Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sous Chef

24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney

One of the great perks of my job is the advanced reader copies, which means I got to read this book before its publication date. Another perk of my job is the staff who come to know my reading preferences and set books like this aside for me.

In the age of Top Chef, The Taste, Food Network, and The Cooking Channel, I don't think readers who gravitate towards this kind of book need to be told to "reflect on the craft of cooking [...] from a slightly more mindful perspective." Parts of this book are pretentious. But, that being said, I enjoyed novel.

Written in second person, Sous Chef first comes across as an MFA writing exercise. I was resistant to it at first. And the prep sections of the book are a little too technical for me and are where his (or, your) overblown ego really shows. However, the ego is deflated by some left-out cheese and burnt hazelnuts.

Once service starts, the book really hits its stride. The kitchen is organized chaos, stifling heat, and relentless hard work. It is fast-paced and difficult to put down.

There isn't too much to say about this book; it is what is says: 24 Hours on the Line. If you can get past the narration shtick, Sous Chef is worth the read. It puts you in the midst of a clamoring kitchen with little time to rest. And you can read it the way it should be read, in a single day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kasher in the Rye

The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and then Turned 16
by Moshe Kasher

Moshe Kasher on the Pete Holmes podcast (You Made it Weird) is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. I can't stop listening to it, and I laugh just as hard every time. It's insightful and smart and hysterical. His memoir: less hysterical.

Moshe Kasher's life growing up is something I cannot imagine (hence, I had to read a book about it). He was a fuck-up, a stoner, an alcoholic, and an all-around piece of shit, and I don't think he'd contradict me on any of those points.

One of the things I loved so much about the podcast was how Kasher talked about his religious upbringing, how he was a Chassidic Jew when he visited his Farher in New York for a few weeks out of the year, but was otherwise not religious. It was an identity crisis, and one that generated a lot of religious shame. And he and his brother grew to be very different as a result of that upbringing: a comedian and a rabbi. That story I found most compelling. His book, however, focuses on the non religious side of his childhood. 

The book is exactly what the subtitle details. Moshe's upbringing was complex: son of deaf parents, divorce,  raised primarily by his man-hating mother and grandmother, bouncing around from school to school, and largely lost in unhelpful special education programs. On top of that, he was a smart-ass taking drugs, drinking, stealing, hanging out with screw-ups like himself. It goes from bad, to worse, to seriously, how could it be any worse?

Kasher is able to look back on his childhood with clarity and humor. There were plenty if moments when reading the book, I put it down saying, Oh my God! or laughing out loud. It's somewhat remarkable that Kasher grew up and became a successful adult. 

This type of memoir won't appeal to everyone. But if you've heard Kasher's stand up or know him from various appearances, it's worth reading. 

Staff Pick

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Frog Music

by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is one of my favorite writers. I first read Room, which I loved, then Slammerkin, which was very different but equally enjoyable, and now I've finished her latest novel, Frog Music. Frog Music is part Western, part murder mystery, part medical thriller. But mostly, it is the story of what it is to be a woman in difficult circumstances. Blanche is a famous burlesque dancer and "fallen dove" in 1876 San Francisco, who is in full control of her life. She dances, sees to her micheton, and is even landlord for the building in which she and her maque, Arthur, and their third-wheel, Ernest live. But when Blanche runs into (or is run into by) Jenny Bonnet on her bicycle, Blanche's life is changed forever.

I so admire Donoghue's skill at storytelling. She paints the full picture of San Francisco, crowded with colorful characters. Jenny Bonnet is infamous around San Francisco. She is continuously arrested for wearing pants, and never backs down from a fight. Donoghue used what information she could find about Jenny, and took off from there. Within the first few pages, Jenny is shot dead. The rest of the novel is about how Jenny affected everyone she know, especially Blanche. Over the course of their tragically short but nonetheless influential friendship, Jenny asks Blanche questions about her life, which in turn cause Blanche to question choices she's made.

