The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger

ladybird

An image from ‘Going to School’ (Ladybird books series 563) by M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield; First Published 1959

Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School reads like a how to book on bad parenting. Four women bond in mommy-and-me swimming lessons with infants, growing in friendship as their children age. But when this set of kids hits fifth grade, a new public school is announced. A public school only for the especially gifted and talented. With that, the BFFs (who celebrate each anniversary by gifting coffee mugs with friendship quotations on each other) are off and spinning to help their kids achieve recognition as the gifted and talented special kids the moms know they must be.

Rose Holland-Quinn is a pediatric neurologist married to a failing author she loathes. Samantha Zeller, formerly a personal trainer, married rich and politically influential Kevin and now lives atop the social ladder. Rose and Samantha each have a daughter named Emma. Annoyingly, one is referred to as Emma Z. and one is referred to as Emma Q.

Lauren, a widow, has what she considers the world’s brightest fifth grader, the creepy Xander, and Tessa, a 17-year-old daughter who is just out of rehab and who loves to vlog her life. Finally, the saintly Azra, mother of twins Charlie and Aiden, is divorced from their defiantly unsaintly father, Beck who is remarried to teutonic stoic Sonya.

In addition to these four families, there is the family of Samantha and Rose’s housekeeper (names I’m not even going to attempt to spell). This family, — a mother, grandmother and son the same age as “the Emmas,” Xander, and Charlie and Aiden, who is also applying to the gifted school, — is really the only other likable group.

The narration switches between about six characters.

Incidentally, if I’m misspelling names, I apologize, I listened to this book on audible.

There were phrases that clung to my ears like the shriek of a heavy metal guitar as I listened to this book: Emma Z., Emma Q., “the Emmas (truly, revoltingly privileged),” the CogPro, the Emerald Mall. Like those repetitive phrases, the irritating traits of the characters emerge repeatedly, and to such a deleterious level that it’s hard to envision this could actually happen. But perhaps that’s Mr. Holsinger’s point with The Gifted School.

The word gifted slashed like a guillotine through other topics. Around the table the talk ceased.

“It’s called Crystal Academy, Dad,” Samantha said into the silence.

“A private?” Azra asked, apparently as clueless as Rose.

“No actually.” Lauren leaned in, turtling out her short neck. “It’s a public magnet school for the profoundly gifted.”

“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” said Kev grandly.

“A high school?” Rose’s question.

“Grades six through eight in the lower school, and the upper school is nine through twelve.”

“Oh,” said Rose. Profoundly gifted. Words to make the bones sing. This must be the mysterious “other option” Samantha had been hedging about at RockSalt last week. “What, a city school, just for Crystal kids?”

“Oh no,” said Kev. “It’s a joint venture between the City of Crystal and the Four Counties.”

“All five school districts?” Gareth asked. “But that’s a huge pool of eligible students.”

“No kidding,” said Samantha. “Over a hundred thousand kids for just a thousand spots.”

“The one percent,” Blakey observed snidely. Everyone laughed but she was right: one in a hundred. Kev’s acerbic sister was enjoying the conversation, Rose could tell, watching the reactions among her sister-in-law’s friends as they took in the news about the school.

“How does admissions work?” Azra asked.

“They’re doing it as a test-in.” Lauren, happily in the know. “A first round of CogPROs in the districts starting in March, then more individualized assessments in a second round.”

“CogPROs?” someone asked.

“Cognitive Proficiency Test,” said Lauren. “It’s a standard IQ battery.”

Over her wine glass Rose looked a question at Gareth and he shrugged it right back. Neither of them had heard a word about this school.

“Where are they building it?” Gareth asked.

“The upper school will be out in Kendall County,” Kev answered. “But the lower school is going in the old Maple Hill site.”

“Six or seven blocks from here.” Samantha nodded vaguely west, in the direction of her back deck.

“It’s a done deal,” said Kev. “The contractor’s an old buddy of mine and they finalized the building permits last week. The refurbish kicks off in January. They’ll be up and running by July, hiring staff this spring for a fall opening. These guys are moving fast.”

