Alison Hood

Like much of human life, love can be messy. Add in the complications of conducting a very long-distance, mostly digital love affair, and you get a dubious recipe for happily ever after.

Jamaican American Sutanya Dacres was leading a rather humdrum, unsatisfactory life in New York City. Then one night she met a sexy Jewish Algerian Frenchman in a bar. There was instant attraction—but she lived in the Big Apple, he resided in the City of Light, and cultural and racial differences (she's Black, he's white) lay in the shadows. Despite these challenges, they sustained a three-year digital courtship until they decided to marry and make a life à deux in Paris. “It was us against the world,” Dacres writes, “and we would move through life's ups and downs with ease and grace, together.”

In Dinner for One: How Cooking in Paris Saved Me, podcaster Dacres recounts how this fairy-tale romance went sour. Two years into the marriage, the Frenchman left. Now a heartbroken expat—alone, divorced and navigating the complications of being a single Black woman in Paris—Dacres tried to allay her fears, confusion and despair with too much wine and loveless encounters with men. But when “the deep shame that had been bubbling beneath the surface finally erupted,” she writes, “it was clear that I could no longer hide from myself.”

Dacres recounts with self-deprecating, often brutal honesty her journey to understand and connect with her true self. Like a play, Dinner for One is structured with a prologue and successive acts, ending with Dacres' gradual and passionate awakening to the very French art of cultivating pleasure, self-worth and an appreciation for well-conceived, delicious food. When Dacres began to cook for herself in her Montmartre apartment, she formed a healing relationship with food as a means of self-care and growth—a hard-won redemption via the myriad joys of French culture.

Often humorous and uplifting, Dacres' writing is also a bit uneven in parts, sometimes due to superfluous details or unnecessary dialogue. But her true writer's talent shines when she relates her forays into the world of French cookery. Overall, Dinner for One is hopeful, salubrious and, like a meal served with love, a balm for the spirit.

Sutanya Dacres’ memoir about recovering from heartbreak in Paris is hopeful, salubrious and, like a meal served with love, a balm for the spirit.

In the introductory essay of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, Jessamyn Stanley relates the time a reader, who happened to be a freelance editor, found a mistake in the early pages of Stanley’s first book, Every Body Yoga. Stanley was attempting to define the Sanskrit word for yoga, which means “to yoke” or “to join together the light and dark of life, the good and the bad . . . to marry breath, thought, and movement, to connect the body, mind, and spirit.” Instead of writing the word yoke, however, Stanley had inadvertently written yolk. Oops.

Anger and shame ensued—a welter of feelings that propelled Stanley to her yoga mat for some calming breaths. Thus, Yoke was born, a collection of 13 autobiographical essays that are brash (with salty language aplenty), outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jessamyn Stanley shares how her guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined.


The essays in Yoke explore Stanley’s belief that “everything is yoga, every day,” and that fully entering yoga/yoke means integrating the light and dark of life with the hardscrabble work of everyday living. “My yoga has many intersections and edges,” she writes, “because like the universe, I’m always unfolding. My yoga is finding out what it means to be a Black queer woman in a world that doesn’t want me to be.” Her reflections on topics such as meditation, imposter syndrome, wealth inequality, racism, cannabis use, sexual abuse and the sacredness of music are heartfelt and often searing. She is strongly declarative, and this makes for a narrative that allows readers to really know this author, which is, after all, what many readers want: connection.

While the writing occasionally meanders or goes a bit off point, any discomfort readers might feel in response to Stanley’s blunt-edged anger can give rise to self-reflection and stir compassion for our collective human frailty and suffering. But this honest chronicle of a journey toward self-acceptance and purpose wraps on a bright note. As Stanley writes, “I’m enough. Exactly as I am right now. I don’t need to know more or do more or be different at all.”

The 13 autobiographical essays in Yoke are brash, outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.

“This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.”

So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don't be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse—generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace.

Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he's always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility.

Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry—an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged," Berg writes. "Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.”

From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving—and often frustrated—family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature—cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones.

Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I'll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age," Berg writes. "If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”

“This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don't be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse—generous gifts of poetic insight, close […]

“Recovering” Buddhist priest and “vegetable whisperer” Deborah Madison reveals the heart and mind of the chef behind an iconic San Francisco restaurant and numerous vegetarian cookbooks in her honest, beguiling memoir, An Onion in My Pocket. The title is derived from an opening anecdote: After spending the day making pizza with her ex, Madison attended a Spanish class and, searching her pockets for pen and paper, pulled out an onion leftover from pizza-making and plunked it on her desk. “People started to laugh. To me, it was utterly normal,” she writes.

Madison relays her life in a swingy style, moving from her childhood in Davis, California, to her college days, to her post-college migration to the San Francisco Zen Center amid that city’s counterculture heyday. She lived in the Zen community for 20 years and started her culinary path as their head cook. Later, she did a stint at Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse and eventually helped found (then helm) the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Greens. An Onion in My Pocket offers a layered, intimate look at Zen life, the making of a soulful, artful chef and the genesis and growth of a writer. It’s also an ode to nourishment, sustenance and gratitude for the earth’s bounty, vegetal and otherwise.

“Recovering” Buddhist priest and “vegetable whisperer” Deborah Madison reveals the heart and mind of the chef behind an iconic San Francisco restaurant and numerous vegetarian cookbooks in her honest, beguiling memoir, An Onion in My Pocket. The title is derived from an opening anecdote: After spending the day making pizza with her ex, Madison attended […]

Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to exploring the medieval origins of the much-revered cuisine. France, he writes, “was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life. . . . But I could never imagine how that might happen.”

Through a connection at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Buford comes to know many influential French chefs, among them Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud and the legendary Paul Bocuse. What follows is a familial move to Lyon, the terrors (or, shall we say, “terroir”) of parenting twin toddlers in a gritty French city, sadistic “stagiaires”—essentially apprentice chefs—in famed Lyonnaise restaurants (pot-throwing, anyone?) and food-sleuthing expeditions to remote areas in France, where Buford comes to appreciate the soil that grows the unique wheat responsible for the country’s finest bread. Dirt sometimes ventures into the weeds in its excavation of culinary history and lore, but this may be forgiven in light of Buford’s honest hunger for knowledge and personal evolution: “I wanted to re-examine my assumptions about the kitchen, to restart my education, to get as elemental and as primary as possible. Heat. Water. Labor. Place. And its dirt.”

This book doesn’t offer any recipes, per se, but if perused closely, readers can find instructions for assembling perhaps the grandest concoction of them all: a life well and fully lived, seasoned with curiosity, perseverance and humor—and a dash of adventure.

Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to […]

Breathing: Most of us don’t even think about it as we go about our daily doings. Every day, 24 hours a day (and every four seconds), each of us 7.5 billion humans on planet Earth takes a breath in and then expels it. But what exactly are we breathing in and where does our breath go when released? And who cares?

Science writer Sam Kean cares, and, with fizzy (sometimes irreverent) humor and an exuberant enthusiasm for scientific ephemera, he entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

Kean kicks off the expedition with the intriguing thought of an intimate human interconnection—that “the ghosts of breaths past continue to flit around you every second . . . confronting you with every single yesterday.” He asks, “Is it possible that your next breath—this one, right here—might include some of the same air [molecules] that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died?”

Not content to limit his dissection to stories about breathing, Kean moves beyond the mere tracing of how air molecules travel and transform to “tell the full story of all the gases we inhale.” In three sections, each packed with three chapters, interspersed with historical vignettes, the author explicates the nature of gases (and why we should care about them), our human relationship with gases (from the first air balloon flights to the use of gases in World War I), and how our relationship with air has evolved in the past 30 years (read: atomic warfare). For good measure, Kean appends voluminous, quirky end notes to each chapter, ensuring that we are fully briefed on the competitive science around steam power and, in a nothing-is-sacred tell-all, the story of French entertainer Joseph Pujol, the “fartomaniac,” who flabbergasted audiences with his Moulin Rouge nightclub act in the 1890s.

Caesar’s Last Breath is a rollicking, zigzag romp through the science of air—one that gives us pause to consider our immortality beyond an earthly existence: “Some tiny bit of you—molecules that danced inside your body . . . could live on in a distant world.”

Science writer Sam Kean entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

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