Friday, October 31, 2014

A Fork in the Road, edited by James Oseland

A Fork in the Road is a collection of essays by chefs, food writers, and novelists reflecting on moments of "transformation through food." Like most collections, the book contains some essays that moved me and some that left me cold. The strongest essays are those in which the author is writing about more than food--about family, culture, finding oneself. One of my favorite's was Josh Ozersky's "A Melancholic's Guide to Eating in Paris," in which he describes his trip to the French capital with his deeply depressed father, with whom he "spoke the secret language of food as a proxy for everything else." The role of food in defining family is also the subject of "The Importance of Chicken Livers," by Beth Kracklauer, which begins with a wonderful sentence: "We all enter our families in the middle of the action, and each of us is left to piee together our own story-in-progress as best we can." Perhaps family is my preferred theme, as I also loved "A Wedding Feast," in which Tom Carson explores gender, culture, and family as he describes the wedding of Indian in-laws. David Kamp lovingly descritbes "Stolen Apples, Yankee Pot Roast, and a Cabin by the Lake." Other pieces were similarly compelling.

Less successful, for me, were essays that focused too narrowly on the food--a barbeque travelogue of Georgia,  a description of restaurant-hopping in Paris, or even details of the food served along the Amazon. A few essays delved into the world of disgusting foods in a way that disgusted but also fascinated--"They Eat Maggots, Don't They?" and "Fish Heads" to name two.

The collection is uneven but worth dipping into.

Favorite passages:
In that humble stew, beyond the pleasures of taste, there was so much else to savour. Its essence held so many of the things it takes to make a good life--resourcefulness, pride and care, a connectedness to nature, and the pleasures of a meal shared togeher around the table--most of the means to transform a life of raw poverty and grinding hardship. Anna Langbein in "The Right Side of the Fall Line"

. . . when something is made with care, you appreciate it with equal care; how food can be a way for people who aren't otherwise especially demonstrative to express themselves.  Beth Kracklauer in "The Importance of Chicken Livers"

Not least because it was far from her only skill, Maggie made a life bereft of cooking's pleasures seem forlorn. Even more than the outcomes, I was smitten by how she went about it: the alternating rhythms of patience and dispatch, the trick bag of adaptable techniques, the logistics of a complicated mise en place. I'd just never understood how simply, nihilism-defyingly happy you could make other people by cooking well.  Tom Carson in "A Wedding Feast"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

I have studiously avoided Wild since it became the book du jour when Oprah picked it for her re-imagined book club. I knew the back story--when the author was 22, her mother died and Strayed fell apart.  Her siblings and stepfather weren't available to her in the way that she needed them, she cheated on her husband and set their marriage on the road to divorce, and she dabbled with drugs. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone to heal herself. Being over-judgmental, although I sympathized with Strayed, I also thought she sounded like a bit of a dope.

But then Novel Conversations chose to read Wild, so I jumped in.  And, quite honestly, I continued to think that Strayed was a bit of a dope. Although she believed she was preparing for the trek by haunting REI, she didn't take training hikes and she had never lifted her pack until she was ready to start the hike. Really??  Who would do that?

On the other hand, she is a good writer. She describes the physical experience of hiking 1,000 miles in agonizing detail and the physical setting with counterbalancing beauty. She doesn't flinch when she lays out her many mistakes, and she fearlessly explores her psychological issues. All of this I appreciated, though I never did truly understand how the hike helped her heal the wounds of her childhood and loss of her mother. I get that it was an amazing achievement that gave her a new sense of her own competence, and maybe that was all that was needed. But she hints at something else without describing it in a way I can grasp.

Favorite passages:
It hadn't occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the stories from her childhood that I'd made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia O'Keeffe I'd once sent her.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control . . .

I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words by the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I'd chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn't know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda meet as children on a train traveling from the east coast to Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the early 20th century. Jim has been orphaned and is on his way to live with his grandparents. Antonia, her parents, and siblings are Bohemian immigrants hoping to build a life on the prairie. Jim and Antonia become friends immediately, as Jim takes on the task of teaching her English, and it is through Jim's eyes that we see the Shimerdas' struggles and Antonia's resilient nature. Mr. Shimerda, a musician, cannot cope with his inability to protect his family from the hardships of their first winter on the Great Plains and commits suicide. Antonia works side by side with her brother to scratch a living from the family's farmstead. Later, she hires out in town, working first for Jim's grandparents and then for the horrible Cutters (two of the Cutters' hired girls have had to leave town because of pregnancies resulting from Mr. Wick Cutter's abuse).

