Monthly Archives: May 2019

Sweety, by Andrea Zuill

SweetySweety is a young naked mole rat with large glasses and orthodontic headgear. Naked mole rats are not a pulchritudinous bunch in general, but even Sweety’s grandmother called her “Grandma’s little square peg.”

Sweety did not understand why her classmates did not share her scientific interest in mushrooms or why she was the only student who presented her book reports through interpretive dance, but when she tried to be like the others, it just didn’t feel right. Usually, Sweety was very content with herself, but sometimes she wished she could find a friend who was a true soulmate. Aunt Ruth was happily different, as well, and she assured Sweety “that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.” Sweety hoped that her people would have a secret handshake.

Author and illustrator Andrea Zuill depicts Sweety’s hilarious and touching attempts to find her people through softly colored pen and ink drawings with both traditional narrative and speech bubbles. Her pages are populated with smiling, homely, anthropomorphic naked mole rats of all shapes and sizes living in cozy underground dens and rodent-perspective outdoor scenes. Sweety is completely over-the-top in everything she does, but she is very good at many things. Odd things, but still.

This is not a story about a depressed child or a bullied child, nor is it about an overbearing or conceited child. Sweety is confident and happy with herself; she just wants to expand her little tribe of one. Sweety is one of the most meaningful and—well, darn it—sweetest new picture books I’ve seen, and there are so many kids who need encouragement to keep on being true to themselves.

Very highly recommended for your little sweetie.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant lives alone in her flat except for an impressive parrot plant named Polly. Eleanor has a steady job, two black skirts, five white blouses, and a pair of slacks for weekends. She wears sensible shoes, and she talks to her mummy every Wednesday evening for fifteen minutes.

Eleanor has an uncomfortable relationship with her co-workers, not least because she responds to their casual banter with deadpan, multi-syllabic pronouncements revealing her total incomprehension of pop culture. Vocabulary is her strong suit. She avoids social interaction until the day that she and Raymond, the IT guy, are both witnesses of an elderly gentleman’s collapse on the street. They stay with him until the ambulance arrives, and then begin a tentative friendship aided by the gentleman’s family, who insist that the two office workers saved their father’s life.

Raymond is ordinary in the way that Eleanor means to be, but misses. He wears frumpy clothes, smokes, and plays video games with his flatmates. He has a sweet mum who still lives in his childhood home and invites Eleanor to tea. Raymond does the washing up. He invites Eleanor to lunch at his favorite café in spite of her co-workers’ bullying, and Eleanor does her best to ignore the sound of his chewing. Her friendship with Raymond seems promising except for the fact that his mouth falls open every time he sees the old gentleman’s daughter, Laura, the spectacularly sexy hairdresser. No matter. Eleanor is currently pursuing a broodingly handsome local musician who is unaware of her existence.

Nothing is as simple as it seems, however. The reader has a growing awareness that Eleanor spends all of her energy plastering over the cracks in her façade. Every so often, a memory is triggered, and darkness creeps in through the white walls she has built all around her. Eleanor keeps to a rigid schedule that includes the daily crossword and three bottles of vodka every weekend. She never speaks to anyone outside of her workplace except for Mummy, and Eleanor’s mother is nothing like the sweet woman who raised Raymond. Oh, no. Mummy is vicious.

This engrossing novel presents as a contemporary slice-of-life story with perhaps a budding romance, but once the hints of darkness begin, the reader is eager to discover the next piece of the puzzle so that Eleanor’s life can be made whole. This stiff, standoffish woman is oddly endearing and vulnerable, and while we cheer on her efforts to find freedom, we are aware that the scar on her face is just a tiny reflection of the deep scars in her soul.

Set in Scotland, Gail Honeyman’s story places cozy teas, cats, and hearths disjointedly beside death metal, alcohol poisoning, and hatred. Her characters range from sweetly flawed to tragically damaged, and the reader grows to love them all. Honeyman exposes the dark secrets that are hidden every day in the most ordinary neighborhoods, as well as the inner cuts and wounds that everyone carefully bandages over, so that when we are asked, “How are you?” we can respond, “Fine. Completely fine.”

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl

Save Me the PlumsWhen Ruth was a little girl, she accompanied her father to a used bookstore where she came across some tattered copies of Gourmet magazine. Immediately, she wanted to learn to cook, and since her parents treated her as a pint-sized adult, she was put in charge of meals. A lifetime of foodie adventures was launched.

In her earlier works, Reichl chronicled her rise through the kingdoms of food writing, from restaurant critic to celebrated memoirs, and in this latest volume, she regales us with the history of her years as editor-in-chief at Gourmet. Rather than dry journal entries, each chapter reads like juicy gossip from a lunch with the girls. Ms. Reichl sprinkles recipes occasionally and drops names like a flower girl throws petals. She knew everyone, so whether your taste runs to famous chefs or literary stars, you will be fascinated.

We all know the sad fate of Gourmet: like so many magazines, it went under during the recession years. In the beginning of her tenure, though, there were palatial offices, generous clothing and limo allowances, test kitchens filled with competing chefs, trips to far-flung locations to revel in the local cuisine, decadent parties in penthouses, and famous authors queued up for an opportunity to get their articles into the next issue. When Reichl took the helm, she hired a couple of great talents who could channel the rivers of creativity that were already flowing among the staff and added her own vast knowledge of the food world and its burgeoning trends. She knew how to put gifted people into just the right spots. The quality of the magazine bloomed, and sales flew upward.

When the first whiff of economic troubles came along, Condé Nast hired lots of bean counters. Creativity was out, the bottom line was everything, and the publisher ignored Reichl’s repeated requests for a web presence. By the time Gourmet had a unique website, they had lost the rights to their own recipes. Corners were cut on photography and kitchen staff, and the quality of the magazine began to erode. Despite issues touting frugality, such as “Paris on a shoestring,” and a booktour announcing their latest cookbook, it was too late.

Throughout the book, Reichl deals with life issues that touch every woman: work-life balance, guilt in child-raising, and her own changing self-concept. Her story is filled with many powerful men and women who played a role in teaching her that gifted people are all gifted differently and that wielding power may not look the same from one person to the next. For some, money and position do not change them, they only allow them to fulfill dreams that lift up those around them. For others, though, power freezes their souls and destroys those within their reach. When the crash comes, Ms. Reichl reflects on whether her time at Gourmet may have altered the course of her life so completely as to make it impossible to be that free-spirited Berkeley girl again.

This delicious memoir is perfect anyone who loves a fast-paced Cinderella story, tales about the Big Apple, fascinating personalities, a soupçon of haute couture, and, most of all, the foodie universe. All of Reichl’s books are captivating. I have also read Garlic and Sapphires, which relates her early adventures as a restaurant critic, when she began dressing in wild disguises to avoid being recognized when she walked into her latest venue. Save Me the Plums is great fun with a side of introspection that gives her unique experiences universal significance.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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