Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Breathing Apparati

After reading Julie Orringer's debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, I was very curious to read her first book, a collection of short stories. The Invisible Bridge is such a sprawling and massive novel that a short story collection seemed incongruous.

As it turns out, I had read one of her stories before ("The Smoothest Way is Paved With Stones"). Orringer's talent is certainly apparent in How To Breathe Underwater, if in a rather more nascent form, although her approach to short stories rather differs from what I prefer.

Orringer's short stories read like chunks of larger works, or pieces she toyed with before abandoning - and that's not a bad thing, although I like the hard, gem-like stories of TC Boyle, where each story stands on its own little legs. It's also rewarding to see that she braved new territory with Invisible Bridge. How to Breathe Underwater, while well-written, tromps familiar territory with its stories of teenage girls, teenage bullied girls, teenage bullied Jewish girls, teenage bullied mourning girls, and teenage bullied mourning Jewish coming-to-terms-with-their-contradictory-feelings girls.

Cancer is also featured heavily in this collection, with two vignettes about families facing the imminent loss of their mother in "Pilgrims" and "What We Save." "Note to Sixth-Grade Self" reads like Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl."

Orringer's collection makes it clear that she's a talent to watch, but the stories feel almost tentative, as though she used the collection to test out various voices, and the subject matter is nearly circular in its similarity. Still, the The Invisible Bridge lived up to the promise that How to Breathe Underwater made.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why I am glad I don't speak Guugu Yimithirr*

An absolutely fascinating article in today's New York Times magazine about how our language affects the way we think about the world.

*I'm glad because I am completely unable to discern cardinal points, even with the help of a map, a compass, and several frustrated car passengers telling that that way is east, dammit!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Drowning Lessons.

Swimming is Nicola Keegan's first novel, and despite being about a small-town Kansan who becomes a record-breaking, gold-medal drenched athlete, it is not uplifting or inspirational at all. Thank God, because Keegan wisely leaves that kind of dreck in the ghetto of ghostwritten 'memoirs' where it belongs.

Keegan's narrator, Philomena Ash (unwillingly nicknamed "Pip") is a rather typical teenage girl, aside from her phenomenal natural talent for swimming. She's insecure, lonely, beset by the insecurities that come with being six feet tall with massive feet and shoulders and finding herself increasingly unmoored in a family that is facing an unusually harsh set of circumstances.

Swimming opens with Pip narrating the first year of her life, in the way that you repeat those family anecdotes that become folkloric as you get older. Baby Pip apparently has never slept two hours straight, and her exhausted parents, Mom already pregnant again and both addled from sleep-deprivation, take her to an infant swimming class where she shows an uncanny comfort in the water, swims herself tired, and then sleeps for an entire day.

Despite her obvious aptitude for and love of swimming, Pip's parents are reluctant to let her pursue it seriously, although more through inattention than any clearly articulated reason. Her parents are preoccupied with Pip's older sister, who has Hodgkin's disease and is clearly declining, taking her mother's sanity with her.

After her sister's death and her father's apparent suicide, Pip's family doesn't so much shatter as slowly come unraveled. Her mother immures herself in her bedroom, her younger sisters take two diametrically opposed paths to dealing with their grief (rebellion and sainthood - really, two sides of the same coin). Pip, by now stratospherically taller than anyone else in her tiny Catholic school and with no signs of puberty on the horizon, only feels accepted in the pool. Finally wrenching a concession from her mother to let her travel to California to train seriously, Pip is finally free to immerse herself in the only place where things make sense.

Pip goes on to become a record-breaking Olympic athlete, squaring off against the notoriously steroided East German swim team and surrounded by a cadre of nutritionists, coaches, stroke masters, and others single-mindedly dedicated to swimming. Meanwhile, her family continues to crumble. Pip's swimming career is eventually derailed by an injury, and without the crutch she's depended on her entire life, she realizes how uniquely unequipped she is to deal with anything outside of the water.

Swimming, the activity, and Swimming, the novel, are a sort of extended metaphor. Like the pool, Pip's narrow universe - coaches, swimmers - is self-contained and protective. Keegan's descriptions of how swimmers are turned into machines so delicate and precise that a single missed breath or contraband candy bar can make them crash is fascinating, and she does an excellent job of rendering the claustrophobic, exclusive world of the athletes, a world that promptly abandons you once your usefulness is over.

