Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell, 2013!

The end of a really good book provokes nostalgia in many readers. As we turn the final page, we look back on the paper-and-ink road that led us there, remembering the adventures we have had. We wave goodbye to characters who have grown dear to us. The hypnotic cadence of the author's voice falls abruptly silent, and we return to ourselves with a jolt.

We heave a sigh of mingled contentment and regret. Then we pick up the next book.

You can see where I'm going with this, dear readers. (And a happy new year to you, too.)

To be entirely honest, The Year Of Our Lord 2013 had very little in common with a good book, insofar as I experienced it. It was not a good year for me. It was a really terrible year. If it were a book, I'd recommend it to no one. I'd give it one out of five stars, perhaps 1.5 for certain artistic ironies. Dorothy Parker would tell us not to set it aside lightly, but to throw it with great force.

And yet, at the close of the year, Book Grumps is approaching its three-month birthday. There are seventeen full book reviews posted here and more waiting in the wings. Blogger reports almost 1k pageviews--not counting my own. For a baby book blog, that's pretty good. I'm very proud of it.

And then there's you, dear readers. Without you I wouldn't be grumpy. Hold on, that's neither true nor complimentary...

Thank you all for reading my sourpuss book reviews. Those of you on Facebook, thank you for all the times you have reshared or commented on the link, and thank you for every single "like." Those of you who hang out with me in meatspace, thank you for arguing with me face to face about ratings. Thank you for listening to me yell about spoilers from books you haven't yet read.

Thank you for the books you have recommended or loaned to me. Thanks for being so forgiving when I turn around and trash your favorite tale. Thanks for laughing at my bad jokes.  Thank you for your brave attempts to save books from merciless dog-earing on my part. (Mouschka, whenever you see this, the bookmark was very well chosen.)

Turning my grumpiness about books into "Book Grumps, The Blog" was one of the best parts of 2013. I count it among the few qualities that made the "book" of this year not an utter waste of time. I could never regret the experience of sharing my thoughts, and my love of stories, with all of you.

Fortunately for all of us, a year is not a book.  The chiming of the clock isn't a closing cover, cutting us off from the story of what has already been done. When we crack open the brand-new spine of 2014, we find that we have not said goodbye after all. This is not an ending. This is only the beginning of the next chapter.

There we go--I've fulfilled my yearly hackneyed metaphor quota, right on schedule. Here's to 2014 and the books ahead!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

From The Appendices: "Jane Eyre" Explained

Welcome, dear reader, to the brand-new Appendices, where I will take the occasional break from book grumps to ramble less formally about this-and-that.

After I referenced the "mad wife in the attic" in my grump for The Thirteenth Tale, my friend made the mistake of asking me what Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was about, exactly.

Please note: the following summary is written purely from memory, and may be entirely inaccurate. Students writing papers on the book should not consider this a valid source of information.


This is actually from Jane Eyre.
 No other image for the rest of this post
will be, no matter how I label it.
So we have our heroine, Jane Eyre, who's an orphan. She lives off the so-called charity of her evil aunt (and uncle??) who likes to stand on beaming while her terrible children hit Jane and throw things at her and maybe burn her books. They do fun stuff like lock Jane in Rooms Where People Have Died and sic priests on her to tell her that she's an incurably wicked eight-year-old and is definitely gonna burn in hell, to which Jane has the awesome reply GUESS I'D BETTER NOT DIE THEN. Jane's afraid of pretty much nothing except for maybe ghosts.

Anyway. They hate her. It's terrible.

Eventually she gets sent to a convent or something where other incurably wicked girls learn to be productive members of society, and it's terrible there too, and she makes ONE FRIEND who then dies of tuberculosis or consumption or syphilis. (Probably not syphilis.) Along the way Jane grows up and learns to be a governess.

