The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen goes to war.

Collins billed this as the last Hunger Games, and she was not wrong. Of course, Katniss is no longer a child, and she is the mockingjay. We know her style in the arena, now. Once again, one way or another, for better or worse, it's time to head for the cornucopia and end it.

Throughout the stories, we have known that Katniss would do extraordinary things, and we have wondered whether her final answer would be Peeta, or Gale, or neither. The answer is here, of course, and Collins pays the toll: before the end, I didn’t know who it would be, and after then end, the conclusion had been obvious since the first volume.

March 22, 2012 (permalink)

Blue Angel
Francine Prose

Professor Ted Swenson teaches “Beginning Fiction” at a small college in Vermont. It’s not going all that well; one after another, the seminar workshops ghastly student stories. Then, beyond expectation, a silent goth girl hands him a few pages of wonderful prose – and calamity ensues. A fine book with a fine ear, this makes an intriguing triple feature with Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

September 17, 2013 (permalink)

This interesting cookbook begins with an unusually intriguing consideration of ingredients. Tosi combines an openness to the possibilities of concentrated foods — powders of ground freeze-dried corn and infusions of breakfast cereal are her signature ingredient and she’s perfectly happy to grind up a whole batch of freshly-made cookies in order to make great cookie crumbs — with a fascination for the flavors of junk food desserts.

Tosi is not shy of butter, sugar, and cream cheese.

The book is also exceptionally interesting for its profile of the restaurant business. The Momofuku restaurants are pretty much at the top of the game; around eGullet, you can mention them, or David Chang, and everyone knows what you're talking about and where you're eating. There are eGullet threads dedicated to the best strategies for eating at Ssam Bar. Yet Tosi — a favored protegé, is improvising cakes in dusty basements and rushing rolls from an borrowed apartment in Spanish Harlem, hoping to arrive in time for service. It’s nice to be reminded that software isn't the only place where we work on shoestrings and hope.

I made the bagel bombs — bagel-like rolls stuffed with cream cheese, bacon, and scallions. Her technique epitomizes the approach of the whole book, focused on intensity of flavor and uninterested in exactly how we get there. You make a standard lean dough — a little wet but nothing radical — and let it rise for 45min. You scale it, and then hand-shape eight little pizza rounds; Tosi seldom uses a rolling pin. You fold these rounds over a frozen “plug” of flavored cream cheese, making something like a dumpling, cover them with an egg wash and lots of seeds, and bake. No special dough, no malt, no boiling: in short, nothing very bagel-like, and yet the texture and flavor communicates “bagel” brilliantly.

March 14, 2012 (permalink)

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins

Dramatic and effective sequel to The Hunger Games, this book shares its strengths and discomforts. Katniss Everdeen is more than a swashbuckling fantasy heroine: she’s a kid, and her childishness is exceptionally well realized. She makes wild plans, she doesn’t think things through, she’s impetuous and impatient, she doesn’t know her own mind. And she’s a hero. Pullman does a fine job of showing how Lyra grows, but even at the outset, playing in robing room closet, Lyra knows herself a lot better than Katniss does.

One exception to Katniss’s realism is that her age is wrong. She is said to be seventeen. Katniss has two casual boyfriends with whom she thinks she’s probably in love, though in an entirely hypothetical way. She kisses her boyfriends sometimes, but doesn’t really care for it, and can assure the jealous Peeta that she only kissed Gale once. (In my experience, a jealous seventeen-year-old boyfriend will want assurance that you only slept with the other guy once.) She has no intention of marrying or having children. She has no physical desire in the first book, though she experiences first stirrings in the second. She doesn’t act like she’s seventeen; why not give her the age that accords with her character?

Collins is the master of the grand moment. This book has one. Lord Dunsany has one. Good enough.

February 28, 2012 (permalink)

Out Of Oz
Gregory Maguire

Auntie Em and Uncle Henry take Dorothy on a vacation, hoping that seeing the wonders of a great city will led her to cease her endless nostalgia for the glories of Oz. Naturally, they head to San Francisco. And, naturally, Dorothy wakes early on April 18, 1906 and goes for a stroll.

Soon, she’s in Oz. And she’s going to be held for trial in the case of two murders. MacGuire is rich in invention and irony, but here we have many languorous journeys and little to do. There’s plenty of low comedy and lots of grit, but perhaps not quite enough starlight and rain.

