Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Good Novel

Europa Editions, the publisher that brought us The Elegance of the Hedgehog, has published another gem by French author Laurence Cosse, A Novel Bookstore. Ivan and Francesca have opened a unique bookstore called The Good Novel. The Good Novel only stocks good novels. Observe:

"And the more people asked him, Is this good? the bolder he became, going from a hesitant Mmmyeah to an openly disparaging, Not bad, then soon to a frank, Good? It is downright awful. Very quickly the idea of selling books that he himself would not advise people to read infuriated him. By July, when the store opened again for the summer, Ivan had resolved the contradiction. All that remained in his little shop were those books which enchanted him. Van would open the boxfuls of books sent automatically every week by the major publishers, and as soon as he had unpacked them and had a look through, nine times out of ten he put everything back in the box and returned it." [Can you imagine? I need a job at this place!]

But when members of The Good Novel's secret selection committee are suddenly terrorized by thugs, mystery and mayhem ensue. This is another wonderful, subtle French novel, filled with intriguing characters and sly humor.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I've lost my appetite

I've been sifting through a very entertaining book about the history of food in 20th century America, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren. It breaks down the 20th century into decades, discusses what was going on in the country at the time and how that affected what people were eating. It also includes recipes from those periods. Most of them are fun to read, but I just found one from the 1930s that actually made me gag. Enjoy:

Peanut Butter Tea Sandwiches:
1 Cup natural smooth peanut butter
2 Tablespoons ketchup
2 Tablespoons finely chopped sweet pickles
1 loaf white bread, buttered and thinly sliced
1 head iceberg lettuce

"Make a paste of the peanut butter, ketchup, and pickles. [Yep. That's right. A paste of peanut butter and ketchup. Ugh.] Spread on thin slices of bread. Top with a lettuce leaf and another buttered slice of bread. Cut off the crusts and slice the sandwich into three fingers."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Countess

I had never heard of Countess Erzsebet Bathory until I came across her in Dacre Stoker's sequel to Dracula, Dracula: The Un-Dead. In this novel, she is portrayed as a vampire, more evil than Dracula himself; a woman who brutally killed hundreds of young women and drank their blood. It turns out that Countess Bathory did in fact exist. She lived in Hungary from 1560-1614. She was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and was imprisoned and bricked into a room until her death. Legends of her include accounts of her bathing in the blood of virgins, and she has been given nicknames such as the Blood Countess and Countess Dracula. How did I not know about this intriguing person? This story just begs to be told.*

Fortunately, Rebecca Johns has told Erzsebet Bathory's story in her new novel, The Countess, set to be released this month. The novel begins as Erzsebet is being walled inside her castle tower. As she endures her imprisonment, Erzsebet recollects the events of her life: her childhood, her betrothal and marriage to Count Nadasdy, her husband's death and her fear for her and her children's survival. Oh, and her killing of a few maidservants.

The Countess is not a typical bloody, gruesome horror story, which is why I liked it so much. Johns has written an exceptional, well-researched historical novel, slowly building this ominous and creepy tone throughout the story. Her choice of telling the story from Erzsebet's point of view also adds to this feeling. Erzsebet's calm demeanor, downplaying of violence and rationalization of her crimes is chilling. But at times, I found myself empathizing with Erzsebet, unable to believe her capable of such crimes, which I think is a credit to Johns's talent. This is a captivating story that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

*So it turns out that Johns's book is not the only fictionalized account of Bathory. In 2008, Andrei Codrescu published The Blood Countess, which did get some good reviews. Johns also mentions in her acknowledgements that she relied on Tony Thorne's book Countess Dracula: Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. I'm fascinated by Bathory, so I'd like to read them as well.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whatever Sells

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how a book landed in a certain section of the library
(or bookstore); it may even be tough to identify the real author. Libraries and stores, of course, are busy public places, constantly in flux. Where’s the book I want, we ask? The answer so often is that it was moved. Why? So many books, so many categories; or so many books, so little space. And many books, these days, are written by authors (or author teams) using pen names. Figuring it all out can be exhausting.

