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Judging Cook the Books!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be judging this month’s Cook the Books entries thanks to the kind invitation of Deb at Kahakai Kitchen. This month’s selection is Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, which I read and reviewed in October of last year. Colwin’s was a witty home cook and, now that I think about it, she would have been an excellent blogger. Her combination of amusing anecdotes with simple but delicious recipes and practical advice made for delightful essays—why not posts? For now, we’ll see how her words are translated from the page to the kitchen.

To see this month’s entries, click here.

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11. Leviathan

In which whales fly, lizards talk and World War I starts off a little different than you remember

Title: Leviathan

Author: Scott Westerfeld

What it’s about: Imagine for a moment that bioengineering and robotics had been invented in the early 1900s and taken off at an astonishing rate. The British latched onto Darwin’s findings and before you could say “Dr. Doolittle” they were splicing genes together to create fabricated beasts for labor and war. A whole class of animals has been bred to breathe hydrogen and now creatures of the sea have taken to the sky as giant breathing airships. Meanwhile, the Germans have developed colossal walking machines piloted by men, from two-man walkers the size of a tank to giant roving battle-stations stomping about on eight legs. Scott Westerfeld takes us into this world through two points of view: Deryn, a gifted young airwoman who has lied her way into a post as a midshipmen in the British Air Service on the whale fabricant Leviathan; and Alexsander, the son of an Austro-Hungarian archduke whose wife’s less-than-royal blood has kept Alexsander from being next in line for the throne.

Westerfeld creates a clever bridge between actual European history and the events of his alternative timeline. The novel opens just after the now infamous assassination of Alexsander’s father the archduke, which sparks World War I (though Franz Ferdinand did have children, none were truly named Alexsander). From there we see the battle lines drawn out in much the same way as they really progressed, but this time the conflict is at heart an ideological one between “Darwinists” (nature and science) and “Clankers” (mechanics and religion). Alexsander is forced to flee with a few members of his household as he is hunted by Austrians and Germans who fear his claim to the throne. A stroke of luck sends Deryn on her first mission, as part of an airship crew escorting a female doctor to the Ottoman Empire with precious but secret cargo.

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I edited The Steampunk Bible. Though Leviathan is YA, it’s certainly something an adult could enjoy. Part of the fun of it is the giant thought experiment that’s occuring and the intriguing mash-up between history and fiction. The Steampunk element comes in through the futuristic revisions—living airships vs robots—but at heart it’s an amazing adventure story. Deryn and Alexsander are compelling POV characters, one a sheltered aristocrat forced out of his family home and into a world as a fugitive, and the other a common girl trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Though they come from different classes, they have more in common than they might guess. Both are hiding their true identities and want to achieve great things but have many hurdles to overcome.

As an added treat there are illustrations sprinkled throughout. While working on Steampunk Bible, I learned that Westerfeld and his illustrator Keith Thompson worked together in a very novel and symbiotic way. Sometimes Westerfeld would describe the scene he wanted illustrated, but Thompson would also produce sketches that would then inspire Westerfeld’s prose. The black-and-white line drawings are striking and add to the historical feeling of the work and the authenticity of the beasts. Since the things Westerfeld describes seem so fantastical and strange at times, they are grounded and made more real by these images.

Would I recommend? Sure! If you enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, I think you’ll love this world as well. I got wrapped up in Westerfeld’s adventure story and can’t wait to come back for part 2.

10. Never Let Me Go

In which a genre-bending novel uses a sci-fi premise to examine how we all deal with the reality of mortality

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

What it’s about: Kath, Tommy and Ruth had a happy childhood at Halisham. They kept themselves healthy and developed their art under the care of their guardians, the men and women who were both their tutors and their protectors. But despite their idyllic country home and classical education, the children at Halisham have always known that they’re different from people on the outside. They won’t grow up to be doctors or teachers, they won’t marry or have children. Their paths have been laid out since birth. They will leave Halisham for a few year, then train to become carers. They’ll spend some time driving around the country from one facility to the next, caring for others like themselves. And then they too will begin their donations—four if they’re lucky—and complete by the age of thirty or so.