Pip herself is a rather claustrophobic character. Awkward and panicky when dealing with her surroundings, she keeps herself remarkably contained in her own head, and as Kansas, Paris, Moscow, Seoul, and other cities whirl around her, Pip's focus remains consistently pointed inward. Although growing as an athlete, Pip seems stuck at sixteen, and when she unwillingly retires with no Dara Torres-like comeback in sight she finds herself without anything to fall back on.

As Pip falls apart, the narrative does too, which leads to an unsatisfying but probably more realistic ending than any other. Keegan's prose is often hilarious and watching Pip try to navigate the far choppier waters of her family and adolescence are often squirm-inducingly painful, and her despair as her career ends is palpable.

And to the reviewer who was disappointed because they were hoping for a fictional rehash of Michael Phelps' No Limits, do not pass go or collect $200.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Crash course.

If there were a course called Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I would most likely fail it. Ill-advisedly, I took a physics course in high school. Given my general ineptitude for anything relating to math and science (which is probably, according to Larry Summers, because my uterus makes it impossible for me to understand math*), I don't know why I took the physics course, unless it was because it was the only one that would fit into my schedule. Fortunately, the teacher was very understanding and would let you have partial credit for diagramming the problems on the test, so I drew very intricate, highly detailed diagrams of things falling off cliffs and ended up passing, although I don't remember knowing anything more about physics on the last day of class than I did on the first.

Fortunately, Special Topics in Calamity Physics isn't a course, but Marisha Pessl's audacious first novel. Like a lot of recent postmodernist fiction, Pessl's novel ignores the finer points of ficion, like plot and character development, in favor of cramming as much stylistic flourishes as possible into it's 500+ pages.

But backing up a moment, I bought Special Topics from the bargain shelf at the bookstore. Being cheap and also having way more books than I have space for, I rarely buy new books, but can't resist touring the bargain shelves, and I feel sorry for those poor books with their optimistic $25.99 hardback price stickers, so vulgarly covered up with a big $6.98!! And Special Topics looked pleasingly dense.

Special Topics follows radical-turned-professor-and-intellectual Gareth van Meer and his precocious teenage daughter, Blue, as they bounce from one small American college town to another. van Meer is a brilliant and self-absorbed author whose professorial career seems to be in decline and is irrestible to women. Blue terms his short-lived dalliances June Bugs, and like the towns she and her father pass through, they never stick. However, in Blue's senior year, they settle in a small North Carolina town, Blue enrolls in St. Gallway's, a private school, and van Meer promises they'll stay put until she graduates and gets her anticipated acceptance into Harvard.

Blue, an introverted, alarmingly smart and perceptive teenager (rather, I suppose, like many kids who never put down roots), usually doesn't bother making friends, preferring her father's company instead, but at St. Gallway's, she gets drawn into a circle of five students (nicknamed the Bluebloods) who are set apart by their devotion to each other and to Hannah Schneider, the film teacher at St. Gallway's.

Hannah's relationship to the Bluebloods is boundary-pushing for a teacher. They spend weekend nights at her house, having boozy dinners, and Hannah's beauty and wit quickly dazzles Blue, although the other students chafe at Hannah's insistence that they include Blue in their group.

The Bluebloods devote a considerable amount of time puzzling over Hannah. Strictly tight-lipped about her background, Hannah's a desultory (at best) teacher and has a habit of disappearing into seedy motels for apparent one-night stands. The Bluebloods clearly feel themselves elevated by her attention, but after an accidental drowning at one of her parties, Hannah, always tightly strung, seems to be coming unraveled.

After a fatal camping trip, Blue is left to deal with her increasingly strained relationship with her father, further damaged when she suspects that he hasn't been honest about his relationship with Hannah, her own attempts to pry open the secrets of Hannah's life, which leads her to a conspiracy larger than she could have imagined.

Special Topics is a book very much wrapped up in its own cleverness. Pessl includes visual diagrams, extensive footnotes for imaginary books (the titles of several are hilarious), and overstuffs her narrative with metaphors, similes, analogies, and endless linguistic variations. While wading through this is rather entertaining, Pessl's talent as a writer makes the reader wish for more - a tighter plot, fleshier characters, less attention to style and more attention to detail. The mystery is dealt with almost perfunctorily and takes up less than a third of the book, which is unsatisfying, and the ending feels rather pat.

