Sunday, June 22, 2014

Coming out...

OK. This is embarrassing.  In some regards I really don't want to admit it.  But yes, well, I must say that I am in fact a Francophile.  A lover of things French.  I never thought I would get to the point that I am declaring my dirty little secret.  The Frogs, those blasted French, the only good thing to ever come out of Frances requires you to get a triple bypass.  I spent years saying that I had not interest in France or the French.  I didn't particularly like the sound of the language, all nasally and rough.  I preferred the roundness of Spanish. And all those words that I had trouble spelling in English, I discovered were in fact French words that had too many vowels in strange orders and silent consonants that were always tripping me up.  And then I had heard all the stories of the French being pompous and refused to speak to English speakers trying their damnedest to communicate in their stupid ass language.  These were the pre-conceived notions I had been sporting for a good part of my adult life.
Then I went to France, and discovered that I was in love.  I found that in fact the French were actually very accommodating at least more so than the Germans.  Upon reflections, I found the German attitude to my inability to speak German much the same as many Americans--which made perfect sense considering how prevalent German heritage is in the US.  And then with further reflections, I realized that actually the French like Americans--they gifted us with the Statue of Liberty for heavens sake.  They remain grateful for the number of Americans who sacrificed their lives on French soil during WWII. What the French do not like is the English.  Hey, I thought, common ground, I don't particularly care for the English either.  ( I got really tired of hearing, "You're OK for an American" from the English.  What I always thought when I heard this was "Well, I guess you are passable... for a HUMAN!") I'm sure that there are unpleasant French, just as there are surely unpleasant people everywhere, and I am sure that there are French that don't particularly care for foreigners either.  But my overall experience during my 10 days in Paris was that, they were a gracious lot with rather good food, kick ass museums and a history that reads as the architecture for all that is good in Western Civilization.
 I was trundling around on the Metro reading From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western cultural life from 1500 to the present by Jacques Barzun I realized how influential the French were in forming Western Civilization. Maybe because was reading this massive tome and then stopped at a station named after someone, I had just read about, I began to feel an infinity for the country.

And then I went to the Louvre, I was never so amazed in all my life.  I of course, I wanted to see the Mona Lisa.  I grew up with a Mona Lisa print on my bedroom wall.  I also had a fascination for the Venus de Milo.  My mother had a mini reproduction of the statue in the library.  But I was stunned by the sheer size of the Louvre and for some strange reason when I approached the staircase with the Winged Victory of Samothrace, my breath caught.  I felt, I knew this statue but didn't know why.  I will never forget the feeling of this goddess of Nike. I am certain that my reaction was because I had seen the image of this statue but it never registered unlike my knowledge of the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.  When I saw these pieces up close (Ok, not so close for the Mona Lisa), I felt like I was connecting with something pleasant from my childhood.  But the gasp that escaped as I mounted the stairs to see the Winged Victory comes from making connections that I was never fully cognizant of--it is magical and permeated my entire experience.
The company I share in my love for things French is many and there is no lack of literature to fuel my imagination.  From Julia Child's My Life in France to Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod and Cara Black's Aimee Leduc mysteries, I find myself in fine company.  
Recently, I finished Cara Black's latest installment Murder in Pigalle.  Each of Cara Black's books are set in a particular neighborhood in Paris.  Aimee is the owner of Leduc Investigations which has transitioned into a cyber security company in the late 1990's.  Although Aimee is not technically I gumshoe detective any longer, she is constantly pulled into near fatal situations.  She is hip, sassy, wears second hand couture and has a significant weakness for bad boys.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Wasp Factory & Confederacy of Dunces

