Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, by Michael Gibney

Sous Chef  is a detailed account of 24 hours in the life of the second-in-command at a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan. Written in the second person to give the reader a sense of immediacy, the book provides insight into not only the pressures on the kitchen staff but also the thinking process of the chef. The mountain of work do be done to serve 300 people a memorable dinner, the frenetic pace, the utter exhaustion at the end of service, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the frustration of making a mistake (not to mention the executive chef's resulting rage) are all described in an effective "you are there" mode. Unless you have worked in a restaurant kitchen, you will definitely learn a lot about how the work is organized and completed. Given how many of the kitchen staff are hungover (according to Gibney), I am amazed that the food comes out at all, much less in a timely fashion, beautifully presented and tasty.

Although I don't have a lot to say about the book or a favorite quote from it, I definitely recommend it, especially for aspiring foodies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking data and case studies, historical and contemporary, and drawing out counterintuitive conclusions that cause the reader to think seriously about their assumptions. In David and Goliath, the assumption Gladwell takes on is that superior strength or other perceived advantages assure positive results. Beginning by arguing that David actually had the advantage in the original David v. Goliath battle in the Valley of Elah, Gladwell then moves on to examine a variety of cases in which advantages turn out to be disadvantages. One of the examples is reduction in class size, which data indicates offers advantages only to a certain point; when class size goes below a certain point, improvements in student performance disappear. Gladwell calls this pattern the inverted-U curve. Another example the case of a high school student who loved science and was elated to be accepted at an Ivy League school. There, however, she struggled in classes in which every student was extremely bright. She ended up abandoning her long-held dream of being a scientist. But Gladwell presents data showing that her chances of achieving her dream would have been much better had she attended her state university. The advantage of attending an Ivy actually became a disadvantage for this student.

In the second section of the book, Gladwell examines circumstances in which disadvantages can become advantages, looking at dyslexics who developed coping strategies, took risks, and became highly successful; people who lost parents as children develop unusual courage that enables them to solve problems others turn away from; and oppressed groups who have nothing to lose and therefore can take risks and employ "trickster" strategies.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power, those cases when exerting the full power of the state has negative consequences. Here his case studies involve Three Strikes laws, as well as the British Army strategy in dealing with the Irish Troubles. Perhaps the most moving story in the book is that of the French residents of the tiny Huguenot town of Le Chambon, which became a haven for Jewish children. Following the Vichy government's cooperation in the round-up of Parisian Jews, the townspeople made it clear they were not going to collaborate, giving a Vichy minister a letter that ended, "We have Jews. You're not getting them."

As was the case in reviewing Gladwell's Blink, I don't feel that I have done his work justice. Although the insights here were not as personally meaningful as those in Blink or Outliers, David and Goliath is well worth reading.  Indeed, I cannot imagine anything this exceptional thinker and writer could produce  that I would not find thought-provoking.

Favorite passage:
It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight

Reconstructing Amelia, although not advertised as such, is really a mystery: attorney and single mom Kate Baron is trying to figure out why her daughter fell/jumped off the roof at her private school in Brooklyn. At first ruled a suicide, Amelia's death is reinvestigated when Kate receives several emails saying "She didn't jump." The narrative is constructed in an interesting way--through first-person narratives from Amelia's point of view, beginning with the start of sophomore year and ending with her death and through third-person narratives from Kate's perspective, beginning with Amelia's death and ending (except for an epilogue) with the resolution of what happened. Interspersed throughout are texts between Amelia and friends, Amelia's Facebook posts, blog posts from a gossip site about Amelia's school, and emails and recollections from the time when Kate got pregnant.

Unfortunately, the mystery doesn't really work--all of the plot twists are foreshadowed too heavily so that nothing is a surprise and it's completely ridiculous to think that a police lieutenant would allow the victim's mother to accompany him as he questions witnesses and suspects. On the other hand, the book is effective in terrifying parents (or in my case grandparents) of girls--Amelia went from a happy high-achieving kid to an emotional wreck, bullied by a club of "cool girls," pressured by the school administration to turn in members of the group that they had failed to control, and betrayed by her favorite teacher and her closest friends--and that's just scratching the surface of the things her mother did not know were going on in her life. Disturbing!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt

Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends, living in Washington, DC in the 1980s. Ten-year-old Sarah is worried about nuclear war, so she decides to write a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Jennifer writes one too, and it is hers that Andropov responds to, inviting the Jones family to Russia. Upon her return, Jenny becomes a celebrity, living Sarah behind; she and her parents are eventually killed in a plane crash.

