Thursday, August 31, 2006

Death du Jour

I knew there was a reason why I wanted to blog the books I read. This book is the reason.

Death du Jour is the second book in Lou Jane Temple's Spice Box series (the first is named, oddly enough, The Spice Box). When I saw this second one, I remembered the first one positively, but with reservations. Since I couldn't remember what the reservations were, I decided to read this one.

The link between the two books is the spice box--a box of unspecified antiquity, built to hold spices, now furnished with recipes in many languages. In the first book it comes into the possession of a servant girl in 19th century New York. In Death du Jour, the possessor is Fanny, a cook in revolutionary France. In Fanny's case, though, the spice box contains spices as well as recipes--and something far more desirable and dangerous.

Good things: Intriguing premise--a spice box is a fun focal point from which to trace culinary developments, and the occasional murder, across centuries. Exciting story--Fanny is caught in a twisted plot of allies and family, murderers, thieves, and revolutionaries, and struggles to distinguish friends from foes--or lovers. Strong and attractive historical flavor--the setting of Paris after the fall of the Bastille is intense and dangerous in its own right, and the details of life among the citizens and particularly those who are involved in professional cooking are rich and believable.

Bad thing: The characters don't work for me. Fanny is a prime example of one of my most unfavorite characters in murder mysteries: the one who, seeing a dangerous situation, stupidly jumps in the middle of it for no good reason other than to advance the plot. Head chef Henri is flip-flopped without adequate foreshadowing, as is maman Martine. Fournier is a mere bodice-ripper cover illustration.

Another bad thing: Anything to do with physical intimacy. The story points out that servants can be fired for extramarital sex, yet 18-year-old Fanny has few qualms about sleeping with her boyfriend on a routine basis. Far too 21st-century for me. And the relationship between Fournier and Fanny is a joke. Sounds like lust to me, but elements of modesty and sentimentality keep creeping in, which is jarring and unbelievable. Whatever. It would have been smarter to stay away from this sort of thing, which is what I prefer anyway, I say as I climb back on my soapbox labeled "Close the bedroom door!"

So, note to self: Next time a Spice Box mystery comes out, don't waste your time. There are plenty of better books out there to read.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Beyond the Blonde

Is there a genre called gossip lit? There should be. All you need to know is that author Kathleen Flynn-Hui is "the star colorist at Salon AKS, [and] the wife of acclaimed stylist Kao Hui." Certainly her inside story of a small-town girl that becomes a top-flight colorist at a celebrity salon resonates with authenticity. But her deftly-penned sketches of the employees and the clientele make you wonder who she's really talking about.

The story line is not complicated: Georgia Watkins, daughter of the owner-operator of the number-one salon in Weepeekeemie, New Hampshire, wants to follow in her mother's footsteps. She leaps from beauty school to the bottom rung at a hot new salon in Manhattan, and never looks back--or does she?

But as I said, it's not so much the story as the milieu and the personalities. And despite the inside-scoop gossipy flavor, it is remarkably discreet. An occasional burst of language, a brief and not-too-explicit bedroom scene, but probably not more than a strong PG-13.

So if you've ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the stylist's chair, take a seat. Georgia will be with you in a moment.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Godless: The Church of Liberalism

If one could liken William F. Buckley to a boxer, sparring elegantly but with devastating effect with his opponents, Ann Coulter would be a street fighter. Sean Hannity is a gentleman, yes, and we all appreciate it, but Michael Moore and Al Franken are not, and someone has to mix it up with them in the ring from time to time, and Michael Savage is just too--well--savage. Ann Coulter, on the other hand, is not afraid to mix it up, and her rapier wit not only slices their arguments to pieces, it makes short work of their intelligence and ethics as well.

So Ms. Coulter's newest book, Godless, made significant media waves upon its release. It has taken some time for me to get to it, but I was not disappointed. She likens the liberal credo to a religion and demonstrates how its adherents rely on, not intellectual, but pseudo-intellectual, emotional and--no, not spiritual, but definitely irrational arguments to justify their positions. Abortion, criminal rights, education, Darwinism, and science all have their place in the liberal faith construct.

It was interesting and illuminating, and exposed quite a bit of charlatanism that I suspected was out there but hadn't glimpsed. Once again, Ann exposes the most glaring inconsistencies of her liberal counterparts. Touche.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Little Lady Agency

Hester Browne's first novel is Brit chick lit at its best. Melissa Romney-Jones, at loose-ends after being downsized, launches The Little Lady Agency to profit from what she does best: tidying up people's social lives by handling wife-girlfriend tasks such as shopping, party-hosting, and playing girlfriend for social events. No, none of that naughty stuff, thank you very much--Melissa is terrified of the type of headlines generated by her womanizing MP father, going so far as to adopt an alter-ego for work named Honey, with a blonde wig, a sultry wardrobe, and a heaping helping of self-confidence.

But things begin to get interesting when Jonathan Riley arrives on the scene. He is Honey's client, Melissa's best friend's boss--and starting to look like the kind of man Melissa has always dreamed of. But how can Honey's client ever learn to know and love Melissa?

This is a cheerful and madcap party of a book, frothy fun from beginning to end. Melissa is clueless without being inane, and her world is full of delightful characters and fun plot twists. Enjoy.