February 27, 2012 (permalink)

A remarkable book and a small cultural phenomenon and apparently what every literary reviewer’s 14-year-old daughter is reading. Those 14-year olds are having a hell of a good time, because Collins knows how to drive plot. Even if you know where this is leading – it’s not hard to stay three or four moves ahead – the saga is terrifically exciting. And Collins has an exact ear for violence and desire, showing exactly enough to redeem our attention (because witnessing terrible events must not be a walk in the park) but not turning our stomachs.

Collins is masterful in finding ways for her protagonists to survive in combat and yet not to become monsters. Nor are all the opponents ghastly, though some are. We meet one girl who is insane with sadism, and I do wish we’d gotten to know her well enough to explain her. Is she Piggy in Lord of the Flies, or Hannibal Lecter, or just a desperate little girl who has come unhinged? Collins does manage to tell us a lot about “Foxface”, an enemy with whom we never exchange a word but whom we get to know quite well and, eventually, to admire. If Harry Potter, at its best, delighted us with surprises, The Hunger Games sets up wonderful moments, long anticipated but still somehow fresh.

The following quibbles should not deter you from reading the book, but invite discussion amongst people who have. I find the review literature surprisingly thin and superficial, but no doubt I have been looking in the wrong places.

Collins’s world building is adequate but occasionally surrenders plausibility to the perceived needs of her audience. The central conceit of punitive gladiatorial games as a tool for subjugating the conquered provinces makes no political sense, and the oppressive surveillance society (and Soviet-style planned economy) into which our hero is born seems an arbitrary response to life after the ecological apocalypse. Our home in District 12 is literally dirt poor, a coal mining enclave in what used to be Appalachia. Most of the population is malnourished. People frequently starve to death on the town streets. It’s a place where an orphaned 12-year-old girl needs to learn quickly how to feed her family on dandelion greens and wild squirrels. But when that girl has the bad luck to be chosen for the Hunger Games and is sent to the Capitol, she suddenly knows a lot about about skin moisturizer and automatic showers and syringes. Somehow she knows how to walk in heels and to wear strapless gowns. One day we learn that she’s never tasted hot chocolate; two days later, she orders up a snack of duck liver paté. This is substituting the reader’s knowledge for the protagonist’s.

The world of The Hunger Games is sometimes thinly inhabited. The annual gladiatorial contest is compulsory viewing for the entire nation. The spectacle is built around spectators: every moment of the games is broadcast on live television, the announcer is a famous celebrity, betting is common, and the rules permit “sponsors” to send gifts (at exorbitant expense) to participants. Children from richer districts spend years training for the games in a grim parody of the Olympics. Still, we seldom recalls anything from previous games; even if they aren't great fans, surely they would know something about famous victories and spectacular blunders,

This is a contemporary YA novel, and so inevitably concerns sex roles is society. What Collins has done here is very clever: The Hunger Games is a gender-swapped retelling of the origin story of Robin Hood. Katniss Everdeen plays Robin: daughter of a minor aristocrat who married a peasant for love. Collins places shopkeepers, who live “in the Town,” as gentry and miners, who live “in the Seam,” as peasants. The aristocrats who live in the distant Capitol speak with funny accents and wear peculiar clothes. We’ve got Normans and Celts and the whole shebang: William Morris would be proud. So would Marx.

Katniss/Robin is brilliant with a bow and loves the outdoors. Peeta, the District 12 boy drafted into the death-match is Maid Marian: he has silently loved Katniss since they were toddlers. He is a child of local gentry – the town baker. He has feminine accomplishments like baking and painting. He knows nothing of the hunt. But while Katniss is often at a loss for words, Peeta always knows what to say. People just like him. Their coach, a depressed alcoholic who won the Hunger Games many years ago, can only be the bibulous Friar Tuck.

This is clever, but makes me uncomfortable because, beyond the gender swap, the sex roles and the romance are so completely conventional. Swap Katniss and Peeta, and many scenes become impossibly sentimental: the strong, competent hero and the devoted admirer. I don’t imagine it’s meant to indicate that girls ought to be satisfied with traditional roles if that’s what seems in their nature, but surely the book can be read that way. There’s a certain squeamishness about bodies, too, given that so much of the character’s time is spent binding wounds or inflicting them; Katniss is always a girl but, though she thinks a lot about size, strength and agility, she almost never thinks about being female. And, although we have twenty four healthy young people confined together, often huddled together for warmth, terrified, and having little reason to worry about pregnancy or STDs or tomorrow, no one thinks of sex.

This isn’t science fiction and it’s not fantasy — the world isn’t coherent and that doesn’t much matter. It’s pure, melodramatic, romantic adventure, and a hell of a good time.

