December 28, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first book of what is becoming a series of New York Times Bestsellers. It is a longish "young person's" novel about four extraordinary misfits who take on evil and challenge themselves in the process. It's a charming book in some ways, and Trenton Lee Stewart certainly knows how to work the conventions of children's chapter books (misfit find other misfits to fit in with, children solving problems no adult can, orphans finding some form of family etc) . That said, I was disappointed in the end. Even though The Mysterious Benedict Society does pretty much everything right, the results are pretty ho hum.

The real problem for me, is that while Stewart's story is technically good, it lacks soul, or more specifically, it lacks an understanding of a child's soul. This is an intangible quality that I don't think an author can learn. Take, for example, A Wrinkle in Time, a warhorse in children's literature. Madeleine L'Engle tells a very sophisticated story from the perspective of a cranky, misfit girl named Meg. Meg is the older sister of an extraordinary boy named Charles Wallace (who has more perspective at six than most people have at sixty). L'Engle's Meg never sounds like an adult's idea of a cranky, misfit girl, just as Charles Wallace never sounds like an adult's idea of a six year old savant. They sound like real people, not adult constructions. All of Stewart's extraordinary kids - from Reynie Muldoon, the moral compass and natural leader, to George "Sticky" Washington, the genius beset by nervous ticks - feel like an adult's "Very Clever" conception of very clever kids. There's a fug of grown-upness over the whole thing and it just doesn't work.

The other problem with the story, is that there's a huge bloody build-up to what should be a huge bloody show-down, but the final resolution happens off-screen, AND it's not even the kids who achieve it. An adult, the eponymous Mr. Benedict, mysteriously dismantles the Evil Machine of Doom (tm). This results in an Ok-so-I've-read-and-read-and-read-and-THAT's-the-resolution?!? feeling in the reader. Then we scoot through the denouement, and because of some serious authorial strong-arming, everyone ends up happy. Deux ex Machina is splashed all over this thing. It's as if Stewart got his characters right into the thick of the action, and didn't know what to do next - there's too much machination, and too little imagination to make the thing take off.

All in all, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a great idea, and there is a lot in it that works - obviously, people like it as it's selling like a Bestseller. Still, it missed the boat for me. There are a lot of children's books out there that work (anything by Roald Dahl, Coraline, and The Phantom Tollbooth to name a few), and they work because they are genuine things - stories that appeal to the instinctual fears and fascinations of children. It's not enough to be clever, you have to be genuine, and that's where The Mysterious Benedict Society, which is ever-so-clever failed.

December 3, 2009

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

I read and finished The Magician's Elephant on flight to Texas for Thanksgiving. It is a lovely little thing. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote the Newbury Award winning, The Tale of Despereux, has a wonderful way with magical realism in children's literature. The Magician's Elephant doesn't read as fantasy, but it does have a whimsical sense of the fabulous which makes you feel like your reading a story much older than it is.

The story primarily concerns a boy whose greatest wish is to know if the sister he lost as an infant is still alive. A fortune-teller reveals that she is, and that if the boy wishes to find her, he must "follow the elephant." Being that the boy lives in a fictional northern-European city, he does not hold out much hope of ever seeing an elephant, let alone of finding one to follow. But then a magician inexplicably conjures an elephant in place of a bouquet, and the boy follows it to his heart.

While the boy, Peter Augustus Duchene, is very much the protagonist, DiCamillo takes full advantage of her omniscient narrator by also presenting the perspectives of the lost sister, the magician (who is imprisoned after the elephant falls on a noblewoman), a kind police inspector, and even the elephant herself. She does so fluidly - the changes in perspective feel very natural to the narrative - and in doing so, allows this simple story to take on a universality that it would otherwise lack.

The Magician's Elephant is not an overly dynamic book (it was made for candles and snowy evenings), but it is absolutely lovely, full of warm shadows and inevitable magic. My only complaint is that it's very satisfying ending arrived too soon.

November 12, 2009

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I'm on a bit of a YA kick right now. Maybe it's just a perverse rebellion against the Twilight series, but I feel like there's so much excellent fiction out there for young people, and much of it is getting overshadowed by the juggernaut that is vampire romance.

Strictly speaking, The Westing Game isn't really YA lit. It's a "chapter book for young readers, ages 8 -12," but much like The Graveyard Book and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Westing Game more than holds up to adult scrutiny. I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve and absolutely loving it, but not being able to fully follow the intricate, quick-moving plot. This time around, I not only loved it for it's quirky characters and perfect comic timing, but I also found myself completely sucked into the mystery at its heart. Seriously, I stayed up late last night because I didn't remember the final solution and I really had to know. Good stuff.

The basic premise is a kind of Who-Done-It. A paper-mogul named Sam Westing is found "dead in bed." In his will, he calls together 16 heirs to play "the Westing game." The heirs are an unlikely group which includes a 65 year old delivery boy, a religious fanatic, a 12 year old financial wizard and narcissistic housewife. They are paired with the perfect person, as one of the heirs (a 15 year old ornithologist with a degenerative disorder) notes. They each receive a set of clues and the directive to find out which of them stole Sam Westing's life. The winning pair then receives the bulk of Westing's multi-million dollar estate. But most of the heirs are not what they seem (there's a bomber, a thief, a bookie, and Sam Westing himself hiding in the mix) and the goal is to find out who is who before it's too late.

Ellen Raskin won the Newbury Award for The Westing Game in 1979, and it's a masterpiece of a mystery. But what really sets it apart, above and beyond the intricate plotting and accessible voice, is that each character undergoes some sort of transformation over the course of the book. This is quite a thing to pull off, but Raskin's hand is light, and her control of the material complete. Each of the heirs gets his or her arc without detracting from the whole - in fact, that quality of personal growth is what makes them work as a group.

The Westing Game is great fun and compulsively readable, but there's much more going on. For a literary mystery with humor and substance, I'm not sure that it can be beat - who cares if you have to go to the kid's section of the library to find it.

November 9, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

And next on the Neil Gaiman line-up: The Graveyard Book. I promise I'll write about something by another author next, but I was on a roll, and I'm really glad I was - The Graveyard Book is, for my money, Neil Gaiman's best work. Hands down. I've found that many excellent, prolific authors have one story or one book that transcends everything else they've written (and sometimes everything else they will ever write). A.S. Byatt has Possession, Margaret Atwood has The Blind Assassin, Iain M. Banks has Use of Weapons and Neil Gaiman has The Graveyard Book.

The Graveyard Book is the coming of age story of a mortal boy named Nobody Owens, who is raised by the kind spirits of a graveyard. The book begins chillingly with the murder of the boy's family, then coasts into charming episodic chapters about his life from the age of two to roughly fifteen. The episodes are by turns insightful and quirky and sometimes quite dark. Death is a regular presence in the book, but that isn't the source of the darkness. The darkness comes from the perils of growing up, and from the shadow cast by the man who killed Nobody Owens' family, a man called Jack who, years later, is still trying to finish the job.