Jim goes to school while Antonia works, but their friendship remains steadfast. Jim also gets to know many of Antonia's friends--immigrant girls from Norway, Sweden, Austria, and other European homelands. Even when Jim heads off to the university at Lincoln and then to Harvard, he keeps up with several of the girls, who let him know what has happened to Antonia--her life has not been easy. Jim becomes an attorney based in New York; he occasionally sees two of the other "hired girls" who have become successful businesswomen in San Francisco. After decades, they convince him to stop and visit Antonia. He finds her greatly aged--most of her teeth are gone--and still working hard, the mother of 11 children; her children speak Bohemian at home, learning English only when they go to school. But he also still finds her remarkable--her enjoyment of life, her love for her children, the way in which she has told the stories of her childhood adventures with Jim to her children. That shared experience, Jim realizes, has shaped them both.

Cather's writing style is straightforward and, except when describing the landscape, rather straightforward and plain. She has a remarkable sense of place and its effects on not only how one lives but how one thinks and feels. For young people who read this book today (I'm not sure if it's still a common assignment in high school), I would imagine the struggles of the immigrant families seem remarkably difficult to comfortable suburban students but may echo familiarly for today's immigrant children. One thing I don't understand is why Cather framed the book as Jim's recollections delivered to another friend from his youth whom he accidentally met on a train across Iowa. I understand the parallelism of the train journey, but overall this device seemed superfluous.

I did not love My Antonia, but I'm glad I read it, particularly for the spare yet often lovely language.

Favorite passages:
There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.

I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hello Kitty Must Die, by Angela S. Choi

I got this book as part of a BOGO offer from Audible, which may make me hesitant to fall for future BOGO deals. The first chapter, in which protagonist Fiona Yu takes her virginity with a dildo heavily smeared with Lidocaine, is about the most cringe-worthy piece of writing I've ever encountered. Fiona is a 28-year-old corporate lawyer who still lives with her parents--the low rent and the excellent mom-cooked meals balance out her parents' efforts to fix her up with a "nice Chinese boy." While one might sympathize with the conflict Fiona faces between Chinese tradition and 21st-century American culture, she is not a sympathetic character. Her screen saver is a slide show of serial killers and she wears high heels at all times because she enjoys the pain they cause. When she reunites with childhood friend Sean (now a plastic surgeon specializing in hymen replacement), her interest in serial killers becomes more than hypothetical. Ugh. DO NOT READ!!!

(Obviously, I've been a bit behind in my posting--I didn't actually read three books today.)

Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett

I have remarked before about the odd way in which themes suddenly and unintentionally emerge in my reading. Amy Falls Down is my third recent book about writing and authors--and it is by far my favorite.

Amy Gallup is a 60ish author who has not published a book for 60 years. She lives in San Diego and teaches on-line writing classes. She used to teach face-to-face workshops, but then one of her students started killing others in the workshop, and she gave those classes up; in fact, she seems to have little contact with other people.

One night she goes falls in her yard, knocking herself out on the birdbath. The next morning, somewhat balmy from the blow to the head, she is interviewed for an article in the local newspaper and she comes across so bizarrely in the story that it goes viral. People suddenly want her to be on their radio shows or make an appearance at their event. Although she initially resists, her recently reemergent agent Maxine convinces her to assent to a few appearances, and soon her sense of humor and no-nonsense approach have made her a sensation. Her new-found celebrity gives Amy a chance to rail against writers' conferences, agents, the literary publicity machine, and more.

At the same time, however, Amy has also begun to leave her house more often to engage with real people. She begins teaching a hand-picked group of aspiring writers whom her friend Carla has gathered around her in a "writer's retreat" that does not resemble any description you've ever read of MacDowell or Yaddo. She cannot enter a more active social life without thinking about the life she and her beloved husband Max, a gay friend she married so he could avoid the draft, shared . . . and about the betrayal she discovered after Max's death from AIDS. Perhaps most remarkably, Amy also begins to write again.

