Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: The best and worst of times at college

I read Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs because I enjoyed Self-Help enough that I thought that continuing on with this author might be amusing. It was – to a degree. As I thought when finishing Self-Help, I enjoyed Moore’s sardonic, biting voice, but in smaller doses than a novel. It was noted as being one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times, which suggested that a look might be in order.

A Gate at the Stairs is an observational novel in many ways. It tells the story of Tassie Keltjin, who is attending a midwestern liberal arts college, close enough that her father’s potatoes are used by the local collegetown restaurants. She amuses herself by taking wine tasting and a Sufism course. In between semesters, she decides to look for work as a babysitter; and luckily enough she lands a position – with a woman, Sarah, and her husband who don’t have kids of their own. Not yet at least. She’s going to adopt. And wants Tassie to be with the child every step of the way.
Although this midwestern collegetown prides itself on being more liberal than most out there, there’s still a vibration of racism that pulses through the neighbourhood. For the child, Emmie, that the parents end up adopting is black (at least partly), and people look and stare and judge as Tassie pushes the child in her stroller. Moore is clever enough not to make this the focus of the book – which would be a tradition and somewhat tired way of looking at this problem.
Emmie is suffused with literary allusions all around her – mixed raced she has the aura of the passing novels of the early twentieth century behind her. The name itself is faerytale like girl whose found on the miser Silas Marner’s doorstep in George Eliot’s eponymous novel. She wants to have ‘blue eyes like Daddy’, the wish of a young girl in Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. She is the catalyst for Sarah bringing together the minorities of the town to have their own kind of cerebral, academic ‘neighbourhood watch’, sitting down every so often to discuss the problems of the town. These are hysterical yet frustrating scenes, much out of a Woody Allen film or Samuel Beckett play, because everyone has all these grand ideas but no one seems to act on any of them. Downstairs the adults chat:
“. . . institutionalized bigotry can subtly convince you of its rightness. With its absurdity removed, its evil can compel . . .”
“And even the adults pat her hair as if it’s the funniest thing they’d ever seen on a mammal . . . and of course available for public patting, like a goat in a zoo. . . .”
“There’s a great woman on the south side who does hair . . .”
“Of course homework is just a measure of the home! And so the kids of color will always fall behind . . .”
“The African-American peer group is the strongest and the Asian-American is the weakest–that is, Asian-American parents have power that African-American parents do not.”
Moore is able to make these go on for eternity (and they’d be most amusing; they’re funny, they’re annoying, they’re endless and perfect). While upstairs, Tassie has all the downstairs adults’ children, playing with them, making them unaware of what their parents are saying, teaching them songs and always secondguessing whether or not said song was appropriate (did it have bad grammar? was it inherently racist?) A peace of mind rests on the top floor where the kids reside, blind to everything around them but simple pleasures and pains.
It’s just unfortunate for all of these characters that shame pervades. (The only gate that I think is discussed outrightly is Watergate.) Lurking in every corner, leering for the right (or wrong) moment to jump out and ruin everything. And Moore does a decent job – some tricks work better than others – to keep the audience interested.
It took a while for me to warm up to Tassie’s voice. The first chapter I found to be grating and almost decided not to go on because I didn’t really want to spend 300+ pages with this snarky girl. And I didn’t care about her freshman problems at college. This may be because a) I’m not female and b) college is still relatively close in memory, so I don’t have a true nostalgia for it just yet. And this is in a strange way a looking back at a memorable year at college for Tassie. But when I got to the second chapter – the one from which Moore read when she appeared at the Union Square Barnes & Noble back in the autumn – the story picked up, the characters became more full, and the world created became quietly fascinating. Almost like a literary detective novel does A Gate at the Stairs unfold. And by the end you find yourself feeling for these people. It may get overly sentimental or predictable at times, but in a way you want to forgive the novel these faults.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Review & GIVEAWAY: The Postpartum Blues

If you read the back cover blurb of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s Between Here and April, you get the impression you’re about to embark on a mystery thriller. That’s somewhat of a deception. In reality, Kogan uses a brief murder mystery to address much larger issues.

