Saturday, November 27, 2010

Back from Tucson, with a Gray Christmas from Persephone on my mind

There is nothing better than a surprise in the mail -- even if you know it's on the way. So what a thrill to come home from a week in Tucson late last night and find a white bubble envelope from London. My Persephone book, compliments of my Secret Santa, had arrived!

This is so much fun. I usually know exactly what I'm getting for Christmas (let's just say my darling husband prefers VERY specific instructions), but in this case, I have no clue what the title might be, or who got my name. I have been talking to my daughter about how much I dislike a commercial from a certain luxury car manufacturer indicating that a $70,000 car is the perfect Christmas gift -- it seems so out of step with the times, and my mood. And looking at this package, I know I'm right -- a book is a small, wonderful, personal gift, and I wouldn't be more excited about a box from Sachs Fifth Avenue than I am about this small, white envelope.

No, I haven't opened it yet -- I admit, I was going to open the mailing package, but when I turned it over, a handwritten note reminded me, "For Christmas." So I'm in a quandry. Should I open the envelope and see what's inside? I'm not sure if there are any additional clues in there.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A frustrating time with Monica Ali's In the Kitchen

I do not write many negative book reviews. This is not because I don’t have strong opinions (I think that Jess over at Desperado Penguin, who also just happened to be the maid-of-honor at my wedding, will back me up on this—remember what became of the tropical flowers, Jess?). Rather, it’s because leisure reading is a gift I give myself, and I rarely stick with a book that I’m not enjoying.

So what to make of my mixed feelings about Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen? It has lots of elements I like in a novel – skillful use of language, food-related story, quirky characters, multicultural vibe. I didn’t give up on it. But I can’t really say that I liked it in the end. It was very promising, so I stuck with it, stuck with it, and then – not so much in the gratification department. Hmmm.

Maybe it’s because I – like the author, I think – didn’t ever warm up to the main character, Gabriel Lightfoot, a solid but uninspired chef, bitterly watching food celebrities set London’s culinary agenda. As Gabe surveys his life, this is what he sees:
You couldn’t go around tearing basil leaves and swooning with pleasure all day. He had no debts, he wasn’t an alcoholic, he didn’t take drugs, he didn’t live on sugar sandwiches and Coke, and he had come this far without bankruptcy, coronaries, divorce, or psychotic breaks. Looking sideways (for what man is strong enough to resist?), he could say that things were not too bad. (iPhone location 1423-1430)

Sadly, what Gabe fails to realize is that he’s committed no major screw ups because he’s followed no great passions. You have to try to fail, and Gabe refuses to try. No guts, no glory; no rain, no rainbows. I found it impossible to like a character who defined himself by what he wasn't.

Gabe is caught between Old Britain, represented by his father, a retired textile worker, and New Britain, represented by the crew of the upscale, hotel-based kitchen he runs, but he doesn’t really seem to embrace either world. His personal life, in the form of a long-suffering girlfriend, is on hold while he waits for his “big break,” the financing of his own restaurant by a mercenary pair of backers: a self-made millionaire and a semi-shady MP. Playing it safely seems to have gotten him just where he wants to be, when the accidental death of a kitchen worker sends a ripple through the pond of his well ordered life that disrupts all his plans by exposing his carefully concealed weaknesses.

Sounds good so far, right? And it should be. But the characters never developed in a way that made me care about them. The back story, especially the part involving his parents’ relationship, developed too slowly. Ali certainly did her homework, but the minutia of mills and even kitchens dragged on far too long for my taste. Gabe is a lousy son, a lousy uncle, a lousy boyfriend, a lousy restaurateur, and even a lousy paramour. So when Ali finally clued me in on the abrupt devolution of his mental state, I just didn’t have enough invested in the character to feel much sympathy for him. I guess that’s why I felt so oddly deflated when I was finished reading the book: not angry, not sad, just empty.

I think others with more patience might enjoy this book far more than I did. Ali can really pack a sentence with meaning, which is one of the reasons I kept on reading. I would love to see what she does with a character she really likes, so I would definitely give her work another try. But I can’t really recommend In the Kitchen to the foodie crowd or the literary fiction crowd without a strong warning: Frustration Ahead! Enter at your own risk.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Map of Love: Exploring a Heart Without Borders

“May you enter favored, and leave beloved.”

Isn’t that a beautiful wish for a traveler? Think about it: may you be happy in your life, bring your good fortune with you to the places in which you journey, and share your gifts so wisely and well that you are missed when it’s time for you to return home. I absolutely love that. Ahdaf Soueif quotes this ancient Egyptian prayer in The Map of Love, which offers the reader two tales of intercultural love in Egypt, one in the late 19th century, and the other at the end of the 20th century. And to me it crystallizes the sentiment of the Egyptian people that Soueif describes in this beautiful novel: open and welcoming, and willing to take strangers into their hearts and homes, yet fearful of being taken advantage of in their hospitality.

