Mar 24, 2017

The Potlikker Papers, by John T. Edge

The Potlikker Papers is an extensively researched, albeit a bit scattershot, work of culinary and cultural history. John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and devoted Southern son with an interest in documenting how the food culture of the South has echoed, and at times preempted, major cultural, social, and political shifts. Though not long, the book covers a wide swathe of modern American history with great depth and attention to detail. It's impressive, both for the work that went into it and its execution, but it feels a bit more like a doctoral thesis than a coherent work.

Edge starts us out right in the thick of it, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. This section is brutal; we hear of the incredible violence and indignities suffered by black (and some white) Southerners who had simply had enough. He minces no words, but then, neither did the racists he quotes. It's almost viscerally painful to read what white people said to and about blacks; more so because their sentiments have recently been echoed at Trump rallies and on the platforms of the self-labeled "alt-right." He chronicles the work of Georgia Gilmore, who turned her home kitchen into a center of revolutionary foment and inspired a whole group of black home chefs to sell their food in support of those striking the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama. These entrepreneurial women fought one side of the battle, while Freedom Riders took their fight to the lunch counters of popular downtown diners. Their simple desire was to, quite literally, have a seat at the table.

From this explosive, emotional beginning, Edge moves us rather abruptly to the hippies and communes of the 1970s. While fascinating in its own right, the subject utterly changes the character of the book. What I thought was a much-needed exploration of black involvement in and influence on Southern food culture turned into a broader discussion of the various elements that make up Southern cuisine. We later move to the celebrity chefs of the 1980s and '90s, then the reaffirmation of local ingredients and the immigrants who farm them and have made them their own. All of this is interesting, and Edge clearly knows his stuff - he's a prodigious culinary name-dropper. I suppose it's unfair to judge Edge for not writing the book I wanted, when I'm sure he is happy with the book he wanted to write, though I do think it would have benefited from a slightly narrower focus. Also, how come he barely talks about potlikker?? A possible editorial suggestion would have been to take this one dish and follow its development in Southern kitchens through all those years. There needs to be some other thread to piece the narrative together besides just "Southern food." All told, though, it's a testament to a lot of hard work and the love Edge has for the South, and a thoroughly informative read. Now excuse me while I go scrounge up some BBQ.

Mar 16, 2017

The Musical Brain, by César Aira

I'm afraid most of these stories were a bit beyond me, though I'm at least clever enough, I suppose, to recognize their brilliance. I'd say about a third of these stories are hilarious, a third are incredibly smart and moving, and a third are a little more absurdist/surrealist that I can handle. Examples: God throws a birthday party for himself every year, only it's held outside of space/time and is attended exclusively by monkeys; a priest is assigned a poverty-stricken diocese but instead of spending money on the poor, decides to build an incredible house for his successor so that that man will be able to give all his money to the poor instead of worrying about a house, but the successor decides to do the same for his own successor, and so on and so forth; a café's patrons make more and more elaborate origami for a little girl, each creation more impossibly complex than the last.

Aira is a deliberate writer, but I'll admit I'm not a very deliberate reader. The funny stories were great, I read them quickly, giggled, and appreciated how smart they are. But his other stories are rambling, some start going one direction and change tacks a couple times to end up somewhere completely different. Perhaps I'm an impatient reader - no, I know I'm an impatient reader. I'm a book buyer and reading is part of my job, so if a book doesn't catch my attention quickly, I ditch it. This is hard to do with a collection of short stories, some of which I really enjoyed; how long do I give a story I don't like? A page? Two? Dear reader, I read it all, though I didn't love it all, just so I could say I had.

Mar 11, 2017

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I was hesitant to pick up this debut novel, despite its numerous accolades from readers and writers alike, and though it has already garnering several awards. The reason for my reticence is my coworker and fellow buyer, who has been in this business for thirty years and has impeccable taste. She didn't like it that much, though agreed it's an important addition to the small but growing library of literature by women of color. In this case, however, I disagree with her entirely. I think this is an incredible novel, particularly since it's a first effort.

Homegoing follows the lineages of two half-sisters, Effia and Essi. The former is a Fante living on the Gold Coast who marries the white commander of the Cape Coast Castle, an important stop for African slaves from the interior on their way to slavery in the Americas. The latter is an Asante, captured in a raid and shipped off to be a slave in the American South. We step in on the lives of six generations of their direct descendants, alternating between one sister's line and the other's, showing the disastrous affects of slavery both on the enslaved and on those complicit in their servitude.