In Between Here and April, Elizabeth Burns is a journalist and married mom of two daughters. She’s struggling with the demands and desires of both career and family, and she feels like she’s sinking. When a memory from her childhood suddenly surfaces, Elizabeth becomes determined to discover the truth behind the disappearance of her first grade best friend, April Cassidy. The search doesn’t take very long; after all, when a mother kills herself and her two daughters, the newspapers are sure to pick up the story. April’s research gave her the WHAT, WHEN, and HOW, but she’s looking for one more thing: the WHY? How could a parent do such an unthinkable thing?
All of this happens within the first third (or even quarter) of the book, and the rest of the pages are dedicated to Elizabeth’s quest for answers—interviewing neighbors, friends, and family of April’s mother, Adele. Kogan delves into the issue of postpartum depression head-on. Elizabeth tries to understand the situation as it was in the early-1970s, in a society before postpartum depression was recognized as a legitimate and treatable condition and when Vallium was the go-to cure for women, even if it didn’t work.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it got a little preachy to me. I was looking forward to the mystery thriller the marketing blurb seemed to promise and the beginning started off strong. However, we soon found the main character being sucked down the same path as the woman she was investigating. It was hard to feel much sympathy for her; I mean, she is studying the very emotions she is feeling—can’t she see what it is and get help rather than just succumb to it? Also, I don’t have kids, so I couldn’t relate on a very basic level. 
On the other hand, I understand how out of control a condition like this can make you feel—like there is someone else taking over your brain, you feel like a different person, and you just can’t seem to get out of the funk. This is a symptom of any kind of mental disorder—panic, anxiety, depression—so many, many people could relate. In which case, the story becomes a kind of champion against the feelings of despair as we see Elizabeth deal with her own personal demons. This would be a GREAT selection for a book club, as it has a LOT to discuss.
Thanks to Algonquin, I have ONE copy to share with our readers! This contest is open internationally. For one entry each:
  1. Comment on this post with your email address and answer this question (thanks to the book’s discussion guide!): Are some things better left repressed or should they always be brought to the surface?
  2. Tweet about this giveaway. (Win a copy of BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL from @fiveborobooks!
Deadline is Friday, February 5th at 11:59PM EST. The winner will be announced the following day. Good luck!
Review copies provided by the publisher.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Khaki and Binoculars

For a topic that has absolutely zero appeal to me, I was surprisingly entertained by Luke Dempsey’s A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All. I love the outdoors and all, but birding? Strikes me as an activity for retired 70-somethings living either out of an RV or somewhere in Florida. I think this because of my grandparents who, in my childhood, were 70-somethings with binoculars hanging beside the bay window overlooking the backyard that was littered with birdhouses, bird feeders, and bird baths. I’ve never actually asked them if they were birders, but my skills of deduction are going to say yes.

Dempsey doesn’t actually follow this stereotype. He’s a 30-something year-old British immigrant living in New York City and working in publishing. After some friends pointed out a bird flying around his country house in upstate New York, Dempsey was hooked with a new hobby. Battling the khaki-wearing, granola-eating, fanny pack-using convention, our protagonist makes his way across the country with fellow birders Don and Donna and a keen eye to the treetops.
If you have absolutely zero interest in bird-watching, like me, you can at least appreciate it after reading Dempsey’s memoir. His narrative guides the reader through his renewed love affair with nature and the landscape of his adoptive country. He pokes fun at the unobservant traveler and the general “stupid” person as much as he pokes fun at himself and his untanned, grayish-tinted English skin. His storytelling pulls you in with the subtle humor of Bill Bryson [to whom Dempsey has been compared with this novel]. He’s sarcastic and witty and you can tell that as much as he loves birding, he doesn’t take himself or his experiences too seriously. He brings a very human and very relatable quality to these stories to which only a small population of people could actually relate.
To me, this was one of those books where the subject matter isn’t as important as how well the author tells the story. Despite my lack of interest in birding, I enjoyed the story because of Dempsey’s voice. If you’re a birder, you’ll like this because you can relate. If you’re not a birder, you’ll probably chuckle at the extremes these people go to. And then you’ll want to go outside and enjoy nature, maybe think twice when you see a bird, but then shrug it off because, really, you don’t care what kind it was.
Here’s a video:

Review copy received as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: A fictional guide to self-help

Since The New York Times rated Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs as one of the ten best books of 2009, I decided that it was finally time for me to take a look at Ms Moore’s work, especially since I’ve had a copy of her first collection Self-Help beside my bed ever since I saw her speak at the Union Square Barnes & Noble back this past autumn.