How do you know all this?The question never reached Rose’s lips, because the Zellars always knew, and besides, Kev had been on City Council the last three years. Any big building project in town, let alone one as visible as a new magnet school, would already be on his radar.

pikes peak

“So, Rose, will you apply for Emma Q?” said Edgar, still pressing for an answer.

“Who knows.” Rose was already seeing years of small classes, innovative pedagogy, Barnard admissions staff cooing in approval. “We might check it out.”

I should add as a disclaimer that as an aunt of four, I have never been intimately involved in the competitive nature of g.p.a.s, SATs, ACTs, magnet schools, and/or whatever the local name for the “cog/pro” is. Thank Goodness.

On a national level, though, it’s no secret that celebrity parents have recently been stung in similar FBI investigations. What a serendipitous time for The Gifted School to be published. As NPR put it: “The impulse behind the transgressions, though, is the same. Holsinger’s characters are privilege-hoarders, wedded to the conviction that their children deserve to go to the “gifted school” not by virtue of intelligence or achievements, but by virtue of being their children.” https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/737125569/in-the-gifted-school-ripped-from-the-headlines-parental-scheming

The New Yorker said: “Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror…There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas…And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride…helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions.”

As the novel advances, the tension of what will these people do next to give their childrengifted an advantage, devolves into: ok, which ones get into the gifted school. And, for me: is anyone ever going to address the fact that Xander (and his sister Tessa to a lesser degree) is a total sociopath?

It’s a novel rife with fodder for a great book club discussion and it’s a quick read. Yes, there are annoying elements, and other than housekeeper and her family and the saintly Azra who is unfortunately not as present on the page as one would like her to be, there are no sympathetic characters. “Hate-reading,” is accurately funny.

I bet you can’t wait to read it to see if you recognize anyone from the halls of your children’s own magnet school.

MENU

During the Crystal Academy Open House, a buffet was set out for all attendees that included fun little tidbits like “grilled tofu” on a grill that proclaimed “NO MEAT ON THIS GRILL” and gluten-free and peanut-free options.

In addition, there were grilled hamburgers, grilled vegetables, and hot dogs. Lemonade. And an ice cream sundae bar, complete with chocolate sprinkles.

That’s what I’d serve.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

Be True to Your School, Beach Boys

Beauty School Dropout, Frankie Avalon

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana

Smokin’ in the Boys Room, Motley Crue

MOVIE CASTING for The Gifted School

First, I would be shocked if this hasn’t already sold for production.

Second, I stalked Bruce Holsinger’s Facebook page (we have one mutual friend in common) and he had a photo of Zach Gallifinakis up with the caption “dream casting for Beck.” It made me laugh out loud. YEP.

Rose                            Laura Linney

Samantha                  Sarah Jessica Parker

Lauren                       Amy Poehler

Azra                            Indira Varma

Beck                            Zach Gallifinakis

Kev                             Paul Sparks

Gareth                       Luke Wilson

Betsy Layton              Maya Rudolph

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

daisy

With the first spoken words of the author’s note in the audible version of Daisy Jones and The Six, I wondered if I’d somehow never heard of this quintessential California band of the 1970s. But then Daisy herself began speaking, I recognized the actual voice of Jennifer Beals, and I congratulated the author on a job well-done. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been fooled into thinking it might have been the real thing.

There are times when I love listening to a book and times when I loathe it: this was one of the times I loved it. Jennifer Beals, Pablo Schreiber, Ari Fliakos, Benjamin Bratt, Judy Greer. It’s a great cast and they do a wonderful job infusing the multiple point of view story with emotion, personality and pathos.

The book begins as a portrait of Daisy Jones, someone the reader is presumed to know.

You’ve got a rich white girl, growing up in L.A. She’s gorgeous—­even as a child. She has these stunning big blue eyes—­dark, cobalt blue. One of my favorite anecdotes about her is that in the eighties a colored-­contact company actually created a shade called Daisy Blue. She’s got copper-­red hair that is thick and wavy and . . . takes up so much space. And then her cheekbones almost seem swollen, that’s how defined they are. And she’s got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson. She’s born with all the money in the world, access to whatever she wants—­artists, drugs, clubs—­anything and everything at her disposal.

