Book review: ‘Yes, Chef’ by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, ChefEthiopian-born, Swedish-raised American chef Marcus Samuelsson had anything but a conventional upbringing.

After his African mother dies of tuberculosis following the 75-mile walk to a hospital that saved the life of he and his sister, 3-year-old Marcus is adopted by a loving white couple from Sweden. Raised with a grandmother who instills a passion for food and fascinated by the tastes and flavors of his dual heritage, Marcus turns his sights on cooking. His ambitions propel him from kitchens in Göteborg to fine restaurants in Switzerland and France, eventually landing him in New York City.

Now a successful chef and a “Top Chef Masters” winner, Samuelsson documents it all in Yes, Chef: his honest account of what it took to land him where he is today . . . and a loving ode to his varied roots — and phenomenal food.

This memoir landed in my hands on a rainy day at the library. I was wandering the audio shelves in search of something different — and I’ve been on a serious foodie fiction and food-related memoirs kick lately. Though I’d never heard of Marcus, something about his story jumped out at me. I devoured his memoir — pun intended — and am already fantasizing about how to get up to Red Rooster to taste his dishes in person.

Where to even begin with this story? Marcus’ rise to the top was filled with potholes and setbacks, disappointments and grief — but he persisted. While it’s hard not to judge some of his steely-eyed decisions harshly, thinking him cold-hearted, I believe Marcus was just a young man with ambitions that couldn’t be dampened. His laser-sharp focus on pursuing cooking came above everything else — and I couldn’t help but admire that.

Despite some of his more surprising decisions, Marcus comes across as raw and humble in his retellings of the moments that shaped his life. His descriptions of family — specifically, what “makes” a family — were touching and heartbreaking, and I cried my way through one of the early chapters. I was fascinated by his African and Swedish roots, and revelled in his descriptions of life in Göteborg (or “G-berg,” as the kids affectionately call it). The narrative detoured a bit as Marcus arrived in New York, but I loved feeling his sense of camaraderie with the wide-ranging people that inhabit the city.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Samuelsson, he has a fascinating story to tell — and I loved that Yes, Chef also pays homage to the many people who helped him continue climbing a ladder that might have otherwise become sawed-off. Also touching on issues of class, race and culture, this memoir was a thought-provoking read that held me captive from beginning to end.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


About the audio: Samuelsson narrates his own story — and honestly, despite having to get used to his accent, I can’t imagine it any other way. His unique vocal patterns and careful word choices would have been lost on another narrator. As it stands, listening to Yes, Chef was an interesting and moving experience.


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Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

There’s a trend in non-fiction these days: the stunt memoir. Or, as I like to call it, the gimmicky memoir.

You’ve heard of some, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve read a few. But for the unfamiliar, the stunt memoir’s premise is that, for a certain amount of time, the author will embark on a personal challenge and then write about it — often in the spirit of self-discovery or improvement. Maybe it’s not looking at herself in a mirror for a year. Or trying to follow the Bible to the letter. Or following the advice of a women’s how-to guide from the 1960s.

And you know what? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s enlightening and interesting and compelling. And sometimes . . . it’s a stretch. It feels contrived. There’s nothing interesting or fresh. Friends, it’s with great sadness that I place the awesome Jen Lancaster’s latest work, The Tao of Martha, into the latter category.

This pains me — it really does. But this book didn’t work for me. I waited for it to get funny or to illuminate something or to shimmer with the wit that has made Lancaster a bookish superstar, but it just never got there. And with only 50 pages to go, I resorted to skimming. Skimming. Skimming in a Lancaster book. That’s just . . . sacrilege.

The Tao of MarthaYou’ve probably gleaned Lancaster’s “stunt” from the title but, if not, here goes:

“Jen’s still a little rough around the edges. Suffice it to say, she’s no Martha Stewart. And that is exactly why Jen is going to Martha up and live her life according to the advice of America’s overachieving older sister — the woman who turns lemons into lavender-infused lemonade.

By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, her husband (and maybe even her pets) to the next level — from closet organization to craft making, from party planning to kitchen prep.

