Saturday, February 25, 2012

Friends Like Us, by Lauren Fox

Reading Friends Like Us shortly after The Fallback Plan has made it abundantly clear to me that I should stop reading books about the crises of 20-somethings. I'm just too old to empathize.

Willa, the book's narrator, and her best friend from college, Jane, are a few years out of college, living together in Milwaukee and seriously underemployed. Then Willa runs into her best friend from high school, Ben, who reveals that he was in love with her in high school. Yet, within moments it seems, he is falling in love with Jane. This turn of events proves difficult for Willa, as she sees herself losing both best friends--and to each other. Will Willa make a bad decision? We know she will because Fox told us so in a prologue. The story is predictable, the outcome expected.

If I were 30 or 40 years younger, I might find this an interesting exploration of friendship, how friendships evolve as our lives change, and how our experiences in our families influence our friendships (Willa's parents were less than exemplary and her brother is a mess). Fox is a skilled writer and Willa is a well-developed, pleasantly snarky character, although Jane and Ben are less fully realized. If you like puns, you will enjoy the punning conversations in which Willa, Jane, and Ben engage. And many readers will probably find the book entertaining. Unfortunately, I simply did not care what happened to these characters or what--if anything--they learned about friendship and themselves.

Favorite passages:
I felt I could see inside his heart, and it was a clean, spare place, a room filled entirely with inexpensive Scandinavian furniture.

My brother could break my heart a thousand times a day. . . . He was a superhero of scorn.

And so. Here we are, resting together in the graveyard of my dignity.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Life, on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Subtitled A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, this book begins as the memoir of an ambitious young chef. Raised by parents who owned a diner, Achatz cooked virtually all his life. After attending culinary school, Achatz worked briefly at Charlie Trotter's acclaimed Chicago restaurant and then moved on to Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa. While Achatz found Keller's restaurant much more to his liking than Trotter's, he nonetheless chafed at the slow pace of his advancement. While making the perfect food at FL was rewarding and he learned a tremendous amount from Keller, what Achatz yearned for was a chance to cook "his own food."

That chance came at Trio, a restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, whose owner gave Achatz a tremendous amount of autonomy considering that he was still in his 20s and had never run a kitchen before. Nonetheless, the restaurant was highly successful. While Achatz describes some of his creations at Trio, it is still difficult for the average reader/eater to understand these avant garde dishes.

Then, on page 166 of the book, we suddenly get another narrator--Nick Kokonas, who, after eating at Trio, approached Achatz about starting a restaurant of his own. The second voice is actually welcome at this point in the book, when Achatz's relentless ambition has become a bit tiresome. And Kokonas's description of the food he and his wife ate at Trio better conveys what Achatz's food is like than Achatz's own writing. Kokonas and Achatz begin planning what will become Alinea, one of the preeminent restaurants in North America, and the story of creating the restaurant from the business and creative sides is very interesting. They include the reports they sent to investors, which, we learn, they also posted online. Indeed, based on his own reportage, Achatz was ahead of the field in capitalizing on food blogs and forums to build a following for Alinea.

Alinea was, of course, a huge success almost immediately (I know only one person who has eaten there, but she raves). Then, in the midst of that success, Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the tongue. The recommended treatment would have robbed Achatz of his ability to taste and to speak with any clarity--and the chances of survival were still only around 50 percent. Luckily for him, Kokonas sought out a clinical trial that did not involve radical surgery, and Achatz embarked on a grueling regimen of chemo and radiation--a protocol that restored his health with only a temporary loss of the sense of taste. As the book ends, Achatz and Kokonas are planning their next restaurant, named Next, which has now been up and running in Chicago for a couple of years.

Achatz portrays himself as too ambitious and too emotionally unavailable to those closest to him to be very sympathetic (his description of his brief marriage to the mother of his two sons really made me despise him), though it is clear he inspired devotion among many who knew and/or worked with him. On the other hand, his battle against cancer was inspirational, and his culinary success certainly indicates that his culinary skills are beyond compare. Still, I don't truly understand his cuisine even after reading the book (undoubtedly as much my problem as anything), but I have to give him a two out of three on the claims of the subtitle--while he's achieved greatness and beaten death, if he has redefined the way "we" eat, the "we" is a highly select group.

