The Divining Wand

Discovering authors beyond their pages…

Jael McHenry and The Kitchen Daughter

April 11, 2011 By: larramiefg Category: Book Presentations, Books

Jael McHenry’s passion for cooking and writing combine together in the most unique blend of sweet and bittersweet for her debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter in bookstores tomorrow, April 12, 2011. And, let it be noted, the clever, quirky cover art is the perfect appetizer for the feast spread within the pages.

The idea for the book began with the author creating a character who loves food, loves cooking, but is closed off from the rest of the world. Even though food is such a natural way to connect with people, it’s a conundrum that the young woman has never used her cooking to connect. But why? Jael realized that there had to be a reason/obstacle that prevented her protagonist from being able to reach out and that’s when she added Asperger’s syndrome to the mix. Ironically Ginny — the main character — had already been formed with many traits of an individual on the autism spectrum and, after more extensive research on Asperger’s, it became part of her identity as well as her story.

In fact, according to its synopsis, The Kitchen Daughter

is about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes.

Julie & Julia meets Jodi Picoult in this poignant and delectable novel with recipes, chronicling one woman’s journey of self-discovery at the stove.

After the unexpected death of her parents, shy and sheltered Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, seeks comfort in family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning—before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister Amanda insists on selling their parents’ house in Philadelphia, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from her parents’ recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

Offering a fascinating glimpse into the unique mind of a woman struggling with Asperger’s and featuring evocative and mouth-watering descriptions of food, this lyrical novel is as delicious and joyful as a warm brownie.

Of course there are recipes, including the brownie recipe that goes so well with the HOT Chocolate Jael serves up in this video:

(If the video does not appear on your monitor, please watch it here.)

Now also read the early Praise for the book and the Excerpt of Chapter One Bread Soup.

Creating the kitchen daughter character to be likable to readers, even with her seemingly anti-social behavior, might have been the author’s greatest challenge. But, by introducing Ginny at her parents’ funeral where she is surrounded by grief and struggling to control her emotions, well what could be more universal and relatable? As might be expected, Ginny is at her worst there. She’s scared, feeling abandoned, and her thinking fragmented. Her speech and actions reflect those feelings but isn’t that normal?

Ah, yet what is normal? That question is not only the message of the novel, it’s also Ginny’s personal need to be. Over the years this young woman has compiled The Normal Book filled with advice columns on what is normal. It’s a secret “security blanket,” a touchstone, to reassure her — despite what others might think — that she is normal. After all normal has a wide-range definition. Jael concedes that she’s always been interested in how people describe their own situations and how often they want an outside opinion on what they should do. And this becomes Ginny’s logic, as the author further explains:

“If people write in saying “‘Here’s what’s going on in my life, is this normal?”” a lot of times the columnists will say “‘You’re asking the wrong question.'” And I agree. Whether it’s “‘normal'” or not doesn’t mean it’s right for you. You have to figure things out for yourself, not by some made-up standard.”

What’s right and works for Ginny is cooking. By following a recipe, step-by-step, she’s soothed and feels in control. Even during anxious moments — when not in the kitchen — she can think about food as a distracting comfort. The fact is food not only is Ginny’s world, it becomes the way she views the real world. For example, because the character isn’t comfortable around people, she tends to describe most of them in food-related terms. Her intrusive, over-bearing/over-protective sister, Amanda, has “an orange juice voice,” while her father’s was “tomato juice.” And, through that type of thinking, Ginny is better able to relate.

There’s no question that the kitchen daughter has experienced a sudden, devastating trauma for which she is unprepared. Yet what’s important to remember is that this twentysomething young woman, who happens to have the added challenge of Asperger’s, is not inclined to give up. Instead Ginny seeks to take control for who she is and where she belongs. Simply put, it’s a variation on a young woman searching for happiness and “Mr. Right.” But Jael McHenry has upped the stakes with an insightfully original, poignant, and triumphant tale.

The Kitchen Daughter — given a glorious review in the May edition of O, The Oprah Magazine — is a delicious literary treat. It’s rich in lush description and delicious thought-provoking dilemmas stirred up by a truly heartwarming heroine. Please savor and enjoy!

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away a copy of Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

Guest Jael McHenry on
The Blessed Mystery of the Pre-Debut

April 05, 2011 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[How many successful authors have THAT drawer and/or corner in their closet where their first “Great Novel(s)” hide? Probably ninety-nine percent do and, in today’s guest post, Jael McHenry (The Kitchen Daughter coming April 12, 2011) admits to being one of them. However she also shares why — although these works will never see the light of day — this early writing has made her a debut novelist.]

The Blessed Mystery of the Pre-Debut

Positive reviews are always welcome and wonderful things, but every once in a while, they make me feel guilty. This particularly happens whenever a reviewer mentions that The Kitchen Daughter is well-written “for a first novel.” Because, friends and readers, I am here to tell you that the only reason my first novel is even remotely well-written is the truly stunning quantity of unreadable stuff I wrote before.

I was especially pleased, then, when I spotted a New York Times essay last month asking Why Do Writers Abandon Novels? Because I’m in good company. Great company. Apparently even the finest novelists among us, boldface names like Michael Chabon and Jennifer Egan, started writing certain novels, but later these manuscripts turned so awful/difficult/wretched that they were forced to abandon them. They started over, and wrote something better instead.

