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.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Jun Do, the protagonist of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, grows up in an orphanage, a shameful heritage in North Korea. Despite being (or thinking he is--one cannot be sure) the son of the institution's director, Jun Do is not spared the hard labor that the orphans must do. And, when he reaches maturity, he is forced into low-level jobs: he is a tunnel fighter and is then "promoted" to being first a kidnapper who snatches Japanese people and takes them back to North Korea and then a "listener" who accompanies a fishing boat to listen to enemy (i.e., U.S.) radio transmissions. When things go bad on the boat, Jun Do is forced to endure a shark attack so that a false story of heroism can be constructed to cover up what really happened. As the hero, Jun Do is taken on a secret mission to the United States; this mission, too, goes poorly. Much is grim (and surreal) in this first section of the book, told entirely in the third person from Jun Do's perspective, but things get much worse, as Jun Do has been sent to a prison camp at the end of this section.

In the second part of the book, Jun Do is being interrogated. He has not been assigned to the "torture first" team but to a group that claims to be writing biographies of North Korean citizens, using subtler forms of coercion until greater force is required. This section of the book has three narrators. Jun Do, who tells of his time in the prison camp, as well as his escape and subsequent impersonation of the powerful Commander Ga, whose wife (a famous actress Sun Moon) and children have disappeared. Kim Jong-Il emerges as a character in Jun Do's story. The second narrator is the interrogator who is attempting to write the biography of Jun Do/Commander Ga; his first-person narration provides not only a description of his work and why he thinks it is important, but a description of his own severely circumscribed life. The final narrator is the voice of the loudspeaker, heard everywhere in North Korea; in the hands of propagandists, Jun Do and Sun Moon's story becomes a serialized fable.

While Kim Jong-Il is rendered as a comical figure, the lives of North Korean people are certainly not funny; indeed, the continual betrayals and cruelties that the government visits on its people make reading difficult. Yet Jun Do develops into a compelling character--as does his interrogator--and their intertwined fates keep you reading.

Johnson relied on information from defectors, scholarship on North Korea, and a brief and highly managed visit to the country. Obviously, however, he relied on his prodigious imagination. Thus, one cannot really assess the degree to which his depiction resembles reality, a fact that troubles me somewhat. I am quite sure that, in time, Johnson's descriptions will become reality in my mind. This may not be fair to the real North Korea, but it is a tribute to the author's construction of a grotesque but memorable world.

Favorite passage:
The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator's family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time: the graduation photos becoming sports photos, and then there were scouting clubs, pigtails, birthday parties. And finally there were pictures of babies.   Was this what a family was? How it grew? Straight as the children's teeth. Sure, there was an arm in a sling, and over time, the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons. Without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger

Budding criminal defense attorney Sophie Diehl has no interest in divorce law but, mostly by happenstance, gets roped into handling the divorce of Mia Durkheim, the daughter of an important client at Sophie's firm. Through what the author calls "epistolary 2.0"--a mix of letters, memos (and numerous attachments), and emails--we see not only the details of the process of divorcing but also the machinations of a law firm's operations as well as how both Sophie and Mia mature over the course of a year. And we laugh a lot while doing so--Rieger has given both Sophie and Mia a sharp wit.

Although I don't see the need to write a lot about the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to my friend Colleen for recommending it.

. . . you may be thinking like a lawyer, but you're writing like a self-indulgent alternative-newspaper feature writer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Lena is the last transcriptionist at the New York Record, a newspaper clearly modeled on The New York Times, where the author had that same job for several years. Lena, a grad school dropout, spends her days alone in a room, transcribing tapes of reporters' interviews as well as stories that have been phoned in to the paper. The one reporter who treats her like a human being calls her by the wrong name. She lives in what is essentially a women's hostel--no men are allowed in the women's rooms, but they are able to check out a key to Gramercy Park, where they can spend a quite hour (if they are late getting the key back, the "housemother" chastises them severely). She hasn't dated for years and relies on literary quotations as conversation. She seems totally disengaged from "real life."

On the bus one day, Lena has a brief encounter with a blind woman. When she reads in the paper that the woman, a court reporter, has been killed after climbing into the lions' cage at the zoo, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, Arlene. Chasing down information about the woman, she uses many of the somewhat questionable reporting tricks that she has witnessed journalists on the paper use--yet the process and the similarities between her life and Arlene's begin to draw Lena out of her isolation.

The Transcriptionist has an almost dreamlike quality--or perhaps it is that Lena inhabits her life as though it were a dream. Some aspects of the work environment at The Record are surreal--the paper buys survival masks for employees in lieu of a holiday party, Lena gains admittance to the room in which an elderly man sorts through obituaries by singing lines from "Now the Day Is Over." Yet Lena's gradual steps toward reclaiming her life are moving, and I recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Light Women's Literature

Recently, I've been listening to audiobooks checked out from the Front Range Online Library, whose selection of available titles isn't always great. As a result, I've listened to several novels that I'd call light women's literature; I'd call it that to avoid the name "chick lit," which I know many authors and probably some readers find offensive. However, when you've read these books, you recognize that there is indeed a genre in which women's stories are told in a humorous or light-hearted fashion, even when the stories involve such serious issues as drug addiction, hoarding, bigamy, widowhood, and raising children under difficult circumstances. While relationships with family and friends are common to the books, so, quite often, is the search for a mate.

Examples: Family Pictures, by Jane Green, is the story of two women who discover--in a totally implausible way--that they are married to the same man, who has disappeared and ruined both of them financially. His first wife Maggie is an obnoxious social climber who pays little attention to her children; the second wife Sylvie seems more genuine and kind, but her daughter is anorexic. The women, again implausibly, become friends and help each other carve out new lives. Maggie is so transformed and Sylvia becomes successful in business so easily that the reader loses any sense that the story is real.

Objects of My Affection, by Jill Smolinski, has a more interesting premise. Lucy has sold everything to pay for drug rehab for her teenage son Ash. Dumped by her boyfriend and sharing a room with her best friend's toddler, Lucy jumps at a job helping a famous artist, a hoarder, organize her belongings. Unfortunately, Lucy is an idiot who is continually manipulated by her son and seems incapable of making good decisions. Only when she reunites with her old boyfriend does she find the ability to stand up to her son, which trivializes the difficulty of dealing with a child's addiction.

Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, by Helen Fielding (godmother of chick lit), is the worst of the three. Heroine Bridget is now 50 and has been tragically widowed (Mark Darcy was killed by an IED in Darfur); she has two young children, Billy and Mabel, that she is raising alone, with the help of the cast of friends well-known from the earlier books. Unfortunately, Bridget does not seem to have matured one whit--she continues to obsess about men and her weight. She now documents not only her weight and alcohol, tobacco, and food intake, she also writes in her diary about her twitter followers, texts received from potential admirers, and the like.  She cannot seem to get to school to pick up her children on time or to organize their homework. How does she emerge from this mess? She finds a man (and the reader can predict early on which man it will be)!! Ugh.

These three thumbnails highlight another deficit of light women's literature--many of the protagonists are annoying characters--not evil, but silly, incompetent, and/or so less than wise than it seems almost criminal.  I don't mind light reading--after all, I read dozens of mysteries. But unbelievable and/or predictable plots that trivialize serious issues and feature unsympathetic characters sap the enjoyment one might get from reading these books.