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KathyS
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Book Reviews

[ Edited ]

DISCOVERIES

'The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook' edited by Daniel Alarcon Plus: 'In the Shadow of the Cypress: A Novel,' 'The Hand That First Held Mine: A Novel'

April 18, 2010

 

 

The Secret Miracle

The Novelist's Handbook

Edited by Daniel Alarcon

Henry Holt: 358 pp.

"This book is not a how-to," writes Daniel Alarcon in his introduction. "No such book exists because it cannot be written." Instead, "The Secret Miracle" is a collection of "round-table interviews" with 54 novelists, inspired by a similar, smaller event that takes place at 826 Valencia, a writers' center-forum-workshop in San Francisco. The writers answer questions about influences ("What do you look for in a novel?"), about how to get started ("How much do you know about the plot before you begin?"), character and scene ("How much do you draw from your own life when constructing a character?"), revision ("When/how do you show a draft to your trusted readers?") and much more. Some answers are one word; some writers wax eloquently. The book is an absolute end to loneliness for writers; it's also the best procrastination -- if you can't sit down and write the thing, at least read something useful about the process.

In the Shadow

of the Cypress


A Novel

Thomas Steinbeck

Gallery Books: 246 pp.

Rich in the history of the Chinese fishermen of the Monterey peninsula, "In the Shadow of the Cypress" begins in 1906 with journal extracts from Stanford marine biologist Charles H. Gilbert. After a Chinese fishing village burns to the ground, an Irish businessman finds a jade giraffe and a small plaque entwined in the roots of an old cypress tree and shows them to Gilbert. The objects are a key to a Chinese claim to the West Coast that predates Columbus. The plaque establishes the arrival of Chinese explorers in 1422: "[T]he treasure fleet commissioned at great expense by Emperor Zhu Di didn't set sail to steal treasure . . . they brought their own treasure to trade with others."

The objects disappear; decades later, Gilbert's papers and photographs of the artifacts are found by Luke, a Stanford student interning at the Monterey Aquarium. A Chinese friend gets involved in searching for them, and Luke is forced to confront the hypocrisy of our relationship with China: "[A]lmost everything we use daily, and depend upon daily, is made in China. And as yet I haven't seen one Chinese Communist soldier patrolling the streets of Atherton or San Jose. I mean really, why bother spending the time, the expense, and the blood to conquer, when all you have to do is make your opponent a dependent client?"

The Hand That First Held Mine

A Novel

Maggie O'Farrell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

330 pp.

There goes the time-space continuum again -- the matrix-adding layers to fiction. Take your lawn, for example. This morning, a child played on it. One hundred years ago, a different child played on it. Two stories on the same lawn. Now replace the lawn with your imagination. Characters from a novel came alive there; you made small decisions that involved imagining the future there. The past pokes through with the help of an object -- a rusty piece of pipe, an old toy, a bit of fabric. Everything grinds to a halt.

This is what happens in Maggie O'Farrell's artful novel. In postwar London, we have a 21-year-old woman, a real firecracker, who meets a charmer, Innes, who falls in love with her and hires her to work at his magazine. But he is already married, and vengeance is on the horizon. In present-day London, a young couple, Ted and Elina, have a baby. Elina almost dies in childbirth -- blood everywhere. Elina and Ted are mired in something, you don't know what. They grow distant. You fear some curse has been put on them. O'Farrell does not deal in curses, but she is fond of wrinkles in the warp of time and space. Oddly, the places where nothing happens are the places where the most happens. O'Farrell moves just fast enough: Any faster and we would get dizzy, lose the details, stop caring about characters. Someone is going to lose someone; someone else is going to figure out who they really are.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.
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Re: Book Reviews

In this week's reviews by Susan Salter Reynolds, I saw this book, and was very excited!

I must get it!

 

In the Shadow of the Cypress  

Thomas Steinbeck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have read this author, and found him to be an exceptional writer.  His prose will suspend you back in history.  This book. Down to a Soundless Sea, is comprised of short stories, of the early California days where prospector and ranchers....and the people who moved from town to town, with only a campfire to share their stories by, use the word of mouth to bring the news to each other.  It may not have been current news, but it was something to talk about, and pass along to the next traveler.  If you love to read about early U.S. history, these stories will bring you right into California.