I imagine Special Topics will appeal most to those who get the joke of the endless false annotations, the punny chapter titles, and the "final test" included in the end of the book. Special Topics is reminiscient of a lighter, less bleak House of Leaves, and probably has that narrow of a readership (which may explain the $6.98). Still, as a confirmed literature twerp, Special Topics threw enough stuff in the way of the narrative to make it take a while to get through, which is something I enjoy, since I have a hard time finding books I can't chew through in a few hours, while at the same time not asking much from my brain. But strip away the gymnastic writing, and Special Topics feels like the gym after prom - empty and littered with bits of streamer and a squashed corsage or two.

*Actually a uterus is not an impediment to learning about math and science, so don't be alarmed if you have one. My stunning lack of mathematical ability is probably due to 1) several years of being homeschooled, meaning left to my own devices, which, shockingly, did not include teaching myself math, hence never really grasping things like long division 2) several years of astoundingly awful math teachers who did not realize that not getting it is not the same as never having been taught it and 3) the general theory being proposed that I was perhaps just Not Good at Math, hence providing me with a handy excuse to avoid anything math-related for the rest of my life, coupled with a freezing, panicky feeling when asked anything relating to math. Also, to explain my general aptitude with sports, replace "math" in the above with "sports."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Books That Time Forgot (feminist prototype edition)

So. How about that Project Gutenberg? All sorts of free etexts, there for the downloading. Of course, the tradeoff for free literary goodness is that a lot of it is stuff you can't imagine wanting to read (and Little Women, a book that alternately makes me a) very irritated and b) teary).

But it's kind of fun, getting to read these weird little turn of the century novels, like this one:

The Judgement of Eve, by May Sinclair, certainly sounds rather racy. It's not. Published in 1907, Judgement is a cautionary tale, although exactly what Sinclair is cautioning us is rather murky.

Anyway, Aggie Purcell is Sinclair's Eve, a sweet, pretty Englishwoman who is in all ways rather conventional except for her longing for "beautiful pictures and poetry," which are in rather short supply in her tiny town of Queningford. Being rather pretty, Aggie has her choice of suitors, and eventually narrows it down to well-to-do but provincial sheep farmer John Hurst and less-well-to-do but charmingly intellectual clerk Arthur Gatty. Aggie is attracted by Gatty's gentle, introspective nature and dedication to what he calls the "intellectual life," and she accepts his proposal, leaving John to marry her younger, less attractive sister (the early version of sloppy seconds?).

Aggie and Arthur move to the city and spend their free time attending debates, discussing the nature of reality, and otherwise convincing each other that their dedication to immateriality makes their rather penurious circumstances bearable. The two solemnly swear to 'keep up' their intellectual life, but, sadly, reliable birth control still being some ways away, in seven years the Gattys have six children and are poorer than ever, while Aggie is far too busy and worn out running after them to maintain her lofty ambitions.

Arthur, fed up with the demands of his growing brood and rather disgusted with how Aggie's let herself go, becomes a first-rate douche. Meanwhile, Aggie's sister (whose one child has rather conveniently, and as I understand it rather commonly in the way of children of that time period, died) is happily married to the even-wealthier John Hurst. The two sisters have a tense visit together, in which Susan confesses that she's been told that she's too weak to have another child but is, actually, totally okay with that.

Since I doubt anyone is going to hie themselves to Gutenberg to read this, I'll go ahead and spoil the ending - Aggie gets pregnant again and promptly dies. See, it IS like that coach in Mean Girls. If you have sex, you'll get pregnant and die!

Which brings us back to what, exactly, Sinclair was getting at. That Aggie's devotion to the idea of the 'intellectual life' is ridiculous? That having six kids is probably not the best idea if you'd really rather be spending your time debating the nature of reality?

Anyway, this weird little novel is sort of like a prototype of a feminist manifesto (I smell a thesis!). If you do want to read it, you can find it on Gutenberg here.

What remains.

Howard Norman's What Is Left The Daughter is a slim, punchy novel that does a remarkable job at conjuring up an indiosyncratic community and its singular inhabitants without veering off into caricature.

What is Left is a combination memoir/letter, written from Wyatt Hillyer to his daughter Marlais on her 21st birthday, after having been separated from her since her toddlerhood. Although What is Left packs a lot into a relatively short work (murder and World War II, for starters) it's really about love triangles, or more accurately, the impossibility of some loves.

