tooth and claw – book review

“Jo Walton writes science fiction and fantasy novels and reads a lot and eats great food. It worries her slightly that this is so exactly what she always wanted to do when she grew up. She comes from Wales, but lives in Montreal.”

This is Walton’s biography on Amazon and I think it rather a good one. Walton authored the book I just finished reading, Tooth and Claw, winner of the World Fantasy Fantasy Award. I can’t recall just how I came across this novel but I do know it was very difficult for me to find. Sometimes I take for granted the fact that almost anything can be had on Amazon.com and usually with free shipping. I checked the library, Barnes and Noble, as well as Half Price Books to no avail. The book is about dragons– elemental fantasy characters beloved by role playing gamers and medieval history buffs alike, and famous subjects of fuzzy posters at craft stores worldwide. Yes, those sorts of dragons. I am, however, leaving out one infinitesimal detail here, that being that the dragons in Walton’s novel are Victorian dragons who wear hats in accordance with the customs of high society, try their very best to walk rather than fly to church out of piety, and eat their dead and dying in order to gain strength and grow. The maiden dragons are a gleaming gold until their scales rub up against a sexy man dragon and they immediately “blush” pink (you can imagine the sheer scandal of a pink, unmarried dragon). There are treasure hunts and dowries, lawsuits and fancy balls and even a commentary on the injustice of slavery.

Here’s what Walton said about writing the novel in an interview:

“That one had a rather odd beginning. I was halfway through a Trollope novel when a fantasy that I had ordered came in at the library, so I switched to reading that. Emmet came home from work and asked, ‘How is your book?’, and I said, ‘It’s fine except that it doesn’t understand dragons.’ . . . I said, ‘Oh, Trollope understands dragons perfectly — it’s just that he doesn’t understand people.’ That’s basically the entire concept of Tooth and Claw. It’s got all those things which, when you read a Victorian novel as a modern feminist (or even just a modern person), are quite appalling, and yet the novels are entertaining and kind of cool. I just made it about dragons.”

On the whole, this book is pretty fantastic. Don’t, however, expect a novel storyline. The plot is not complex  (a little formulaic, but in a good way) and it’s a very easy and quick read. It won’t keep you on the edge of your seat, but it will leave you giggling as you imagine oversized reptiles making fruit preserves and shopping for wedding lace. My only complaint is that Walton completely overuses the world “whirl.”  So and so’s eyes whirled, the sky was whirling, the day was in a whirl, etc. etc.  Two thirds into the book it started to really nag at me. I know there are a finite amount of words in the English langage but I don’t find this a worthy excuse in Walton’s case. Of course I’m ignoring the possibility that maybe “whirl” is integral to Victorian diction or something and I’m simly not in the know. One of my biggest pet peeves is repetitive vocabulary. Be more imaginative or invest in a thesaurus or find an OCD editor who plays a lot of Scrabble. Walton has about ten published books but the two I would like to read most are Among Others (which won last year’s Nebula award for Best Novel) and Lifelode, which is described as a domestic fantasy.

Reasons I already like Jo Walton despite the fact that she has an unhealthy attachment to the word “whirl”:

1. As evidenced by her photo below she is obviously super geeky, super awesome, and looks so jovial during this book reading it kills me.

2. She maintains a low internet profile and has no website but rather a livejournal: http://papersky.livejournal.com

3. She writes poems such as this one on said livejournal:

Through the Green Fuse

To know the word mitosis doesn’t help.
You thrust that tiny seed in common dirt
And all you’ve given it is water since,
And here it is, a huge and awesome flower.

Yes, chemistry, say “photosynthesis”,
It isn’t half enough to name the green,
That builds itself from sunlight,
Each complex molecule in fractal time.

All from that pack of seeds, that dream of spring
Add dirt, add water, sunshine…
As everyone who’s ever gardened knows:
It’s clearly fucking magic.

And last but not least, she created International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day in 2007, to encourage authors to put professional quality writing on the net for free.

I wish I could go color this right now:

 

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cantaloupe refresher – recipe

Today is day 4 of my indefinite juice fast. I would prefer to go a full 7 days but one never knows what adventures the weekend will bring, so tomorrow may be my last full day. Summer is the absolute best time to do a juice fast because there is an abundance of fresh produce and vegetables available and, a since it’s usually  hot outside, a big glass of fresh juice always sounds like a good idea.  (In winter it is very difficult, at least for me, to juice fast. All I crave is hot cider and baked potatoes.)

