Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Catching Up, Part 2

Continuing with a few short reviews of the books I have read this year:

#5, Toast, by Nigel Slater
A host of foodstuffs and meals trigger memories of childhood, resulting in powerful vignettes from cook, cookbook author, and columnist Nigel Slater. His passion for food runs deep and redeems what could have been a devastatingly sad story of, among other things, life with a mother who succumbs to asthma.

Slater’s story is also nicely British-y. I wish I could remember better some of his favorite sweets from my time abroad. What I do remember though are the individual, packaged jelly rolls that I could get at Shepherd’s, my neighborhood grocery store. Each sponge cake was spread with a thin layer of buttercream, which provided a barrier for the thin layer of strawberry jelly that sealed the roll. Far from an elegant bake shop confection, this British equivalent of a Little Debbie snack cake was pure comfort.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Toast 1”:

It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People’s failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.

#6, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall

Humorous situations and wonderfully drawn characters drive this children’s book, which I read for the Storknotes book group. Four sisters spend the summer in a cottage on the grounds of a posh Berskshire estate, Arundel. While their father is busy doing his very important work, the girls have myriad (tame) adventures, including meeting their neighbor, Jeffrey Tifton, and rescuing a rabbit.

I found the cliffhanger ending for almost every chapter—even though not nearly as dramatic as, oh, say The Da Vinci Code—to be somewhat annoying. With such a delightful book does the reader really need to be coaxed to turn the page and read another chapter?

Nevertheless, the Penderwicks' adventures were engaging. Except for the stereotypically drawn Mrs. Tifton (as evil) and Mr. Penderwick (as the absentminded, Latin quoting professor), I loved the girls, especially Jane (who is sporty and writerly, a divine combination) and the mystery series she was writing and living aloud.

Charming and funny, The Penderwicks is reminiscent of many cozy chapter books from my childhood, including Betsy-Tacy and The All-of-a-Kind Family, and begs a sequel for further adventures.

#7, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
For nearly twenty years, I have intended to read Edith Wharton, and the anticipation was worth it. I know I’ll envy anyone reading The Age of Innocence for the first time. Brilliant, sharp wit, richly detailed—these are the words that immediately come to mind when I think about Edith Wharton, who astutely examines the strictures of New York society in the 1870s. Far from being just a keen observer, Wharton also proves that she is an accomplished novelist with artfully drawn and developed characters, as well as an appropriate amount of tension. I look forward to reading more from the author, and have added Ethan Frome and A House of Mirth to my vast reading list. #58 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

#8, The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury
I really enjoyed reading this Da Vinci Code-inspired thriller. In fact, long before The DaVinci Code was a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Eight, and other literary conspiracy thrillers with art, historical legends, and Gnoticism at their center had already captivated me. Who can say if Khoury would have written a novel like this if his publisher hadn't said "You know what we need? Another Da Vinci Code." Nonetheless, The Last Templar and Steve Berry's Templar’s Legacy were published simultaneously (the latter also happens to currently be in my possession, courtesy of fate and the library) and became easy bestsellers.

Khoury’s grail quest involves an artifact; a legend; an exquisitely beautiful, self-possessed, and very smart heroine (archaeologist) who works with a handsome hero (FBI investigator); and a deliciously evil bad guy (Catholic cardinal). While not perfect (cheesy romance and implausibly dramatic climax), it is a satisfactorily even-paced thriller, which one would expect from a screenwriter, and has one of the most unexpectedly gruesome opening scenes I have ever read.

No need to buy the book, even in mass market, but don’t pass it up if you spot it on your library’s shelves.

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