Sunday, February 28, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Wow. You know how sometimes it seems like getting one little thing done takes forever? That's how I felt trying to finish getting dinner prepped so I could sit down to review this book! My tale of woe began with the fantastic discovery of the kosher smoked whitefish salad at Costco and ended with the not-so-fantastic discovery that the whole trout sold next to said whitefish salad is not filleted. Shoulda asked while I was there. Hours later I was still covered in scales and slime. I swear I will no longer trade in fish heads and skeletons. Anyway, on to Her Fearful Symmetry.

The author had me from the very beginning, at the first chapter, which is aptly and cleverly titled, "The End." Elspeth Noblin, the main character, begins the story by dying. She has bequeathed her London flat to her strange, overly interdependent twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Early on it becomes clear that the relationship Elspeth had with her twin sister, Julia and Valentina's mother, even before their years of estrangement, had been fraught, complicated and mysterious.

Not everyone is a fan of Niffenegger's strange genre-busting stories -- part fiction, part science-fiction. In Her Fearful Symmetry the author weaves a thick thread of supernatural into an intricately constructed plot, just as she did in her breakout novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, which was recently made into a film.

In a Nov/Dec article about Niffenegger in Poets&Writers, her agent speaks to the dethroning of this idea of genre, of an idea fitting neatly in a box. Niffenegger's artful breaking of those traditional boundaries, he says, has been going on for some time, most notably years ago by Indy's own Vonnegut.

Also in this article we get a glimpse of the author as a child, a loner, sitting in her bedroom reading and drawing. Of her solitary, individualistic pursuits as a child, the author says, "I wish there was a way to let everybody know when they're twelve that being the kid that all the other kids think is a weirdo is actually a fabulous indicator of future amazingness." If only we could plaster that credo on our kids' schools' walls!

To truly appreciate this book one must be able to make a leap into a wider, "what if...?" kind of reality. To achieve believability, Niffeneggger creates characters so real that even the ghosts seem just like people we know.

If you're even the least bit Anglophilic, you'll love the focus on Highgate Cemetery and reading about the twins as they learn to navigate London.

My fiction gene is somewhat underdeveloped, but this was one of the rare books that held me so completely I felt sad when it came to "The (real) End."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Gefilte Variations, by Jayne Cohen

OK. A little change of pace here. Ever since I read Miriam's Kitchen the inner foodie in me has harbored a deep passion for books that find a way to combine narrative and recipe. The Gefilte Variations, published in 1990, is a gem I came across during one of my obsessive library searches a few years ago. I took a chance on it, despite its boring cover, and boy did I strike gold.

Let me be absolutely clear: I have not tried a single recipe from this book! I'm not even a "recipe girl." My standard kitchen operating procedure is to dump and mix and experiment. But even without trying the recipes, I've found much to savor within this cookbook's pages; For me, it's the prose that's delicious. The author precedes every recipe with at least a paragraph of text, sometime simply discussing different aspects of the recipe, but more often extrapolating and linking the dish and its cuisine to her own family's history. This cookbook, published in black and white, doesn't pack the the visual "bam" of say, the Kosher by Design cookbook series. It has a spare, simple appeal and is sprinkled with a variety of small sepia-tinged photos, some of which evoke a recipe's geographical provenance, while others showcase Jewish memorabilia that add to the book's feeling of nostalgia.

Here's a "taste" of what I mean. This is the first paragraph of an entire page that links the recipe, "Flanken with Tart Greens", to family remembrance: "My grandmother had flanken. I don't mean she consumed prodigious amounts of it, or that she served up her superb version often, though both are true. I refer, instead, to her arms. Her dark olive skin was perfectly smooth and taut across her elegant face. But the soft flesh from her gently sloping shoulders to her wide, tired feet hung in rounded folds like an old shower curtain." See what I mean? Fabulous.

In her introductory notes, the author describes the scope of her kosher cookbook (subjective, not comprehensive) and her take on Jewish food (bubbe cuisine!). Then she divides the book into two parts. The first part is divided into chapters on menu categories that feature Jewish favorites from all parts of the globe: Soups, Meats, Dairy Dishes, etc. The second part has chapters on each of the Jewish holidays. Cohen concludes the book with suggested menus for Shabbos, the holidays, and special brunches.

