Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Line-up

I've floated down from the cloud I was on after attending the Festival of Books last weekend, and now I'm back in the swing of things here at home. We're packing to go for a long weekend to New York/Connecticut, for my niece's bat mitzvah. Yes, swine flu epidemic and all, I'm taking my three kids across the country...don't worry, I've stocked up on hand sanitizer.

Which of course brings me to the question of what to read on the plane. Those of you who know me know flying is not my favorite thing, so usually I bring comfort reads, because anything that makes me more comfortable (including a Xanax) is good.

I think first into the suitcase will be Vanina Marsot's book Foreign Tongue. Since I got it signed by the author. And it sounds charming. And it's about Paris. And did I mention I got it signed by the author?

Next up is Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan. I bought this one at the Festival of Books, too, because there was a discount! (20% off, come on, I had to!) It's my next book group read, and I'm looking forward to it. We have an architect in my book group, so I'm interested to hear what she has to add about Frank Lloyd Wright when we have our discussion.

I just received a reader's copy of Love and Obstacles, by Aleksandar Hemon, from Picador. I don't know much about the book yet but I love the cover.

I also received a copy of Genesis, by Bernard Beckett, from HMH. It's not my usual thing, as it's a thriller set in a post-apocalyptic future, but hey, I'm open to it.

Another one from HMH is Ginnah Howard's novel Night Navigation. I've started this one, and I'm enjoying it so far, but I don't think I'll be bringing it with me. I doubt it's a comforting airplane read. It's about a mother and son relationship while the son is going through a particularly harrowing drug rehab, and I think reading it on the plane might set me on edge. But I do like the writing so far.

Last but not least is David Ebershoff's novel The 19th Wife, which I'm reading before I host Mr. Ebershoff and the book on a TLC book tour on June 17th. I'll update you on the details of that soon. I'm looking forward to starting this one!

My 10-year-old son had to put his two-cents worth into my picture. And he says, "peace out!"

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fabulous blogging friends at the Festival of Books

What an amazing day! Amazing is what happens when you make a date to meet a bunch of your favorite bloggers IRL at the fantastic Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Yes, that's the kind of day I had yesterday. I got up early, left my husband in charge of the kids (or was it my kids in charge of my husband?), and headed over to the UCLA campus for the fabulous Festival of Books.

And then I met Trish from Hey, Lady, Whatcha Readin'?, Lisa from Books on the Brain, Amy from My Friend Amy, Ti from Book Chatter and other stuff, Natasha from Maw Books Blog, Jill from Fizzy Thoughts, Wendy from Musings of a Bookish Kitty and her husband Anjin (note to Anjin--just checked out your blog and saw that we could have had quite a conversation about WoW and the new patch--my husband, sons and I play, and I'm a lvl 80 night elf, we'll talk another time!), and Florinda from The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting and Randomness. Wow, such talented and lovely women! It was so great to meet them, and to share the day with them. I'm just bummed I missed dinner...but had to get home to make sure nobody burned the house down while I was away.

The panels I attended were very entertaining. A bunch of us started the day with "Status Update: Social Networking and New Media", with Otis Chandler, Wil Wheaton, and Sara Wolf. Otis Chandler, founder of, was very interesting about the online book-loving community, and on making reading more of a social experience. Wil Wheaton, blogger and tweeter extraordinaire (and "Wesley Crusher", for those of you Star Trek: TNG fans) has a gazillion followers on Twitter (okay, 489,100--but wow!) and had some very interesting things to say about self-publishing, print-on-demand books, and the importance of the fact that in the new media of social networking, the users own it, and they define how it works. The other panelist, Sara Wolf, is a dance critic and e-zine creator, but I just wasn't interested in her "constellation" of stuff.

After that, we had a quick lunch together, and then I went alone to hear Marilynne Robinson in conversation with Susan Straight. I happen to love both writers, and they had a wonderful conversation about themes of Robinson's work, including race and the hidden abolitionist history of the midwest, and they also talked about the writing process for both of them, which I loved hearing about!

Next I joined back up with some of my blogging buddies again and we went to see the panel "Fiction: Window on the World", with Muriel Barbery, Vanina Marsot, Jonathan Rabb, and Lisa See.

I immediately got a girl crush on Muriel Barbery, who spoke in French and had a translator, and was completely charming. All four writers spoke about the importance of place in their novels, as all are set in foreign cities (well, foreign to us--Barbery writes about her own city of Paris, and so does Marsot, who lives both in this country and there).

