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Archive for November, 2010

I was hoping to like Allegra Goodman’s latest, The Cookbook Collector.  After all, I enjoyed Kaatterskill Falls a few years back.  As with many recent reads, this one sacrifices the true story for a lot of fluff and tortuous tie-ins.  Probably the publisher thought cookbook collecting would not be so compelling, and encouraged a whole plotline about the dot.com bust in the late nineties, dragging in coast-to-coast business intrique and love triangles, as well as a whacky Jewish sect of mystics, and, of course, 9/11 (better books that touch on this topic are out there – Netherland, for one, and The Emperor’s Children). The best parts of this book are centered around the mysterious collector, his secret love (rather unimaginatively revealed) and the bookstore owner, George, who happens to be 16 years older than his love-interest, the not quite believable waif, Jess. I rather resent the unearned reference to Emma and the blurb on the back that awards “the mantle of Jane Austen” to Goodman. Sorry, but no. And, if the two sisters plotline is an attempt at recreating Sense and Sensibility, it didn’t work.

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Backstage at the Met

On my last trip to NYC, I scheduled a full day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; well, a full day interpsersed with lunch at the lovely Cafe Sabarsky (at the Neue Galerie), and walks in the park.  Besides seeing some favorite paintings and the Egyptian temple, we visited the arms and armor section to see the Negroli Helmet, which was quite stunning.  This on the recommendation of PS, who had been reading Danny Danziger’s book about the museum, entitled simply Museum, in which he interviews a wide selection of people employed by or connected with the museum, including the security guards, the Director himself, Board members, the cleaning crew, etc., giving a broad and fascinating portrait of a great institution.  Especially great was hearing from the curators about their personal favorites, the one thing they would save if the building caught on fire.  The point is, I never would have gone into arms and armor without some reference point, some item to hone in on. After reading Danziger’s book, I have a new list of such items and am looking forward to my next visit.

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Little Bee

I first heard of Chris Cleave’s novel, Little Bee, on the Diane Rehm show last spring. Based on the rave reviews, I even recommended it to some friends and book clubs, and gave it as a gift. Once again, I’m sorry I recommended it before reading it – when will I learn! (I’m still embarassed about recommending The Broken Shore to J’s book group: I loved that book, but some of the Australian slang is a bit much for Americans, I think). So, for Little Bee, maybe I was expecting too much. It had some good points and even some good writing. The subject matter – exploitation, terror and murder for oil in Nigerian villages – is Important, but the narrative style – passed back and forth between the refugee Little Bee and the privileged Englishwoman, Sarah (they meet on a beach in Nigeria in somewhat unbelievable circumstances)- is choppy, and in the end, unrewarding. Little Bee’s voice is lovely and her story is poignant, but that effect gradually dwindles and diminishes. Sarah comes across as mostly inane and annoying; her husband, the  more interesting character, is soon out of the story. Don’t get me started on the boy, Charlie, dressed as Batman – that got old very fast. I believe the English call this sort of thing twee.  The end of the book, when Sarah and Little Bee return to Nigeria is frankly ridiculous. Finally, the sketched characters are made to fit a certain needed trajectory and crumble under the weight of a lot of contrived intentions and emotions. It just doesn’t work.

Note: if you read reviews, you will be confronted with an avalanche of gushing praise for Cleeve’s book – “great literature”, it will ‘change your  life’, etc. So, in double-checking whether or not I am off-base with my reaction, I found this thoughtful review. Thanks, Michelle!  

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The particular hell-on-earth that was Nazi Germany is the topic of a book by Hans Fallada, called Every Man Dies Alone, written in 1947, but only recently translated and available in English. Coincidentally, I also just saw the Tarrantino film, Inglorious Basterds, which  takes a look at the same period in a radically different way, part Hogan’s Heroes, part bloody horror movie. One interesting overlap was Fallada’s episode about an actor who became Goebbel’s pet for awhile; in the movie, Goebbels the film buff takes over a theater in Paris to show a Nazi propaganda film- leading to the bizarre, revenge-fantasy climax of the movie. It was interesting to read in the book about the ordinary Germans who supported Hitler in 1932, lost a son in the war, and came to despise the regime and its policies.  Based on an actual working-class couple who developed their own brave and pathetic anit-Nazi propaganda scheme – depositing laboriously produced hand-written postcards around Berlin in the hopes of tapping into a groundswell of rebellion- the book depicts the suffocating oppression and atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and the sense that only the worst of humanity could survive and thrive, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust.  (Nearly every one of the postcards was promptly turned into the authorities.)  The very ordinariness of the heroic couple, the inner journey of the official assigned to their case, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of those living in a nightmarish world build to an agonizing climax. The book is slow to get going, and at times awkwardly written (or translated), but the end is gripping and suspenseful.  Currently, I’m listening to a Teaching Company Course on Hitler’s Empire.  I am just getting to the part in 1932 when Hitler wins the election, and I think of Fallada’s couple, saying of Hitler: “He sure pulled our chestnuts out of the fire in 1933.”  The book includes an appendix with pictures of the actual couple and the chillingly efficient Nazi documentation of their case.  In addition, there is a fascinating biography of the author, as the New York Times book review describes him: “a troubled man in troubled times.”

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