Maybe Jen can go four days without giving herself food poisoning if she follows Martha’s dictates on proper storage. Maybe she can grow closer to her girlfriends by taking up their boring-ass hobbies like knitting and sewing. Maybe she can finally rid her workout clothes of meatball stains by using Martha’s laundry tips. Maybe she can create a more meaningful anniversary celebration than just getting drunk in the pool with her husband . . . again. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll discover that the key to happiness does, in fact, lie in Martha’s perfectly arranged cupboards and artfully displayed charcuterie platters.

Or maybe not.” (Goodreads)


So, okay: this book wasn’t bad. Despite my tone, a Jen Lancaster memoir is still often better than a non-Jen Lancaster memoir. Her battles in her garden, attempts to sculpt a magnificent trick-or-treating experience for neighborhood kids, poignant stories of losing a beloved dog? All well-told, and worth the price of admission. (And my three-star rating.) There were moments when The Tao of Martha offered up the Jen we all know and love and I thought, Yes! Here she is. Let’s do this.

But then . . . things just got boring.

The story felt forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. Jen is obviously not Martha Stewart and, haha, none of us are because she’s Martha and she’s perfect and blah blah, we’ve been here before. Haven’t we? It felt like a joke that had gone stale: everyone knows Martha is the shining beacon of all mere mortals can never accomplish. No one can be as lovely, perfect, nonplussed. So I guess I was waiting for . . . something more? Jen does experience some growth and actually finds she enjoys some of hobbies she adopts, but it wasn’t enough.

I just never felt invested in her journey, plain and simple.

If you’re new to Jen Lancaster, you can’t go wrong with Bitter Is the New Black. It remains one of the funniest and most heartfelt stories I’ve read, and follow-ups like Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat were also stellar. So while The Tao of Martha didn’t wow me, I can unabashedly recommend her works to anyone new to her humor. And I’ll still be eager to get my paws on whatever she whips up next.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Paris In Love’ by Eloisa James

Paris In LoveI love daydreaming about Paris.

It’s one of my favorite pastimes, in fact. The people, the architecture, the desserts . . . all tantalizing. Intoxicating. Absorbing. If I had the funds and vacation time (both quite elusive these days), I’d be on a transcontinental flight faster than you can say macaron.

But alas. Until I can sip wine beneath the Eiffel Tower in person, I’ll have to settle for delightful stories like Eloisa James’ memoir Paris In Love.

After surviving cancer shortly after her mother recently died of the disease, Eloisa James convinces her husband, son and daughter to move abroad for a year to discover what the Parisian life is all about. With Anna and Luca settled in a new school and Alessandro learning the local ropes, Eloisa settles in to absorb the city and work on several books.

A popular and prolific romance novelist, Eloisa makes no bones about her French journey: though she may wish she and her family came away from the experience with amazing “life lessons” or a greater appreciation for family or the passage of time, what their year abroad really taught her was to try and be in the moment. Life is just life. Told as a series of vignettes, Paris In Love is a compilation of her skillfully-crafted Facebook and Twitter updates from their time in the City of Light — occasionally expanded into short essays about subjects as diverse as Anna’s burgeoning friendships, French food, a nearby dance school and more.

It was a different reading experience — and a quick one. James’ thoughts are shared in paragraph-long snippets that, while chronological, don’t necessarily connect from one page to the next. The results felt like reading someone’s travel journal: little glimpses of day-to-day life for a stranger in a strange land, trying to blend with the locals while getting some work done. The most charming passages focused on Luca and Anna, Alessandro and Eloisa’s children, and I looked forward to hearing about their ex-pat adventures in school.

Francophiles and armchair travelers will find Paris In Love to be a fast, delightful read — and James’ fans will welcome an opportunity to know the author better through her memoir. If Paris lacks sparkle for you, you’ll likely find the descriptions hum-drum — but if you’re looking to escape to the other side of the Atlantic for a few hours, James’ invitation to come along is a fun one.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981901 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Exchanging vows with a bark: ‘Wedding Dogs’

Wedding Dogs


After getting engaged, I was amazed by how many people asked one interesting question: was my dog going to walk with me down the aisle?