Take The Housekeeper and the Professor, a first novel by the young Japanese writer
Yoko Ogawa. The book was written by written by a first-time novelist using her own name. It should be simple to find in any bookstore or library, right? Well, the book is a lovely, spare novel that could be read by adults or teens. It also includes more than a small dose of mathematics, right there on the page. So—is it a young adult novel or an adult novel or math book? As those commercials for kitchen choppers and cleaning cloths might say, it’s all three! Really. It is. So the decision is the publisher’s initially. How to market it? Math book? Nope; it’s a novel. For teens or adults? Both, of course, like Harry Potter or Twilight. Well, then, who wants to read a novel with math in it?

Not me, or so I thought until Ogawa captured me with her spare, elegant prose and the reminder that math is really about the symmetry of everything, from a leaf to an archway. Near the end of the novel the professor asks a young boy he has grown to love to picture 1 +1 = 0 this way: one bird lands, and then another. Both fly away, and we are left with sky and a tree and a complicated, imaginary number. Now where to you put a book like that? I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my copy in a backpack these days.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Urban Farming, Part 2

Any romantic notions I've been harboring about starting my own little urban farm have been severely curtailed after reading Manny Howard's memoir, My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm. Novella Carpenter's experience with her Oakland urban farm is uplifting and positive. Although she experiences some difficulties, her farm does fairly well and she has a way of making it seem like anyone could do it. Manny, on the other hand, makes me think "how on earth did I ever think I could do something like this?" Manny undertakes constructing an urban farm in his Brooklyn backyard and is, frankly, terrible at it. While I can chuckle over failed attempts at growing vegetables, I cannot abide the stories of numerous animals dying because he is unprepared and ill-equipped to raise them. But as I read, I realized, this is probably a more realistic example of urban farming than Carpenter's book. Farming, even on a small scale, is not easy and should not be undertaken lightly. Carpenter genuinely seemed to enjoy farming and raising her own food seemed to be a source of pride for her. Her parents did some of their own farming when she was a child, so it wasn't an entirely new concept for her. Whereas Manny took on the task solely because he was paid to do it and write about it. He seems to see this strictly as another "project" rather than having any romantic notions about knowing where his food comes from. Although I liked Carpenter's book better, Manny's story taught me something important: I am not ready for chickens.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Running with Knitting Needles

I can't believe it's been a month since my last post! My apologies, readers. I've been caught up in so many things, time has just gotten away from me. But fortunately I have a number of books to tell you about, so stay tuned!

Since I've been so busy lately, I've been too distracted and tired to read much, so I've been turning more and more to one of my other favorite past-times: knitting. Knitting is something I can do without having to think much and the result is something beautiful, so I find it very relaxing and satisfying. Plus, I can listen to audiobooks at the same time, which makes it even better. I came across Adrienne Martini's memoir Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously and it had a picture of colorful balls of yarn on the cover. For you non-knitters: knitters are easily drawn in by colorful balls of yarn. Like moths to a flame. I was hooked.

But as I was reading, I realized something. I have a number of friends who knit and we knit together regularly. But we don't talk about knitting while we are doing it. We don't debate the merits of various techniques or the history of certain patterns. Why? Because it's boring. In her memoir, Martini chronicles her attempt to knit an intricate sweater using a technique called Fair Isle. To many knitters (and non-knitters) Fair Isle seems quite difficult and can be very intimidating. And the particular pattern she attempts seems impossible for any but the very advanced knitter. So I thought this might be an entertaining and funny story of dropped stitches, misshaped armholes, and fights with the hubby over how much money was being spent on yarn. Meh. She delves into various knitting techniques, the background of Fair Isle knitting and the background of the woman who created this particular sweater pattern. I'm a knitter and I was bored. There were a few parts where she talked about meeting other knitters that was semi-interesting, but that was about it. This is definitely not a book for someone who isn't really, really in to knitting. And even then.... I get that there is something satisfying in reading someone's memoir about something you also enjoy or have also experienced. Cooking? Yes. Running a marathon? Sure. But I don't think it works well with knitting.