Neil Gaiman as said that Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book served inspiration, and Kipling's influence is definitely evident in The Graveyard Book's structure and themes - especially in its themes. Belonging, isolation and the bittersweetness of growing up are foundational to both books, and the episodic pacing keeps the plot moving so that these themes can be touched on without beating an already well-beaten dead horse.

This is really wonderful book and a really scattershot post. Every time I settle into addressing one aspect of the book, I get pulled in another direction, it's just so pitch-perfect, so thoughtful and so bittersweet. This is Neil Gaiman's perfect book. I hope it gets read widely and voraciously because it deserves every award it could get.

November 3, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline is wonderful. I'm not sure if it's an exception to the rule or the start of a trend, but I think that it is by far Neil Gaiman's best work. The reviewer at Locus Magazine was quoted as saying that "Coraline may be Gaiman's most disciplined and fully controlled novel to date," and it is this discipline and control that makes Coraline stand out.

To begin with, it's starts with a wonderful idea - that on the other side of a hidden door, a girl finds an "other" world, where her other mother and other father live and where everything is much more interesting. It's a lovely place. Except for the shiny, black buttons that everyone there has instead of eyes. Coraline is immediately wary, and she is right to be so. But we don't have to wait for her to go through the door for things to get strange - it's creepy right out of the gate. Odd things happen, things that when taken out of context mean nothing. But put them in context, and an air of foreboding quickly settles over Coraline's new house.

I really appreciated the tightness and lucidity of the story - especially because it would have been a cinch to let the material run away with itself (Gaiman was writing on very fertile ground). I loved Coraline's creepiness - as an adult, I was never scared, but I would have been as a kid, and I have to admit to a certain amount of edginess every now and then, even as an adult. But the thing I loved most about Coraline was Coraline herself. She's a wonderful, modern, no-fuss girl, very intelligent and very bored. And she's no easy mark for the evil that intrudes upon her world. Unlike her counterpart in the film adaptation (which was nowhere near as good as the book), the literary Coraline is never seduced by the "other" world, as most children would be. She is wise and brave in the face of frightening things, she wins through cleverness twice, and in a lovely, subtle stroke at the end, she learns not to be bored in the mundane world.

Coraline is everything that it could be, and that's saying quite a lot. Neil Gaiman recently won the Newbury Award for his newest book for young readers, The Graveyard Book. Before reading Coraline, I have to admit I was a little doubtful, but based on the strength of the book I just finished, I'm really looking forward to reading whatever Gaiman writes next.

Postscript: I just started The Graveyard Book (I'm on a roll), and I have to say that it's really wonderful so far. :-)

October 29, 2009

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman

The Wolves in the Walls is Neil Gaiman's second picture book, and it's full of all the things that people read Neil Gaiman for - it's darkly imaginative, charming and a little bit unsettling in an oddly breezy way. It's wonderfully illustrated in a sort of collage / mixed media form by Dave McKean, whose work effectively reflects the aesthetic of Neil Gaiman's prose. The first time I read The Wolves in the Walls, I gobbled it up and smiled. The second time however, when I started to really look at it, I was disappointed. This is not because Gaiman's story did not hold up - it did. In fact, the second reading impressed me insofar as Gaiman's ability to tap into the darker corners of childhood fear. What disappointed me, in the end, was the execution. Let me explain.

The Wolves in the Walls is loooong by picture book standards - over 2000 words, when the average is about 700. This is not necessarily a problem if the writing is tight, clear and efficient. If the writing isn't tight, clear and efficient, the length of the book works against you, so that by the end of it, the reader has ended up having a pretty muddy read. It isn't enough that the prose be tight and clear - the story itself can't have any fat, no areas or episodes or moments that don't drive the narrative forward or in some way feed the rhythm of the book. This is where The Wolves in the Walls disappoints.

The basic concept - that a little girl named Lucy hears wolves in the walls and her family doesn't believe her - is awesome, especially because it turns out that Lucy's right. The beginning starts out slowly, but that's not a bad thing as it built up a sort of mild, creepy suspense. But when the slowness continues through the entire of the story it doesn't work so well - there's little sense of disaster when the wolves do come out of the walls, and little sense of climax when the family reclaims their house. The high stakes and suspense are all muffled under cluttered prose and Lucy's overly talkative family. One severe edit would have done the trick, but without it, The Wolves in the Walls is only half of what it could have been.

I find this with a lot of Neil Gaiman's work. He's brilliant and I love the way his brain works and so desperately want to whole-heartedly gobble up everything he writes, but he's undisciplined. The only reason The Wolves in the Walls got published without the edit it deserved is because Neil Gaiman's name would make it sell. If his craft were as developed as his conceptions, he would be amazing, but it rarely is, so I always end up feeling teased by the book's potential. And that's how I feel about The Wolves in the Walls - it's so damn close I could smell the smoke, but no cigar in the end. :(

October 7, 2009

Dust and Shadow by Lindsey Faye

The full title of Lindsey Faye's debut novel is Dust and Shadow, An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson. Let me just say that, generally speaking, I feel that there is very little ground left untrampled regarding Jack the Ripper. Let me also say that I tend to dislike it when modern authors "discover" new, never-before-published episodes in the case chronicles of Sherlock Holmes. They are invariably gimmicky disappointments at best and, at worst, ill-disguised attempts to cash in on the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle's brilliant anti-hero. That said, Faye puts all other Sherlockian sharecroppers to shame. Seriously, Dust and Shadow is great.

To begin with, Faye obviously researched the hell out of this book. Her grasp on the Ripper killings was thorough and her familiarity with Victorian London, from Whitehall to Whitechapel, was complete. From the ease with which she made use of Victorian working class slang to the quality of the noxious London fogs, Faye knew her stuff. But best of all, she obviously knew Holmes. This is the only time I've read a non-canon Holmes and forgotten that Arthur Conan Doyle hadn't written it. Every choice in diction and syntax, every bit of characterization, both major and minor, were spot on imitations of Dr. John Watson's biographical "tone." There wasn't a false note in the thing, and believe me, I was looking for one.

Better still, Lindsey Faye posits a solution to the Ripper killings that not only explains who the killer was and how he managed to avoid capture, but why the identity of the killer was never revealed, if indeed it was ever known. The solution fits very neatly into the logic of Holmes's world, making it seem that it could never have happened any other way. Of course the fictional Sherlock Holmes successfully investigated the real life Ripper killings - why shouldn't he have?

All in all, I tore through Dust and Shadow. At first it was simply because I was kind of shocked by how good it was, but very quickly, the mystery pulled me in, as any good mystery should, and I ended up gobbling up page after page just for the pleasure of finding out who-done-it (the answer, let me tell you, is perfectly logical, but oddly chilling - something I was also not expecting). I can't recommend Dust and Shadow enough. If you like Sherlock Holmes, or Jack the Ripper or Victorian suspense, definitely pick it up. It really is a treat.