And who should be looking for a governess but the brooding, bad-tempered and swoonworthy-if-you're-into-that-sort-of-thing Mr. Rochester, whose first name I forget! He needs a governess for his little girl, who isn't actually his, but the bastard of the ballerina(??) he used to date. By another guy. Rochester just kind of shrugged and went with it because I guess the ballerina died. He needs someone (i.e. Jane) to keep the child out of his hair.

Very little of the story has to do with Mr. Rochester's not-child. A lot of it has to do with Rochester being a great big bully and Jane having none of it and Rochester going "whoa, are you actually sassing me, you tiny goblin woman?"

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: "Old-School Comfort Food" by Alex Guarnaschelli

I've said before that no one will ever love me as much as I love food.

I love eating food. I love preparing food. I love shopping for groceries to make food. I love copying out recipes for exciting new food I haven't tried to make before. I love watching shows about people who have way more skills than I do making (and then eating) food.

My favorite food show is Chopped, in which pro and semi-pro chefs are handed a basket of mystery ingredients and challenged to whip up an appetizer, entree, or dessert before time runs out. Invariably, the basket contains something weird and terrible like squid brains or a bag of gummy bears.  I've learned a lot about cooking from watching these chefs tear through the kitchen, turning disaster into deliciousness.

(If you haven't ever been forced to watch Chopped with me, dear reader, you can watch a few full episodes here to get the idea.)

On this my favorite show, I have a favorite judge: celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli. Alex (to use the familiar form of address) is a little grouchy and a little ridiculous. She likes her food to be "whimsical" and has a very disconcerting habit of staring unblinkingly at a contestant while she lifts a forkful of food to her mouth. (She also apparently has a 'thing' for burly firemen, but one must watch a lot of Chopped before that become clear.) As the executive chef at two top New York restaurants, and the daughter of another famous cookbook editor, she released her own cookbook earlier this year--entitled Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned To Cook.

On Christmas Eve I read this cookbook cover to cover. I texted my favorite lines to fellow Chopped lover Traci of Traci J. Brooks Photography, who had given me the book as a present. I snapped phone photos of the food and of Alex's goofy illustrations, which I suppose is the foodie equivalent of sexting. And I cried a little bit, but that might have just been the Christmas Eve talking.

Food is love, isn't it? I bet every chef has talked about food being love (and love being food) at some point in their life--whether in their kitchen or in their cookbook, in an interview or on a TV show about stealing blenders, or in a dim booth in some late-night dive over one too many glasses of whatever fancy-schmancy wine chefs are supposed to drink.

(As I type this, I'm imagining some outraged chef, red-faced and spittle-flecked, pounding the table and insisting that food is food and nothing else, and also that love is a lie. Then my imaginary outraged chef begins crying into a beurre blanc, whatever that is. It's Christmas Eve for him inside my head, too.)

But I digress.

Yes, food is love. If you take the much-discussed Five Love Languages, you'll find that they are about food, too. Food is time; food is a gift; food is an act of service. Food is about touch, intimately so: the sizzling touch of meat to a hot pan, the delicate touch of a knife blade against the fragile skin of a tomato, the seductive touch of caramel melting over the tongue.

And food is definitely about words. From "I'll have the soup of the day" and "What's the recipe for this" to "Brown already, the guests are almost here" and "Please don't be burned, please don't be--AUGH" and lastly, the three most sublime words in the English language: "om nom nom."

Even in solitude, food is love.

While I'm cooking alone, it's an act of generosity to myself. I want to take care of the body that putters around all day. I want to treat my palate to the flavors it likes best. (Sometimes that's nothing more than ramen noodles with eggs stirred in. Other times, I'll go for broke and make cider vinegar steak with roasted asparagus and goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms on the side. This love is unconditional.)

While begging the egg whites to just turn to stiff peaks already before my hand gets a cramp, I'm thinking about the friends to whom I'll be serving those meringues. I think about the time I made them from memory for my grandfather, who passed earlier this year, and the rum balls one of my aunts brought to the same Christmas. As the cookies go into the oven I dwell on the memory of that lovely time.

