Short Stories in September, Part III/Roundup: Ausubel, Bynum, Roberts
A rare second post in a day from me – there’s just too much to try to fit in at the end of a month! This year I read a total of 11.5 short story collections in September, nearly matching last year’s 12. I’ve already written about the first three and the next four. I’ll give details on a few more below, but the final 1.5 are going to be part of a later Three on a Theme post on “Birds” story collections. The highlight of the month was one of those: Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. However, I read lots of winners, including Brown Girls, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies and the three below. Just shorthand responses this time; all were .
Awayland by Ramona Ausubel (2018)
Basics: 11 stories, grouped under 4 mythical locales
Settings: California, Beirut, Africa, Turkey, a museum, an unnamed island
Themes: motherhood, loss, travel
Links: Greek myths (opener “You Can Find Love Now” is the Cyclops’ online dating profile); the sister in #2 is the main character in #4
Stand-out: “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species” (the mayor of a Minnesota town, concerned about underpopulation, offers a car to the first mother to give birth on a date 9 months in the future)
Similar authors: Aimee Bender, Lydia Millet
Aside: I’d want to read her novels just for the titles: No One Is Here Except All of Us and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
(New/remainder purchase from Dollar Tree on a recent USA trip)
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (2008)
Basics: 8 linked stories following 7th-grade teacher Beatrice Hempel through her twenties and thirties
Themes: love, loss, motherhood, adventure vs. overprotectiveness, idealism vs. being jaded
Stand-outs: “Crossing” (Ms. Hempel, previously an English teacher, is asked to cover history, and takes her students to Plimoth Plantation; meanwhile, her department chair wishes she’d hyphenate her name to make it more clear she’s half-Chinese); “Satellite” (after her father’s death, Beatrice’s mother and younger sister decide to turn the family home into a B&B)
A similar read: Olive Kitteridge, though that takes more of an interest in the town and its other residents than this – it’s ironic that this came out in the same year, and even got lots of positive and high-profile reviews based on the quotes in my paperback copy, yet I doubt it’s been remembered as Strout’s book has. Such is the power of the Pulitzer.
Aside: I’d read Bynum’s other story collection, Likes (2020), and didn’t care much for it, but I’m glad I tried her again.
(Secondhand purchase from 2nd & Charles on a recent USA trip)
Playing Sardines by Michèle Roberts (2001)
Basics: 18 stories, some of flash fiction length
Settings: France, England, Italy
Themes: reinvention, love affairs, obsession, food, literature
Stand-outs: The ones with funny twists/shock endings: “The Sheets” (French maid beds visiting English author), “The Cookery Lesson” (woman stalks celebrity chef), “Lists” (pillar of the community prepares for Christmas, starting months ahead), “Blathering Frights” (a Wuthering Heights spoof)
Similar authors: Julian Barnes (one story is indeed dedicated to him!), A.S. Byatt, John Lanchester, Helen Simpson
Aside: I own two unread novels by Roberts and need to prioritize them.
(Secondhand purchase from local charity shop)
Alas, I also had some DNFs for the month. I read one or two stories in each of these and didn’t take to the style and/or contents:
- The Quarry by Ben Halls
- One Good Story, That One by Thomas King
- Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie
- What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Six Degrees of Separation: True History of the Kelly Gang to Geek Love
This month we begin with True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. (See also Kate’s opening post.) I feel like I still have an unread copy, but won’t find out now until after we move. I’ve read several of Carey’s novels; my favourite by far was Parrot and Olivier in America, a delightful picaresque set in the early 19th century.
#1 Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes was one of my most-admired novels in my twenties, though I didn’t like it quite as much when I reread it in 2020. Funnily enough, his new novel has a bird in the title, too: Elizabeth Finch. I’m two-thirds through and it’s feeling like warmed-up leftovers of The Sense of an Ending with extra history and philosophy on the side.
#2 My latest reread was Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, for book club. I’ve read all of her novels and always thought of this one as my favourite. A reread didn’t change that, so I rated it 5 stars. I love the neat structure that bookends the action between the death of Queen Victoria and the death of Edward VII, and the focus on funerary customs (with Highgate Cemetery a major setting) and women’s rights is right up my street.
