"The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea."
Thank goodness for librarians. For a lot of reasons, really. I'm very lucky to have a l"The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea."
Thank goodness for librarians. For a lot of reasons, really. I'm very lucky to have a lot of friends who work in libraries, mostly in the Young Adult area. I guess that's one of those things that happens when you love books: you cultivate friends who have the same interest, and they tend to work in the field in a way that lets them share that passion. The reason I'm telling you this is that I owe a big debt of gratitude to my long-time friend Jessica for urgently messaging me that there was a YA book I needed to read. I honestly don't think I ever would have found this book without her taking the time to point it out to me. And I am so, so glad that she did.
It's 1987. Angel Aristotle Mendoza (known as Ari) is on the cusp of sixteen years old and quietly drowning. He has no friends. His two sisters are much older than him, meaning that they treat him like a son more than a brother. His older brother might as well not exist since no one has talked about him after he went to prison when Ari was a small child. There aren't any photos of him. Ari wants to talk about him, to understand him, but doesn't feel like he can. Ari's father, meanwhile, is something of a ghost himself. He did a tour in Vietnam that left him haunted and, seemingly, emotionless. He barely talks, flitting silently through the house like a specter.
"'Linger' by the Cranberries is probably my favorite song about Prince Charles farting at the 1988 BritishFunny. Honest. Heartbreaking. Pow. #Fitness
"'Linger' by the Cranberries is probably my favorite song about Prince Charles farting at the 1988 British Open."
Tweets like that have made Rob Delaney the undisputed Twitter king of comedy. Each one is wildly random, most likely profane, and has a very high likelihood that it will make you snort with laughter if you read it in your cubicle at work--prompting weird stares from that guy who sits across from you, who should really just mind his own business anyway. In perhaps his greatest moment, Delaney's comedic tweets about Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election reached an even wider audience than Romney's own messages across the media--both traditional and social. Success on Twitter has garnered Delaney comedy international comedy shows and TV appearances. But can he write a book, too?
"This was the forever show in Dexterland, and tickets and tickets were nonrefundable and one-way only."
By the time Jeff Lindsay got to this, the seven"This was the forever show in Dexterland, and tickets and tickets were nonrefundable and one-way only."
By the time Jeff Lindsay got to this, the seventh book in his Dexter series (not to be confused with the TV show, which, as we have discussed, is very different), the books were beginning to fall into a bit of a rut. The killers Dexter finds himself coming up against are pretty consistently fiendishly creative visions on the part of Lindsay, but geez, it feels like suddenly every book needs to end with one or more of the children getting kidnapped and placed in mortal danger. I understand that Dexter's stepchildren, Astor and Cody, play a bigger role here than they do on the TV show, but it really is too much. It makes you long for a day when dear, devilish Dexter can face down a villain on his own.
This installment promises to be different, which was a thrilling prospect for me ...
"We always underestimated our own participation in magic."
I read this book back in August, just as we began our big move, and I'm so excited to finall"We always underestimated our own participation in magic."
I read this book back in August, just as we began our big move, and I'm so excited to finally get the chance to talk it up to you guys.
But first, a story to illustrate just why this book is so spot-on and so important. I had only read one other David Levithan novel before (the sublime Lover's Dictionary). I had always intended to read more, but never got around to it. So when I stumbled on him signing advanced copies of his latest book at BEA this year, you would think I jumped at the opportunity. You'd be wrong. I hesitated. Because I saw the poster standing next to him, with the book's jacket image and title. And I actually thought to myself "I can't walk around with a book about two boys kissing--people will think I'm nuts!" I am not proud at all that this thought occurred to me--a man who is not only gay but gay married, a man who endured perhaps more than his fair share of bullying in junior high and came out the other side. Luckily, as soon as the thought was born I realized how silly it was. So I got on line, and while Mr. Levithan signed an advanced copy for me I told him what a great fan of Lover's Dictionary I am. He was very polite and sweet.
A few days later, I picked up Two Boys Kissing on my way out the door to begin my subway ride to work. As I waited for the train, then as I sat on the train going downtown, I felt self conscious. I felt like people could see what I was reading and were staring at me. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let these inexplicable fears of mine interfere with my reading. By the time I went home that day, I was falling in love with the book itself, which greatly helped ease my nerves. As I read, and as the message (there's nothing wrong with two boys kissing) sank in, I began to feel empowered whenever I had the book in my hands. It was like a sign: this is who I am. Deal with it. At the same time, I realized that all the stares I had felt on the first day were completely in my own head. I felt even more ashamed.
Getting to the novel itself, it follows the interlocking stories of seven gay teens living in the present day. Craig and Harry are exes, but they've decided to go for the world's record for longest kiss. Their quest frames the novel. Peter and Neil are a couple, trying to figure out what their deep feelings for each other mean for the uncertain future that graduation and adulthood will inevitably bring. Avery and Ryan have just met and are going on their first official date, going through all the awkwardness and excitement and hope of getting to know someone for the first time. Cooper has no one; he trolls hook-up sites for cheap thrills that he never allows to come to anything, and he hates himself for every minute of it. When his parents catch him at this, he runs away from home and feels lost, abandoned, and thoroughly alone.
