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.