#3 Another novel featuring an angel that I read for a book club was The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. It’s set in Burgundy, France in 1808, when an angel rescues a drunken winemaker from a fall. All I can remember is that it was bizarre and pretty terrible, so I’m glad I didn’t realize it was the same author and went ahead with a read of The Absolute Book.
#4 The winemaking theme takes me to my next selection, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, which I read on a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium in 2017. Bosker, previously a technology journalist, gave herself a year and a half to learn everything she could about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. The result is such a fun blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
#5 I have so often heard the title The Dork of Cork by Chet Raymo, though I don’t know why because I can’t think of an acquaintance who’s actually read or reviewed it. The synopsis: “When Frank, an Irish dwarf, writes a personal memoir, he moves from dark isolation into the public eye. This luminous journey is marked by memories of his lonely childhood, secrets of his doomed young mother, and his passion for a woman who is as unreachable as the stars.” Sounds a bit like A Prayer for Owen Meany.
#6 Another novel with a dwarf: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, about a carnival of freaks that tours U.S. backwaters. I have meant to read this for many years and was even convinced that I owned a copy, but on my last few trips to the States I’ve not been able to find it in one of the boxes in my sister’s basement. Hmmm.
To the extent that we have ‘a song,’ “Geek Love” by Nerina Pallot would be it for my husband and me. A line from the chorus is “We’re geeks, but we know this is love.” It’s from her breakout album Fires, which came out in 2005 and was almost constant listening fodder for us while we were engaged. We’ve seen her live three times and she always plays this one.
From a gang via dorks to geeks, linked by the fact of books being stuck in (Schrödinger’s) boxes. Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason — perfect given that it’s the book my book group has been sent to discuss as we shadow this year’s Women’s Prize.
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Swedish Death Cleaning (#NordicFINDS and #ReadIndies) & Three Rereads
An unexpected opportunity to contribute another post for Nordic FINDS this week (after my skim of Sophie’s World): yesterday we went into London – for just the second time since the pandemic started – and I took along a couple of novella-length books, one of them this Swedish nonfiction work that I picked up from a charity shop the other week. As it was released by Canongate in 2017, it also fits into Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies challenge.
Our previous London trip was to see Bell X1 play at Union Chapel back in December. Yesterday was also for a gig, this time The Lost Words: Spell Songs playing Cadogan Hall. I’d been dubious about this ensemble project based on Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells but ended up loving both books as well as the two albums of folk/world music based on them, and it was a brilliant evening of music.
Anyway, on to the books. I also reread a novella in advance of book club, so afterwards I’ll take a quick look at the rereading I’ve done so far this year.
Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson
This is not about trauma cleaning, but downsizing and culling possessions so that the burden doesn’t fall to your children or other relatives after your death. Magnusson, who is in her 80s, has experience with death cleaning: first after her mother’s death, then after her mother-in-law’s, and finally after her husband’s, when she decided to move from the family home to a small flat. I enjoyed the little glimpses into her life as a mother of five and an artist. The family moved around a lot for her husband’s work, living in the USA and Singapore. She makes more of an allowance for possessions that hold sentimental value (especially photos and letters), being more concerned about the accumulation of STUFF.
As for general strategies, she suggests starting the process c. age 65 and beginning with the big things, from furniture on down, so that you make visible progress right away. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them.” She goes category by category through her possessions. Clothing and cookbooks are pretty easy to shed: get rid of whatever doesn’t fit or suit you anymore, and only keep a couple of much-used cookbooks; you can find most any recipe on the Internet these days, after all. Leave the emotional material for last or you’ll get bogged down, she advises – you can take your time and enjoy reminiscing as you look through mementoes later on. She even considers what to do about old pets.
To let things, people and pets go when there is no better alternative is a lesson that has been very difficult for me to learn, and it is a lesson that life, as it goes further along, is teaching me more and more often.