September 24, 2009

Hell by Robert Olen Butler

I'm a fan of what James calls "infernals" - novels that are either set in hell, or about the devil or some such thing. Huge fan of the Inferno, which goes without saying, but I also loved I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan and A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, which, though strictly speaking not an infernal was close enough to appeal. Given my taste for this uplifting subject, I was pretty interested when James picked up Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Hell. It is indeed about hell - one person's hell in particular, set in everyone else's hell - and there was a lot to like about it. But I can't get much more enthusiastic than that.

Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He is also, now that John Cheever's gone, one of our foremost short story writers. The bar on anything he publishes is pretty high, and for good reason. This is a man who has mastered his craft and yet, for a man who has mastered his craft, Hell is pretty slap dash.

Briefly put, Hell is the story of Hatcher McCord, a newscaster in life, and now head anchor on Satan's own Evening News from Hell. Rather than Dante's lakes of molten fire, Butler's hell is like an extremely bad day that never ends. Good sex is impossible, sulpherous rains fall from the sky, there is no meat to be had and physical harm is done only long enough for denizens to suffer a bit. Then they reconstitute and go about their day. It's the suffering that's important, and the most damnable thing about Butler's hell is that the denizens are compelled to seek out the things that will make them suffer most. But Hatcher discovers that perhaps this is not, strictly speaking, how it has to be.

The widely held belief is that Satan can hear everything going on in everyone's heads so that each denizen gets punished according to his thoughts. But during an interview with Satan for Hatcher's "Why Do You Think You're Here" series, he discovers that Satan cannot hear his thoughts. This opens up a world of mental freedom and self-discovery for Hatcher, a journey he undertakes with the hope of eventually finding a way out.

All of that is excellent. It's a great premise - that we suffer because we expect to, that hell is our own assumed response to perceived external threat. The problem is that Butler doesn't explore it. He doesn't even really pay attention to it. He's too busy piling on the cameos to care.

Butler's hell is a who's who of everyone who ever lived. Hatcher's girlfriend is Anne Boleyn, who still carries a torch for Henry VIII, despite her detachable head. The BeeGees make an appearance with J. Edgar Hoover as Satan's powder-blue suited minions, Dick Nixon is Satan's chauffeur, Chaucer is a failed novelist and Chaucer's girlfriend, Beatrice, is screwing Virgil on the side. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's all clever, but overdone. What's worse is that the cameos, which Butler clearly loves, distract, perhaps intentionally, from the premise that could be so compelling. He fails to develop the story, and so it fails to have a point, let alone any intellectual or emotional resonance.

In the end, Hell is thought-provoking (if you look hard enough), but hardly thoughtful - very careless work for a writer of Butler's stature. The story's potential, though not totally wasted, fails to get fulfilled. I'd recommend reading it if your looking for light diversion, but not wanting to be totally consumed. If what you want is an infernal with a little more bite - emotional or philosophical - I'd look somewhere else. Dante's always good.

September 8, 2009

Drood by Dan Simmons

This is not a review of Drood by Dan Simmons. This is a reminder to myself of two things:

1. Self, you started Drood and stopped after the second chapter.

2. You stopped because you are a dork. You took offense to Simmons' taking liberties with Wilkie Collins, one of your favorite 19th century authors, and the fictional narrator of Drood.

Simmons used Wilkie Collins as his narrator and, though the portrayal was droll and interesting at first, it quickly devolved into a portrayal of Collins as a petty, no-talent hack. While you cannot speak to the petty part, Wilkie Collins was by no means a no-talent hack. He revolutionized gothic fiction and introduced the concept of serialized narration with The Woman in White, he was one of the first to use the detective figure to solve a literary mystery in The Moonstone (an innovation which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among others), and he examined the injustice of inheritance laws for women in 19th century England in No Name. On top of all of that, Collins wrote some really ripping good ghost stories.

For all of these dorky reasons do you love Wilkie Collins, and for all of these reasons did you put Drood down. Just a little note should you ever want to pick it up again.

September 1, 2009

A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter

I enjoy food memoirs, this despite the fact that I haven't read that many of them - some of Peter Mayle's Provence books (charming), several M.F.K Fisher essays (brilliant), and a few other odds and ends. Happily, I can now add Andrew Todhunter's book, A Meal Observed to the list.

A Meal Observed is, quite literally, an account of one meal, a meal that Todhunter and his wife, Erin, ate at the venerable Taillevent, a Michelin 3 star restaurant in Paris, arguably the best in France. This meal, as Todhunter describes it, is a work of culinary art. He takes us through each of the nine courses slowly, describing not only the food, but the ambience in the dining room, the impeccable service and, most interesting to me, the preparation of each dish in the kitchen. He includes informal anecdotes and interviews with the chef de cuisine, Philippe Legendre and pastry chef Gilles Bajolle, which he compiled over several months of apprenticing in the kitchens of Taillevent.

I loved Todhunter's description of food - he made me want to eat lobster, and I don't like lobster at all. Unfortunately, I could have done with a little bit more time spent with the meal and less on Todhunter's interesting, yet at times random, musings. Still, this is a small complaint, and one I should be careful in making. Todhunter is a bit of a curmudgeon as far as restaurants and etiquette go, and I enjoyed most of his random tangents because I tend towards the curmudgeonly too. For example, his mild rant about American waiters calling their patrons "guys", as in "hey guys, can I take your order?" cracked me up, so I can't complain too loudly at its inclusion.

A Meal Observed is a book that I would like to own, not because I loved every minute of it (though I would say that I enjoyed almost every page), but because it recounts in thoughtful detail a meal of the sort that I will probably never enjoy. We are not likely to go to Paris anytime soon, and if we do, we are quite unlikely to to spend $700 on dinner, which is a shame because I'd like to. I wouldn't say that A Meal Observed is as good as being in the restaurant yourself, but it is a lovely reminder that such restaurants and experiences do exist, and that someday, maybe, maybe, maybe, you might have that experience too.

August 26, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Laura Miller at reviewed Sarah Water's fifth book, The Little Stranger, in terms that I can only completely agree with - this is a "masterly, enthralling new novel", and a serious must-read. I'm including the link to Miller's review here. There are only a few other things that I would add.

The first is to comment on the subtlety of Waters' plotting and execution. For a writer who successfully mastered the art of explicitly wrought, Dickensian plotting in Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, Waters has done something truly impressive here - she has mastered, with equal or greater facility, the tightrope walk of the implicitly driven plot. Whereas her first novels were rendered in a fully Victorian style with complicated twists and last minute revelations, The Little Stranger builds slowly, implying much, confirming nothing, all the while gently stoking a tangible feeling of dread. This is a gothic ghost story sustained at perfect pitch. I doubt even Henry James could have made The Turn of the Screw work at 300 pages, and yet Sarah Waters does, drawing the reader into the decay of Hundreds Hall and unraveling its inhabitants inch by creepy inch.

