Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maman's Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan (memoir)

A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen

Cardamom. What IS cardamom, and where do I buy it?

This is one of the first questions to plague me as I read this memoir by Donia Bijan, an accomplished chef with a life story that is as fascinating as it is bittersweet. Initially, I hesitated before I began reading, as the last few memoirs I’ve read have been sort of “blah”. And when I saw that this book contains recipes, I thought that was a cutesy gimmick, as I once read a mystery that had recipes enclosed, which annoyed me to no end (yes, I get easily annoyed).

However, I curled up with it on a recent rainy day and couldn’t put it down. It’s lovely. Really. Bijan writes in a natural pace, and her stories brims with poignant details. It begins with the tragic death of her mother, and her task of going through her mother’s objects. The task is dreary until she finds her mother’s collection of recipes clipped from newspapers or on cards from friends. At this point, she finds the theme that ties her life to her mother’s: food. As a chef, the recipe cards she finds are revealing because they show how her mother, exiled from Iran, tried to adapt to American life at a time when being from Iran was a cause for suspicion.

Going back to the beginning, Bijan recounts her childhood experiences of living in the hospital that her father built. While he was a successful doctor in Iran (and devoted foodie on his own), her mother was head nurse and cook for the patients. Bijan and her sisters assisted their parents and were an active part of hospital life. The nature of food in that hospital was not simple of sustenance but of comfort; meals were designed to be shared, lingered over, and enjoyed as a communal activity.

is it really $47 for a 2 ounce bottle?
After her parents are exiled, Bijan goes to school in the US and later to Paris where she is trained at the Cordon Bleu. As she remains close to her mother, her relationship with her father is strained as he envisioned a future for her more prestigious than that of a chef. Bijan works in the field, rising to the top of San Francisco’s cooking scene before deciding to return to France to work as an apprentice to hone her craft further. At all points of her story, food is always treated as a purposeful endeavor; the composition of a home-made meal the ultimate display of love and attentiveness.

The recipes included are those that tie into each story, and there is nothing gimmicky about them. Several I have earmarked to try. But nothing tops the story itself—it is heartwarming and genuinely lovely to read. Definitely a feel-good story and I seriously think it would be a great gift for a foodie friend.

It can’t be denied that Bijan’s life was one of privilege: her parents were wealthy and she pretty much was able to undertake whatever opportunities appealed to her. But her hard work and self-sacrifice keeps the reader from feeling that her life was an exception. But to illustrate, at one point she describes life in Paris where she is toiling under brutal teachers at Cordon Bleu:

“Most evenings, on my way home, I would stop to buy half a baguette, then heard to the fromagerie for a wedge of cheese I had never tasted, and finally go to the produce stand for a single peach, or two figs, maybe a tomato.”

Maybe that is supposed to sound minimal, but being that it’s Paris, PARIS (!!!!), it sounds impossibly elegant. In all seriousness, a fromagerie isn’t exactly in the strip mall in town. I admit, that single statement evoked much jealousy on my part, and possibly would on any woman’s part, because we know she gets to go back to her small but elegant apartment with a view of the Seine. In any case, the envy I felt didn’t diminish the book in any way. The reader sincerely wants her to succeed in her endeavors.  Highly recommend!

Special thanks to Michael and Kelly of Algonquin Books for the Advance Review Copy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder

"I had made up my mind to quit worrying.  Los Angeles was the Land of the Brighter Day, something good was bound to turn up."

These last two lines sum up the motivation that lies with the numerous characters that musician Ry Cooder offers up in his new collection of short stories. While the stories are nominally linked, the variety is enormous: mariachi players, park prophets, backalley dentists, tailors, and disc jockeys are all introduced in their native milieu.  Set in the first half of the twentieth century, these stories are based on the inner life of the inner city.

This is not postcard or travel agency Los Angeles;  there is no glamour or celebrities to dress it up.  Even the weather doesn't seem to cooperate with stereotype: fog and rain are as frequent as bar brawls.  The characters are the faceless many that work off the books, just trying to get by while the city appears as a predatory character, breathing and pulsing, foiling any attempts at the good life.

The collection is also an excellent geography text to significant Los Angeles locations--Griffith Park, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Union Station, Bunker Hill, and Hollenbeck Park all serve as backdrops, and Cooder seems to know the streets and back alleys very well.  Cocktail bars and bowling alleys are among the seedy gathering places of the working class and small time criminals that Cooder writes about and who occasionally cross tracks with each other.