Magnusson writes that she does not intend this to be a sad book, and it’s mostly very practical and unsentimental, even funny at times: on disposing of secret stuff, “save your favourite dildo but throw away the other fifteen!”; a little section on the perils of “man caves” and her memories of her clumsy cat Klumpeduns. I also laughed at the concept of a fulskåp (“a cabinet for the ugly”) for unwanted gifts that must eventually be rehomed or disposed of.
One problem that I have with decluttering books in general is that there isn’t enough of an anti-consumerist and green message. One, don’t accumulate the stuff in the first place (and reuse and buy secondhand wherever possible); two, possessions should almost never be thrown away, and only as an absolute last resort after doing everything possible to repair, refurbish, rehome or recycle them.
This was an enjoyable little book that I’ll pass on to someone else who might find it useful (so long as it’s not considered too on the nose as a book recommendation!), but it didn’t necessarily add anything for me beyond what I’d encountered in Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin and Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub. (Secondhand purchase)
[I’m a little confused as to whether this is in translation or not. It first appeared in Swedish, but as no translator is listed anywhere in the copyright info, I assume that Magnusson translated it herself. Apart from some wrong number/amount and during/over choices, it reads like a native speaker’s work.]
I’ve reread three books so far this year, which for me is pretty good going. It helped that all three were novella length, and I had book club as an excuse to return to the two novels.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes was the other book I popped in the back of my purse for yesterday’s London outing. Barnes is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read 21 books by him now! – but I remember not being very taken with this Booker winner when I read it just over 10 years ago. (I prefer to think of his win as being for his whole body of work as he’s written vastly more original and interesting books, like Flaubert’s Parrot.) It’s the story of an older man looking back on his youth, and his friend’s suicide, in the light of what he learns after a somewhat mysterious bequest. The themes of history, memory and regret certainly mean more to me now in my late 30s than they did in my late 20s, but I still find this work a little lightweight; sordid, too. (Free from mall bookshop)
Readalikes: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was January’s book club selection. I had remembered no details apart from the title character being a teacher. It’s a between-the-wars story set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie’s pet students are girls with attributes that remind her of aspects of herself. Our group was appalled at what we today would consider inappropriate grooming, and at Miss Brodie’s admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Educational theory was interesting to think about, however. Spark’s work is a little astringent for me, and I also found this one annoyingly repetitive on the sentence level. (Public library)
Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide by Jane Walmsley: This is the revised edition from 2003, so I must have bought it as preparatory reading for my study abroad year in England. This may even be the third time I’ve read it. Walmsley, an American in the UK, compares Yanks and Brits on topics like business, love and sex, parenting, food, television, etc. I found my favourite lines again (in a panel entitled “Eating in Britain: Things that Confuse American Tourists”): “Why do Brits like snacks that combine two starches? (a) If you’ve got spaghetti, do you really need the toast? (b) What’s a ‘chip-butty’? Is it fatal?” The explanation of the divergent sense of humour is still spot on, and I like the Gray Jolliffe cartoons. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest feels dated – she’d updated it to 2003’s pop culture references, but these haven’t aged well. (New purchase?)
Any Nordic reads, or rereads, for you lately?
Adventures in Rereading: Madeleine L’Engle and Posy Simmonds
I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.
On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.
Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.
“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”
“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”
Original rating (as remembered from childhood):
My rating now:
Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)
This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.
Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.
Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.
So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.
Original rating (2010?):
My rating now:
And a DNF:
I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.
Done any rereading lately?
Robertson Davies Weekend 2020: The Rebel Angels
Last year for the Robertson Davies readalong, hosted annually by Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, I reviewed Fifth Business, the first volume in The Deptford Trilogy. This time I chose to read the first volume in The Cornish Trilogy, The Rebel Angels (1981). Published 11 years after Fifth Business, it shares a number of that book’s features, including a campus setting and a preoccupation with good and evil. If I can generalize about Davies from having read just two of his books, I would say that his novels engage with philosophy and the Christian tradition, and though he dives into the dark things of life his is an essentially comic vision, giving his work an attractively puckish air.
