Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Shark Curtain by Chris Scofield (2015)

I got my copy of The Shark Curtain by Chris Scofield (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, which always seems to algorithmically know which books I'm going to like. 

This is a coming-of-age novel set in 1960s Portland, Oregon. Our blossoming teenager, Lily Asher, however, isn't the usual teen protagonist. She counts things. She barks. She is pretty sure she is growing a tail, but she tries to hide it. Jesus appears to her frequently, doing things like fishing, skateboarding, or driving a cab. Her family consists of a beautiful, artistic mother (who was sent away from her native Romania by her Jewish parents at the start of the second world war), and a funny and supportive father (who has a gambling and anger problem), as well as a spunky little sister who tries to pretend everything around her is absolutely normal, even when it's not.

This sounds a little cutsey when I type it out, but Scofield does a great job of balancing Lily's mental quirks and unstable family life with healthy doses of reality, feeling, and humanity. Rather than becoming a punchline or a metaphor, Lily is a complicated, three dimensional character with an awareness of her oddness and no easy answers for fitting into the world around her. The book deals with death, mental illness, the Holocaust, religion, sexual abuse, and more, but doesn't let itself get bogged down into the predictability of a message novel. Just as readable for a 13 year old as a 43 year old, this is a young adult novel that doesn't pander with rich and well-rounded characters and a moving and rewarding plot. This is Scofield's first published novel, but I'd love to read her short stories and I'm excited to see what she does next.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000)

I got myself a bread maker last year when I found a super sale on woot.com and I bought The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger (2000) to help walk me through some of the science and art of bread machine baking.

I realize bread machines are a little out-of-fashion, and I do have non-machine bread baking experience -- I really enjoy it, but almost never do it because I don't feel like I have the time / don't want to heat up the kitchen / don't think about it. I also am not totally satisfied with the browning capabilities of my current oven -- it just doesn't do bread that well. My lovely bread machine though, is so easy! I get the feeling of accomplishment from making a homemade loaf of bread without getting myself and the kitchen totally covered with flour, and the enclosed little oven doesn't heat up the kitchen and browns the bread just the way I ask it to.

This book is an exhaustive look at all the things you can do in your bread machine and includes recipes for pretty much every kind of bread or roll or pastry or dough that I've ever heard of. Hensperger is an accomplished and enthusiastic baker (both with and without the machine) and her notes on ingredients, baking processes, baking science, and the history of different kinds of bread are fascinating. I actually read the whole cookbook!

One qualm is that she insists on using SAF or bread machine yeast, which is hard to find now that the bread machine is passé and no one wants to eats carbs or gluten anymore. I just wing it with regular yeast and it seems fine. The best tip I got from this book was to add in a tablespoon or so of gluten in with the flour. It really improves the texture of the bread in the machine and gives it more of a non-machine lift and texture. You can buy gluten in a bag in the baking aisle -- it felt so scandalous to buy an entire bag of gluten from a shelf right next to the gluten free baking mixes!

In short: I love bread, I love my bread machine, and I think if you like bread in any form, you'd probably like this book.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, by Sam Weller (2010)

I'm pretty sure everyone on the planet is a fan of Ray Bradbury, but no one is a bigger fan than Sam Weller, author of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010) unless, of course, you count Bradbury himself.

Yes, Bradbury did not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, but in the older man in these interviews that trait is more endearing than irritating. And, you know, he comes by it honestly. Weller organizes this series of rambling interviews both chronologically through Bradbury's life and by the topics that fascinated the man. He talks frankly about his personal and professional life, sex, his childhood, his fascinations, and his disappointments. His is a life story that doesn't seem possible anymore: an idyllic childhood in the midwest, coming of age near a Hollywood bursting with relatively accessible stars and artists, and being a writer at a time when you really could seal a contract with a handshake and pave your pathway to success with confidence and hard work.

Bradbury is full of extremely strong opinions, only about half of which I'm really on the same page about (and some of which he seems to make up on the spot), but as you forgive the aggressive confidence and the single-mindedness, you forgive these too. I mean, the man wrote The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, innumerable short stories, and more. He created a mythology for himself and then lived it. His literary kind of science fiction is hard to emulate and even harder not to like. He really was a writer, in a way that most writers are not.

