Where's the book?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Catching up

My figlio maggiore has been visiting for a couple of weeks, along with his new and adorable and lovable and sweet and affectionate...beagle. Pepper, as he has named the rescued pup, is about two years old, and is the prettiest puppy I've ever seen. Her colorations range from ivory white to chocolate brown to a sweet dark brown patch right on the top of her head. I'm torn between wanting to hug her and wear her. I can see how Cruella De Vil got her start. It always begins with love.

In between spending time with the FigMag and the puppy, and visits to the beach, and trying to stay cool (it's hot here, really hot), and cooking and baking (world's best cobbler recipe, coming soon), there has been plenty of reading time. And since I've been plowing through books like a hot knife through good brie, I'm going to use this space to play a little bit of catch up.

#25 The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
The story of a group of young people who meet at an arts camp in the early 1970s. Wolitzer follows them from there through the next three or so decades of their lives. The central character is a girl from Long Island named Julie, who quickly transforms, thanks to the sparkling group of young people she falls in with at camp, into the far more creative "Jules."

I was primed to love this book. After all, I grew up in the New York City suburbs at roughly the same time as these kids (I would be maybe two years older than them). I went to arts camp. I changed my name at 14 from the pedestrian Jill Ann to the far more creative "Jilann." I longed to live in Manhattan, to be creative, to be witty, to be...interesting.

Luckily (for me), I did love the book. Despite covering so many lives for so many years, it never feels thin or contrived. Wolitzer knows these characters inside and out, and by the end of the book, so do we. Although she skips blithely through many major chunks of life (raising kids seems to happen while you're looking the other way), you never feel like she's losing touch with her story. And the book touches on something I can't remember reading about in other stories -- the envy people can feel for the wealth or happiness or achievements of friends, even friends they love. And how to remain friends despite that envy, and through that envy. It's a powerful topic and, in large or small ways, we've all felt it. The books was a rewarding, rich, thoroughly engrossing read. It took me back to my adolescence like a Proustian madeleine and I could smell the bug juice and popsicle sticks of camp.

#26 The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
Since I had read and loved Olive Kitteridge I was excited to read another book by Strout, especially since I had seen several good reviews of this one. But I was, sadly, so sadly, very disappointed. One of the things I loved about Olive was her compassionate and loving portrait of so many different and differently flawed characters, including the stiff, cold, proud title character. Strout seemed to have the ability to put herself in so many different skins, and to make them all not only believable, but understandable, even when they behaved badly.

But in this book she seems to have lost her way. The Burgess boys themselves -- two grown brothers named Jim and Bob -- along with their sister Susan -- are all unlikable, particularly the older brother, Jim. A successful lawyer, Jim is arrogant, abrasive, domineering -- almost to the point of abusive. His younger brother Bob seems like a simp for putting up with it, as does his thinly drawn wife. The action revolves around a seemingly racist act committed by Susan's strange son Zach, which drawns Bob and Jim back to the failing Maine town in which they grew up, and in which their father died in a strange accident that has haunted the "boys" ever since.

Bob is meant to be the book's conscience, and heart, but his inability to stand up to either his brother or his nasty, cold (figuratively and literally -- she keeps her house so frigid that Bob has to sleep in his coat) sister Susan, made me lose patience with him. Since Strout does not extend her hand to me as a reader in liking or even fully understanding these characters -- and they weren't entertaining enough to keep me drawn in without some compassion extended toward them -- I found myself bored and irritated throughout. A disappointment, truly.

#27 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Although the book has a gimmick -- it takes place during one day in the life of a returning hero from Iraq. Billy and his Bravo squad's battle at Al-Ansakar Canal has been captured on video, and they are media heroes, traveling the country on display, possibly the subjects of a movie, and, most importantly, about to return to Iraq for another tour. On this day they are at Dallas Cowboys stadium, where Billy will drink, smoke pot, meet a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and fall for her, text, talk, take part in Hollywood negotiations and a Destiny's Child halftime show, and a whole lot more. Except for one extended flashback to Billy's painful visit home, the entire tale unfolds in this one long, crazy day. Billy is a wonderful character -- a 19-year-old boy who has been kicked into the role of a man, and tries, hard, to live up to it. Fountain's language is as wild a ride as his story, it is rich, twisty, evocative. I don't like war stories (even when they don't involve actual war) or male-dominated stories (what could be more male dominated that a book about a war hero?). It was, therefore, not a book I thought I would like, and I didn't like it. I loved it.