Here is one of my favorite juices I’ve been enjoying recently. Only 3 ingredients and a breeze to make! If you are juice fasting, drink the whole thing. If you’re just making as a cocktail or snack, this should serve 2-3 people.

CANTALOUPE REFRESHER

what you need:

  • 1 ripe cantaloupe
  • 1 small bunch of mint
  • about 8 ounces of coconut water

what you do:

remove the rind, scoop out the seeds, and juice the whole cantaloupe along with all the mint, save a few leaves for garnish.

Mix equal parts cantaloupe-mint juice with coconut water. Serve over ice and garnish with a mint leave.

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baingan bharta – recipe

Eggplant. It’s probably my favorite vegetable, as evidenced by the bounty of eggplant recipes I’ve been posting lately. In Hindi eggplant is baingan and bharta, as I understand it, pretty much just means mashed up. I first ordered this dish in an Indian restaurant years ago and fell in love, then I had it at my mother in laws house and was entirely infatuated. She makes it with yogurt (as opposed to without) and I like it much better. I make it quite often and it’s different every time, but here’s a basic version of my recipe. I’m not sure if this is legitimately desi because I pretty much just throw in all the spices I like best, but hey, it works for me and Samir gobbles it up so I’m going to keep on keeping on until some fabulous Indian chef tells me otherwise.

what you need:

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 small to medium tomato, chopped
  • 1 yellow (NOT sweet) onion, chopped
  • about 1/2 cup frozen peas (optional, sometimes I add these, sometimes I don’t)
  • 1 or 2 ginger garlic cubes
  • 2 tbl. cooking oil (grapeseed or olive)
  • 1 small serrano or jalapeno pepper
  • mustard seeds
  • whole jerra (cumin)
  • dhana jerra (coriander and cumin powder)
  • haldi (turmeric) optional
  • garam masala
  • salt
  • plain yogurt (any kind will work, but I like original or 2 percent)
  • basmati rice
  • khotmir (cilantro leaves)

what you do:

First you need to prepare the eggplant. You can do this in a variety of different ways. You can microwave it or roast it. I do a combination of both so I can get a distinctive flavor but in a short amount of time.

Poke some holds in the eggplant with a fork and microwave for 2 minutes. Remove eggplant and wrap completely in foil. The eggplant will get juicy as it cooks and has the potential to drip through the foil. For this reason, you should probably put two or three layers of foil over your eggplant. No need to put any oil or flavoring on the eggplant because you will be skinning it later on. You’ll need a gas stove to pull off this next culinary feat. Set the wrapped eggplant on a burner and turn the heat on a medium setting. Roast that eggplant over an open flame. It will taste exquisite! This is the best way to prepare your eggplant for baba ganouj as well. Get some tongs so you don’t burn yourself and rotate the eggplant on the burner every minute or so. Again, you can only do this if you have a gas stove.

It should take about five to six minutes for the eggplant to become completely mushy. Allow it to cool for a few minutes and then slice it in half lengthwise and peel the skin off. The skin should slide right off with a fork or a butter knife. Take the skinned eggplant and mash it up. You can use a food processor or one of these guys (I love my hand blender, comes in super handy). You basically want to process the eggplant so it’s blended. This is the bharta part of the recipe.

 

Set the eggplant aside in a bowl. In a large skillet put two tablespoons of oil in the skillet and turn on medium-high heat. Add your mustard seeds. I love mustard seeds, I probably put about 2 tsp. in. Add 1 tsp. of whole jeera. Wait a minute or so for the seeds to make a popping sputtering sound and then add in a chopped serrano or jalapeno pepper (if you don’t like spicy food, only use half the pepper). Sautee for about one minute with the pepper and then add the entire onion. Add 2 tsp. dhana jerra powder and, if you’d like, add a generous pinch of haldi powder. This will turn your dish a yellow hue, but haldi is wonderful for your health so I add it to almost every recipe, even if it doesn’t call for it. This is up to you, I don’t think it really changes the taste all that much. Saute your onions, pepper, oil and spices for about five minutes, or until onions start to look translucent. This is called a vagar, it’s basically a way of infusing flavor into the oil.

Add your chopped tomato to the vagar and keep cooking for another three minutes or so. Add 1/2 a cup of frozen peas (steam them in the microwave or on  the stove first). The peas will change the flavor of the dish so if you’re not a big pea fan I would leave these out. Mix the peas in and cook for just another minute or so.

