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Get Everything 'Under Control' With These 3 Quarantine Comfort Reads

Reading may not be the opiate of the masses, but it sure is my anti-anxiety elixir of choice. Whether you're quaking in fear of the dreaded coronavirus (as I was), relieved to be recovering from it (as I am), or worried about the world and feeling restlessly cooped up (as we all are), here are a trio of delightful new books that can transport you to a happier place for hours at a time.

Emma Straub's warm-hearted fourth novel confirms her reign as a patron saint of delayed adolescence. In the somewhat ironically titled All Adults Here, aging without maturing is a common affliction, even among parents: Her amiably dysfunctional characters make it clear that it's possible to grow old without growing up. But fortunately, it's also never too late to play catch-up.

This time around, the Brooklyn author and bookstore owner shifts the action to a fictional Hudson Valley town that's so appealing you'll want to move there. Straub's focus is on 68-year-old Astrid Strick — a widow whose parenting style has prioritized pragmatism over warmth — and her three grown children and their offspring. After witnessing the sudden accidental death of a woman she's disliked for decades, Astrid realizes that life can turn on a dime and she'd better get hers in order pronto. Top on her list is reconnecting with her family and making amends for the mistakes she made as a mother. Oh, and coming clean about the person who's replaced their late father in her affections — a choice that's bound to surprise them.

All Adults Here is somewhat overstuffed with what at times feels like a checklist of hot topics — teens dealing with online pedophiles, shaming, queerness and transexuality; ticking time clocks and sperm bank babies; sex with exes; checked-out parenting — but you'll enjoy the company of this sympathetic clan as Straub works her narrative to a well-earned cheery resolution.

If restaurants and travel are high on the list of things you miss most during lockdown, I heartily recommend Bill Buford's Dirt. This is a writer who gives new meaning to the expression "glutton for punishment." Fourteen years after Heat, which chronicled his immersion in Italian butchery and bitchery, Buford returns with his reportorial blades freshly sharpened in this blazingly entertaining and frequently scalding account of the five years he planted himself in several exacting kitchens in the "rough and entirely unwelcoming" gastronomic city of Lyon, France. His mission: To unearth the secrets of Gallic cuisine — and perhaps trace its roots to Renaissance Italian cooking.

Buford again proves himself to be a relentless reporter and a self-deprecating guide. "My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was," he comments ruefully at the beginning of this quixotic odyssey, which also upends the lives of his wife, a wine educator, and their twin toddler sons. Obsessive and intrepid, Buford submits to a tradition of "education by humiliation" and punishing hands-on experience. A dreamer who runs chronically late, he's indoctrinated into the importance of focus, speed, and punctuality, whether he's peeling 40 kilos of PDT (pommes de terre — potatoes) and mashing them with 20 kilos of butter for the staff lunch under the critical gaze of an unsmiling chef, or mastering the difference between Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauces. His observations about French elementary school education, which is scarcely more coddling than his culinary training, are as fascinating as his kitchen escapades. He's particularly astonished by the elaborate multi-course lunches his sons are served daily.

Dirt dishes the dirt on the testosterone-fueled crudeness of professional kitchens, where "unregulated bullying" and misogyny are as thick as crème fraiche — which isn't exactly news at this point. But Buford, who knows it will make good copy, hangs in there, responding to hazings and humiliations with humble "Oui, chefs" as he doggedly seeks the key to what separates grand from not-so-grand cuisine. Spoiler alert: As his title suggests, it's not just the fanatical dedication and meticulously exacting prep. This deliciously salty chronicle, loamy with culinary history and profiles of the great chefs, is worth digging into.

Could Phyllis Grant have hit upon a more alluring title for these fraught times? Everything Is Under Control, her memoir with recipes, chronicles her rocky passage from driven, not-quite-good-enough Juilliard ballet student to abused apprentice at several star-studded New York City restaurants, including Bouley and Nobu — a progression that's akin to jumping out of the fire (or maybe that's firebird) and into the frying pan.

In a series of short, spare, food-centric bulletins written in the present tense, Grant captures the passions of her life, from the rigorous intensity of her early ambitions to her more manageable present, in which we meet her baking tarte tatin with her kids, Dash and Bella. Cooking, a throughline in her life, is in her DNA, beginning with the beloved maternal grandmother for whom she's named, who mastered a repertory of inexpensive comfort foods at age ten, when her impoverished, widowed mother took on two jobs to make ends meet.

Grant's first bout of anorexia hit at 11 and lasted a year. In ballet school, after being body-shamed, she learns the tricks of the trade. "Bulimia is much harder to cover up. It's loud and messy. But you get to eat more. Anorexia is clean and requires control," she writes, and then adds, "I choose anorexia." It doesn't improve her prospects. After a disappointing audition in which she fails to get cast even as an understudy, she's told she hasn't lived up to her early potential.

She realizes, "I want my hair to smell like chocolate and garlic and fish ... I want a purpose." But Plan B is no cakewalk either. "Six months in and I have experienced the obscenely long hours and witnessed the fire hazards, rampant drug use, and misogynistic everything," she writes of her culinary on-the-job training, but adds, "I still want this more than ever." Her new bosses call her Felicia. Like Buford, she responds with dutiful submission to the hellish pace and constant criticism: "Oui, Chef."

Everything is Under Control is a lesson in remaining light on your feet because just the opposite is so often the case: Career plans don't pan out. The 9/11 terrorist attacks strike too close for comfort and send her and her husband fleeing to the other side of the country. It takes multiple miscarriages before sticking the landing on a second child and months of misery before post-partum depression blossoms into real love.

Grant nimbly pirouettes, pivots, leaps. She becomes a cookbook editor, a yoga instructor, a certified doula, a smitten mom who blogs about cooking with and for her kids, a bold, talented memoirist. Such flexibility is not a bad lesson for right now. Plus there's the bonus of 17 tempting, homey recipes, including Cottage Cheese Pancakes, an adaptation of her grandmother's Fudgy Icebox Brownies, Lamb Popsicles (rib chops eaten like treats on a stick), and a Caramelized Onion Tart, one of several ways to use up some of those anchovies you've stockpiled for the duration.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.