As I finished writing this and closed up Gefilte Variations, I noticed I held the book close to my chest, like I was embracing a small, precious child. Don't let the blah cover fool you - what's inside is delectable.

By the way, Happy Purim! As a community service, let me pass along the pre-Purim tip of the day: Should you still be baking, Marsh is out of that (disgusting) poppy seed filling that my I-already-eat-like-a-Jewish-grandpa husband loves, but you can still find several cans at Kroger.

Oh. One more thing. I am the only Jew around here who bristles at the displays of Passover food that appear even before the Purim hamantaschen have been baked? Not that I'm ungrateful that we are blessed with such a fine selection of Pesadiche foods, but I find myself sympathizing with the autumn lament of my Christian friends when they witness the Christmas displays set up even before the Thanksgiving turkey has been defrosted!

Next weeks reviews: The Help, Her Fearful Symmetry and much more!

Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

I'm a relative newcomer to the leagues of devoted Chabon fans. Until The Yiddish Policemen's Union came along, honestly, I just didn't get him. (I suspect this disclosure is more a give-away of my rather shallow reading history and lack of endurance when trying new forms than anything to do with the Chabon's books.)
In the personal essays department, Ayelet Waldman, Chabon's author-wife went first. (A review of Bad Mother, her foray into this genre, will be posted soon.) Chabon's book, much like his wife's, riffs on the simple, seemingly "nothing" moments that fall between the achievements and events that usually claim front-and-center on the stage of our lives. He leads us, through sparkling clear insight, down roads that explore the underpinnings of being male, of being a husband and father. Chabon's thinking and writing is so dazzling and clear, his sentences so gorgeous, that I finally understood the accolades bestowed upon him for his prose.
Let's see, the opening chapter: The Losers' Club. Here we see Chabon as a boy, a fledgling nerd, trying to create a comic book fan club. As the author sits with the memory of its failure, he speaks to accepting his imperfections, and about the inevitability that, as part of the human condition, he, like all of us, is doomed to fail, over and over.
Two other favorites: In a nonjudgmental XO9, he tells us of the OCD that runs through his family and, in the end, how it relates to the art of writing; in Xmas, he calls the naked emperor out by exposing the rampant, and usually unspoken, hypocrisy behind the secularization of Christmas as well as the Christmasization of Hanukah.
I found myself saying, "Oh, yeah", over and over as I read these essays, realizing how many basic truths had never, until just then, been put into words.
A "Must Read", or a "Must Listen" as Chabon himself reads his book for the audio version!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Invisible, by Hugues De Montalembert

I was all ready to review Manhood for Amateurs today but got sidetracked last night. While the rest of my household was watching American Idol, I picked up Invisible, a disturbing and haunting memoir. This is not a story in the traditional plot-driven sense. This slim book, under 150 pages, reads almost like poetry.

In 1978, the author, who was an artist, was attacked in his home. One of his assailants threw paint thinner in his eyes and within a day he was blind. The author's relationship to himself and to the rest of the world -- which had been interpreted for the most part visually -- suddenly had to be reconfigured. Through bits of story and image, we see how the author's awareness of reality slowly expands despite (or because of?) his blindness.

I felt squirmy and uncomfortable reading Invisible. It reminded me of the discomfort we feel around mourners, as if by witnessing their grief, our own hidden grief can be pulled up to the surface. Both in his memoir and in his own life the author achieves art's mission: to illuminate a deeper reality. It was not an easy book, but I am glad I read it.

Tomorrow, something lighter: Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall

