Book Notes: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl


Earlier this year, I swore to read a book a week over the course of 2014, a plan that failed spectacularly because, duh, I’m a slow reader who picks impossibly long books that couldn’t be finished inside of a week absent any semblance of a life or need for sleep. That said, I have read a LOT of books over the summer, including This Is Where I Leave You (LOVE — can’t wait for the movie!), Broken Harbor (LOVE), The Leftovers (ALSO LOVE), the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (LOVE, even though the author got a little up her own you-know-what in the final book), The Carriage House (DID NOT LOVE), Vampires in the Lemon Grove (MEHHHH, I am disappoint).

delicious

 

On our recent vacation to New Mexico, I devoured (to be clear: when I say “devour” as concerns this book, think of it as the literary equivalent of hate-f**king the fraternity brother who lives in your apartment building) Delicious! by Ruth Reichl. This is not a book that had been on my radar before a food-writing friend of mine alerted me (along with some other local food-writing women) to its existence and suggested that we get together and discuss it. So, I checked it out from the library and packed it along for the long drive to Santa Fe.

Let’s start with the good. We won’t be here long. I really like the way that Reichl drew a direct line from World War 2-era subsistence agriculture and foraging to contemporary notions of homesteading. Just like in Portlandia (“the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland“), the dream of the 1940s is alive in Ohio … and Brooklyn, and Austin, and Omaha and so on. I also really appreciated when Reichl would demonstrate her deep knowledge of food, from the difference between winter and spring parmigiano to the various histories and uses of particular foods. That’s when her writing really sang in this novel; sadly, she would drop those lovely moments like hot potatoes in service to her hot mess of a narrative.

There is a LOT going on in this book. We’ve got the letters from a mysterious young woman to James Beard during WW2. We’ve got the death of an iconic food magazine (*cough*) and the obvious emotional trauma Reichl is working through via her surrogate(s) at said magazine. We’ve got the Underground Railroad, xenophobia against Italian-Americans, the post-WW2 “lavender scare,” and a mysterious back story and an obligatory love plot for Billie Breslin, the heroine. Reichl has embedded her novel with so many moving parts that she ends up under developing every single one of them, relying instead on tired tropes and stereotypes, down to the ugly-duckling-gets-a-makeover scene. Some people have suggested that Delicious! reads like a YA novel, but that would be an insult to YA fiction, much of which doesn’t insult its readership by telegraphing every plot development and tying up every single crappy narrative thread with an overwrought bow. 

Where was Reichl’s editor? Who was there to say, “Have you considered narrowing your focus a bit?” Or perhaps, “Have you considered fleshing out your characters a bit?” The love interest is so underwritten that Reichl might as well have just marched a cardboard cutout of Mr. Darcy into the scene for all the charisma he has.

And I’m not even mentioning the continuity and basic copyediting errors!

When my friends and I got together to discuss the book, we wondered whether it would have been published if it hadn’t had Reichl’s name on it. I seriously doubt it. I’m shocked it was published, period.

Next up: Delancey. I loved A Homemade Life, so Molly Wizenberg better not let me down!

 

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52 X 2014: Failure and I Bury the Body


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The first book in my 52 X 2014 project is a collection of poems by Sasha West called Failure and I Bury the Body. I’ll be frank: starting out with contemporary poetry is my veggies. Eating the frog first, so to speak. Poetry has never been a particularly favorite genre of mine, although I do have my favorites: Keats, Ginsberg, Williams, Hughes. (All men! Sheesh!) Nothing any more challenging than a sophomore-level undergraduate survey, though. But I know (and like!) Sasha and her husband and always want to support lady writers, so I thought this would be a fitting way to kick off my crazy plan.

While I can’t speak to how West uses form and poetic designs (I can see that she’s doing things, I just don’t have the vocabulary for them), I was quite struck by the content. Unsettled. Disturbed, even. The collection follows a woman on a road trip with the personification of Failure through the American southwest via Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Kirkuk, the Arctic, and Dallas. Failure and the narrator are joined by Corpse along the way, keeping him alive(ish?) in order to torture and love him, before enacting a thousand different murders upon him. Thoreau, Pound, Dolly the sheep, and Sir Ernest Shackleton make appearances along the way as West articulates Failure as the embodiment of man’s devastating effects on the planet, from fracking and deforestation to war and atomic bombs. It goes without saying that West also engages with the trauma man heaps upon man, as well.

Despite the fact that about 90% of the collection is dystopian bleakness, there is beauty to be found, primarily in West’s language, which took my breath away on more than one occasion. This poem was particularly powerful:

I Tell Failure the True Story of the Corpse

For that half year I was so happy
I pulled down all the generators
all the telephone lines; long lanky summer
while we slowly became wire, I blew
out tires and candles, pushed drills
into derricks and fractured earth
to find the oil, ruined water and wells,
broke teeth and gears. And my happiness
like a bowling ball on a trampoline
pulled towards itself all
disaster– the great-aunts were
buried ten to a plot in the Independence
Cemetery, the uncles lit cigarettes outside
pulled smoke into tumors
while the snow stuck in their hair
and the spokes of their chairs, and
the junkyards filled with the wreck
of every car in town, and tap water
like lit torches gleamed with fire, and the wars
escalated and reaped bodies, cities, and
our love pulled into our bed the dissolution
of all marriages around us, so we
trailed behind our happiness (tin cans
tied with twine) all that
disappointment in our wake, broken ships
we towed between the icebergs
on our way down to the glaciers
of the pole.

Gorgeous, right?

So, that’s the first book complete. Now on to Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.