Monday, September 29, 2014

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

A few years ago my husband and I watched "Man on Wire," the documentary film about Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. I kept remembering that movie as I read Let the Great World Spin, as that breath-taking feat is the centerpiece of this novel. This was my take on the film:
It was a fascinating story of how they engineered this legal and amazingly daring feat, but in the end I was gravely disappointed in Petit's personal character. At times I felt it moved too slowly and jumped back and forth...and I wanted to cheer for Petit but was disappointed in the way the experience changed him.
This is not the type of novel I'm typically drawn to, because I tend not to prefer short stories. But one of the benefits of being in a book group is being exposed to the types of books one wouldn't normally read. Well written, with a wonderful sense of setting, Let the Great World Spin tells the stories of a variety of different characters, many of whom encounter each other at some point in the day or in their lives.

But one of my major gripes with novels is when each chapter starts from the different perspective of a different character (can you say Game of Thrones?). And as soon as I grew to love a particular character or story (like the Irish priest John Corrigan and his brother Ciaran--the most interesting story), that story ends and we move onto someone else. So I found it a bit hard to sink into this novel, with all that moving around.

On the other hand, the novel tells the story of New York City in so many different slices...of the priest Corrigan who works amongst the prostitutes and dealers in the Bronx ghetto and loves a Latina single mom...of the prostitutes themselves, whose children become prostitutes...a Park Avenue mom befriending a black mother, both grieving their sons who died in Vietnam...a drug-addicted artist who finds herself involved in a hit and run...and a prostitute's daughter who was raised in love and stability, who returns to New York full circle...beautiful individual stories woven together...

A few of the stories didn't work for me...the hackers in California who call pay phones in New York to quiz passersby about what's going on between the towers, and the young graffiti artist who is also a photographer. I found these stories to be the least interesting and engaging.

I'm glad I read this novel, was especially poignant to read this book during September, as we all remember the World Trade Center and 9/11.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Such a wonderful quiet surprise of a book! Harold Fry, an Englishman in his early 60s, is feeling driftless in his retired years. One day he learns that his old coworker and friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer all the way at the farthest north point of England. He's inspired to walk all the way up England--a 600-mile journey--to see her, with the hopes that she will stay alive until he can get to her. He thinks this will save her.

Along the way, Harold reflects on his life and his marriage, and gradually we learn what has made Harold be the way he is. He attracts followers and meets interesting people who help him along the way. Even though all he possesses in the beginning is a pair of yachting shoes and a simple set of clothing (no rain gear, map, or cell phone), he is determined to keep things simple along the way and refuses to invest in hiking boots or better attire or equipment.

I thought this was a sweet, sensitive book, and extremely English. It's also very sad--both about Harold and his wife Maureen's life and own son--and about Queenie herself. But in the end, he finds redemption...always a good ending in my book!

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen
Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen, by Naomi Moriyama with William Doyle

Naomi Moriyama grew up in Tokyo with a typical Japanese mom provided attractive, nourishing food for her daughter.,.on the strict orders of Naomi's school!
(On the first day of school, a teacher made a speech: "We request that every mother make lunch for your daughter every day. Our main theme at this school is to help our students learn how to be giving and loving. One of the ways your daughter learns this is from your love-packed lunch box.") Can you imagine hearing this kind of a message in an American school???
Moriyama ended up moving to the U.S. to attend college and subsequently met and married her American husband. But she also came to miss and appreciate her mom's Japanese home cooking.

This book is a combination health book and cookbook. Moriyama includes statistics about how Japanese people live longer and have the lowest obesity rates in the world. They are also extremely active (few Japanese people use their cars every day, especially city residents)--instead they use mass transit, walk, or bicycle. I walked more during the three years I lived in Japan than I've ever walked in my life.

Moriyama also shares her own personal experiences--for example, when she arrived in the American Midwest to attend college, she gained a great deal of weight right away. When she moved back to Tokyo for awhile, she lost it all without dieting or exercising. The Japanese lifestyle, combined with fresh ingredients and home cooking, is the secret sauce!