Maria Magdalena Theotoky is a 23-year-old graduate student at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed “Spook”) in Toronto. She slept with her advisor, Clement Hollier, precisely once in his office last term. Two events spark the plot: the return of Brother John Parlabane, an ex-monk and -drug addict, and the death of Francis Cornish, a local patron of the arts. Parlabane becomes a university parasite, sleeping on couches and hitting up Maria, Hollier and Anglican priest Simon Darcourt for money. Along with Darcourt and Hollier, Urquhart McVarish, Hollier’s lecherous academic rival, is a third co-executor of Cornish’s artworks and manuscripts. Rumor has it the collection includes a lost manuscript by François Rabelais, the subject of Maria’s research, and Hollier and McVarish fight over it.
They also fight over Maria – no fewer than five male characters fall in love with her over the course of the novel. A sort of Helen of Troy (her first names bring to mind the presumed harlot from the Bible, while her surname means “God-bearer”), she is so beautiful that she sows conflict and heartache wherever she goes. Maria narrates about half of the novel – the other half, in alternating chapters, is by Father Darcourt, who’s writing an everyday history of the university inspired by Aubrey’s Brief Lives – and her coming to terms with her Gypsy heritage is a key element: Maria’s mother, Mamusia, is an entertaining character who tells fortunes and administers love potions, but Maria mostly finds her embarrassing.
Gypsy culture recurs in the book. So does poop. Professor Ozias Froats does research into what effect body type (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) has on fecal samples. Rabelais was a notably scatological writer, and Maria’s mother repairs subpar stringed instruments by storing them in barrels of wool and horse dung. Hollier has an academic interest in medieval excrement therapies, and asks to go see Mamusia’s folk remedy in action. I found this strand very amusing, but it’s further evidence that this novel is not for the squeamish – it also includes one of the most hideous murder methods I’ve encountered in fiction, so beware.
The title refers to angels thrown out of heaven, and is Maria’s shorthand for the trio of Darcourt, Hollier and Parlabane. Parlabane is explicitly likened to Lucifer and Satan, making him an embodiment of evil. For much of the book the homosexual hedonist seems harmless, yet he does engage in all the deadly sins. Gluttony and pride, especially: he has two enormous meals on Maria’s dime, and is determined to get his dense, pretentious autobiographical novel published by any means necessary. However, he carries the book, and I wanted even more of him. (They say Satan is the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, too.)
“To thine own self be true” is a message one might extract from the novel – phrased subtly differently in the Paracelsus quote that gives Parlabane’s novel its title, Be Not Another. Accepting all parts of oneself, even the hidden ones, prevents an inconvenient return of the repressed. Davies’s exploration of the types of human relationships, chaste versus base, suggests that true friendship is superior to sexual love. I greatly enjoy his novels of ideas and would recommend them to readers of Michael Arditti, Julian Barnes, D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. Shall I go straight on to the Booker-shortlisted What’s Bred in the Bone? I’m intrigued to see what characters and themes will carry over into the second volume.
Some favorite lines:
“The house stank; a stench all its own pervaded every corner. It was a threnody in the key of Cat minor, with a ground-bass of Old Dog, and modulations of old people, waning lives, and relinquished hopes.”
(this seems apt for Davies’s work in general) “some grotesquerie, some wrenching originality, is a necessary part of real scholarship, and brings a special glory with it.”
Source: Oxfam charity shop, Newbury
Six Degrees of Separation: From How to Do Nothing to Genie and Paul
It’s my seventh month in a row doing Six Degrees. This time (see Kate’s introductory post) we all start with How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, about time and mindfulness. I’ve not read this 2019 release, but its premise reminds me of two books I reviewed a couple of years ago for this Los Angeles Review of Books article on the benefits of “wasting time.”
#1 One of those books was The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl. The book blends memoir with travel and biographical information about some of Hampl’s exemplars of solitary, introspective living. Her book wanders along with her mind, in keeping with her definition of memoir as “lyrical quest literature,” where meaning always hovers above the basics of plot.
#2 The hot air balloon on the cover takes me to Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. It opens, famously, with a fatal ballooning accident that leaves the witnesses guiltily wondering whether they could have done more. Freelance science journalist Joe Rose – on a picnic with his partner, Keats scholar Clarissa – rushed to help, as did Jed Parry, a young Christian zealot who fixates on Joe. I recently borrowed a DVD of the film from a neighbor and it somehow felt even darker and creepier. (Strangely, the two main characters’ jobs were changed to philosophy professor and sculptor – were those considered easier to show on film?)
