Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

Well, I have another childhood disappointment to add to my list: I'm too old to get my acceptance letter to Hogwarts, to find Narnia in a wardrobe, and to take my Brakebills entrance exam. (Or maybe I took it an failed an had my memory altered. . .But that would be worse.)

Initially I wanted all the characters to stop talking about Fillory and just say Narnia. Fillory is so obviously molded after Narnia. It annoys me when novels reference other books that don't exist. But I'm sure Grossman couldn't get the ok to write about Narnia; that wouldn't surprise me. And as I continued to read, I realized it would have been too difficult to integrate Narnia into what he was doing. And why am I so against a new magical land? That's not fair. I didn't feel that way when reading about Narnia or Hogwarts for the first time.

What I do take issue with, though, is the magic. It's too vague. I feel like I could cast Hogwarts spells, but Brakebills magic is more complicated, but not clearly explained. The spells are in ancient languages and require fancy finger play, none of which I could hope to recreate. (For clarification: I'm not actually trying to be a magician, but I would like to have a clear picture in my mind of what they're learning at Brakebills academy.) I felt a little too shut out from this world to inhabit it along with Quentin and his cohort.

And along those lines, I feel like I understand how Quiddich is played, and if I had to, I could sub-in for a beater, but I have no idea how Welters is played. There are two huge tournaments of Welters in the book, but no one seems to actually care about it: the students, the faculty, Dean Fogg, or Grossman.

I think this obscure quality of the book is due, in part, to how fast the book moves. It spans Quentin's four years at Brakebills plus a year or so beyond. There's a lot that Grossman doesn't bother to describe; he rushes Quentin's education a little too much, I think. Quentin's semester at Brakebills South, however, is one of my favorite parts of the book. And, of course, the class's way of getting there (I really don't want to give too much away). Grossman speeds through Brakebills, though, because he wants to get Quentin and his friends out of the safety of the school and out into the real world. . .or worlds.

This book has its flaws: the speed, the occasional pretentious language and metaphors (why say a difficult passage of Bartok rather than a difficult passage of music?), the indeterminate magic. But there is still a lot to like about this novel. I found myself getting angry with Quentin and Elliot and Janet a lot -- Seriously? You're magicians. Stop throwing your lives away! Grossman's novel, in comparison to The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter is a better mix of real-world teenage angst and real-world magic. Grossman's magic is more dangerous, more difficult, and has clearer serious consequences. This book builds as it goes on, and gets better as Quentin progresses through Brakebills and after graduation. Grossman took on a lot in this first book, and I'm looking forward to see what he does next. My enjoyment of The Magicians far outweighed any of my frustrations. I had to go out and buy the second book as soon as I finished The Magicians. In the end, I'm more than happy to immerse myself in the world of Fillory.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Blue Plate Special

by Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen is my soul sister. Reading Blue Plate Special is like commiserating with a literary soul mate over several glasses of good wine. She loves food, I love food. She loves New England, I love New England. She loves reading and writing, I love reading and writing. She's gluten intolerant, I'm gluten intolerant. She's a writer, I want to be a writer. Christensen has shot to the top of my list of Writers Who, If I Ever Met, I Would Freak Out and Embarrass Myself (other writers include Cheryl Strayed and Colum McCann).

Christensen's writing is as warm and inviting as the smell of fresh-baked bread. I was hooked from the introduction: "To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to the complexities and truths--good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in." I've never lived out West. I've never been a nanny in France. And I don't know what a Waldorf School is. But I really connected with this book. Her experiences are vastly different from mine, but at the core, she is open and relatable.

Christensen's memoir is about figuring it out. And as someone who is deeply intrenched in trying to figure it out, I really appreciate Christensen's vignettes of family, growing up, love, loss, and food. I enjoy reading about someone else's struggle, experiencing their process of understanding themselves and where they fit in the world. Christensen is generous with her writing and doesn't shy away from what was difficult or uncomfortable in her life. Sometimes she is the villain of her story, sometimes the hero, sometimes a supporting character.

