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.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Apron Anxiety

by Alyssa Shelasky

I started reading Apron Anxiety just after I read Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone, which was quite a while ago. I've been sidetracked by other books, but, mostly, I just could not get into Apron Anxiety. I love the title and the subtitle, and, initially, that was about it. But I decided to buckle down and get through it. I hate looking at my bedside table and seeing half-finished books, making me feel guilty.

A customer at the bookstore told me to stick with Apron Anxiety, that Shelasky is supposed to be unlikable. Now, I'm onboard with unlikable characters in fiction. In a memoir, in real life, why do I want to continue reading about someone totally self-absorbed living her high class dream of a life in New York City? Why do I want to read a memoir that contains so much bragging? Her awesome mother, a childhood of good food (they almost NEVER went out to eat, and CERTAINLY never got take-out), a stellar education, fabulous writing/journalism jobs, and a fantastic sex life. How am I supposed to relate or empathize? Add to that her infatuation with New York City, and I'm ready to check out. Oh, and she's not a stress eater, but a stress non-eater. No sympathy.

And talk about self-involved! "Some people might say that I'm a hot girl. . ." Regardless of how that sentence ends, how am I supposed to like this girl? Oh, and not girl, at that point in her book, by the way, an almost-31-year-old WOMAN. Stop being a girl. And her D.C. neighbors are "just too ordinary to ever understand me." Blech.

Her writing is not bad, but it does feel very People-magazine trendy: "I waited for the neighborhood to become a little less sketchy and a bit more Starbucks," "aprรจs -work appeltinis," and you get an 'A' in alliteration. We get it. Knock it back a bit.

I think I know what the problem is: I don't want to read any more blogs-become-books. Or, maybe I'm just a judgmental bitch. (Both could very well be true.)

And yet. . .and yet, I found myself happily swept up in her romance with Chef. (Sign me up for one of those., even if I have to move to D.C. I draw the line at moving to NYC.) The book became worthwhile finally after 60-some-odd pages. Too long, if you ask me. But she suddenly became a person I wanted to know. . .maybe. Amid relationship turmoil and cooking adventures, her life remains too fabulous to be relatable. Her good fortune is somewhat astounding to me, and I'm not sure she ever realizes that. But she does become less of a barbie or Sex-and-the-City action-figure, and a little more human.

Apron Anxiety was enjoyable, after 60 pages of obnoxious. This is a low-commitment book, the kind I can read while watching Project Runway, which is nice sometimes. But, even by the end, I don't want to be friends with Shelasky (and I'm sure she would be fine with that). Her life is too fabulous, even with its up-and-downs, and, ultimately, I just can't relate. My own journey into the kitchen has been dramatically different. Read this book, or don't, just don't expect too much if you do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Kept

by James Scott

I'm still reeling a bit from reading James Scott's The Kept. As a first novel, it is striking and memorable. This is the perfect dead-of-winter novel; it's cold and clear and dark and beautiful.

Just the fist few pages of this novel are a smack in the face. You only just meet Elspeth Howell, and you already know that nothing about her life is going to be the same. It's 1897 upstate New York. Elspeth is trudging through the deep snow, returning from her last job as a midwife, to her isolated home, only to find it dark. No smoke coming out of the chimney. And a body next to her front door. Scott doesn't ease his readers into this scene. It's a shock to the system. It's brutal.

But Scott counters the violence and brutality of this moment, and of more to come, with really elegant descriptions. His language isn't flowery or decorative, and yet, this snowy landscape is beyond being only stark. Scott's use of metaphor and simile color and shade the world he created, without clouding it.

I don't want to give too much away, but this novel took turns I didn't expect, making the story pleasantly difficult to predict. In a way, it resists classification. It isn't strictly historical fiction or a dustbowl Western-type. Both Elspeth and her twelve-year-old son Caleb change immensely over the course of the novel. They are stoic and largely unknown to each other when the novel opens. Gradually they unearth secrets, voicing their fears and suspicions, and learn more about one another than they ever knew before, and my heart broke for them every step of the way.

The Kept is a dark novel, for sure, but it is so much more that just that. As I described it to Scott, it's devastating, but in the loveliest way.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Provence 1970

by Luke Barr

I really wanted to like this book, but it's a bit of a mess. 

First of all, in writing this book, Barr is trying to capitalize on the moment. Food writing is at its most popular and most prolific, as a genre for professional writers to amateur bloggers. What better time to publish this book? While it's a loving homage to his great aunt M.F.K. Fisher, the language and the descriptions are a little too precious. 