My favorite was "Who do you know that I don't?" set in 1949, wherein a tailor to the mariachi clientele attempts to solve the murder of a popular jazz musician, Johnny Mumford.  Cooder creates a world of layaway payments, shiny and finned cars, and musicians desperate to wear a good suit but not eager to pay.  Memorably, the tailor even makes one suit to be shared by two musicians who can't afford their own, later assisting them to escape the cops while he helps search for links to the murder.  A prize collection of 78 records becomes a significant clue.

Another story focuses on a resourceful guy whose job is to fill in the details on the City Directory, going door-to-door to collect information from suspicious citizens in boardinghouses and side streets.  The essential absurdity of compiling an accurate book aside, Frank is diligent and thorough.  Though he's essentially a simple man, his path crosses with three suspicious murders and suddenly he's a suspect:

"Once they see a pattern, they think they know it all, and they think they got you.  That's not the way life is.  Take it from me, life is random and inscrutable, like the City Directory."

The stories are well-plotted and heavily detailed, and the characters feel real.  Cooder develops each protagonist well, and creates their world for the reader in inscrutable detail.  In fact, that may be one of my only concerns about the collection:  at times I felt like there was too much name-dropping and references to streets and neighborhoods and pop culture of the period.  Sometimes, the many facts slowed down and derailed the narrative from its pace.  I think the same effect could have been achieved without so many points of reference and still have remained realistic.

In comparison to the series by Akashic Press of Los Angeles Noir, I liked this title better. LA Noir by Akashic, with its various contributors, seems to have more of a pervy element to it, shock value placed over storyline, that made me end up giving it up.

Special thanks to Alyson of City Lights for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shadow Traffic, Stories by Richard Burgin

“It would be too humiliating to face him on the playground if he stole my money.”

Jeff is a self-made man: with his new condo and telecommuting job, cash, and good looks, he’d seem to have it all. Yet in the second story of this collection, “The Dealer”, author Richard Burgin creates a complicated persona that is distinctly childish and insecure. But he’s not simply a dumb guy; that would be too easy. Rather it’s the disparity between his sense and naivete that makes the character so intriguing. It’s not easy to write someone so complicated without the reader impatiently dismissing the character as stupid. Yes, he makes stupid choices, but it’s the normal ones that are the most revealing.

In the story, “The Dealer”, Jeff befriends a fast-talking musician that plays basketball in the neighborhood and conveniently supplies Jeff with pot. Of course, he has a cool name, “Dash”, and appears to be the role model that the more conventionally successful Jeff aspires to. Yet, as shown in the quote above, their friendship seems to be based on more of a nine-year-old awareness than a grown man; while they play basketball at the school, the clue is that Jeff calls it “the playground”. Burgin creates an uneasy relationship between the two that hinges on Jeff’s unwitting struggle to find a friend.

My favorite of the collection is “Memo and Oblivion,” a futuristic story about battling pharmaceutical companies, one of whom has created the pill “Memo” to restore every personal experience and memory to those that take it. “Oblivion” is marketed by another secret organization and promises “to obliterate only painful human memories.” Immediately the contrast engages the reader: which would they choose? To be able to remember the first time you bit into an apple? Or to be able to completely erase a painful event?

As the two companies struggle with trade secrets and human testing, the level of tension arises as to what side effects the pills may create. Burgin pokes at different concerns, from legality to ethics, as his characters discover for themselves that all choices have consequences, no matter how well-intended. This story could stand alone and would make a great movie.

"Memorial Day" tells of a grieving son, left with money to burn, travelling to find a purpose for his suddenly empty life.  In London, he meets a woman that defies his expectations, and vice versa.  The two are strangely connected, and what ends up happening reminds the reader of the adage, "he who hesitates is lost".

While the stories are random and varied, all have a sense of humor and a wry look at modern life.  They leave the reader sensing that they need to answer for themselves the questions that were cleverly proposed and threaded into the narratives. 

Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore for the Advance Review Copy. 
It was just released this month.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Fragile Day by Amy MacLennan (poetry)

"I've done the right thing my whole life. Kept my father's house, solved every case, never broke the rules.  It's not easy being this good."

You know when all-around good girl and role model Nancy Drew starts lamenting her perfect life that this is no ordinary book of poetry.  Amy MacLennan's chapbook is rich with alternative viewpoints and rich metaphors, and the poem cited above, "When Nancy Drew the Line," is just one of them.