But she has no one. No siblings, no extended family in Los Angeles. Two parents who are so into their own world that they are all but indifferent to her existence. Although, they never shy away from making her pose for their artist friends. That’s why there are so many paintings and photos of Daisy as a child—­the artists that came into that home saw Daisy Jones, saw how gorgeous she was, and wanted to capture her. It’s telling that there is no Frank Jones piece of Daisy. Her father is too busy with his male nudes to pay much attention to his daughter. And in general, Daisy spends her childhood rather alone. . . .

Whiskey A Go GO

We love broken, beautiful people. And it doesn’t get much more obviously broken and more classically beautiful than Daisy Jones.

 

So it makes sense that Daisy starts to find herself on the Sunset Strip. This glamorous, seedy place.

Then we meet a band called The Six: brothers Billy and Graham Dunne, brothers Pete and Eddie Loving, Karen Karen the keyboardist, and drummer Warren Rhodes. Billy Dunne has found his love of a lifetime, Camilla, and spends most of his days trying to make up for his alcoholic past by writing her love songs. Graham spends most of his time trying to convince Karen to live with him happily ever after. Pete has a long-distance girlfriend, Eddie hates Billy, and Warren just wants to meet chicks. I am a huge fan of Ari Fliakos and he reads Warren to hilarious perfection here.

After lots of backstory about poor little rich girl Daisy, and her drug-infused life at the Chateau Marmont; about Billy’s descent into and out of drugs, alcohol and women following his wife’s pronouncement that she’s pregnant; after Eddie throws a fit a day over Billy’s control of the band — the band and Daisy come together, as these things happen.

Billy and Daisy don’t like each other much. She’s wasting her talent; he’s limiting his to love songs for his wife. But Daisy is invited to open on tour for The Six. When circumstances offer Billy and Daisy an opening to sing together, the dynamic explodes. They are suddenly the most popular band in the world: top of the charts, sold out concerts, groupies, roadies, Rolling Stone covers, cocaine, bennies, champagne, girls-girls-girls.

Daisy-Jones-1-e1555085250551At the urging of no less than Rolling Stones’ cover, Daisy joins The Six as an official member of the band. And as writing partner of Billy Dunne.

Daisy Jones and The Six paints a livid scene of the music industry in the 1970s. As I listened, I felt this must have been based on someone — Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles maybe? — but in retrospect, I think it’s more likely based on everyone who ever had talent and tried to take it further. About every woman who ever faced the fact that “men often think they deserve a sticker for treating women like people.”

Reid says she was inspired to write the book by songwriting teams.

First, I was really taken with how often in culture there are these men and women who write incredible songs together, but also have somewhat complicated personal relationships. The most obvious example is Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac, but there’s a lot of them—The Civil Wars, who broke up in 2014, and other group bands who have had difficulty in their relationships and broke up very abruptly. Take Beyoncé and Jay-Z for example (even though it’s hip-hop and not rock), who have this incredible relationship. They take their personal life and make art from it. I’m fascinated by it, so I wanted to create a band to explore that further.

There are moments particularly striking in light of the Bradley Cooper-Lady GaGa are they-aren’t they discussions as well.

Reese Witherspoon liked the book enough to choose it for her book club and optioned the TV rights before publication, and Amazon has ordered a 13-episode run of the adaptation of the book, with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Fault In Our Stars) penning the scripts. Plus, there’s a team crafting the original music for the show.

In the end, Daisy tells her own story, unvarnished and without remorse. Is it a cautionary tale? Is it a love story? Or is it all about the music? You decide. I think there’s lots and lots of fodder for your next book club discussion. And if you want to read what Rolling Stone itself has to say about Daisy Jones and The Six: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/daisy-jones-the-six-book-taylor-jenkins-reid-women-music-803045/

music“It is what I have always loved about music. Not the sounds of the crowds or the good times as much as the words – the emotions, and the stories, the truth- that you can let flow right out of your mouth. Music can dig, you know? It can take a shovel to your chest and just start digging until it hits something.”

MENU

As you might imagine, there was not a lot of food being consumed in this book. But Daisy did specifically request a hamburger for her one meal a day and there were copious amounts of champagne.

My menu would be California-inspired.

Guacamole with chips

California burgers: hamburgers wrapped in Bibb lettuce leaves instead of buns (no carbs!)