#3 A quote from McEwan on the cover convinced my book club to read the mediocre She’s Not There by Tamsin Grey. (I think the author was also a friend of a friend of someone in the group.) One morning, nine-year-old Jonah wakes up to find the front door of the house open and his mum gone. It takes just a week for the household to descend into chaos as Jonah becomes sole carer for his foul-mouthed little brother, six-year-old Raff. In this vivid London community, children are the stars and grown-ups, only sketchily drawn, continually fail them.
#4 The readalike that came to mind when reading Grey’s novel was Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, set on a similarly rough London estate. It was on the notorious 2011 Man Booker Prize shortlist (a judge spoke of looking for books that “zip along”; the right author won – Julian Barnes – but for a book I did not particularly enjoy, The Sense of an Ending). The novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku, who is newly arrived in England from Ghana and turns sleuth when one of his young acquaintances is found murdered.
#5 According to my Goodreads library, the only other book I’ve read with “pigeon” in the title is Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell. I love his animal-collecting adventure books, although this one set on Mauritius did not particularly stand out.
#6 The Mauritius location, plus a return to the “pigeon/pidgin” pun of the Kelman title, leads me to my final book, Genie and Paul by Natasha Soobramanien, about a brother and sister pair who left Mauritius for London as children and still speak Creole when joking. I reviewed this postcolonial response to Paul et Virginie (1788), the classic novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, for Wasafiri literary magazine in 2013. It was among my first professional book reviews, and I’ve enjoyed reviewing occasionally for Wasafiri since then – it gives me access to small-press books and BAME authors, which I otherwise don’t read often enough.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! Next month’s starting book will be Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (see my review).
Have you read any of my selections?
Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
20 Books of Summer: Bourdain, Ozeki and More
Over halfway through the summer and my numbers are looking poor. It’s not that I’m not reading a ton – in general, I am – it’s just that I’m having trouble finishing any foodie books. I’m in the middle of two food-related memoirs plus Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, and have recently started buddy-reading Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn with Annabel, so more reviews will be along eventually, but I predict August will be a scramble.
Today I review an in-your-face tell-all about the life of a chef, and a novel set between Japan and the United States that exposes the seamy side of meat production. A lite road trip and an iffy California classic follow as bonuses.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
(20 Books of Summer, #5) “Get that dried crap away from my bird!” That random line about herbs is one my husband and I remember from a Bourdain TV program and occasionally quote to each other. It’s a mild curse compared to the standard fare in this flashy memoir about what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. His is a macho, vulgar world of sex and drugs. In the “wilderness years” before he opened his Les Halles restaurant, Bourdain worked in kitchens in Baltimore and New York City and was addicted to heroin and cocaine. Although he eventually cleaned up his act, he would always rely on cigarettes and alcohol to get through ridiculously long days on his feet.
From “Appetizer” to “Coffee and a Cigarette,” the book is organized like a luxury meal. Bourdain charts his development as a chef, starting with a childhood summer in France during which he ate vichyssoise and oysters for the first time and learned that food “could be important … an event” and describing his first cooking job in Provincetown and his time at the Culinary Institute of America. He also discusses restaurant practices and hierarchy, and home cook cheats and essentials. (I learned that you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday – it’ll be left over from Thursday’s order.) The pen portraits of his crazy sous-chef and baker are particularly amusing; other subjects include a three-star chef he envies and the dedicated Latino immigrants who are the mainstay of his kitchen staff.
My dad is not a reader but he is a foodie, and he has read Bourdain’s nonfiction (and watched all his shows), so I felt like I was continuing a family tradition in reading this. I loved my first taste of Bourdain’s writing: he’s brash, passionate, and hilariously scornful of celebrity chefs and vegetarianism (“the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food”). Being in charge of a restaurant sounds manic, yet you can see why some would find it addictive. How ironic, though, to find a whole seven references to suicide in this book. Sometimes he’s joking; sometimes he’s talking about chefs he’s heard about who couldn’t take the pressure. Eighteen years after this came out, he, too, would kill himself.