For some dog lovers, the idea of tying the knot without their four-legged friend is impossible. Whether their canine is standing in as “best dog” or simply soaking it in from the audience, our pups — our confidantes; our buddies — are members of the family. And they want in on the action.

Katie Preston Toepfer and Sam Stall penned Wedding Dogs: A Celebration of Holy Muttrimony — and it’s just as cute as you’d expect. A collection of photos from weddings across the country, each spread features photos of a canine collaborator along with the story of the wedding they attended. With the Humane Society estimating that approximately 78.2 million owned dogs take up residence in more than 39 percent of U.S. households, I’m surprised we don’t see more pups as ringbearers.

In the introduction, Toepfer writes, “For those who know the joy of being loved unconditionally, who know what it’s like to be greeted each day by a flurry of fur-spinning excitement, this book is for you. Whether or not your precious four-legged friend was a part of your wedding day, or even if you’re yet to tie the knot, I hope this book will be a source of laughter, joy, and inspiration.”

Though we don’t plan to include Rudy, my family’s beloved golden retriever, in our nuptials, Spencer and I often joke about how he would react to being coerced into walking down an aisle. Rudy has a mind of his own — and the lure of so many people around to throw him a ball would be too distracting. There’s really no telling what he would do.

And he was totally not interested in other dogs’ fifteen minutes of fame with this publication.


Rudy and book


In Wedding Dogs, some of my favorite spreads featured Lexi and Hayden, two Labrador retrievers who wore flowers around their necks, and a trio of pugs included on their owners’ wedding announcements (they were banned from the formal ceremony!). There are so many great photos, though, and the stories are equally precious. Written in vignettes, it’s the sort of book you can easily “ooh” and “ahh” over on a lazy afternoon, soaking up the gorgeous scenery and equally heartwarming pup stories.

So grab a glass of champagne and celebrate in spirit! These well-mannered pups — and their creative owners — deserve a toast.


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Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest discussion


Book review: ‘Have Mother, Will Travel’ by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Have Mother, Will TravelMia and Claire Fontaine, a mother-daughter duo who “found” each other again after years of physical and drug abuse threatened to separate them forever, have settled into a familiar — and unfamiliar — rhythm. Now a decade out from her troubled past, Mia is a 25-year-0ld woman learning the ropes of adulthood after growing up too fast.

With her daughter now relatively settled, Claire needs a new focus — and has recently uprooted her life to move cross-country with her husband. Now planted in a fixer-upper with “potential” in Florida, 51-year-old Claire still vacillates between wanting to help her daughter and trying to let her come into her own. It isn’t easy.

Feeling both physically and emotionally separated when Claire learns about the Global Scavenger Hunt, a real “Amazing Race”-style trip that takes travelers to four continents and ten countries in less than a month, she eagerly calls her daughter to gauge interest. They both feel disconnected after ending a whirlwind press tour for Come Back, a memoir they penned about Mia’s turbulent youth and sexual abuse, and want to start fresh. Claire sees this as an opportunity to get to know her daughter again — and differently this time.

Claire and Mia FontaineThey sign up. They embark. Starting in China and eventually winding their way through Malaysia, Nepal, Greece, France and more, the Fontaines explore different cultures, traditions, meals, gender roles — and the ever-changing dynamic between mothers and daughters.

Have Mother, Will Travel is a unique blend of memoir that both excites with its armchair travel opportunities and entices with its insights on the complicated, beautiful and challenging relationships between families. The women take turns narrating, each with a distinct voice and focus, we’re frequently treated to the “two sides to every story” lens as Mia and Claire discuss traveling, the past and their future.

What I loved most about the book — aside from, you know, the tantalizing descriptions of locales like Cairo and Athens — was how seamlessly the women shift from talking about their relationship to exploring the relationships all women share. As much an exploration of motherhood as a travel memoir, Have Mother, Will Travel offers so much food for thought regarding women’s roles in other nations, our perceptions as Americans (and what it means to be American) and the underlying responsibility humans have to one another.

