Books and Donuts

Today, March 19th, is St. Joseph’s Day, noteworthy in Italian families for the fried donuts traditionally made and consumed to celebrate the feast day.  In Hawaii, any day is a good excuse to eat fried donuts, known as malasadas, but on the East Coast, many Italian families eat zeppole.  The ingredients of the dough vary and the small donuts can be cream filled or plain, baked or fried.  But the traditional recipe my grandmother used was fast and easy, resembling a beignet.  Click on the recipe – here.  Good with a glass of milk back in the day but now great with coffee and a good book.  Here are a few books I’ve been reading while munching my donuts:

A Mystery by Jennifer EganManhattan Beach

The first time I tried reading Egan’s Manhattan Beach, I could not get past the first fifty pages, but when I tried again, the story flew by in a day.  Some books you just have to be ready to read, or, in my case, forced to read for a book club discussion, but glad I did.

title.esplanade  The dull windup (which had me stopping in the first read) was Anna’s sad childhood with her disabled sister, and her twelve year old yearnings for a better life as she accompanies her father to a house on Manhattan Beach, where he is obviously making a deal with a rich organized crime crook.  But stay with the story – it gets better.

Set during the Rosie Riveter era of World War II, Anna becomes the first woman diver working on ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  After her father mysteriously disappears and her sister dies, Anna’s mother leaves her alone in the big city. But this working girl knows her way around, finding an unlikely girlfriend in Nell who leads her to that same mobster boss in a nightclub, igniting a relationship and a story worthy of a film noir plot.  The murder mystery revolves around Anna’s father, but the resolution is unexpected.

In his review for the New York Times, Amor Towles, author of The Gentleman from Moscow, notes the importance of the beach and the ocean in Egan’s book:

“Turning their backs on the crowded constraints of their urban lives, all three {main characters}look to the ocean as a realm that while inherently dangerous also promises the potential for personal discovery and an almost mystical liberty.”

With her incise language Egan cleverly leads the story to a satisfying ending, and simultaneously informs the reader about an era, a location, and a woman’s vocation based on real events.

35411583  Listening to Sophie – Surprise Me!

A few bystanders may have wondered what I was laughing about as I tried out my new Beatsx earbuds, listening to Sophie Kinsella’a Surprise Me.  Kinsella’s newest addition to the Shopaholic series has heroine Sylvie married to Dan and mother to twin girls. Her job as a development officer at a family museum seems in jeopardy, and a doctor’s prediction of longevity for the couple alerts them to the long years ahead in their relationship. To shake up their ten year marriage, Kinsella has them surprising one another, creating laughable and ridiculous circumstances.  A serious note threatens to reveal a family secret, but with her usual wit and charm, Kinsella leads the reader to the expected happy ending.

81d62354b0e8908efae37b21420cdf5160d125f7Flavia is Back in Alan Bradley’s The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

My favorite detective is back in Bradley’s newest addition to the Flavia de Luce mysteries – The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place.   Flavia’s father has died; to recover from their grief Dogger, their old family friend, has taken Flavia and her sisters on a fishing excursion.  Flavia hooks a dead body instead of a fish, and the mystery begins.

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this perspicuous young woman with an extensive knowledge of chemical poisons and a flair for solving crimes, you are missing a good time.  This is the ninth in this series, from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, but you can start anywhere.

Related ReviewA Red Herring Without Mustard

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The Keep by Jennifer Egan

Only Maria Semple’s recommendation could get me to try reading Pulitzer Prize 9781400079742_p0_v1_s260x420winner Jennifer Egan again – this time one of her earlier books, The Keep. Mixing elements of the Gothic romance, ghost mystery, fantasy, and thriller, The Keep was more satisfying than A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I have yet to finish. Egan manages to connect two unlikely plot lines with two cousins in a European castle and two prisoners in a creative writing class – while simultaneously commenting on dependence on electronics and the paranoia motivated by inner demons.

The story opens with Danny traveling to his wealthy cousin Howard’s castle in an obscure location in Eastern Europe that is “off the grid.” Not being able to communicate with the outside world becomes an underlying theme that resolves itself in the last chapter, but the message is clear – cell phones and their counterparts have removed the ability to think imaginatively and to participate in the present. Egan dated Steve Jobs for a while – a possible influence?

Howard’s castle is under major renovation with crew chief Mick, Howard’s childhood friend from reform school and now on parole under Howard’s supervision. Danny, happy to escape his miserable life, accepts the one-way ticket but worries that Howard may be planning revenge for Danny’s cruel and almost fatal prank when they were boys. An aging baroness, who has locked herself in the keep, the castle’s fortified tower, provides the catalyst for their confrontation.

If you blink, you will miss the insertion in the first chapter that creates the grounding for the main plot line that follows. Ray, a prisoner, is writing a story about a man who finds an amazing castle, with a keep. Egan periodically interrupts Danny’s adventures with insertions of Ray’s life in prison, adding an attractive creative writing teacher who gets a crush on Ray and a prison roommate who thinks he has invented a “radio” that taps into the wavelengths of dead conversations. So, the story within the story – one feeding the other.

