"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Friday, December 25, 2009

Book Review: Plainsong

Plainsong is a brilliant story about normal people dealing with normal people's problems. Kent Haruf's prose creates a comfortable feeling allowing the reader to imagine being a friend to the character they most relate to. No matter who you are you can relate to any one of the characters. Guthrie's ordeal with facing single parenthood and a bout with loneliness, Victoria finding herself pregnant, out of wedlock, with seemingly no one to turn to and who could forget the sweet McPheron brothers. They are old, crusty, hard working ranchers who find it hard to relate to anything outside of the family business, let alone a 17 year old girl.

Haruf wonderfully arranges this story around the one character we knew the least about: Maggie Jones. The two main things we know about her is that she is loving because she takes care of her senile father and that she has a fiery side through her declaration that she would not compete with Judy, the school secretary, for Guthrie. Maggie Jones is the tie that binds and brings every one together on Memorial Day at the McPheron ranch.

The reader isn't left with a sweet, feel good story but one where we applaud the characters for their change, maturity, acceptance of responsibility. We watch them face and handle their problems. We are allowed to imagine a future for the characters. Ike and Bobby have accepted their mother's decision, Victoria is now a mother and more than likely will seek to achieve bigger and better things for her and her daughter. Maggie and Guthrie just might get married and the McPheron brothers now have a family to fill the void they had from the loss of their parents. Life is good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: The Fourth Queen

"The Fourth Queen" is a fascinating study of what life may have been like in the harem of the Emperor of Morocco in the 18th century. The author based the character of Helen Gloag on a real Scottish girl of the same name who is supposed to have become the wife of the Emperor after being taken into captivity by pirates.

Debbie Taylor's Helen is actually a composite figure of several women, about whom little is actually known. Due to this lack of knowledge about Helen's personality, character, and ultimate fate, Ms Taylor was able to create Helen as one would a totally fictional character. Helen is a flawed heroine in many ways (uneducated, unsophisticated, and basically self-centered). She is an interesting contrast to the character of Batoom, who is one of the four wives of the emperor. Batoom is older, as independent as one can be in the confines of the harem, and a woman of great compassion. The other main character is "Microphilus," a male dwarf based upon a real man named Jeffrey Hudson, who lived a century earlier than the setting of this novel, but who also for a time lived as a captive in a North African harem. Microphilus fell almost instantly in love with Helen, even though he was having a relationship with Batoom.

The most fascinating parts of this book include the rise of Helen from a bewildered, and pregnant, captive to one of the four wives of the emperor, and the wonderful depiction of harem life. The harem is shown in all of its decadence -- these women have nothing to do but eat, groom themselves, eat, spend money on useless trinkets, plot against each other, practice sex with each other, and eat some more. There are a couple of scenes of explicit sex, a violent execution of a runaway, and a mystery involving a plot against one of the four queens. While much of the novel is told in third person, the parts of the book seen from Microphilus' point of view are taken from his hidden journal (the author states that the journal entries are based upon the writings of Jeffrey Hudson). Although the character of Helen was a bit of a problem for me, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to those who like something a little out of the ordinary.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Ms. Hempel's Chronicles

Ms. Hempel's Chronicles is a story about Ms. Hempel, who teaches seventh grade. She is new to the school and newly engaged. She is young so her teaching style differs from what an older teacher might do. She finds it acceptable to talk frankly with her students about anything and everything.

Truthfully, for me, I did not enjoy this book. I didn't hate it but I didn't really like it either. I found it jumped around way too much. It goes to Ms. Hempel's childhood and then back to her teaching. What I found most and didn't like was that a whole jumble of characters is introduced and I felt you really didn't get a chance to know any of them except for Ms. Hempel. As a character, I would have to say I liked her. She is funny in her teaching methods and her descriptions of her childhood were interesting in that she didn't exactly have a normal childhood. Her whole family seemed a bit off to me.

The wrting of author, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum is not really my style of writing to enjoy but still good. For some, they may really enjoy it. As I said for me the novel was too choppy. I did finish reading it because I was interested in what happened to Ms. Hempel in the end and unfortunately the end didn't really leave me completely understanding where she was at in her life at that point. Would I recommend this book-not likely. As I said this book could definitely appeal to others, just not to me.