Tag Archives: family

Bittersweet Southern Charm: Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman

cover image“A Southern novel of family and antiques from the bestselling author of the beloved Saving CeeCee Honeycutt,” is how the publisher describes Looking for Me, a novel by Beth Hoffman.

If it hadn’t been chosen as a book club selection this month, I probably never would have picked up Looking for Me, despite seeing blogger after blogger give it rave reviews and include it on annual lists of favorites for 2013. I’ve mentioned this before, but I have an irrational prejudice against “Southern” books. Also books with photos on the cover that look like they could have been lifted out of a women’s magazine. Plus, I’ve been fooled too many times by glowing reviews for books like The Friday Night Knitting Club that tugged at my heartstrings but lacked enough character development to really engage me.

Looking for Me definitely falls into the category of women’s fiction – with the smart, sassy, female main character/narrator, Teddi, whom every reader would love to have as a best friend; Teddi’s own best friend, Olivia (a rare book dealer); a supporting cast of colleagues and family; and, of course, cozy descriptions of food (Yes, pie makes an appearance.*) antiques, and other home furnishings – but the author’s sense of humor, fondness for her quirky, socially awkward characters, and opting for realism over sentimentality more often than not, makes it an outstanding example of the women’s fiction genre. If it weren’t for the girlish cover, more men might read and enjoy it – if not for the antiquing and Teddi’s efforts to become the owner of her own shop – then for the descriptions of the farms, birds, wildlife, and woods of rural Kentucky where Teddi’s family lived.

The story told in the first person by Teddi revolves around her brother Josh and the mystery of what happened to him. It jumps backwards and forwards in time from Teddi’s childhood years in the 1960s with an unhappy mother, a loving but taciturn father, and a younger brother who was far more in tune with the natural world than with his peers, to Teddi’s current life in Charleston, South Carolina. At present, Teddi has lived in Charleston for many years. She drives home for visits, waiting for her mother to agree to come to Charleston for a visit, never feeling the closeness she wishes they could have as mother and daughter. The absence of Josh lies unspoken of between them, along with the years of past misunderstandings.

If you have already read and liked Looking for Me, you may also like Meg Mitchell Moore’s novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away; Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters; Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap books; and/or these authors, whose books I haven’t read yet:

Diane Chamberlain
Lisa Patton
Anne Rivers Siddons
Karen White

I didn’t have the book finished in time to attend the book club meeting, but here’s a link to what the group thought.

*rhubarb

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Looking for Me
Hoffman, Beth
Viking, May 28, 2013
9780670025831
368 pp.$27.95

Disclosure: I borrowed a copy of this book from the public library.

Other opinions on Looking for Me (all very good to excellent):
Beth Fish Reads
Bibliophile by the Sea
A Bit Bookish
Rhapsody in Books
That’s What She Read

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Writing, Family & Food: Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen (Audio)

Weekend Cooking buttonWeekend Cooking is a weekly feature hosted by Beth Fish Reads, linking up food-related posts. Click here for links to this week’s Weekend Cooking posts on Beth Fish Reads and other blogs.

Blue Plate Special cover imageA memoir by novelist Kate Christensen, Blue Plate Special starts out with a childhood memory of her father beating her mother at the breakfast table and of her, as a child, thinking that she needs to grow up to be more like her father (the one in charge) than her mother (the one who is beaten.) This horrific scene to open the book alerts the reader that this is no memoir of a lifetime of cozy meals with family and friends. The author goes through periods of depression and unhappy relationships that she details in the book.

Subtitled “An Autobiography of My Appetites,” the book is an intimate look back over the just-over-50-year-old author’s life as a writer, lover, daughter, sister, and fixer of meals. And, of course, as an eater. Not as a gourmet, or even a foodie – but as someone who eats, and sometimes doesn’t eat. She’s telling this story of her life as not always a “good” or healthful eater, but as a writer with a sense of the arc of her own narrative and of how telling details such as what we eat are.

