Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
This book annoyed me so much, I gave up on it about 20 pages in. Before I hurled it across the room, however, I did scan my way through the rest of it and found it oddly easy to hit on what seemed to be the major plot points. What I saw of those annoyed me as well. I think an editor could have saved this book–or at least gotten me past page 20. But maybe Stradal’s editor was as green as his writing.
The book starts off in Minnesota and the very first line is “Lars Thorvald loved two women.” I was born in Minnesota and spent about 25 years of my life there. There may indeed be multiple people in Minnesota named Lars Thorvald, but in a chapter called “Lutefisk” (disgusting, Norwegian fish dish), it is so cliche to pick a name like that. It’s like Rose from the Golden Girls decided to tell one of her stories. Now this takes talent, a cliche in the first two words of the book. And then on page two there’s St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church. There is more than one St Olaf’s church in Minnesota for sure, but again, choosing this name smacks of the Rose Nyland school of Minnesota storytelling.
Perhaps my biggest problem with Stradal’s writing is his constant need to use proper nouns. He does this in two ways. The first won’t bother the average (non-Minnesotan) reader, but it sure got me fired up. He does so much name dropping of places and businesses that it feels like he is trying way too hard to create an authentic setting. But for those of us who know the place, it comes off like he is trying too hard. It feels fake. Second, Stradal just uses too many proper nouns. There is no subtlety. It’s nostalgia masturbation. It feels like those kids’ books where you send in details about your child to the manufacturer and then they send you books with all the information included in the story. Here are some examples with my suggestions for editing:
“…gotten him into a nice Lutheran school
like Gustavus Adolphus or Augsburg,”
“…proper pesto, he had learned during a previous job
at Pronto Ristorante, is made with…”
“Where’d you get it from? St. Paul’s Farmers’ Market?’ How about just “the farmers market”?
“…sat in his Dodge Omni…” I suppose this is to make the reader think “OMG, remember Dodge Omnis?”
“Mom’s Chicken Wild Rice Casserole” Stradal packs the book full of forced Minnesota authenticity and then uses the word casserole. No. We call them hotdish. The only time I even heard the word casserole as a child was on TV.
“Lars’s younger brother and his girlfriend
also lived in St. Paul, a few miles away.”
“Lars was lying on the
brown shag area rug, reading to his daughter from James Beard’s Beard on Bread…” Just saying “cookbook” would be even better, but short of that, why oh why does Stradal have to spell out for us that Beard on Bread was written by James Beard? We have Google, or a cultural frame of reference, or it’s a detail that really doesn’t matter.
“…the famous West Coast sommelier Jeremy St. George” Sounds like one of the fancier characters on All My Children.
“…she opened a single-vineyard Merlot
from Stag’s Leap that she’d been saving…” I might even strike “single-vineyard” but okay, he is trying to show that she really does know her wine.
“…Lars’s rounds at the St. Paul’s Farmers’ Market were more logistically difficult…” and then in the next paragraph: “But the St. Paul Farmers’ Market would, as always, reward their efforts.” Really? Wait, which farmers’ market? Could we have the address including zip code?
“That’s where the New French Cafe gets their tomatoes…
referring to the trendiest of the new Minneapolis restaurants.” Stradal doesn’t allow his readers any credit. You don’t have to know the New French Cafe–or have it described–to understand they are referring to a business that wants quality tomatoes.
“The Southeast Asian vendor sat on a
blue Land O’Lakes milk crate…” OMG, another Minnesota brand! This book is SO authentic. If only he would mention 3M. (He eventually does.) I even object to “blue” the only purpose of which seems to be to show the reader that Stradal didn’t miss the day they talked about descriptions in his creative writing class at the Learning Annex.
“…unsmiling, through Ray-Ban sunglasses…” I don’t object to the proper noun here, what I object to is the need to add the word “sunglasses”. We aren’t stupid J. Ryan.
“By the afternoon, he was calling wineries he knew they might have visited
: Stag’s Leap, Cakebread, Shafer, Ridge, Stony Hill, Silver Oak.”
And it just goes on and on and on. There are so many capital letters you can pick out these annoying instances just by flipping through the book. Which is what I did.
I had more to say, but I think I’ve tired myself out. Time for a nap.