Of the two voices, Claire — an erstwhile screenwriter — was the more literary. She offers gems like this:

“It’s not often mothers and daughters relate in silence. We speak our whole lives long in conversations reckless, tender, thoughtless, bold, honest, funny, hypersensitive, unconscious, cutting, healing. Our daughters hear us in utero long before they see us and we hear our mothers’ voices long after they’re gone. ‘I have conversations with my mom all the time,” my friend Leah recently told me. “She’s been dead twenty years and I still have things to say to her.'” (p. 117, hardcover edition)

I looked forward to their insights as American women abroad as much as their discussions of their personal relationship, though both were fascinating. While reading Come Back isn’t necessary to get the full breadth of Have Mother, Will Travel, I could see where really getting the pair’s back story would help to appreciate just how far they’ve come — and how far they have to go. Still, an introduction in this book helps set the stage for the ladies’ around-the-world adventure; I thought it was very well done. I felt dropped into the story without getting smacked over the head with too much telling, not enough showing.

And the story itself? It was interesting. Uplifting, different. Well-paced and well-researched, the Fontaines obviously spent a great deal of time reliving their experiences and expanding on them with local history. I loved the blend of fact and emotion — the swirl of Claire and Mia’s personal dynamics amidst the warm stone of Cairo’s ancient pyramids and the fragrant fields of Avignon. Claire often details their interactions with natives, too, and I loved the little stories of the people they met in remote locales.

If you love armchair travel and discussions of the tender but steadfast love fused by motherhood? Well, the Fontaines are ready to let you in. Have Mother, Will Travel was an engrossing read that delved deeper than I expected from the (pretty!) cover, and it’s one I would easily recommend to memoir lovers looking for some international flavor.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061688428 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthors’ Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Bloom’ by Kelle Hampton

Bloom by Kelle HamptonAs Kelle Hampton and her husband prepare to welcome their second little girl, they have no idea that lovely Nella, new little sister to their beloved Lainey, will present more new challenges — and opportunities — than they could ever have imagined.

Born with Down syndrome, Nella’s condition was a complete shock to the Hamptons . . . especially Kelle, who was suddenly forced to reconcile the dreams she had for the “sister” relationship her daughters would share and left to grapple with how a special-needs child would impact her family. In her honest, raw accounts of the early days of Nella’s life and where her family is now, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected is a captivating, soul-soaring story of a mama whose love for her children knows no bounds.

Hampton is a blogger, writer, photographer — all talents immediately evident at her blog, Enjoying the Small Things. Nella’s story begins as a post in January 2010, and the Hamptons’ lives are forever altered by her arrival. What becomes immediately obvious in Kelle’s retelling is this mother’s pure, raw and unfiltered ability to draw you into her family’s story . . . and hold nothing back.

I’m going to be honest with you, just as Kelle is honest with us: her reaction to Nella’s Down syndrome was tough to read. She painfully describes the days and nights following her daughter’s birth, in which she writhed and sobbed and questioned her faith. I felt physically uncomfortable hearing Kelle’s reaction, but the story is obviously a retrospective. We understand that Kelle doesn’t feel this way now and, in fact, she frequently mentions her own embarrassment about her behavior. We know how much she adores Nella now — but she doesn’t prune the past. She chooses not to remove the ugly bits, even knowing how ugly they really are.

And that is the power of Bloom: Kelle invites us in, knowing we could judge her. Frown at her. Gossip about her. She invites us in because this story — her story — is an important one to tell, and she wants us to understand that Nella truly is a blessing. Their blessing. And if she couldn’t yet understand it that January night, she gets it now.

I read this story in two days, picking it up immediately after a copy arrived in the mail. I read it during my lunch break, hunched over a dry sandwich; I read it while waiting for my fiance to come home and ask about dinner; I read it while making dinner, which proved to be tricky; and I read it until 1 a.m. the following evening, wrapping up the Hamptons’ saga with half-shut, drowsy eyes. And then I found Kelle’s website because I needed updates.