What is Left begins with one such triangle, when a teenaged Wyatt is orphaned after both parents commit suicide within the same hour, in the same way, over the same woman, a glamorous switchboard operator and aspiring actress named Reese Mac Isaac. The news is sensational in Wyatt's tiny and conventional Nova Scotian town.

After his parents' suicides, the not-quite-adult but very pragmatic Wyatt leaves high school and moves in with his aunt and uncle and their adopted daughter, the beautiful Tilda, whom he promptly falls in love with. He joins his uncle's toboggan and sled business and lives quite contentedly with his aunt and uncle, until World War II breaks out.

Located as it is on the Bay of Fundy, Wyatt's new home of Middle Economy (located between Upper and Lower Economy, respectively) is imperiled by the German U-boats roaming the waters and targeting civilian and military ships alike. Wyatt's uncle becomes increasing obsessed with the U-boats, which reaches cataclysmic proportions when Tilda falls for and marries a German university student and a ferry carrying Wyatt's aunt, Constance, is attacked and sunk by a U-boat.

The book's second triangle, between Tilda and her husband, Hans, and Wyatt, is best summed up in Wyatt's admission to his daughter that although Tilda is the love of his life, he is not the love of hers.

What is Left is filled with odd little details - Tilda's obsession with the Highland Book of Platitudes and eventual career as a professional mourner; Wyatt becoming a detritus gaffer in the port; his mother's collection of radios, etc., but Norman skilfully draws an odd, isolated little community without making it seem forced or too deliberate (Anna Lawrence Pietroni, take notes).

The novel ends with the potential of a reunion between Wyatt and Marlais dangling like a tantalizing thread, but Norman doesn't give the reader the satisfaction of knowing whether Marlais and Wyatt will reunite. Nevertheless, this little novel, with it's almost Salinger-esque prose, is smartly crafted and disarmingly engaging.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Spy vs. Spy

It's hard to believe that a writer could produce something boring that's set in Weimar Germany (and not only Weimar Germany, but Berlin, that teeming city of vice! The inspiration for Faust's Metropolis!) The decadence! The conflicting ideologies! The clash between Germany's Romantic, fatalistic culture with the rise of communism and the storm clouds of national socialism on the horizon! The breaking of social taboos!

Yet, somehow, Craig Nova has produced the literary equivalent of a stale Saltine with his latest, The Informer.

Shabbily written and poorly constructed, The Informer's characters are stale and two-dimensional, the dialogue is weak, the plot is mushy and thin, and Nova fails rather spectacularly at conjuring up Berlin. His one attempt, name-dropping Berlin's famous Hotel Adlon (which feels here like an obligatory name-check after a hasty Wiki crawl) belly flops because of the book's poor editorship. "Hotel Aldon?"

Anyway, since I felt obligated to finish this book, which is kind of like trying to muster up enthusiasm after being given a piece of pre-chewed gum, here goes:

The titular 'informer' is a prostitute named Gaelle, who has an icky burn scar on one cheek and a creepy, limping pimp, Felix. Although Gaelle has wealthy parents, for reasons never explained and completely unbelievable, she chooses to work as a prostitute, and for reasons even more ridiculous, her burn scar somehow makes her ridiculously desireable to Nazis, Communists, and psychopaths alike. Yeah, I don't get it either, but apparently it made sense to Nova.

Gaelle flumps around Nova's sketchily drawn Berlin and, again, randomly and with no apparent motivation, decides to start selling information. Why? We don't know. Nova doesn't seem to know either. But in Nova-world, all Gaelle has to do is wander down the street, and a young Nazi named Aksel and a communist named Karl are panting after her, just begging to give her all sorts of sensitive information, without any obvious provocation.

Meanwhile, strangled prostitutes are turning up in the parks of Berlin and - you know what? Forget it. This book sucks. It's one of the worst things I've read this year.

So, let's turn to Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, a trilogy of three short novels, March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem.

Philip Kerr doesn't just embrace noir, he chases it down, wrestles it into the dirt, and then rubs its face in the mud. Berlin Noir is dripping with rainy streets, illicit drugs, sleek cars, fast women, and faster affairs. Bernard Gunther, Kerr's ex-policeman/private investigator, embodies the noir antihero. He's quick to use violence, not above smacking his sources around, and even quicker at jumping into bed with all sorts of unsuitable ladies - usually the ones he's supposed to be helping.