Now add in the eggplant you mashed earlier along with 1 tsp. of garam masla powder and however much salt you would like. Cook for another minute just to get everything mixed together nicely. Remove from heat. Allow the eggplant to cool for five minutes or so.

Add in about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of yogurt.  In the photos posted I hadn’t blended the eggplant and yogurt together yet simply because I thought it looked prettier all deconstructed. Go ahead and blend the yogurt and eggplant all together with a spoon or fork. Serve over basmati rice and garnish with some chopped up khotmir leaves. Add more salt to taste if needed.

You can eat this dish warm or cold, it’s wonderful both ways and it definitely makes a fabulous leftover. In the photo below I did not add enough yogurt— I ended up adding more after I mixed it all together. You will want to mix your yogurt in before serving it over rice. You want there to be enough yogurt to make the dish a nice creamy, opaque color. I’ll post more photos for reference the next time I make it.

Eat up, eggplant lovers!

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cubed eggplant in tahini sauce – recipe

This dish is inspired by a similar version I gobbled up at a lady’s luncheon this past week. Eggplant is my favorite vegetable.

what you need:

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 lemon
  • 3/4 c. plain yogurt
  • 1 tbl. tahini
  • 4 or so tbl. olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • handfull of curry leaves (it’s OK if you don’t have access to these)
  • sumac
  • red pepper powder
  • dried oregano
  • salt

what you do: 

 

Cut the eggplant into long sections and then chop each section into 1 inch chunks. Put them in a mixing bowl and toss with about 2 tbl. extra virgin olive oil and the juice from half of a lemon. Spread out in an oven safe baking dish and generously sprinkle with sumac and oregano. Roast in oven at 350 degrees until slightly brown and fully tender (I didn’t time this, but about 45 minutes).

Meanwhile . . .

Put a couple more tbl of EVOO in a skillet along with the 3 cloves of garlic, crushed. Use less if you aren’t a garlic fanatic like myself. Add in a small handful of curry leaves. Curry leaves should be available at your local Indian grocery. They have a very unique flavor that I’m not quite sure how to describe, however, they are delicious! If you don’t have them, just use garlic. Sautee over medium heat for a few minutes until garlic starts to brown. Remove from heat.

 

 In a mixing bowl, combine yogurt, tahini, the juice from the remaining half of the lemon, and the olive oil mixture together. Stir or whisk until well blended.

 

Add about 1/2 – 1 tsp. red chili powder depending on your spice tolerance. Also add in your salt, about 1 tsp, but again, taste and adjust. Mix once more.

 

 When eggplant is roasted, remove from oven and stir in with the yogurt based sauce. Serve over warm basmati rice. Garnish with cilantro if desired. This tastes great warm, but some might argue it’s even better chilled, which means, leftovers for breakfast :)

 

We ate the eggplant over rice with baby bok choi as a side.

YUM!

 

 

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ginger garlic cubes (adrak lasan) – recipe

While I’ve always been a fan of Indian cuisine it wasn’t until recently that I’ve started cooking Indian food at home. One word: delicious. One more word: spicy. Everyone in Samir’s family has to accomodate my weakling tastebuds. At dinners and holiday gatherings I try to surreptitiously load up on rice to sooth my scorched tongue. “Jen, we made this for you. It isn’t very spicy. Do you like it?”  Although my awesome family always makes the most delectable food, “isn’t very spicy” in Indian terms sometimes translates into NEED MORE WATER by white girl standards.  I will say, however, that after being with Samir for nearly three years now I have definitely upped my spice intake and my tolerance is far greater than it was when we first met. Even my cooking has some noticeable heat now. Garlic and ginger are staples in nearly every Indian dish but it can become quite tedious to always have to peel and chop. I’m all about cutting out prep work so when I saw that my mother in law had premade garlic ginger cubes in her freezer, I asked how to make them. Turns out, it’s totally simple. I’ve also used this same method to make basil/tarragon cubes with fresh herbs from my garden. These types of cubes are wonderful for cooking standard dishes like dal, but are also great to throw in with scrambled eggs (especially the herb cubes) or a soup. Instant flavor, no chopping required. Adrak (ginger) and lasan (garlic) paste can also be kept in an air tight jar in the fridge for about a month or so. Spoon out as needed

what you need:

  • equal parts of garlic and ginger
  • pepper(s) of your choice
  • salt
  • water
  • olive oil
  • a high speed blender
  • empty ice cub trays

Put an equal ratio of peeled garlic gloves to peeled, chopped ginger chunks into a high speed blender. Add a jalepeno or serano for spice. You can add only half of a pepper if you are making a smaller batch or do not have a high spice tolerance. If you like spice, just throw the whole pepper in without deseeding. Add about 1tsp. of salt, about 1 tbl. of olive oil (adjust for larger batches) and half approximately 1 cup of purified water to be used as needed for blending.