Self-Help was Moore’s début (1985), most of the stories collected from her MFA thesis at Cornell University. The self-deprecating humour that she’s noted for is all there – the laughter in the face of death, the unwillingness to go down without some sort of fight, the unreasonable goals that we have for ourselves and our children and those that we know.
In ‘Go Like This’, a writer of children’s books – William, William Takes a Trip, and More William – finds out that she has cancer and decides that that upcoming Bastille Day (as good a day as any other, though she enjoys the connection to the French Revolution, ‘a choice of symbol and expedience’) she will commit suicide. Being part of the aesthetic community, she invites her friends over for a ‘farewell’ drink fest, and they all debate the concept of suicide with age old adages: ‘They do not gasp and murmur among themselves. I say I have chosen suicide as the most rational and humane alternative to my cancer, an act not so much of self-sacrifice as of beauty, of sparing.’ The story shows how this author’s marriage and relationship to her daughter somewhat changes over this time, as everyone is realising the gravity of setting a deadline like this. The final lines (and line break) is wildly powerful and strikingly memorable.
The following story, ‘How To Talk To Your Mother (Notes)’, is an interesting fragmented tale that progresses backwards from 1982 to 1939 – showing how a woman, in note form, relates to her mother after her death, while she’s alive, while this political happening is occurring or this social event is commanding attention. It’s written in sharp, quick half-sentences/commands, starting: ‘Without her, for years now, murmur at the defrosting refrigerator, “What?” “Huh?” “Shush now,” as it creaks, aches, groans, until the final ice block drops from the ceiling of the freezer like something vanquished.’ Many of the rest of the stories have this similar structure, this commanding or second-person point of view structure that makes it feel like this fictional guide to self-help.
It’s quotes like ‘There is silence, grand as Versailles’ that give Moore’s work a sense of individuality: they ride clichés but are wonderfully and aptly descriptive. They make you laugh, and they make you revel in their apropos-ness. Self-Help has gotten me to buy her new novel and to read start reading it. Though I feel that perhaps Moore might be best – especially her humour – in small doses. But it’s all to be seen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Author interview: Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris is the lauded and bestselling author of Then We Came to the End, which won among other things the PEN/Hemingway Award (for best first American novel) and was one of the ten best books of 2007 according to The New York Times. Today, his second book The Unnamed is published. It’s a fascinating read, one that’s completely different from his debut novel, being much more bleak and minimalistic. And it’s certainly a maturation of his skills and talents as a literary artist. (I reviewed it late last month here.) Mr Ferris was kind enough to answer some questions.

There is a compulsive need to walk and meander in The Unnamed. Did you ever have such yearnings, the desire to travel as far as your character Farnsworth does by foot? Did you attempt to walk like him for research?

I hated walking most of my life, but now I like a long walk, whether in the city where the streets are alive or in the country where the view is long & quiet. I don’t do much walking this time of year, though—too many hunters.

In American novels, characters head west deliberately in order to make something of themselves, to traverse new ground and start a new life. Farnsworth heads west almost by accident, by chance, and in a way unwillingly. Is there something about the current American sensibility that allows for this passive, unconscious malaise?

There are several literary precedents for heading west. Many of them start with hope & end in despair. As you point out, Tim’s trip west is unwilled, so I see his return—to New York, & his family—as the important movement. It inverts the paradigm, & with any luck the psychological correlatives correspond as well: he leaves for the east in despair & arrives with some measure of hope.

As for the malaise, I’m not sure it’s particular to an American sensibility, but it does seem palpable, & maybe permanent—to me at least.

Beckett appears to be a prominent influence in this work, even when it comes down to the internal dialogues that Farnsworth is having with himself. How did you find working in such avant-garde features into a novel that starts out quite traditionally, with a man dissatisfied and confused?

Where to go after Beckett? If Cervantes writes the first novel, Beckett seems to close the literary ellipse. The majority of writers play somewhere inside that vast, plump oval.

