Solutions and Other Problems

Having finally finished Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe (taking almost as long as reading The Splendid and the Vile), I found myself happily ensconced in an easier path to philosophical thinking with Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.  If you have read her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, you will recognize her cartoonish characters combined with serious thinking. I like books with pictures but tend to shy away from graphic novels. Brosh, on the other hand, offers her heavy insight mixed with a light touch.  It was easy to transfer Bakewell’s evaluation of Sartre to Brosh’s world of grimly smiling characters.

Brosh’s book is full of her own story as she navigates through her sister’s suicide and her traumatic health scare and includes a plethora of sublime and funny vignettes from childhood through her thirty year old self (notice I did not say adulthood). She draws herself as a frog-eyed and neckless stick figure with a blonde shark fin of a ponytail protruding from her head.   She explains why:

“There are a lot of distracting things about humans,” she says. “There are ways we’ve learned to interpret each other, based on all these outside clues. Drawing myself in this spastic, animalistic way allows me to communicate more directly about the things I’m trying to talk about without using this confusing [human] vehicle as a medium.”

Her style works to simultaneously provoke humor and pathos, drawing the reader into funny situations with thoughtful outcomes. Brosh adds her quirky art to a humorous angst reminiscent of David Sedaris talking about his childhood or his favorite pants. Allie Brosh transforms simple stories about her cat, her childhood, and her anxiety into humorous lessons. Some are just laugh out loud funny but others will have you connecting to your own experiences.

Best of all, by exposing her own idiosyncracies, worries, and insecurities, she gives the reader the freedom to admit to some too, and, in the end, become your own best friend. Maybe Solutions and Other Problems was not written to draw us out of our social distancing doldrums in a pandemic, but reading the book sure does a good job of it.

The last line in the book:

Because nobody should have to feel like a pointless little weirdo alone.   Especially if they are.

 

 

A Letter to Ruth Reichl

Dear Ruth,

Thank you, Ruth Reichl, for returning to writing your memoirs.  Although I enjoyed your novel, Delicious! and tried the recipe in the back of the book for gingerbread cake, I missed your real life.  I laughed so hard at your disguises in Garlic and Sapphires and felt so nostalgic when reading Comfort Me with Apples.  I missed your life commentary with funny asides and endearing messy foibles.

9781400069996  Now you are back with Save Me the Plums – just when I need motivation to read again.  I look forward to your tale about your adventures with one of my favorite defunct magazines – Gourmet (I miss reading it too.)

Kate Betts teased me with her review yesterday in the Sunday New York Times, calling it “a poignant and hilarious account.”   She mentions recipes – oh joy!  I may have to eat chocolate cake while reading.

I am off to find your book….

Related Review:  Delicious!

 

How to Hold a Grudge

41k6fdqjmzl._sy346_  Self improvement books usually don’t work for me, but Sophie Hannah’s How to Hold a Grudge or The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life gave me some good laughs. Despite her organized approach to changing “resentment to contentment,” with quizzes to identify the grudge and a “grudge-fold path” to control them, Hannah clearly forgives but doesn’t forget.

Hannah uses incidents in her own life as examples, and her humorous approach may offer some consolation to those of us who recognize similar incidents in our own lives.  Her stories are funny but still poignant and sometimes worthy of revenge – which Hannah does not condone.  Everybody needs a safe place and Hannah believes grading her grudges, and storing them in her grudge cabinet after she has dissected them with her grudge meter is a better way – most of the time.  Writing them down and letting them simmer overnight does help, but I wonder if Hannah would consider good advice someone gave me once – destroy your incriminating diaries like Jane Austen.

Grudges appear in my life everyday, and my grudge cabinet is like my bookshelves – brimming over with always room for more.   I should probably reread Hannah’s book to rate them and laugh – or privately scream at them as she suggests – but now I have a grudge against her for reminding me of all those incidents I thought I had forgotten.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

shopping    Reading J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest had the same unexpected effect as Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough – both inspired me to get into the kitchen to make something from scratch.  This slim paperback has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a few years, but its surprising mix of melancholy, humor, and satire surrounding the life of a food prodigy is still fresh.

Eva Thorvald grew hot peppers in her closet as a child, and grew up to be a world famous chef.  Her journey was not easy, first abandoned by her mother when she was only a few months old, followed by the sudden death of her father, a chef who started his cooking journey making Scandinavian lutefish.  She’s raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child in a poor but loving home.

The first chapters chronicle Eva’s life from toddler to pre-teen to young adult, as she matures into an independent and creative person who seems focused on a life with food.   Her hot pepper revenge on middle school bullies is fun to watch and her reinvention of the caesar salad will make your mouth water.  She has a knack for combining an amazing taste for  the unusual with expert marketing skills, quietly learning from the best chefs as she grows into her own style.

Although she is the heroine of the story, Eva disappears in the second half of the book, as stories of those who know her and know of her take over the narrative.  The names are not always familiar and it takes attention to realize how their lives are connected to Eva. When she resurfaces in short appearances, the story is better for it, and when, finally, in the last chapter Stradal forces an unexpected reunion with Eva’s mother, the outcome is not as expected but realistic, and still satisfying in its possibilities.

Throughout the book, Stradel inserts a satiric note on foodies with their idiosyncracies and gullible palates. Stradel makes the point of how paying more for labels does not necessarily result in better taste, but freshness always counts.  Eva outmatches a fellow chef by driving to the fields to pick the kernels off the stalks the morning of the dinner for her own version of a succotash dish.  Later in the book, she grows her own.

With Eva’s career culminating in serving five thousand dollar a plate dinners to eager patrons who have patiently survived an incredibly long waiting list for years, Stradel takes a poke at elite restaurants with exorbitant prices.  Not surprisingly, the last dinner served in the book has all the flavors of home cooking, but masked with descriptions warranting the high price.  The dessert includes a simple five ingredient bar – here’s the recipe – you might have made a version yourself.

Strudel’s story reminded me of those first amazing bites of an old world recipe from my grandmother when I was a girl as well as the seven course meal from an award winning chef at a restaurant with a long waiting list – both were worthy of respect and both captured the essence of what food is supposed to be.  But Eva’s coming of age and her fabulous cooking also inspired me to try something old with a new twist – maybe some chocolate grated into mac and cheese?

Assume the Worst

In fourth grade Sister Eugene Marie taught us to lower our expectations. When you Assume the Worst – the title of a hilarious collaboration between Carl Hiaasen and Roz Chast – you won’t be disapppointed. Sometimes, you might be happily surprised.

In their “Graduation Speech You Will Never Hear,” Hiaasen offers his humorous advice, accompanied by Roz Chast’s signature illustrations.

Among my favorite lines:

“….when the ignorant outperform the attentive—dimness triumphs. The result is that we end up with dangerously unqualified leaders, and then sit around disconsolately hoping the worst of them will be taken down by scandal or maybe an exploding prostate…”

“Stupidity is a real-world pandemic from which there’s no refuge, even at college. Each year, on prestigious campuses from coast to coast, no small number of diplomas are handed out to young men and women who barely scraped by.” (accompanied by Chast’s diploma for a Bachelor of Existing.)

“Spending all your waking hours doing only what feels good is a viable life plan if you’re a Labrador retriever…”