The pacing of this book is excellent. It's composed of relatively short vignettes of her life. She doesn't get overly sentimental, or wallow in self-pity; she is measured yet honest. She allows readers to share in her triumphs and missteps, and a lot of food stories and recipes a long the way. I haven't read any of Christensen's novels, but now plan to. And if you haven't read Blue Plate Special, you definitely should. When the weather turns cold and dark, what's better than curling up with a great food writing/memoir?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

500 Gluten Free Dishes

by Carol Beckerman

I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me sooner to review a cookbook. I have been loving this cookbook and cooking from it for a few months now. Now, yes, I am gluten-free, so my cookbooks are of the gluten-free variety. But don't let that turn you off if you aren't on a gluten-free diet! And if you are gluten-free, I highly recommend this one from the 500 series.

First of all, the book itself is small, which is perfect for those like me who have a painfully small kitchen and need to maximize space. It easily lays flat (non of that cookbook stand nonsense) and won't take up a lot of room on your counter (or windowsill, if you're like me). Best of all, the recipes are easy to follow. Yes, they require things like white rice flour, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, etc. But such is the life of a gluten-free cook/baker. You learn to live with it. And though I've only been cooking from this book for a few months, I already have a few go-to recipes.

The breakfast recipes in this cookbook are great. I don't like starting my day wired for sugar: cereal, french toast, waffles, etc. Every once-in-a-while I'll go for sweets in the morning, but, typically, I prefer savory dishes in the morning. And this cookbook doesn't disappoint: savory cheese & onion hotcakes, cheese & ham mini muffins (which I love and have made over and over), and the ham & cheese strata (for special occasions).

There are also great lunch options for those of us who can't just go out and grab a sandwich at work. Two of my favorites are the cranberry & pecan baked wild rice with shallots and the quinoa & avocado salad with orange dressing. They're perfect to take to work. They're make-ahead dishes that can last you through the week and are served cool.

The other great thing about this book is that it offers variations on each dish. There are dairy free options, different spice and herb combinations; it's super useful. I don't know that it's necessarily "the only compendium of gluten-free dishes you'll ever need," but it is a great staple to have in your gluten-free kitchen.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Creeps

by John Connolly

I waited years for this book. I so enjoyed The Gates and The Infernals, I couldn't wait for the third book in the Samuel Johnson series. But, as much as it pains me to say it, I was a little disappointed with The Creeps.

In The Creeps, the little town of Biddlecombe, England is once again threatened and invaded by forces of evil in the Multiverse. It falls to Samuel Johnson, his trusty dachshund Boswell, and friends (Dan and his morally questionable dwarves, Sargent Rowan and Constable Peel, Maria, Nurd and Wormwood (the two most endearing demons), and a rag-tag team of scientists (who helped start the whole mess in the first place) and assorted monsters/demons) to save not only Biddlecombe, but the Multiverse itself. The tears in space and time are explained, we find the reason for all the supernatural energy in Biddlecombe, and loose ends are tied.

Connolly continues a trend in the series that I love, which is his use of footnotes. For me, they are where the book really shines, when Connolly breaks in, in his own voice, to make a bad pun, or explain a joke, or tell the reader about string theory. They are clever and a highlight of the book. Not only are these authorial intrusions funny and entertaining, they're informative as well. The book overall contains a lot of historical and scientific facts, but they tend to be concentrated in the footnotes. And they make me feel like a kid with an infinite capacity for curiosity. Everything is connected and interesting and leads to more facts to be discovered.

The Creeps, however, is a little too silly for my taste, as well as a little too complicated. The demon-possessed toys skew the humor too young. I realize that these books are aimed for younger readers, but the elves and teddy bears and poorly explained evil storybook characters just didn't do it for me. Connolly's previous demons and dark forces were much more creative (Nurd, Wormwood, Crudford, The Watcher, etc.). And the multi-layered Multiverse is complicated in The Creeps. The Shadow Kingdom vs. Hell vs. Earth. I think Hell vs. Earth was enough. I also wish The Creeps had been darker, which is what impressed me so much about The Infernals. The silly and the chthonic (thank you, Connolly, for introducing me to that word) were better balanced in the previous two books.

