Monday, February 25, 2013

Let the Great World Spin

Thanks to the Doctor for hosting a fabulously delish BC.  In back-to-back meetings (gasp), we started with the Barefoot Contessa's tomato and whipped feta crostini (what's wrong with back-to-back deliciousness?) and then followed with what may have catapulted into the top 5 BC entrees of all time:  lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots over steamed cous cous.  Mouth watering just to think about it.

And then, just in case anyone had forgotten:

Thank goodness for the cake, because some of us actually needed a little reminder given the pretty weak completion rate for Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  After all, delivering the message via chocolate and frosting is much more persuasive (and palatable) than El Jefe's alternative idea, namely, that whoever didn't read would be the next host.  But in all fairness--and then we'll get to the book--if we don't hit on a popular book selection prontissimo we'll have to change the name to The Club of Torture. Anyone loving A Passage to India?!

Unfortunately, El Jefe, in her lamb tagine-fueled stupor, forgot her copious notes at Chez Doctor and thus the rating is subject to fuzzy memory:  let's say 6.5-ish.  Lots of us just couldn't get engaged in this novel. That the author made the Irish chapter the longest one in the book and stuck it in front just to daunt the weak of heart is, well, super Irish. (The 10th Member--now the 9th Member?--just leaned over and asked why El Jefe hates the Irish so much.  Hmmmm.)  Even for those who made it through all that Irish, there wasn't necessarily an instant connection. This was yet another book that didn't have a linear story. Clearly the whole "I've come up with a dozen stories that overlap and converge" is a popular convention in the literary world right now, however, this group of readers is weary of always having to stitch clever plot lines together in retrospect.  But wait, ultimately, perseverance was rewarded:  those who finished the book liked it very much in the end.  The story, once all the pieces fit together, was remarkably creative and heartbreaking.  So many characters were developed with love and detail, from Tillie and Jazzlyn in the Bronx to Claire Soderberg on Park Avenue to poor, doomed Corrigan in his apartment in the projects--all revealed to their core. At the same time, the novel was punctuated by one-off vignettes like the early tech-geeks hacking into phone lines on the morning of Philippe Petit's high wire walk, or the subway grafitti photographer; these were funky, pleasantly intriguing intermissions in this otherwise heavy novel. The result was a truly unique mix of chapters that left the reader deeply moved but also pondering the deeper meaning of the book. One final note (no names named): watching the movie Man on Wire was not a substitute for reading the book!

El Jefe is certain that at our March 12 meeting the food will make up for whatever suffering the book inflicts. So, pretend this is written on a cake:  make an effort, until next time, read early and often, and for God sakes bring some good book suggestions. xoej

That is one crazy mo fo.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

2013 got rolling with Book Club at Chez Jefe.  One would think we were all ready to dry out after the holidays.  Au contraire.  We bellied up to the bar and noshed on bruschetta from the new Contessa cookbook, a medley of baby heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and pine nuts over whipped feta.  Ina, you never disappoint! Then, an experimental (ahem) foray into a winter gratin of white beans, butternut squash, sage and garlic and an arugula salad, with cake for dessert.  Lish!

Our book was Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by, steady now, deep breath, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. 

This petit little novel scored a 7.  The story comprises a series of vignettes, not in chronological order, from the life of elementary school teacher "Ms. Hempel."  Clearly SSLB is a talented writer.  She dips in and out of Ms. Hempel's psyche, rendering the emotions so clearly that the reader almost experiences them for herself, whether it's the rush of an unexpected kiss, or the sinking dread of watching children play a dangerous game that could lead to disaster.  The prose was well-chosen:  delicate, sensitive and interesting with a touch of humor. Those who liked this book thought it was whimsical and full of charming discoveries throughout--like realizing more than half way through that Ms. Hempel is part Asian, or being suddenly deflated to find out, in hindsight, that her engagement broke off.  It also was fun to reminisce and put into context just how young some of our teachers were (mere kids in their 20's!) although at the time, of course, we never would have thought of it that way. On the other hand, there was a tinge of sadness in this book that some of us found depressing.  For example, how Ms. Hempel grew up being told by her father how extraordinary she was--but then wasn't after all-- or how her love life became so misdirected.  The other comment that came up, once again, is that the story didn't go anywhere and was too random.  It's time (although with El Jefe's vision into the future she can tell it won't be next month!) for a good meaty, linear novel that tells a story start to finish with characters you can sink your teeth into.  Let's beef up that list o' death!

Until next time, read early and often!  xoej