Gyasi's writing is clear and insistent, rich in metaphor and description without being overbearing or long-winded. She manages to get at the heart of being black in America in simple phrases that hit you as so obvious once uttered, but were anything but thirty seconds earlier. Gyasi's characters are fully realized; I feel I could meet any of them walking down the street. This is a powerful, stunning debut for what I hope will be a long writing career.

Goldenhand, by Garth Nix

Returning to the Old Kingdom and one of my all-time favorite series, Garth Nix here expounds upon a subject I have always wondered about: Just what lies to the north of our heroines' home? Goldenhand begins about half a year after the events in Lirael. It's been a while since fans have visited these characters. Between the latter and the former, Nix wrote a series of short stories set in the Old Kingdom (Across the Wall) and the hundreds-of-years-earlier prequel, Clariel, which I was unimpressed with.

Goldenhand is more a return to form, happily. Lirael is settling into her position as Abhorsen-in-Waiting, equipped with a new Charter Magic-infused metal hand, fashioned by her nephew, Prince Sameth. Though she is taking to her new duties with aplomb, she's finding a social life much harder to come by. When a cryptic message about a Free Magic creature in the southern country of Ancelstierre (impossible!) arrives, she jumps at the chance to be reunited with Nicholas Sayre. Their ensuring awkward flirtation is adorably realistic.

Alternating with Lirael's story are chapters following a young girl of the Northern Clans, Ferin. These chapters were the juiciest for me. We know what lies to the south of the Old Kingdom but I have long wondered about its northern border. We learn of the horse clans, nomadic raiders with their own developed religion and societies quite separate and unique from the Old Kingdom's. These fearsome warriors, we quickly learn, have been in thrall to an old, familiar enemy.

I thoroughly enjoyed the expansion of the world I first dove into long ago with Sabriel. The writing is much the same, though of course reading it lacks the joy of initial discovery. I welcome any journey back to the Old Kingdom in Nix's capable hands.

Mar 1, 2017

The One Eyed Man, by Ron Currie

Written before meeting the author...
I'm honestly not sure whether this is a story about grief standing atop a soapbox, or an excuse to stand on a soapbox wrapped in a story of grief. Our hero (or antihero, as it may be), known only as K., has recently lost his wife to a long, protracted illness. Obvious to everyone else but rather less so to himself, his grief manifests in a need to be absolutely literal. If the crosswalk sign says DON'T WALK, you don't walk, even if it says so for several hours straight; people who's views or beliefs have the tiniest holes of logic are questioned intently until exasperation or anger explode. Within a 48 hour period, K. breaks his best friend's window, gets punched in the face by a redneck, gets a girl fired from her posh grocery store job, and gets shot during a robbery gone sideways. It's been a rough few months for K.

But then he gets noticed by the right (wrong?) people and becomes the star of a reality TV show in which he questions everyone he meets. Not maliciously, of course; it's all just part of his desire to understand. Most people, it becomes quickly obvious, do not want their beliefs questioned. K. is beat up. A lot. Interspersed with his adventures in conversational violence are chapters detailing the death of his wife, starting at the end and working backwards in time to her diagnosis. These chapters are as beautiful and striking as the present time chapters are amusing and thought-provoking. The book gets just close enough to pissing you off before dumping you back into the sadness of watching a loved one slowly, painfully die. It's a hell of a book, and I look forward to the discussion it inspires.

Written after meeting the author...
Ron Currie is, I should say, an utterly charming author. Smart, funny, thoughtful, he listens intently and shares honestly. It's the best kind of interaction a bookseller can hope to have with an author. It can be uncomfortable speaking with someone about what they've written, particularly when the subject matter is difficult. But Ron listened to everything we had to say about the book and was very gracious in discussing it. I find that I often realize things about a book whilst in the process of talking about it, and it always deepens my understanding of the work.

Currie writes grief as it really is, messy and complicated and uncertain. K.'s grief is a sea of grey, filled with guilt as well as sadness, and his way of dealing with that grey is to try to categorize the world in black and white. Anything irrational must be broken down until the roots are discovered, because his own grief and guilt are so irrational. Cognitive dissonance is the ability to hold two opposing views in your mind at the same time, and K. loses that ability entirely even while he tries to eradicate it in others. This includes being able to see how his own mind is working; he doesn't feel sadness anymore, therefore he can't be feeling grief. It takes an especially horrible situation to finally snap him out of it, though even then he is not the man he used to be.

This is a wonderful novel, though not for everyone. You have to keep an open mind during the parts where K. drills into people's deeply help beliefs. But it's all worth it for a moving story about human fragility and resilience.