Saturday, January 7, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Book Review: Joy for Beginners, by Erica Bauermeister

I'll serve up the same disclaimer for Joy for Beginners as I did in my review of Erica Bauermeister's previous novel, The School of Essential Ingredients:  you know the advice that you shouldn't go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Well, similarly, neither should you read an Erica Bauermeister book if you're hungry.

There's just something about the way Bauermeister writes about food that is so decadent and food pron-ish - and in Joy for Beginners the descriptions of the bread-baking, the dinner parties, the wine, the meals in Venice, the kitchen garden, and the aromas are all what (in my view) make this review one that's fitting for a Weekend Cooking post. It also (again, IMHO) qualifies this book as one for Margot's Foodies Read 2 Challenge.  Here's a taste:
"It was almost midnight. The tables were cluttered with napkins and used silverware, tablecloths rumpled like bedsheets. The diners reclined in their chairs, hands drifting leisurely back and forth between espresso cups and the last sips of port. Tips of fingers caressed the surface of white plates, snaring the last flakes of chocolate left from cinnamon-dusted truffles. Smells lingered in the air, sliding across bare shoulders, nestling into curls of hair - risotto and chanterelle mushrooms, sweet and rich and buttery, the bite of Parmesan, the rosemary and white wine and garlic of a slow-cooked pork roast. And bread, of course, the long loaves having been passed from hand to hand, chunks pulled off, dipped in small white dishes of green olive oil with dark, molten drops of balsamic vinegar floating in its midst. Wine bottles had long ago lost their ownership, traveling up and down the tables like porters on a train. Artists had met book dealers had met plumbers had met research scientists, people getting up between courses and changing places. Over in the corner, a couple was forming, their heads bending slowly toward each other like candles melting." (pg. 71-72)
Joy for Beginners opens on the eve of a joyous occasion indeed. Kate has gathered several of her closest friends together for a dinner party to celebrate her recovery from cancer. With the way Bauermeister writes, you almost want to pull up a chair and join these ladies for a glass of wine.
"The plates were almost empty, the light gone early from the September sky. The edges of Kate's patio were lost in the foliage beyond, its contours lit by the back porch light and the candles on the wrought iron table, around which the women sat, talking with the ease of those who have settled into one another's lives. Out on the road the occasional car drove by, the sound muffled by the laurel hedge that held the garden with its green walls. Everything felt softened, the garden more smells than sights, emitting the last scents of summer into the air." (pg. 5) 
As the dinner party winds down, the conversation turns to the white-water rafting trip down the Grand Canyon that Kate's daughter has planned in celebration, and which terrifies Kate. She strikes a bargain with her friends:  if she goes on this trip, each one of them must also, in the next year, do something that is equally new or difficult or scary for them - and since Kate didn't have any say in the white-water rafting trip, she gets to choose their challenges.

In the spirit of friendship, each woman accepts Kate's challenge, which turns out to be something that is perfect for each of them and something that each woman needs.  As the novel unfolds, we learn their personal stories and how the friends are connected to each other and to Kate. They're all in different life stages and circumstances, but their stories are familiar enough to be universal.  There's Caroline, who is going through a divorce and needs to finally shed her ex-husband's books; Daria, who needs to come to peace with her childhood and learn how to bake bread; Sara, who needs to rediscover her identity and travel alone; Hadley, who needs to open her protective world more; Marion, who needs to become more adventureous, and Ava, who needs to embrace the spirit of survivorship.

In all of their tasks, there is the sense that there has been something holding each woman back, preventing her from living more deeply.  From the very first lines of the novel:
"But life is persistent, slipping into your consciousness sideways, catching you with a fleeting moment of color, the unexpected and comforting smell of a neighbor's dinner cooking as you walk on a winter evening, the feeling of warm water running between your fingers as you wash the dishes at night. There is nothing so seductive as reality." (pg 1) 
This is a novel that I really enjoyed (and that I can definitely see being made into a movie).  It is about the power and spirit of women's friendship, about taking risks and discovering who you are, about the moments of realization and the a-ha moments of enlightment, whether that comes from the every day moments or the big life events.
"There were moments in life, Marion thought, when you reached back, baton in hand, feeling the runner behind you. Felt the clasp of their fingers resonating through the wood, the release of your hand, which then flew forward, empty, into the space ahead of you." (pg. 189) 
I chose this book deliberately as my first novel of 2012 after seeing it in the library and knowing how much I enjoyed Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients, and after seeing it on several bloggers' Best of 2011 lists. (Bookstack). It's too early to tell if it will make it onto my year-end best of list, but although this had some similar thematic and formulaic elements as Bauermeister's previous book, it was a perfect read for the beginning of the year.

Joy for Beginners spans an entire year and even though it begins in September, it gets the reader thinking about what changes and challenges you can accept in your own life to become a better person 12 months from now. What do you need to become happier, to grow as a person, to become more fulfilled?

I tried to answer that question, to mentally place myself as among the guests at Kate's dinner party and have her issue the same challenge to me.  Melissa, your challenge is to _______ .  I think the answer is to finish the damn novel. I've been talking about that for several years now and it just hasn't happened.  I've revised the same pages, over and over, but just haven't moved forward.  I think I know why and what's been holding me back psychologically. Maybe this is the year to let that all go ... out into the world.

So. If someone challenged you to do something new or different or scary this year, what would your challenge be?

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I have The School of Essential Ingredients but haven't read it yet. This one sounds right up my alley as well...adding it to the WishList :)

Joy Weese Moll said...

This sounds like a terrific book! Love the scenes you quoted.

My challenge would likely also be along the lines of write the damn book.

Margot said...

Melissa, I totally agree with you on this book - I loved it too. Perfect choice to start the year. Happy New Year and hope this is the start of a happy reading year.

TheBookGirl said...

Sounds like you're off to a good reading start for 2012 with this one :)

I think a big challenge for me would be to try and live life more in the moment and not worry so much about the past or the future...that's very hard for me to do, and yet it's something that I know would make me a happier person.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

The description of the dinner party table is so vivid. I had not heard of this, or her previous novel, but they both sound intriguing. A wonderful post!

Beth F said...

I'm almost ashamed to admit that I've never read Bauermeister. Isn't that terrible? I'm not sure what my challenge would be because I'm not very timid about taking (reasonable) chances. Although my work and blog are perfectly organized, my house isn't. I should challenge myself to work on that.

EricaB said...

Thank you for a lovely review -- you really captured the novel.
And yes, finish your book!
all the best, Erica

Christine said...

This book sounds very inspirational. I'm not sure what my challenge would be.. perhaps something to do with time management.

Uniflame said...

Thank you for the review. I have never heard of this author before, but I will add this to my wishlist :)