Tag Archives: j ryan stradal

THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA by J. Ryan Stradal

I approached The Lager Queen Of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal with some trepidation. EDIWTB readers know that Kitchens Of The Great Midwest is one of my all-time favorite books, and the only book I’ve reviewed twice on this blog (here and here). How could any book, let alone Stradal’s second novel, possibly live up to the high expectations set by Kitchens? My Readerly Report co-host Nicole answered that question simply and and concisely for me on a recent episode: It couldn’t.

I decided Nicole was right, and chose to read Lager as if I’d never read Kitchens, letting it live on its own outside the shadow of its older sibling. And that’s what I am going to do with this review.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota centers on two sisters, Edith and Helen, who grow up in Minnesota in the 1960s. Edith marries early, while Helen, enthralled by beer at an early age, marries the heir to a beer company after college and vows, together with him, to turn the brewery into a famous name outside the state. Helen sells her parents’ farm when they pass away, sharing none of the inheritance with her sister. Edith lives her life modestly, and while she is content, works hard throughout her life and finds herself in her 70s, alone, supporting a granddaughter and never really catching a break. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter Diana also develops the family passion for beer, and, as a teenager, launches her own craft beer label.

The Lager Queen Of Minnesota traces the ups and downs of these three women’s lives – the losses, the disappointments and the aspirations. I love that Stradal focuses on older women – a demographic so often missing from modern fiction – as well as people who work at Arby’s and can’t afford to replace cars when they break down. He infuses them with humanity and sympathy, but he has deep respect for them as well. Edith is generous but unassertive, her sister Helen is rigid and ambitious and Diana is a true blend of the two. Like another book I’ve mentioned in this review (damn it!), this one is filled with food (or drink), family and loss – three themes that Stradal handles beautifully.

I like beer a lot, though I like the kind of beer Stradal mocks throughout the book – mass-market stuff that goes down like water. I am not a craft beer person at all, and I was worried I’d be overwhelmed by talk about hops and grains and the subtleties of brewing ale. Happily, while there is a lot of beer talk, there is a lot more to Lager. And the sections about brewing are almost always about something else too, so it’s not like you’re reading a craft beer primer.

I highly recommend The Lager Queen of Minnesota. If you enjoy quieter stories about regular people with rich interior lives, sprinkled with humor, sadness and wry observations about life, then J. Ryan Stradal is your guy. I will read anything he writes.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal (A Reread)

In the 12-year history of EDIWTB, I have never re-read a book.  There are just too many books out there that I want to read – why would I spend precious time repeating one?

Until now.

I was flailing around for an audiobook last month, and I found Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal on audio on Overdrive. I’ve always been interested to see if it holds up to my very positive memory from last January (here’s my original review), and since I recommend it to everyone I know, I wanted to be sure that I still felt as strongly about it now.

The short answer is: I do. It’s still my favorite book in recent memory.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest follows Eva Thorvald, a girl who is born in St. Paul, Minnesota to Lars, a chef with an extremely sophisticated palate. Her mother abandoned the family when Eva was only a few months old, and her father died suddenly a few weeks later. Eva was adopted by her aunt and uncle, and the book checks in on her life every few years as she grows up and turns into a world-renowned chef. Each chapter involves Eva in some way – sometimes she’s the main character, and sometimes she’s only mentioned in passing. There is an ingredient featured in chapter too, and in the end, they all come together in a very creative way. It’s almost like a book of linked stories, with themes of food, family and loss threaded through each one.

I always find Kitchens (as I call it) a tough book to describe. There is lots of sadness in the book, but Stradal also has a sharp sense of humor and deep empathy for his characters. His writing is restrained and quiet, which always left me wanting more (in a good way). Almost every word uttered by every character in the book seemed totally realistic – you could just imagine the conversations playing out in front of you. There are so many memorable scenes, each full of detail and emotion, yet also understated and not showy at all. Stradal is my favorite kind of writer – he never underestimates his readers and he doesn’t shy away from tough stuff.

And the audio! It’s perfect. Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg effortlessly transform themselves into Stradal’s motley crew of characters, from poor Lars to angry Braque and hapless Dan, a bit player who made a big impact on me thanks to Struhlbarg’s narration. The audio is amazing – this was my second time listening to the book on audio (both times I also read some chapters in print – I literally can’t put this book down) and again it didn’t disappoint.

OK, if you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for? It’s just that good.

 

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.