I had the good fortune of being in conversation with the novelist Karen Shepard around the time of writing The Unnamed. Karen asked if there would be any formal break in the narrative that would correspond with the main character’s break with reality. It seemed a good question to consider and informed what you describe as the book’s avant-garde features.

People have compared the narrator of Then We Came to the End as a Greek chorus, whereas The Unnamed has perhaps a much more limited scope. With such restrictions, did you find this writing process more liberating than the last? What did this book allow you to do that the last did not?

There was nothing liberating about writing The Unnamed. Its limited scope required considerable restriction: the confinement of a third-person narrative, one main character, and a firm chronology. Whereas Then We Came to the End was all play—multiple points of view, ensemble cast, ever-shifting timeline. The two are utter opposites from a technical point of view, and one was much easier to write than the other.

What’s your writing style? Are you a desk-writer or a coffee shop writer? Is your environment an integral part of the writing process?

I like to be at home, at my desk, with the computer off.

Are there any underrated novels you’ve come across that the average literary reader probably has missed?

If you haven’t read Stephen Wright, you must. M31: A Family Romance & Going Native are my favorites. He does madness marvelously, with as fine & artful a prose style as anyone going. Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square is another good one for madness.

Again, Joshua Ferris’s new novel The Unnamed is available today from Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown. He’ll be making the following appearances in New York:
19 January: Barnes & Noble, 2889 Broadway, 7.00pm
29 January: Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street (Brooklyn), 7.30pm
10 February: Happy Endings @ Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, 7.00pm

Thanks to Miriam at Hachette for making this interview happen!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Notre Couer

Last night I attended my very first book club ever. It was at Idlewild Books, which is a great independent bookstore here in the city (I wrote about it on She Is Too Fond of Books’ weekly Spotlight on Bookstores here). The book of choice was Guy de Maupassant’s Alien Hearts from the NYRB imprint (a great imprint that’s as compelling as it is pretty). I was no stranger to Maupassant; I’d read Bel Ami for a French literature class in college, but despite the analytical papers I wrote, I remember very little from it. One thing I do remember: Maupassant’s works just scream “French,” and this one was no different.

The premise of this short novel is pretty simple. It’s high-society Paris at the end of the 19th century. André Mariolle is a rich, handsome young man that isn’t really doing much aside from enjoying his place in society. He’s convinced by a friend to attend an exclusive salon of artist- and intellectual-types, hosted by the magnificent Madame de Burne. She’s the type of woman that every man falls in love with, but after an unhappy, abusive first marriage, she refuses to involve herself in any kind of  romantic relationship. Mariolle is determined to resist Madame’s spell (a characteristic that initially intrigues her) but with nothing else to do, he quickly succumbs and devotes himself to loving her. Their subsequent affair starts off with a bang but quickly dwindles, leaving each to contemplate their own views on love and relationships.
Lots of people in the book group found this book boring and the characters unlikeable. I didn’t really have an opinion when I immediately read it—it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great, either. Once we discussed it, though, I liked it a lot more because I got more out of it. Maupassant didn’t write this book for great in-depth character development; it’s a book of ideas.
First of all, examine this setting: it’s a society that’s divided by class. Men hold the power, and women have very little of it. Artists and intellectuals have no real place—they’re “bourgeois” but at least a little interesting. Associating with them when you’re clearly in a much higher class is almost trendy
Then look at Madame de Burne: a miserable first marriage has left her jaded. Sure, she may get off on having all these men fawning over her, but she’s honest from the beginning—no relationships, no love. If they keep at it, it’s not her fault; she told them she wasn’t going to fall in love. She’s clearly wealthy and has almost a full-time job in entertaining and maintaining such an image and high-status. She flirted with a relationship with Mariolle, which seemed more of a personal experiment than anything—testing the waters to see if she could do the relationship thing. But in a time when women need to marry for status, she already has it and without a husband. So what would she gain from a marriage she’s not really into? Nothing. She’s in a good place, personally, so why rock that boat? 
Finally, Mariolle: love to him is just something to do. Maybe his heart is genuinely in it, but there’s a point where it just gets pathetic and you can’t feel much sympathy. Certainly a rejection will sting, but can it really be heart-breaking when your feelings were never reciprocated? He does, however, represent that feeling of hope when you’re trying to get a relationship to go the way you want it. You justify actions and words, choosing to believe what you want to believe, with the hope that the person is going to suddenly change and love you right back.
It may not have been the most compelling story to read, but it had a lot there. It’s a story that would translate well to any medium set in any time, because the emotions are universal and very relatable. Have you seen (500) Days of Summer? Because that is a case in point.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: 1967 reimagined

