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Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel Paperback – June 7, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of August 2015: Get ready for the jokes. I’d wager you’ll be hearing that J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest is “delicious” and that he has “cooked up” a great story about food and foodies, a story that will leave you “satisfied, not hungry for more.” I would try not to make such lame jokes here, but what can I say? This debut novel is as tempting as a piece of Key Lime pie, so perfect is its ratio of tart-to-sweet. The ingredients: a misfit Midwestern girl whose special gift happens to be a golden palate; single-parented by a large and lovable father/chef, she can taste a spice in a trice, and manage the hottest sauces west of the Mississippi. Never mind that Eva is shy and sort of weird looking, she knows she’s got the secret sauce and she grows more confident by the day, thanks to such concoctions as the simplest pan sautéed Walleye and original, perfect Caesar salad (which, if you don’t know – and I didn’t – was not an invention of Julius Caesar but rather that of one Italian-born chef named Caesar Cardini). No one, least of all, Eva, is surprised when she becomes a superstar chef in our food-obsessed culture. Eva knows that people do not live by even home baked bread alone – and her quest in this novel is for sustenance of the emotional kind. Whether and where and how she finds it is the book’s special treat. And yes, you will devour it. – Sara Nelson--This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
From School Library Journal
Stradal's novel chronicles the young life of Eva Thorvald, beginning with her birth to a woman who would rather become an expert sommelier than a mom and who leaves with no forwarding address. Her father dies shortly after of a heart attack. The narrative then moves on to three key moments in Eva's life: in her preteens, her teens, and her 20s. Each section ends in a suspenseful way and many of the characters reappear in later sections. Eva's teen years are crucial to the other parts of the narrative. Her arrival in a new high school brings romance with a boy who is awkward but smitten. Meanwhile, she works in a restaurant to help her ailing uncle and guardian pay the bills. In the restaurant, she learns about food and acquires a reputation for her marvelous palate, preparing the way for Eva's 20s, when her dinners, given as private reserved affairs, bring her fame and satisfaction. There is much to love here for readers of all ages. Stradal's gentle humor pokes fun at such Midwest customs as calling any cold food a salad and satirizes a few young foodies, too. The plot moves quickly, and the unusual and stimulating structure allows readers to think about what may have happened during the gaps. And teens will enjoy seeing a girl who cannot finish high school nevertheless become a success. VERDICT A very special novel most readers will hate to see end.—Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Describe the mood: There are hopeful moments. Moments when you feel that two characters will connect and become more fully human. But it is also dark when something happens, as in real life, where the connection doesn't occur, and there is some suspense in wondering what will become of this person after such an unfair life.
Thoughtful, oh most definately. The characters are so human and therefore complex, that the thoughts just raced through my mind. Thoughts like, "But why couldn't she do better, try harder, be nicer?" "He doesn't have to to that self destructive thing." "Wow, what a creep."
Nostalgia seems to be the one that has caused most of the bad reviews. Some people were expecting a trip back in time to when things appeared to be much better. Well, if that is what you want, this book is not for you. Just because there is a lot of talking about cooking and it includes recipes, does not mean it is all fudge brownies. But there is a State Fair!
This is a book for serious, literary readers. If you love being drawn into the world of complex characters working on some really hard issues, this is your book. And the writing is wonderful. Not so much the turn of a new phrase, but the restraint practiced by the author in creating the characters and scenes. Not a word wasted, and no padding. Thank you, Mr Stradal.
KITCHENS is a beautifully written bit of fiction that manages to make the reader pause and think about the meaning of family, the importance of community and friends, and the role food plays in our lives. It somehow does all of that without being overbearing and stuffy. For a time I wanted the entire book to be completely from Eva's perspective, but I think something would have been lost if the author had gone that route. Twenty-something-Eva is a mysterious and elusive character, and the author's method added to that. As I finished KITCHENS, I was left wanting more of Eva and her food--much like the characters in the book.
The mechanics are at the heart of the stories, but the soul is what really brings this book together. Stradal perfectly captures the complicated personalities of midwestern folk: the blue-collar restaurant workers, the personally oblivious obsessives, the no-nonsense Lutheran housewives. But he doesn't necessarily satirize them or try to paint characterizes. He presents them with a relatable simplicity, highlighting that these people don't just fit in the box we would like them to, and he doesn't blame them for that. He presents them, warts and all, walking us through their logic and hypocrisies, their mistakes and triumphs, their pride and their sadness. The result is a book full of characters that may be very different from your own life experience, but feel intimately connected with as people. Like any good writer, he has found a shortcut to the reader's empathy and simply illuminated the path.
In addition to these things, the story is heartwarming, but not unrealistic. Their is a lot of the good old-fashioned midwestern humbleness we'd come to expect from the stereotypes we've been lead to believe. But there is a lot of blood, strife, and sadness along the way, which is just as important to highlight. The thing that he nailed in this book was that that midwestern, god-fearing kindness like to project isn't a result of an easy, saccharine life. It's a by-product of a life filled with loss and bitter weather, where people learn to appreciate life, offering what they can because they know exactly how bad it can get.