The story is told through Kath, who has been a carer for twelve years now, a long time but not unprecedented. She’s about to begin her donations and she reflect upon her time at Halisham and her childhood friends, both of whom she cared for herself as they went through their donations. Through her reflections we see the development of these children, their modest hopes for themselves, their accelerated awareness of their place in the world.

Though the concept sounds very sci-fi, the intriguing thing about this book is it hardly reads like it. The topic of donations and the origin of these children is really background noise for a psychological exploration. The story is quiet and emotional, more about their personal connections with one another. It rejects the conventions of the genre—it is not dramatic, action-packed, dire or preachy. But it is raw and intimate. I read an interview with Ishiguro where he addressed this choice and he said he was interested in exploring how people grow up and come to understand mortality and their place in the world, but wanted a condensed time period for this process that we all undergo. We all know on an intellectual level that we’ll die someday. We learn this even when we’re children. And we all accept it. We want more time, but we accept death as a given. It’s not so different for Kath and her friends—they’re just more certain on the timeline.

Would I recommend? I certainly enjoyed it. I will say that if you go into this book with the wrong expectations, you could be disappointed. It’s not a dystopia or a cautionary tale about the boundaries of science and morality. It’s about friendship, love, and personal identity. And clones. If that sounds good to you, pick it up.

9. Girls in White Dresses

In which I issue a warning: Do not be fooled by this book’s adorable cover. Read at your own risk (of boredom).

Title: Girls in White Dresses

Author: Jennifer Close

What it’s about: Blerg. I’m going to get this out of the way up front. I did not like this book. Reasons:

1. There is no plot. There are a bunch of girls (I could not for the life of me tell you how many, see point 2). They are between 21 and 30 years old. They are not married, but people they know are. They are living in New York or Chicago and they have jobs that they hate. Each chapter consists of a kind of episodic event (or nonevent), mostly to do with boys who they don’t really like that much, but date anyway. This is the whole book. No character progression, no conflict, no resolution. Just stuff.

2. I could not remember which characters were which. In addition to the absence of a plot, there was also an absence of any discernible differences between the characters, which made them just names to me. The very cute cover (I give credit where credit is due, good job designers) is also sadly accurate. They are faceless girls in white dresses (though they spend less time in weddings than the cover and title might suggest…I think there were two wedding-related scenes total). Because the characters all had basically the same voice and no personality to speak of, I had to basically relearn who each person was at the beginning of their next chapter. I found myself flipping back to their previous sections just to get some kind of context. There’s one girl named Isabella who gets mentioned more than the other ones, so I could generally remember her when she showed up, but I couldn’t quite remember what I knew about her. Where did she live again? What kind of job did she have? Was she the waitress or the publishing assistant? Flat. All flat.

3. The writing is childlike, featureless and completely uncompelling. See points one and two. Large casts of characters and a vignette writing style can work. But not in the hands of a poor writer. Whole paragraphs would pass with exchanges similar to the following: “Mary moved to New York. She went to her job every day and didn’t like it. After awhile she found an apartment and moved in. She started to like it.”

I mean, seriously?

Admittedly, I don’t normally read a lot of what we call “chick lit”. Maybe this is what a lot of chick lit is like! I thought I’d give it a try since I was looking for something easy and sweet. I thought, “oh my gosh, I’ve been in a ton of weddings! Maybe I’ll find this funny and relatable.” But I did not. Maybe there’s a reason I don’t read this genre. Maybe my lesson is learned.

That’s all I have to say. You have been warned.