I do not worship at the alter of French cooking or French food, or Julia Child, for that matter. (Although I do respect the way that woman cooked an egg.) I am now more interested in M.F.K. Fisher and her philosophy of "For my own meals I like simplicity above all." So a book about the American foodie scene turning away from its fancy French infatuation and pretension appeals to me. But what stands out to me about this book is how poorly executed it is. 

Barr's book is chock-full of nostalgia. Nostalgia for his childhood with his aunt, for his own time in Provence at the Child's Provence La Pitchoune home, to reiterating his aunt's nostalgia for the Provence-that-was, pre-1970. The repetition is terrible. Barr latches on to a theme and beats it to death.

I got caught up on is Barr's lack of story telling. He's a teller rather than a show-er. For pages and pages, every vignette seems to end with something to the tune of, But attitudes were changing, or, But things were about to change, or, Nothing was going to be the same It's painfully repetitive.  We get it. Just show me the change, tell me the story, not your foreshadowings. It's filler it's an attempt to create tension, or suspense, or plot where there is none. But maybe the fault is in my reading, approaching this book too much like a memoir rather than the biography it is. It picks up speed about halfway through the book, when Barr spends more of his time talking about Julia Child's tensions with Simone Beck and her dislike of French snobbery in cooking. Ultimately, the huge change Barr constantly foreshadows is that M.F.K. Fisher decided she was content to not go back to France and live out her days in California with her family and simple food. *Shockwave*

I know how important these people and France were in changing the attitudes of American cooking and American food. I love the movie Julie and Julia. But I'm more interested in the Alice Waters, fresh, seasonal food philosophy than French influence. I have no desire to read Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Currently I'm lusting over Nigel Slater's Notes from the Larder. Provence 1970 is not a bad book. But it's not good, either. The writing is cozy and loving and comfortable. It's a nice read, but nothing to write home about.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Magician King

by Lev Grossman

It is so satisfying to get wrapped up in a fantasy series again. (Although, now I'm sad that I have to wait until August for the third book!) I enjoyed this book immensely, more so than The Magicians. I think that's due in part to having established the existence of magic and Fillory, and the Brakebills education being out of the way.

Initially, I was not thrilled with the reappearance of Julia (yes, technically she reappeared at the end of The Magicians). I didn't have enough time to recover from Alice's death, and I felt like she just didn't belong in Quentin, Eliot, and Janet's story. She's too sulky and mysterious for too long; it's frustrating. However, I love that we got the story of her hedge witch education. She's heartbreaking, and halfway through the story I wanted nothing more than for her to get all the good things in her life she deserved. Her story was, at times, much more interesting than what Quentin was going through. I hope she appears in the third book, although, if this was the end to her story, I can be happy with that; she did get her happy ending.

I also enjoyed that we got to catch up with Josh. And good for him! He's another character I really root for (Eliot and Janet, at this point, I couldn't care less about). But I didn't want him to stay in Fillory. He really made his mark in Venice, and I wanted him to go back. And, while I'm on the subject, what a dirty trick of Eliot's! Quentin doesn't get angry at him, and it's not explicitly addressed, but Eliot totally screwed him over. When he handed Quentin the seven keys to turn in the locks, he knew that meant the quest was over and Ember would kick him out. He let Quentin take the fall. Granted, I don't think Eliot would have the strength to cope with being kicked out of Fillory, and now Quentin does, but still, it was a dirty trick.

I will say, this book is a bit preachier than The Magicians. Grossman is straying more into Narnia territory. He's toeing a fine line between religious (and I mean religion in all is permutations, not just Christianity like C.S. Lewis) believer and atheistic satirist. Sometimes I can't decide where he falls. But the book has a nice balance of believers and skeptics. I think Grossman is doing the best to not alienate any potential audience, and so he tries to stay pretty even-keeled. The FTB/Murs magicians research and adventures in religion and paganism was a nice (although ultimately tragic) detail.

I can't wait to see what happens to Quentin now. If he doesn't run into Penny again, that would be fine with me. Magic and the magical world(s) has gotten more complicated, and I'm looking forward to what Grossman does next. What if they don't get to keep magic forever? Will Quentin be exiled to Earth? And what's he going to do without all his friends? August seems like a very long way away. If you haven't begun this series, I highly recommend it. For all the issues I had with The Magicians, it was well worth it to get to The Magician King.