Several months ago, I was reviewing Books You Must Read Before You Die lists. I am fairly broadly read, but I find that there are always more titles on this lists that I haven't read than I am comfortable admitting.  The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks made the BBC list.  Since I had never heard of it and the title is quite memorable, I put it on my reading list.  I have a tendency not to read the blurbs on the covers or to read what books are about.  And I never ever peek to the end. When I started the Wasp Factory at first I couldn't quite grasp time and place.  Was this a dystopian novel? It was so bizarre, it took me a while to understand that the time was the 80's and the place was somewhere in Scotland.  I found the book intriguing but so good that it ranked in the top 100 of any list, I wasn't so sure.  First off, I wanted to feel sympatheic for our very unusual very definitely disturbed protagonists whose brother has just escaped from a mental facility but the fact remains that in his own words, our young hero is a stone cold killer by his own admission with 3 murders under his belt.  In order to maintain control over his world, Frank, maintains classic OCD rituals which include sacrifice poles and the Wasp Factory that portends the future.  To say the very least this is a dark novel that is much like driving past a rather horrific accident--you don't want to look but you can't help yourself.  The twists and turns for such a short novel are substantial.  By the end, I have to admit that it is memorable and thought provoking.  Maybe, I do understand why this novel made the list but I do think that this list was compiled mostly by men.  It would never have made a list driven by women.
The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole made more than one list that I reviewed.  I had seen this novel before, but the sheer size of it made me reluctant to invest time in it previously.  But I am all about edifying myself, so I set myself to task.  Dunces was published posthumously and it is likely that it may never have come to light had Toole not committed suicide, leaving the manuscript to his mother who eventually succeeded getting it published eleven years after his death in 1980.  Dunces is a romp through unlikely coincidences with larger than life French Quarter characters who are both lovable and despicable.  Ignatius Jacques Reilly is a gargantuan of a man reminds us of a Southern modern day Don Quixote with a long suffering mother.  Highly entertaining overall.  But rather than feeling like a Looky-loo at an accident as I did in The Wasp Factory  this book felt more like seeing a huge catastrophe in the making but powerless to stop it.
Overall both books were worth the read but if I had to chose one over the other I would choose The Confederacy of Dunces.  There are some serious laughs and not the stuff of nightmares.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

I discovered Ruth Reichl when I decided to read only books about cooking for 6 months.  I had read memorable books like The United States of Arugula: How we became a gourmet nation by David Kamp and Julie and Julia: My year of cooking dangerously by Julie Powell before I happened upon Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table.  I loved her succinct style and elegant use of adjectives.  At the time, I really had no idea who she was, but afterwards I wanted to read more about her amazing life.  I quickly followed Tender with Comfort Me With Apples.  A few years later, my book club chose her books as a discussion topic and I read Garlic and Sapphires: The secret life of a critic in disguise.  As always, Ruth Reichl combines knowledge, erudition and humor into a compelling read.  The book club discussion was successful.  The participants had the opportunity to read one or more of her titles and then contribute to the overall discussion of her life and times.
Several weeks ago, I ran across her stab at fiction Delicious!.  I requested the book and jumped it to the front of the queue of books to read ( a list far too long).  I finished Delicious! last night. I haven't perused what other people think of the title.  I wanted to get my thoughts down before I traveled down that road.  I finished the book with a mixture of pleasure and disappointment and find myself confused about how I really feel.  On the one hand, I love the style--the elegant use of adjectives danced around my head pleasingly.  But on the other, I find the story line somewhat stilted and far fetched.  We meet Billie at her hiring interview at Delicious! a long time food magazine that calls Gourmet to mind.  Like Gourmet, Delicious! is also shuttered fairly early in the book.  But back to Billie, Berkeley dropout, who panics when she needs to cook, is in desperate need of a Cinderella makeover, writes unanswered letters to her sister the perfectly beautiful Genie and is a super taster who can discern the nuances of any dish.  Billie fills her massive amounts of free time avoiding her own troubled past moonlight at family owned Fontanari's as the first ever outsider allowed to work behind the counter waiting on regulars like Mr. Complainer--obviously the destined love interest.
The book picks up steam after the shuttering of Delicious! and Sammy's intervention when tweedy, flamboyant Sammy bounces back from his deep fugue state and returns to manse to pick up his belongings. Some late night exploring leads to the discovery of a hidden room in the long locked up library that mysteriously still smells of apples rather than moldering dusty books. The hidden room leads to a magical card catalog and the discovery of a serious of letters written during wartime Ohio to the legendary James Beard by a preteen girl.  The hunt is on as this set of letters has been hidden away.  Will Billie and Sammy find all the letters? Will Billie get a makeover and connect with Mr. Complainer?  Will she ever face the ghosts of her pasts and overcome the panic that entering a kitchen with purpose induces?
Of course, this is fiction where ends are more or less tied up in a more or less predictable fashion.  The writing remains the classic Reichl that I have come to hold very dear but the overall story is at times far fetched and at times mundane.  I smiled at the end of the novel, but really and truly wanted something a bit more from such an outstanding writer.
Now that this has been said, I will see what other people have to say about Delicious!