Sweet potato fries

Champagne

MUSIC

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

The Eagles’ Hotel California

America

CASTING

Sounds like Amazon is already working on this but just in case they need some help.

Daisy —  Emma Stone certainly fits the bill.

Billy — I can’t see anybody but a young Johnny Depp

Camilla — Selena Gomez (give Camilla some songs)

Graham — James Marsden

Karen Karen — Miley Cyrus

Eddie Loving — Ben Foster

Pete Loving — Jon Foster

Warren — I really want John Krasinski to play this part. He would be hilarious.

Happy Reading!

 

 

Southernmost, by Silas House

key west

In Southernmost, Kentucky author (and treasure) Silas House creates a road trip, family drama, and mediation on the disparity between modern Christianity and its most rigid adherents. He begins with a flood in Tennessee, and a family on the brink.

Asher is the pastor of a small church in a small community. At the height of the flood, his son Justin disappears in search of his dog and Asher, Justin, and two other men help rescue a father and daughter. When Asher invites the men into his home, Asher’s wife Lydia objects.

“Did those men leave?”

“No,” Asher said. “They’re putting on some dry clothes.”

“We can’t have them in here, Asher,” she said quietly.

“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Asher whispered. “We’re the lucky ones.”

“What would the congregation say? It’s not right — “

“Not right to help people in trouble?”

“I know who they are,” she said. “They’re — you know what they are, Asher. We can’t have them in here around Justin.”

Asher has dealt with this dilemma before: his brotherLuke  left Asher’s own birth family years earlier, unwelcome due to his own sexuality. For years, Asher has missed his brother but accepted his absence as the way things ought to be, never divulging that he occasionally receives an unsigned postcard from Key West, Florida.

gator

Ten years without his brother. He thought of their mother sitting at the yellow kitchen table while Luke danced across the red linoleum. Asher was laughing and clapping — only twelve, Luke four years older. Their mother’s mouth clenched into a wrinkled line, like a pink drawstring purse. . . . .

Their mother darted up quick as a spider, snapped off the radio in one sharp click of her wrist.

The word she had said to Luke then.

(faggot)

Luke ran from the room, from the house, down to the willow-shadowy banks of the Cumberland, where Asher found him later, watching the river.

Near the beginning of the novel (just so you know I’m not giving away the ending), Asher undergoes a Road to Damascus change. He welcomes the gay couple to his church and then his position there is terminated, his wife Lydia throws him out, sues for divorce, and tries to take all visits with Justin away. Asher feels he has no option but to take the boy and run.

The descriptions of Silas House’s work tend to include words like “masterful,” “redolent and rich,” “poetic,” and “haunting.” In an interview with novelist Jeff Zentner for the Parnassus’ book store blog, musings, House discussed how he came to this particular topic at this time:

When I was little, our home was quickly overtaken by a flood and we barely escaped. So I had personal experience, and I knew the way an event like that can impact you spiritually and physically. When the 2010 flood hit, I heard a preacher on the radio saying it was the wrath of God because of “accepting gays.” I had already created this character who I knew was going to make a principled stand for equality and as soon as I heard that, I knew I had the impetus for the entire novel. So mine is a fictionalized version of that flood that I’ve moved to 2015 to coincide with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. I loved working against such a dramatic backdrop to begin the novel.

https://parnassusmusing.net/2018/06/07/silas-house/

southernmostSouthernmost is a powerful work that offers chewy discussion on themes of family, redemption, morality, choice, love. If your book club has a diversity of political viewpoints, it may be a volatile fuse. I personally think that’s a good thing, and that’s what discussion is for.

 

 

Food

In the interview with Parnassus, House discusses the use of food in his work: “I always strive to make my writing as sensory as I can and few things do that as well as food. And we have such a strong cultural attachment to food — I mean, I’ve seen arguments bordering on violence about whether or not cornbread should or should not have sugar in it. (For the record, I say no.)” Interestingly, the Parnassus blog spells cornbread as one word; in the novel, Silas House spells it as two.

