Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: Gumbo Life by Ken Wells

Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux BayouGumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou by Ken Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I need to preface my review by saying that I’m a vegetarian. This book is more aimed at carnivores, and I’m sure Wells would find my vegetarian gumbo sacrilegious, though he proves to be an adventurous eater. And no, I wouldn’t put quinoa in soup and call it gumbo as Disney apparently did (though quinoa soup is delicious in its own right). So maybe Wells will forgive me.

Anyone who is a fan of Louisiana culture or of great food writing will find a lot to love in this book, whether or not you eat chicken, seafood, or sausage, however. It’s probably impossible to impart the secrets of a good roux if you’re not standing over the pot as Wells describes his mother teaching him (after a failed attempt at providing instructions over the phone). But Wells comes as close as anyone can in numerous descriptions of the gumbo cooking process, as his mother and others he knew growing up did it, as the chefs in a gumbo contest do it, as a number of restaurants do it, and even as a it is done in mammoth kettles for mass production. He even confronts the question of whether gumbo originally was made with a roux or whether that was a later addition, and whether its origins are primarily Cajun, Creole, African, or Native American.

Writing in a lively and entertaining style, Wells always blends the personal story with the history, the science, and the culture of gumbo. Wells chronicles his own fascination with this Cajun/Creole staple, and he documents its history and lore as he explores the culinary diaspora that has made it available around the world, showing his journalism credentials in the depth of research he has done and the number of chefs and others he has interviewed and the number and types of gumbo he has sampled. The recipes collected at the back do not only give a sense of the range of gumbo styles Wells has covered in the preceding pages, they also provide inspiration for continued experimentation with this quintessentially American dish.

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Book Review: When you Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

When You Learn the AlphabetWhen You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.

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Book Review: Biloxi by Mary Miller

BiloxiBiloxi by Mary Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Mary Miller is my colleague in The W’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m a big fan of her work.

Biloxi is a hilarious read, though it’s not laugh-out-lout funny, outlandish, or bawdy. Mary Miller’s humor, to my mind, consists more of taking wry, sardonic pot shots at contemporary culture in a loving, even complicit way. Her novel is not driven by plot; instead it presents a complex character study. Louis McDonald, Jr., her rather clueless yet lovable main character, navigates a personal crisis after his divorce, and the point is not how well he succeeds or even how he learns or grows (though arguably, he does). The point is that we understand him and explore his world, a world Miller knows intimately, from its burger joints to its sad strip malls, beaches, and casinos. Or maybe the true main character is Layla, the dog, and we are like her, lapping up every tasty morsel, every slice of bologna Mary Miller tosses on the kitchen floor for us, occasionally nipping at a brother-in-law or running off only to return to our new home after awhile to see what other leftovers may be lying around. This novel is introspective and insightful, though it doesn’t offer easy answers as much as it offers a mirror onto the 21st-century, mid-American consumer culture we all inhabit, like it or not.

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Book Review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American MemoirHeavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kiese Laymon’s memoir is an important book for our time and a great read! It is immediately more personal than many since he addresses each chapter to his mother. Understanding that relationship is the lens through which Laymon examines race, gender, sexuality, and abuse in his own life and through his experiences in Mississippi and across the nation. It is a story of growth and maturity, in which Laymon does not shy away from his own complicity in oppressive social structures. As a young man, he commits petty crimes and witnesses gang rape. He also recounts his own experience of sexual abuse as well as ‘discipline’ that might now be considered child abuse, but was accepted at the time. Yet Laymon’s goal seems to be to understand the deep sources of this abuse and how these experiences have shaped him and those around him. He also does not shy away from the troubles in his own relationships or his issues with gambling. For all the difficult subject matter Laymon takes on, this remains a memoir steeped in the optimism of “black abundance,” and it speaks to all Americans, regardless of gender or race. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

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Reviews can be Gratifying

Tonight I happened to look at the Amazon reviews of A Writer’s Craft and saw that there are now three: all from people I don’t know who have used the book in a class, and all three gave it five stars. So that made my night!

I promise, I don’t obsessively check my reviews, but I should be grading, so some procrasitnation is required. The earliest review is from March, 2019. I don’t remember the last time I looked to see if there were any reviews at all, but it was probably at least 4 months ago, maybe longer, and at that point, there were none.

Full disclosure, though: I also checked Goodreads, where there’s one two-star review. That person didn’t say why. I’m sorry the book wasn’t what they were looking for,

The reviewers on Amazon did write about the book, which was also great to see. I know that reviewers can be fickle and there will be negative ones mixed in with the positive, but it’s great to see that my book has reached real people and that a few took the time to say something about it. That means a lot, and I’m very grateful.

Book Review: Daniel Wallace, Extraordinary Adventures

Extraordinary AdventuresExtraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Wallace has given us another thoroughly enjoyable read. His characters are easy to invest in. Nothing that extraordinary happens in their lives, at least not until Edsel Bronfman receives an offer for a free weekend at a time share in Destin, Florida. Then his life does take a few fantastic turns. In this latest novel, the tall tales from Big Fish have been brought down to a human level, yet the choices and adventures Bronfman faces are no less dramatic. Wallace still questions whether the invented reality or the mundane events of life are more real. This is an unassuming tale, much like its unassuming and ordinary main characters, yet it has pathos and depth, showing that still waters run deep and that even a mild-mannered clerk from Birmingham, Alabama, can experience something extraordinary. And speaking of Birmingham, this novel is well worth the read for its loving portrayal of Wallace’s hometown.

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Daniel Wallace will appear at The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, Oct. 19-21, at Mississippi University for Women. the symposium is free and open to the public.

Book Review: Stripper in Wonderland

Stripper in Wonderland: PoemsStripper in Wonderland: Poems by Harriell, Derrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you think the cover has energy, then hold onto your hat. These poems leap off the page with vibrant language and daring subjects. Harriell is willing to take on race and sex, falling in love and becoming a parent, living the wild life and settling down. And the speakers of these poems do not always come across as the perfect heroes. Harriell gets us to question ourselves as much as we question society. No one is off the hook in these poems and no one is irredeemable. It is a bawdy, brawling, brash celebration of life.

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