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."