The second thing I want to mention is the narrator of The Little Stranger, Dr. Faraday, whose first name we never learn. This is interesting and something I'll have to think about. Anyway, I can't say much about him without allowing my interpretation of the book to color another reader's experience, but I will say is that rarely have I ever seen dramatic irony so skillfully and thoroughly employed. Her characterization of the kindly, stable Faraday is brilliant and sad and unnerving, thanks to the ambiguity ruling the book. Faraday alone is worth the read, but it would be short-changing Waters' skill to say that he is the only reason to read The Little Stranger.

I have been a fan of Sarah Waters ever since I read her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. It was a raw and exuberant, heart-breaking book, which she followed with the emotional gut-punch of her second book, Affinity. Waters' early novels reveal a young writer tapping into and exploring her prodigious talent. With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters has given us a fully mature work, a master-stroke in the form of a controlled, slow burn that delivers on the full weight of her potential.

August 23, 2009

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I finished The Blind Assassin, the novel for which Margaret Atwood finally won the Booker Prize, about a month ago, but I was so completely and uselessly fan-girled by it that I wanted to wait a while before writing up my thoughts. I figured that way I'd have more to say than just "Oh my god, oh my god, that was... I mean... wow!"

I do have more than that to say after a month of rolling the book around in my mind, but it still all boils down to "wow." The book is successful in so many ways that I can't address them all without boring anyone who doesn't live in my head, so I'm going to focus on structure for this little write up.

Structurally speaking, The Blind Assassin is a perfect novel. A structurally perfect novel is impressive no matter how you slice it, but it's especially impressive in the case of this novel, which weaves together four different, yet inter-related narratives. There are no last minute revelations in The Blind Assassin, as one might expect from a novel that is, in a sense, a bit of a jigsaw. Last minute revelations would disrupt the novel's elegant lines. Subtlety is called for, and that what Atwood uses, guiding the reader along implicitly, so that when something is revealed explicitly, the reader finds that they were already subconsciously aware of it.

The four threads that form The Blind Assassin are the modern, day to day dealings of the elderly protagonist, Iris Chase, Iris' remembrances of her childhood and early adulthood, and the whole text of a novel, also called The Blind Assassin, that her sister, Laura Chase, supposedly wrote before committing suicide in the 1940's. Laura Chase's The Blind Assassin is also set in the '40's, and tells the story of two lovers doomed to be separated by circumstance. In that novel-within-the-novel, the unnamed man writes a story for his lover, a rich society bride. It tells the tale of a blind assassin and the woman he rescues from death.

These are a lot of threads with very disparate contents, and one would think it nearly impossible to keep them operable and without using literary "cleverness" or falling back on trite and obvious tricks. What amazed me about The Blind Assassin, is that Atwood never makes a false move, not once, through the entire thing. Each of the threads elucidates the others, each narrator passes the narrative burden as if it were something light and delicate, like a teacup. The execution is flawless - literally, without a flaw. Incredible.

I've always liked Margaret Atwood. I deconstructed a number of her short stories when I began teaching myself to write, I gobbled up The Handmaid's Tale and I'm in the middle of loving Alias Grace, but The Blind Assassin is something different. It stands out to me as being that rarest of rare things: the Important Book that is also a genuine, keeps-you-up-until-dawn pleasure to read. This is why, after all of the babble that went into this post, and all of the thinking that preceded it, in the end, all I can say is "wow."

August 6, 2009

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill, is the third in her Simon Serrailler crime series, and I'm afraid it's the last one I'm going to read.

Her first book in the series, The Various Haunts of Men, was brilliant. Here's a link to my review of it last year. I loved how edgy it was, how Hill never coddled the reader, trusting in her audience's intelligence and emotional strength to get them through a rather disturbing and, at times, very sad read. The plot was taut, the characters compelling, the omniscient point of view (which is tricky to pull off) used to good end. I'd never read a mystery/crime novel that gave the reader so much emotional credit. I loved it, and I really looked forward to the next in the series.

That was The Pure in Heart. I didn't find it to be half so strong as The Various Haunts of Men - it wasn't bad, it just wasn't the Holy Cow! good of its predecessor. Here's the link to that review.

So, on to The Risk of Darkness, the third (but not last, as there's another on the way) in the series. By now, Hill's use of the omniscient third-person narrator is starting to wear thin. It's a difficult thing to pull off successfully in a novel-length work. That's why I was so impressed by The Various Haunts of Men. Usually moving to a new point of view in every chapter is exhausting, but it worked in the first Serrailler book, because the narrative arc was so taut. Used well, the technique demands the reader's emotional investment, but it requires a bold rising action and climax to work, two things that The Risk of Darkness lacks.

The Risk of Darkness picks up where The Pure in Heart left off - on the track of another serial killer in idyllic suburban England. Woven into the main plot is Serrailler's disconnect from people in general, his sister's worrisome disconnect from her husband, a young woman dying of variant CJD (mad cow disease), her husband going off the deep end, a young female priest with surprisingly little agency, her mother's victimization at the hand of burglars and a woman who's a jerk to her kid. There are other narrative threads in addition to these, but I think you get the idea.

The omniscient third-person no longer serves its purpose the way it did in The Various Haunts of Men. It pulls the reader in too many directions at once. We cannot invest in Serrailler - we're not with him long enough and, frankly, he's just not that compellingly drawn. We cannot invest in the dying young woman and her mad-with-grief husband - we're no with them long enough. Etc. etc. etc. In fact, rather than making me care about all of these various characters, I found myself doing the opposite. By the time I finished the book, I was glad to be out of the heads of such myopic, fatalistic, pathetic, cauterized and/or vaguely tiresome people.

I do have to say that Hill's approach to crime fiction is non-standard, which is refreshing. But the narrative convention that worked so well in The Various Haunts of Men is stunting the other books in the series. The Risk of Darkness should be edgy, compelling. It's not. It's ultimately tiresome. The omniscient third-person point of view has rendered Hill's characters two-dimensional. Despite a great deal of potential, they have become cookie-cutter people made to type and manipulated, and sadly not worth the investment.

So, the verdict? If you want to read a fantastically strong crime novel with structural integrity, read The Various Haunts of Men. Skip the rest of the Serrailler series - they'll only make you miss the excellence of the first book.

July 30, 2009

Grendel by John Gardner

This review will actually be quite short because, after a quick synopsis, there are really only two major things I'd like to address.

So, before going any father, here's the quick synopsis:

Grendel by John Gardner, is a fictional autobiography of Grendel, the troll/ogre antagonist-creature of Beowulf fame. Grendel, it turns out, is really quite a thinker, pondering all manner of metaphysical and existential questions while indulging his baser interests - he is still Grendel after all, which means he's pretty base and mean. The narrative is spare and follows the general goings-on of the Beowulf right up to the end, when Beowulf triumphs.

So, the first thing that bears commenting on is the portrayal of Grendel as being quite a thinker. I actually really liked it, and I liked that he behaved in his famously brutal, cruel way, despite being metaphysically concerned. For example, he continues to attack Hrothgar's hall, not only out of malicious rage, but because it gives him an identity - he becomes the monster that sacks Hrothgar's hall. The only reason he doesn't simply kill everyone is because, if he did, he would lose the identity he's earned. However, it's important to remember that Grendel is a philosopher only when compared to those in his society. His mother has long since lost the gift of coherent speech, and most of the other characters - both those like Grendel and human men are not what you might call "socially curious" or even terribly "smart."