I waffled about whether or not to post again today. I'm grateful if any of you check out this blog even once and I sure wouldn't want anyone to feel inundated by my posting twice in one day. But I just couldn't help myself. I've been in love with this book since I finished it a few weeks ago.
McDougall starts off simply, by telling of his own hurt foot. He's an everyman - a tall, hulky guy who likes to run but keeps getting sidelined with injuries. Anybody out there identify? From there, his story just takes off (pun intended) as he tells of a lost tribe of super-runners who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico and the lone outsider, a character who goes by the name Caballo Blanco, who has befriended them and lives among them.
By tracking down (more like stalking!) Caballo Blanco, the author gets the opportunity to learn about this tribe, the Tarahumara. They live what we would consider to be primitive lives, and run, virtually barefoot, sometimes for days on end.
Throughout the telling we meet some of the tribe, as well as a lot of other crazy, colorful characters, the kind of people who find ultra-races of fifty miles a welcome challenge.
As McDougall proceeds on his quest to find the key to "the right way to run" he pulls in a lot of fascinating information. We learn about the physiology and biomechanics of running as he quotes experts world-famous in these areas. We then learn how the author, time and time again, discovers amazing information that often supersedes and negates the experts' recommendations. The author's most amazing myth-busting is in his discovery of how the high-tech gels and padding of modern running shoes lead to increased injury rather than injury prevention.
The most fundamental revelation, though, is one he found through interviewing experts in paleontology and anthropology. Not only is the human body built to handle long distance, endurance running, it is designed specifically for it.
My favorite passages in the book speak to the place running holds in our collective psyches. The sheer joy of a run. While watching the Winter Olympics I can't help but feel there is something inauthentic about some of these rather contrived athletic endeavors and the host of expensive, non-biodegrable, fluorescent-colored, high-tech gear they require. The most basic exercise of all, the one our bodies actually need and are specifically designed to do, requires only one thing: a simple pair of shoes.

Great on audio, too!

Edwidge Danticat and Lucille Clifton's poem

Edwidge Danticat came to speak at Butler last night. Most of her remarks focused on the devastation wreaked on Haiti by the recent earthquake. She painted a picture of her homeland, a place always rich with stories and art, now forever divided into "before and after". She spoke of her cousin, Maxo, who died in the quake. She told of how Maxo and his father, her uncle, had tried to settle in the U.S. some time ago. Her uncle, who at the time was ill and vomiting, was accused by U.S. officials of faking infirmity. Maxo was sent back to Haiti, but her uncle died before he could return. She spoke of her hopes that the crowds of people who had moved from the Haitian countryside into the severely over-crowded city - because of unemployment that came as a consequence of large quantities of staples imported into her country - might now find a way to move back to the outlying areas and find work.
The few comments Danticat made about writing were fascinating. She told us how, ironically, Haiti has both a high illiteracy rate, and a disproportionately high number of writers. When it came time for questions from the audience, Danticat was asked why she doesn't write in one of the Haitian languages so that Haitians can read her books. She responded, alluding to her previous comment on illiteracy, by saying that because so many Haitians can't read in any language, most books are inaccessible to them, regardless of which language the author writes in.
In another remark, she made a surprising comment about her first, and perhaps most famous book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, (an Oprah book). She said she put into that book everything she knew, without editing the way she does now, because she didn't know if she would ever get the chance to write another book!
In tribute to the recently deceased poet Lucille Clifton, Danticat read three of her favorite Clifton poems. I'll show my ignorance: I don't understand or appreciate much poetry. This one stayed with me, though. I think you'll like it too.
won't you celebrate with me, from Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed

Monday, February 22, 2010

Everything is God, by Jay Michaelson

Hmm, I'm looking at the colorless cover of Jay Michaelson's book and can't help but wonder if it conveys any evidence of the sparkling discourse within its pages. The premise of this book is nondualism. Let's see if I learned enough to boil this down. Nondualism is the concept that, as the title claims, everything is indeed God. In other words, there are not two (hence the "dual" in nondualism) realms, the realm of God and the realm of His creations. Because God is Ein Sof, without limit, these realms are not two distinct and separate things, but are one and the same. As I read Michaelson describe this concept, I found the words that also described my own, until now unformed, views on these subjects. I have never known how to describe my own take on Judaism, one that, despite an undercurrent of affinity to Hassidism, has never fit into those convenient categories of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist.

Everything is God is jam-packed with historical background and philosophical analysis on the nondualistic perspective both within Judaism as well as within other spiritual pathways. I won't pretend I read every word; Michaelson's discussions on non-Jewish beliefs were not the focus of my interest. But it was a revelation to read of this nondualistic thread that runs throughout Jewish history. Nondualism cuts through the "what" and the "how" of Judaism -- that deep ocean of halacha (rules) -- and focuses instead on the why. I couldn't help but think that, if only these spiritual underpinnings of our faith were emphasized more, perhaps the spiritual scorecard we Jews often measure ourselves and others by would fall by the wayside. Wouldn't this leave us more open to Tikun Olam (Repairing the World) and truly accepting of Klal Yisroel (All of Israel)?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Bried Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Still fine-tuning. Here is a cleaned-up version of yesterday's review....