(See also this article about rereading Bourdain in the 20th anniversary year of Kitchen Confidential.)
Source: Local swap shop (free)
(These two are linked by a late chapter in the Bourdain, “Mission to Tokyo,” in which he advises on a new Les Halles offshoot in Japan and gorges himself on seafood delights.)
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)
(20 Books of Summer, #6) I don’t know what took me so long to read another novel by Ruth Ozeki after A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favorite books of 2013. This is nearly as fresh, vibrant and strange. Set in 1991, it focuses on the making of a Japanese documentary series, My American Wife, sponsored by a beef marketing firm. Japanese American filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. The traditional values and virtues of her two countries are in stark contrast, as are Main Street/Ye Olde America and the burgeoning Walmart culture.
There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems: Jane, whose reproductive system was damaged by DES, a synthetic estrogen her mother took during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage; and Akiko, the wife of Jane’s boss, who struggles with an eating disorder and domestic violence.
Jane starts sneaking controversial subjects into her shoots: a lesbian couple, a family formed by interracial adoption, and a five-year-old who has already undergone puberty due to the hormones used on her family’s cattle feedlot. What is “natural,” and what gets branded alien or invasive? From the kudzu that strangles the South to a murdered Japanese exchange student, Ozeki probes the related issues of nativism and racism. Her two protagonists’ stories – one in the first person; the other in the third person – come together in a surprising manner as Jane decides that she has a more pressing obligation than creating a diverting television show.
This is a bold if at times discomforting novel. At first it brought to mind the exaggerated comedy of Julian Barnes’s England, England and Jane Smiley’s Moo, but as it grew darker it reminded me more of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It’s tricky, when a work of fiction tackles ethical or environmental matters, to balance storytelling and consciousness-raising, but Ozeki pulls it off with style. The only aspect that didn’t mean much to me, perhaps simply because of my unfamiliarity, was the excerpts from The Pillow Book of Shōnagon. How sad to think that I only have one more Ozeki awaiting me, All Over Creation. She averages a book every 5‒10 years; we can only hope that another is on the way soon.
Source: Charity shop
I picked up another two food-adjacent books that didn’t work for me, though I ended up skimming them to the end.
America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip in Search of Non-Corporate USA by Dave Gorman (2008)
(20 Books of Summer, #7) I read the first couple of chapters, in which he plans his adventure, and then started skimming. I expected this to be a breezy read I would race through, but the voice was neither inviting nor funny. I also hoped to find more about non-chain supermarkets and restaurants – that’s why I put this on the pile for my foodie challenge in the first place – but, from a skim, it mostly seemed to be about car trouble, gas stations and fleabag motels. The only food-related moments are when Gorman (a vegetarian) downs three fast food burgers and orders of fries in 10 minutes and, predictably, vomits them all back up; and when he stops at an old-fashioned soda fountain for breakfast.
Source: Free bookshop
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)
(20 Books of Summer, #8) I read the first 25 pages and then started skimming. This is a story of a group of friends – paisanos, of mixed Mexican, Native American and Caucasian blood – in Monterey, California. During World War I, Danny serves as a mule driver and Pilon is in the infantry. When discharged from the Army, they return to Tortilla Flat, where Danny has inherited two houses. He lives in one and Pilon is his tenant in the other (though Danny will never see a penny in rent). They’re a pair of loveable scamps, like Huck Finn all grown up, stealing wine and chickens left and right.
Steinbeck novels seem to fall into two camps for me. This is one of his inconsequential, largely unlikable novellas (like The Pearl and The Red Pony, which I studied in school – I’m lucky they didn’t put me off Steinbeck forever), whereas The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are masterful. It may also have something to do with the slight air of condescension towards characters of a different race: Steinbeck renders their speech with “thee” and “thou,” trying to imitate a Romance language’s informal pronouns, but it feels dated and alienating.