Favorite passage:

The plate was beautiful. The balloon of cheese was absurdly large, and the heirloom tomatoes--red, yellow, green zebra, brandywine--had been cut into geometric shapes that temporarily obscured their identity as tomatoes. There were green streaks of basil puree, and a pile of sea salt, itself composed of tiny pyramid-shaped crystals, sat in a far corner of the plate. I gingerly cut into the bottom half of the mozzarella balloon, surprised to find not a huge hunk of cheese, but rather a thin balloon-like shell. The tomato water poured out and the mozzarella deflated slowly. the tomatoes were exceptionally well chilled, the basil and olive oil perfectly combined, the tomato water sweet and salty.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein

The cover design of The Fallback Plan looks like a comic book, the blurbs on the cover stress the book's humor, and the first chapter opens with a very funny riff: "In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh, Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn't be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison. In other news, I moved in with my parents." And narrator Esther, a recent college graduate, does bring wry humor to the story...but that story is in fact a sad one.

Esther had a breakdown during her senior year while preparing for her first starring role in a college production (Blanche in Streetcar). Having graduated with a degree in theater, she has no prospects and is spending her time with a couple of ne'er-do-wells who spend their time drinking, playing video games, and smoking pot; Esther has a crush on one of these losers, Jack, despite the fact that he refers to her as "the Jewess."

Her mother then arranges a job for her babysitting the four-year-old daughter of Amy and Nate, a couple whose infant daughter died a few months earlier. Esther becomes fond of May and regales her with stories about pandas, surreal tales she envisions becoming a screen play. Esther also snoops around the house, developing something of a crush on Nate, although she rarely sees him for more than a few minutes. Amy, meanwhile, is clearly struggling in the aftermath of her baby's death, spending all day every day in the attic, working on her art, which proves to be a bizarre reproduction of the baby's room.

When Amy takes May and decamps to Arizona, Esther is once again left with nothing to do. Yet, in the final chapter, Stein seems to be suggesting that Esther is now ready for her "next steady step." For me, this did not ring true--of course, I may be too old for coming-of-age novels. I found myself identifying more with Esther's mother than with the heroine herself.

Favorite passage:
I've heard that only children remember less than children with siblings do, because we have no one with whom to corroborate our memories. I've had to appropriate my parents' memories of my childhood, their stories, true or not, because sometimes when I see old photos of myself I don't quite believe that's who I was. What appear to be the happiest years of my life in photo albums are the years most missing in my memory.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki

Several years ago, my younger son, who is working on a doctorate in Japanese literature, made me a list (at my request) of Japanese works that I should read. I read several titles and then, for quite some time, ignored the list. He even added some books a couple of years ago, and I still managed not to read any of them. Recently, however, I decided to restart my education in Japanese literature and chose to start with Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Quicksand is narrated by Sonoko Kakiuchi, a young housewife living near Osaka in the late 1920s. Her lawyer husband bores her and a recent love affair has ended, so she starts taking classes at an art school. There, she meets the beautiful Mitsuko, with whom she is soon involved in an intense love affair. Over time, she learns that Mitsuko also has a male lover, Watanuki, and this discovery leads to increasingly strange complications. Mrs. Kakiuchi is clearly being manipulated--but by whom and for what purpose is less clear. Then her husband is drawn into the love ... square? rectangle? manji (a four-spoked Buddhist symbol and evidently the title of the book in Japanese)? From there, this story of obsessive love, deception, manipulation, and love suicide becomes even more surreal.

Mrs. Kakiuchi is telling her story to an unnamed "author" after a scandal has erupted and at least some of the other central characters are dead. Exactly why she is telling her story to this person is unclear to me--but it's hardly the only facet of the novel that I don't entirely understand. "The author" to whom Mrs. Kakiuchi is telling her story occasionally inserts explanatory notes--usually snide asides about the lack of taste among Osaka women. Because these notes are fairly frequent early in the book, I found it odd when they disappeared after the first few chapters. The book was originally serialized in 1928-1930, and I can see how the plot twists--and the somewhat lurid content for that time--would keep people reading. As a novel, however, I found Quicksand exasperating. Perhaps I am just not interested enough in obsessive love--but I see five more Tanizaki novels on that list, so I'll have more options to explore what is evidently one of this author's recurring themes!

Of interest:
According to Ian Buruma, writing in The New York Times (, the book's "unique tone," which was written in upper-class Osaka dialect as it would be spoken by a woman, simply cannot be conveyed in English.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Grief of Others, by Leah Hager Cohen

The prologue of The Grief of Others, titled "Last Year," is an elegiac recounting of an anencephalic baby's 57-hour life, as seen through the eyes of his mother, for whom we instantly feel great sympathy. Then Leah Hager Cohen moves us forward to "This Year," in which mother Ricky is considering driving into the Hudson River every time she crosses the river on her way home from work. But we begin to lose our sympathy for her when we realize her children, fifth-grader Biscuit (one of those nicknames acquired through a sibling's mispronunciation of a given name, in this case Elizabeth) and seventh-grader Paul are in deep trouble and her husband John is still reeling from the fact that Ricky did not tell him about the baby's difficulties when they were diagnosed midway through the pregnancy. Thus, he built the crib and otherwise prepared for the baby, while she knew the baby would die within hours of its birth.