This is a complex novel, with politics firmly woven into both of the love stories. The 19th century story of Anna Winterbourne and Sharif, told through diaries and letters, focuses on the difficulties of a romance between members of a conquering and conquered people, and deals head on with issues of racism and imperialism during the British occupation. The modern story (in my opinion, the weaker of the two) echoes the themes of the first, set against the complications of the Islamic Fundamentalist movement – as it turns out, just before September 11 (the book was published in 1999).

I really liked the novel, but I did have some problems with it. Anna Winterbourne was just a tad too virtuous for my tastes. While I appreciated her openness to the culture in which she found herself, I had a hard time believing the transition to the haremlek (the woman’s part of the Egyptian house) could be so seamless – a new bride just moves into her mother-in-law’s house, a mother-in-law with whom she shares no common language at the beginning, and there’s no tension to report? Yes, there is one cultural skirmish that causes an argument between the newlyweds, but it seemed completely trivial – most newlyweds have a good deal of adjusting to do, and they’re not usually trying to bridge an enormous cultural divide! The modern story took a very strange turn into a theme that is becoming almost banal in modern novels, and by that I mean incest. Frankly, this is a very serious subject, and the author just seemed to toss in this possibility without ever resolving it, in a way that I considered most cavalier. That was a disappointment, because for the most part the book is beautifully written.

As Soueif points out, the Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be wary of strangers. Egypt’s rich agricultural base and storied history have made it an object of desire for expanding civilizations since the Hittites. It’s easy to see how the outsiders’ veneration of Egyptian culture could eventually serve to dismantle the structure of the very civilization they admire so much. And yet, Soueif’s novel suggests Egypt remains a place where people are open to outsiders, even while they struggle to define themselves as a nation. This book reminded me of how very much I have always wanted to go to Egypt. I would recommend it for those who love literary fiction, especially those who are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Belated but very grateful: The Princess Bride Wrap-up

Not an excuse, but an explanation: I have been sick with a miserable cold and unfortunately too busy at work to take any time to heal (mid-terms, guest lectures, and letters of recommendation adding to my usual crazy schedule). So while I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Princess Bride Milestones, I have not found the energy for a blog post. Solution: Today I’m going to wrap up with my take on the last three Milestones, an unorthodox approach, but one that I hope will bring me some satisfaction – this reading thing is supposed to be fun, not stressful, after all! So here goes:

Milestones 3 and 4: In which the movie as most of us know it takes place, but way better

The Princess Bride is an “ensemble” film, peopled with supporting characters, but none truly “starring.” Yes, Buttercup and Westley’s love story is the central focus of the film, but it serves to tether the fine character performances to the script, rather than to dominate the action. The calculus of the book is quite different, however, and with fewer time-oriented constraints Goldman fleshed out some of the movie’s most colorful characters. This is why the best part of the book for me has definitely been the development of Inigo and Fezzik.

Inigo and Fezzik’s terrifying trip through the Zoo of Death was the best part of the book that didn’t make it into the movie. As they descend toward Westley, every level is booby-trapped with a menagerie of monstrous creature encounters, each of which tests a different skill. Fezzik and Inigo must prod each other through the levels, bickering and rhyming as they go.

Fezzik got up and lumbered after him, saying, “Inigo, listen, I made a mistake before, you didn’t lie to me, you tricked me, and father always said tricking was fine, so I’m not mad at you anymore, and is that all right with you? It’s all right with me.”

They turned the knob on the door at the bottom of the black stairs and stepped onto the fourth level.

Inigo looked at him. “You mean you’ll forgive me completely for saving your life if I completely forgive you for saving mine?”

“You’re my friend, my only one.”

“Pathetic, that’s what we are,” Inigo said.


After the Zoo of Death, the book was almost entirely familiar to those who had seen the movie: Miracle Max; the holocaust cloak; Buttercup’s unwelcome wedding; Inigo’s revenge on the evil Rugen; Westley’s outwitting of the slimy Humperdinck; and Fezzik’s rescue with four white horses. Only in the book, even Buttercup helps with the rescue, using her unwanted royal status to get the four past the brute squad.

Milestone 5: In which we almost get a love scene, and Fezzik is possessed

I have no idea what to make of the “first chapter” of Buttercup’s Baby. Here are the highlights of my inner rant while reading this section:

What the heck does Stephen King have to do with anything? Thank goodness Westley and Buttercup finally seem a bit "interested" in one another! Is Goldman really stuck on the sequel? One thing that the Introduction made clear was Goldman’s fondness for Andre the Giant who played Fezzik. I find it easy to believe that he planned a larger role for him in a sequel. But channeling some ancient midwife to perform Caesareans in caves? Stephen King playing Florinese kingmaker?

I could not wrap my head around it. Too much Goldman, not enough Baby. No wonder the second book has never been finished.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much. The only problem for me was its familiarity. I am not one to re-read books, although I can watch beloved movies over and over again. And I’ve seen the movie so many times, know so much of the dialog by heart in fact, that the book just held very few surprises. Still, I’m glad I read it, just to get to know Fezzik and Inigo better. As for the sequel, if this is where it’s headed, I’d suggest Goldman give up: his magnum opus is complete.

Many thanks to Chris at chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong. It was a pleasure reading everyone’s comments!