Source: Free bookshop
Adventures in Rereading: Julian Barnes and Jennifer Egan
My last two rereads ended up being as good as or better than they had been the first time around; these two, however, failed to live up to my memory of them, one of them dramatically so. My increased literary experience and/or the advance of years meant these works felt less fresh than they did the first time around.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (1984)
Barnes is in my trio of favorite authors, along with A. S. Byatt and David Lodge. He’s an unapologetic intellectual and a notable Francophile who often toggles between England and France, especially in his essays and short stories. This was his third novel and riffs on the life and works of Gustave Flaubert, best known for Madame Bovary.
Odd-numbered chapters build a straightforward narrative as Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widower, retired doctor and self-described “senile amateur scholar,” travels to Rouen for five days to see the sites associated with Flaubert and becomes obsessed with determining which of two museum-held stuffed parrots Flaubert used as his inspiration while writing the story “A Simple Heart.” Even-numbered chapters, however, throw in a variety of different formats: a Flaubert chronology, a bestiary, an investigation of the contradictory references to Emma Bovary’s eye color, a dictionary of accepted ideas, an examination paper, and an imagined prosecutor’s case against the writer.
There are themes and elements here that recur in much of Barnes’s later work:
- History – what remains of a life? (“He died little more than a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper.”)
- Love versus criticism of one’s country (“The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.”)
- Time and its effects on relationships and memory
- How life is transmuted into art
- Languages and wordplay
Indeed, I was most struck by Chapter 13, “Pure Story,” in which Dr. Braithwaite finally comes clean about his wife’s death and the complications of their relationship. Barnes writes about grief so knowingly and with such nuance, yet his own wife, Pat Kavanagh, didn’t die until 2008. Much of what he’s published since then has dwelt on loss, but more than two decades earlier he was already able to inhabit that experience in his imagination.
As a 22-year-old graduate student, I gobbled this up even though I knew very little about French literature and history and hadn’t yet read any Flaubert. I wasn’t quite as dazzled by the literary and biographical experimentation this time. While I still admired the audacity of the novel, I wouldn’t call it a personal favorite any longer. I think others of Barnes’s works will resonate for me more on a reread.
My original rating (c. 2006):
My rating now:
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
This makes up a pleasing pair as it shares Barnes’s experimentation with form and meditation on time. Before my reread I only remembered that it was about washed-up musicians and that there was one second-person chapter and another told as a PowerPoint presentation. Looking back at my original review, I see I was impressed by how Egan interrogated “society’s obsession with youth and celebrity, the moments of decision that can lead to success or to downfall … and the way time (the ‘goon’ of the title) and failure can wear away at one’s identity.” Back then I called the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “achingly fresh, contemporary and postmodern. It is, in fact, so up-to-the-minute that one wonders how long that minute can last.” I was right to question its enduring appeal: this time I found the book detached, show-offy and even silly in places, and the characterization consistently left me cold.
This was probably the first linked short story collection I ever read (now a favorite subgenre), and the first time I’d encountered second-person narration in fiction, so it’s no wonder I was intrigued. “Each chapter involves a very clever shift in time period and point of view,” I noted in 2011. This time, though, I found the 1970s–2020s timeline unnecessarily diffuse, and I was so disinterested in most of the characters – kleptomaniac PA Sasha, post-punk music producer Bennie, musician turned janitor turned children’s performer Scotty, a disgraced journalist, a starlet, and so on – that I didn’t care to revisit them.
The chapter in which Scotty catches a fish and takes it into Bennie’s office was a favorite, along with the PowerPoint presentation Sasha’s daughter puts together on the great pauses of rock music (while also revealing a lot about her family dynamic), but I found the segment on PR attempts to burnish an African general’s reputation far-fetched and ended up mostly skimming five of the last six chapters.
This was a buddy read with Laura T. (see her review); we came to similar conclusions: this may have felt fresh and even prescient about technology in 2010–11, but it didn’t stand up to a reread; still, we’ll keep our copies if just for the 75-page PowerPoint presentation.
Note: Egan has said that her next project is a companion piece to Goon Squad that uses a similar structure and follows some of its peripheral characters into new territory. Based on this rereading experience, I don’t think I’ll seek out the sequel.
My original rating (June 2011):
My rating now:
To reread next: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and On Beauty by Zadie Smith