Books by Jo Brans

Released: May 7, 1993

Brans (Take Two, 1989, etc.) turns here to culinary autobiography but lacks the personality or style to make a unique mark. The author proceeds from Mother's good plain cooking (``her meringues rose sky high'') to cooking on her own with Betty Crocker, then with James Beard's Hors d'Oeuvres and CanapÇs (``Beard taught me that cream cheese goes with everything''), Julia Child (``I cuisined up a storm....Quel fun''), and The Silver Palate pair, about whom she gushes for a long chapter. Brans often strays from eating to characterizing the various stages of her life, such as the time she spent as a happily married ``beatnik,'' but she never gets beyond generalization—and in one sentence she's unaccountably divorced and remarried...and on to more eating adventures. Between accounts of her own experiences are anecdotes of other people, collected through a questionnaire she sent out to acquaintances (``What memorable experiences did you have at the table as a child?''), but they too fail to sparkle in the reading or add up to any point. The author's ostensibly mildly ironic tone throughout seems modeled on that of Jane and Michael Stern, but it hasn't their sly wit or sensibility. From her corny declaration of a childhood love for Wonder Bread (``Our bread of choice was Wonder, and it was Wonderful'') to her closing raptures over lunch at Bouley (number one in Zagat) during last summer's $19.92 special, Brans fails to entertain with any fresh observations on food or foodies or to rise above the generally banal level of the genre. Read full book review >

Nothing is so constant as change, Brans (Mother, I Have Something to Tell You, 1987) reminds us, but it isn't always easy. To explore the nature of change, she here recounts the personal stories of dozens who have pulled their lives up by the bootstraps, rewoven their tangled threads of desire, or simply given themselves a good shaking. Brans calls her subjects "innovators," and because she agrees with John Cheerer that "telling ourselves stories is the best way we have of comprehending the turn of events in human life," she offers detailed interviews. Some subjects, such as Kay Fanning, were propelled to radical change after personal crises: when her marriage failed and her religion strengthened, Fanning left a comfortable life in Chicago, packed up her three children, and took an entry-level job at an Alaskan newspaper. She went from "the Junior League to the Urban League," and even further—to a new husband, ownership of that Alaskan newspaper, and then editorship of The Christian Science Monitor. Others, such as Bill Emerson, who has been a journalist, college professor and free-lance writer, embrace change eagerly: "lest he fall into the trap of boredom, Bill said, he changed his life drastically every nine years, 'especially when I'm happy.'" Still others escape their lives, seeking a kind of desperate change. There's college professor Duncan Aswell, for instance, who simply dropped his former identity, bought a bus ticket to Atlanta, and started over with the proceeds of the sale of his Volkswagen and a new name, Bill Cutler. And smaller yet dramatic stories tell of an actress who left the stage to become a nurse, a microbiologist who took up acting, and a journalist who wrote (and had published successfully) her first novel when her cancer was diagnosed. Loosely organizing these dozens of tales to show the process of change and the skills necessary to change (gumption and intensity rate high), Brans draws few conclusions about her innovative subjects, choosing to let them speak for themselves. Occasionally uneven, uninspiring, or sad, most of these stories challenge the reader to reexamine the humdrum rhythm of daily life. Read full book review >