Despite Egan’s underlying message that everyone is in danger of becoming a prisoner of their own making, the plot is riveting and kept me reading to finish the book in one sitting. The book ends – but then ends again – with an added chapter that has the creative writing teacher finding the real castle in the real world. Possibly it does exist somewhere, or maybe Egan only wishes it does.

Have you read the book?

No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction This Year

Somehow, the British always manage to name a winner for their prestigious Man Booker Award, but this year the Americans could not decide which among the three finalists in fiction warranted the honor.  Ann Patchett, author of The State of Wonder, berates the Pulitzer Board in her op-ed piece for the New York Times – And The Winner Isn’t –

“…it is infinitely more galling to me as a reader, because there were so many good books published this year.”

I agree.  With so many to choose from, the committee should have identified a winner.  If the three finalists were not “good enough,” time to go back to the pile and find more. Patchett suggests Edith Perlman’s Binocular Vision, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones – among others.

Were the finalists so alike or so mediocre?  Why was the dysfunctional board not able to decide?  One of the three committee members responsible for sending up the final list, Susan Larson, gave her opinion to National Public Radio (NPR) – here.   It’s happened before:  in 1974, the Pulitzer committee recommended that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow be given the prize, but the board refused.

Maybe the authors should have taken out ads, as studios do to promote actors for the coveted Oscar awards.  Patchett notes that no one in the movie industry – or the public, for that matter – ever believes that the Oscar winner is the best, but the hoopla serves to alert movie-goers and tempts them to see a movie they may have not.  Prizes for books do the same.  Before Julian Barnes won the National Book Award for The Sense of an Ending, the one remaining mega bookseller in my city had only one copy; after he won, consumer demand forced a stack of those books – and they sold.

I have yet to read Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Pulitzer winner, 2010), or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad (Pulitzer winner, 2011). But I did read two of the three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (reviewed books in red):

…And so many more that I might have recommended to the board.  Who would get your vote?

Would Jane Austen Tweet?

Aside from singer Roseanne Cash’s creation of the Twitter hashtag #JaneAustenAtTheSuperBowl, it’s unlikely that Jane herself would become addicted to the social media – but then, we’ll never know.  After enumerating the literary feuds famous writers verbally carry on, Jennifer Schuessler in her article for the New York Times, “In Book Circles, a Taming of the Feud,” dissects the Twitter campaigns that novelists wield against each other.

Can you be a fan of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, if you know they have been carrying on a Twitter campaign against Jonathan Franzen under the hashtag #Franzenfreude?  Even when you know Franzen is the better writer, Weiner and Picoult books offer a different emotional release that readers need now and then – don’t they know this?  On the other hand, Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winner, seems a little catty criticizing the chicklit genre in her tweets.   Even a healthy eater needs chocolate now and then.

Eleanor Lipman sent me an email asking me to follow her twitter feed, as she posts a poem a day:

Starting today, I’m tweeting one poem per day (140 characters, natch) of a (partisan) political nature, from now until the 2012 election. They will be rhyming couplets, and, I hope, entertaining.

I discovered I could google “Elinor Lipman twitter” and get to her tweets without joining the ubiquitous network.

Why tweet?  Is it the electronic version of the haiku that can have as many letters as you can fit into 26 words?  Could anyone compete with an Ogden Nash limerick?  In her article, Schuessler says today’s tweeters require that “you don’t think about what you’re saying.”

I have not yet succumbed to the power of the tweet.  For the most part, it’s too hard to limit my idea to 140 characters – does that include commas?  If I did, I might tweet:

 If U want 2 know whatever pops into my head – what I think about anything – and U want my  insights/suggestions, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about -here is my advice

Oops – no more characters left.   Do you tweet?

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The Books We Never Can Read

We read at the whim of the writers who imagine a story and then live through it – mentally in most cases – to tell the tale.  Whether fiction, memoir, or factual, the story lives in the mind of the author until it is finished.  But, when “The Hand of Dread,” as noted in the Dan Kois New York Times essay Burn Before Reading, grabs the author, the book may be dead – midsentence – never to be seen (unless an enterprising geek finds and posts it on the internet – as was the case with Stephanie Meyer’s 12 chapters of “Midnight Sun”).

Kois lists books that were abandoned by famous authors: Truman Capote, Jennifer Egan, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, John Updike, Evelyn Waugh.

Why would a novel be ‘”wrecked”? Authors, always sensitive creatures, might abandon a book in a fit of despair.

Others stop writing, just because ” the novel isn’t working.”  Whatever the reasons, all the authors went on to produce published work:  Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, The Adventures of Augie March…

But we will never read Michael Chabon’s Fountain City.

Read the Article:  Burn Before Reading