Lisa See spoke about her new novel Shanghai Girls, which I am interested in for many reasons, not least of which is that it is set in two worlds I'd like to explore--Shanghai and Los Angeles from 1937 to 1957. During the question and answer period she recommended a novel, and I immediately scribbled down the information: The Age of Dreaming, by Nina Revoyr. It is set in Los Angeles in the 1960s, but is about a film star from the age of silent films. I'm going to be on the lookout for this one!

The book Jonathan Rabb spoke about is his newest novel, Shadow and Light, a sequel to his earlier novel Rosa, which tells the story of Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist who was murdered in 1919. His books depict the particular world of Berlin between the wars, a world that also sounds fascinating to me.

Muriel Barbery spoke through a translator about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has been a runaway hit in Europe, and which I just read for my book group and reviewed. She spoke about the genesis of the character of Renee Michel, the surprisingly intellectual concierge, who also made a brief appearance in Barbery's first novel. As I remember, Barbery said she struggled with the voice for the concierge, who spoke simply, until her publisher reminded her that as a novelist, she could make the character speak any way she wanted. And thus the intellectual concierge was born.

Vanina Marsot spoke about her novel, Foreign Tongue, which is set in Paris. It is about a Los Angeles native with dual citizenship who, after a bad break-up, runs away to Paris, and becomes a translator. She examines the differences between the cultures through the difficulties that come up during translating a novel from French to English.

After the panel, I wanted to buy another copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog so that Ms. Barbery could sign it, but the book had already sold out! Annoying! But Lisa recommended Vanina Marsot's book, Foreign Tongue, so I bought that and had it signed. Ms. Marsot was very nice, and I'm looking forward to reading her book. I also got to say a quick hello to Ms. Barbery, and told her I loved her book. So that was good!

All in all, it was a magical day. I hope everyone had as much fun as I did, and I'm looking forward to having a reunion next year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Symbolic? Or Not?

Today's Booking Through Thursday question was suggested by Barbara H:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

I love the question that Barbara's husband brings up--whether or not authors meant all that symbolism the English teachers made us hunt down and analyze when we learned about literature. I remember my high school English teacher making me look for water images in A Passage to India, and thinking at the time that Forster couldn't possibly have purposely written in every symbol. Now, knowing more about the writing process, I think some writers put symbols in their work subconsciously, and others work very hard to put in symbolism.

But that said, I actually enjoy close reading, and analyzing symbolism, and whether or not it's intentional doesn't necessarily make it less meaningful.

I think much of modern fiction has plenty of symbolism. I just finished Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which has lots of overt symbolism in the sections of the book that relate the science fiction story that is being told by one character to his lover, where he's obviously inserting symbolism about their relationship into the story. It's a great book if you're looking for symbolism, but it's also a great story if you just want to read it and don't want to work that hard!

I guess I don't look for symbolism per se when I'm reading, but I do look for layers of meaning, and I do appreciate aspects of stories that invite analysis. In my book group last night, for example, we discussed Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. We talked a little bit about how one of the characters, the elegant and sympathetic Japanese man Kakuro Ozu, who moves into the apartment building where the other two main characters live, is not so much a real person, but a means for the two main characters to get together. He's a catalyst, almost a plot device, rather than a real person--he is the mechanism that allows the other two characters to see each other. It was a great discussion! Plus, there was wine!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sunday Salon--the reading I didn't do

The Sunday

I wish I could have participated in Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon this year, because really, what could be better than nonstop reading and lots of good snacks? I had the snacks anyway, but my kids would revolt if I left them to fend for themselves while I read all weekend. Sounds like heaven, however...and another lovely way to remember Dewey.

I was able to read some this weekend, anyway. I finished Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin: A Novel. It was a great book. I love a book that compels you forward at the end, and you race ahead, faster and faster, just to find out what happened to the characters you've become attached to. I had that experience with this book, and recently with Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, too.

I also started Zoe Heller's The Believers: A Novel. So far, I'm engaged. I like Heller's style. I did not read What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel, but I did enjoy the film. I have to finish The Believers, or at least get far enough in to be able to talk semi-intelligently about it, before my Thursday book group meeting.

I am looking forward to next weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It's always an amazing event, with panels and panels of so many authors I'd like to hear that I can't possibly fit them all in. It's a festival of crowds, too--not my favorite thing, but (unlike so many other crowded events) completely worth it. And there's a big bonus for me this year--meeting fellow bloggers! That's right, a group of ten book bloggers are going to meet at the festival (thanks Lisa for your organizing fabulousness), and we're hoping to have a meal together, as well as attend some panels. I can't wait!

What have you managed to read this weekend?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weekly Geeks--What's Cooking?

I just had to participate in this week's Weekly Geeks, because the assignment is let's talk cookbooks!

