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Impressions of Harvard Square

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I didn’t really like Harvard Square until after 126 pages—for it it is about an unlikely friendship, the book is meandering, poised only on emphasizing the difference between an Egyptian transplant who is a Jew, and a Tunisian who aspires to be French. This is a ruminative novel that will strike some readers as under-plotted. But Harvard Square is a quiet contemplation, a plaintive love letter to displaced, wandering people, to anyone who longs for home and reaches unwisely for the hand of a fellow wanderer. “Maybe Kalaj and I were not so different after all,” the narrator reflects. “Everything about us was transient and provisional, as if history wasn’t done experimenting on us and couldn’t decide what to do next.” Aciman spins a hundred tragic, lush reflections on his fascination with Kalaj, but a less patient reader might wonder if a dozen such passages would have sufficed.

Enmity

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Any books or authors you hate? Why? Is it the writing? The stories? The author’s personality? And—would you read their work anyway?

Hate is too strong of a word against any book or author. All I can say is there are certain kinds of books I will avoid, knowing they are not my cup of tea. After my woe with that horrible ending of Bel Canto I have avoided Ann Patchett. Instead of “hate” I learn to avoid certain authors knowing the books aren’t within my my reading taste. Haruki Murakami I would read but I don’t feel the urgency to read his new books. Over the years I have become very good at matching books to my taste when it comes to new/previously unread authors. Another type of books I avoid is fan-fiction.

[681] The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais

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The Hundred-Foot Journey spans way beyond a hundred feet in the sense of how far the young lad has gone to fulfill the dream. Spanning from the protagonist’s native India, to England and then France, the last leg via a tricolor caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes that chugs through much of Western Europe, it’s the story of the making of a chef. Hassa Haji, second of six children born to a poor cotton farmer family, is a Muslim boy raised on the edge of a slum in what was still called Bombay. Among putrid streams and pungent smell of charcoal fires that insinuated the shantytown, Hassan has developed a keen sense of smell and taste. He is born with the innate culinary equivalent of a perfect pitch. The sudden and short-lived real estate boom allowed his father to capitalize on his acreage.

Somewhere in the middle of the play tears began streaming down my face. I am not exactly sure what happened . . . but I realized, about the human soul when it has a destiny—at odds with the society around it—and how this destiny drove people into exile. It was all about homesick men achingly missing their mothers and comforting food from home . . . (Ch.4, p.46)

The horrific death of his mother at the hands of a Hindu mobs upends the family, sending it over to rural France by way of England (portrayed as a food wasteland). In Lumiere his father finds a mansion, converts it to a boisterous Ballywood-esque eatery, with Hassan as the chief. Directly across the street, a hundred feet away, is a celebrated country inn that is the archtype of French rustic elegance. This is, of course, where the novel really takes wing. The clash with snobbish Madame Mallory.

Did you see that placard? Hear that plinky-plinky music? Quelle horreur. Non. Non. He can’t do such a thing. Not on my street. He’s destroying the ambience. Our customers. (Ch.6, p.73)

Embittered by her failure to earn a third Michelin star, Masdame Mallory, a well-trained chef reared in generations of prestige, declares war on her foreign neighbor—over fresh grocery, over customers, and even over noise abatement. But it doesn’t help matters when she comes to dine at Maison Mumbai, ready to crow over its mediocrity and discovers that the untrained Hassan is a culinary genius. She takes him under her wing and teaches him French cooking.

The clash between Madame Mallory and Hasaan’s Papa is no doubt the best part of the book. They are both very nuanced characters. But the book somewhat sags after they drop off the pages . In a wanly sketched Paris, Hassan charts his ascent to the pantheon of top chefs as if ticking off bullets on a resume. In spite of his success he preserves a very human side, which I find very touching. He seems to be always nostalgic of his family, of Madame Mallory and the food of his home. He never forgets the humble upbringing and remembers all his mentors through culinary associations. The book is light and proceeds with a brisk pace, despite it’s not evenly written. It’s a satire of the absurdly over-the-top, style-over-substance food porn culture that Le Guide Michelin helps overblow to an incredible disproportion.

250 pp. Simon and Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Books for New Mexico

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Although I dig the local indies, on weekends I would browse the big-box bookstore in the suburbs because parking is so much easier. I don’t have to worry about keeping time and feeding meter. Anyway, with kids back in school and summer coming to an end, browsing was a pleasant experience.

I continued with new authors and ones whose works I wish to explore in depth.