February 19, 2012 (permalink)

Winner of this year’s Booker Prize, this is the story of a romantic disaster told by an outsider who admits that he just doesn’t get it. Much of this slender story is a metafictional speculation on the unreliability of history and memory, epitomized by a narrator who mistrusts himself, his memory, and his motives.

Alan Holinghurst’s recent novel, The Stranger’s Child, travels much the same road. Many expected The Stranger’s Child to win the prize this book carried off. Barnes is more concise and more intense, but Hollinghurst has a broader canvas and more generous sympathies.

The novel hinges on withheld secrets and progressive revelation. We slowly uncover what really happened some forty years ago when the narrator’s former girlfriend took up with a boy he had known and admired in prep school. Oddly, though, the final revelation strikes me as nearly implausible: it could happen, I suppose, but it explains events no better than our callow narrator’s initial, naive suppositions. Odder still, the story we finally uncover is actually the cover story other characters would have invented to shield themselves from embarrassment.

February 3, 2012 (permalink)

The Truelove
Patrick O'Brain

The Aubrey-Maturin books are finally available as eBooks, which is very convenient on cold winter nights when one finds oneself in a foul, foul mood. The Surprise sails from the penal colony of New South Wales to address Franco-American schemes in the Friendly Isles. Clarissa Oakes, a remarkable convict woman, has been smuggled aboard. She is much admired. This is not entirely a good thing.

February 1, 2012 (permalink)

LeCarré’s first novel. This fine mystery-thriller prefigures much of what is to come, especially the wonderful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This encounter encounter with George Smiley, Peter Guillam, and Inspector Mendel is a terrific little story, a fine little mechanism of deception. Part of the mechanism has rusted because the book’s original audience, in 1961, was less immersed in feminism than we are. Nonetheless, a terrific little book.

January 27, 2012 (permalink)

Lieut. Jack Aubrey, RN, meets Dr. Stephen Maturin at a concert. They dislike each other at once. Thus begins the story of an unforgettable friendship that spans twenty volumes and seven seas. Taken together, they are the great historical novel of an era of historical novels.

January 23, 2012 (permalink)

Harry Parr and Sam Bompas

This delightful little cookbook explores the lost Victorian craft of jellied desserts. Using good gelatin and real food is a revelation to people accustomed to the flavor and texture of Jell-O™. The glow-in-the-dark gin and tonic jelly was great. Linda says that last night’s cherry jelly, made with frozen cherries, was the best cherry dessert she’s ever tasted.

January 13, 2012 (permalink)

In 1856, an eighteen-year-old English chemistry student named William Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine. He failed – quinine would not be synthesized until 1944 (by Woodward and Doering) – but noticed that one of his failures seemed to leave a pretty purple residue. This residue turned out to be mauveine, the first artificial dye and the foundation of the modern chemical industry. This readable account is short of scientific detail (although it does nicely capture how little chemistry Perkin and his contemporaries knew), but nicely captures the importance of the dye trade as a stepping stone to propellants, pharmaceuticals, and plastics.

January 6, 2012 (permalink)

I bought the freshly-printed paperback at City Lights, a fitting place to buy this latest chapter in the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of our culture wars. Maupin has a dazzling gift for renewing narrative energy, an uncompromising warmth of spirit, and he resisted from the first hwat must have been an overwhelming temptation to make his queer characters more approachable by showing us some who are even queerer.

Mary Ann returns here, and it’s like she’s never left. The horrid Republican harridan of the middle years is gone, and she’s back in town, learning about Facebook and staying with Mouse. She’s not reading her daughter’s sex blog, which makes her blush, and that turns out to be a big mistake.

December 27, 2011 (permalink)

Dolly keeps a secret

Safer than a Friend

Dolly's silent sympathy

Lasts without end.

I was reading Armistead Maupin’s new Tale of the City, Mary Ann In Autumn and for some reason recalled these wonderful lines of Byatt’s invented fairy poetess, Christabel LaMotte. This delightful book imagines the lives of two invented Victorians, writes their work, and imagines the scholarship that has sprung up around them. In my earlier readings, I had not realized how sharply drawn the modern academics are, or how scathing; every entrance of Byatt’s prototypical Young American Academic, Dr. Leonora Stern, makes me cringe over memories of my own blunders. Even the invented poetry is wonderful: that silent sympathy sells the whole thing.

I like things clean about me

Starched and gophered frill

What is done exactly

Cannot be done ill.

December 23, 2011 (permalink)