The real mind of interest is that of the dragon. Among the many things of philosophical interest that the dragon says during a conversation with Grendel, his most pithy bit of advice is "collect as much gold as you can, and then sit on it." I liked the dragon so much, that I would have preferred the book to be about him. This leads me to my second point.

The real reason that I didn't enjoy Grendel as much as I felt that I should have, despite beautiful language and good humor and interesting characterization, is Grendel's narrative voice, or more specifically, John Gardner's authorial voice filtered through Grendel. We're now entering into dodgy territory, because what I'm talking about is not in any way concrete. Gardner filtered through Grendel is, to put is gently, painfully self-satisfied, not a pretty quality in an author, no matter how celebrated.

It's all right for Grendel to be a little bit pompous - he's both sympathetic and repellent, a thinker and a brute - but the pomposity is not Grendel's, it's Gardner's. Everything in the narrative smacks of authorial self-satisfaction. You can almost here Gardner in the background, daring you to think he's not clever. This is a real turn-off, and it's the reason that, despite everything that's great about it, I didn't enjoy reading Grendel. It's a real shame. I almost wish Gardner's fictional dragon had written it instead.

July 12, 2009

A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker & You've Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave

I don't usually read children's picture books, mostly because I don't have children. But for several months, I've been reading a lot of them as research for several projects. Many of the picture books I've read are cute but, for the most part, nothing special. I have come across two, however, that made a serious impression. 

The first, Bonny Becker's A Visitor for Bear, I heard read on the radio before I read it for myself. Daniel Pinkwater, the great children's book author, was on NPR's week-end edition. He read through Becker's A Visitor for Bear, which is about Bear, a reclusive sort who doesn't like visitors (he even has a sign) and the mouse who wears him down. Even without seeing Kady MacDonald Denton's illutrations (which are lovely and expressive) I was completely charmed by the story. Bear's revelation, that maybe friends are a good thing, comes around with gentle inevitability and good humor. To see the apron wearing Bear exhausted into providing tea and a crackling fire for the cheeky mouse is one thing, but Becker takes it further, exposing Bear's vulnerabilities - the mouse listens to him, takes an interest and laughs at his jokes, which are all new experiences for Bear - so that when the mouse says he has to go, Bear's despair is painful and understandable. Happily the mouse ends up staying and the pair enjoy a second cup of tea by Bear's fire, a comforting ending to a moment of genuine catharsis and change on Bear's part.

The second book, You've Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave and illustrated by Nick Maland, is the sort of book I wish I'd had as a child. The dragons are humorous stand-ins for the very real fears and anxieties children (and adults) have. The book goes through all of the things we tend to do when we've got dragons - we ignore them, yell at them, hide from them, fight them, and yet they keep growing bigger until we're expert dragon-havers. But, if we take a different approach, if we acknowledge our dragons, give them names (I liked Montgomery the Math Test Dragon), know what they look like and treat it with respect, the dragon shrinks, until one day it disappears. But the really wonderful thing is that it gives no false promises to the child reader, ending with the line, "now you'll know what to do the next time you've got dragons." You will get more dragons and that's ok, because now you know what to do. It's a comforting message, and practical advice that both children and adults could benefit from, delivered in a humorous and charming package.  

Very often, children's books are formulaic, or didactic, or saccharine, or simply nothing special. Every once in a while though, you come across a book that reminds you of why you loved picture books as a child. A Visitor for Bear and You've Got Dragons are two such books. I will very proudly read them to our children should we be lucky enough to have them, and if we aren't, I'm very happy to have them on my shelf anyway. 

June 4, 2009

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

For a while now, I've felt like a hypocrite. I love meat. I mean, I really Love meat. But the inhumane living conditions, and even worse, the dying conditions that many animals raised for food experience on factory farms and in standard assembly-line meat processing plants disturbs me. It isn't the act of eating another creature that bothers me. I'm a human and, as such, I'm an omnivore, which means that my diet consists of both meat and veg in varying degrees depending on the budget, my iron levels and what I happen to feel like cooking.  What does bother me, however, is needless suffering. I don't think that the animals that will become the meat I eat should have to suffer for the privilege of feeding me. So I've been at a cross-roads for about a year, unwilling to completely give up the yumminess of meat, but increasingly unable to stomach the practices that put it on my plate.

Given this backpack full of guilt, empathy and hypocrisy, I didn't feel prepared to read Catherine Friend's book, The Compassionate Carnivore, when it came out a year ago. I made excuses like, "I'm not ready to think about this yet" and "I'll check it out soon...." Well, I finally did check it out and it was, in two words, freaking excellent. 

Friend is a life-long carnivore. She also raises sheep on a small farm in Minnesota with her partner. They sell their sheep for meat. They eat the sheep they raise, and they raise those sheep in such a manner that they have very good, safe, sheep-like lives, before they fulfill they're ultimate destinies as lamb chops and mutton. I say all this upfront, because it's important to understand that Friend's point of view is one that stems from respect - for the farmers, for the consumers and especially for the animals.

Friend is not about giving up meat. In fact, that's the opposite of helpful if one's concern is animal welfare. Rather, Friend would have meat-eaters continue to eat meat with one important change. Think about where your meat comes from and make a conscious choice about the kind of meat you buy - organic or local? Vegeatarian fed or grass fed, or grass finished for that matter? Slaughtered humanely (I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn't) or herded into meat-packing plant's disassembly line? 

Once you've decide what kind of meat you want to eat, the next step, according to Friend, is to vote with your dollar. Support small farmers whose practices reflect whatever it is that you feel is important, whether its sustainability or humane treatment or just a little less corporate agra-business putting the squeeze on family farms. 

What really makes The Compassionate Carnivore work is a combination of two things. The first is Catherine Friend's humor, empathy and total lack of bull-shit. Not only has she been through the meat-eater / animal lover's conundrum that I outlined above, but she's still going through it, and rather than taking an all or nothing approach, she recommends baby-steps, as in her experience, you have to be patient with yourself if you want to make a lasting change.  The second thing is the abundance of resources she gives you to help you educate yourself and make whatever changes are right for you. This book never once hit a preachy note - a pleasant and important surprise considering how volatile the subject is.

All in all, I would recommend The Compassionate Carnivore to anyone - to those who eat meat with joyful abandon, as well as to those who have given it up because of fear of animal cruelty. What Catherine Friend outlines is a middle-road full of good humor and dual-perspectives. On the one hand, it's vital to have compassion for the environment and for the creatures who will one day become our food. On the other hand, it's vital to have compassion for yourself, which is something that I needed to hear.