Some of the meals described:

fried green tomatoes, corn bread, cucumbers, green onions, and sweet tea

chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, a slice of tomato

red beans and rice, corn bread, chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in vinegar, avocados sliced and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and blackberry pie for dessert

Asher fixes grilled cheese, fried bologna, and peanut butter and jelly (with a Nehi) sandwiches for Justin and packs a bag with chips, granola bars, oranges, bananas, Nabs, peanuts, cashews all of which Justin eschews and asks for a honey bun.

If you need a cornbread recipe, here’s Southern Living’s official one. No sugar, Mr. House: https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/ben-mims-perfect-cornbread

Music

Silas House talked about the music of Southernmost in his Parnassus interview as well (it’s like Jeff Zentner was reading my mind!) and said:

Once I knew that Asher was moved and changed by the music of Patty Griffin, I knew more about him. Once I figured out that Justin is obsessed with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, I had him pegged. Then there’s Bell, who has named her cottage after a Joni Mitchell song. For me, music is such an integral part of everyday life that I can’t imagine characters who don’t care as deeply about it as I do. This book had a soundtrack of about 75 songs that I listened to over and over again over the course of many years and that hugely informed the theme and mood of the novel.

Here are some of the songs I found as I read:

I Don’t Want to Know, Fleetwood Mac

Wonderful, My Morning Jacket

house-silas2-c-tasha-thomasTom Petty

The Mamas and the Papas

Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell

My Sweet Lord, George Harrison

My Dixie Darling, Carlene Carter

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, traditional Scottish song

 

 

Read Southernmost. Discuss it. Enjoy it.

Tangerine, by Christine Mangan

Tangier Matisse

View of the Bay of Tangier 1912, Henri Matisse

“You cry when you arrive, and you cry when you leave.” It’s an adage shared with Lucy Mason, one of two, alternating female narrators of Tangerine, Christine Mangan’s debut novel, as she departs the spellbinding Moroccan city of Tangier by boat. Lucy feels she has become like a “tangerine,” the term for natives.

Lucy spent every dime she had for passage to Tangier, compelled to re-establish contact with her Bennington College roommate, Alice Shipley. It’s been a year since the two separated, two years since Alice began dating a college boy, interrupting the “cloud of domestic bliss” between Alice and Lucy. Despite Alice’s move from Vermont to Morocco, Lucy finds her and appears unannounced, uninvited, and perhaps unwanted, on Alice’s doorstep.

Matisse door

The Kasbah Door by Henri Matisse

“We stood together n the front hall, and I remembered, in the space of our silence, the last words I had spoken to her that night. I had told her . . . no, I had shouted — the first time I could ever remember raising my voice to her — something awful, something wretched, something about wishing she would disappear, wishing I would never see her again. And then I remembered what had happened afterward, what I had thought, what I had said — though not to her, not to Lucy, who had disappeared long before I regained consciousness.

“I felt my cheeks go warm, felt her eyes watching me — certain in that moment, that she knew precisely what I was thinking about.”

 

Yet, the two seem to have much in common: orphaned at young ages, feeling an outsider (Lucy due to her scholarship-needed background, Alice who suffered when her parents died — “beyond normal grieving” — so that her guardian considered institutionalization). When Lucy entices Alice on an overnight trip away from her husband John McAllister, it seems Alice may agree to run away with Lucy.

She had convinced me I must leave Tangier, that we must leave Tangier. In secret, under cover of night, because she also knew about the money, about the allowanced passed from Maude to me and on to John, knew about what he would really lose with my absence, and I did not question how, knowing only that she must, in that way that she always knew everything. It had all made a perfect sort of sense, and so I nodded and agreed. Tangier was not mine, I had never laid claim to it, not it to me.

An exotic locale, a one-sided relationship, classmates at Bennington College. If this is sounding to you like The Talented Mr. Ripley (a classic! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/the-talented-mr-ripley/) meets The Secret History, you are not alone. Joyce Carol Oates offered this publicity quote for the novel’s dustcover: “As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock.” Jennifer Reese, reviewing for the New York Times, adds: “It’s as if Mangan couldn’t decide whether to write a homage to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” or a sun-drenched novel of dissolute Westerners abroad in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Paul Bowles, so she tried to do both. She mostly succeeds.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/books/review/tangerine-christine-mangan.html

tangerineThis novel is quick. Tense. Exhilarating. You find yourself guessing and second-guessing, wanting to shout advice like I always do in those teenage-slasher movies. “Don’t GO IN THERE!”