The famous King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake City lists Anne Perry’s The William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels in their 25 Best Mysteries section of their gorgeous coffee table book. I am glad to own this one finally. Few authors have made Victorian London as engaging and lively as Anne Perry has and her rich descriptions and charismatic characters have long captivated fans around the world. André Aciman is a personal favorite after Call Me By Your Name. The story of how an immigrant Indian man becomes a celebrated French chef in The Hundred-Foot Journey intrigues me. The book is like a fable with real human struggle. I usually don’t like movie tie-in cover but I give it to Helen Mirren. The Bookseller is like a booklover’s dream come true: a mystery set in a Parisian bookstore. Now the New Mexico trip reading list is complete!

[680] Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis

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” I don’t know what ‘rights’ a man has! And I don’t know the solution of boredom. If I did, I’d be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about one times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun. ” (Ch. V, Section III, p.59)

The eponymous man of the book, George F. Babbitt, is the original American everyman. The novel follows the house agent’s life during a single day in the opening chapters, where by day he is “busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art.” A real estate agent in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith, which aspires to out-accomplish New York City and Chicago, Babbitt is obsessed with his standing in the community. He takes beaming satisfaction from his association with prominent local figures, and joins every civic association that will accept him.

What I fight in Zenith is standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. (Ch. Vii, Section III, p.92)

Babbitt really is a satire on conformity, hypocrisy, and ignorance endemic to the American middle class. Upon a closer look, aside from its effort to “boost” business, its comfortable homes replete with modern conveniences, Zenith and its citizens are characterized by a depressing sameness and a vicious competition for social status and wealth. When Babbitt comes to resent the middle-class prison of respectability and hollowness in which he finds himself, striving to find meaning in an existence made trivial by mammon, the novel really takes wing. His revolt resolves itself on his return to society after a period of defiance and ostracism. His adventures, narrated episodically, both raise the hair of society and contradict all his defense of dusty and religious patience. Unfortunately, accomplishing this task—in pursuing to be more human, would take more character than Babbitt possesses and he relapses back into the vacuous rituals he intended to leave behind.

All of them agreed that the working classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Ch. XXXIV, Section III, p.347)

Babbitt is a straight-forward satire—a scathing portrait of a crass, materialistic nation. Raising thought-provoking questions while yielding hilarious consequences, and just as relevant today as ever, Babbitt’s quest for meaning and desire to transcend his trivial existence force us to confront the Babbitt in ourselves. Lewis even skewers the “bohemian” alternative to middle-class life, displaying its motivations to be as silly and shallow as those of the middle class it hopes to escape.

369 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Grammar Primer

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Handbook of Effective Writing by Robert Hamilton Moore covers grammar, syntax, and writing. It has been my English-language primer since high school. The 1965 edition begins with a chapter that addresses some of the most common errors in grammer: fragments, run-on sentences, subject + verb agreement, and comma splices.
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What the book really nails is the problem of awkwardness. It’s a complex problem which may take many forms and may be related at one and the same time to weakness in grammar, to shifts in construction, to the uncertainly in diction and idiom which plagues those who have never done much reading.

Shortly after I came to America, when I was in 7th grade, my writing had a lot of room for improvement. Awkwardness was the biggest problem. It was very hard even for my teacher to finger a finger on, because awkwardness results in writing which is not exactly ungrammatical but is certainly not fluent. This book, along with practice in writing, reading (a lot of reading, as you can tell), and reading aloud what I have written really helps me in English skills.

Mystery

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Do you read mystery novels? If so, why? Is it the mysteries themselves that appeal to you? The puzzle-solving? The murders? Or why don’t you read them? What about them doesn’t appeal?

Interspersed between more high-brow and serious books I would stick in a mystery or two to relieve the tension in my brain. Mystery is one genre gap that I should be able to fill. The “whodunit” of mystery genre certainly appeals me as a reader with its mounting anticipation and delayed pleasure. I’m not well-versed in this genre, but over the years have enjoyed Agatha Christie, Thomas H. Cook, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Patricia Highsmith. One author I find difficule to classify is Daphne du Mariner, whose works border between mystery and historical fiction. Other “supermarket book” authors I’m somewhat skeptical to pick up. As to what doesn’t appeal about mystery, I can only say that it’s kind of like popular culture. Mystery is meant for quick pleasure and usually has little literary arts in it. Think “escapist” literature. Not all mystery novels have shallow, cardboard and stereotypical characters, but most are meant for quick reading that I probably won’t remember shortly after putting them down. That said, the mystery genre has a lot going for it. The investigation and storyline are what most attract readers to the genre. The point of mysteries is to examine the clues and solve the puzzle. For readers whose goal is to solve the mystery before the detective, the appeal is the intellectual challenge.

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