#28 Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
And speaking of wild language... Welcome to the Shteyngart universe. Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Falling somewhere on my personal Shteyngart spectrum between The Russian Debutante's Handbook (loved it!) and Absurdistan (hated it!), this book is set in the not-too-distant future when America's economy has collapsed, various foreign powers are taking over (China! Norway!), and war with Venezuela is background music to it all. Our Russian-immigrant hero, Lenny Abramov, works for a company that is developing technology to make immortality a reality (but only for HNWIs -- High Net Worth Individuals), and is involved in a whole lot of other shady dealings as well. The story swings from Lenny's diary to the texts (now called "teens") of his new lady love (a much-younger daughter of Korean immigrants named Eunice Park). Shteyngart's imagination seems to know no bounds, and, thankfully, his vision of the dystopian future seems entirely original. And the book is about many things (consumerism! old world-new world! immigrant mentalities!) but mostly about the real biggies: love, loss, and, above all, mortality. But despite the big themes (and I love a book about love and death as much as the next anhedonic Jew) somehow it didn't all come to life -- I just didn't care if Lenny lived forever or if he and Eunice and her adorable freckles made it work or even if New York City fell apart in the "Rupture" that finally brings America to her knees. It was all too much sizzle and not enough steak.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The great 2013 donut crawl part one

The cronut
My younger son (let's call him figlio minore, FigMin for short) loves donuts. Adores donuts. Would marry a donut if it were legal in New York State. And since donuts appear to be pretty hot right now (the new cupcakes? no, that's this monstrosity--and I don't line up at 3 AM for baked goods, like ever--Springsteen maybe, but breakfast pastries? no way) (wait, where was I? oh yes--), since donuts are hot right now, we decided it was time for a donut crawl. In two parts no less. Part one: Manhattan. Part two: Brooklyn. And if Queens or the Bronx get with the program there could be parts three and four. (I don't do Staten Island. Even for donuts.)

We started early in the morning. That is, early in the FigMin's morning, which is around 11. First stop: Culture Espresso on West 38th Street, a little cafe that sells donuts from Dough in Bed-Stuy. Yes, I know this was cheating a bit, but it allowed us to sample one of the many Brooklyn spots, which will make the future BDC (Brooklyn Donut Crawl) a bit easier, since the Brooklyn bakeries are far-flung and hard to get to in one day of crawling.

Dough's blood orange creation
I had already tried Dough's creations at the Brooklyn Flea and, wouldn't you know it, the only donut left at Culture Espresso when we got there was one I had already sampled: blood orange. Having sampled it twice, I can confidently say: meh. Maybe orange just isn't the right donut flavor for me (chocolate! and then chocolate! and more chocolate!) but the whole package was too reminiscent of orange-flavored cough syrup. The FigMin agreed, and although we managed to choke it down, it wasn't an auspicious beginning.
The old Penn Station. A palace!

Stop two was supposed to be Krispy Kreme (always reliable), but after wandering around the West 30s, we realized that the KK was inside Penn Station, and since that's probably my least favorite building in NYC (because such ugliness replaced such beauty), we decided to forego it. Besides, we've had KK donuts before, and while they are awesomely tasty, we were on the hunt for something new.

Koreatown donuts before
Koreatown donuts after
Stop three: Koreatown, for donuts from another culture. Donuts from another planet is more like it. There were several possibilities, all of which were strange. But we like strange! We embrace strange! But after this, we reject strange. Donut one (the
thing that looks like a bran muffin in the photo) was filled with red bean paste. I can now confidently state that red bean paste does not make for a good donut filling. Don
ut two (the one that looks like a small loaf of bread) was so chewy we wondered if it was really Korean bubble gum. And donut three (in wrapper) was a shade of green that made it look like it had developed an irradiated mold. Sadly, it tasted no better than it looked. It's the only donut I've ever spit out. Yes, spit out. We couldn't finish them. They were awful. And I've finished some awful food before. Korea may be a rising power in the world, but they have a lot to learn about donuts.

Having eaten a half a donut and three bites (one of them spit out) of other donuts, it was time for something savory. On to Xi'an on Bayard Street for something good (finally). And man, was it good. After a shared spicy cumin lamb burger and two dishes of amazing hand-ripped noodles, we were replenished and ready to return to the crawl. How much did we love our lunch at Xi'an. We made it disappear! Look:

It was good
Onward to the Donut Plant on Grand Street. The donuts there look sooooo pretty. And they sound sooooo good. But they are sooooo disappointing. Look how pretty:

We decided to take them home for later, since we were pretty full from Xi'an's deliciousness. We got a bunch of different types and tastes: yeast, cake, filled, chocolate, coconut, berry. In the interest of science, we sampled them all:

But in the interest of honesty, I have to report, we were disappointed with every single one. We've tried Donut Plant before and didn't love the results, but we were open-minded about this new visit. But we were disappointed again. Donut Plant, you are off the list. Dough, you too. And Korean donuts...well, the less said about them, the better.

The Great Brooklyn Donut Crawl is next. Check back for more.