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz was a wild ride. I was really looking forward to hearing the author speak at Butler last week, and sure enough, he did not disappoint. Diaz's voice, just as authentic as the voice of his novel's narrator, Yunior, was a startling mix of writerly thoughtfulness and the colloquialisms of the rough, macho culture of The Dominican Republic. I knew the evening would be interesting when, in telling of the militarism inherent in his upbringing, and in describing his sister, Diaz tossed out the f-word, claiming, "She could "bleep" you up."

The comment that stuck with me the most that night, though, was the one he made about novels, and how they are best understood not by an individual, but by an entire community. This seems especially true of his multi-layered work. I want to read it again to sift through the story and catch layers of meaning I'm sure I missed.

This is the story of Oscar, a hapless, nerdy boy (who Diaz said he based on how he felt growing up) and his family, and how their lives played out through the volatile and violent history of their Dominican Republic homeland. Diaz captures the rhythms and brutality of everyday life there with such specificity that the characters and their stories feel gut-wrenchingly authentic. We look back at Oscar's family's stories and see how every remark or gesture, each seemingly meaningless on its own, impacts on the next thing and in the end, adds up to a life. This honest rendering gives this story its universal appeal. Maybe, in a way, it's everybody's story, as we, just like Oscar, struggle through each day carrying the burden of our own histories and traumas.

This was a great book to listen to, complete with different readers for each of the characters and authentic sounding Spanish accents.

In keeping with the theme of authors from the island of Hispaniola, Butler is bringing Edwidge Danticat to speak tomorrow night. Can't wait.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review of Foreskin's Lament, by Shalom Auslander

Whew! Finally managed to upload the image of Auslander's book, Foreskin's Lament. I guess this will get easier -- I hope so! Anyway, don't let Auslander's title put you off. True, this is not an easy read. Not a feel-good book, in the traditional sense. As the author writes of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, no one is let off the hook. His parents bring the usual and customary Jewish anxiety to the table, but then carry the extra baggage of dealing with the loss of a child. The father has the teeniest problem with alcohol. Shalom's stories of his dealings with his myopic day-school teachers should ring true for any of us who have been in that world. As with my own experience in day-school back in the late 60s, the "pilpul" -- the nitpicking details of halahic observance-- often took the reigns, and left both common sense and compassion exiled, out in the cold.

As Shalom's older brother's fights with their father get increasingly contentious and violent, Shalom struggles to be the peacemaker-child, to provide distracting comic relief. We see the groundwork for the author's subsequent difficulties. The telling of Shalom's life, as he becomes an adult and works to process his painful beginnings, are a shocking, yet crucial truth-telling. In the end, we see a shining example of the "healing" (sorry, that word sounds so trite) power of writing your life. I've read this book three times and I get more out of it each time. An important book.

Oh, my one beef with the author: his photo! Scary! Maybe I'm asking too much from a jacket photo, but this one elicited from me a reflexive gasp. I had hoped to see a face whose expression belied a bit of the wisdom and coming-to-terms with life that he fought so hard to acheive, instead of the defensive-looking, angry face that glared back at me from the inside back cover.

The audio version features Shalom himself, with a small bit read by his wife, Orly.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. If you're so inclined, hit the "follow" icon on the lower right side of the page. It will send you new postings as they come. And spread the word to any bibliophilic friends.
Wow. Here's my first posting, my first entry into the great blogosphere. Those of you who have seen the skill with which I manage my cell phone -- my signature move is accidentally turning it off at the very moment I am frantically pulling it out of my purse to answer it -- are probably just as dumbstruck at seeing my words here as I am writing them.

For those of you who have asked me for book recommendations, and for the masses who have suffered my unsolicited recommendations, this is for you! But honestly, it's mostly for me -- an outlet for my ever-growing obsession with words, language and story. Plus, it's a great way for me to catalogue what I've read.

Ironcially, I am not a visual learner (or visual Lerner). This makes for very slow reading, so I usually listen to the audio version of a book if it is available. I'll make note of any special features of an audiobook, like when the author reads his or her own work.

Til tomorrow's review of Shalom Auslander's Foreskins' Lament