Monday, May 13, 2013

Library Haul Update: April

I can’t believe this, but a month has passed since I shared my library haul with you, and the books’ due date has come.

As you may remember, my haul separated into four general classes of books:

  1. Cookbooks
  2. Light Classics
  3. YA Fiction
  4. Audiobook Nonfiction

And my guess was that I would spend two months enjoying the food-porn, two months reading the light classics, one month speeding through the YAs, and listen to the nonfiction while jogging.

Progress Report:

Audiobook Nonfiction

The exercise thing hasn’t happened, so audiobook progress has been slower than hoped. To my credit, I did listen to some poems in The Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work.

My assessment so far is that hearing some poets reading can make a poem clearer. For example, one track is Dylan Thomas reading “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and I can only wish that the Matched author had listened to it. As much as the poem is saying to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Thomas does not read it with the violence you might expect. It’s not that Dylan Thomas can’t make an angry voice—his tone is very forceful as he reads “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” His reading instead draws attention to the grief of watching his father die.

Some other poets though can’t hide that their poems are not meant for oral reception as much as they’re meant for seeing on a page. Case in point, “The DNA Molecule” by May Swenson (1968). I listened to the poem a few times and it sounded too much like a science lecture for me to figure out what was going on. Reading it myself hasn’t necessarily resulted in my sudden comprehension of it, but seeing the undulating shape helps me not reject the whole thing as gibberish. The poem is interesting enough that I urge—no, beg—you to follow me to another post and chat about it.

Final thoughts on the Poetry Collection: Robert Graves has the exact dialect you would expect an English classicist to have; I would never have crossed paths with most of these poems if they weren’t in line on my playlist, and Carl Sandburg is too gravelly-voiced to make “Fog” sound like fun for children to read (which it totally is).

YA Fiction

I passed Scarlet onto a young friend, who seems to be taking longer than the three days she estimated in reading it. But I read the other two speedily.

The Prince and the Snowgirl by Simon Cheshire: 2.5 stars

Tom Miller is a kid with an identity problem. On the one hand, he’s a member of the defending UK school ski champion team; on the other hand, he’s a perfect imitation of Prince George, and believes that acting like the prince at all times will make more people (specifically his co-skier Louise) like him. Tom begins to figure out his identity at the ski championships as he sees Louise growing closer to his rival teammate, his best friend growing distant, and the real Prince George in real life.

Cheshire’s writing is spiced with some Wodehouse-like conversational asides (“Jack’s always been a person with Something on His Mind. Still waters and all that.”) and Love Actually sentiments (“I love her. Simple as that. Proper love, I mean…She doesn’t love me back. How do you tell someone who’ll never love you the way you love her, that she means more to you than life itself?”), but the book as a whole never rose to the level of its promise.

I think I went into the book with the expectation that it would be Who Is Bugs Potter?, the funniest middle-grade book I’ve ever read, but with skiing instead of hard rock music. This is obviously unfair to The Prince and the Snowgirl, which seems to be trying to be more true-to-life; with more realistic characters than Bugs Potter, and much less farce in the plot, it’s natural that Snowgirl wouldn't be the same fast-moving, laugh-a-page type of book. It’s just not as much fun as it could have been if it had gone in that direction.

Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney: 2 stars

The Face on the Milk Carton series is one that’s outstayed its content. The first volume tells the story of Janie Johnson, a very ordinary high school girl who realizes that she went missing as a child and the people she thought were her parents are just the innocent parents of her kidnapper. The book is suspenseful, the characters are mostly relatable, and the fantasy of discovering there may be a real family waiting for you somewhere is pretty appealing for teenagers. The second volume tells of Janie’s struggles to rejoin her birth family, and makes it clear that a kidnapping has ramifications past the happy reunion that is so captivating in a news story. The third and fourth volumes are just the first novel retold with a pared-down version of the family angst of the second. And the fifth, Janie Face to Face? Somehow it’s a rehash of the third and fourth, which already were a bit stale.