Picking mikan (mandarin oranges)
As I was reading Moriyama's stories, I kept thinking of my wonderful stay in an old, traditional Japanese farmhouse on the western coast of Honshu (the most populated island in Japan), where we picked fresh persimmons, mountain potatoes, and mandarin oranges. My friend Debbie and I learned how to make gyoza (potstickers) and sushi, and the family had a brazier-fired kotatsu where they ate dinner each day. (A kotatsu is a wonderful table with a heater underneath it--we had one in our apartment with an electric heater, and the heat was kept under the table with a blanket...I loved that kotatsu as we didn't have central heating!) That weekend was the most traditional Japanese of any time I spent in Japan--it was fantastic.
Picking Japanese mountain potatoes (which taste amazing!)
Grandma on her tractor
Debbie and me with Grandma and Mama
(who was the mom of one of our businessmen students)

At the kotatsu at dinner--puzzled by the American Almond Roca we brought as a gift
(I don't think they liked it very much!)
Japanese home cooking is so much more than sushi and can find more of it at American Japanese restaurants than when we first returned from Japan. I loved delicacies such as spinach soaked in ground sesame seeds, okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pizza), takoyaki (octopus balls), yaki soba (fried noodles), ramen (noodle soup), gyoza, zaru soba (cold soba noodles with a dipping sauce), oyakodonburi (chicken and egg over rice), clams in sake broth, anything cooked with miso, rice balls with pickled plum seasoning, mochi with red bean paste, broiled mackerel or salmon, nabe (a soup that consists of each person dipping his or her own meat and veggies into a broth), traditional Japanese breakfasts, and edamame (steamed soybeans, now readily available in the U.S.).

Japanese roasted sweet potato street cart
Moriyama also enfolds some priceless Japanese history in her pages, including the stories of some kick-ass Japanese women in ancient times: Queen Himiko and Tomoe Gozen. (I need to learn more about these two!)

This book made me miss Japan and Japanese food so much! I love the way Moriyama gives tribute to her mom's own Tokyo kitchen...and I definitely want to incorporate more Japanese cooking into our own kitchen. But the truth is that cooking Japanese does take a great deal more time, and we don't all have Japanese housewives in our families!

I made one of the recipes in the book the other night--Eggplant Sauteed with Miso--and it was oishii (delicious)! This book inspired me to do more Japanese cooking and think more about what I'm eating--is it fresh? Is it processed? Has it been made with love? And I'm longing for Japan!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

This is #2 in J.K. Rowling's new adult mystery series. Detective Cormoran Strike is an interesting character--he's a disabled veteran with a prosthesis, born to a famous rock star father but alienated from him, motherless and still deeply ambivalent about breaking up with his psychopath girlfriend. I preferred the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling, but this one still contained vintage J.K. Rowling story telling.

The Silkworm is all about the dog-eat-dog world of writing and the publishing industry, and it doesn't paint a particularly warm picture! For example, this quote accurately sums up the novel:
...writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels. 
Novelist Owen Quine writes a poison pen novel about everyone he knows...then he shows up dead. Quine's novel itself is a bizarre, sexually weird, and symbolically complicated story that I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to read. The writers, publishers, agents, and their family members in The Silkworm are mostly all cut throat and vicious. They have few, if any, redeeming qualities. 

Also, I would love to see J.K. Rowling write a book with a really standout, great female lead...instead of consigning women and girls to the supporting character role (ala Hermione Granger). Robin, Strike's assistant, is smart, resourceful, and dedicated, but she's still stuck with her boring drip of a boyfriend and can't seem to realize he's no good. I'm finding that to be tiresome! Also, she's desperate for more opportunities to become an investigator, but this process is so slow it makes me sleepy!

J.K. Rowling is a skilled writer, and I will keep reading anything she writes...but this one just didn't hit the mark for me.