While meticulously copying out recipes from cookbooks to put into my file, I look for gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free treats I can share with the people who matter most to me, whose allergies make cooking for them a challenge. It's a challenge I want to rise to meet, because cooking for them is--here we go again--a labor of love.

So food is love. Let's take that a step further and say that love is family.

Family is a concept that has a much broader embrace than we usually think. It's grandmothers and grandfathers, parents and children, but it's also that small family of two lovers hand in hand. It's the boss who has your back and the friend who brings you soup when you fall ill. It's the barista who recognizes you and slips you a free drink. It's the online buddy who sends you care packages when your beloved cat dies.

On Chopped, the great majority of the contestants list their family as both the reason they started cooking and the reason they want to win. They tell stories about the girlfriend who postponed grad school in order to support her partner's cooking career. The children whose favorite dish is the very same one the chef has just offered for the judge's critique. The grandmother in Guatemala, whose delectable recipes comprise the chef's earliest memories, never written down and now lost to time.

The memoirs of cooks are never a listing of what dishes they served at which restaurant. Instead, they talk about the great chefs who trained them, and the people who worked on either side of them in the steaming hell of a line kitchen. That is a family of a sort, too: a temporary one, where blood is shared (remember: the worst accidents are caused by a dull knife) even if genes are not. These memoirs are punctuated by the food they ate with this white-hatted family; each dish mentioned has a human story behind it. The food is the memory, and the memory lives on in the food.

Food is love, and love is family. Why not take it full circle to say that family is food? Family, whatever its shape in your life, is what fuels you. It gives you strength to get up out of bed. Family is the flavor that sets your people apart from the faceless crowds of the world. Family is sweet, overpowering, sour, smoke-filled, cold, comforting, full of zest... all in turn and all in time.

Food is love, and love is family. and family is food.

Now, about the cookbook in question: Alex Guarnaschelli wrote a really good cookbook. It's full of funny anecdotes and Alex's little cartoons of food (the sad parsnips were my favorite.) She offers recipes that are delicious without being absurdly complicated, and doesn't have her knickers in a twist about storebought ingredients. Her approach to flavors uses a lot of "brightness," which I like in my own food--bringing the flavors out of a dish with just a touch of acidy citrus, or a dollop of sour cream, or a splash of vinegar. I'm a big fan. It's a good book. The end.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

The famous writer Vida Winter is renowned for the outlandish histories she makes up for interviews. Each one has been a lie. Now an old woman, dying of cancer, she wants to lay certain ghosts to rest before she joins them.

As far as Winter is concerned, biographer Margaret Lea is a blank slate: unfamiliar with her works, untouched by preconceptions. But while Margaret listens to the old novelist's confession, she finds that not all of the ghosts are silent--and that some are calling her own name.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Borrowed Barnes & Noble Grump: "9 Signs You Might Be Living In A YA Novel"

For reasons of its own, my computer has ceased to play by the rules of normal computer functionality, so my next proper book grump may be a bit delayed. In the meantime, dear readers, I have learned that Barnes & Noble has its own blog, where one of their columnists is pitching quite a grump of her own about too-common stereotypes in YA literature.