This sounds strange, but a ghostly cluster of gay men who died of AIDS form a Greek chorus of sorts to narrate the stories and tie them together. Like I said, it sounds strange, but Levithan pulls it off like a master. The chorus is ultimately what gives Two Boys Kissing its resonance. It honors the troubled history of LGBT people, is thankful for how far we have come, saddened by how much hate and sadness still exists, and remains hopeful for the future represented by these gay teens, who are revolutionizing the world simply by having the courage to be themselves.
I would go so far as to say that Two Boys Kissing is not just a good book, it's an important one. It captures the struggle and the history of the LGBT past and melds it with the present and the future--all without feeling preachy or like a history lesson. As a gay man who grew up in the pre-Ellen, pre-Will & Grace, pre-It Gets Better world, it hits home in a way I cannot adequately express. But you can see it reflected in my initial fear of this book--because that is exactly what it was that I felt when I almost didn't get in line at BEA. It was that old fear that to be gay is to need to hide, to go unnoticed, rearing its ugly head. The boldness of this book is that the "revolutionary" act at its center is actually almost mundane: a kiss. If it provokes a response, it is only because the people doing the kissing are the same gender. Hopefully, someday that won't seem so bold.
Back in 2009 Colum McCann set the literary world on fire with the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin,"The creation of a new moment"
Back in 2009 Colum McCann set the literary world on fire with the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, a collection of stories centered around the day a man walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. Using that true event, McCann elevated the ordinary lives of his characters to extraordinary heights. There's a lot more of that in TransAtlantic.
"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlati"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlative Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies. It's amazing how easily he slips back into the form after a long absence, not to mention how well he utilizes every page--whether it's a short story or a full novel. Characters go through an entire arc in several pages. They're standard-issue screw-ups, which is Perrotta's specialty, but it's impossible not to feel for them and root for them, even as they make some awful mistakes. In a truly remarkable feat, these characters frequently come to a realization, accept what they have done, begin to rationalize their behavior, and retreat back into denial all on the same page, and it feels completely organic.
I have never reviewed a cookbook before. Sure, I've reviewed books about cooking, but never, ever an actualAnd now for something completely different.
I have never reviewed a cookbook before. Sure, I've reviewed books about cooking, but never, ever an actual honest-to-God cookbook. Mostly, this is because I'm traditionally not a chef. Just so we understand each other, I'll give you some background, then we'll talk about my experiences with Chef Alex. My mother (a full-blooded Italian woman) is an incredible cook, but I was an extremely picky eater as a child. Like, ridiculously picky. Won't eat anything green picky.* Will pick apart an entire pizza to remove any trace of onion picky. Given the ultimatum of finishing my dinner or spending the rest of the evening in my room I would nod, admit "that's fair," and head off to my bedroom. Whenever my mother or my grandmother got exasperated by my refusal to eat their ridiculously delicious Italian meals they would promise me that someday, some glorious day, I would not only love their food but I would ask for it by name. I rolled my eyes, but it turned out they were right. My palate expanded as my teen years ended. It was a complete shock to me, but it was also gratifying. The world is an awfully limited place when all you will eat is hamburgers or pasta with butter (no sauce, thanks).
Then, three and a half years ago, I met my soon-to-be husband, Joel. Right now he works for a company that does medical software development, but his passion has always been cooking. He worked as a pastry chef when we met. From him, I have learned some important lessons about food. Mainly, that cooking is an act of love. It comes from the heart. People who work in the food industry don't do it because of the money, they do it because it's their passion. They are (literally) nourishing you, but also offering you a piece of themselves with every meal. My respect for people in the culinary field has grown immeasurably.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it gets to the heart of Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and her new cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food. It's a cookbook, yes, but it's also the heartfelt story of how she grew up with a love of food and inevitably came to work in the restaurant world. The personal stories are both amusing and endearing. Her mother, a cookbook editor, frequently tried out recipes from her books at home to make sure they worked. Once, a young Alex was mortified to open her lunch bag at school to discover the ingredients for an elaborate meatball sandwich instead of the peanut butter sandwiches that surrounded her. When questioned about this, her mother pointed out that if she had put the sandwich together it would have gotten soggy and wouldn't have tasted right.
Then there's the food itself. Joel and I already loved Chef Alex's food, having scoped out her restaurant, Butter, to see if she could live up to the criticism she doles out on Chopped. We loved it. We've been back twice (once for my birthday dinner), and it is consistently fantastic. Could she be as successful in cookbook format?
Some readers may be put off by the title--I suspect most people associate comfort food with mac and cheese--but there are delights to be found. I set a rule for myself that I can't review a cookbook unless I tried out one of the recipes, so one Friday I set about making Chef Alex's cornbread for Joel. To be honest, I was terrified, but this seemed like a safe place to start. It was surprisingly easy! The cornbread came out perfectly, not to mention that is was scrumptious. I had no problem following the instructions, either. Consider that I am a complete amateur when it comes to following recipes; clearly, this book passes the ease-of-use recipe test with flying colors.