Amy's adventures as a media celebrity allow Willett to satirize the memoir fad, chick lit, endless conversations about the writer's process, writer's colonies, anti-intellectual talk show hosts, agents, drunken male authors, YouTube trailers for books, blogs (Amy has a blog titled "Go Away," on which the list of her own books is buried six levels down), and countless other aspects of the literary world and popular culture. At the same time, however, Willett defends the work of the writer as valuable and difficult, pays tribute to agents, and provides glimpses into one writer's process (Amy writes down unusual/intriguing phrases she hears in conversation, which she then uses as titles for stories that may have nothing to do with the context in which she heard the phrase).

Amy Falls Down takes place almost entirely in Amy's head, and it is a very entertaining place to be. Willett creates a unique voice and gives that voice some wonderful ideas, sentences, and phrases to express; I will not soon forget the term "irony klaxon" or the description of a hotel lobby as "aggressively rectangular." I was sad when this funny and yet somehow touching book ended.

Favorite passages:
Fiction, when it's done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night; we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone.

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist, living in post-war London (specifically in 1949-50). She's writing her first novel, Warrender Chase (which she refers to endlessly in the novel), but must find a job to support herself. She finds a job as secretary to Quentin Oliver, who runs the Autobiographical Association. Fleur is assigned the task of typing up the memoirs of the association's members, and she quickly decides the memoirs are too dull and begins to embellish them.

Here is where things get sticky. The memoirs and Warrender Chase begin to resemble each other--but it is unclear which is the source, which the copy, and who is responsible for the "plagiarism," if that is what it is. Certainly, Quentin and the members of the Association (with Quentin's urging) accuse her of libel and plagiarism. Then some of the fictional events Fleur wrote about actually happen, causing even greater confusion (at least for this reader). Fleur becomes convinced that Quentin Oliver is plotting against her, as well as his mother--the (perhaps) demented Edwina--and the eccentric members of the association. Fleur is forced out of her job, loses her publishing contract, and finds that all the copies of her novel have been destroyed or stolen.

The story is narrated by Fleur from a distance of some years; she has become a successful novelist and is reflecting on the months in which she completed her beloved Warrender Chase, so we know the events of 1949-1950 did not deter her. Fleur is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; I also found her to be an obnoxious one. I enjoyed Fleur's ruminations on writing, although not her obsessive regard for her own work, Warrender Chase (I feel every paragraph of this review should reference the title, since Spark mentioned it so often in the novel). Of the book she says, "All day long when I was busy . . . I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did." That may be quite lovely for a novelist, but it doesn't make the novelist that interesting as a character (at least to me).

Loitering with Intent (what a wonderful title) was short-listed for the Booker and reviewed glowingly; one review I saw even called it "perfect." From another review, I learned that the book is chock full of literary allusions I simply didn't get. I am more aligned with the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, who called it a novel to "amuse, baffle." I was from time to time amused and quite often baffled. But, I will not, as several reviewers noted they had done, read it over and over--I shudder at the thought.

Favorite passage:
I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. (maybe not my favorite passage but perhaps indicative of why I found Fleur obnoxious)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is the second Cormoran Strike mystery novel by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling). In this new adventure, private detective Strike and his assistant Robin investigate the disappearance and subsequent death of author Owen Quine. Hired by Quine's wife Leonora (with little hope of remuneration), Strike is drawn into the intrigues of London publishing--which are more twisted and violent than one might suspect. When Leonora is arrested for murdering her husband, the pressure on Strike picks up, just as his amputated leg is bothering him and his ex-fiancee is marrying someone else. Meanwhile, Robin's fiance continues to object to her career choice. Nonetheless, they solve the case when the police can or will not.

The Silkworm is not as enjoyable as the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling. The crime is outlandish (and grisly) and the police incompetent. Strike's commitment to Leonora, who is neither sympathetic nor paying, seems unlikely; while this commitment might make one admire him, his willingness to sleep with a young woman in whom he has no interest simply to get information from her undercuts any such admiration. And the Moonlighting-style sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran isn't very compelling.

If there's a third Cormoran Strike novel, I'm not sure I'll read it. I'm actually struggling with the question of why I continue to read series mysteries when they are so unsatisfying--but at least most of them are quick reads. At 455 pages, that can't be said of The Silkworm.