Paul Auster’s new novel Invisible is a most welcome return to form. After his unpleasant but readable novel in 2007, Man in the Dark, which had an ending that I would prefer not to return to for the rest of my days, Invisible has the charm of his earlier more metafictional and philosophical works, the reason why Auster is lauded as a rather avant-garde author in the realm of literary fiction.

We are transported to 1967. A sophomore at Columbia University, Adam Walker is a young poet: one that’s published a few poems here and there, a review elsewhere. At a party he meets the mysterious French-/Swissman Rudolf Born and his companion Margot. Born is a visiting professor in political science, but is obviously involved in so much more. After captivating them that night, Margot makes a comment to Rudolf, that Adam is one of the most attractive young men she has seen, which then makes Rudolf – most bizarrely – want to help Adam in any way possible, by helping him start a literary journal, paying Adam a stipend with the condition that the journal would publish true literature.
This all goes sour though when Adam is invited to Rudolf’s home and asked point blank in front of Born and his wife whether he finds the latter attractive because Margot would like to sleep with him. This leads to a cascade of ‘misunderstandings’ that conclude with Adam and Born being mugged by a young man; at gunpoint, Born pulls a switchblade and knifes their mugger. At that moment, Adam is tortured with this knowledge, tries to go to the police and reveal the truth about this mugger’s death, but finds out he’s too late as Born has fled the country.
It wouldn’t be an Auster novel if there weren’t any flips by now. We soon realise that Adam is not narrating this story but rather one of his college friends, Jim, who is in fact a novelist, one that’s gotten in touch with Adam during his dying days. Unable to finish his memoir, Adam has contacted Jim to reimagine his life based on the notes he has left. The rest of his life is tortured by Rudolf Born’s deeds, but also the somewhat odd sexuality Adam had for his sister – one that would feel very comfortable in an early Ian McEwan work. More turn of events are experienced, and the reader feels nice and somewhat discombobulated, like in the best of Auster novels.

Invisible, at its best, is like a literary thriller – one where nothing is what it seems, where the rug is thrown from under us to reveal the fact that what we’re reading is in fact lies, made up to protect the players involved, but also made up in order to entice the reader, to make it a novel that will get its reader to the end. ‘In order to tell the truth, we’ll have to fictionalize it,’ Born says, a very Auster-like quote, one that manifests a power of the imagination as well as an evil desire to manipulate fact. It’s running in the same vein of JM Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs – Boyhood, Youth, and most recently Summertime - in that Invisible may be a revision of what Auster’s life could have been like when he lived in Paris as a student, when he attended Columbia University, just with a few details added in order for a more solid truth to be exhibited. This is not to say that Adam Walker is Paul Auster (although the names certainly have some sort of phonic connection), but it is a work that wants you to question how different they really are.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

JANUARY Book Events: New York

I’m sorry. I’ve slacked off on this monthly event update. I think I missed a couple months in there, but you were all too busy with the holidays to even notice, right?? Anyway, I’m getting back on track. Also, I have included all appearances at which you can stalk the Real Housewives of New York City because they apparently all have books now. However, I refuse to address the “countess” with the title Countess. She’s not one.

