Category: Books

All bananas, all the time

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007 | All Things, Books

At DiSalvio Playground on Spring and Mulberry:


Housing Works Bookstore and Café hosted the release party for the Summer 2007 issue of Alimentum, a New York-based literary magazine focused exclusively on food and eating. 32 writers and poets contributed to this fourth issue, which featured a special section devoted entirely to bananas.

Housing Works Bookstore bar

Alimentum publisher Paulette Licitra, who launched the journal with her husband Peter Selgin, was at the event to introduce the readings by tonight’s featured writers: Joanne Jacobson, Diana Abu-Jabar, Robin Hirsch and Gary Allen.

I most enjoyed Abu-Jabar’s story: a selection from her third work, The Language of Baklava, a culinary memoir of growing up in a bi-cultural Jordanian-American household — vignettes interspersed with recipes rich in memory. Through the frustrations and challenges Abu-Jabar encounters while navigating the murky waters of cultural identity, one constant remains: her love and appreciation for food. The format reminded me a bit of one of my favorite food story collections, Home Cooking, by the dear, departed Laurie Colwin.

Hirsch, who is part-owner of the Cornelia Street Café, read a story of restaurateur “Mr. S” who falls in love with his dishwasher — an excerpt presumably taken from the current issue of Alimentum, and not from Hirsch’s own memoir, Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski.

Allen, educator, author and food history editor for Leite’s Culinaria, closed out the reading program with an amusing banana-themed story about his travels through the tropics, proving that there can be too much of a good thing. It was a perfect segue into the reception, featuring – what else? – banana splits.

Housing Works banana splits

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Ian McEwan at the Y

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007 | All Things, Books, Events

Tickets to see Ian McEwan at the 92nd Street Y were sold out well before the Tuesday night event. I’d secured my own spot months ago, and thought this appearance by “the supreme novelist of his generation” (as dubbed by The Sunday Times of London) a thrilling finale to my season of Unterberg Poetry Center Reading Series events.

McEwan was in town to promote his 13th and most recent novel, On Chesil Beach, which was published in his native U.K. in April, but which arrived in the United States just that day to generally favorable reviews.

Colum McCann, Esquire magazine’s “Writer of the Year” in 2003 and himself the author of two short story collections and three novels, introduced McEwan in adulatory terms, as a master of finely observed detail, richly fulfilling Vladimir Nabokov’s vision for literature as expressed in A Guide to Berlin (1925):

….to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

McEwan seemed to shy, ever slightly, under the praise as he took the podium, and after a few droll remarks, proceeded to read three lengthy excerpts from his novella about two educated, British virgins on their highly fraught wedding night in 1962.

What is it about posh British accents? (Note to self: McEwan himself reads the On Chesil Beach audiobook, which unfolds over just 200 pages, as he noted, “almost in real time.”)

The audience sat riveted as McEwan’s lilting tones underscored the lyrical beauty of his language in setting the scene and laying bare the characters’ inner worlds. To be able to write like this! After almost 45 minutes, we — like at least one of the book’s protagonists — were left wanting more.

The post-reading Q&A with McCann covered the usual topics — McEwan’s childhood, his inspirations as a writer, his writing process – all of which the author tackled with considerable self-effacing charm. As at past events, there were submissions from the audience on white index cards. Although I had not intended to purchase yet another book, the temptation proved too great: I slipped out about halfway through the questions to pick up just one more from the tables outside the Kaufmann Concert Hall, joining the throng of devotees already lining up for the signing.

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

McEwan will not be touring the United States to promote On Chesil Beach; during the interview, he dryly observed that he had not toured to promote Atonement, which went on to become his best selling work, leading him to the conclusion that his personal appearances may actually have a depressive effect on book sales. Tonight’s reading at the Y would be his only major U.S. appearance.

Instead, in a unique marketing move, McEwan has teamed with famed Portland independent bookseller Powell’s Books, to launch their “Out of the Book” film series. The “On Chesil Beach” documentary collages film of McEwan shot over four days in England and the United States, commentary and footage of the book’s locale, and discussions with lit editors, critics and fellow writers. The 30-minute film will be screened at independent bookstores in 54 cities and towns across the country.

Press for this book/film tour has been quite positive; I was disappointed to miss the June 15 New York City event — so much to do, so little time! — which included a literary panel discussion and an after party at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction. The DVD is available for purchase through Powell’s, though, and I was thrilled for this rare opportunity to meet McEwan in person, and did not at all regret adding another volume to my ever-growing pile of books at home.

Ian McEwan dedication

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Three simple words

Monday, May 7th, 2007 | All Things, Books

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the luxury of several uninterrupted hours in which to finally, finally complete Ian McEwan’s Atonement — a book who first 50 pages I’ve reread perhaps half a dozen times over the past few years, without ever progressing much beyond that point. My reasons for the false starts are inexplicable: I’ve read several other novels from start to finish in the interim, but somehow this one — which many critics consider to be McEwan’s masterpiece — eluded me. There may have been some subconscious aversion at work; perhaps I associated the book with the time in my life I acquired it, and just kept setting it aside, like so many other things.

McEwan’s book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2001, ultimately losing the top prize to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. At the time, many felt that McEwan had been handicapped by having won the prestigious prize just three years earlier for Amsterdam. The same year he was passed over for the Booker, the Whitbread Novel Award was presented to Patrick Neate for Twelve Bar Blues in a decision Neate himself considered an upset. Nonetheless Atonement did go on to become an international bestseller and to collect several other honors including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the WH Smith Literary Prize, the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction, the Santiago Prize for the European Novel and “the People’s Booker.”

So a couple of weeks ago, with endless hours of solitude ahead of me, I decided to tackle this work once and for all. It’s not difficult reading; McEwan’s richly evocative descriptions build the narrative slowly at first, but once the plot was set in motion, I was riveted.

Having just turned the stunning, final page, I can say that I loved this book. Structure-wise, the story is organized into three parts — set in 1935, 1940, and 1999 — and hinges upon the misunderstandings and betrayals of one summer night and their tragic ramifications. I won’t say much more for fear of spoiling it for the others I know among you who haven’t read it yet. But do read it, and we’ll compare notes, off the blog. People still do that, sometimes, I think.

The film adaptation, which reunites star Keira Knightley with her Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright, is scheduled for release in September 2007. The Internet Movie Database describes the movie as “based on the British romance novel by Ian McEwan.” Hmm… for me, “romance novel” always seems to carry with it rather Harlequin-esque associations, which I don’t think captures the essence of the story. The publisher describes Atonement as a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness.”

And yet:

Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken out loud were like signatures on an unseen contract.


Columbus Circle Statue

Looking forward to McEwan’s scheduled appearance at the 92nd Street Y on June 5.

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