 

Thomas Steinbeck is John Steinbeck's son.  In his book he talks about his family, and the community he felt within it...sitting at the dinner table, passing stories around.  This was his wealth he inherited from his father.  His writing is a joy to read!

Down to a Soundless Sea 

 

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Book Reviews - The Family Man - A note from Elinor Lipman

[ Edited ]

(I've read this book, and it was great...as always....Elinor is a dear and lovely woman)

 

 

The Family Man 

  

 

 

Dear Friends,
THE FAMILY MAN* is just out in paperback and I'll be visiting Boston, San Francisco, Berkeley, Danville, CA and 2 venues in Seattle), details below.  Please send your friends and relatives--it's tough out there on the road, and we always have fun.  If I had a little more commercial oomph in me, I might say that Mother's Day is May 9th, flowers are too easy and a book is forever...

Monday, May 3, 6 p.m., I'm reading with award-winning author Laura Lippman, creator of the Tess Monaghan series, set in Baltimore.  We're billed, natch, as "Lipman and Lippman" (we are often recipients of each other's compliments), Boston Public Library (700 Boylston St., Copley Square), Abbey Room.

Tuesday, May 4, 6:30, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St.

Wednesday, May 5, 7:30 p.m. Berkeley, CA, Mrs. Dalloway's, 2904 College Ave.

Thursday, May 6, 7 p.m, Danville, CA, Rakestraw Books, 522 Hartz Ave.

Friday, May 7, 6:30 p.m., Lake Forest Park, WA, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park Town Centre

Saturday, May 8, 3 p.m. Seattle, Queen Anne Books, 1811 Queen Anne Ave. North

*A nice succinct review from Entertainment Weekly's "Must List"--"So, divorced, gay Henry reunites with his stepkid, who's now an actress hired to pretend to date a C-list celeb, and she moves into Henry's house.  How can that NOT be funny?"

You can't reply to this address, but you can always reach me at author@elinorlipman.com or elinorlip@comcast.net.

With warm regards and thanks, as ever. So many of you wrote in response to my New York Times "Modern Love" essay (4/11), and I am deeply grateful. 
Elinor

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

I received this book yesterday, and finished it in one sitting.  I'll be writing my own review for it on B&N reviews.

 

A girl can taste the emotions of humans who prepared her food.

 
 
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

A Novel

Aimee Bender


Doubleday: 292 pp.

It makes sense: Everything is made up of many things: Cells, fibers, chemicals and also the thoughts and feelings of the people who make the things. Food, which is so alive, entering and reentering the carbon cycle, fairly hums with clues to its origins. The ability to taste the ingredients in food and wine is a kind of acute, honed consciousness. Sometimes the people who are acutely conscious of feelings and ingredients would rather not have this skill, this consciousness. It's just too hard to walk down the street, to live in a world full of joy, yes, but also terrible, terrible pain.

Rose is just a little girl when Aimee Bender's novel opens. Her mother makes her a lemon cake with chocolate frosting, a practice run for her birthday cake, and Rose tastes something beyond the basic ingredients. She tastes a hollowness, her mother's empty loneliness. From this point on, every bite of food is burdened with the feelings of the person, people (even whole factories) who made the food. Rose can identify where the food was made, how the animals were treated, how the vegetables were picked (rudely, with kindness), whether the cook was angry or rushed or desperately in love.

Combine this ability with a parent's kind, sometimes misguided efforts to shield children from pain, their own and even their ancestors. Remember the myriad times when you were a child and you knew so well that the words coming from your mother's or your father's mouth did not match the feelings you knew they were having. So confusing!

For Rose it is unbearable. She lives in one of those families; mother, father, older brother (middle class, though it hardly matters) in which everything is always fine fine fine. Nobody talks about anything. No one acknowledges pain. If they did, the entire edifice might crumble. Everyone is kind, there is not a lot of yelling or drama. In fact, there is a terrifying lack of drama.

Something is wrong with Rose's older brother, Joseph, but Rose seems to be the only one who sees it. He spends all his time alone in his room. He has only one friend, George. He is so terribly alone. He's a genius, which is what his mother, the queen of denial, says. He's deep, he just needs his space — and then he doesn't get into any colleges. His life quietly spirals into the aloneness from which there can be no return.