Friday, August 04, 2006

San Francisco As You Like It

Bonnie Wach is on to something here. Her 20 customized tours of San Francisco are designed to please a broad variety of guests who want to see The City.

* Parents
* Grandparents
* Weary Young Families (the kind with small children)
* Avant-Garde Aunts (eclectic eccentrics)
* Nieces, Nephews, and Other Pesky Kids (older kids and preteens)
* Cynical Natives (been there, done that)
* Impressionable Dates
* San Francisco Virgins (never been there before)
* Extroverts
* Foodies
* Green Types (earth-savers)
* Cheapskates
* Shopaholics
* Fitness Freaks and Heavy Sweaters
* Yuppies
* Current & Former Hippies
* Queer & Curious
* Neo-Bohemians (Beatniks)
* The Politically Correct
* Culture Vultures

These all have great ideas, and seem to be onto a lot of the good stuff. In addition, I see these as completely blendable, so you could combine elements of the Shopaholic and the Extrovert for the former college roommate who wants to shop and club. I could even take some of these tours for myself, if I wanted to explore The City with a little more depth or breadth. A great resource.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook

Everything you need to know about setting up and cooking in the most ridiculously small kitchen in the world--your own.

This is the subtitle of this organizing/cooking book by Justin Spring. I love this book, and I want this book, despite the fact that I have a ridiculously spacious kitchen, and I don' t really like to cook. Maybe it's because Gordon and Karren had a small kitchen in their first apartment--not ridiculously small, just small enough to discourage cooking. Maybe it's because I expect that someday we will empty-nest it down to a little tiny place with (perhaps) a ridiculously small kitchen. Or maybe I just like to explore an alternative path--what if?

Anyway, when Spring thinks ridiculously small, he's thinking all the way down to closet-sized or little-bitty-boat-galley size, so he's really looking into space saving. And the recipes look like good ones for the person who's cooking for him/herself most of the time, doesn't want to devote every waking moment to cookery, but doesn't want to eat out every meal either. And may occasionally entertain.

So if the idea intrigues you, it's worth it. It's all I hoped it would be.

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life

Another book about books. I must be in a rut. Having said that, I can recommend this book as something to be nibbled at from time to time, not blasted through as I was compelled to do; it's much too rich for that.

Michael Dirda, a long-time book reviewer and Pulitzer Prize-winner for criticism, has built a small book filled with big ideas. Each chapter addresses a topic, such as "Learning," or "Work and Leisure," featuring some discussion by Dirda himself, who frequently cites the Great Minds as reference points. The chapter may also include a selection of quotations, or a recommended reading list, or both.

And at the end of the book, "A Selective and Idiosyncratic Who's Who," to identify all those clever people he referenced along the way. This list can also be used as a roster of authors whose works one might choose to read.

So by all means, read Book by Book. But it would be better bought than borrowed from a library. It's more a truffle than a Twinkie, after all.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife

Caitlin Flanagan writes essays on modern family life for the New Yorker, which explains why this book is long on charm and short on tirades. Despite the inflammatory title, Mrs. (dare I call her?) Flanagan takes a friendly look at all things domestic as experienced by today's at-home mother.

Just take a look at these chapters:

The Virgin Bride tries to explain how it is that today's not-likely-virgin bride gloms onto the most elaborate wedding rituals.

The Wifely Duty notes the lack of romance, and often sex, of the two-career family, with a fair amount of discretion.

Housewife Confidential compares the at-home mother with the housewife of the 1950s, with a roster of the writers who documented and defined the housewife in the contemporary press. Such underrated luminaries as Jean Kerr, Shirley Jackson (yes, she wrote The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, but she also wrote Raising Demons in the housewifely vein), Peg Bracken, and the superstar Erma Bombeck.

A Necessary Person explains how Walt Disney both defined and destroyed the nanny for this generation, while That's My Woman describes her experience with having a nanny for her children.

Executive Child looks at the highly scheduled lives of today's children (and thus their parents).

Drudges and Celebrities examines the propensity for the at-home mother to have drudges for the down-and-dirty cleaning, and celebrities (aka Martha Stewart, et al) to teach them how to sweep floors and fold napkins.

Clutter Warriors takes a wry look at the anti-clutter movement, and the at-home mother's need for a hired organizer.

To Hell with All That describes the day that her mother, a competent and content housewife, suddenly threw in the towel and got a job, and the effect it had on then-12-year-old Caitlin. This segues into a discussion of working moms vs. at-home mothers.

My Life Without You deals with the death of her mother and her own bout with breast cancer.

And finally, in the middle of the acknowledgements, as she thanks her twin sons, she answers the question that bothered me throughout the book:

"Patrick and Conor: We did it! Thanks for your excellent help and advice. I don't know why the publisher didn't call it "To Heck with All That," like we decided. I love you."

And that's why I will read this book again, despite the title.

The Stolen Child

This is a novel told in parallel, the story of Henry Day who was stolen by fairies and renamed Aniday, and the story of his changling, who became Henry Day from that day forward. The author, Keith Donohue, follows their lives from that time as they each learn to make their way in their new life, and come to terms with the life that might have been.

It is well-written and oddly compelling. These are no gossamer-winged fairies, but feral and detached. While the story is riveting and the end satisfying, it is not charming; no Disney animated feature in this story. Proceed at your own risk.