March Violets follows Gunther as he investigates the mysterious death of the recently married daughter of a wealthy industrialist, ending up on the wrong side of the ever-strengthening Nazi Party. In The Pale Criminal, World War II is looming, and someone is leaving mutilated bodies stashed in the warehouses and alleys of Berlin. A German Requiem is set after the end of World War II, in the rubble of postwar Berlin. Chasing war criminals, Gunther winds up in Austria, navigating the treacherous space between the Russian and American armies and the remnants of the Nazi Party.

Kerr's Berlin is dank and dangerous, his characters are mercenary and self-serving, and his dialog is snappy and brisk. Sure, sometimes the prose gets florid and over the top (particularly when the sweet sweet ladies are involved), and some of Gunther's internal monologues are unintentionally hilarious, but Kerr tackles noir with an admirable zeal, and his attention to historical detail is deep.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Ring the alarm.

You can almost taste the frustration oozing out of this book. (If you're wondering what it tastes like, it's kinda metallic.)

The Age of Sacred Terror was published in 2002, about a year after the September 11th terrorist attacks. This book should have been a bombshell - wait, sorry - lit a fire under - dammit, sorry again - the collective conscience of policymakers and readers alike in America, but that apparently didn't happen (see, Washington Post article on Top Secret America, Abdulmutallab, etc.).

Why not? Well, I don't know - bureaucratic ineptitude, turf battles, an emphasis on strategies that haven't worked, ignoring evidence presented by experts in the field - which is exactly, the authors argue, what caused the intelligence failure that allowed the conditions in which 9/11 was planned to happen. (As an aside - I'm not claiming, and neither do the authors, that 9/11 could have been prevented. But they do point out that, even if it had happened exactly the way it did, we shouldn't have been so blindsided.)

Sacred Terror is co-authored by Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin. Simon served as the Director for Global Issues at the National Security Council (NSC) from '94 to '98, and Benjamin served as the Director for Counterterrorism at NSC from '98 - '99. Both men have impressive backgrounds in international relations and counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and regional studies (Simon is currently the associate director and senior fellow for U.S. Security Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies).

Sacred Terror's data was gathered from reams and reams of testimony of terror trials, beginning in the mid-90s, including trials of members of al-Qaeda. Interestingly enough, this book wasn't written in response to 9/11. As a concept, the book originated in the late 90s, as Benjamin was preparing to step down from his position at the NSC. Originally, Sacred Terror was meant to educate the reader about various terror groups, their motivations, and their methods. Obviously, 9/11 changed the course of the book, but while Benjamin and Simon were researching Sacred Terror before 9/11, they were still publishing articles warning policymakers about the dangers posed by al-Qaeda, and Simon and Benjamin had a large pool of research and analysis that pointed towards just such an event occurring.

The authors take us back - way back, to the 1990 assassination of Meir Kahane, a rabbi and the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party, by El-Sayyid Nosair in New York City. Benjamin and Simon date this assassination as the first killing of the terror - their term for jihad as we now think of it. Kahane's assassination was dismissed as the work of a depressed, mentally unbalanced loner and quickly faded from the headlines. But Nosair had trained for this assassination with a bigger goal in mind: the "breaking and exploding...of the structure of their civilized pillars...and their high buildings."

Benjaming and Simon continue to connect the links between other 'lone wolf' terrorists, revealing a complex, highly organized, and extremely effective web of support stretching from American to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. As bits and pieces of intelligence emerged, much of it given by those arrested, it becomes clear that these jihadis are operating as part of a much larger, quickly responsive, and infinitely adaptive organism. But this didn't square with the accepted concept of a terrorist (much of that ideology borrowed from the terrorist groups of the 60s and early 70s, without the understanding that their motivations and modus operandi had changed), and it was ignored.

As terrorist attacks increased, new agencies and organizations were established to counter them, but their lack of understanding and unwillingness to accept the idea of a large, sophisticated terrorist network, coupled with bureaucratic inertia and an obstinate refusal to share information (often the result of clashes between the upper echelons of leadership) led to organizations that were ill or misinformed, slow to react, unable to develop a cohesive picture of the threat as a whole, and ultimately, failures in protecting America from terrorist threats.