The major flaw in the Samuel Johnson books, I hate to say, are the culminating battle scenes. The build up to the epic showdowns between Samuel & co. and the demonic forces is long and intense, and just doesn't pay off. The final battle in The Creeps is over in two short chapters! And in all three books these climax scenes aren't very vivid or difficult for the forces of good to win (with maybe the exception of The Infernals). Connolly puts so much thought and finesse into the characters and their journeys, but ultimately disappoints.

However, I still love the Samuel Johnson series. I want to recommend it to everyone, regardless of age. They're books that I really do think have something for everyone (unless you hate fantasy/science fiction, but even so, I think these books could change your mind). The series is enjoyable and fun, and they're great books to get lost in. The Infernals, for sure, is my favorite in the series, but I still recommend The Creeps. (You can't abandon a series 2/3 of the way through!)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nine Inches

by Tom Perrotta

Sometimes I wonder if Tom Perrotta falls under the category of Stuff White People Like. He feels a little like a niche writer (suburban, first-world-problems, family dramas, etc.) at times, but it's a niche I happen to love.

I've already said quite a bit about Tom Perrotta; I'll try not to repeat myself too much. He is one of my favorite writers, partly because his stories seem so effortless. Everything about this story collection feels true-to-life. Just regular people going about their days, coping with their own personal tragedies, trying to get by. Nine Inches concerns people who make bad choices and have to deal with the consequences. It's life.

My favorite stories are probably "Senior Season" and "The Test-Taker." My only qualm about "Senior Season" is that the narrative voice seems to sophisticated for a high school senior. Aside from that, I really don't take issue with Perrotta's writing. These stories, for all the character flaws and bad choices, are really enjoyable.

This is a boring post because I just like everything about this book. And you should read it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Dark Path

by David Schickler

This is a book I didn't know I needed to read until I started reading it.

I read Schickler's story collection, Kissing in Manhattan around the time it came out, and I remember being slightly scandalized by it. I wouldn't have picked up Schikler's memoir if I didn't work in a bookstore. It came in, I read a review, and I was intrigued; it was something different. So I gave it a shot. And I loved it. 

The Dark Path is about Schickler's struggle reconciling his faith and his love for God with his love for girls and women. It's not the kind of crisis-of-faith memoir I was expecting. The book starts with Schickler at eight years old, and for the first few chapters I was bracing myself for what seems like the inevitable alter boy/pedophile priest anecdotes. Fortunately that didn't happen. Instead Schickler's story is about his strong faith and how he felt God in what he terms, the dark parts of life (hence the title, as well as his book, Kissing in Manhattan). 

Schickler seriously considered becoming a Jesuit priest, but the Jesuit life doesn't jive with his love for his college girlfriend or his love for short stories. What I connected with most is Schickler's notion that he would be an artistic priest. He found God in fiction.   

I'm not here to proselytize, but I really connected with this memoir. With the faith struggles, the love of High Mass and the solemnity, and feeling called to an artistic, creative life. And the memoir isn't all Church and reverence. It's funny and sad, a little sexy, and, at times, awkward and uncomfortable. But all mixed together in a really successful and satisfying way. This isn't a self-indulgent memoir or a preachy memoir. Schickler lays bare parts if his life for the reader, asking nothing more than to take it for what it is. That is the most successful tactic of this memoir. Don't let the Catholicism of the book drive you away. It's a wonderful memoir of growing up and trying to find purpose and meaning in the world. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys memoirs, coming-of-age tales, crises of faith, love stories; it's all of the above. 

Monday, September 16, 2013


by Colum McCann

Transatlantic is a beautifully composed book, one that I feel like I didn't devote my full attention to (I sometimes read too many books at once, and one inevitably gets neglected) and should read again.

In this sweeping narrative, McCann weaves together intergenerational and intercontinental relationships. The novel jumps around chronologically, from Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland in 1845, to the present, illustrating how decisions, chance occurrences, and conflict (namely the violence in Northern Ireland, but also the American Civil War and WWI) resonate through the generations. At the center of the novel is Lily Duggan and her lineage, creating a history that stretches between Britain and North America. 

