Sunday, May 06, 2012

Mini reviews - The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister, M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker and A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

I've fallen behind on reviews a bit, so it's time for a few minis!

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister is a book I began reading because I ended up unexpectedly eating out without a book handy. Fortunately, I had two donation bags in my car and found one title that was not a reject or already-read title but one smashed badly by the United States Postal Service and since replaced, though not yet read.

Absolutely everyone seemed to be reading and gushing about The School of Essential Ingredients a couple years ago. The story of a group of people who come together for a cooking class taught by a restaurateur named Lillian and how each of them is "transformed" by food and friendship, I must admit . . . it didn't do much for me. I'm not actually sure why I continued to read the book, except maybe that old urge to complete what I've started (which I've actually battled quite well, this year -- till April, anyway).

Each chapter tells a particular student's story, after the introduction to Lillian and her class, then each of their tales is fully wrapped up in the epilogue. The only story that fully satisfied me was Chloe's. It had a nice, punchy ending line that I can't repeat because it's a spoiler. Darn. Here's my favorite quote, though (a quotation within dialogue):

'Life is beautiful. Some people just remind you of that more than others.'

--p. 171 of The School of Essential Ingredients

I think part of what bothered me about the book was the fact that Lillian's teaching method made me think, "PANIC!" I could not imagine going into that fictional class and not feeling like a total fool. It didn't seem like Lillian taught so much as lectured and divvied up responsibilities for the group creation of certain dishes. Often, I thought, "If she gave me that task, I'd either stand around trying to find someone to tell me what exactly I was supposed to do or make a nuisance of myself asking for step-by-step directions. I am not an intuitive cook. I'm a follow-the-recipe-exactly cook.

Not a favorite, but I know a lot of avid cook/foodie friends loved The School of Essential Ingredients and I can see why; it's a gentle book of friendship, food and love. It just wasn't for me.

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker is a book that I read because my copy was such a mess that I figured I ought to read a bit of it, decide whether or not it was worth keeping and donate it if possible. I ended up reading avidly into the wee hours.

Unlike the television series, which went on forever and ended up wrapping up the stories of the entire cast (As I recall; I don't remember the movie at all, although I've seen it), the only two characters who are followed from the beginning of their service at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to their return to the United States are Hawkeye and Duke. But, their stories and that of Trapper John and the rest of the characters are extremely satisfying.

And, the book is really quite funny. It's also written in a way that makes the setting easy to visualize and you can see why it would have been considered cinematically viable. The characters are well-rounded, the dialogue witty, the plot points clever, if not brilliant, and the setting and action believable -- the latter undoubtedly because the author was a M*A*S*H surgeon, himself. M*A*S*H is really quite perfect and worth holding onto for a reread. Too bad my copy is such a disaster.

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez is the only new release in this bunch. A surprise book sent to me by Algonquin Books, A Wedding in Haiti is a memoir divided into two sections. Alvarez first describes how she and her husband Bill came to know a Haitian named Piti (who was illegally working in the Dominican Republic) when Piti was a teenager. She once told him she'd attend his wedding when he married, never expecting him to take her up on her offer. But, in 2009, he called with the news that he was marrying soon.

Alvarez already had plans but she canceled them to fulfill her promise. The trip from the Dominican Republic turned out to be quite a little adventure that included taking a car-sick bride (Eseline) and baby back to the Dominican Republic after an unusual wedding and plenty of interesting lessons in culture and hospitality.

In the second portion, Alvarez describes their return to take Eseline back to Haiti because she was depressed and homesick. The Haitian earthquake had occurred just 6 months prior and Alvarez and her husband had learned a lot about poverty in Haiti, so they used their return trip as an opportunity to bring some necessities (primarily food) to the families and friends met on their first journey. They also decided to drive through Port-au-Prince to see the aftermath of the earthquake.

What I loved most about A Wedding in Haiti was reading about Alvarez's obvious affection for the people she met, in spite of language barriers, the Haitian generosity and hospitality and the history of the island and its two separate countries. I really knew very little about the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, apart from the fact that there are no remaining indigenous people at all and Haiti is a deeply impoverished country. A Wedding in Haiti definitely whetted my appetite for more reading about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, both nonfiction and novels.