Ironically enough, it was the Clinton administration, not the tough-on-terror Bushies that were the most serious about focusing on terrorism pre 9/11, even if the Clinton administration lacked the focus to make it a serious enough issue to warrant a more targeted and effective strategy. Warnings from officials in the outgoing Clinton administration were brushed aside by the incoming personnel, who were too busy lobbying for the creation of a national missile defense.

Daniel and Benjamin are really telling multiple stories here: first, the development of the philosophy that supports violent jihad against Western targets, beginning with the writings of Islamic scholars from the thirteenth century on. Secondly, the building of momentum behind the jihadist movement and the development of a global network capable of conducting successful terrorist attacks against even fortified targets. Third, the continuing failure of the previous and current American intelligence and analysis community to successfully share and analyze intelligence and make accurate recommendations.

Part of this failure seems to be systemic, a result of the structure of the intelligence community, and part of it seems to be the lack of understanding of the threat, which persists even after the allocation of roughly, by my estimate, eleventy bajillion dollars and the creation of entirely new agencies dedicated solely to countering terrorism. Unfortunately, it still seems to be a creation defined more by its failures than its successes.

So, where does that leave us? Moving to an off-the-grid commune in Wisconsin and learning to make our own charcoal filters? The authors provide several strategies (foremost - remember what you did that didn't work? Try not doing that again.), but many of them require the patience and long-term dedication that our electoral system tends to work against. Why plan for the next 50, 100, or 150 years when you're worried about November's election cycle?

Sacred Terror is well written, well researched, and a very important book, despite being disheartening as hell. Perhaps the most telling paragraph comes not in the text of the book but in the introduction - the authors attempted to arrange interviews with many government officials, including then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Advisor Stephen Hadley, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and other CIA and defense officials. The authors were able to secure one (one!) interview after a year of trying.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cookbook Redux (part two)

Food Made Fast, Desserts from the Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast line of cookbooks.

This book is part of the Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast line, which is a pretty interesting concept. The book is organized according to how long the recipes will take you to make, instead of what they are or what's in them. This book is of dubious usefulness to me, because when I bake I'm usually baking for a dinner party and have the time to make something complicated, and don't normally need a fast dessert recipe. Because the recipes are meant to be made quickly, the emphasis is on desserts like puddings, fruit-based desserts, and granitas and ices, which actually, if unintentionally, makes this a good summer cookbook. My only gripe is that the recipes call for things I don't usually keep on hand (like heavy cream - I never use it except in baking, or fruit like mangoes that I don't normally buy).

Crazy About Cupcakes by Krystina Castella.

Yes, yes, I know. Where do I think I am, Sex and the City? Cupcakes are passe - ice pops are the new cupcake! Pass it on, hipster kids!

But for real, I like making cupcakes because it's easier to plan how many I need to make, they tend to feed more than a cake does, and they're easier to transport and serve than a cake but fancier than brownies.

Castella's book is almost as much about decorating than it is about baking, which if you have oodles of time on your hands I suppose would be enthralling, but I don't really have the time or the patience to construct elaborate aquarium scenes on the top of my cupcakes using Swedish fish and green-dyed coconut or make a TV Party cupcake that involves crafting tiny Oscar statuettes out of gold foil and gluing popcorn to the top of my cupcake (I am not making this up).

The organization of the book is nice, with basic recipes in the front - types of cake and types of frosting, plus fillings and syrups, and then a section that puts together difference combinations of cupcakes, plus aforementioned ridiculously complicated decoration schemes and gives them cutesy names. I mean, Jesus, one recipe asks you to make a teeny tiny gingerbread house that goes on top of your cupcake. The author is an industrial designer who, according to her book's bio, "designs environments, furniture, clothing, stationary, housewares, and toys," which would explain the obsession with leaving no cupcake un-overdecorated (and her slightly manic expression).

Cookbook Redux (part one)

So, I don't really own that many cookbooks.

That's probably because I can't really cook. Can't cook? But you have food pictures up here! Yes, well, I can bake, but I can't cook. So while I could make you a wedding cake, you're out of luck if you want anything more complicated than toast and eggs (although today I screwed up a fried egg by leaving on the stove too long and turning it into a hard-boiled yolk on a blackened white. But, Dear Reader, I ate it anyway).

