Mini-Reviews – The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My book group’s pick for July was Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir.  It was an excellent choice both for reading and discussion. Bui recounts her parents’ personal histories growing up in Vietnam before the war as well as the story of their harrowing escape (she was a toddler and her mother was heavily pregnant) from the country after the fall of Saigon and eventual resettlement in America. She weaves in her own story of becoming a mother for the first time, all the anxiety and doubt about being responsible for a new life and wondering if her family’s tragic history will be a burden to her son. It is a marvelous exploration of trying to relate to one’s parents, trying to understand their own pain while trying to forgive them for the mistakes they made along the way as parents. Plus, it’s an excellent chronicle of the lead-up to the Vietnam War, the complexities of the situation and what it was like to live there. I feel like I learned a lot reading this and it certainly moved my heart. The artwork is amazing, only shades of white, black, and an orange-brown color that contains multitudes.

I highly recommend this if you are interested in graphic memoirs, Vietnam history, or moving stories of family dynamics and immigration. (4 Stars.)

(This is the 14th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal was a pleasant surprise for me. It had 23398625been on my Goodreads TBR list for quite some time, mainly because I had read good things about it. Filling one of my “reader’s choice” slots for 20 Books of Summer, this book was the perfect choice for pleasurable summer reading. It’s essentially a book of linked short stories, all orbiting around the character of Eva Thorvald is some way, from her birth and childhood to her adulthood as a famous chef in Minnesota. Foodies will certainly find a lot to love here, with enticing food writing, but for me the real pull was the way Stradal wrote about people and relationships, with gentle humor and heartfelt insight. This was a book that I didn’t want to put down. I grabbed it at every spare moment, and some moments that weren’t spare at all, ignoring my family in order to read a few more pages. For pure enjoyment of reading I rated it 5 Stars.

(This is the 15th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)



35 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews – The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

  1. Oooh, another food memoir! I haven’t read many of those since MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating until last week, when some friends recommended another and now you’ve told me about Kitchens of the Great Midwest!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So your poor family starved while you read a book about food? Way to go, girl! 😉 It sounds good, though – I like the idea of the kinda linked short stories format. Not sure the graphic memoir is for me, but the artwork looks great. Glad you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! if they had to depend on me in order to not starve they’d be in trouble. I am lucky enough to have a husband who enjoys cooking and is good at it. Trouble is, he’s at work five nights a week! 🙂 So my son and I do the best we can. But yes, Kitchens of the Great Midwest was a lovely book. So many layers to it that came together beautifully in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love novels that are made up of interconnected short stories. I think it’s a really cool way to see a much fuller picture then you get in a regular novel. I’ve actually read some short story collections where each chapter is about a different character, but they all live in the same area, so you get to know both the area and the people who live in that area much better.

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  4. Happy to see you enjoyed The Best We Could Do! I have a copy sitting on my shelves… I got it after reading Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. It is a MG book told in verse, but it is a must-read if you are interested in Vietnam & immigration.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re doing so well with the 20Books challenge!
    Both of these sound good, but I’ve had Kitchens of the Great Midwest on my list for a long time now. I even found it at a book sale last year, so now I have no more excuses left! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great mini reviews, Laila! I read The Best We Could Do last year and it really moved me as well. I love the simple coloring throughout– a lot of my favorite graphic memoirs are black, white, and a single contrast color.

    I’ve never heard of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and I won’t lie, just reading the synopsis I wouldn’t have picked it up. This sounds like a great short story collection! I love it when short stories are interconnected like this. I’m currently reading Homegoing and the small connections from story to story makes me so happy. I am incredibly engrossed!

    Do you have a favorite story from Kitchens of the Great Midwest?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course you would ask me that, ha ha… I read it back in early July so it’s all a blur now! I don’t know that I had a favorite one but I loved the way they all came together in the end – characters and meals from all the stories got woven together beautifully.


  7. Ahhhh, I love Kitchens of the Great Midwest so much. I should really reread it. I’ll echo others’ love of linked short stories in particular — there’s something really special about that approach. I’d like to write an article about them sometime and maybe interview some authors about how they decided it was right for their book.

    I really like the images you featured from the graphic memoir. Sounds like the visuals match the story, too. It’s high on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Kitchens. I didn’t expect it to grab me with as much force as it did. I hope he writes another novel!

      The Best We Could Do was special. I’m so glad I read it. If it weren’t for book group I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.


  8. You made a hectic week so much better by recommending Kitchens of the Great Midwest–I read a little before bed each night, and then finished reading it on Saturday afternoon. What a good book. I hope to write about it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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