I do feel the book lags a little during the chapter about the US senator and the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland during the 1990s. The book is somewhat slow in general, but this chapter drags its feet, somewhat appropriately mirroring the age and exhaustion of its central character and the negotiation process itself. I almost think this chapter could have been excluded because it strays a little from the family's story, but I understand it's inclusion. Maybe it could have been shorter, though.

Aside from that small issue, this is a really lovely book. The story, across the generations, is twinged with nostalgia and melancholy, without being overly sentimental. McCann writes with a focus on language rather than plot, so if you are looking for lyricism and poetry in prose, I highly recommend this elegant novel.

Staff Pick!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Tom Perrotta

Yesterday Tom Perrotta read from his new story collection, Nine Inches, at the bookstore. I am such a fan of his writing (and I was going to link to my posts about his novels, except I just realized I've never written anything about them. How is that possible?! But I haven't. So I will take this opportunity to briefly say that Perrotta is one of my favorite contemporary American writers, along with Richard Russo and John Irving. I love the way he writes about suburban American life and the little everyday, personal tragedies (as well as not-so-little personal tragedies). He writes with wit and compassion. I liked The Abstinence Teacher, I really enjoyed Little Children, and I loved The Leftovers.). It was great to hear him read, the event was fun, and I managed to ask a coherent, somewhat interesting question. Plus I met him and he signed my book, without me embarrassing myself or being a total fangirl. I was still super excited, though. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

This book is a commitment.  This is the first book I've read in a while of which I really felt the length. After only 100 pages or so I felt that Pak Jun Do had already lived a lifetime. Johnson tried to put too much into this book, too much plot.

Pak Jun Do lives a life no one would ask for. The course of his life is one hardship after the next. As a citizen of North Korea, Pak Jun Do's life is largely decided for him, by people and forces he does not know. Growing up as an orphan (although technically not an orphan), Pak Jun Do is essentially loaned out as property of the state. As an adult, he lives under the constant threat of what The Dear Leader and his minions could do to him. When Pak Jun Do is finally able to take control of his life, the outcomes are less than desirable. 

This expansive novel is about quest for understanding. A desire for personal identity. What Pak Jun Do wants more than anything is to know who he is, know what his purpose is, and to know love. 

The first section of this book is a novel in itself: The Many Lives of Pak Jun Do. But it is in the second section that things really get interesting. This is when the reader gets a picture of the real underbelly of North Korea and its politics: prison camps, interrogations, manipulations, and mutilations. It is in the second section of the book where the state's control and manipulation becomes most evident, and Johnson's characters have to decide if they want to become a cog in the machine of North Kora, or find a way to break free. In a world where found defectors are tortured, this is not a decision to take lightly. 

Johnson's novel is a lot to digest. Ultimately, The ideas behind the novel are better than their execution. However, the story is a compelling one, despite Pak Jun Do's life having more permutations than seems plausible. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

By Maria Semple

It's no wonder Amy Sherman-Palladino gave this book a nod when "Bunheads" central character pulls it out while waiting in line at an audition. Semple and Sherman-Palladino must be long-lost twins, two peas in a pod, cut from the same cloth. They have the same fast-paced, painfully witty, whirlwind women in their work (Lorelai Gilmore? Michelle Simms? Meet Bernadette Fox.) It's exhausting! But, at the same token (and part of me hates to admit this), it's addictive. I have a love/hate relationship with these women (Sherman-Palladino, Semple, and their characters). I love "The Gilmore Girls" (Incidentally, Bee is basically another Rori Gilmore, and one of the only truly likable characters - for the most part - in the book). I kind of hate myself for liking "Bunheads." And I like hating Where'd You Go Bernadette. Its characters are annoying and petty and rich and selfish and make me angry, and yet I kept reading.