Bradbury died in 2012, but Weller's journey with his hero continues on his blog for the book, including the heartbreaking news that the Bradbury house that is lovingly chronicled here has been sold and demolished. There really isn't room for Bradburys in Los Angeles anymore.

Finally, as an aside, this book was published by Stop Smiling, a defunct Chicago-based magazine that was one of the very best, which morphed into a book publisher. They haven't put anything out in years, but I keep hoping for a comeback. Come back, guys!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

My lovely friend Joolie loaned me her copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) after I mentioned I'd always wanted to read it. Of course, when I got it home I realized that Dr. M already had a copy, but that didn't stop me from hanging on to Joolie's copy forever and finally reading it. Thanks, Joo!

And, as anticipated, I really really liked this one. After the Clutter family was murdered in their home in small-town Western Kansas in 1959, Capote and his friend, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas with the idea that he could write about the crime and the investigation. He quickly became close to the lead investigator and was able to get significant details about the crime and the family. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith were found and arrested about six weeks after the murders, after a trip to Florida, Mexico, California, and eventually back to Kansas. Capote was able to closely interview the killers as well, and kept in touch with them through their long stay on death row up until their executions in 1965. When Capote published his book in 1966 it quickly became a best seller and is still the best selling true crime book of all time.

By today's standards, this is not anywhere near unbiased journalism, and from some cursory online research, it sounds like some facts of the murders and the lives of the townspeople and killers were exaggerated or skipped over for narrative effect. In the book itself, we get zero acknowledgement of Capote and Lee as the interviewers or writers -- the narrative unravels like a novel, bouncing between the Clutters, Hickock and Smith, and the investigation. I'd love to know more about what Capote actually did as he was researching this book and a lot more about Harper Lee's contributions (this dissertation, for example, sounds fascinating). I saw the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie a few years ago (and I'd like to see it again having read the book), but I'm not sure what sources that version of Capote's methods is based on. I'm sure there is a great biography of Capote out there, and I'd love to read it.

Of course, regardless of how he did it and how much the book really reflects what happened, this is a wonderfully written and engrossing piece of fiction/non-fiction. It makes you feel hopeful and hopeless at the same time, and does a nice job of making both the "good" and "evil" characters complex and human, without making excuses for the murders or making the victims into saints. If you (like me) somehow got through life without reading this before, you should probably pick it up soon. I have a copy I can loan you...

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Food Chain by Catherine Chalmers (2000)

The photo essay collection Food Chain: Encounters between mates, predators, and prey by Catherine Chalmers (2000) is my next pick from the St. Denis book storage pile.

Using a combination of caterpillars, tomatoes, praying mantises, frogs, tarantulas, and "pinkies" (that is, newborn mice), Chalmers deftly explores the interaction between predator and prey, culminating in the famous sex/death system of the praying mantis.

The photos are all shot with stark white backgrounds and the subjects, whom Chalmers raised herself in her New York City apartment, are allowed to let their personalities shine. And let me tell you, frogs in particular have quite a bit of personality.

The pictures are accompanied by an introductory essay by Gordon Grice and an interview with the photographer that helps put her work in context.

Wanna check some pictures out for yourself? Go for it!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003)

I received a copy of Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Actually, it's the third book of McFadden's I've gotten through Early Reviewers (see my reviews for Gathering of Waters and Nowhere is a Place), and I've liked all three so much that I should probably throw some of my own money down on the next one.

Loving Donovan is (as you may guess) a kind of a love story, deeply rooted in the characters of its two protagonists, Campbell and Donovan. The first section of the book, "Her: 1973-1980," takes us through Campbell's childhood, ages eight through fifteen, and delves into the history of her family, particularly her mother, Millie, and her larger than life aunt, Luscious. Campbell has a loving but strained family life, is pushed into sex with a boyfriend when she is 15 and, like her mother and Luscious, gives birth to a child before she is really ready.