I have a fairly large cookbook collection. I've been inspired by two people in this. First of all, my late mother-in-law, who not only had a huge collection of cookbooks, but who would actually read them. She might take one up to bed and read it there, just like it was a novel. And she made notes in the margins, about things she might like to try, or things she'd tried and modified. I love to run across these notes, "needs more sugar!", when I'm reading her old cookbooks.

I'm also inspired by a very good friend who is the author of several really great cookbooks. Her Dinner Parties: Simple Recipes for Easy Entertaining is one of my go-to cookbooks when I'm planning a party. Knowing her over the years, I've become familiar with the process of writing a cookbook, from coming up with a concept, menu planning, recipe writing and best of all, recipe testing. I've helped her test recipes many times, and it's always a yummy experience. Also, my family and I have been the beneficiaries of her recipe-testing jags, when she might bring over, say, a summer fruit tart, and say, "here, what do you think?" I think I'm in heaven!

One of the best things about cookbooks is reading them. I love a well-written cookbook. For funny cookbooks, I go to the Beat This! Cookbook series by Ann Hodgman, who used to write for Spy Magazine. She is absolutely hilarious. She also wrote a cookbook entitled One Bite Won't Kill You--so you see what I mean. It's next on my list to buy.

I also read cookbooks because they are beautiful. One such beautiful cookbook I received as a gift is Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table. Lucques is a local restaurant that is just wonderful--I've eaten celebratory meals there for years. Goin is a famous local chef, with several great restaurants in Los Angeles.

I also love Nigella Lawson's cookbooks, which are very readable (and her website is great). She's also quite watchable on TV. And my favorite book on baking, which contains my favorite easy chocolate frosting recipe, is The Baker's Dozen Cookbook: Become a Better Baker with 135 Foolproof Recipes and Tried-and-True Techniques.

And, last but not least, as a cook I've turned to the internet for recipes quite a bit lately. There are some great cooking blogs I check regularly. These are wonderful because they usually post great pictures of the food (which is another hallmark of a good cookbook). My favorites are, of course, Books and Cooks (which combines two of my passions), and also Smitten Kitchen, Joy the Baker, and the Paris-based Chocolate and Zucchini--all of whom have lovely writing styles.

Check these sites out, they're great!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery--a review

I think I was as charmed as legions of European readers were when I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, for my book group. It's been a while since I've read anything French (the last thing being Platform by Michel Houellebecq--quite different!) or anything translated, and I found the writer's voice fresh and vibrant--so I'm assuming this is a very good translation.

I had heard very mixed things about this book before I started it. One person told me it was the best book she had read all year, and another told me that she put it down after thirty pages because it was "pretentious". I'm glad I kept reading beyond the first thirty pages, because though I was a little slow getting into it, I ultimately loved this book.

This story is narrated by two people who live in the same ritzy apartment building in Paris, Renee Michel, the dumpy, lumpy, frumpy 54-year-old concierge of the building, and Paloma Josse, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a diplomat and a socialite who live there. Madame Michel is a very intelligent autodidact, lover of art, books, music and movies, who hides behind a mask of stupidity--what she says is the typical concierge persona--and doesn't want any of the upper class residents of her building guessing that she has a secret intellectual life. Paloma is a very intelligent girl who plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday unless she finds something in the world, some truth or beauty, that makes life worth living.

Both Renee Michel and Paloma keep diaries, where they record their musings on the nature of beauty, the importance of art, the meaning of life, as well as wonderfully French observations on the foibles of the upper middle class Parisians they live among.

Renee Michel is a great character, a person hiding behind the facade of what people expect her to be. At first I got frustrated by her hiding and posturing. It seemed that she was obsessed with the class difference between herself and those she served as concierge, and I started to wonder if class was a bigger issue in France today than I imagined. But without giving any spoilers, I'll say that later in the story the reasons for Renee's seeming obsession with class became clearer and much more understandable.

And as I read on, I started to enjoy Renee's character more. She is an extraordinary mind inside an ordinary person--she's a character we can all relate to, because don't we all feel just a little bit misunderstood, and wouldn't we all like to say we are more than what meets the eye? And she has a lovely Cinderella moment, when she is finally seen, finally understood, by the two kindred spirits who live in the apartment building where she lives, Paloma and the elegant and mysterious new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. I completely bought the character of Paloma, too. At first I was worried that I wouldn't believe her--I was thinking how hard it must be as a writer to make the voice of an unbelievably smart pre-teen sound believable. But Barbery pulls it off, and as I read I stopped thinking about whether it was working, and got completely engrossed in the book.