Flash forward to Sarah having recently graduated from college. She receives a letter from a woman named Svetlana, suggesting that Jenny might be alive, her father actually a double agent working for the Russians before the Cold War ended. Curiosity piqued (and with no decent job prospects in sight), Sarah heads to Moscow to see what she can find out. The rest of the book relates her experiences in Moscow, with flashbacks to earlier periods in her life. Is Jenny alive or dead? Far be it from me to answer that question.

The premise of the book was intriguing, and I was curious to learn more about life in Moscow after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Overall, however, the book failed to deliver. (Another one I wish I had written down where I saw it recommended.)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell

I am going to have to start writing down where I saw a book recommended because too many of the recommendations I am following up on are disappointing. Instructions for a Heatwave is the latest case in point. It is the story of an Irish family living in England, except for the youngest daughter, who has "gone off the rails" to live in New York. One morning in the midst of a summer 1976 heatwave, Robert Riordan goes out to buy a newspaper and doesn't return. Soon, Robert and Gretta's three adult children return home to help Gretta figure out what happened to their father. None of the three are happy in their lives--Michael Frances, a high school teacher, has cheated on his wife, who now seems to be turning away from him; Monica is a housewife feeling out of place with her second husband, an antiques dealer who resists her desire to update their farm house; and Aoife (pronounced Ee-fa), who hides the fact that she cannot read because of undiagnosed learning disabilities. Aoife and Monica do not speak because of events that happened three years previously.  As the children and their mother argue and yell while trying to figure out where their father and husband has gone, family secrets come spilling out.

Aoife was an interesting character, but the rest of the family members felt like trite stereotypes. Nor did the situation or family dynamic seem fresh or enlightening in any way.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

That Part Was True, by Deborah McKinlay

Eve is a near-agoraphobic middle-aged and lonely British divorcee whose daughter Izzy's engagement is forcing her into a variety of uncomfortable situations. She writes a fan letter to American thriller writer Jack, who is in the midst of his second divorce and suffering doubts about his work. The two strike up a correspondence centered around their interest in food--eating, cooking, and talking about it. The letters documenting their growing friendship are interspersed with more traditional narrative describing events in their lives over the course of a few months.

Many aspects of the story seem unrealistic (e.g., Izzy has never noticed that her mother has an anxiety disorder, a bestselling author answers his own fan mail) and the book hardly breaks fresh stylistic or thematic ground, but parts are quite funny (the interchanges between foodie Jack and his vegan/borderline anorexic girlfriend are priceless--she thinks he has an eating disorder because he enjoys food). The most notable feature of the book is that, as one reviewer said, it is "chick-lit for the baby boomer crowd." In truth, Jack and Eve are a bit younger than baby boomers, but I do think us old folks deserve some light-hearted fiction featuring people our own age.

Warning:  Despite the Eiffel Tower on the cover, the book is not about Paris; nor is it truly an epistolary novel, since much of the book is straight narrative.

Favorite passage:
Too many men your age shack up with some bland jellyfish, or worse, a nurse, just because they're scared. They're scared of rattling 'round on their own with egg on their ties waiting for the mailman to find 'em dead on the doorstep after they've tried to pee in the open some frosty night. Jack, if you don't find the right woman, live alone and write and cook a lot. That's what you're good at, and in the end it's the stuff you're good at that brings you joy . . .