I can't remember the last time I read a book in two days, and I second Jonathan Franzen's blurb on the cover: "I tore through this book with heedless pleasure." Having said that, I suppose it's unfair for me to say I hate this book. But I'm not sure I liked it. I enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it the way I enjoy TV shows I like; I just absorbed it. It's fun. This is a beach read in the best sense: fast-paced, easy to digest, and just fun. (When's the last time I can say I read a fun book?)

Initially I disliked the pseudo- epistolary form (emails, notes, transcripts), but I grew to enjoy it. It keeps the plot moving and adds to the sense of mystery of the book; they're puzzle pieces to understanding Bernadette. And it's Bee's love for her mother and her drive to uncover who Bernadette is, what happened to her, and where she went that holds the novel together and keeps the reader reading. Without her, and her compassionate and passionate detective work, this novel wouldn't work. The novel itself is quirky, full of gossipy, unlikable "gnats," and some ridiculous situations (Also, now I really want to go to Antarctica).

All in all, I say read this book (not like you need my endorsement since by now I think nearly everyone's read it or been told to read it). It's not going to change your life. You won't have any serious epiphanies or re-examine your choices. You may, like me, hate yourself for liking this book, or like hating this book. But, either way, you'll have a lot of fun with it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Flame Alphabet

by Ben Marcus

I was really blown away by this book; it's like nothing else I've read. It's like a Twilight Zone episode come to life in full color.

Marcus's writing style is quick, sharp, and unforgiving. It's exceptional and addictive. There is a certain element of coldness to the narration, but it's easy to understand why, before long. 

In the world of this novel, language is toxic. Just the sound of a loved one's name can send you into convulsions. Even words in print are poison. The central character, Sam, and his wife Claire are slowly breaking down, and the source of the toxicity lives under their very own roof. Children, immune to the language toxicity, spew the poison readily.

The premise of this novel is so unique and so compelling. I will say, I did get bogged down after 50 pages or so with his pseudo-technical description and the religion aspect. At times, the environment and the contraptions were difficult for me to visualize (it reminded me a little if Michael Crichton), but that's no fault of the prose.

I highly recommend reading The Flame Alphabet. It is original and brutal and unforgettable. I really admire this book and its author.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lexapros and Cons

By Aaron Karo

My young adult staff pick:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tender at the Bone

by Ruth Reichl

In her memoir Spoon Fed, Kim Severson describes Ruth Reichl as the intimidating popular girl of the food writing world. And I can't claim to really love food writing without having read any Ruth Reichl. So I thought I'd start at the beginning, with Reichl's first book, Tender at the Bone. It hasn't created the same stir as Sapphires and Garlic, but it is a wonderfully detailed account of the coming-of-age of this iconic food writer.

As Reichl explains in the introduction to the book, she is first and foremost a storyteller. And she has great stories to tell, starting with her mother, "the queen of mold." Reading about Reichl mother, I wonder how she made it out of her house alive, let a lone without a debilitating case of food poisoning. I suppose it's really no surprise, then, that Reichl went on to master the kitchen. She gives due credit to the important food mentors in her life, including her Grandmother and her Grandmother's cook, in addition to Marion Cunningham.

The book does, however, lose steam in its final two chapters. Reichl's writing is consciously composed, without feeling overworked. But the last two chapters are not as fully-fleshed out as the rest of the book. They seem out of place and almost an afterthought. I don't think the book necessarily needed the feel-good wrap-up. That could have been left off for the next book.

Reichl has lived a life that is hard for me to imagine (my mother is fairly even-keeled and I don't have a communal-living temperament), but her writing makes me want to live it. My favorite chapter has to be "Eyesight for the Blind" about her and her husband's shoestring European honeymoon. It seems that wherever Reichl finds herself (New York City, Greece, Italy, Canada, California, etc), she finds a family in food. Reichl's life hasn't been without struggle or disappointment, but it's food that seems to hold her together in the toughest of times.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This isn't a a real post

But it's something that made me laugh, and it's too long for twitter.