Bloom is real, honest, gut-wrenching. It’s thought-provoking — what would I do in this situation? — and it’s painful. It’s also beautiful and realistic and something I couldn’t stop reading, because I have so much respect and admiration for Kelle — and so much jealousy regarding her giant, awesome net of friends (and how they get her through). The women in her life are amazing, and she makes no bones about the importance of their faith, inspiration and guidance in the weeks, months and years after Nella’s birth.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how truly gorgeous this paperback is. As Kelle is a talented photographer, the pictures in Bloom are her own — and each big moment is illustrated with a stunning shot or two. The book is the perfect blend of photographs and narrative, but make no mistake: the words themselves? Super important. This ain’t some picture book with a few captions pasted in, friends; Kelle is a fantastic, engaging writer, and I closed the final page with so much love for her family. The photos tell their own stories, and the book wouldn’t be as powerful without them.

If you appreciate memoirs, stories of family, books that detail adversity and rising above . . . well, I’ve got a book for you. Readers don’t need children of their own to appreciate Bloom and its universal truths about love, life and relationships, though I imagine the story will resonate even more powerfully for parents. This was the type of book I finished and wished I’d read a little more slowly. It’s the sort of tale I will return to again for courage and inspiration — and bless little Nella, who is too precious for words.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062045040 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Paris, My Sweet’ by Amy Thomas

Writer and foodie Amy Thomas has a longstanding love affair with Paris. The macarons, the handsome men, the atmosphere . . . si belle. After she embarks on a week of sweets for fun, an opportunity to return — full-time — sets her on a new path. As an advertising writer for Louis Vuitton, Thomas trades her busy life in New York City for a walk-up in the City of Light. And that’s only the beginning.

Amy Thomas’ Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) is a sweet-as-candy, fun and hunger-inducing look at one woman’s journey through France’s capital city. Thomas is my kind of friend: someone with a talent for words and an insatiable hunger. I mean, her sweet tooth is epic — and after cautioning not to read some books on an empty stomach, this would absolutely fall into that category.

Thomas’ memoir is, in many ways, an exploration of what makes a place “home.” Coming from New York, where Amy is a successful singleton who doesn’t have much time or inclination to date, journeying to Paris means bidding adieu to her many friends and family — and discovering what it means to truly be on your own. Especially without a common language to bond them, Amy’s work environment is challenging — and interacting with the French can be difficult and confusing. She becomes more self-assured with time, eventually branching out to make new friends and puzzle out French behavior, but it takes a while. As all good things to do.

Though I adored the many mentions of Paris’ insanely awesome desserts (and New York’s, too), I ultimately finished this story wanting a little more. Amy is very likeable and kind, but the story lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. I suppose I was naively waiting for her to fall in love, get a big promotion, stumble into ownership of a bakery. Something. I read too much fiction, I guess. Because I’ll say this for Paris, My Sweet: Amy feels very authentic, and her tale is realistic. For most, a handsome foreigner doesn’t lock eyes with us across a vanilla cupcake and bed us within the hour. A snooty widow doesn’t take a shine to us, leaving her beloved bistro to the adorable American upon her death. If we stumble, no one is there to catch us. We just figure it out.

Yes — for most of us? We’re just taking chances. Putting one foot in front of another. Looking for opportunities with the knowledge they may not come. And as Amy cavorts through Paris — sometimes muddling through as an expat; sometimes having the croissant-eating time of her life — I was right there with her. Paris comes alive through Thomas’ tales, and I loved visiting as she pedals the winding streets, slogs up to her apartment and plunks down to watch the city come alive from her window.

It all felt very intoxicating. And though I wish the plot itself was a little more exciting, I state that knowing life is often that way: sometimes a sweet frosted thing, perfect and knowable — but more often a gamble, a few stolen chances. Thomas does a great job of drawing you into her tale . . . and getting you hungry for those lovely macarons. Francophiles, foodies and armchair travelers will find Amy a willing and lovely narrator, and her memoir a sweet adventure.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402264119 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review