Why We Read

By Melissa ChadburnJanuary 3, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

IN MY NEW APARTMENT I only had books. Just me, my dog, and 500 books.

It was Craigslist that gave me a renewed faith in humanity. I drove to homes in the Hollywood Hills eager for a table and bench, only to realize I am just one person. How can I carry a table and bench? The woman selling the bench was even smaller than me. We picked it up and tried our best to shove it in the back of my SUV. We laughed at our ineptitude.

“Will someone be able to help you carry it out?” she asked.

“No. That’s why I’m getting the bench. I don’t have a someone.”

She invited me to look at everything else in her home. To take anything I wanted.

One couple delivered a couch to me from 95 miles away. The guy said he grew up in my neighborhood and there is an Italian restaurant that he’d been dreaming about for 12 years. A woman also newly single was upgrading from her dog bed to her own bed. So I swapped out my dog bed for her dog bed. She was pretty and delivered the bed in a cut-off T-shirt with no bra and she invited me for a hike and I liked her spunk very much.

So first there was the matter of furniture, but then there was an entirely different matter. The matter of the kitchen. I had just freshly broken my own heart and I was not entirely ready for anything that looked remotely like self care. Also, what did I like?

What the hell did I want to eat, or wear? Or how — if left to my own devices — how would I style my hair?

I subsisted on Cliff bars, Cuban coffee, and Trader Joe’s wine. The only real habit of my old life that made it over to my new life was reading. In fact I became even more alive with reading than I had before. Taking myself out on reading dates. Spending entire days in bed with a book. Like J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

In the interest of transparency I will say I know J. Ryan. I really like J. Ryan. J. Ryan has a snorting Midwestern guffaw of a laugh and that is a thing that cannot be false or mimicked. He is just a real live person and when shit is always changing or you live in a land of falsities like Los Angeles, it’s really refreshing to meet a guy that’s not afraid to guffaw. We are friends, more than just casual acquaintances, so maybe I overestimate the book but I don’t think so.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest transported me to a place I longed for. A place that was warm. The protagonist Eva Thorvald had so much of what I was lacking. She was tall. So to me she had a backbone. A backbone and a discerning palate. We’re talking about a palate that lusted for heirloom tomatoes at three-and-a-half months old.

The structure of Kitchens is reminiscent of Jenny Egan’s Visit From The Goon Squad, which as a writer one can find thrilling and daunting. Thrilling because it’s fun to jump into other character’s heads. It’s like a world of polyamory where no one gets hurt. Then again, it’s daunting because it can take a certain finesse to pull off, and I wonder if I could. Ultimately, when it’s successful, there’s that payoff when the reader looks back and connects all the dots and it’s so satisfying.

Like Stradal this book is a real comfort. There are recipes; there are characters, complicated characters with depth. For example, Pat — the woman who will do most anything to win a bar contest, a woman who seethes with envy over the new beauty in town, but finds herself in a small predicament after leaving the contest. After two margaritas and no dinner, her son stoned on marijuana beside her, she decides she’d be the better driver. Then inevitably they get pulled over. Pat’s instincts kick into high gear and she demands her son hand him her weed so she can stuff it in her clutch. This is just one of the many places J. Ryan’s handle on character really shines.

Pat’s voice felt as serious as it had ever been, more than at either of her weddings, more than at Jerry’s funeral or her parents’ funerals, even. Sam rifled through his pockets and backpack, producing a little pipe, a small bag of weed, and a pot brownie. Pat took them and crammed them in her purse just as she heard the slam of the cop’s car door behind her. She resettled and took a deep breath, and felt the shadow of a man’s body and the harsh beam of a flashlight fall across her as he tapped a knuckle on her glass.

Pat grabbed the handle with her left hand and took care to roll the window down calmly.

I hate Cosmopolitans but I think Pat would like them, so I want to take her somewhere, not a stuffy place, for Cosmos, and sit around and dish about all the ladies on the PTA.

That’s not the most I can say about this book. The most I can say about this book is that I was reading it in my new apartment, and it forced me to look around at how small my world had become. This book is a book full of people who are passionate about stuff, food, or lost lovers, or lost children. It’s a book of orphans too in a way, which I won’t spoil. I, myself, having grown up in foster care relate to this. Ultimately this is a book that made me want to have a more full and colorful life, a life with cookbooks and a well-used kitchen, and to delight at all the goodness that can be put in front of us.


Melissa Chadburn’s essay “The Throwaways” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America, and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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