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom begins with an almost gossipy introduction to the Berglund family, urban homesteaders in a gentrifying St. Paul neighborhood. Father Walter is an attorney and nice guy while mother Patty is hyper-organized and community-minded, but tips over into crazy neighbor midway through the introduction. They have two children--Jessica and Joey, who is his mother's delight but has, since he entered adolescence, caused his parents some serious concern. As problems under the family's perfect surface come to light, Franzen suddenly drops us into a long section presented as Patty's autobiography (written in the third person), written some years later at the request of her therapist. We learn that Patty was a gifted athlete in a Westchester family that valued creativity over sports; when she was date-raped in high school, her parents were as concerned about their relationship with the rapist's parents as they were about the trauma to their daughter. Patty escapes to the University of Minnesota, where she stars on the basketball team, is befriended by a stalker-ish girl named Eliza, and meets aspiring rock star Richard Katz and his more stolid but kind roommate Walter. Thus begins a triangle that will continue for years, through the Berglunds' move to Washington, DC, where Walter becomes the Executive Director of a fund dedicated to preserving one bird species. When the scene shifts to Washington, Franzen suddenly provides rather long (sometimes overlong) discussions of a variety of political issues, from mining and ecology to the war in Iraq, government contracting (in a surrealistic subplot, 19-year-old Joey becomes involved in supplying truck parts to the military, necessitating his travel to Poland and Paraguay), and overpopulation. Unfortunately, for Walter, the fund's founder, a Texas oil man, has impure motives, and Walter's personal and professional lives fall apart almost simultaneously.

The title of the book is Freedom and reviewers and readers have offered numerous interpretations of what Franzen is saying about freedom. I find the message to be that freedom is illusory, a message conveyed in the ways in which seemingly random events send characters careening off in directions not, apparently, under their own control. The repetitions we see in events suggest the same thing--Joey's relationship with his long-time girlfriend Connie and roommate Jonathan, mirrors that of Patty, Richard, and Walter. Walter's neighbor at Nameless Lake, following the demise of his career, is a next-gen version of Patty's behavior in St. Paul. We may think we have freedom, but the lack of control over our own lives and our inability to stop the patterns of our lives from repeating provide evidence that this freedom is meaningless.

I find myself at somewhat of a loss when it comes to everything that has been written about Freedom.     I thought it was one interesting depiction of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I did not, on the other hand, see it as a novel so great as to land its author on the cover of Time.  It is not particularly original in structure or content and is well written enough to keep the reader going but not well written enough to be memorable.  I found it frustrating that Patty was still something of a cypher after reading her "autobiography," but perhaps that is Franzen's point, so it may not be fair to cite that as a flaw (although I have some concerns about other female characters as well: why, for example, do we know so much about Joey and so little about his sister Jessica?) 

I am also puzzled by the labeling of people who do not care for the book as anti-intellectual or right-wing.  This is certainly not the most difficult novel around; while Franzen does allude to the philosopher David Hume and frequently refers to War and Peace; includes long passages of explication of environmental problems; and explores ideas of freedom, entropy, and cause-and-effect, all of this is done in a fairly traditional package that it is possible to dislike without being subpar intellectually or opposed to Franzen's political views (although I can certainly see why someone who was opposed to those views would opt for a different novel).

Ever since the Oprah/Franzen brouhaha surrounding The Corrections, Franzen has been a polarizing figure, and the discussion of this book sometimes seems to be more about establishing one's position in some low brow/high brow culture war than in really considering the merits of the book. For my part, I think Freedom is a pretty good novel, but nowhere near being a great one.

Favorite passages:
But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.

There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Throughout her writing career, novelist Ann Patchett has written scores of nonfiction pieces for magazines, writing that before the huge success of Bel Canto paid the bills. In this collection, she has pulled together 22 personal essays--the kinds of essays that, in an interview I recently watched, she seemed surprised readers found most engaging. While most of the essays are not, in fact, about her happy marriage, the theme that runs through them is the power and importance of love. Patchett writes about her love for her husband, her dog, her best friend, her father, her grandmother, a nun who taught her to read, opera, Nashville, writing, reading, the independent bookstore she owns in Nashville, even her surprise enjoyment of RVing. (Surprisingly, she mentions her mother's great beauty and desire not to be twice divorced several times, but she never really writes about loving her mother, the novelist Jeanne Ray).

The first two essays--one about why Patchett dislikes Christmas (it goes back to her childhood) and the other about writing--don't hint at the upbeat focus of most of the remaining essays. This fact notwithstanding, the essay on writing is quite interesting; indeed, it was the highlight of the collection for me, providing a detailed description of how Patchett works and the challenges she sets for herself with each new novel (by the way, she scoffs at the idea of characters taking over and writing a book on their own, an idea I have always found hard to fathom).