George Clooney optioned the novel to film, and word is that Scarlett Johansson has been signed to star. What I am not sure of is which role. Lucyis described as dark-haired and beautiful, Alice blond and British-patrician. I’m guessing Lucy.

It’s a hot choice for your bookclub’s summer read.

MENUtangerine fruit

Hot mint tea is mentioned multiple times and according to Epicurious.com, you can hardly walk in the casbah without tripping over mint tea offerings. There’s mention of  some gin drink and also some creation of Alice’s own involving grenadine.

I would definitely serve a tagine — and it’s always fun to have an excuse to buy a new piece of kitchen equipment. Here’s a link with a variety of recipes: https://www.yummly.com/recipes/moroccan-beef-tagine

Hummus and pita chips, fresh sliced cucumber and tomatoes.

For dessert, a tangerine cake. https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/17667/tangerine-orange-cake/

MUSIC

Jazz clubs serve as backdrop for a couple of key scenes. I would find some great 1950s jazz station and let it roll all night.

HAPPY READING!

 

 

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

vietnam life

I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer the same week PBS’ The Vietnam War aired. My husband, a military man, was fascinated by the documentary but I found myself flinching and turning away from the television night after night, grateful not to have been of age during that conflict to have it register so damningly on my mind.

Instead of watching the images on television, I turned to the pages of my book and found the war portrayed just as compellingly, albeit from the other side.

Nguyen’s Sympathizer is a narrator who sees both sides of nearly everything. He is a native Vietnamese who speaks flawless, unaccented English. His father, a French priest, who denies him; his mother, an impoverished Vietnamese woman who loves him. The Sympathizer is a solder, an aide, a secret Communist in South Vietnam, a spy.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, . . . able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent,” he continues, but “I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.

The_Sympathizer_-_book_coverThis book is deep, important, dense with information, plot lines, characters. Honestly, as someone who was not cognizant of the politics at the time of the war, it was often confusing. Perhaps that is intentional: Nguyen’s narrator while externally representing the South Vietnamese position is internally aligned with the North Vietnamese Viet Cong. And yet, despite his internal beliefs and external work, the reader is not always sure where the narrator’s true sympathies lie. He supports communism, hates America, yet moves to live in America and profits from it.

“My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”

The Sympathizer begins during the evacuation of Vietnam, continues into the immigrant experience in America then takes a surreal turn onto a movie set, very closely resembling Apocalypse Now. Although it seemed a strange turn for this “serious” novel, the movie set was my favorite part of the read. The American directors, producers, writers, and actors — for all their good intentions or not — can’t help but step in it nearly every time they open their mouth.

“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.”

NguyenThis is an important book and one that I raced through in order to finish it in time for my book club. It turned out only two of us got through the whole things, it is, as I said, dense. But each page contains a nugget of joy, humor, wisdom. It’s a book I’d like to return to and delve deeper into and take more time to read.

MENU

There was a great deal of beer drinking and an ode to fish sauce.  My best idea would be to buy some good quality spring rolls, serve them with rice and fish sauce and also offer American burgers. The duality of the novel calls for the same in the menu.

MUSIC
Spotify offers a playlist of the songs that appear in The Sympathizer in the order in which they appear! How about that. https://open.spotify.com/user/128916364/playlist/7ogZqRZVXiMvlGyceT3dvv

MOVIE CASTING

I’m not even going to try. Way too many characters and my capacity for stepping in it is greater than the great DIRECTOR and AUTEUR imagined by Nguyen.

Happy Reading!

Carter & Lovecraft, by Jonathan L. Howard

books sign

Science fiction does not generally find its way onto my reading list. But Carter & Lovecraft, described as the start of Jonathan L. Howard’s thrilling supernatural series that brings the myths of H.P. Lovecraft into the 21st Century, somehow found its way onto my audible list. I’m actually not even sure I remember downloading it, but there it was, below Casino Islandhttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/camino-island-by-john-grisham/, and above The Jane Austen Project. I pressed play and found myself first at a strange murder scene in NYC, then much more happily, at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island.