I found the writing a little bit flat, but was really smitten with Alvarez's compassion (and that of her husband), impressed with the humanity of Alvarez and her spouse if not totally blown away by the memoir. I've never read any of Julia Alvarez's fiction, but I'll have to amend that, soon.

I discovered you can view a gallery of the photos from A Wedding in Haiti at Julia Alvarez's website -- a nice feature because they're in color, larger than those in the book (so you can view the detail) and nicely labeled.

A quote worth thinking about, by a friend who had a similar reaction to Julia and Bill's (feeling compelled to do something to help after viewing the impoverished conditions) after visiting Brazil:

"It stops you in your tracks. Mind and body. When we see a thing, what then is the obligation?"

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I wish I could write mini-reviews as awesomely as you do!

    You've definitely added added A Wedding in Haiti to my wish list.

    1. Why, thank you, Debi!

      I hope you enjoy A Wedding in Haiti. :)

  2. I started Essential Ingredients and then sort of let it fall by the wayside. Maybe one of these days.

    1. I probably should have let it fall by the wayside, but for some reason I was determined to finish. It's very women's fictiony. Not my favorite thing. But, then, I'm not so sure food books are my thing, either, although sometimes I love them.

  3. I agree with Debi; lovely minis!

  4. I only read one and a half stories from Essential Ingredients before I knew it wasn't for me. It's nice to know I wasn't the only one. I have been curious about the MASH book, but wasn't sure about picking it up because I'm so attached to the TV characters. I'm excited to see that you liked it so much.

    1. Oh, good, I'm kind of relieved to know that you felt the same way about Essential Ingredients. I should have just put it back in the bag, but it wasn't horrible. It just wasn't my thing.

      I thought M*A*S*H was a darn near perfect novel, but the characters *are* a bit different from those on TV. That didn't bother me, likely because it's been so long since I've seen an episode -- probably since it ended. I don't think I've even seen a rerun!

  5. Sorry this one didn't work for you, Nancy. I think you know I loved The School of Essential Ingredients, but it's definitely not your kind of book, is it? I know you like some chicklit, but this is more "women's fiction" and as I recall, that's not your favorite genre. I'm right there with you, though, on intuitive cooking. I follow recipes exactly as they're written until I've made the dish at least once. Then I start modifying. But I need a starting point with specific quantities and measurements.

    1. Yes, you were one of those friends I recall loving it! It really is not my kind of book, no. Not a big fan of women's fiction, although I just never know. I particularly love books that have a little touch of magic to them, like Sarah Addison Allen's or those which are a little more light-hearted. It seem like a lot of women's fiction has a dreary, sad tone to me. I'd rather smile, any day.

      I don't modify much, although I seem to be pretty good at figuring out what's missing in a recipe if it tastes a little flat. Huzzybuns is a really creative cook. It's not unusual for him to go to a restaurant and then come home and imitate something he enjoyed or just whip together something from whatever random ingredients are in the fridge. I wish I could do that. I look in the fridge and see individual foods. He sees possibilities.

  6. Essential Ingredients was a DNF for me. It wasn't going so well, then an ingredient totally made me shudder and that was it. Done.

    1. If you're referring to that first lesson, I totally get you. I thought it was frankly horrifying. Honestly, I don't know why I continued. I think I've just lately slipped back into, "If I've started it, I probably ought to finish mode." I'm particularly bad about that if a book is short and light, although till April I was doing fantastic. I liked or loved *everything* I finished. Gotta get back to that. I just read another one I didn't like, this past week. I'm not sure I can even bear to review it.

    2. By your reaction, I'm fairly certain we are referring to the same ingredient. And, frankly, I'm extremely surprised that nobody has expressed the same opinion. I can't believe it wouldn't be a problem if it happened to them!

      I go through spurts of being able to easily set books aside, then others when I force myself to continue. It's tough. I always want to give the book the benefit of the doubt, but seriously, there are just too many books out there to waste any time even contemplating the idea of setting a book aside. We need to adopt Nike's slogan and Just Do It! :)

    3. Maybe most of the people who read the book are not squeamish? I don't know. I thought it was horrible.

      I'm back to setting aside anything that doesn't grab me. After 2 or 3 that were just meh reads, I'd had enough. I was about to fall into a slump from frustration but Pure saved me. Sometimes reading about a different world does the trick. I totally agree. Too many books, too little time to waste on subpar reads.


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