Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Service Included (by Phoebe Damrosch)

I picked this up at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle to read on the flight home. And indeed, I read most of it on the flight home! It's the memoir of a server at Per Se, Thomas Keller's French Laundry equivalent in New York. And since I've eaten at the French Laundry, I was interested in a behind-the-scenes look at how a restaurant like that works.

I went back and forth on the narrator. At times she seems a little smug or didactic, at other times, oblivious, at other times, tone-deaf (I'm as liberal as the next person, but did she really need to go off on Republicans in the middle of a paragraph when it wasn't relevant to at all?). For the most part I liked her, but it was a Julie Powell kind of like. You like her, but... there's that "but."

The problem with this memoir is that it's half-good. The first half delves into the restaurant being set up and all the little details that go into the service there, and it's terrific. The second half focuses a lot on her relationship, and it lacks resolution. The guy seems to be clearly a shady character, but I guess we're supposed to assume, at the end, that he isn't? Or more like she wanted a happy ending for her book.

Also, I hate the disingenuousness that comes into play when the author is clearly working a job to write a book about it and pretends she isn't. The opening of the book is like "I had to stop pretending I was a writer... clearly I was just using writing as an excuse for waiting tables." Well no, not when you've GONE AHEAD AND WRITTEN A BOOK ABOUT IT THAT I AM READING RIGHT NOW. Gah! I hate that!

Stealing Buddha's Dinner (by Bich Minh Nguyen)

I taught this memoir this semester on the advice of a colleague, and I'm so glad I did! It's the story of a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, told through rich metaphors about food. A meditation on American pop culture, what it means to be "American," and the complexity of family and identity.

I related to this book a lot as the daughter of Dutch immigrants, which is actually kind of ironic, since Nguyen is growing up living among people in Grand Rapids who are mostly third-plus generation Dutch, and it's a very "normal," "American" community. (I only met my great grandfather once, when he was 96 years old and in a nursing home in Rotterdam, but he talked about moving to Grand Rapids in the 1920s.)

Anyway, I related way more to having that weird family that eats strange foods and buys off-brand soda than to the Dutch kids with Wonder Bread sandwiches. My favorite chapter was 10, with an extended meditation on nascent adolescent sexuality. I also loved the chapter on books, since she grew up loving the same books I did, and turning to reading the way I did, too.

The class agreed that the ending is a little strange--she skips entirely over her junior high and high school years, suddenly jumping ahead to college, and then ends the book without telling us what became of many of the people we've been reading about and are interested in. I tried to find interviews with answers to some of my students' questions, but didn't get anywhere--so I sent her a Facebook friend request.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill

This was our latest book club pick. The story itself didn't grab me, particularly, but everything came together beautifully at the end, and on an intellectual level, it is a truly interesting book. I mean, it feels like literature, something that would reward rereading and studying and teaching. We had one of our best book club discussions ever about it!

It's about a Dutch guy (yay! there is some Dutch!) living in New York after 9/11, playing cricket with other immigrants. It's definitely the best "post-911" book I've read; it handles it in a subtle, pitch-perfect way.

We talked, in our book club meeting, about parenthood, about displacement, we discussed similarities to Martin Dressler and The Great Gatsby, and we debated the (very well drawn, we agreed) characters of Chuck and Hans and Rachel. Also some of the individual images and metaphors that were just gorgeous.

A Great American Novel for sure, and one I didn't love until I got to the end--but I recommend it!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Going in Circles (by Pamela Ribon)

Definitely her best work yet! I tore through this one, thought the characters were interesting (like the unsympathetic mom and her insta-BFF Francesca) and the descriptions of roller derby were done extremely well. Something I noticed (because an editor told me I wasn't doing it in my own manuscript) is how good she is at establishing a character with a few concrete visual details. Francesca and her fingernails, or Matthew with the smudges on his glasses. It grounds the whole story and was, from a writery POV, impressive.

I did wonder (based on the author's interview at the end) if Matthew was less sympathetic than he was intended to be. The Italy thing and busting up her miniatures especially, but overall, I didn't get many sympathetic beats from that character, so it was difficult to understand why Charlotte didn't just move on. Of course, "this is harder than it looks" is kind of the theme of the book, and some of those emotional descriptions rang very very true.

Also, my friend Trixie Biscuit is in the acknowledgments, so that was exciting. Yay, Pam!