I found the entire collection pleasant reading, but I don't think I will remember many of the essays two weeks from now.

Favorite passages:
I showed an early knack for content. Only writing kept me from being swept into the dust heap of third grade, and for this reason I not only loved writing, I felt a strong sense of loyalty to it. I may have been shaky about tying my shoes or telling time, but I was sure about my career, and I consider this certainty the greatest gift of my life.

Set your sights on something that you aren't quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three. I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I'm doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins begins when an American actress who believes she is dying of cancer shows up in an Italian fishing village on the Ligurian Sea. That actress--Dee Moray (nee Debra Moore)--has fled from the set of the ill-fated film Cleopatra, in which she has a small role. She has gotten in the way of assistant producer Michael Deane's plan to use the Burton-Taylor affair to get free publicity for what he knows is going to be a terrible movie--and he decides to get her out of the way while he manages the situation. She lands at the tiny Hotel Adequate View, run by Pasquale Tursi, who has dropped out of college to take over the hotel following his father's death. Dee dreams of being a star and marrying Richard Burton, Michael dreams of being a big-time Hollywood producer, and Pasquale dreams of building a tennis court into the side of the cliff above the village.

The novel follows Dee, Michael, Pasquale, and a host of other characters over the course of the next 50 years, bouncing back and forth between 1962, the present, and points in between (with a detour to the mid-1800s for a film treatment about the Donner Party, aptly titled Donner!).  While most of the action takes place in Hollywood and Italy, there are side trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and northern Idaho. Most of the book is told in straightforward narrative, but Walter has also inserted "documents"--the treatment for Donner!,  an excerpt from Deane's unpublished memoir, a play script, a chapter of a novel written by a WWII veteran who visits Hotel Adequate View every year.

Beautiful Ruins is about celebrity and what happens when you turn your back on a dream and do what's right (the outcome isn't the same for everyone who makes that choice). It's also about the possibility of change and of enduring. Some parts of the story are engaging, as are some characters. However, the novel felt too short to do justice to the number of charactersWalter suggests are important --perhaps if the novel were longer, we wouldn't need the rather graceless "and here's what happened to everybody" chapter at the end. Some space might have been saved by trimming the "documents" Walter included. While I liked the idea of the documents, in reality they didn't serve the story particularly well.  Beautiful Ruins feels like a lot of unfulfilled potential,

Favorite passage:
. . .  it's a minefield of courtesies and manners, this dying business.

Bark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore

Bark is a rather small collection of short stories--and its brevity is a good thing, as the stories are so bleak that any more than the eight Moore has included might be too much for the reader to bear. While Moore's trademark dark humor is in evidence, it feels forced in some of the stories, whose themes are aging, divorce, and isolation.  Sadly, most of the stories don't really stick in my mind.

Most memorable for me was the first story in the collection, "Debarking," in which the recently divorced Ira ventures back into the dating world via a fix-up with pediatrician Zora, whom he early on suspects is crazy. Her cringeworthy relationship with her son Bruno and her expressed wish that she could spank some of her patients provide evidence that he is right. Nonetheless, Ira tries hard to make the relationship work, and here Moore's humor works.

I also liked "Wings," in which two failed musicians, KC and Dench, are in a relationship that is also failing. KC befriends an elderly man whose house she passes on her morning walk to get coffee. As she becomes more involved in his life, seemingly a kind and loving friend, the reader also has a sense that her intentions may not be honorable.

"Thank You for Having Me," the story of a mother and daughter attending a wedding at which the bride's ex-husband provides the music while his father longs for a moment of intimacy with his ex-daughter-in-law, is the most upbeat in the collection--and one of the funniest.

I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Moore herself, and (as is often the case when authors choose to read their own work) felt she would have been better served by another reader. Overall, a disappointment.

Favorite passage:
Despite her reading difficulties, despite the witless naming of the cats, Ira knew Bekka was highly intelligent. He knew from the time she spent lying around the house, bored and sighing and saying, "Dad, when will childhood be over?"