Bender is the master of quiet hysteria. At times, it seems almost cruel, like she uses her talent to create anxiety willfully. She builds pressure sentence by sentence. When Rose is 12, for instance, her mother makes her another cake and Rose goes into violent convulsions. I can't take your loneliness, she tells her mother, who brings her to the emergency room. The doctors find nothing. A little hiss of steam comes off the novel.

Then Rose tastes a wild, illicit love in her mother's roast beef. An affair. Her father can't taste it. He lives in a "Don Quixote"-like haze and is unable to see the holes in his family. "The world had matched what he'd dreamed up," Rose explains, "and he settled himself inside what they'd made."

Bender has inherited at least three profound strains, three genetic codes or lines of inquiry from her forebears in American literature. There's the Faulknerian loneliness, the isolation that comes from our utter inability, as human beings, to truly communicate with each other; the crippling power of empathy (how to move forward when everyone around you is in pain) that is so common in our literature it's hard to attach a name to it, and the distance created by humor, a willfully devil-may-care attitude that allowed, for example, Mark Twain to skip with seeming abandon around serious issues like racism and poverty.

A real anxiety arises when these three strands wind through one novel. "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" features a family in which three people are seriously depressed and one is traumatized by their depression. And yet there's an almost trendy tone, a lightness of being, a blinding glare. It is, for this reader, a quality I associate with novels set in Southern California. It's this century's version of noir, or maybe it's the opposite of noir. Void of sentiment and high drama, bleached clean of mystery and even metaphor, it's about daily life that is increasingly impossible to navigate yet moving always forward.

Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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KathyS
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My Review - The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

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IN THE SHADOW OF THE CYPRESS

In the Shadow of the Cypress 

On the back cover:

 

PRAISE FOR THE MAGNIFICENT WRITING OF

THOMAS STEINBECK

 

"Thomas Steinbeck has found his own voice and he exults in the sound of it.  This is authentic, honest American writing.  The kind of writing a father would be proud of."

-Playwright Terrence McNally-

 

"Stylistically speaking, the apple doesn't fall far from the family tree in this debut collection by Steinbeck.....Steinbeck's naturalism and his accomplished voice make it clear that the family's literary legacy is in good hands."

-Publishers Weekly-

 

"Thomas Steinbeck shares with his father an empathy for strugglers, for life's long sufferers who prevail through courage or die trying.  These days, this is almost antique writing and it's more than welcome."

-Book Magazine-

 

"Thomas Steinbeck displays the skill and reverence for a well-told story....[His] attention to historical detail and quick character development put the reader at the center of his stories."

-The Seattle Times-

 

 

With this novel by Thomas Steinbeck, I was definitely transported back through history, to the Monterey, Calif., of old, and then into the surrounding coastal cities, such as San Francisco.  Thomas Steinbeck takes the reader, in a primarily narrative story, from 1906, then back two hundred years....then forward again to 1906....to present.  Written in three sections, with a short section at the back, one page Benedictions, and a one page Epilogue.  Each section prefaced by a Chinese proverb, befitting the writing within.  The Epilogue was about Thomas Steinbeck and his relationship to his father, John Steinbeck, and how the historical sense of history pervaded their stories.

 

To say this was a mystery, would somehow sound obvious, in that most history does present itself to us in this way.  And some mysteries are never solved, staying within that realm of mysterious.  This story speaks to us about finding precious treasures that were long gone, brought to the light, then lost once again.... but, if found, again, would impact the present world in a such a way as to change the history as we know it today.

 

This is the story Thomas Steinbeck tells us.  It's a story that riveted my attention, as he writes in a language that only Steinbeck seems to be able to use. Easy to read, but It's one of the most unique formal voices; as close as the eighteenth century can bring us.

 

I can't say, one way or another, if I could recommend this book for everyone's reading pleasure.  It definitely has a flavor all of its own.  And you definitely have to appreciate period language, the cultures, and the history they bring forth.

 

In my critical voice, I would have to say only two things:  One, I couldn't get close to Steinbeck's characters, although amply described, primarily because they were written from a narrators [seemingly unfeeling] voice.  And, two, I couldn't feel an excitement through this voice.  For the most part, it was an interesting history, written in novel form.  But, even with those negatives, as I said, something about it compelled me to read, and finish this story.  It's quite a story to tell, that's for sure!

 

Kathy S.