Wednesday, July 03, 2013

June Reads: Part II


Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

I saw Laila Lalami speak at the LA Times Festival of Books with Hector Tobar, on a panel called Unheard Stories. I was impressed by how she spoke of the role of storytelling, then, and I've been following her on Twitter since (at my friend Maggie's suggestion. Maggie was right. Ms. Lalami has a smart Twitter feed). When I heard that Ms. Lalami would be coming out to speak with us at residency, it gave me a good opportunity to read her book.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits tells the story of a number of Muslim immigrants crossing illegally from Morocco across the Straight of Gibraltar in an inflatable raft to get to Spain. The novel opens with these characters crossing together and the raft going down close to shore. The next section of the book is a flashback to the time before they left, an examination of why each of them chose to risk everything to take such a dangerous journey. The novel wraps up by exploring the complicated reality of what life is like for them after they risk the trip.

I was reading this book just after finishing Aleksander Hemon's The Book of My Lives and there were some interesting parallel themes. Both books deal with the fact that immigration and cultural assimilation are complicated, and the idea that once one makes the journey to a new country, one is both not really "of" one's former country, nor truly "of" the new place. These characters have a definite sense of their own otherness.

Lalami writes beautiful prose. And this book deals with the difficult realities that send people out on dangerous, hopeful journeys away from their homes, the harsh and complex realities they find once they've settled in a new land.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Last week I had a drop-everything-and-read-Kafka moment, because of this article by my professor, David Ulin. Suddenly I was painfully aware that the only Kafka I'd read (I think) was The Hunger Artist (a short story), which I teach to my seniors every year.

Being an English major in college meant I've studied more British and American literature than anything else, but I haven't read nearly as much in translation. I'm working on it--slowly, but surely. But there are big gaps in my reading. Big gaps. The more I read, the more I realize I need to read. This Kafka thing was only the latest in a series of days where I freak out because I haven't read X and everyone is talking about X because how can you be serious about words if you haven't read X.

I'm trying.

Anyway, go read The Metamorphosis. It's a short read. Gregor wakes up and he's a big bug. That's all you need to know. And if you're looking for more Kafka (as I was, that day), check out Letter to his Father, and The Hunger Artist, or any other number of his works.

You Must Be This Happy To Enter by Elizabeth Crane

You Must Be This Happy To Enter is a collection of short stories. Happy ones. Quirky and funny ones. Sometimes vulnerable ones. Written by my professor, Elizabeth Crane, who happens to be somebody I really like.


I won't attempt to make this a "review" of any kind, because it's pretty clear to me that I was reading this in order to like it. But, there was so much to like. Crane writes stories that push the limits of what I've always thought a short story had to be. These feel voicey and comfortable and untethered by any stuffy structural rules. Working with her and reading her work has been like getting permission to let this happen in my own writing. This information is coming to me at just the right time. And it is funny how life works out, I think, because I was placed in her class before I had any sense of who she is as a writer.

There's a little bit of everything in this book, but a lot of happy. A zombie story with a Joann Craft and reality TV twist, a story with a glorious and ironic overuse of exclamation points, an obsessive story about a love affair with a closet, a story about a town where everything turns clear. My favorite pieces were "The Most Everything in the World" and "Promise," the latter of which had me laying on my bed crying when I finished it, it was written with such touching honesty.

Okay. Forget what I said. This is a lovely, enjoyable read. I feel no shame in telling you to read it even though I know Ms. Crane. These are books we're talking about, not insider trading tips.

Cooked by Michael Pollan

You remember the ridiculous list of foods my husband is allergic to, right? (32, at last count.) And how discovering this about three years ago meant we had to completely rethink the way we eat? That's when I discovered Michael Pollan. In a moment of profond frustration, I read In Defense of Food, and it completely changed how I think about everything we eat, buy to eat, and cook. Thankfully, not in a guilt-induced way. But just in a know-what-you're-doing kind of way. I actually think Michael Pollan has helped me keep some good perspective and maintain a healthy center while the ridiculous food claims continue to swirl around the news (as I am sure they always will). I feel like I'm never going to live in a world without bread, or cake, or potatoes. (Sorry, Paleos.) But as long as I don't buy processed crap, we keep it pretty real (pun intended) at home, I make my own treats, and we eat a boatload of plants, we're gonna be okay. Perspective. Anyway, we've found what works for us.

All that to say I'm a fan. I'm definitely biased in favor of Mr. Pollan's work. I knew I'd want to read this when it came out. I saw his interview on The Daily Show and I knew I'd read this when I had a free moment.

Cooked is Michael Pollan's exploration of all the ways we transform raw food in order to either break it down, bring out more nutrition in it, or make it more delicious. The book is divided into four sections: fire (grilling), water (braising), air (baking) and earth (fermenting). The sections are mostly organized around one central recipe, which Pollan is learning to do in that section.

This book had more personal narrative than I remembered in his other work, but I liked it. Pollan has an easy, relatable style, and he doesn't hesitate to indict himself. (In the bread section, there is a definite tug-of-war between nutrition and taste and how that affects the world of artisan bakers of loaves, for example.) It inspired me to try some new things in my own cooking, and I definitely learned a lot about how and why different cooking processes work.

This is a great read, especially if you're a fan of Pollan's other work.

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