Wednesday, August 3, 2016

2016 #4: The Poe Shadow (Matthew Pearl)

The Poe ShadowThe Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pearl's The Dante Club is a favorite, so I had looked forward to reading this. I found the historical note at the end to be the most interesting part of the book. The narrative is uneven--it floats in and out of a nineteenth-century literary style, and I found both the narrator and Duponte to be tiresome and self-involved characters. "Bonjour" is definitely the best female character, but she fizzles out by the end. Perhaps there are too many "unknowns" in the actual historical accounts of Poe's death to make the book convincing. I felt that Pearl was trying not to take the same sorts of liberties he did in The Dante Club--fair enough. The entire book read like a struggle, however, between character development and interpolation of history. The plot twists seem to come out of nowhere (which, while that can be a boon, gets tiresome when it happens consistently) and characters are introduced but hardly developed so that one has a hard time keeping track of who has done what. Still, the book reflects a lot of Pearl's gifts as a writer--he does manage to combine wit with drama in a way few modern authors can. Having had such vastly different reactions to The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, I am now eager to read The Last Dickens, because I do enjoy Pearl's writing on the whole. While the book was not a favorite, I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

2016 #3: Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste

Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of TasteAtelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste by Dominique Crenn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a gorgeous book from start to finish. Part cookbook, part autobiography, Dominique Crenn's Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste is a feast for the eyes, with photography by Ed Anderson, and poetry for the soul (and here we must recognize also the work of Crenn's co-author Karen Leibowitz, whose Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant (co-authored with her husband, chef Anthony Myint), is probably my favorite cookbook that I've ever "read."))

This is not a book of practical or convenient recipes. It is a book about art. One might classify Crenn's work as "molecular gastronomy" but that flattens the poetry of what Crenn achieves with her creations. Indeed, "poetry" isn't just a fancy overwrought description--Crenn actually offers a poem to accompany her Chef's Grand Tasting Menu at her restaurant, Atelier Crenn. She describes the meal --and the poem changes seasonally with the menu--with lines such as: "Here, the earth proffers its juicy, vermilion gifts/and above the half moon floats, silky and smoky/In summer's green dappled light/the forest radiant with possibility." Having food communicate on the deeper level where poetry can also touch us is what Crenn calls "poetic culinaria."

While the average kitchen may not be fully equipped to prepare the recipes in the book, they will serve as a fount of inspiration for flavor combinations, textures, and plating. Behind her dishes, there is a respect for sustainability and nature as well. She's a fully committed omnivore, but offers, "We must eat less meat, we must eat it more thoughtfully, and we must make it so delicious that our cooking becomes a way of showing respect for the animal that has given up its life for us." This last part echoes the thread that runs through the book--that of cooking as ritual. The compelling description of a day in the life of Atelier Crenn seems almost monastic--the cooks arrive beginning at 9:00 am and follow a liturgy of preparation, cleaning, and sharing a meal together.

The photography alone might make this a "coffee table" book, but it is well worth spending some time with the prose. Crenn and Leibowitz offer us an understanding of symbiosis between food and art. And maybe, just as the amateur painter might be inspired by a visit to the Louvre, a home chef who reads this book might venture into dehydrating quinoa, bringing different cultural flavors together, or simply arranging food in a way that honors both its origins and its possibilities.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

2016 #2: Homer and Langley (E.L. Doctorow)

Homer & LangleyHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading up a bit on the Collyer brothers, I changed my assessment of this novel. I don't take issue with the liberties of timeline and birth order, but I don't understand why Doctorow did it. Sure, the journey through the 1950s-70s was interesting and the Collier brothers would no doubt have been an intriguing lens for such times, but why make Homer the pianist and the younger brother? Admittedly, I knew little about the Collyer brothers before reading the novel and I think that added to my enjoyment. What struck me is that it is a story about stories in some sense. For much of the world, there were mysteries behind those doors of that brownstone that were sensationalized, yet fantastically truthful. What Doctorow does, however, is digs through the labels of "disorders" and reveals a relationship between two people. Two secluded brothers in history are perfect fodder for fictionalization and maybe that is their legacy--to generate stories. There's a safety in fiction, especially now that they are gone. But Doctorow asks us--with this story--to look beyond all in our present that is eccentric and "unknown" to find the touchstones. Maybe I'm giving him more credit than I should, but that was my takeaway from the book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

