Book Review: Stir

I must admit that I’m weary of memoirs.

23281896Celebrity or politicians, okay, I get it. Not so meh. I can understand why they’ve written memoirs, good or not. If you a celebrity or a politician, you’ve actually done something of note. You’ve some combination of talent, luck and drive and most likely, you’ve seen – and probably done – some amazing/terrible/horrifying things. I can see why you’re writing.

Normal folks who’ve just lived through something, though? That I usually roll my eyes at. There’s something about this that annoys me – the idea that you, normal human, have something of note; that you have a story worth telling. We all have a story and the idea that you, normal human, are more capable and deserving than the millions of others with a story to tell makes me laugh.

I mean sure, I could write a memoir of my own, chronicling my own life-long struggle with Major Depressive Disorder, my time as a patient in a psych ward, my two months in intensive outpatient therapy and my (ongoing) recovering. I simply doubt that there’s much about my own story that makes it unique from all the millions of others who’ve had the same experience.

Last year, I received an ARC of Jessica Fechtor’s Stir, which chronicles her recovery from a brain aneurysm. While this is a  “normal person” memoir, I was intrigued because of the framing device Jessica uses: food.

I love food and cooking nearly as much as I love books and reading. I think of them as very similar things – hobbies and actions that are inherently personal but which grow in the amount of satisfaction they provide when shared.

Think about it: your taste buds, like your taste in literature is shaped by your upbringing, your experiences, your personality and your history. But there’s also a little something that so uniquely :”you” added to that mix; something you can’t fully explain. Two people with the same background, family, history can have completely differing palates and opinions on the best way to prepare mac & cheese or how to feel about Chicken Korma. They’ll also have different feelings on Hemingway or how to best understand Crime and Punishment. Or even if it needs to be read at all.

Still, culinary endeavors and literature can give something special when shared – that’s why so many of us love and have fond memories of big family dinners and breaking bread with friends. It’s why there’s so many podcasts out there dedicated to books and book nerds.

So, for me, Stir seemed inherently interesting, even if it was a “normal person” memoir. How could I not be intrigued by a journey through food.

I have to say that I really, really enjoyed Stir. It was a captivating journey through Jessica’s recovery – more than that (at least for me) it was a neat look at someone’s relationship with the food and recipes of her life.

Jessica writes clearly, but while reading, it really feels as though she’s telling you this story – like the two of you are friends and you’re sitting in the kitchen of her home, a slice of cake between you and two mugs of hot chocolate cooling nearby. There’s this effortlessness that’s lovely and engaging.

In truth, it’s probably that effortlessness more than anything else that drew me in. There’s this aura of unpretentiousness that pervades – this feeling of a woman’s story slowly unrolling. There’s no rush, no need to move any faster than we do. There’s a subtlety and a steadiness to Stir that really does her story justice.

I’ve read in some places that people have thought Stir to be unorganized or slightly rushed. The rushed feeling, I absolutely disagree with, though I suppose I can see why someone might feel there’s a lack of organization.

There was a time early on in which I did feel a little confused about the series of events – did her years studying in England come before Jessica and Eli (her husband) living in Cambridge or their time in Seattle? These things cleared up later and truthfully, that confusion did nothing to distract me from the tale at hand.

Some Goodreads reviewers seemed to think that recipes were shoehorned in and added to the disorganization.

I think this is so, so wrong.

The way that the recipes were included completely work – Jessica recounts her recovery through the people and recipes that helped her along the way – the cookies her husband loves, the first things she made following her discharge from the hospital. It works and it fits. More than that, the structure makes sense.

We all love those moments that remind us of the people we love most in the world. Most of us will also have memories of the food and culinary moments that remind us of those people as well. As I said before, food is so personal so it only makes sense that we’d have very deep, very visceral memories of those people who are somewhat related to that food. Jessica’s reminiscing on how her stepmother baked, the dinners her mother prepared, the parties she and Eli posted, the foods that her grandmother purchased makes sense. They make sense in a memoir of a person who used food and the memories of food to come back to herself and the make the structure of Stir work.

Part of me wonders if some people perhaps didn’t read Stir in the correct vain (pretentious though that thought is). Stir isn’t a cookbook or a memoir, really. Stir is a woman reconciling important aspects of her past with a future she wasn’t meant to have. Jessica says at one point that, based on her condition and the complications, she was supposed to die. I see Stir as a foodie sitting down and saying “Right, here I am, here’s what I was and what I can’t forget. Here’s what got me through.”

I suppose at this point, it’s fairly obvious that I completely loved Stir. I really did. There’s a simple elegance to this, a self-deprecating humor that rings true and an easiness that never feels forced or false. There’s a spirit here that’s so simple but at the same time, so incredibly profound. I’m just glad Jessica shared this with us.