The second section, "Him: 1971-1985" gives Donovan the same treatment, ages seven to twenty-one. He also has a strained family life after his mother leaves his father and takes his baby sister with her, leaving the men to live with Donovan's overbearing and controlling Grammy (who has a slightly belief-defying connection to Luscious that would have been a little too much if it wasn't handled as lightly as it was). Donovan is sexually abused as a young boy, an experience he finds it impossible to talk about, and one that will color his relationships and emotions for the rest of his life. Still, he is an athletic and friendly young man, and an ambitious and hard worker who quickly builds a good life for himself, albeit a lonely one in an apartment on the second floor of Grammy's house.

Finally, "Them: 1999-2000" brings Campbell and Donovan together. They are both in their thirties, both experienced in life and (more or less) in love. Both pretty lonely. They have an immediate spark and a strong connection that is boosted by, and ultimately destroyed by, the experiences we lived through with them in the first two sections of the book. We know from Campbell's prologue at the beginning that their relationship wouldn't last, but that doesn't make working through its ups, downs, and implosion any easier.

Like the other two books I've read, McFadden has a lyrical writing style that matches the depth and intensity of her characters. She does not shy away from violent, upsetting, and cruel actions, but she is just as willing to wax poetic and sing out the happy parts of her characters' lives. I really enjoyed the structure of this book, although I could have used a little more Them (or, alternatively, a little more of Campbell's young adulthood). And I was, to be honest, a little disappointed in the ending which I thought veered away from the personalities of the characters that we'd spent so much time getting to know. Still, McFadden has created another encompassing and readable universe here, and one which any reader in love with good characters should try to seek out.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

Our latest theme for the DAFFODILS book club was a book that had been waiting in one of our members "to read" pile, and the lucky winner was Joolie and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013).

Although we read this one for my more free-form bookclub, it would be a perfect choice for my other book club, the Debbie Downers, because man oh man, this is a downer of a book. And yet I really loved it! I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a person who is a voluntary member of a book club that only reads sad books would like things on the melancholy / tragic side of the scale.

The Lowland takes place in a small community on the outskirts of Calcutta and in University towns of the Northeast United States, mostly in Rhode Island, and spans from the 1950s through to the present day. The action centers on two very different brothers who are, nonetheless, very close to each other as children. Subhash is the older and more conventional of the two brothers. He is thoughtful, risk-averse, and often in the shadow of his more outrageous and political brother, Udayan. While they are very close as  children, Udayan's secretive involvement with the Naxalite movement (a violent Maoist group in India) pushes them further apart. Subhash focuses on his studies and ends up moving to Rhode Island to study and oceanography. While he is there he has sporadic correspondence with his brother and parents, but mostly lives in isolation from them (and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else). He has a brief friendship with an American roommate and later a passionate but controlled affair with a recently separated American woman. Then he gets a telegraph from his parents that Udayan is dead, killed by soldiers in front of his family, and he returns home to Calcutta immediately.

There he finds the empty shells of his parents and the sad, angry, and pregnant wife of his brother. Udayan married Gauri, an intellectual and politically active university student, without the permission of either of their parents, and while she has the right to live with her in-laws after her husband's death, she is not welcome. Subhash does one of the only unexpected and risky things of his life, and asks Gauri to marry him, come to the United States, and allow him to raise Udayan's child as his own. She can continue her studies in philosophy in the U. S.

And then things go on and on and on. Gauri has her daughter, who is the one bright spot in the neutral and isolated life of Subhash, but there are very few bright spots or connections for any of the characters in this book that continues to follow Subhash and his family through to their retirements and old age.

Sounds like a real fun read, right? Luckily, with Lahiri at the helm, it really kind of is. The amount of control she exerts over the narrative -- never letting the intense and tragic things become too forceful, or the neutral and isolated sections become too dull -- is impressive and engaging. The crossing back and forth between Bengali and American cultures gives movement to a narrative that is locked into the resignation of the characters and their inability to change, even when they want to. These characters are straightforward and open to the reader in a way that they aren't to each other or, really, to themselves, and that puts us in a unique perspective on these sad, long, isolated, but really not that unique, lives. This is a pretty literary book, but a very readable one as well. Definitely give this one a chance.