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.