Monday, May 26, 2014

Kitchen Literacy

Kitchen Literacy reads almost like a dissertation and has the copious endnotes to complete this presentation of research on the evolution of the American meal from colonial times to the present. Historian Ann Valeisis' goal, as noted in the subtitle, is to explain "how we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back."

Valeisis begins in colonial New England with Martha Ballard, a herbalist and midwife who kept a detailed diary of her daily life and work. Everything eaten by Martha's family was produced on their farm or a neighbor's. In the next few decades, industrialization -- particularly the advent of rail -- begins to distance Americans from the source of their food, and the process accelerates in the 20th century as more people move to cities and suburbs.

The author provides much detail, some of which can seem repetitive or distracting and warrants skimming. The last chapter -- the prescription for restoring kitchen literacy -- will not be a newsflash to anyone even marginally acquainted with the work of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, the Organic Consumers Association, the Slow Food movement, etc.: buy organic, patronize farmer's markets, cook, plant a garden and avoid heavily processed foods.

If the reader needs additional incentive for doing those things, Valeisis provides it with a history of food regulation and consumer protection in the 20th century. Reading about the failures of regulatory apparatuses to protect consumers from harmful substances made me want to keep my foodshed as close to home as possible.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

Among my reasons for temporarily converting this knitting blog to a book blog was the desire to better remember what I've read. A few months ago, a friend loaned me a novel she thought I'd like, and as I looked at the cover and read the back blurbs, it had a vague familiarity that made me wonder if I'd read it or simply read reviews of it. Coming home, I discovered I already owned it and yes, I had read it a few years ago. To make matters worse, it was a Louise Erdrich novel, which should definitely be in the unforgettable category.

Obviously, my brain was clogged with too many books and I needed to make a personal card catalog, hence this blog.

I predict my latest completed book, The Goldfinch, will require no effort to remember. Theo Decker, a boy who survives an explosion that kills his mother, is a character for the ages, and nearly all of the supporting characters in the novel are just as intriguing and vividly rendered.

This book recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I'll refrain from describing or critiquing it as hundreds of superior reviews are easily accessed with a Google search. Mostly I'd like to record my impressions while they are still fresh.

The adult Theo reflects in the beginning of the story that his life would've been much different if his mother had lived. She is a central presence, or non-presence, in the story, and almost every bad decision the young Theo makes is a direct consequence of not having a mother, or more specifically, a good mother who is alive.

The foster mothers who step in for the teen Theo can't replace the angelic qualities of his dead mother. The wealthy Mrs. Barbour, who first shelters him, may be emotionally distant, but she is kind and has the wherewithal to keep Theo out of too much trouble. However, she doesn't have the legal standing to prevent his derelict father from taking him away.

Xandra, the seedy girlfriend of Theo's father, is on first impression a cartoon wicked stepmother. She redeems herself later in the story, and as we get to know her better, we discover she isn't all bad (no character in the book is all bad or all good, with the exception of Theo's mother, who attains a quality in death that she could not have possibly maintained in life). Still, Xandra fails Theo when he is in her negligent care.

His next foster mother is actually a man -- Hobie, a furniture restorer who agrees to be Theo's guardian. Hobie is decent and kind, but he is ill-equipped for the job of shepherding a teenager, and some of the bad habits Theo picked up with his dad and Xandra continue under the trusting and distracted Hobie.

The three age-peers most central to the story are Pippa, Boris and Andy. Pippa, who also survives the explosion, becomes for Theo the living embodiment of ideal womanhood in that his mother had been. Boris is larger than life, so full of vitality that he can simultaneously serve as Theo's demon and savior. Andy, alive or dead, keeps Theo in the orbit of the Barbours, which at least loosely tethers him to the world of decency his mother would've wanted for him.

I loved all 780 pages of this novel and I already miss spending time each day with Theo and his friends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

A person with 168 books in her "to read" queue shouldn't need to turn to Google to find something to read next, but that's exactly how Jenny Lawson's "mostly true" memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, vaulted ahead of the 168.

[I interrupt this review to disclose that I spent most of the day writing the previous sentence, but not because it's brilliant or I had writer's block. I wanted to have an accurate count of the books in my "to read" queue, so I consolidated most -- not quite all -- of the saved files, post-it notes and even an ancient typewritten list that previously comprised my "to read" list. It is all now in one convenient, accessible from anywhere Goodreads list. Except I know this is not comprehensive because some lists are lodged in my head and can only be retrieved when I see a physical copy of the book, or read a mention of it, and remember, "yes, I planned to read that one day!" And I also didn't include the Utne Reader's "alternative canon" from years ago, mostly because it's in a magazine I saved and I didn't want to root around the closet to find it.]

After reading a depressing book, can't even remember which one, I decided I needed something funny next, so I did various Google searches involving "comedy" or "funny" or "humor" and "book" and Lawson's memoir was among those mentioned and available at the library. Except it was checked out, so I put it on hold, which means I didn't get to start reading it immediately after the depressing book, whatever that was.

Lawson is a blogger, although I've never been to her blog, even after reading her book, and surely my life is poorer for it. She's quite funny. The memoir basically chronicles her journey from an eccentric childhood in west Texas to a relatively "normal" adult life of wife, mother and writer. Some of the outlandish tales, which one might assume to not be included in the "mostly true" part of the memoir, are backed by photographic evidence.

I enjoyed this book, although I think I would have enjoyed it more at half the length. Lawson's writing style eventually started to lose a little of its novelty, and the 20th tale involving bizarre Texas critters isn't nearly as engaging as the first few.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Although I have no data to support this assertion, I'm persuaded by personal experience and anecdotal evidence that the journalist's most common alternative career fantasy is to be a novelist. I didn't get my start in journalism with this goal in mind, hoping newspaper work would be a start for me as it was for Hemingway. But since "retiring" from the news grind, I've harbored an ambition to turn to fiction and made a start on a novel.

Some literary works make me doubt my ability to ever join the ranks of novelists. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example, made me want to disavow writing of any sort forever and simply be grateful that I could read hers. But then a novel such as Sisterland comes along and I have hope again: I could do better than that!

I would've probably abandoned this plodding tale of domestic minutiae after about the third description of diaper changing, but it's next month's selection for my book group, so I persevered through all 400 pages. When the main character spends much of her narrative time describing how dull her daily life is (aside from her psychic ability to "sense" the future), the reader has a foreboding that something uncharacteristically exciting will soon happen. This reader was sorely disappointed.

Because I want to move on to something better immediately, and The Goldfinch is beckoning on my coffee table, I'll say no more. Although perhaps I should resume writing my own novel before I read The Goldfinch and risk courting more discouragement.