Changes in the author’s life are reflected in her eating habits and the food she prepares for herself and others at different times and in different situations. She shares recipes from these different periods of her life – including a year in France; her undergraduate years at Reed College; her not-so-great time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; her years as a struggling writer in New York; with stops, trips, and food in between. But it’s not really a book about food as much as it’s the story of a life so far.

From the publisher’s description:

The physical and emotional sensuality that defines Christensen’s fiction resonates throughout the pages of Blue Plate Special. A vibrant celebration of life in all its truth and complexity, this book is about embracing the world through the transformative power of food: it’s about listening to your appetites, about having faith, and about learning what is worth holding on to and what is not.

The audiobook is narrated by Tavia Gilbert, and is so good! I believe it may have been a long-ago Weekend Cooking post by someone else that made me look for this book on audio, but I don’t remember who. If you liked Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, you will probably like Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen.

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Disclosure: I bought my own copy of Blue Plate Special as an audiobook download from Downpour. Last July! Yikes!

Blue Plate Special
Christensen, Kate, authorGilbert, Tavia, narrator
Random House Audio
July 9, 2013
10.8 hours

Summer’s End: Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan

cover image of Wish You Were HereWish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan is an elegiac novel about the passing of a family’s era, when an extended family gathers at their aging Lake Chautauqua house for a vacation week at the end of the summer, preparing the house to be sold.

Although the absence of the patriarch, Henry Maxwell, is keenly felt by everyone from the members of his own generation – his sister Arlene and his wife Emily, his adult children – Kenneth, there with his wife Lise, and Meg, recently divorced, down to the four grandchildren – two older girl cousins and two younger boy cousins – Henry is only present in the memories sparked by his fishing gear and other stuff in the house and garage and in all of the old, familiar places in the lakeside village in western New York, where he and Arlene had summered since they themselves were children.

The whole novel takes place over the course of the week leading up to Labor Day, but the place triggers so many memories in the Maxwell adults that we find out quite a bit about how their pasts. The week goes by much too quickly for them, despite the initial rainy weather. On the other hand, the vacation seems to Lise, the only in-law, to stretch on endlessly and the children, who don’t have as long of a shared past, have plenty of time to dream their own dreams of the future and develop their own alliances, not old enough to mourn the passing of an era.

So many themes run through the novel that it would be impossible to list them all, but it was interesting to read Wish You Were Here at the same time as I listened to Stewart O’Nan’s later novel, Songs for the Missing, because I noticed a shared theme. In Wish You Were Here, a small subplot is the ongoing mystery of what happened to a local girl who vanished without a trace from her job as a convenience store clerk; in Songs for the Missing, a teen girl disappears in a similar fashion right at the beginning of the story. In Wish You Were Here, the Maxwells’ only connection to the missing girl was that Kenneth, along with another gas-pumping customer, entered the store together to pay for gas and found it empty, neither one thinking much of it at the time. Each Maxwell family member reacts differently to the story as it hits the news,  but in Songs for the Missing the author is able to delve far more deeply into how people might respond to a potentially tragic event like this, especially people who knew and loved the missing girl.

Wish You Were Here is slower paced and longer than Maine by Courtney Sullivan, but both revolve around three generations sharing a summer house, so if you liked one you might like the other. Wish You Were Here reminded me of what I remember Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs – the conflicts between art and family life (Kenneth is a photographer trying to make it as an artist) and nostalgic indulgence vs. Yankee practicality (Emily is selling the house; the rest of the family doesn’t want it sold but can’t afford to buy it.)

After Wish You Were Here came out in 2002, Stewart O’Nan wrote a follow-up novel, Emily Alone, that was published in 2011 and  picks up the story of the Maxwell family in 2007, seven years after their final week at Lake Chautauqua. I listened to Emily Alone on audio last year, not realizing the characters were from a previous book, so the story stands on its own fine.

Wish You Were Here
O’Nan, Stewart
Grove Press, 2002978-0802117151, hardcover
978-0-8021-3989-4, paperback

Disclosure: I purchased this copy used, probably from a library book sale.

TBR Pile Challenge badgeYay! This review counts towards my TBR Pile Challenge goal of reading 12 specific books from my Roof Beam Reader-certified To Be Read list.

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