May 14, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife isn't usually the kind of book I gravitate to. It has a the indefinable haze of Today-Show-approved-quality-chick-lit about it. I'm a staunchly no-chick-lit kind of gal, so I surprised myself a few weeks ago when I picked it up a the library after listlessly wandering around for half an hour. I'm really happy I did - my anti-chick-lit snobbery learned a valuable lesson in chilling out.

Audrey Niffenegger's first novel is sort of a surprise. It feels, even as you're reading it, quite breezy, swinging along as it does. But every so often, Niffenegger allows shadows to cross over the work - not so surprising, given that she wrote The Time Traveler's Wife while simultaneously working on her second book, The Incestuous Sisters, a beautifully illustrated book about, yes, three incestuous sisters. 

Niffenegger's real triumph is how deftly she manages time. Her protagonist, Henry DeTamble is a CPD - (a person with chrono-displacement, a genetic abnormality which causes the patient to time travel in much the same way that epilepsy causes seizures). He meets Clare Abshire, who will become his wife, when she is six years old and he is in his thirties (in his present, when he meets the six year old Clare, his wife, Clare, is pregnant with their daughter). 

It would be easy for an author to drop any one of this story's chronological threads, given that Niffenegger moves Henry back and forth through the past, present and future seemingly at random, all the while building the narrative logically if one lets go of traditional time. For example, although Clare has known Henry since she was six, he meets her for the first time when she is twenty and he is twenty-eight. This is a minor example of how Niffenegger manipulates the chronology, and all to good effect. By the end of the book, all of the pieces fall into place inevitably, as the reader has been given glimpses of the inevitable throughout. In this way, Niffenegger places the reader firmly in Henry's shoes - the pieces of his life align only at the end of the book, in what is very close to hindsight. 

The Time Traveler's Wife is a romance, it's true. But it is quiet and matter-of-fact. There is little of the "romance" about it. Similarly, while Niffenegger created a disease for Henry to explain how and why he time travels, it's a foundational element, this bit of science fiction, very quietly driving the book. In the end, I would say that The Time Traveler's Wife is speculative - it speculates on the nature of time and it's elasticity; it speculates on what kind of love could survive the strain of chronological displacement, an appropriate concern for moderns who never seem to have enough time; ultimately, it speculates on what kind of life could be lead when even the facade of control cannot exist. It's a touching book and an affecting book and chick-lit or not, it was absolutely worth the read. 

April 21, 2009

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

I read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson as an undergrad in a feminist lit. course. I remember thinking it was all right, although I was absolutely conscious of the fact that I wasn't really getting it. Still, I liked it well enough to hang on to my copy for nearly ten years. Being at an absolute loss for something to read, I picked it up again and I'm incredibly glad that I did. This time I had enough experience and perspective to not only get it, but to actively enjoy everything that I had missed the first time through.

The Passion is, at its heart, a meditation on passion - sexual, spiritual, filial and emotional. The story itself is a simple one set in Europe over the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The first chapter follows Henri, a simple French soldier who follows Napoleon with unquestioning faith. The second chapter introduces Villanelle, a Venetian woman who literally loses her heart. The third chapter unites these two separate threads and the fourth chapter ties them together. But far from being cliched or even predictable, Winterson weaves the narrative with so much of the surreal, the questionable and the casually fantastic that the reader ends up feeling caught in a strange sort of tapestry. Her style turns a seemingly simple story into a grotesque and beautiful fairy tale told through a looking glass.

While The Passion is worth reading for the language and imagery alone, I especially loved Henri's ruminations on the nature of passion - that there is no hate like the hate that comes from passion disappointed, that to be in love is to live one's life in the service of the beloved, that the beloved bears a mirror, and only in that mirror can the lover see himself. None of these ideas are new, but to read them in Henri's vulnerable, earnest voice, to think of them after the book is done and his fate completely known is a lovely, melancholy experience, one that I couldn't have hoped to understand as a young, inexperienced girl.

Ultimately, The Passion can be read in many ways - as a magical realism, a fairy tale, a literary experiment, even, if one squints, as a feminist track, although, looking back, I think that the only reason it qualified for a course in feminist lit., is because Villanelle genders-bends and loses her heart to a woman. The queer material is presented casually, very much not the express point of the novel except in that it illustrates the way in which passion neither respects nor requires restriction (honestly, the fact that Villanelle has webbed feet is given more narrative attention).  That said, regardless of how you chose to read The Passion, regardless of where you place its weight, it is very much worth reading, if only as a doorway to ruminate on the role of passion in your life.

April 18, 2009

Disquiet by Julia Leigh

I have really, desperately wanted to read something good for the past while, good being loosely defined as anything ranging from very well executed pulp to the legitimately highbrow. Unfortunately, good in any shape or form has eluded me, so much so that I got tired of writing negative reviews, so I haven't reviewed the past couple of books that I've read. Then, yesterday, I came across Disquiet by Julia Leigh, an Australian author I'd never heard of, but whom Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee seem to think highly of. The volume was a slender novella just released in paperback, with a blurb that read "a haunting, mesmerizing tale of a family in extremis." Whether it was the blurb or the form that attracted me (almost no one writes or publishes single novellas anymore), I finished Disquiet in a two hour sitting, and it was very good.

Disquiet is about a woman, Olivia, who arrives at her mother's chateau on the run from an abusive marriage. She brings her children with her. Olivia's brother, Marcus, also arrives with his grieving wife, Sophie, after the birth of their stillborn daughter. What follows is a fragile unfolding.

The novella does this unfolding quietly, disquietingly, in fact. Leigh's prose is spare and elegant, with not a word wasted. She implies much more than she says and is all the more powerful for it. Her style is an elegant brushstroke through which Olivia's disconnection and despair become painfully clear through small actions and omissions. The other characters are drawn with equal, spartan care, while  Sophie's grief takes on grotesque proportions, contrasting directly to Olivia's painful flat-affect. In the end, both women undergo emotional crises at the hands of the other, forcing an end to their respective stagnations.

Disquiet is a very fast read, easy to savor and finish in a week-end, if not a day. As starved as I've been for good, and as good as Disquiet was, I wouldn't wish it into a novel - what made Disquiet so excellent was its brevity. All of its power and elegance are rooted in its form. To wish for more would be to spoil it. That said, having read it, I feel refreshed and content and almost relieved. Now I feel ready to continue the search for the next good thing.

April 6, 2009

The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler

I'm not sure what my problem is, but I feel sure that I must have one. I feel like I should have loved The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, I feel like I should have gobbled it up like the diverting little confection it is, I feel like it should have at least enjoyed it. But I really didn't.  It's the sort of book I would have eaten for lunch five years ago, and then told everyone they should read it for a quick good time. But these days, it just made me feel impatient.

Some background: The Arcanum is a secret society of occult investigators, a supposedly brilliant quartet of unlikely heroes: Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft and the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. 