1/6 Wednesday
  • “The Skinnygirl Dish” Bethenny Frankel, Borders Columbus Circle, 7:00 pm
  • “The Theory of Light and Matter” Andrew Porter, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/7 Thursday
  • “The Last Day of My Life” Jim Moret, Borders Columbus Circle, 7:00 pm
  • “Ten Walks/Two Talks” Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/10 Sunday
  • “The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker” Stu Silverstein, Idlewild Books, 4:00 pm
1/11 Monday
  • “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” Maaza Mengiste, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/12 Tuesday
  • “The Girl Next Door” Elizabeth Noble, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Unfinished Desires” Gail Godwin, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm
  • “Cleaving” Julie Powell, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/13 Wednesday
  • “No Mercy” Lori Armstrong, B&N Greenwich Village, 7:30 pm
  • “Becoming Jane Eyre” Sheila Kohler, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
  • “Cleaving” Julie Powell, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
1/14 Thursday
  • “The Overnight Socialite” Bridie Clark, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • Mary Jo Bang and Susan Wheeler, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/15 Friday
  • “Duke, the Dog Priest” Domicio Coutinho, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/18 Monday
  • “Vampire Academy” Richelle Mead, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
1/19 Tuesday
  • “The Unnamed” Joshua Ferris, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm
1/20 Wednesday
  • “The Swan Thieves” Elizabeth Kostova, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Footnotes in Gaza” Joe Sacco, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/21 Thursday
  • “The Melting Season” Jami Attenberg, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Class with the Countess” LuAnn de Lesseps, Borders Columbus Circle, 7:00 pm
  • “The Listener” Shira Nayman, Bookcourt, 7:00 pm
  • “Everything Flows” Richard Howard, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
  • “Evening’s Empire” Bill Flanagan, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
1/22 Friday
  • “The Ticking is the Bomb” Nick Flynn, Bookcourt, 7:00 pm
1/25 Monday
  • “I am Ozzy” Ozzy Osbourne, B&N 5th Avenue, 12:30 pm
  • “Small Wars” Sadie Jones, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/26 Tuesday
  • “I am Ozzy” Ozzy Osbourne, Borders Columbus Circle, 7:00 pm (in case you missed him last night or really want to see him again)
  • “The Manual of Detection” Jedidiah Berry, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
1/27 Wednesday
  • Daniel Menaker and Jonathan Karp (editor of Twelve), McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
1/28 Thursday
  • “The Idea of Justice” Amartya Sen, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral Youth Center (near McNally Jackson), 7:00 pm
  • “Wild Child” T.C. Boyle, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
  • “The Melting Season” Jami Attenberg, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Challenge Wrap-Up!

The end of the year brought the end of two challenges in which I was participating…and I’m happy to say I finished them both, right in the nick of time.

First, the Everything Austen hosted by Stephanie @ Stephanie’s Written Word. This was the first ever challenge I signed up for, and I was pleased with my choices. Originally, I had intended to split the six requirements evenly between books and movies, but I quickly learned that I enjoy Austen much more on screen than on the page. Plus, my stack of books is never-ending and movies were faster to get through.
Originally I picked:
  1. The BBC’s Pride & Prejudice mini-series
  2. Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley (to compare)
  3. Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway
  4. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
  5. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (because I remember nothing about it from senior year summer reading)
  6. Austenland by Shannon Hale
I ended up doing these:
  1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (the only book I read, and it was more than enough)
  2. The BBC’S Pride & Prejudice
  3. Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley
  4. Becoming Jane film
  5. The Jane Austen Book Club film
  6. Lost in Austen film/mini-series
I hadn’t seen any of the films, and I ended up enjoying them all. The BBC’s was just too classic to not like. The characters were perfectly cast, and I was entertained hour after hour. The other P&P was alright, as was Becoming Jane, but nothing too memorable. I looooved The Jane Austen Book Club, and I never expected to! I thought it had a great group dynamic and I loved how different all the characters were. Plus, Marc Blucas. Lost in Austen was equally as entertaining; so creative and witty! Those three hours flew by. Occasionally I’ve thought I should read all of Austen’s novels just to do it, but I think this challenge told me it’d just be a waste of time. The books aren’t going to stand out for me—it’ll be the visuals of movie versions that I remember. Great challenge!

