Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing about Reading

One of my goals for this year (notice how I'm avoiding the "r" word) is to read more. Between 3-4 books a month, at least. All across genres, and maybe some more nonfiction, if I can find things that appeal to me. (Please leave any recommendations for consideration in the comments). Since I was starting this big initiative where I'd even keep track of what I was reading in some place somewhere (like here).

In terms of reading, 2006 was a great year. I ran across some things that I consider to be classics, and aside from those, there were some things I just really, really loved. Reading Like A Writer (one of the best writing-related books I've ever, ever read.). Motherless Brooklyn. To Kill a Mockingbird. Strangers in Paradise (I finished Pocket Book #3 right after New Year's, and am running out of excuses as to why I shouldn't run out RIGHT RIGHT NOW and get #4). Those were simply the best of the best - I know there were quite a few others that were up there as well, and several that I didn't think much of, and therefore will not mention. And it ended well, too - the last book I finished in 2006 was The Ghost at the Table, which I recommend to all and sundry - it was a really compelling narrative, and even though I wasn't completely thrilled with the ending, I admired the way that the author got me there, and how all of the minutiae of the days leading up into this Thanksgiving dinner and all of the tension that was riding just beneath the surface was so engrossing.

I wanted the first read of 2007 to grab me as much. I had a few titles up for consideration, all of which will get read soon. I decided to go about what to read democratically - I'd sample a portion of each, and whichever held more of my attention would be the winner. To be honest, I completely expected this winner to have been More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (more on her in a minute). I'd read Home Cooking a few years ago and loved it (it's a terrific collection of recipes and essays about food). Instead, More Home Cooking came in a fairly distant second to a book that Abby, my friend and YA Librarian Extraordinaire thrust into my hands before Christmas and practically demanded I read immediately: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.

I was a bit dubious. Although I frequently read and enjoy many YA titles, many of the ones I'd read recently were disappointing. The description of the heroine and the things she was to encounter sounded like the writer aimed for Season 1 Veronica Mars (minus the whodunit murder plot), but missed and landed in a big pile of after school special. Oh, how wrong I was. 10 pages in, I was intrigued. 20 pages in, I was interested. Since I got to spend a week on my parents' couch whilst down with NYC's latest virus, I sped through this one fairly quickly. It was enjoyable enough, I suppose. I was honestly disappointed by a few things , mainly how they'd spent all this time building up certain characters as important only to have her fade out in the end. I also grow weary of protagonists (particularly female ones) that either dissolve into tears or run away at the first sign of any kind of a confrontation, and Annabel, our narrator, sadly fell into the latter category. I could sympathize with her plight, I just found myself constantly longing for her to grow a pair, and perhaps TALK instead of, ahem, just listen and/or internalize everything. There were a few other plot elements I found kind of cheesy and cloying, but since it was YA, I let it slide. On the whole it was a good read, and were I a few years younger, I might have enjoyed it a bit more. I didn't want to stop reading it at any point, though, which I consider to be a positive thing. I've been told that Dessen has written better, and I believe it. There were many elements that she got right by not overdoing it, and I thought she had a really nice flair for description that is usually absent from many YA novels.

I moved on to More Home Cooking next, eager to see what Colwin had in store for her sequel, published posthumously (she died in 1992, I believe from a heart attack). I found it to be very different from Home Cooking, but I'm not sure if it's because her style changed, or because I did. I read the first volume around Christmas of 1999, when I was just beginning to get into food writing. Amanda Hesser was publishing her weekly "Food Diary" in The New York Times Magazine, which I read faithfully every week, and I hadn't yet discovered things like Chowhound or Real Simple or any of the other many food-related things I read and enjoy now. I'd have to revisit Home Cooking to be positively certain, but it felt to me that she spent as much time complaining about how things have changed in the way people eat as she did sharing experiences and recipes. I can understand her umbrage at people who don't/won't bake their own bread or make their own chicken stock, but after awhile, it was hard to not roll my eyes when she started in about that again. I've also been spending a great deal of time watching what and how I eat, and a large quantity of the recipes in More Home Cooking involve adding an ENTIRE stick of butter (after, of course, Colwin had spent a few lines denigrating those who dared to put their health or waistline before what might taste better and moaning about how It Just Wasn't This Way Years Ago.) After awhile, it grew as tiresome as her first book was exciting to me.

Up next I have Helen Gurley Brown's immortal Sex & the Single Girl, recommended to me by my mother during a conversation about my love of old New York nostalgia. It's cute so far, and it's always fun to see where things might have been so completely shocking when a book was released (as I did when I read Jacqueline Suzanne's Valley of the Dolls). I also have some cookbooks, a rather embarrassing book I'd rather not talk about, and EB White's Here is New York out from the library.

Now I'm off to solve that immortal dilemma; it's sunday: writing, reading, or chores? We'll see how it goes.



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