The stuff of mine you will never read would make you say, “How interesting, yet sad, that this ‘writer’ can’t actually write.” It would make you say, “This person may or may not understand the English language.” You’d say “This book goes nowhere” or “Isn’t this entire thing an exact ripoff of the Audrey Hepburn movie Wait Until Dark?” or “Is this writer making a bet with herself that she can go for pages without punctuation?” or “Am I supposed to believe that a powerful demon would take human form as a lounge singer in a basement bar for farmers? Am I SERIOUSLY?”

Some of the stuff I wrote before my debut is fine. Some of it is even lovely. Some of it is great raw material I may return to in the future.

Some of it is so appalling I couldn’t even begin to tell you about it without bursting into laughter. Or tears. Or both.

(My personal favorite is the short story set at a senior prom held in a high school gym, where the pure-of-heart, innocent narrator [in a white dress] is threatened by a wild-eyed druggie with a gun, but saved from certain death by the druggie’s girlfriend [in a black dress of course] who throws herself into the path of the moving bullet at the last moment and DIES in the narrator’s arms ON THE FREE THROW LINE. In my defense, I was 16.)

And so, if you’re a writer whose writing sometimes disappoints you, take heart. Writing one or two or three awful things doesn’t make you an awful writer. And over time, even the awful things make you better. As Dan Kois puts it in the NYT essay I mentioned earlier, “Unsuccessful novels happen to everybody.” And the good news is, when your debut is published, it’s the only thing your readers see. It may not be your first writing, but it’s their first reading. How you got there is all a big dark mystery. And thank goodness for that.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away a copy of Darien Gee’s Friendship Bread in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Darien Gee and Friendship Bread. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

The Revealing of Jael McHenry

March 30, 2011 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Skilled amateur cook and creatively talented writer Jael McHenrty combines Julie & Julia with Jodi Picoult in her debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter to be released on April 12, 2011.

In a one sentence description:

The Kitchen Daughter is about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes.

And the critical reviews prove the book a literary feast:

“Skillfully rendered from Ginny’s point of view, McHenry’s debut novel is a touching tale about loss and grief, love and acceptance.” Kirkus Reviews

“McHenry’s debut novel is a sensitive and realistic portrait of someone living with Asperger’s. Readers looking for good family-themed women’s fiction will enjoy this novel, and the magical element of the cooking ghosts will appeal to fans of Sarah Addison Allen.” Library Journal

“…an intelligent and moving account of an intriguing heroine’s belated battle to find herself.” Publishers Weekly

The Divining Wand has scheduled a presentation/review of The Kitchen Daughter for Monday, April 11, 2011 but, in the meantime, let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

Jael McHenry is a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog. She is a monthly pop culture columnist and Editor-in-Chief of Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in New York City.

Now it’s time to look beyond all that and get to know Jael, upclose and personal:

Q: How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A: A small town girl, citified along the way.

Q: What is your motto or maxim?
A: “To be calm is the highest achievement of the self.” I read it on a teabag.

Q: How would you describe perfect happiness?
A: I wouldn’t – I don’t want to jinx anything!

Q: What’s your greatest fear?
A: Just the run-of-the-mill stuff – car accidents, roller coasters.

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A: On a beach chair in Lanai, Hawaii, overlooking the ocean. Reading.

Q: With whom in history do you most identify?
A: You’ve heard the saying “Well-behaved women rarely make history?” I’m really well-behaved, so the people I identify with, we’ve never heard of them.

Q: Which living person do you most admire?
A: My mother.

Q: What are your most overused words or phrases?
A: No one who is actually cool uses the word “cool” as much as I do.

Q: If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A: I’ve always wished I could run.

Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: In college I was on “Jeopardy!” – I didn’t win, but I made a killing in consolation prizes.

Q: What’s your greatest flaw?
A: Constant and insidious overthinking.

Q: What’s your best quality?
A: I want everyone to be happy.

Q: What do you regret most?
A: That we only get one go at life, since there are so many fascinating and amazing things to do with it.

Q: If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A: I kind of like being me!

Q: What trait is most noticeable about you?
A: Apparently I don’t have one – people always tell me I remind them of someone else they know.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A: Westley from The Princess Bride.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A: Also from The Princess Bride: Prince Humperdinck.

Q: If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A: I hardly know any athletes – I’d probably want to meet the two Harlem Globetrotters who were on “The Amazing Race”, Flight Time and Big Easy, just to talk about what their experience racing around the world was like.

Q: What is your biggest pet peeve?
A: When someone walking too close behind me steps on the back of my heel. It drives me NUTS.

Q: What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A: Cooking.

Q: What’s your fantasy profession?
A: Supermodel. (I could never constrain my eating enough to maintain a model’s weight, but you did say “fantasy.”)

Q: What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A: Kindness, humor, respect.

Q: If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A: Toasted everything bagels with butter.

Q: What are your 5 favorite songs?
A: My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors by Moxy Fruvous
Vampires in Blue Dresses by Margot & the Nuclear So-and-Sos
Fast As You Can by Fiona Apple
Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello
Groove is in the Heart by Deee-Lite

Q: What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A: Lady Oracle and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
All About Braising by Molly Stevens

Incredibly creative and engaging, Jael McHenry is a new author to follow on Twiter, become a fan of on Facebook, and be a regular visitor to her SIMMER Blog.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of Rebecca Rasmussen’s The Bird Sisters in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Rebecca Rasmussen and The Bird Sisters. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is tonight at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in tomorrow’s post. If you enter, please return tomorrow to see if you’re a winner.