8. Maine

In which I long for my own beach weekend in Maine

Title: Maine

Author: J. Courtney Sullivan

What it’s about: The Kellehers have come to Maine each summer to stay in the cottage by the sea since Alice’s husband won the property in a game of cards after the war and carved her initials into the tree at the gate. They brought their children and now their children’s children and even their great-grandchildren are coming. But Alice doesn’t necessarily welcome the intrusion. She never wanted any of this—family, children underfoot, the life of a good Irish Catholic housewife. Wrapped up in her own guilt about events from her youth that changed the course of her life, Alice has promised the house to the Catholic Church after her death—unbeknowst to her family who expect to continue spending summers there in perpetuity.

Alice’s granddaughter Maggie joins her in the cottage for a month, fresh off a break-up with her volatile artist boyfriend and pregnant with his child. Maggie is surprised to find solace in the house and courage to accept the challenge of raising a baby on her own. Of course, she can’t tell Alice any of that. Nor can she tell her Aunt Ann Marie, who shows up by surprise one morning. Ann Marie is a Kelleher by marriage, but rather than being the black sheep, she’s something of a too-white one. Always taking on Alice’s care and modeling the behavior of a  ’50s housewife, Ann Marie can’t seem to admit even to herself that her own marriage is not what it once was and her perfect children haven’t turned out to be that perfect. She retreats to the cottage to work on a dollhouse she’s entered in a competition and daydream—harmlessly really—about starting an affair.

I read Maine by a lake and found it to be an absolutely perfect summer read. It’s like The Corrections only with more sun and sand and less anger. The characters are all flawed, but relatable. The book alternates between four women’s points of view and I enjoyed seeing their ships passing in the night as each interprets events differently and shares their side of the story. So many misunderstandings arise from misses in communication. The Kelleher women have more in common than they want to admit, but can’t stop hurting each other. Call it pride or fear, they’re each boxing up a part of themselves and boxing out the ones they love.

This is a story of evolving generations of a family and the way a single event can affect people so differently. It’s about suppression and sacrifice versus self-awareness and fulfillment. It’s about alcoholism and emotional abuse, but also lobster rolls and Irish folk songs. It’s a story about women—the way we talk to each other, the way we tear each other down or build each other up. And it’s just a good story. The writer’s voice is clear and fluid and I felt connected to these women and invested in how things would play out.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. The perfect setting for reading Maine is on the shore somewhere, but it has more than enough depth to hold up in your living room come winter.

7. The Dovekeepers

In which voiceless characters keep me from fully connecting with an intriguing premise

Title: The Dovekeepers

Author: Alice Hoffman

What it’s about: When the Romans invade Israel, no place is safe for the Jewish people. Not Jerusalem, where their Temple is toppled to the ground, and not any town or village along the way, where the people are burned out of their houses, forced to flee or be killed or enslaved. There is only one place left to flee, a Zealot fortress in the desert that was once Herod’s palace, his last retreat and defense, a complex built to last a siege and protect its residents. The survivors now place their hope in this stronghold and their small army of boys and men who roam the desert in search of supplies and Roman raiders. But a feeling of dread hangs over the fortress. Its inhabitants know they are only waiting for the Romans to arrive, for the final test of their strength and their faith.

To this place come four women and each is called to work in the dovecotes. Yael crossed the desert with two assassins—her father and the man who became the love of her life. Unfortunately, this man also traveled with his wife and children. Always treated like a dog by her father, she finds a lion within herself when she meets her love and despite her guilt she cannot give up her newfound joy. Revka’s journey is one of loss, as both her husband and daughter are killed before reaching safety. Her son-in-law becomes a different man, leaving her scarred grandchildren in her care. Both boys have lost the power to speak after the horrors they’ve seen. Revka lives to care for them and to restore their voices if possible. Shirah is the only one to cross the desert with purpose, not fleeing the Romans, but seeking her long-lost love. Now she shares her gift of magic and wisdom  with the troubled and bereft in the fortress. She brings her daughter Aziza, a girl drawn to men not for their love, but for their freedom and abilities. Together, these four women must find a way to survive.