There are problems with the choice of characters in more than one way - too many ways in fact to go into in the space of a shortish blog post with very limited readership. Suffice it to say, the most glaring problem is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not his legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes. Nor was H.P. Lovecraft Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes (supplemented by a heaping brainful of paranoia and an obsession with the occult), and yet Wheeler insists on upon treating both characters as if they were. And Harry Houdini? Well, one can only ask why the hell he would want to secretly investigate the occult (a question that never comes close to getting answered). As for Marie Laveau, why the most feared and respected voodoo pracitioner ever must resort to lifting her skirts and pretending to be a prostitute every time the group gets into a tight spot is beyond my understanding.

Toss into this motley mix of unlikelyhood The Book of Enoch, Alastair Crowely, fallen angels, an annoying thug of a detective, and a far ranging plot to expose God's mistakes and bring about the end of the world, and you've got the makings for some good clean fun. Unfortunately, it's not. There's something in Wheeler's execution that falls flat, perhaps beneath the weight of his purple prose (Lovecraft could get away with this, Wheeler, sadly, cannot). But it's really the sense of everything being massively and incredibly contrived that made me squirm. Wheeler bends and twists his characters to suit his needs, mutilating all sense of narrative authenticity as effectively as the big, bad Evil kills its victims. Like I said, it made me impatient. 

I love a good, trashy romp - I really do. I just like my good, trashy romps to cop to what they are and do it in a genuinely trashy, not-trying-to-be-anything-else way. Unfortunately, Wheeler's The Arcanum fell short there. He managed to turn what could have been a fun and diverting diversion into a pretentious, unintuitive clockwork. That he used figures like Doyle and Lovecraft to do it just makes it feel all the more like an eldritch failure.

March 22, 2009

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

I haven't posted a review in well over a month. At first, this was because life caught up with me and I didn't have the time to sit down and read for several weeks. Then things slowed down and I picked up a book I'd been intending to read for over a year - Michael Cox's debut novel, The Meaning of Night, and things slowed down even more. As in, I have been trying to strong-arm myself through this book for three weeks, and it feels like I've been at it for months.

That said, I don't want to imply that The Meaning of Night is not well-written, because it is. Cox is, in fact, a noted Victorian scholar with a special interest in the gothic. This man knows his material, which I believe is the biggest problem. Cox knows the literature of the period so well that he is able to thoroughly imitate, in minute detail, the styles and tropes of those masters who created the ghost story and the Victorian gothic novel, but when Dickins and Collins and Henry James did it, they were treading new ground, they were innovating existing literary molds. Cox's debut novel, on the other hand, does not contribute anything new to the dialogue. Rather, it very self-consciously follows an already well-beaten path.

Cox uses standard tropes (obsession, unreliable identities, lost heirs and doomed love to name a few) in a purely standard way - the narrator/protagonist seeks revenge against the man who deprived him out of his education, his love and his rightful place in society, etc. etc. etc. This would be fun (no innovation required), if Cox didn't present the material in such a ponderous, self-indulgent way, quoting Donne at random intervals, interrupting the narrative with interminable flashbacks and foot-noting everything from the Latin chapter headings to hotel and restaurant locations. This might read as clever to some, but to me it was interruptive and precious, and worse, it didn't serve the story in any tangible way. The result was akin to Cox standing at a lectern, interjecting minutia, while Anthony Hopkins tried to read Bleak House to an audience of undergraduates.

Now, one might argue that the tiresomeness of the prose is deliberate - the novel is written in the first person and is meant to be the confession of a bibliographic man who is far too intelligent for his own good. But Cox sets up a separate problem there. Although the narrator/protagonist Edward Glyver, has a very legitimate reason to hate his enemy, Phoebus Daunt, Cox destroys the reader's ability to truly and deeply sympathize with (or even like), him before the end of the novel's first line: 

"After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." 

Now, I don't object on moral grounds - several of my favorite books have morally reprehensible protagonists (see I, Lucifer and Use of Weapons) and because it is natural and appropriate for those narratives, I'm totally good with that. I object because Cox throws this out there and then expects the reader to trust and like and invest in Glyver's ponderous narrative without question. 

In the end, I'm a reader who likes questions and conflict and psychological interest, and my greatest objection to The Meaning of Night is that Michael Cox had a great opportunity to plumb some very intriguing depths, and he chose instead to show us all how terribly much he knows. Given that, I would recommend that if you're looking for a gothic romp, give it a read, but if you expect more, or would like a gothic romp with substance, pick up Tipping the Velvet or Affinity by Sarah Waters, Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, or the real, original deals by Wilkie Collins, or Charles Dickens or any of their contemporaries.

February 8, 2009

The Gargoyle: A Novel by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson's first novel, The Gargoyle, did something to me that I love, but which happens relatively infrequently - I ended the book feeling melancholy and out of sorts because it was over. Apparently, The Gargoyle took Davidson seven years to write and the end result is a novel that fully embodies the benefits of its long period of gestation. This is most evident in the mellowness of the narrative's strong pull - nothing feels manufactured, nothing feels forced. The story simply pulls the reader forward through to its inevitable end. 

Here follows a very brief and necessarily incomplete synopsis:

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator/protagonist - a hyper-intelligent, beautiful man who, as the result of a great string of circumstances, is a drug-addled pornographer at the time of the fire that nearly kills him. Though he survives his accident (quite against his preference at the time),  the narrator is left severely disfigured with nothing but a fantastically thorough plan to commit suicide pulling him through his grueling recovery. 

Enter Marianne Engel, a beautiful sculptress of gargoyles and grotesques undergoing temporary treatment at the hospital's psych ward. She comes to the narrator's room and informs him that she was a nun 700 years before in medieval Germany, and that he was  the love of her life, a mercenary whom she'd helped heal from burns received in battle. The narrator thinks she's crazy (really, why wouldn't he), but something about her draws him and he begins to look forward to her visits. 

Over the course of these visits, which become increasingly important to the narrator, Marianne Engel tells him stories - beautiful stories of doomed lovers intertwined with their own history and readings of Dante's Inferno. Although the narrator's logic never fully accepts these stories and their history as being factual, he does come to believe that she believes them, and this is enough for him.

When he is well enough to leave the hospital, he goes to live with her, and for a time they are happy. But Marianne Engel believes that her carvings are a penance. She receives word from God that there are only 27 left before her time on earth is finished, and the narrator, who has never loved before, must travel through his own inferno before coming to the end.

Davidson ties the threads and themes of Dante's work, Marianne's stories, the narrator's experiences and their medieval history so successfully that the narrative progresses with inexorable grace. The narrator unflinchingly relates his own emotional progression with a sardonic self-awareness that gradually mellows to simple self-awareness, as indicated by the subtle and gradual shift in narrative tone. 

Implications and perceptions are presented without forced conclusions, questions of religion and faith are raised without the desperate expectation of an answer. In this way, Davidson trusts his reader more than any first-time author I've ever read. He never strives, grasps or manipulates. He simply weaves a seamless tapestry of a novel and allows the reader to see what she (or he) will.