 

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934I’m pretty happy with any novel that includes a whip-smart librarian with a shotgun whoruns a bookstore. Emily Lovecraft is a descendant of sci-fi horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft: a real guy — I wasn’t sure as I read Carter & Lovecraft if H.P. Lovecraft was a clever variation of an author’s name that sounded vaguely familiar or a real guy. It’s the latter.

I also really enjoyed Dan Carter’s take on nearly everything. He’s smart, pragmatic, funny, and prepared — for almost anything. “In his experience, motives were simple. There was greed, there was jealousy, he’d seen plenty of revenge played out in gang-related crimes, there was even sadism, and sometimes there was flat-out stupidity, which was a pretty powerful motivator in itself.”

A bit of background: H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937 without achieving any financial success during his lifetime. By his own account, his themes were complex and spooky:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

— H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu

On to Carter & Lovecraft. Dan Carter is a NYC detective who is in on a catch that goes incredibly wrong when his partner dies at the scene. Soon after, Carter retires from the force and hangs his shingle as a P.I. Life is pretty dull until Carter is informed by a stranger-than-normal attorney that he has inherited property in Providence, Rhode Island from a person he doesn’t know. Intrepid Carter seeks out the property and discovers it’s a book store staffed by the beautiful Emily Lovecraft, she of the high cheekbones and shotgun. “Lovecraft angled her head back until she was looking at Harrelson down her nose. ‘I trained as a librarian, and I run a bookstore. Fucking right I can use a gun.'”

Before you can say Cthulhu Mythos, a professor has drowned in a dry car, an Atlantic City pit boss has literally exploded after eating a plate of ribs, and Dan Carter keeps finding himself on an eerie and inhospitable spit of land called Waits Bill where the women are much more than women and the men are even stranger.

monsters

Having no foundation in Lovecraft, I was a bit at a loss at times, but the plot — or enjoyment — of a ripping good read in Carter & Lovecraft is not dependent on that knowledge.

Should your book club read it? Truthfully, you know your book buddies better than I do. Were I to bring Carter & Lovecraft to my own home club, I think my friends would turn on me faster than a Wait woman turns on a strange man. But just in case you do, I’ve got a few food and music suggestions:

MENU

BBQ Ribs. Truly, this is your only choice. And some bourbon. Recipes below.

In Atlantic City, Bernie Hayesman looked at the plate of ribs, and he was not happy. He had asked for an omelet, a simple omelet to be sent up to his office, and they had sent ribs. He couldn’t understand it. He’d spoken to the chef personally. They’d discussed eggs, if briefly. There was no earthly way “omelet” could have been misconstrued as “ribs”. He looked at the plate of ribs, and the ribs looked back. Neither he nor they were overjoyed at the situation.

Rhode Island Clam Dip

  • 2 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion
  • 1 package Gravy Mix
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese, divided
  • 1 (6.5 ounce) can chopped clams, drained
  • 2 teaspoons  Parsley Flakes
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook bacon in large skillet on medium-high heat until crisp. Remove bacon, reserving drippings in pan. Add onion; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes or until translucent. Stir in Gravy Mix, milk and 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes or until gravy starts to thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in clams.
  2. Pour into 9-inch glass pie plate. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese.
  3. Bake 15 minutes or until cheese is melted. Sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers.

New Jersey’s Award-Winning Rib recipe from Big Joe’s Cookbook can be found here: http://nj1015.com/big-joes-award-winning-ribs-recipe/

Larcery Bourbon has an impressive selection of bourbon recipes on its website, but the Pressing Charges looks like a great combination for a rib dinner:

PRESSING CHARGES Pressing-Charges
  • 2 oz. Larceny Bourbon
  • 2 oz. Ginger Ale
  • 2 oz. Soda Water
  • 2 Dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

In an Old Fashioned glass, combine Larceny, ginger ale and soda water. Float bitters on top.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Evil Woman, ELO

Dark Lady, Cher

Witchy Woman, The Eagles

Monster, Lady Gaga

Sweet Rhode Island Red, Ike & Tina Turner

Rhode Island is Famous for You, Michael Feinstein

The Last Resort, The Eagles

MOVIE CASTING

According to Kirkus Reviews, the book has been optioned by Warner Bros. and is headed to tv land. Here are my casting suggestions:

Dan Carter                     Aaron Eckhart

Emily Lovecraft            Gabrielle Union

William Colt                  Thomas Decker

carter &So . . . there you go. If you dare.