I think baking is a lot less intuitive and more of an exact science than cooking. If you have a good recipe and you can follow it fairly competently, you'll probably get more or less the same results when you bake, which is why having a few good baking cookbooks on hand is better and more fail-safe than just Googling recipes.

With that said, here are short reviews of my baking book shelf:

Chocolate, American Style, by Lora Brody.

Laura Brody is a prolific cookbook writer, wrote the Chocolate book for the Williams-Sonoma Cookbook Library, has a bazillion published recipes, and has appeared on a bunch of cooking shows. She knows her stuff and approaches her recipes with a welcome lack of pretentiousness. Although some recipes are more complicated than others, she doesn't seem to have jumped on the unfortunate trend of trying to dig up the hardest to find ingredients or most arcane techniques, and Chocolate, American Style is a solid, dependable cookbook.

Brody divides up her chapters by type, including chapters on candy, ice cream, old world desserts, and chocolate to go. Brody's Jewish heritage also lends itself well to some interesting twists on favorites like rugelach, hamentaschen, and linzer torte. My particular favorite is the Mint Chocolate Brownie recipe.

Michael Turback's Mocha.

This little book is a decent buy if you really, really like chocolate and coffee together. If you don't, skip it. Mocha has three sections, drinks, cocktails, and desserts. The usefulness of the drinks and cocktails sections is debatable - you're probably not going to spend a lot of time and effort making complicated coffee drinks or coffee based cocktails unless you're really, really into it. Mocha's recipes also call for stuff that's hard to find or expensive, like cocoa nibs or Amarula Cream liqueur. (Really? Making your own cardamom-scented marshmallows? Please.)

The desserts section does yield some good recipes. My favorite is the Espresso Walnut Brownie, a dark, dense and very adult coffee-spiked brownie.

Food Editor's Favorite Desserts, edited by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker.
Jeez, this book is so old that I can't even find a picture of it online and is probably out of print. It's been knocking around my mom's cabinets for ages and I took it with me when I moved out (sorry, Mom). This book brings together recipes from food writers across America and includes a lot of previously published or reader-submitted recipes. Each one includes a little note about its provenance. I've had good results from every recipe I've tried, although the recipes don't go into detail about technique, and the recipes vary widely in how challenging they are. Two I've made over and over are Black Bottom Cups (those cream cheese-filled dark chocolate cupcakes) and the Cornmeal Pound Cake, a delicious twist on pound cake with a pleasing gritty texture that I use as the base for fruit and ice cream parfaits. The recipes are fairly straightforward and with few exceptions, pure Americana.

How to Be A Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson (American version).

Skip it. This expensive hardbound book's recipes vary hugely in quality. I suspect, based on my own experiences with this book and other online reviews, that the American version of this book has really badly converted measurements.

The recipes call for ingredients that are hard to find here, like walnut paste, candied peel, and chestnuts. Although Nigella's schtick seems to be claiming that all her recipes are really wondrously easy, she doesn't bother to explain a lot of stuff that a novice baker won't know - for example, her creme brulee recipes doesn't explain that you need to temper the eggs, or you'll end up with a bowl of sweetened scrambled eggs instead of a smooth custard. I have had good luck with some of the recipes (I like the Cherry-Almond Loaf cake) but other ones, such as her meringue cookie recipes, fail miserably, and others, like many of the muffin recipes, are just mediocre. It's a shame; the book's photography is lovely and her writing is witty and smart, making it a pleasure just to read, but the recipes are undependable enough to make it unwise to rely on this book unless you have the time and patience to test recipes first.


This dense, no-nonsense book collects approximately a bazillion dessert recipes from New York restaurants, cookbook and food writers, and other sources. Each recipe includes a paragraph explaining the recipe's origins, and some are fascinating. Recipes range from the exotic (Coco-Mamie) to the Old World (linzer torte) to the innovative (Pluot Carpaccio with Ginger Sauce) so you'll never not be able to find a recipe to suit what you're craving. There are very few pictures except for a section in the middle, and the pictures are somewhat random (I like cookbooks with pictures, especially of the more complicated recipes, so I at least know if mine is approximating the original). The book's organization is rather odd, with types of desserts (Pies, Tarts, and Cakes) and ingredients (Fruit Desserts, etc.) getting their own section, so desserts aren't always where you think you'll find them. Overall, a solid book, and varied enough that you'll almost always be able to find something new in it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

You, through the mesh.