The other challenge I completed was my own: the Back To School Reading Challenge. I started this challenge mostly so I could re-read some of these great classics from high school that I remember nothing about. You know, those books you can easily discuss because most people have read them some point in their lives. I kinda rushed finishing this one with easy books I knew I had at home and could read over Christmas, so I never got around to reading anything completely new to me. I’d like to do that at some point, but with the constant influx of new books that I have, it might be hard to get around to.
For this challenge, I read:
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (last read in 1999)
  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (last read in 2002)
  3. A Separate Peace by John Knowles (last read in 2000)
  4. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (last read in 1998)
I was hoping to get something new and profound out of these books reading them the second time around but for the most part, I didn’t. I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the first time I read it and it quickly became my favorite book ever, and it still is, so that one has kept it’s magic. I think I had a bit of a deeper understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird this time around. I enjoyed it more as a standalone novel instead of having that mentality that it’s “required reading.” I read The Outsiders mostly just to refresh my memory on the story, but it’s a pretty simple read. And A Separate Peace was more boring this time around. I know we had to analyze the hell out of in high school and I liked it then. It wasn’t bad this time, I just didn’t get much out of it when I didn’t have to participate in open discussion about it every few chapters. I’d still like to get around to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and a few others, but we’ll see.
Be sure to read Sal’s challenge picks on this blog and check out what the other participants of our Back To School Reading Challenge reviewed from the Mr. Linky on the original challenge post!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Site Update: We’re Official

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve gotten a little bit more legitimate this morning by upgrading to a new domain name:

Our old url ( will still work and will just redirect you, and if you are subscribed in a reader, the feed should still be the same [please contact me ASAP if that is not the case!]. Now it just looks prettier and it’s much easier to say.
Yay for 2010 upgrades!

Review: Culinary pedant at work

For Christmas, a friend of mine bought me Julian Barnes’s The Pedant in the Kitchen, the sole Barnes book I didn’t have in my collection (although there are one or two that I still have to read, regretfully). And it got me off my lazy holiday bum and into the kitchen, so that I was creating some culinary masterpieces instead of eating refrigerated leftovers.

Barnes is quite the talented novelist – humorous and touching in each volume, absolutely stand out in his debut Metroland. In The Pedant in the Kitchen, he has collected seventeen short essays on food and cooking, describing his anal-retentive habits in the kitchen and his desire to keep by the (cook)book as he embarks on his culinary journeys. He can’t stand celebrity chefs who create tv-tie-in cookbooks; he really doesn’t like it when the recipe calls for a ‘medium onion’ – for how are you to determine what is medium? – and he truly disdains those who buy cookbooks for the pictures because, sagefully, he realises that no one is able to recreate the images, no matter how talented the cook preparing them is (so much goes into enhancing food photographs that it seriously would be impossible).

Barnes uses his masterful and trademark wit to detail his experiences and blunderings in the kitchen thanks to the help – and hurt – of Marcella Harzan, Jane Grigson and her Vegetable Book, Elizabeth David, Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking, and The River Cafe Cookbook (in all its colours). He gives advice which includes – paraphrasing – you can never have enough cookbooks, but you always should feel as if you have too many; never buy a cookbook that has a tricksy layout, pretending to give advice on how to cook a three-course meal; don’t buy the chef’s recipe book when you leave a restaurant; never replace your old cookbooks for newer editions; and again, never buy a cookbook for the pictures. There is some solid advice from someone who came into cooking rather late.

The author informs us of how, in middle-incomed England, men generally stayed out of the kitchen, that it wasn’t until Barnes was a twenty-something living on his own that he found the wonders of cooking, simply because he was forced to. He writes about former male incompetence:

[It] was clearly limited to such matutinal dabbling. This was made plain one
time when my mother was called away. My father prepared my packed lunch and, not understanding the theory of the sandwich, lovingly inserted extra items that he
knew I especially liked. A few hours later, on a Southern Region train to an
out-of-town sports field, I opened my lunch bag in front of fellow rugby
players. My sandwiches were sodden, falling to bits, and bright red from the
paternally cut beetroot; they blushed for me as I blushed for their contriver.

This then changes and Barnes starts eyeing his mother’s cookbooks, starts going to the local fishmonger, his ‘tattooed comedians’: ‘”Have you got any bluefish?” I asked. “Bluefish,” the monger repeated as if it were no more than a feed line. “We’ve got white fish, pink fish, yellow fish…” As he scanned his slab for further hues of jocularity, my heart sank.’ He’s unafraid to talk about botched dinner parties, or food gatherings with friends as he likes to think of them, because in the end cooking should be human, something that everyone should be able and technically is capable of doing. He appreciates that, and by the end of this wonderful little collection, you’ll be able to too. At the very least you’ll be able to laugh – or chortle – at these anecdotes, advice snippets, and axioms.