The book has two major problems: (1) There is almost no original plot content. We hear about Jodie being jealous of Janie, Reeve hoping Janie still loves him, Hannah the kidnapper being crazy. None of this is new. (2) Janie manages to become a more hopeless character than she was when she was the nastiest sister in the world in Whatever Happened to Janie? The series started in an older generation, yet its 2013 concluding volume has the most retrogressive heroine ambitions I’ve read in ages. Janie’s entire goal at college is to get married. She doesn’t have any excitement about a major, any plans for a career outside homemaking… This is not modern, at least not for a girl raised in an upper-middle class community in Connecticut.

There’s also a minor problem that continues to bother me: Janie decides to change her name back to Jennie Spring so she can move past her kidnapping past, but she has trouble identifying herself as Jennie still. Hover for a spoiler

As nice as it is to return to a good story, it’s sometimes nicer to simply reread the original. Caroline B. Cooney’s author’s note suggests that she never meant to write any sequels to The Face on the Milk Carton; I can only hope that her editor lets her stop this time.


Tender by Nigel Slater

I expected good things based on back cover quotes from David Tanis (most romantic food writer I’ve encountered) and Heidi Swanson (who is the reason I buy rye flour and make bran muffins). But this exceeds my expectations. Nigel Slater has written THE book of bringing a garden into your kitchen. He describes the beauty of each plant in such detail that you will want to have a garden. What is the point of using some of these vegetables in your cooking if you never get to see “their swaying stems and rich, tobacco brown winter foliage stand[ing] striking against the row of golden hornbeam that does its best to shield the garden from the worst of the west wind”? I am not a gardener: I hate mosquito bites, changing my clothes to avoid dirt stains all day, not seeing results immediately, and destroying my fingernails. But I want to become a gardener after reading this book.

For that matter, I also want to become a cook in the way Nigel Slater is. His recipes are all about rejoicing in the ingredients, and range from simple ideas to mash peas with some mint to instructions for a delicious-looking curry. I get the sense that nothing needs to be followed exactly—ingredients can be thumb-sized pieces, handfuls, some pods—and it’s all about the experience of sensing the food and your relationship to it.

Stylistically, the cookbook is gorgeous. There’s an unusual additional character in the typeset, so “ct” has flair on the page. The pages are smooth, the photographs are fantastic, the spine is sturdy, and there is a bookmark ribbon.

I’ll cook something from it soon to share the recipe quality instead of just rhapsodizing about its beauty, but you might want to run over to your bookstore or library and get a copy for yourself instead of waiting.

New Vegetarian Kitchen by Nicola Graimes

If Nigel Slater is of the cooking-is-poetry school, Nicola Graimes is of the vegetarian-food-can-be-super-interesting school. There is no garden here to dictate the meals, so instead there’s the excitement of choosing different cooking methods to create appetizing dishes. The primary organization is by preparation method—raw, broil, fry, steam, simmer, bake—and the secondary organization is by the type of meal. The result is that things are a little scattered for menu-making, but helpful for thinking about what you do in the kitchen.

The pictures are beautiful, there are two bookmark ribbons, and the recipes are innovative without being too complicated. Graimes suggests using watermelon instead of tomato for a curry, mango steeped in syrup for sushi, and a French onion soup that doesn’t need beef broth. I’m planning to welcome this to my shelf, as well.

Light Classics

Here’s the true surprise of my haul—I finished both books in this category before they were due.

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and Marian Mainwaring: 3 stars

The Buccaneers is a romantic anti-romance novel, if that makes any sense. Five young American daughters of fortunate financial speculators, finding themselves excluded from the crustiest New York society, begin to marry into an extended family of English nobility. As attractive as marrying into the top tier of society initially seems, navigating their responsibilities to ancestral mansions, families and tenants brings unhappiness, particularly for the youngest, Nan, who has married a duke who wanted a bride he could mold. Nan realizes that she’s made a mistake in marrying the duke, but there is no way for her to return to her schooldays, and pursing her true love will be disastrous.