Happy Reading!

 

Camino Island, by John Grisham

GatsbyMS One of the greatest literary treasures in the United States, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s hand-written manuscripts are stolen from the Firestone Library on Princeton University’s campus by a gang of five: Denny, a former Army ranger kicked out of the military; Mark, a professional thief with a history of “smash-and-grab” jobs involving art and artifacts ransomed back to the original owners; Jerry and Trey, petty thieves who met in prison; and Ahmed, a computer hacker.

The heist happens quickly in John Grisham’s latest novel, Camino Island, and serves as a backdrop for the real intrigue: where have the manuscripts gone after some of the thieves are caught; and how can Princeton get them back.

Enter Elaine Shelby, an insurance investigator. Mercer Mann, young, broke, aspiring writer with a past that includes time in Camino Island, Florida. Bruce Cable, owner of Bay Books, acquirer of valuable books, Southern dandy, and book (and author) lover. In his own mind he is “a well-read playboy” and an ambitious businessman.

seersucker“He owned a dozen different seersucker suits, each with a different shader color, and he wore one every day, along with a starched white shirt with a spread collar, and a loud bow tie, usually either red or yellow. His ensemble was completed with a pair of dirty buckskins, no socks. He never wore socks, not even in January when the temperatures dipped into the forties. His hair was thick and wavy, and he wore it long, almost to his shoulders. He shaved once a week on Sunday morning. By the time he was thirty, some gray was working itself into the picture, a few whiskers and a few strands of the long hair, and it was quite becoming.”

Elaine, the insurance investigator, believes Bruce Cable has the manuscripts. She wants Mercer to return to Camino Island, the home of Mercer’s grandmother, and infiltrate the community’s cabal of eccentric authors as a means of getting close to Cable, who has quite the reputation for his way with the lady authors.

The New York Times said Camino Island reads like it was written while John Grisham took a vacation from writing John Grisham novels. Grisham has a lot of fun with books, authors, and characterizations. The romance writer who “you won’t believe has ever had sex with anybody,” the literary writer who pens “really impenetrable stuff the stores can’t give away,” the alcoholic novelist whose been in and out of rehab so often everyone’s lost count, the “vampire girl” young adult novelist, the poet “snob,” etc.

Camino IslandMy favorite depiction is that of Bay Books, Cable’s island store.

. . . the smells of new books, and coffee, and, from somewhere, the hint of pipe smoke. She adored the saggy shelves, the piles of books on the floors, the ancient rugs, the racks of paperbacks, the colorful section for bestsellers at 25 percent off! From across the store she took in the First Editions Room, a handsome paneled area with open windows and hundreds of the more expensive books.

Camino Island is a fun place to visit and talk about books. Learn a little, live a little. Pass it on.

MENU

Food from the book

Shrimp Risotto with bread and wine

This recipe from epicurious.com for Shrimp Risotto looks good: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/shrimp-risotto-4970

Champagne and pizza

Margaritas with grouper tacos

I would serve the Margaritas and grouper tacos. Yum.

© Sarah Elliott for Jenni KayneFrom http://ripandtan.jennikayne.com/cocktail-of-the-day-the-hemingway-margarita/

By Greg Murnion
Servings:1
Units:
US Imperial
Metric
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Combined all and enjoy!

 

MUSIC

Of course, you could go all Jimmy Buffett. Or add a little variety with some of these:

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding

Island Girl, Elton John

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

Don’t Bring Me Down (Bruce!), ELO

Sharp Dressed Man, ZZ Top

The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon

Undercover Lover, .38 Special

MOVIE CASTING  simon baker

This is a fun one to think about casting, especially Bruce Cable. But the troupe of writers would be a great casting assignment too.

Elaine Shelby — Cate Blanchett is the obvious choice but Elizabeth Banks would be fun for this part

Mercer Mann — Emma Roberts

Noel — Margot Robbie

Bruce Cable — Simon Baker

Happy Reading!