Yesterday at the book store, a father came in with his two small boys (I can't gauge children's ages. They were stroller-sized.) After they spent some time looking for books, I heard the father to say to the older boy, Ok, now bring that one up to the nice lady so we can pay for it. And like some tiny, quiet Jerry Lewis, this little boy walked around the store, up to the front desk, book in hand, saying, Nice LAdy? Nice LAdy. . . Nice LAdy. . .

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Spoon Fed

by Kim Severson

I really enjoyed this book. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to food writing is that I love reading what people have to say about their passions. Severson's passion and reverence for food and the communities and families food creates is obvious, and really comes through in her writing.

My one complaint about this book is that it's only half the story. Severson continuously refers to her mess of a life in Alaska and her drug and alcohol addiction. She mentions several times about how her addictions would have killed her. But we never get that part of the story. Granted, this book is about food and food writing and Severson making her life and finding out what he likes. However, I feel like if she's going to keep bringing up how potentially devastating her way of life was, and how crucial it was for you to make the change to move to California, then she needed to give the reader a little more about that previous life. Maybe this is just me being a greedy reader, but I needed a little more.

It is in the last four chapters that I think this book really shines, where her strongest lessons are learned. I especially love the way Severson intertwines food and faith. Cooking, and particularly baking, in themselves require an act of faith. "And we believe because someone told us the recipes would work. And so, on faith, we tried them. And once we tried them, and we saw that they worked, we became believers even though we had no idea how they worked. We spread the word to others who then tried them on faith, too. They became believers. Entire culinary cultures have been built on this kind of faith and trust." This beautifully sums up the magic and mystery of food and why food and cooking are so important to people. It's easy to forget how many people are involved in a recipe, that recipes are invented, tried, and tested. They are in and of themselves a record of communication and collaboration, and increasingly so in a well-worn, sauce-stained cookbook.

While Severson's book is a memoir, it is just as much a record of those she encounters on her journey from childhood kitchen table to her desk at the New York Times. Severson's book is inviting and admirably honest (not "frighteningly true" as Julie Powell's blurb says. And while I'm on the subject, the book needs no endorsement from Powell. Also, WHY would you refer to the memoir of a former alcoholic as "gimlet-eyed?"). She holds her food icons in high regard, but does not paint them through rose-colored glasses. While her respect and love for them certainly comes through, she is not afraid to take them off their pedestals, which is one of her best lessons.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Jesus' Son

By Denis Johnson

I don't often read collections of short stories, but this was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend, so I went for it.

Johnson's stories are a hazy account of a life on drugs and an attempt to get sober. I have mixed feelings about this book. If I want to read stories of addiction, I'll look for a memoir. However, as I've been told, Johnson's stories are grounded in the facts of his own struggles with addiction.

I have mixed feelings about these stories. The main character is cold and often unlikable. The narration jumps around chronologically and is somewhat vague. But what caught me about Johnson's writing are the poetic moments. Johnson describes the ordinary, like clouds, in extraordinary ways. And the best instances in each story are the narrator's epiphanies of self-reflection. "Work" is one of the better stories, with one of the best reflective statements: "Because, after all, in small ways, it was turning out to be one of the best days of my life, whether it was somebody else's dream or not." It's sentences like these that really stick with me. In "Emergency" (another one of the better stories), the narrator concludes that "nothing I could think up, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me." These glimpses of self-awareness and honesty are what give the reader hope; that maybe the narrator could sincerely get clean and improve his life.

What's difficult about this book is that the narrator seems so disconnected from himself. The way he acts and reacts is drastically different from those instances when he steps outside himself to look back on them. On the whole, this is not one of my favorite books, and probably not one I will pick up again. But if you do feel so inclined to read it (and I don't want to discourage any one from doing so, because the book does stretch the limits of reader's expectations of what a story or narration should look like), it is the poetic, insightful moments that will compel you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New Staff Pick

I've already written about John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, but now I've made my love for this book official by writing a staff pick for it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Lost Art of Mixing

by Erica Bauermeister

I read and enjoyed Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients about a year ago, so I thought I'd read her next book. The Lost Art of Mixing is nice, but there is nothing that stands out about it. I wanted this book to be better.