Ever since the publication of her short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer's first novel has been eagerly anticipated, and it doesn't disappoint. The Invisible Bridge is a beautifully crafted, moving, watertight novel that plows through Hungary's tumultuous history before and during World War II. Orringer clearly has a personal connection to this story and her characters (as explained in her acknowledgments) and it shows.

The Invisible Bridge follows two families, linked by coincidence, destiny, religion, love, hate, and war. Andras Levi, a Jewish Hungarian, travels to Paris to study architecture at the Ecole Special. Already, war is casting its long shadow, and Andras' Jewishness, while a source of strength, complicates and defines his life both in Hungary and Paris. A chance encounter with a wealthy Jewish woman, Elza Hasz, sets the machinery in motion for a meeting that will come to twist the course of Andras' life.

In Paris, immersed in his architecture studies and surrounded by like-minded young students and an environment dazzlingly urbane after rural Hungary, Andras is content. But even in so-called liberal France, anti-Semitism and the increasing unrest in Germany troubles Andras and his Jewish classmates. Faced with the prospect of losing his scholarship after the Hungarian government passes a decree preventing Jewish students outside of Hungary from receiving money, Andras becomes a set designer at a local theater and, not entirely improbably in the close-knit community of Jewish Hungarian expatriates in Paris, is set up on a blind date of sorts with Elizabet, the daughter of a friend of the theater's grand dame.

Andras realizes the house to which he's sent is the same house where he delivered the elder Mrs. Hasz' letter, and it's Elizabet's mother, Klara, whom Andras falls for. Nine years his senior, with an obstreperous, viperish teenage daughter and a murky past, Klara is an entirely unsuitable match for Andras.

Andras and Klara circle each other for much of the book, their feelings agonizing for both of them, until succumbing, but their relationship is complicated by Klara's daughter, her refusal to explain to Andras how she came to Paris, and her inability to think of a future with Andras, still a student with no means of support. Meanwhile, the National Socialist noose is drawing tighter around Europe.

After Klara capitulates to Andras' marriage proposal, the novel abruptly picks up from its rather languid pace and begins moving much faster. Whether intentional or not, the shift in pacing echoes the increasing feeling of hurtling towards doom as Europe spins out of control. A change in the Parisian immigration laws sends Andras back to Hungary for the mundane task of getting his visa renewed, but once there, the Hungarian officials refuse to approve his request, effectively trapping him in Hungary. Klara, who has been living under an alias in Paris because of a tragedy in her past, insists on accompanying Andras, although returning to Hungary may result in her arrest.

Soon, the destinies of the Levi and Hasz families are inextricably intertwined. Andras and Klara marry, but Andras is soon sent to a work camp. The disparity in wealth and status between the two families, a source of tension, is exacerbated when the Hasz' wealth serve to keep them insulated from the worst changes in Hungary, at least initially.

Orringer brings the reader through the end of World War II and the separation and eventual reunion of some of the members of the Hasz and Levi family, although with irreparable damage and loss.

Overall, The Invisible Bridge is a hauntingly beautiful novel, although the pacing veers wildly from the slow, intimate scenes in Paris to the rapid wintry sweep of life in the work camps. The characters also suffer from a certain one-dimensionality, which is curious for a writer otherwise so skilled. Orringer's characters are very, very good, or very, very bad, and the only one who seems to undergo a personal transformation (Klara's nephew, Joszef, a spoiled and dissolute brat) does so almost perfunctorily. Andras and Klara in particular react to the horrors around them with an almost unflagging courage that begins to seem rather forced.

Two other odd episodes in the book bear closer scrutiny. Twice, at two separate work camps run by the Hungarian military that uses Jewish Hungarians as slave labor, two Hungarian officers intercede on Andras' behalf and express their disgust with the men's treatment by the Army, given that all the men are Hungarians. What point is Orringer trying to make? That the men, older generals and relics of Hungary's military past, represent a more accepting historical moment or symbolize a greater Hungarian past than it's wretched present? That anti-Semitism was not yet institutionalized in Hungary?

The luminous quality of the book's writing and rich historical detail more than balance out whatever flaws it may have, and although one can't read the book without a growing sense of fear for the characters, it's still a phenomenal first novel and hopefully the first of many for Ms. Orringer.

To understand Ms. Orringer's link to the characters, don't fail to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book.