Book Review: Stir

Normally, I have a bit of an aversion to food memoirs. Often they’re cloyingly sappy, with too-tender tales of lessons both culinary and clichéd on grandmother’s knee. Or they make improbable leaps from food to philosophy: “As I kneaded the dough with my fingers, I was reminded that life’s possibilities are always at our fingertips.” Then again, maybe my distaste for food memoirs has to do with a secret jealousy that people out there are writing whole books about their relationship with food. Entirely possible.

So when I picked up a copy of Jessica Fechtor’s Stir at my local library, I wasn’t really prepared to like it.

Truth be told, it wasn’t the food aspect that made me toss Stir onto my pile of books for checkout in the first place. What drew me in was instead the fact that Fechtor’s story centers on recovery from a brain aneurysm that rocked her life in her late 20s. I’ll confess: I love reading or watching anything that showcases the gruesome or bizarre. My husband tells me I have the Netflix queue of someone planning a string of axe murders. So, brain aneurysm? Yes, please!

I toted Stir along with me on our road trip to Disneyland this past week, and didn’t even need the drive to and from California to read it. Forty-eight hours was all it took to polish off this immersive narrative.

Unlike the many food memoirs I’ve read before, Stir resonated with me. Fechtor manages to make deep, true statements about food’s role in bringing her back to her “normal” self after her aneurysm–without clunking sentimentality. Her eye for describing her own experiences struck me as probing and sincere, and her intelligence comes through on every page. It’s no surprise she’s A PhD candidate in Jewish literature at Harvard. Plus, her descriptions of food are nothing short of poetry, like this passage about a macaroon:

“The Hi-Rise almond macaroon is plump and squat, a round, rosy cookie with a whole almond pressed into its belly and dusted with powdered sugar. Squeeze, and and the crisp outer crust sinks into the chewy center.”

Does that not make you perfectly picture (and want to eat) a macaroon?

Several times, coming upon recipes featured at the end of nearly every chapter, I suddenly realized my need for whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, butter almond cake, cherry clafoutis. It made complete sense that these baked goods would serve as comfort food in a time of the author’s suffering and recovery. (Then again, some recipes were way out of my league, or would involve hours of preparation. To each her own.)

As someone who has had bizarre, hit-you-out-of-nowhere health issues, I must say I also found Fechtor’s life-altering surgeries and hospital stays relatable. Her resilience is incredible. There’s no way I could have responded to losing half my vision and a large chunk of my skull with anything like her optimism.

My primary criticism of the book is for its title. It seems a few more descriptive words could have better expressed the depths of Fechtor’s experience than simply Stir.

Overall, however, I highly recommend reading Fechtor’s well-told journey. Sometimes we could all use a jolt of gratitude that, whatever our troubles, at least most of us don’t require brain surgery–and a reminder of the many wonderful gifts food can bring under any circumstances.

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