Where's the book?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jhumpa for Jhoy: A New Novel from Lahiri

For number 42 I read a book by one of my favorite authors: Jhumpa Lahiri. I've loved her writing ever since I read the very first story in Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of short stories. The last story in that superb book, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite stories of all time. I think what thrills me so about Lahiri's writing is the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of it -- the clarity of her sentences and the incredible human understanding. I also love the tone of so much of her work, the melancholy and loneliness. I find reading her that I often feel sad without knowing exactly why. So much of her work is about disconnection, about the inability to communicate, to feel part of a place and a time. It's a mood that draws me. I love the darkness of it, the beauty and sadness.

The Lowland, her recently-released second novel, is a bigger stretch, a bit of a saga. It covers the lifetimes of two brothers, born 15 months apart in Calcutta, now Kolkata. They are very different as young boys, and their differences grow as they age. The older is responsible, dutiful, cautious. The younger is adventurous, daring, wild. The younger brother falls in with a group of Maoist rebels, an involvement that leads to his death. He leaves behind a pregnant wife. The older brother marries the new widow and brings her to America, where he has been living and getting a PhD. He raises the child as his own, but the marriage, to say the least, is troubled.

Some motivations -- like his impulse to marry the young widow -- are puzzling. He seems powerfully drawn to her, but is it for her own sake, or is it his need to protect the child? Is it out of love for his brother? Or envy? The young widow who becomes his new wife is an unlikable character (not that there's anything wrong with that, some of my favorite characters are the ones I've liked least) but she's also somewhat unknowable. So many of the characters in the book are shielded, even from themselves. Their inability to connect makes the book very sad, and also very moving.

Although I can't say I liked The Lowland as much as I liked Lahiri's short stories, or The Namesake, that's a minute criticism, since I loved those beyond measure. My only, and ongoing, criticism is that I wish she wrote faster.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shaking a leg.

Tick, tick, tick...

I’m so far behind. Actually, I’m only a little behind in my reading. It’s the 43rd week of the year (how did that happen?) and I’ve just finished my 42nd book. If I hurry (which I won’t), I can still redeem my book-a-week pledge. But rushing through books—even somewhat less than “great” books—is wrong. Books are meant to be savored, not plowed through like a commuter racing for a train. So I will have to find more time to read, which is hard now that autumn is here and New York is in its glory. Let other cities and towns keep their colorful foliage and harvest festivals. I’ll take a new theater season, new books on shelves, new music and decent movies and the crisp bracing weather that makes you want to go out (and then in) and enjoy it all. This week alone I heard an amazing poet read, saw two terrific movies, went to a wonderful museum exhibit, and walked through Central Park, gloriously arrayed. I adore this city in this season.

So, racing along, four recent books:

#39. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. My second Australian book of the year (see here for the first) and a definite page-turner. In a long-abandoned shoebox in the attic, a woman discovers a letter from her husband. On the envelope it reads, “To be opened in the event of my death.” What could it possibly contain? A confession? To an affair? Secret homosexuality? A horrific crime? The letter doesn’t get opened immediately but the secret is eventually revealed, and the wife’s story, as well as the stories of two other women with troubles of their own, are interesting and complex. It’s not profound literature, but despite remarkable levels of pain and problems, it never feels overly contrived. And I learned two new Australian words to add to my list: spruik (pronounced “sprook,” it means to delivery a salesman-like spiel, like a hawker at a carnival) and spunk (which means a handsome fellow, get your mind out of the gutter, please).

#40. The Submission, by Amy Waldman. Such an interesting premise—the city of New York holds anonymous submissions for a 9/11 memorial. The winner turns out to be a Muslim-American architect. Difficulties ensue. It raises interesting issues about the purpose of a memorial in general and a 9/11 memorial in particular, dealing with grief, sensitivity to survivors versus the needs of the city and nation. But despite my intellectual interest, the book often felt cold and contrived, as if Waldman charted it all out in terms of the different “types” she would need and the issues she wanted to raise and then blocked a story around it. It didn’t surprise me that her background is in journalism.

#41. Cartwheel, by Jennifer duBois. Based fairly extensively on the Amanda Knox story, this book examines the psyches, rather than the behaviors, of the different people involved: the girl herself, her parents, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. Although set in Argentina rather than Italy, the story hews to the facts we’re all familiar with: American girl charged with killing roommate during semester abroad. Just like the real-life story, our beliefs and opinions shift repeatedly, depending on whose version of events we’re hearing. It’s interesting to follow those changes in perception, but just like the real story itself (spoiler alert ahead), we never find out the truth. Did the seemingly na├»ve American girl actually murder her roommate? I can accept the fact that in real life I may never know the answer. But I expect something more of my fiction. I want the truth. However you define it. 

Central Park in autumn. How could you not love it?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pizza is the most important meal of the day

Say good morning to pizza. I don’t mean cold, leftover pizza from the prior night’s delivery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. No judgments here.

I mean authentic breakfast pizza. A truly delicious use of that supermarket pizza dough you keep stashed in the freezer. What’s that you say? You don’t keep supermarket pizza dough stashed in the freezer? Why the heck not? It doesn’t take up much room, it’s easy to use, and it’s the beginning of so many yummy things, like calzones, breadsticks, garlic knots, flatbread, pizza (duh, or should I say, doh) (sorry), and…

Breakfast Pizza!
Of course, a teeny bit of advance planning is required (other than obtaining the ingredients). You do have to defrost the dough, which means moving it from the freezer to the fridge the night before. Some frozen dough also needs to rest on the counter for an hour or two before using, which is more advance planning than I can usually manage, so I either (a) try to buy the kind that doesn’t require this extremely arduous step or (b) don’t bother doing it.

You could also serve Breakfast Pizza for lunch or dinner, in which case you'd have to change the name.

I’m not going to offer an actual recipe, because I am too lazy to measure all the ingredients I used there are so many different ways you can do this, and I wouldn’t want to limit your creativity. If you must have an actual recipe, you can start with this one. But please add some creativity of your own. Don’t be afraid, it’s really hard to ruin Breakfast Pizza.

Here’s a version I recently made:
Start with the dough, stretching and pulling it gently into the shape you plan to use, which could be the traditional round, or, if you don’t own a pizza pan, rectangular, in which case you would use a cookie sheet. Very lightly oil the pan or sprinkle it with flour or corn meal so the dough won’t stick. 

Then make a pretty layer of thinly sliced tomatoes, sprinkle with chopped garlic, top with crumbled crisply cooked bacon, grated or crumbled cheese (my favorite is chevre, but you can use whatever is on hand; gruyere and cheddar and mozzarella are all good). Bake in a very hot (450 degrees is good) oven for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and it’s starting to bubble. 

Now here's the breakfast-y part. Take it out and gently break 4 (or more, if you’d like) eggs on top and slide it back into the oven. Bake another few minutes until the egg whites are firm but the yolks still runny. Top with chopped basil or chives. Let it cool for a bit to firm up, then cut into wedges (I use a kitchen shears) and serve. Such a good morning!

Breakfast pizza is very welcoming to creative variations. Some possibilities: chopped spinach, arugula, asparagus (blanched first), caramelized onions, cooked sausage, mushrooms, scallions, whatever you can think of.

Or you could just go here.

Good morning!