This story could be completely depressing (typical for Edith Wharton) if it weren’t for the fun of comparing it to the real-life drama of the Churchill family’s American heiress brides. I listened to The Churchills in Love back in February and March, and it’s clear that Wharton borrowed liberally from the sensational memoirs released by Consuelo Vanderbilt (married to the Duke of Marlborough) and Jenny Jerome Churchill (mother of Sir Winston Churchill). The result is that the book feels a little smutty, the way that reading a tabloid might.

If you don’t know anything about the disappointing fairy-tale marriages Wharton is referencing, I wouldn’t recommend this as a particularly fun or interesting read. Not that it was bad, exactly. It was just uneven. The depictions of the mothers in New York are from a comedy-of-manners, and the ruminations of Sad Nan come from a melodrama. Nan’s sister and friends basically disappear from the book halfway through, when it appeared from the beginning that they would have slightly larger roles. Wharton died before completing a first draft, so it’s possible that there would have been substantial editing. As it is, Marian Mainwaring made it a mostly cohesive story focused on Nan’s reclaiming her own identity.

Blandings Castle by P.G. Wodehouse: 5 stars

If you haven’t read P.G. Wodehouse yet, you need to start reading him now. Before you even look at one picture in the cookbooks I’ve recommended. Wodehouse is a perfect humorist not just for his farcical plots, but also for his beautiful prose style.

Observe these unrelated selections:

‘Mr. Frederick wishes to speak to your lordship on the telephone.’

An additional layer of greyness fell over Lord Emsworth’s spirit as he toddled down the great staircase to the telephone closet in the hall. It was his experience that almost any communication from Freddie indicated trouble.

But there was nothing in his son’s voice as it floated over the wire to suggest that all was not well.

‘Hullo, guv’nor.’

‘Well, Frederick?’

‘How’s everything at Blandings?’

Lord Emsworth was not the man to exhibit the vultures gnawing at his heart to a babbler like the Hon. Freddie. He replied, though it hurt him to do so, that everything at Blandings was excellent.

It undoubtedly helped a man in his dealings with the domestic staff to have, as they had had, the rights of the high, the middle and the low justice—which meant, broadly, that if you got annoyed with your head-gardener you could immediately divide him into four head-gardeners with a battle-axe and no questions asked—but even so, he realized that they were better men than he was and that, if he allowed craven fear of Angus McAllister to stand in the way of this delightful girl and her charming brother getting all the flowers they required, he was not worthy to be the last of their line.

I could be pedantic and point out some specific things I love in these quotes, but that is not in the Wodehouse spirit. Besides, the writing and the stories are so delightful that they need no help from me. Within this collection, Wodehouse provides six stories about Blandings Castle, five about Mr. Mulliner’s extended family in Hollywood, and one about Bobbie Wickham. Three of the stories were included in an anthology I read earlier this year, but they’re so much fun that I happily reread them.

Now, go! Download some Wodehouse (some of his work is in the free domain) before you get distracted by food!


aunt molly said...

He is one of my favorite authors because I like to laugh. An English teacher at Central High said you have to have an advanced sense of humor to appreciate him. I don't know about that, but I have read most of his books and haven't found one that wasn't funny.

Alyssa said...

Well, if you and Susan both enjoy Wodehouse, then I will have to check him out! I do enjoy Brit-wit. Thank you for checking out our blog and commenting! :) Come visit us again soon!

justin benage said...

also one of my favs

Susan said...

I can't believe how long it took me to discover him, but I'm thrilled I have so many left ahead of me! Do you have a favorite Wodehouse book?

Susan said...

I think Alyssa said you have a bookshelf full of them. I'm jealous!

Alyssa L. said...

I just remember seeing Jeeves books every time I went to the house in Arkansas!

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