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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

The main character of The Pleasure of My Company is Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a man with so many flaws, tics and odd phobias that I will limit myself to describing those which immediately come to mind—fear of curbs, a need to touch all the corners of all the printers at Kinko’s, a need for all the lights in his apartment to always be running at an amount equal to 1125 watts, obsessively sorting his mail, and an almost religious devotion to the local Rite-Aid. These tics and phobias are his way (though he would never directly admit it) of restoring order in the universe. He is amazingly smart with numbers, yet he seems to be almost incapable of human interaction. These interactions between Daniel and other human beings are frequently the funniest parts of the novel—his social ineptitude and extremely bad timing cause many problems for both those who surround him and himself.

Daniel is, in spite of his mathematical obsessions, a hopeless romantic who maintains crushes or goes after almost every woman in the novel. He tries to get the women’s attention in various ways, usually relating to their work situation. (In the case of Elizabeth, the realtor that he spies from his window one afternoon, he invents a long-winded and complex tale about needing a new apartment, just to spend time with her.) His success varies through the novel, though, like all good comedies, he finds happiness at the end. He has a crush on his therapist, Clarissa, whose self-imposed distance from him makes him more attracted to and interested in her. He has a crush on Zandy, the girl behind the prescription counter at the all-holy Rite-Aid. Through the novel, his quirks vary depending on the situation—sometimes he can pass as a “normal” person; other times he can’t help but appear odd to others (even those, like Clarissa, who know him very well). At one point in the novel, perhaps in a nod to French novelist Georges Perec, he stops using the letter “E” in his speech. This goes very well, except for the fact that he cannot say his name.

With nothing else going on in his life at the moment, Daniel finds himself entering into an essay contest sponsored by Tepperton’s Frozen Apple Pies. Asked to explain “why I am the most average American,” he quickly comes up with an essay so full of sap that it isn’t surprising that he winds up making it to the finals. As a reason to hang around Zandy while at the Rite-Aid one day, he takes out another entry form and writes another essay, without even thinking about what he is doing.

There are, really, two parts to Daniel Pecan Cambridge, and these are exemplified in his two essays. He is able to see both sides to a point, even if he radically disagrees with one or doesn’t really
understand what’s going on.

By the end of the book, Daniel slowly loses some of his obsessive-compulsive habits—though he still does keep making magic squares, trying to balance out his universe. While he may adjust to society by the end of the book, he still remains his own man—he does not lose his colorful identity like so many others. And there is hope for him in the end—like in every great comedy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie is a great character. Excessively smart, she gets up very early before the rest of the household, to read in the library for a couple of hours, before she has to start her day as a maid in the house. One day she is busted by the Lord and Lady who actually hadn't yet come home from their evening out, and Lady Rowan takes Maisie's education in hand, partnering with her friend Maurice Blanche to be sure Maisie's learning properly. By 16, she takes the entrance exam for Cambridge and passes. While at school, she makes an eccentric friend, Priscilla, who introduces her to a handsome young doctor, Simon, and inspires her to do something for the Great War.

In 1929, Maisie has finished her apprenticeship with Maurice and embarks on her own, setting up shop as a private investigator. A gentleman suspects his wife of an affair, and Maisie discovers it isn't at all what he thinks but the investigation opens a door to a suspect home for crippled veterans. Lady Rowan's son wants to join this unusual and mysterious group, including signing over all his money to them, so Maisie has two reasons to find out more about The Retreat. Along the way she recalls images and feelings from the past that bring her affair with Simon back to her, and we learn some of the privations and horrors Maisie experienced as a field nurse in France.

Maisie solves the mystery with help from Maurice and Billy, a friendly neighbor and fellow vet, and all is well. Except that you know all isn't well with Maisie. She's not fully recovered from France, from the loss of Simon, and she's investigating in order to be able to put things right, since there are important things in her own life which cannot be righted.

Maisie is from the lower classes (her father is a vegetable seller, turned into a horse groom), but with her smarts and education she manages both to fit in everywhere, and no where. She has a distinctive voice, and in the scenes when she is much younger, the voice very believably is more naive. Maisie's common sense and her devotion to Maurice's lessons, as well as to her beloved Dad, make her an endearing and well-rounded character. I truly enjoyed spending time with her, and looked for the sequel at the library today (checked out.) I hope to be spending more time with Miss Maisie Dobbs in the future.