I love food writing, and food writing isn't easy. There are only so many ways you can say "delicious." Bauermeister has to rely heavily on metaphor, some of which are lovely, while others are too forced and fall flat. Her writing reminds me of Joanne Harris (Chocolat, The Girl With No Shadow, Five Quarters of the Orange), but without the elements of mystery and magic. Also, Bauermeister's books aren't as good as Harris's.

That being said, the further you get into this book, the clearer it becomes that this book really isn't about food. The School of Essential Ingredients was, and there is occasional references to food in this book, but it feels like Bauermeister tried to force food into a story where it doesn't belong.

Bauermeister's characters are stereotypical: the troubled nearly twenty-year-old with boy problems; the successful restauranteur finding herself unexpectedly and inconveniently pregnant; the wife who assumes her husband is having an affair because she only has half of the facts; the woman slowly slipping into senility and her family and friends who have to cope. Everything in this book is connected; everything is a metaphor or a coincidence, each character trait or professional choice is indicative of things to come, and there is always some kind of lesson. It's heavy-handed.

The Lost Art of Mixing is a nice read. A nice summer read. It's a book that feels as familiar as a well-used cookbook: you follow the tried-and-true formula, and you know what you'll get. But the end result is pleasantly, reliably recognizable (and a little bland) (and cloying).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Learn Nothing

by Tim Kreider

I learned of this book from two podcasts, "Radiolab" and "Love, Sex, Death, and Books." After hearing Kreider talk about his essays, I put We Learn Nothing on the top of my list of books to read.

Kreider's essays are about love, friendship, loss, and a fear of being rejected. He expresses frustration and anxiety about not knowing; you can only know your friendships and relationships from your point of view. Kreider struggles with inexplicable, and explicable, losses of friendship. While Kreider claims, "I've demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons, and the main thing I seem to have learned from this one [being stabbed] is that I am capable of learning nothing from almost any experience, no matter how profound," ultimately, I think this is untrue. Kreider has learned something. It may seem like nothing, but, if nothing else, in each of his anecdotes, Kreider continues to learn about himself, and presents his evidence to the reader.

I don't want to describe this book with phrases like "universal truths" or "gems," but Kreider's book is full of them. Behind Kreider's humor and sarcasm are surprisingly poignant truisms. While Kreider's essays are his personal observations and anecdotes, they are relatable. He conveys feelings through his writing, not just circumstances. Reading "How They Tried to Fuck Me Over (But I Showed Them!)" was like looking into a mirror, at times. I may be an anger addict. Kreider writes, "If you're anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place." I'm still confronting high school bullies in my head, and it's surprisingly satisfying! Until I realize that I'm only confronting memories of people who aren't in the room.

Each of Kreider's essays contain halting moments. Moments where I needed to read the sentence again, and paused, with a reaction of "huh." In the opening "Reprieve," Kreider concludes saying, "I don't know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best, crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria." Huh.

Not all of Kreider's essays are "gems.""Escape from Pony Island," for instance, tends to drag. But "The Czar's Daughter" and "Sister World" are beautifully thoughtful and touching, and aren't without their moments of cynicism and self-deprecation, which you being to expect and love of Kreider's writing. Kreider isn't afraid of portraying himself on the page as unlikable. And for that, he becomes increasingly likable.

We Learn Nothing is well worth reading. Kreider's writing balances humor (the essays are even punctuated by Kreider's cartoons), melancholia, and sarcasm with his truisms, without being preachy. In the end, Kreider isn't out to teach us anything. And why would he be if he hasn't been able to learn anything from his own life? But there is a lot to take away from Kreider's book. If nothing else, this book will make you stop and think, "huh."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

(A Mostly True Memoir)
by Jenny Lawon

This is my first staff pick at the bookstore!

I love love love this book. It's quirky, funny, heartbreaking, honest, and shameless. I am a big fan of Jenny Lawson and her blog. I think everyone should read this book (as long as you aren't offended by lots of profanity, inappropriate humor (of the highest caliber), and lots of awkward moments). It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it is so worth the read.