Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blood, Bones, and Butter

Sometimes when I read a book I know others will enjoy, I simultaneously realize there is no way I can explain it in a way that piques their interest as it should. Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter is just such a book. To say the book is about food, while true, is also an understatement.

The author grew up in a family where food was central. She opens with her memories of the book outdoor lamb roast her father organized and carried out each year. Even her accounts of her pure delinquency when her mother left and she and a brother remained behind--basically alone--don't prepare the reader for the woman who develops.

Hamilton didn't end up with her own restaurant Prunes in New York City after going the traditional route--culinary school. In fact, after having to complete high school and college in a nontraditional setting, she earned a MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, "the Harvard of the Midwest." She learned everything she knows about the food industry the hard way, from the bottom up.

She started out waiting tables, prepping for huge generic catered meals, tending bar, even underage, finally landing in her spot as owner and chef by following anything but a logical business plan.

And that is only part of the story. Hamilton married an Italian (an Italian Italian-from Italy), the father of her two sons, and went with him each July for three weeks in Italy with his family, going from Rome to their summer villa in the South, then back. These vacations not only provide rich materials for food writing but such introspection and awareness of family dynamics.

Hamilton's rich use of imagery, of figurative language might slide by a reader not mining for such, but would land smack in the subconscious, prompting one to mull over just why this book is so evocative and provocative. I'll admit that I had to figure out how to add notes and highlights to my eBook so I could return to some of the most powerful passages. For now, though, I think I want to cook some eggplant.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Famous Men and Their Women

By one of those odd coincidences that occur in my reading life, I just finished two books that were oddly parallel: Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, the story of Mameh Cheney, the woman for whom Frank Lloyd Wright left his wife and six (count'em six) children. I'll confess that by chance, I had an abridged audio (which I consider something of an abomination), and I could often tell where the cuts were made. For a lot of reasons, I can't (or won't) reveal much of the plot, and I'll even encourage you NOT to read anything about the relationship if you plan to read the book.

I've always been interested in Wright, particularly since one of the homes he designed is located in my hometown, Florence, Alabama, built for the Rosenbaum family. In my absolute favorite high school class, Humanities, we had an architecture unit and were able to tour the home. Over the last several years, I've also read Blue Bailett's YA novel The Wright Three before visiting and touring Chicago, and I made the trip out to Oak Park for the F. L. Wright tour, as well as to the Robie House near the University of Chicago.

I couldn't help, though, as I read the book, sympathizing with the spouses and families abandoned.

Then I read Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife. The writing was particularly good, I thought, and the author used historical and biographical research as well as Hemingway's fiction to weave her tale. Perhaps the most memorable turn of events occurs when Hadley manages to lose Hemingway's only drafts of writing, a detail I must research.

The story was such a name-dropper, bringing in all the expatriates--Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein, credited with dubbing the crew the "Lost Generation." While much of the story is set in Paris, it begins back in the states and travels throughout Europe,--Lausanne and, of course, Pamplona.

In both books, I marveled at how these not-yet-discovered geniuses managed to travel and live either on credit, hope, or the generosity of wealthier friends. Both stories were heartbreaking, and although neither purported to be anything more than a novel, the bones of the stories, grounded in truth, were both compelling.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I've Seen the Future--Again!

Recently, I found myself in the future through all three of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy (the first now about to be filmed just a few miles from here!) Now I've just made my way through Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, and once again, the future looks bleak.

During grad school, I took a comp class in which the instructor used utopian and dystopian literature as a central focus of much of our writing, particularly the research. I remember reading Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published in 1872. Reading his view of the future--or Orwell's 1984--after the fact was thought-provoking, but provided a reminder that it's often not what we worry about that happens. It's what we weren't expected.

In Shteyngart's case, though, he certainly taps into current concerns--our Chinese debt for instance (the big gold yuan symbol on a heavy gold chain appears around necks of at least two characters), the effects of our wars in faraway places and our treatment of returning vets, and of particular concern to me--the replacement of text and talk (called verballing) with electronic options. Even the iPhone is mentioned as retro in the book. Everyone wears tinier and tinier devices called apparats, used for everything. Lenny Abramov, the main character, collects and yes, even reads, books. But when he attempts to read on a plane, people around him complain about the smell.

The extreme worship of youth is central in the novel. Lenny works for a company selling eternal youth--or life--to HNWI's (High Net Worth Individuals). The central love story examines Lenny's obsession with Eunice Park, a first generation Korean American twenty years his junior. Told through Lenny's diary and Eunice's electronic communications (some modern version of email and Facebook), the tale plays on the dramatic irony in the difference between contrast between Lenny's and Eunice's interpretation of events in their lives both small and large.

I guess I'll have to wait a little longer for a more positive view of a future with a sound America, a peaceful world--and a future in which books are safe, even valued.

Friday, May 13, 2011

War Stories from Closer to Home

The structure of Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone reminded me from the beginning of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, short stories with a common setting whose characters overlap. Fallen too writes a fictional account based on her own experience, a Ft. Hood wife of a soldier deployed to Iraq.

The stories move back and forth between the base, where wives are facing fears that range from roadside bombs to females serving in the field near their husbands. They deal with gossip, cancer, and childrearing alone --or with the makeshift families developed among the other wives.

The most painful accounts are those of the less-than-perfect homecomings, especially the story of Kit, a soldier returning injured to his young wife who wants her old life back--alone.

With my own friend's sons and even former students having spent time in Ft. Hood, I'm reminded that Fallon's stories only offer a slice of that experience, but what she offers has the ring of truth.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In and Out of Room

Sometimes a book review will draw me in, I'll buy the book, and then hesitate about starting to read it. Room by Emma Donoghue was just such a book. The premise was obviously inspired by a true story that surfaced not long ago--a young woman abducted and held for years against her will, giving birth in captivity--but the use of Jack, the five-year-old son who had never ventured out of the 11 X 11 room where he was born, as narrator certainly gave this novel a twist.

The book sat on my shelf, about eye level, and still I hesitated. Then after a couple of strong recommendations, I came across it in audiobook at the library. This version (a Hachette audiobook) used a young boy as Jack, but also incorporated other voices for Ma and other characters--and it worked.

I hesitate to say too much about the plot because it's a tale told in a way readers need to experience without too many preconceived notions. Too often, if I think I already know a plot, I am reminded just how much more there is to a good book that just plot. In this book, though, the plot peaks midway through the story, and just when I think I've reached the resolution, it takes a completely different turn. Since I was listening on my ride to and from work, I'll admit that at times, I wished I had taken the print copy along too, so that when I was forced to leave my car in the parking lot and go in to work, I could have at least sneaked a peak at what happens next. At times the suspense was killing me. I wanted to have what NPR tags "driveway moments."

Aside from the story, which made me care so much for the two main characters, the victims of a horrendous crime, I also found myself thinking so much about underlying issues the books subtly touches: our overwhelming abundance of possessions, the toll our national curiosity takes on survivors of such experiences, the complications in multigenerational relationships, particularly as marriage and remarriage come into play.

My favorite exchange in the novel occurs when the mother tells her psychiatrist, after the ordeal, that she sometimes wants to slap her mother. He asks if she ever wanted to slap her before the abduction. She laughs wryly and says, "Oh. I have my life back."

At its best, Donoghue's novel shows not only the resilience of the human spirit, but the capacity to make the best of what we have, creating the best world we can with what we have within our grasp.