Here, I'll let her do a bit of grumping in my stead.
Something strange is going on. Animals are looking at you sideways. Things fall off desks when you walk by. You have a sudden hankering for red meat, and you wake up with muddy feet. Did you recently have a birthday? We bet all this funny business started right after that. 
Look in the mirror: Do you have green eyes? If not, does your crush? While less than 2% of the population has green eyes, independent studies have revealed that 90% of them are currently living in a YA novel. 
You have next to no adult supervision in your life. Whether your adult guardian (there’s probably only one) is missing, working long hours, off fighting werewolves, or just plain clueless, you’re left to your own devices most of the time. This leaves you free to do activities including but not limited to marrying a ghost, overthrowing a postapocalyptic government, and driving a pickup truck while texting, clutching a giant iced coffee, and thinking soulfully about souls. 
Within the past few weeks, two hot, adoring guys have come into your life. If one is a dark-haired bad boy and the other a mischievous yet trustworthy blond, just accept that you’re living in a YA novel now, and cross your fingers it’s a series. 
You or someone you know is named Cam, Cameron, or Cammie. Also watch out for names that can be shortened to Kat. 
Your world’s looking a little bit…whitewashed. And if you do know someone of color, they likely have skin that one might compare to a cafe au lait, mocha, or other beverage currently sold at Starbucks. (Note: If people are looking even whiter than usual, you may be living in a YA novel about vampires. Or zombies. I’m sorry.) 
You have an archnemesis. We hate to break it to you, but most people don’t have to deal with someone who is single-mindedly devoted to ruining their life. This goes double if you were inadvertently responsible for your archnemesis becoming a mutant/losing control of their space colony/falling out of their dress at prom. 
You just found out you’re descended from a race of creatures that has something to do with souls. Or angels, or demons, or vampires, or seeking, or protecting, or vengeance, or gods. If your family photo album is actually a skin-bound Necronomicon you found in a cave, you’re probably living in a YA novel. 
Your friends keep saying things like, “Either I send him south in handcuffs or in a Chicago overcoat.” Wait a minute…you might actually be living in a noir. Lucky!
From "9 Signs You Might Be Living In A YA Novel" by Melissa Albert

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: "Ship of Fools/Unto Leviathan" by Richard Paul Russo

The Argonos has been lost in space for so long that its intended destination, like its port of origin, has been forgotten. The beacon from the planet Antioch is the first hint of civilization it has encountered in decades. But when Bartolomeo and the exploration team land planetside, they find only corpses.

Despite Antioch's disturbing mysteries, the underclasses enslaved by the Argonos view it as a chance at freedom. Their desperate attempt to escape the ship ends in catastrophe. Bartolomeo, caught in a political struggle between the ship's captain and its bishop, is cast as the leader of the mutiny and thrown in the brig.

While the imprisoned Bartolomeo questions his place on a ship that despises him, the Argonos returns to its solitary voyaging. For the first time in memory, though, it has a direction. Clues on Antioch lead them into the black of space--where a vast structure, not built by human hands, waits to be found.

  3 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Three-For-One Review: The "Symphony of Ages" Trilogy by Elizabeth Haydon

Rhapsody, a gifted singer and Namer, is on the run from the demons of her past. A far more literal demon pursues the two half-monster warriors Grunthor and Achmed. When Rhapsody’s power of Naming Naming frees Achmed from his curse, the monstrous pair drag the singer along on a desperate race to outrun the coming apocalypse.

The escape leads the three on a surreal journey through the fires at the center of the earth. They emerge into a transformed world, separated from the one they knew by hundreds of years. But not all has been destroyed. Amid the wonders and mysteries of their new world, familiar nightmares survive to haunt and to hunt them--as well as sweeter dreams long since given up for lost.

Fantasy Adventure: 4 out of 5 stars
Romance: 1 out of 5 stars

(grump below the cut)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: "Duma Key" by Stephen King

Successful entrepreneur, beloved husband and father--Edgar Freemantle had it all. An accident on a construction site robs him of everything, and takes his right arm along the way.

Now crippled, divorced, suffering constant pain and struggling with memory loss, Edgar is a wreck of the man he was. To dissuade him from suicide, his psychologist prescribes a "geographic cure"--a change of scenery. Edgar takes up residence on isolated Duma Key off the coast of Florida, where the sunset bleeding into the Gulf and the shells whispering in the swell of the tide stir a hunger in him. For the first time since childhood, Edgar picks up a paintbrush and begins to create.

But as Edgar's eerie paintings increase in skill and beauty, nightmares stir under the clear waters of the Gulf. A ghost ship against a scarlet sky appears over and over in his art, its bow turning toward the shore. Something which has been sleeping for a century begins to wake, and reaches out to the world once more. 

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)