Carla Recommends: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

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Carla Recommends: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (with cover)

Recently, when I was at the Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) conference, a bookseller noticed that I wrote foodie books and asked me if I’d read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I’d never even heard of this book, but I immediately put in a request for it at my library. When it arrived, I saw the blurb on the back declared it an example of the Great American Novel. Okay… high praise, but fairly common, and a moniker that very few books ever live up to. I doubted that this one would be the exception.

I’m okay…even thrilled…to say I was wrong. Moral of the story? Get recommendations from your independent bookseller. You won’t be sorry.

What It’s About

The book follows, in episodic fashion, the rise of (fictional) chef Eva Thorvald from her tragic childhood in Minnesota to her status as food legend. Each chapter, told from a different character’s point-of-view, tells the story of how each dish comes into Eva’s life, culminating with a dinner party involving those dishes that has far more significance than mere food.

What I Loved

Stradal is a master of point of view. Each chapter is distinct, the voices of the POV character coming through with such precision that it’s impossible to mistake one character for another. For literary fiction, it’s also exceptionally accessible–you can read and enjoy it as an entertaining story, but careful readers will catch the payoff at the end that makes it incredibly satisfying. The author avoids the temptation to nudge his audience with a verbal “did you see what I just did there?” instead trusting the ability of his readers to pick up on nuance and significance.

What I Didn’t Love

This isn’t so much as a “didn’t love” as a warning: several of the characters are incredibly profane and their POV chapters are riddled with foul language. In the context of the book, it didn’t bother me because I didn’t feel it was gratuitous, but it may bother more sensitive readers. One particular chapter involves harsh, crass language about abortion, so be prepared if that’s a hot-button issue for you. Also be forewarned that the chapters themselves can be quite downbeat, even though the overall story is one of resilience and triumph, so it’s probably not a book you read when you want a pick-me-up.

Who Should Read It

I recommend anyone who loves literary fiction or considers themself a die-hard foodie read this book. It’s without exaggeration the most impressive work of literary fiction I’ve read in years and will likely win my personal prize for best book of the year. But it’s definitely not for everyone, and strict genre fiction readers looking for a single likeable character to connect with may not find the same wonder in it as I did. If you’re on the fence, I recommend that you read a handful of reviews across all star ratings to guess which camp you might fall into.

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