Many times she addresses the contemplations of an imperfect life...the thoughts that assail us when we should be sleeping, or the sense that we could worry less if we only had "facts splayed out, a plan, a map" to guide us.  A runaway truck hints at lives that feel out-of-control, desperately needing a safe place to land, and an afternoon thunderstorm is pictured perfectly as "a sulky girl slamming the door". 

"In the Labor Room" summons that quiet moment right before birth, when the concept of new life mingles with the recognition of the passage of time, and that despite years of friendship and change, "we haven't even aged."  I loved this one, and how it felt to me like acknowledging that despite my getting older and having children of my own, I still feel like a child.

My absolute favorite was "If You Write a Love Letter to Disappointment", where MacLennan instructs the reader on how to address defeat. 

"Avoid sarcasm, but accept grief.
Draft the letter as if
you could only write it once.
Use a long salutation
and a short goodbye."

MacLennan's poetry is accessible and relatable.  It doesn't come off as overly structured and pretentious--it's simple, yet the meanings are deep.  It's not Language Poetry, that ends up confusing me and making me feel like a dolt for not getting it (aka Armantrout's Versed).  Instead, this feels like a gift of conversation, and the style reminds me of Tobi Cogswell, Susan Rich, and Angela Long. 

Special thanks to Spire Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Waterline by Ross Raisin

“And see if he did put a claim in then the reminders would be there the whole time—for months, years, however long it took—and even that is still ignoring the main thing: why should he get a windfall? Him that brought it into the house and handed her the overalls to wash and here’s two hundred grand, pal, take it, it’s yours—you deserve it.”

After the death of his wife to mesothelioma, Mick has to start his life over, struggling with the guilt from her death attributable to residue from his job in the shipyards. While his children hint at getting a settlement, to punish the company that virtually saturated their employees in asbestos, Mick resists any idea of what he imagines a payoff for her death.

While the story proceeds with his descent into grief, it never plays into the stereotype of the grieving widower who travels through five stages of grief to recover and find love again with a sweet old lady down the street. Instead, his journey is literal. Unable, emotionally, to reside in the house anymore, he starts sleeping in a shed outside, and his focus changes to minor things to avoid thinking about the bigger issues. He begins finding a kinship more with the birds he feeds than with other humans.

“He listens, enjoying the sound of it, as they begin skittering on the concrete outside the shed door...Until recently there’d been just the one – probably the same patient guy that’s been coming all the while –but he’s obvious gone and let dab to all his mates that they can come and eat here, and now there’s a whole mob of them. Good for him, no keeping it all to himself. Obviously no an English bird. A genuine Southsider, that sparrow. “

The quote above reveals a wry humor that Mick has, told in his warm Glasgow accent. It’s revealed again as he’s run out of money, and thinks about the possibility of asking his brother-in-law for money:

“…he’d be pure delighted, guaranteed. A great song and dance over it, the ceremonious fetching of the chequebook, the smug showy putting on of the wee reading glasses. How much would you like, Mick? Really, it’s not a problem. How much?”

Instead of resorting to that indignation, Mick chooses another option: complete departure, from both Glasgow and reality. He ends up in London living a life he’d never imagined, and one that he hopes to hide from his sons left behind, who know nothing of his location.

Mick’s voice is full of irony and desperate humor, especially when he remarks on the cheap condolences friends make when they see him. He’s a realist that knows far too well how little people really feel about his loss. In this many vivid side characters are pulled in, and while they don’t appear long, they are memorable for the way they are described.

Midway through the novel I glanced at the author’s photograph in the back. It stopped me in my tracks. It’s a young guy that wrote this aged voice! It sort of put me off, for a day anyway, because I couldn’t imagine how a young man (anyone younger than me qualifies in that regard) could create such a complex persona that melds humor, regret, guilt, and anxiety in one realistic character.  Topping it off is the Scottish voice that Mick delivers his thoughts in;  sometimes an accent is hard to read because it doesn't flow, but in this case it was much of the charm.  (Would make a killer audiobook!)

Especially noteworthy is that while it is essentially a quest motif, the fact that neither the reader nor the protagonist knows the object that is being sought makes it mysterious. The pace speeds up as you literally follow Mick through a labyrinth of people and places, and you really don’t know where he’s headed. And the questions continue to plague you: what happened to his sons? Who were the men at the door? Will he go back to Glasgow?  What was up with Craig?

This is on target for my top five titles of 2011. Not only because of the main character and the plot, but also because of what it reveals about those living outside the margins of society. While the underbelly of large cities is often presented as a place of crime and prostitution, Waterline exposes the remote lives of immigrants and the homeless, attempting to live an honorable life while no one wants to meet their eyes.