2016 #1: Flight (Sherman Alexie)

FlightFlight by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three pages in, I was prepared not to like this book. It had all the indications of being a Catcher In The Rye-type novel, and I have no great love for that book. I stuck with it, however, and soon I realized that Alexie had a far different story to tell that was much larger than the angst of his teenage protagonist, Zits. He keeps it edgy without being obnoxious, and the questions that the book invokes are never fully answered but you realize at the end that it matters not. Here is an author that understands that violence is perhaps a universal potential that we conveniently put in racial and ethnic boxes when it suits us to think better of ourselves. Fantastic book!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 #14: Stones From the River

Stones from the RiverStones from the River by Ursula Hegi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel because Hegi does such a wonderful job of weaving the narratives together without ever making it overwrought and preachy. It is not a story about a Zwerg (dwarf) woman in Germany prior and during World War II. It is a story about Trudi Montag, whose experiences and fears are a mirror to our own trials and tribulations--perhaps not in severity, but in the lessons that can be learned. Despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, Trudi is a redemptive protagonist (at least for the reader), and the book is a beautiful tribute to the challenges of humanity.

2015 #13: Going on Faith-Writing as a Spiritual Quest

Going on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual QuestGoing on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual Quest by William Zinsser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trust William Zinsser to bring together four novelists (David Bradley, Frederick Buechner, Mary Gordon, and Hugh Nissenson), a poet (Allen Ginsberg), and a religious historian (Jaroslav Pelikan) -- "men and women from various points of God's compass"-- for a lecture series that was originally published in 1988 as Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing (now out of print). Ten years later, he broadened the book by adding three more writers to the pool: Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hampl and Hillel Levine. For those who have read Zinsser's books on memoir writing and his wonderful chapter on interviewing in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, his influence is felt in each of these three essays, without compromising the voice of the author. Zinsser wanted to "preserve the oral integrity of the book as a collection of talks" so he recorded each of the three authors and then "edited the transcript[s] into narrative."

What is striking is how many of the authors are quick to challenge the idea of being "religious writers" or even "spiritual" writers. For some, they set out on a different path altogether, and the process became spirit. My favorite moments included Hillel Levine's description of meeting the history of Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives in the summer of 1940. Hillel found that "what was heroic about Sugihara was his ordinariness...the power of his moral leadership was so great that he was able to evoke goodness in other people" (81). Frederick Buechner opens with a story of a strand of blue thread, a tie clip, and the evocation of his own name that soon blossoms into an excellent essay on faith and fiction. He says, "In both faith and fiction the people you meet along the way, the things that happen to happen, the places--the airport bar, the room where you have a last supper with some friend--count for much more than ideas do. Fiction can hold opposites together in a story simultaneously...and so can faith, which by its very nature both sees and does not see" (51).

All of the lecture-essays are excellent, and I do recommend reading all of them in order. Together they form a narrative as a whole, as provide a thoughtful sustenance for those who write and read.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 #12: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid SunsA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Devastating" and "beautiful" often sound cliché when they are paired together, but in the case of A Thousand Splendid Suns, these words are more than apt. Part of the power of the book is to that there are many Mariams and Lailas all over the world for whom this story is not a fiction. Hosseini manages to passionately advocate for them without hyperbole or an excess of drama, spinning a tale that is tragic, but so human. The horrors in the book are at times almost unreadable, but Hosseini compels you to read further because you feel you owe it to the characters who persevere. Ultimately, you realize you owe it to the many people in the world for whom bombs are a daily reality, and the frightening relativism of terrorism inside a house vs. outside a house is perhaps the sharpest edge of the knife.

In a book with so little that is redemptive, I was startled by the ending. It is perfect--not happy, nor sad, but the perfect way to let us know that the story goes on well beyond the last page of any book.