Wednesday, February 16, 2011


  • Spoon Fed (Riverhead Books, 2010), by Kim Severson: enjoyable. A breezy memoir in nine chapters, each centered on one or another well-known cook, all women, who helped the author with one or another insight in overcoming various personal hangups and getting on to maturity, it falls into the tell-all inspirational category. I've known four of these illustrious women well enough (Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Edna Lewis) to recognize descriptions and dialogue as perfectly accurate: Severson's a good reporter. (She was a food writer at the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the New York Times, at first and for years writing about food, more recently serving as Bureau Chief in Atlanta.)

    Writing away from interviews originally written for the Times, Severson writes about her own life as an adolescent misfit, an alcoholic, a Lesbian; a daughter, wife, and mother; a journalist who worked her way from Anchorage to San Francisco to New York. She cites these eight cooks — the other four being Leah Chase, Marcella Hazan, Rachael Ray, and her mother, Anne Zappa Severson — as having helped her cope with her problems, offering (sometimes without even realizing it) life lessons. Bottom line: things are as they are; play the hand you're dealt as well as you can; stay the course; look out for others.

  • Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), by Akbar Ahmed, is an introduction, primarily no doubt for Americans, into the three major strains of Islam (mystical, fundamentalist, and open, to generalize; approximating, I think, Sufi, Shia, and Sunni) as they currently respond to an increasingly globalized world. The "journey" of the title refers to travels this anthropologist made with a team of students — young men and women, some Muslim, some not — to the centers of these three branches and to mosques and mudrassas from Damascus to Jakarta.

    I wish I'd found this book more readable. It's repetitive, sometimes unclear. The idea is fascinating: an extremely knowledgable man (Ahmed has been, among other things, the Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations) leads his young students on a long journey in Muslim lands, visiting schools and homes, discussing contemporary issues frankly with students, imams, people in the street, government officials. Much of the description is lively and fascinating, and the difficulties faced by these various Islamic responses to globalism are sympathetically drawn.

    But the author is often too self-congratulatingly present, and his students, though frequently mentioned, never really revealed in their own responses. Geert Mak's fine In Europe (see my entry of three years ago here) came too often to mind as an invidious comparison: I kept wishing Ahmed were as invisibly yet intelligently present in his similar survey.

  • Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008), by Tom McCarthy: An absolutely fascinating discussion of the internationally popular series, applying contemporary literary criticism techniques, finding implications in the artistic and intellectual content of writers extending from Poe and Baudelaire to Sciascia, with Raymond Roussel always lurking just offstage. To be read and re-read.

    Such were my quick comments on finishing the book, a month or so ago, as I added them to the Librarything page on the book, where three or four other reviews had variously irritated me. (Two examples: "I'm torn with this book… his references are somewhat out there…" and "…a fairly perceptive enumeration of some of the things that make Tintin special mixed with an embarrassingly bad attempt at showing off the author's knowledge of French literary criticism.") A better, more extensive, more professional review by Matt Bowman can be found here at The Quarterly Conversation, a website I'll likely return to.

  • Frankenstein (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, n.d.), by Mary Shelley: A great book, for the story, for the writing, for the extensive meaning. Subtle allegory. Beautiful and faithful descriptions of the settings — the description of the Mont Blanc glacier over Chamonix is riveting, haunting. The ironic first-person narrative is wrapped in an intriguing flashback, beautifully establishing the early 19th-century cosmology. In this edition, irritating footnotes and endnotes distract from the reading; but the central idea of the book, of course — whether man should attempt to create life, and whether, if he succeeds, his ambition is likely to overwhelm him — is as relevant now as it was two centuries ago. Perhaps more so.

  • Jane Eyre (Random House, 1943), by Charlotte Brontë. A fine, literate novel, straightahead, marred perhaps by a few coincidences, but ironic in its first-person narrative, nicely phrased, peopled with interesting and memorably delineated characters. Quote: ”Well, propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.“

  • Wuthering Heights (e-book), by Emily Brontë. Yes, early last month I went on from Frankenstein and Jane Eyre to this. I'd read Jane Eyre in the edition that had long been on my mother's bookshelf; a Random House publication from 1943, it came with Wuthering Heights as a companion volume, both illustrated with scary Expressionist wood-engravings by Fritz Eichenberg. Alas, I couldn't easily get that edition of Wuthering Heights, so read it as an e-book on my iPad. I found it heavier going than its sister, less straightforward and clear, but deeper and more resonant. I'd love to sit down with Edgar Allan Poe and discuss this book. Come to think of it, what did Henry James think of it? (Ah: he dismissed it as "a crude and morbid story." But what did he really think of it?)
  • 1 comment:

    Curtis Faville said...

    It isn't difficult to see why James might have bridled at Bronte's "roughness." For him passionate emotion and vivid landscape were like distractions from the embroidery of his entangled prose paragraphs. What did you think of Orson Welles' movie version of Jane Eyre?--too expressionistic and overplayed?