Though the premise of this book sounds great, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The historical context is rich and the characters are unique and interesting, but this book had one major flaw that kept me from getting immersed. It wasn’t in the plot—it was in the writing. Hoffman uses extremely minimal dialogue. Whole chapters seem to go by without any sign of quotation marks and often conversations are summarized rather than shown. As a result, I found the characters understandably rather voiceless. I realized that dialogue is incredibly important to my enjoyment of a book.

Would I recommend? Some people might not feel as strongly about dialogue as I do, and if so, you might enjoy this book. But if you need to hear the voices of the characters to get caught up in their struggle, this isn’t for you.

6. Anna Karenina

In which you have been wondering where I am and I return triumphant having read a literary classic

So…did you miss me? Thanks for sending out the search parties, I really appreciate it. Astonishingly, I have a good reason (or two) for my absence. I swear you haven’t been missing out on reviews, because I actually only read one book since my last post—the epic Anna Karenina. My other excuse? Well, I started a new project. Check it out at UltimateBridesmaid.com. I’ve been blogging bridesmaid advice, party-planning tips for bridal showers and bachelorette parties, invites, dresses, DIY and much more!

But now, back to business. And yes, I know I have some mad catching up to do to keep up a decent total this year. I am aware and will read accordingly.

Title: Anna Karenina

Author: Leo Tolstoy

What it’s about: First, we need to blame this on the boyfriend. He’s responsible for some other pretty long books I’ve read (see J.R.). This time we decided it would be fun to have a book club of two and pick a book that was strikingly absent from our English-major repertoires. We landed on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Russian epic on love, class, commerce, Communism, religion, et al. But, even though it took me a couple months, the time was worth it.

I first have to recommend the translation I read: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The boyfriend read an older edition and occasionally we would directly compare passages to see how the translations differed. I almost always preferred my version, finding it clearer, more nuanced and lyrical and, in my opinion, truer to the spirit of the characters and the work. The book often reminded me of Dickens in its scope and attention to character. It’s almost impossible to explain what happens, because Karenina is really a work about life, in particular the lives a group of interrelated nobles in nineteenth-century Russia.

The nominal center of the book, Anna, leaves her husband for the dashing officer Vronsky and spends the next 800 pages or so dealing with what this means for her as a woman (loss of social status), a mother (loss of her child), and a Catholic (loss of eternal life). Unable or unwilling to obtain a divorce, Anna becomes a sort of social pariah, a kind of nonentity who can’t be accepted into the circles she once frequented but is nonetheless still alive and in need of a place in the world. In contrast to Anna is Levin, whom I personally could make a case for being as important a character as Anna. It certainly seemed to me that he received almost equal page time. A gentleman with a farm in the country, Levin is a classic case of head versus heart. He is preoccupied with solving the Russian problem of profitable farming and dealing with the peasant class, but also feels he’ll never find true happiness without a wife and children. His ambitions to improve society are directly at odds with his romantic quest, and he finds himself asking that eternal question: What is the meaning of it all?

My favorite parts of the book focus on human interaction: love, betrayal, hate and just how we muddle through this thing called life. Nineteenth-century Russia is a place at a turning point. For the upper class, it is still all about etiquette and “rightness,” but the old ways have begun to disappear. While there is a general loosening of decorum and tradition, there’s no accepted path forward. So, for example, while it’s known that arranged marriages are out of style, it’s not quite known how things “should be done” now. This makes for an interesting exploration as different generations deal with the fallout of society rethinking its organization. We see this not only in the sphere of marriage, but in class, politics and religion as well. Unfortunately, Tolstoy does tend to go on about these subjects in intimate detail. There are long passages on farming, Russian local government, and religion, which were at times a struggle to get through. But I was always able to pick up on the other side and occasionally found a buried gem—a beautiful passage or interesting maxim to take away. Like Dickens’ work, it’s the kind of book that takes a long time, that you struggle with at times, but you’re ultimately happy you made the commitment when you finish.

Would I recommend? Certainly. Anna Karenina is an ambitious read, but it’s fulfilling, fascinating in its density and brilliant in its scope. A must for literature buffs and those who like to peek behind the curtains into the lives of others.

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