And as the book became more about the relationships between these three characters, I liked it even more. The message of the book reminded me of E.M. Forster's quote in Howard's End: "Only connect! ...and human love will be seen at its height." Because it's ultimately all about human relationships, isn't it? By the end, The Elegance of the Hedgehog was both a book of ideas and a book I could relate to on an emotional level. I understand that the author is a professor of philosophy. This shows in the elegance with which she discusses ideas. But she is also a writer who gives us a lovely story peopled with interesting characters, and manages to tug at our heartstrings, too.

Here are a few passages I enjoyed:

From page 53. Renee Michel, on reading without guidance:
"I have read so many books...And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading--and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure."
From page 123. Okay, another reason I really like this book is that Renee Michel loves Tolstoy, especially Anna Karenina, and so do I. Renee describes a passage in Anna Karenina when Levin is scything grain, and goes into that kind of pleasurable trance that repetitive actions can put us into, and then she compares it to writing in her journal:
"What other reason might I have for writing this--ridiculous journal of an aging concierge--if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me."
From page 145. Paloma, after meeting Kakuro Ozu for the first time:
"So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy."
I can't wait to discuss all this with my book group next week!

Friday, April 10, 2009

A recipe

I went on an impromptu blogging break because of Spring Break, or maybe it was spring fever. We took a quick trip to Las Vegas, which always puts me into sensory overload. Then we hosted a Passover seder at our house, which is always a lot of work beforehand, but is so much fun during!

I managed to get some reading done anyway. I finished my book group book, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, while we were in Vegas. Completely incongruous! It's a book of ideas that made me think philosophically, and by the end of the book I was in tears, and I experienced all of this while sitting by the pool at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

I came to the Jewish holiday of Passover late in my life, but I've more than made up for it by embracing the ritual of the seder with gusto. I love to bake and eat sweets, and for a baker, the dietary restrictions of Passover represent a significant challenge--one I love to take on. I make flourless chocolate cakes, a chocolate-hazelnut torte, sponge cake, trifle, and several other crazy things this time of year. But the thing that everyone always loves most is my matzo buttercrunch, a candy made with caramel, chocolate, nuts and matzo, the unleavened "bread" of Passover, ubiquitous in our supermarkets this time of year.

So I thought I'd pass along the recipe, just in case anyone out there wants to try it. It's easy, and worth it, I promise.

Matzo Buttercrunch

4 to 6 unsalted matzos
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (or margarine)
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup coarsely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, or chocolate chips
Toasted slivered almonds

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a jellyroll pan, or a cookie sheet that has sides, with aluminum foil, and then with a sheet of parchment paper.

Line the pan with matzos as evenly as possible, cutting them into pieces to fill in any gaps.

Heat the butter and brown sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil for 2 to 4 minutes. Remove the mixture from the stove and pour it over the matzos.

Put the pan in the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate over the matzos. Let stand for a few minutes, then smear the top with a spatula to spread the chocolate over the top of the matzos. Garnish the buttercrunch with the slivered almonds.

Freeze until firm, about an hour.

Break the buttercrunch into pieces to serve.

Don't eat all at once!

Update: Was checking in with all the blogs I check, and saw that one of my favorite foodies, Smitten Kitchen, had this same recipe posted! If you want to see better pictures, click here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

This pile snuck up on me

In an attempt to put myself on a stricter budget, and to force myself to read through some of the ridiculously large pile of books next to my bed, I made a resolution not to buy any new books this year. Okay, I knew that wasn't going to last. But I did want to see how long I could make it without getting out my wallet to buy books.

I'm actually proud of myself for the restraint I've shown so far this year. And I am making inroads into the crazy book pile. But I guess I'm a bit of a book magnet--I've still been acquiring books, even without buying many. I keep getting books as gifts, and ARCs. And I did make an exception to my "no buying" rule for book group books, of which there have been a few.

So here's the pile I've accumulated, despite my best intentions:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. This one is for my book group's next meeting. I've heard this described as both "the best book I've read all year" and "pretentious". Hmm...

The Believers, by Zoe Heller. Also for my book group. Also given mixed reviews.

Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris. Given to me as a very, very belated birthday present, along with

Gentlemen and Players, by Joanne Harris. In which I am warned to watch out for something shocking. Again, hmm...

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. Borrowed by my mother from her good friend, and left here accidentally on a visit. Sorry, Mom! I'll send it back to you when I'm done.

Any thoughts on these?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kick-off of National Poetry Month

It's officially National Poetry Month and I'm observing it by visiting 30 Poets/30 Days, a celebration of children's poetry, where there will be a previously unpublished poem on the site daily, by some of the greats of children's poetry.

Today's offering is by one of my all-time favorite poets, children's or otherwise, Jack Prelutsky, and it made me giggle. Enjoy Poetry Month!