Special thanks to Joe Pickering of Penguin UK for the Review Copy.

National Book Awards 2011 Finalists Announced

Today, the finalists were announced:

Fiction Finalists

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak***

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Nonfiction finalists

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker

Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (first graphic novel ever included in this category)

Poetry Finalists

Head Off & Split by Nikky Finnery

The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

Double Shadow by Carl Phillips

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems: 2007-2010 by c

Devotions by Bruce Smith

***My vote goes to The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak...Austria/Hungary circa review was in the online edition of Rain Taxi earlier this year:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Beauty and The Inferno by Robert Saviano (essays)

Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky

"We everything you seem to see is not the real story.  How you always end up understanding less of what is happening rather than more."

This excerpt was from a conversation between two journalists, Saviano, and the Italian legend Enzo Biagi.  Saviano's thoughts on Biagi fill a chapter in this collection of essays from Saviano's experiences as a journalist --work that would probably never be printed or aired in the United States.

First off, it's important to know that because of his work, Saviano is a wanted man.  His journalism doesn't use the typical references to "an unnamed source" or an "anonymous tip".  Instead, he fully exposes the names of organizations, politicians, and individuals that are involved with criminal activity in Italy, even if it endangers his life.  Thus he's in hiding because of tell-all stories about the mob, and the way his articles explain not only who is committing the crimes, but also the structure of power and the methods (or businesses) they use to manipulate politicians, sell drugs, or launder money.

I'm not sure the difference in legalities that allows for such focused criticism that is relatively unheard of here.  Even stating that a suspect is "alleged" is frowned upon here, whereas Italian newspapers can indicate full names and addresses.  It makes reading his essays shockingly different from what a US reader may be used to, and makes his living in hiding completely understandable.  Many times I had to pause and ask, "can he say that?"  Seriously, I would not want to be his bodyguard.

Beyond the exposure though is a real intent to educate citizens in Italy about their government and what is happening around them.  In describing Enzo Biagi, as mentioned above, parallels are seen between his goals and that of Saviano's:  "Biagi was capable of looking at fragments of the daily news.  He examined things bit by bit.  He never jumped to a solution, but always advanced slowly...He examined our daily concerns about taxes, terrorism, schools and health and used them to ask bigger questions.  He wanted to explain, freely and to spread information and make it known, but to do this with discipline and control" (127).

This is the model Saviano uses as he writes, at all times attempting to avoid both the cynicism that marks many reporters and the focus on elegance and style that detracts others.  His reporting is for ordinary people and he tries to reveal it without frills.  Like Biagi, he wants to motivate his readers to take notice, especially of the scores of unsolved deaths occurring around them:

"Can you really believe that none of this depends on you, or on your want of indignation? Do you really think that worrying about your everyday life is enough? Are you satisfied by the answers to these questions?  Does saying "I'm not doing anything wrong; I'm an honest person," allow you to feel innocent?  Can you let the news wash over you, over your soul?"

From that he describes the sixteen people who have been murdered by a mafia gang called the Casalesi who run businesses that profited more than 500 million Euros, while the rate of congenital birth defects increased 84% due to their illegal dumping of toxic waste.  Their profit equates to 7172 deaths from cancer per year.  So this lovely countryside in the South of Italy, namely around Lake Patria, has become an almost Wild-West type of region where the carabinieri and others trying to fight the criminals are threatened or killed, along with many innocents in the way.

In other essays he looks at similar issues facing the South of Italy, and at many times incorporating details of the culture of Italy, both ancient and current.  Saviano is well-read:  he references operas, plays, poetry, and literature in his writing.  The pace of the essays are fast even while the details are disheartening.  Seeing how crime is perpetuated as a business, focused on efficiency and results, is hard to accept. 

One thing that alienated me a bit at first is his Preface, where he describes his efforts to live in hiding.  It's off putting at first, as he seems to dwell on his imminent danger and how unafraid he is, given his important sacrifice.  Since I'd never heard of him, it felt like a bit of bravado instead of reality.  Yet, after I read the essays, I totally get it.  I would hide too, and I now can respect that he has made tremendous, unimaginable sacrifices in the pursuit of truth.  I just think it would have appeared better as an Epilogue than hitting the reader with all that indignation right up front.

Special thanks to Paul Engles of MacLehose Press, UK, for the Advance Review Copy.