The family is in deep trouble when Jess arrives. Jess is John's daughter from a college relationship, who has spent only one two-week vacation with them in her entire life. She is now a pregnant college grad, who lies and tells them her parents kicked her out of the house. The Ryries welcome her--indeed, Ricky hopes that her willingness to let Jess stay with them and the kindness she shows the young mom-to-be will somehow convince John of her goodness.

Cohen tells the story from the perspectives of all five family members, plus a young man, Gordie, who came to the rescue when Biscuit fell into the Hudson. The family members' perspectives both in the present, last year, and eight years ago (the time when Jess vacationed with them) all contribute to an understanding of how the members of the family have lost contact with each other, a process exacerbated but not caused by the loss of the baby. While Gordie theoretically adds to the examination of grief, since he recently lost his father, I found his perspective and the subplot involving him unnecessary.

Yesterday, I read an article by Time magazine's book critic, Lev Grossman, on why endings of books are overrated (; a book with a good beginning and middle, he says, is still a good book even if it has a bad ending. He might have had The Grief of Others in mind, as the ending is pretty bad. Not only does Cohen tie things up to neatly, in the last chapter she strangely begins to address the reader directly in a way that she hasn't before ("What else is there to tell? What else ought to be, must be, said?"). It's bizarre, as are a few other things I'll let you discover for yourself if you decide to read The Grief of Others because it is still a decent read, even with, to quote from Grossman, a "nonsense of an ending."

Favorite passage:
She was here on the spit because of them, because of the way her mother and her father had fallen down behind themselves. She thought of it like this, like the way a book can fall down behind all the others on a shelf, and in this way it's missing, only you don't know it to look at the shelf: all that you see looks orderly and complete. Her parents seemed like the books you could see: they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn't be reached.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

Here is what Novel Conversations is reading for the next few months:

March: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
April: Zietoun, by Dave Eggers
May: The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
June: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis
July: The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

Because we had a problem with the book we had picked for February and only three weeks in which to read, Noel Conversations decided to try something different this month: each of us is choosing a book written by an author the group has previously read and we'll see what kind of discussion we can generate.

So, because (as I've mentioned more than once on this blog) I absolutely loved Little Bee, I picked Chris Cleave's first novel, Incendiary. Incendiary is structured as a long letter written to Osama bin Laden by a young working class British woman whose husband and four-year-old son were killed in a terrorist bombing at a soccer match. Even before the bombing, the unnamed narrator was a nervous woman (in part because she spends many hours waiting for her "copper" husband to come home from defusing bombs), who calms herself with such activities as alphabetizing the food in her freezer and having sex with men she meets in bars. In fact, when the fatal bomb goes off, she is watching the soccer match on television while having sex with Jasper, a journalist who lives in an upscale development across the street from her block of flats.

In a panic, the narrator convinces Jasper to drive her to the stadium, where she is seriously injured trying to run into the stadium to search for "her chaps." After two months in the hospital, she returns to her flat and manages to get a job working for the anti-terrorism task force at Scotland Yard (making tea and filing). She becomes involved in an affair with her married supervisor, but Jasper and his "posh" and annoying girlfriend Petra, a style editor at his newspaper, continue to come in and out of her life as well. Both Jasper and the narrator are having serious post-traumatic stress, as is the narrator's lover. When her lover makes a startling revelation, both the narrator and Jasper spiral out of control. I won't say more about the plot because the spiral of surprising and horrifying events is an essential part of the reading experience. I will note, however, that while the book is very dark, there is also humor, as in a scene when the narrator pukes on Prince William's shoes during a hospital visit.

Cleave's novel is certainly a dark exploration of the effects of violence and tragedy on individual lives, but it is also a commentary on class and on how the UK (and by extension the US) response to terrorism has undercut the foundations of our democracies. While not as beautifully written as Little Bee (this narrator lacks Little Bee's lyricism) or as complexly structured, Incendiary is an equally troubling and thought-provoking work. I know I will not soon forget the narrator's pain, even though I don't know her name.

Favorite passages:
I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind.

Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers.

London is a city built on the wreckage of itself Osama. It's had more comebacks that The Evil Dead. It's been flattened by storms and flooded out and rotted with plague. Londoners just took a deep breath and put the kettle on. . . .London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely and I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better. I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.

I know you are a clever man Osama much brighter than me and I know you have a lot of things to get done but you ought to be able to get it done with love that's my whole point. Love is not surrender Osama love is furious and brave and loud you can hear it in the noise my boy is making right now while he plays.