I suspect that some will love The Gargoyle while other might just think it's neat, and I suspect that the response will depend entirely on the reader. For me, this was certainly the best first novel I've read in a very long time. It did not feel like a first novel, it felt sure and brave and inevitable. If this is the result of Davidson's first seven year effort, I will happily wait another seven for a work of equal worth.

February 1, 2009

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

I've never reviewed a cookbook on this blog before, mostly because, as much as I like reading cookbooks, I've never come across one like The Art of Simple Food. It is a lovely, gentle book, made charming by the Alice Waters' obvious love of food and the process of cooking.

Waters walks the reader through 200 pages of basic techniques and foundation recipes, but far from being overwhelming or disheartening, Waters is gentle and empowering - so much so that I felt comfortable enough to successfully try a recipe for a basic souffle, something that I've heard, on more than one occasion, no novice cook should attempt. 

Following the foundation recipes, are more recipes - variations on the foundations that Waters has guided you through in her clear, warm prose. The idea is that once you understand the principals at work behind a dish, you are utterly free to play with variations from there, and idea that I really appreciate.

The other thing I liked about The Art of Simple Food, aside from Waters' voice and down to earth style, is that this is no glossy cookbook meant to be leafed through on coffee tables but never used. This is a functional book. There are no fancy photos of high fashion food. Rather, The Art of Simple Food features lovely, Art-Nouveau inspired, pencil illustrations by the artist Patricia Curtan, giving an overall effect of understated warmth that highlights the ingredients as well as the finished dish. The spot light is on the food itself, not untouchable masterpieces conceived by a distant chef. In fact, despite her fame, nothing about Waters is distant - she is fully accessible and completely encouraging in an understated, un-patronizing way.

And, I suppose that's where the success of this book lies. It is a beautiful, homey, aesthetically pleasing, functional cookbook with recipes and prose suitable for novice cooks, as well as more experienced amateur chefs. Even foodies who don't cook would find pleasure in the joy Waters obviously takes in presenting menus and techniques based on what's in season and the contents of a well-stocked pantry. Utterly lovely reading. It will take me ages to cook my way through The Art of Simple Food, and I'm very much looking forward to the process.

January 19, 2009

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

I always find it a little difficult to review a short story collection. My instinct is to take the stories individually and review them one by one, but that would take forever and I doubt if anyone has the patience to read an epic blog post. The trouble is that the stories in many collections are oftentimes either unrelated, or tied together by a general theme as loosely as six year old's tennis shoes. However, the curse of the unrelated story does not plague Kelly Link's dark and lovely collection, Pretty Monsters. While all of the stories here stand on their own, they are united by the theme well expressed by her title: they are stories about monsters - some pretty, some subtle, and some simply monstrous.

"Monster", the first story I'd ever read by Kelly Link, literally made my neck twitch, which is not an easy thing to do. It is also an excellent example of the quality  that permeates her entire collection - the quality of Wrong.

I'm not referring to Wrong in a moral, ethical or societal sense. I'm referring to that subtle ache one gets when something is vaguely Wrong, when something nebulous is unsettling the lizard brain. That is the quality that best defines all of the stories in Link's collection, although it shows up most strongly in "Monster," which is about a scout troop's camping trip, an urban legend, and a monster in the woods. What makes the horror element so effective in Link's work, is the lightness of her hand, the humorous charm of her narrative voice, and the politeness of her monsters - they aren't trying to scare you, they're just being themselves. 

In the subtler stories, like "The Wrong Grave," Link uses communicative ambiguity to great effect. She allows the narrator to connect with the reader, then destabilizes the reader's sense of not-Wrong with the narrator's subtle Wrong-ness. The result of this is that I finished the story feeling vaguely disturbed for reasons I couldn't pin down.

The only place that I felt even slightly dissatisfied with the collection is exemplified by the story, "The Faerie Handbag". It's a completely successful story that borders more on fantasy than horror. Still, the story's narrator is incredibly, if subtly, unreliable. What left me dissatisfied was the potential for a deeper exploration of the narrator - why does she believe what she believes? Why is she telling us this story? Is she having fun at our expense? Is she traumatized? Is she mad? There were a lot of psychological possibilities at play and I wanted Link to explore them. That said, I recognize that this is a matter of writerly preference - while I as a writer who tends to plumb characters' psyches, Link's story functions successfully without doing so. It's just a matter of taste. 

Kelly Link is one of the most exciting young writers around right now, and the fact that she writes genre fiction in the short story form is especially exciting, given how far out of favor the short story form has fallen... but then, that's a discussion for another post. It's enough to say that Kelly Link's collection is a well-crafted, funny and subtly disturbing read. The experience of reading Pretty Monsters is like being tickled while the world tilts around you, and that, as experiences go, is one that I would recommend.

January 16, 2009

The Foggy Foot Annex

Hi everyone - this is patently not a review. I just wanted to announce the arrival of The Foggy Foot Annex, my new, secondary, non-review blog. I will continue to write my sporadic reviews here. The Annex is for everything else, which amounts to quite a lot. 

The Annex is not completely spiffied-up yet, but it is up and running with a shiny, new first post, so give it a look-see whenever you have a moment, or are feeling so inclined. In the meantime, I'm cooking up reviews for Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, which my awesome husband just gave me for Christmas, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, which is one of my all time favorites. I promise I'll get them up here before I'm old and gray.... In the meantime, thanks for reading!

January 9, 2009

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

I finished Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, early this morning. I didn't finish it last night because I was going cross-eyed from exhaustion and promised myself that I would exorcise it before another day passed. It was really that good.

Originally, the premise sounded a little well-worn -- young, ambitious female scholar has affair with professor, it ends badly, she goes home to small town to recover. However, the fact that she tries to run her professor's wife down with a bush plane piqued my interest enough for me to read on, and I'm very glad I did. Although The Monsters of Templeton is a very fast read, it's not a popcorn book - Groff's prose-style alone precludes that. In fact, it's her prose that makes the novel stand-out. Well, her prose and the novel's structure. 

While the unifying thread is that of Willie Upton, the ambitious female scholar with the bush plane, the novel wouldn't be half as interesting if it were only about her (the only real weakness I found in the book were some minor elements of her characterization that didn't quite ring true. But then, that's a matter of personal taste...).

Groff expands the narrative to include the entire town of Templeton including its settlement, the "monster" in Lake Glimmerglass and Willie's venerable family tree. As Willie solves the mystery of her parentage, the history of her family and town unfolds through letters, journals and the fictional work of a fictional genius. From a structural point of view, I enjoyed all of that because I'm a structure geek, but neat structure doesn't necessarily guarantee enjoyable reading. However, Groff peppers in so many dark, humorous and, frankly odd, elements -- a spinster with pyrokinesis, a charming murderess with a cross-dressing sister, a benign, violet colored ghost with a penchant for cleanliness, and the aforementioned "monster" in the lake (which I though to be the loveliest character in book) -- that it's hard not to be charmed by the narrative itself. 

And so, because of all of these things and others that I would rather not spoil, The Monsters of Templeton was a lovely read and I very much recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of a look at the dark side, without tipping over the edge.