Unprepared for motherhood, and Arthur uninterested in being a father, Blanche gave up her son P'tit Arthur, to live on a farm. When Jenny asks about P'tit, Blanche has few answers. So she decides to find P'tit and visit him. When she finds P'tit, not in a farm outside the city as she expected, but rather in a dark, congested house, serving as a baby farm, Blanche snatches him up to bring home. Suddenly a full-time mother, Blanche is forced to re-evaluate her life.

Donoghue's writing is vivid and expertly paced. Just when you're swept up by the story of Blanche rescuing P'tit, Donoghue transports you forward in time again to investigate Jenny's murder. When I met her when she spoke at BC, I told her her pacing creates just the right amount of angst in the reader.

Her talk at BC was incredible. I could have listened to her speak about writing and research all night. What I especially respect is the amount of responsibility she feels when undertaking a project of historical fiction. She wants to present these people as who they were; she won't turn saints into villains or vice versa. And I think she's successful in sticking to a true story and a true time line while fleshing out their personalities and situations. The characters who populate Frog Music were real (with the exception of the nice journalist, who Donoghue had to invent), and Donoghue has given them another life and additional fame, which these bohemians would have relished.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

It seems I fall into book rut more and more frequently, lately. I'll be a quarter or half-way through multiple books, and nothing's really grabbing me yet. The Bell Jar is what pulled me out of my rut this time (of all things). This is a book I could live inside. I unabashedly love this book, however cliche that may seem. I cannot adequately articulate how much I love the passage about Esther's life branching out like the fig tree. It hits me on a level that is beyond words. It resonates every time. There's so much I love about this book

I first read The Bell Jar in high school (and subsequently wrote an awful, very short one act play about the book, which was essentially what I thought Esther's interview with the asylum review board would look like. It put people to sleep. An rightly so. I try not to think about it.) I feel like my teenage self, rereading this book, and not in a bad way. I'll bet if I could find the copy I read in high school, I'd find that I've marked the same passages and sentences in both copies. But I can certainly connect with Esther more now than I could then. (And these are the kind of sentiments that cause my mother to worry about me.) My heart goes out to Esther. Who hasn't felt their life branching out before them like a fig tree? Not knowing which fruit to choose, paralyzed by the fear of choosing the wrong one, and this watching the fruit rot on the branch and fall to your feet? Doctors and lawyers, I suppose. They seem to know what they want to be when they grow up straight from birth, and have a pretty set career path. English majors, on the other hand. . . 

I appreciate the open-ended quality of the book as well. If the shock treatments had definitively cured Esther, that would ring false and too convenient, and I would be disappointed. Instead, although the bell jar has temporarily lifted, Esther worries about it trapping her again some day. However, in the beginning chapter she does mention something about her having a child now as she looks back on her life, implying she's fine now, married, and even had children. What I don't like about this book, and I understand it's representative of the time, is the emphasis on marriage and children. Esther thinks her life will fall into place once she's evened the playing field and slept with someone, and feels liberated by her diaphragm which ensures she won't be trapped into marriage by a pregnancy. And yet she ends up married with a child anyway. What happened the Esther who didn't need a man? She rears her head so briefly. She seems empowered by women like Philomena and Jay Cee, but also slightly weirded out by them and doesn't want their special attention. Ester wants to be singled out and special, but also not. She wants to be a self-sufficient writer, but also a house wife, despite her thinking she can't be successful at either. Sometimes I find Esther a little disappointing. But she doesn't know herself. And, by the end of the novel, I still don't think she does.     

I don't like to read this book through a biographical lens, but it's difficult not too. Which makes the ending especially sad because we know the bell jar did trap Plath again later in life. As much Esther seems to believe it, protected sex and eventual marriage don't fix everything. 

Despite the unresolved quality of the novel and its themes of depression, being paralyzed in the face of so many choices to make, and the presumption of marriage, I have such a fondness for this book. After I finished it, I immediately though, I should read this book again.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

And then my brain exploded

This was, by far, one of the best readings I've gone to. Colum McCann's writing is exceptional, and he's an incredibly nice man. He even read a new, unpublished story. I even managed to not gush. . .too much.