Next, Joel and I made an entire dinner based around two of her recipes: pea salad with terragon and the roasted "bistro" leg of lamb with crispy rosemary. They were both delicious. The salad was refreshing and light. The lamb was tasty as hell. Clearly, this is a cookbook you can work your way through (eating well the entire way). We can't wait to try her crispy squid with chili flakes and the Quickie strawberry tartlets.
The book itself is nicely laid out. I guess that's no surprise coming from a chef whose mother was a cookbook editor. The photographs are appetizing and the inclusion of hand-written notes and restaurant comment cards (one from Gloria Steinem!) is a nice personal touch. There are also personal photographs that deepen the "The Way I Learned to Cook" aspect of the story.
Lastly, there's the chef herself. Her reputation alone is impressive (she's an Iron Chef, for crying out loud), but we had the privilege of meeting Chef Alex during a book signing at Fish's Eddy last month. She was so sweet! We gushed about Butter and how we've been there three times. She humbly told us about the excellent staff she has there. "I don't even worry about the place," she said. Most people would have gobbled up the credit for the excellent dining experience we had. When we were leaving she stopped us to say "Listen, I want to thank you because when you come to Butter you're supporting an amazing family of people." What's incredible here is that she wasn't talking about herself, as she explained. She was talking about the cooks, the busboys, the waiters--everyone who works at the restaurant. This perfectly mimics what Joel has told me about working in a restaurant: your coworkers are your family. You work long, unforgiving hours, so you develop close relationships with the team around you. You rely on each other to work as a cohesive unit. Everyone even eats together (and they call it a "family meal"). It's so nice to see a celebrity chef respect and celebrate that dynamic.
Humble. Talented. Good food. You can quibble all you want about the definition of comfort food, but to me this more than fits the bill.
* Granny Smith apples were the only exception to the nothing green rule. Seriously, even putting parsley on pasta could ruin my night when I was a child....more
"It's funny how it's the memories of shame that hang on longest."
After finishing Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, I'm now two for two with books pr"It's funny how it's the memories of shame that hang on longest."
After finishing Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, I'm now two for two with books propelled by rage. Unfortunately for The Antagonist, it pales in comparison to the sublime, burning anger of Woman. To be fair to Lynn Coady, that's where the similarities end, and I wouldn't dream of comparing her novel to a different one that just happened to share a similar pub date. It was just one of those coincidences.
Gordon Rankin, Jr (aka Rank) is furious. The object of his rage is Adam, a former college friend he hasn't seen in twenty years or so. Adam just published a novel receiving some modest acclaim--a novel that Rank believes is about him. A novel that he feels distorted the truth about his life. Now he wants Adam to know just what he thinks about what he did--not to mention a chance to set the record straight about his life. So he tracks down Adam's email address and begins sending him email after email.
Part of the problem with The Antagonist is that it can't sustain the rage. Ultimately, that's kind of the point here, so it seems unfair to fault the novel for it. Still, since the entire pretense is that Rank is compelled to write all this to Adam because of how angry he feels, it's a big disappointment that the fire flames out so darned quickly.
First, I should tell you that Claire Messud and I have a complicated history. To be blunt: I hated her last book"I want to make my nothingness count."
First, I should tell you that Claire Messud and I have a complicated history. To be blunt: I hated her last book, The Emperor's Children. It made me so angry. Looking back at my review, I see that perhaps a lot of this wasn't exactly fair--she hit some kind of a nerve as relates to 9/11 in this New Yorker's heart. I wrote the review in anger, but it was an honest reaction to the book, and I stand by some of the more pointed criticisms of characterization and comma use. So you can understand, I'm sure, that I was hesitant to read her new novel. Well, I was in for a huge surprise.
The novel opens: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." It proceeds to use the 'f' word twice on the first page alone (once in all caps), and the narrative propels forward as if driven by rage itself ...
Jim and Bob Burgess couldn't be more different. Bob is sensitive, not very confident, casually self destructive, and danger"Nobody ever knows anyone."
Jim and Bob Burgess couldn't be more different. Bob is sensitive, not very confident, casually self destructive, and dangerously toying with alcoholism. Jim is a brash high-powered attorney with a fancy townhouse in a trendy part of Brooklyn. He's also a huge jerk, but people are very forgiving of this quality because ... well, it isn't really clear why people put up with him. Maybe it's the money? Or genetic/marital ties? It's implied that he used to be a man of principle but the more you get to know him the more you wonder if people are just confusing confidence with morals. Anyway, if Jim and Bob weren't brothers they'd likely hate each other. They may hate each other anyway. Oh, there's also a sister named Susan, but she's never counted for anything her entire life, so she doesn't rate a mention anytime anyone discusses the family (even forgotten in the book's title! BURN!). Susan never really has a role as anything other than a plot catalyst, so forget her (everyone else apparently has, anyway).