the cookbook collector

Read this book.

Usually I just use this space to fangirl but I am going to evangelize a book that I read that I loved (and that I borrowed from my local library, because I love to do so). The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, 

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 is a ranging novel that moves from the beginning of the dotcom bubble and an initial, tight focus on two sisters, Emily and Jessamine Bach, to a cast of characters that the women come into contact with (and some they don’t). I picked it up because I’d read it’s based loosely on Sense and Sensibility, but it only borrows the premise in an oblique way. If you know the Austen work really well (and I’ve read it probably twelve times by now?), you can see the patterns there, but it doesn’t help or hurt to have that in your back pocket, or not. What this book takes from Austen is the rational and romantic sisters and their attendant dilemmas, but it spins out other stories as well.

Goodman’s novel has beautifully written, rich, textured prose, with real dialog that is both how people speak to each other and how we wish we could speak to each other. This is one of those books that is full of knowledge, with characters that can talk about Hegel and Hume and Ruskin without a reader being felt left behind if she (I) can’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past year that have left me cold and a few books that I wanted to grate into my scramble eggs every day so that I could eat them up a little at a time and have them go into my blood and get into my skin, because I haven’t written anything of my own in so long and I just want to soak in the words that have affected me. What impressed me most about this novel was its narrative structure–it started with the Bach sisters and curled in on itself, revealed new characters slowly, stayed with them, and went back to the Bachs very organically. It was just beautifully constructed, as well as gorgeously written. There was a description of a character eating a peach that was stunningly simple but also just so right. That is what it is to eat a peach. 

Here’s an excerpt. I finished by flashlight, because to have the lights on would mean a closed door (so as not to wake my nephew) and because I HAD TO FINISH IT. And then I had to eat it. Were I even more pretentious, I would change my handle to bibliophage.

The sisters’ voices were almost identical, laughing mezzos tuned in childhood to the same pitch and timbre. To the ear, they were twins; to the eye, nothing alike. Emily was tall and slender with her hair cropped short. She wore a pinstriped shirt, elegant slacks, tiny, expensive glasses. She was an MBA, not a programmer, and it showed. Magnified by her glasses, her hazel eyes were clever, guarded, and also extremely beautiful. Her features were delicate, her fingers long and tapered. She scarcely allowed her back to touch her chair, while Jess curled up with her legs tucked under her. Jess was small and whimsical. Her face and mouth were wider than Emily’s, her cheeks rounder, her eyes greener and more generous. She had more of the sun and sea in her, more freckles, more gold in her brown hair. She would smile at anyone, and laugh and joke and sing. She wore jeans and sweaters from Mars Mercantile, and her hair … who knew when she’d cut it last? She just pushed the long curls off her face.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Damn this book has gotten a LOT of press, and it took a while for me to decide I was going to read it. The Amazon reviews are mixed. I’ll spare you the suspense. I fucking LOVED it. LOVED IT LOVED IT LOVED IT. Of course there’s some ish but I finished it in record speed and every time I picked up the book I was just like, ~*~*~* I get to read this book ~*~*~*~.

The Cookbook Collector is a very loose adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I loved, too. But it’s like, SUPER loose. Our Eleanor is Emily, the CEO of a fledgling tech company before the dot com bust. Marianne is her younger sister Jess, a Berkeley hippie who works at a rare book store that belongs to  a rich and sexy older man. And he’s our Colonel Brandon. From the minute he stepped on the pages, I was like, FUCK YES, I LOVE THIS MAN. And this could be because I have A Thing for Colonel Brandon, but believe me, Jess and George is one of the most fascinating and unputdownable love stories I’ve read recently. SO GOOD.

There’s also a Willoughby and approximately 90 other “main” characters, which is one of the problems with this book. I was like, enough about these people. I want more George and Jess and Emily. Also, Goodman has done her research on the late-90’s tech industry, but a lot of accurate technical details are not necessarily interesting technical details.

HOW. EVER. Goodman is also an obvious bibliophile and if you’re an English major, this book will make you feel so fucking smart and happy. Whenever we’re in the bookstore, or with the cookbook collection of the title (I thought it sounded boring, WRONG), it is just magic to me. Plus there’s a lot of sexy food and Bay Area settings in here, and it was just like, here come the sparkles ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I normally have to slog through the end of a book. I’m way more excited about the beginning. But I blasted through this and when it was over I was like, “Shiiiiiiiiiiit that was FAST.”

A Few Good Reads

Over the past couple of months I’ve had a run of some really good reads.  I thought I’d share my recent reading in case you’re looking for some good books:
    -The Submission: a fascinating novel about what happens when the winner of a competition to design a replacement for the Twin Towers turns out to be named Mohammad Khan.  It was probably the best book I’ve read all year – gripping, satisfying and makes you think. 
    -Free Food for Millionaires: a fun novel that follows the trials and tribulations of a young Chinese woman as she makes her way in the world after graduating from Princeton and being kicked out of her family house in Queens. It’s a great book to bring on holiday – light enough for bringing on vacation (in spirit, that is, not in heft) but not so trashy that you feel guilty spending time on it.
     -The Cookbook Collector: a light but satisfying read about the life of young woman who works for an antiquarian bookseller.  I read this a while ago but remember that I was happy having read it. 
    -Mortality: A short, poignant book, the last one written by the brilliant Christopher Hitchens as he was dying.  It’s a book every adult should read; it makes you appreciate and cherish every day of your life.  I still think about it.  A lot.
    -The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - An epistolary novel told from the point of view of an author finding material for her new book;  it’s a charming read that sheds light on what life must have been like in London and the Channel Islands during and after World War II.  It took me longer than anticipated to read, but that might have more to do with the 3 kids and a dog wanting evening tuck-ins!
    -Happier at Home - A sequel to the bestselling Happiness Project, it’s another inspirational read by Gretchen Rubin.  I came away with new determination and energy after reading this one. Gretchen continues to be smart and direct with stories I can certainly relate to.  And knowing Gretchen personally, I can say first hand she’s also a lovely person. 
    -Just Kids - I’m now reading and very much enjoying this book about Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.