddenly at his doorstep.  Brink is running away allegedly looking for his birth father, but the real reasons surface later.  Micah gives the boy coffee and a place to sleep for one night, assuring Brink he could not be his father (he never slept with his mother), and then sends him away when the boy refuses to call his mother to reassure her.  Eventually, Brink confesses and reunites with his family, but not before he ruffles old memories in Micah.

The redhead at the side of the road makes an appearance only twice in the story, and both times this reader wonders if it is symbolic of Micah getting older with his eyesight starting to fail, or some manifestation of his own desperate life – the redhead appears to be sitting, huddled with her head down and clasping her knees.  The first time the redhead appeared, I laughed out loud when Tyler revealed the true identity.  The second time, I wondered if his not seeing clearly said something about his relationships.

Through a series of incidents with his family – all older sisters and broods; with Lorna, Brinks’s mother; and with a funny assortment of customers needing help with their computers, Micah reevaluates his life and comes to a moment of awakening.  The ending reveals his vulnerability and offers hope for better connections with human nature. Tyler wryly reaffirms it’s always a good time to change your life.

This might be the best time to read Tyler’s story, not only for Tyler’s subtle humor but also for her message.   When all of us are experiencing our routines being changed through circumstances we cannot control, reading about a man whose life seemed happy with his ordinary regimen and suddenly has to adjust to outside forces is relatable.  It’s comforting to know he not only survived but life got better – eventually.

Related Review: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2016/06/21/vinegar-girl-by-anne-tyler/

 

We Are All Baking in Quarantine

On my latest dangerous mission to my local grocery store, armed with a face mask and rubber gloves, I was expecting some empty shelves, but not devoid of flour and sugar, and even vanilla extract.  The only item left was a large bag of confectioner’s sugar, and, of course, I grabbed it.  The fresh greens were surrounded by ladies not practicing safe social distance, so I took the celery on the aisle and quickly wheeled over to the frozen foods, thinking frozen vegetables might be a good alternative.

No crowds surrounded the frozen bins because they were empty. Only a sad looking package of chopped cauliflower sat alone inside.  Of course, I took it.

What else could I not find?  My favorite mozzarella cheese sticks and chocolate fudge bars – then I stopped looking, not able to bear further disappointment.

Last night I happened to hear Ina Garten, known as the Barefoot Contessa, talking from her home kitchen with a PBS interviewer.  She opened a stocked freezer with homemade chicken stock, tomato sauce, cookie dough, and more, as she explained she usually tried not to go into her stash.  She offered her solution to ingredients not available or not worth the trip to the store these days:  Substitute ginger for garlic, onion for scallions; be creative and you might start a new dish you like better than the old.  I don’t think Ina would advocate reversing the order and substituting garlic, of which I seem to have an abundance, for ginger in my cupcakes, but maybe it would be worth a try.

The interview inspired me to find her cookbooks on my shelf, and have hope that confectioner’s sugar could substitute for granulated sugar. (It can.)

You can see the interview here.  

And read about how her Instagram page is saving the sanity of many erstwhile cooks in an Atlantic article – Ina Gartens’s Quarantine Playbook

And read my review for How Easy Is That?    It has a recipe for my bag of cauliflower.

Books You Can Skip and A Few to Keep

Although my inclination is to not publish reviews of books I did not like, I seem to have collected quite a few lately.  Just because I did not find these books compelling does not mean you won’t.  The first is by an author I follow and usually anticipate reading, the second is a classic with history painfully repeating itself in the present, and the third is from LibraryReads –  the site with picks from library staff nationwide.

The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

A group of women have regular meetings to reveal secrets and offer support to each other. Although reviewers have called the book uplifting, I found it disappointing and tiresome.  Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for angst and empathy.

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This classic came to me by way of Libby, our library’s online service.  At first, I laughed at the ridiculous scenarios, until they came too close to current political reality.  Although Lewis was targeting the 1930s American government, I found a 2017 essay in the New York Times titled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”  Sadly, history does repeat itself.

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson

Liar, liar, pants on fire!  In Wilson’s book ten year old twins can spontaneously burst into fire, burning everything around them but not themselves.  Lillian is summoned by her former class mate Madison to act as their nursemaid, while Madison prepares her husband to become the next Secretary of State. Although the story line is outlandish, Wilson’s symbolism is hard to miss, and the snarky comments on parenting and politics are contemporary.  I read the whole book, wishing it would burst into flames.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If you read all sixteen chapters of Walker’s information dense material, it may actually put you to sleep – as you are reading it.  The author gives you his permission:  “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”  Go straight to the Appendix – “Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep” with reminders you have probably read elsewhere: stick to a sleep schedule, exercise, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bed, and one I often apply – “If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed more than twenty minutes, get up and do {something}.”

 

Keeper Books:

Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse by John Lithgow

Best Christmas present ever,  Lithgow’s satirical poems are hilarious.  The targets include anyone connected to the American President, from Rudy Giulianio to Betsy DeVos, with Lithgow’s line drawings adding to the fun. In her review for the New York Journal of Books, Judith Reveal notes: “A prolific writer and award-winning actor, Lithgow has penned a laugh-out-loud picture of American politics at its worst. And yet, through the laughter comes a sense of despair.”  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Cartoonist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s children’s book for adults is probably one you should give as a present to someone. When I read about it, I gifted it to myself, and now am reluctant to part with it. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Is your glass half empty or half full?” asked the mole. “I think I’m grateful to have a glass,” said the boy.  

The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.