 

Turn blender on low, gradually increasing speed until everything is mashed together in a smooth consistency. You may need to add more water if the paste is too thick and is not blending well as a result. You can see how much water I added in the photo below,  I only needed to add about another tablespoon.

This is the right consistency for your paste. You can use it just like this stored in an airtight container in the fridge if you don’t want to freeze into cubes. If you want to freeze, just spoon the mixture into clean, empty ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop them out and store in a ziploc baggy. When you are ready to cook just grab a cube from the freezer, and let it dissolve over the stove with a little oil. Super easy.

I ended up with garlic ginger hearts because my mum got me heart shaped Ikea ice trays! I’d say each cube is about 1 tablespoon yield and I had 29 cubes. Happy cooking.

 

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watercress soup + pear and feta salad – recipe

 

 

Greetings from Houston! Things are very quickly coming along here in our new home. My dad is here turning our totally awesome house into a TOTALLY AWESOME house with all of his remodeling and painting expertise along side a seemingly endless amount of grueling work. I am so grateful for him. The yellow you see in the above photo is my favorite piece of furniture right now. I should have taken some before and after pictures for super dramatic effect, but in its other life it was a dark burgundy. Now it’s a bumble bee cabinet since I spray painted the hardware black. More home updates will be coming soon if anyone is interested in reading about my psychedelic epiphanies while under the influence of epoxy. Am I am turning into a blogger mommy? I promise not to post videos of my shopping trips to Ikea. Actually, I pledge not to even make videos of my shopping trips to Ikea.

Speaking of trips I have made so many sojourns to Home Depot this past week that I feel like Harold Ramis.  I also am debating buying stock in Rust-Oleum. All this pimping out of the casa is swell but what I really want is to sit down and read for one month straight. I started Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin on the drive to Texas and it was extraordinary from page one. Word association compels me to inform you that Page One is the name of an amazing documentary you should watch. Here’s the trailer: http://youtu.be/rwTMFXgf95c

Samir and I both love traditional watercress soups but the only ones I’ve ever made call for heavy cream. Tonight we wanted something lighter but with a similarly smooth texture as dairy based recipes. If you’re never had watercress, be forewarned that it’s slightly tart. If you eat it alone you might find it bitter, but when combined with other veggies the flavor is recognizable without being overwhelming. It’s also extremely detoxifying. I decided to keep track of everything while I was cooking in case it turned out yummy enough for future replication. I am happy to report my culinary concoction was definitely nom worthy.

Completely Nomable Watercress Soup, serves 6-8 depending on bowl size

ingredients:

1 bunch water cress, destemmed

2 c. Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed

1 c. cauliflower flourets

1 yellow onion coarsely chopped

3 cloves of garlic

2 tbl. extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. thyme

salt to taste

pepper to taste

fat free sour cream

fresh basil

8 cups of water

 directions:

Sautee onion in EVOO over medium heat in a large soup pot. When the onions turn translucent (about 10 minutes) add in the garlic, potatoes and cauliflower. Continue to sautee for another 5  minutes or so, then add in water, salt (I used about 1.5 tsp), and thyme. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 25-30 minutes or until potatoes and cauliflower are tender. While this is boiling, de stem your watercress (it is quite tedious) and set aside. Puree what’s in the soup pot with the  watercress. You will need to do this in batches using a blender. I have a vitamix that works perfectly, but any blender with a high speed setting should do. Transfer soup back into pot and allow to cool. If there is any foam from blending, scoop off and discard. Garnish with 1 or 2 dollops of fat free sour cream, freshly cracked black pepper, and slivers of basil. If you’re not digging the basil, any fresh herb or just some extra watercress leaves would work nicely.

I made a simple salad and some garlic bread to go with the soup. For the salad, combine baby spinach, feta cheese and walnuts with either EVOO or a light balsamic vinaigrette. I also used the vinaigrette to saute a sliced up Bartlett pear over low to medium heat for about 8 minutes until it browned and caramelize a bit.

 

My guess is this would be really refreshing if served with white wine but since my knowledge of wine pairing is primitive and there was already some red open, we had a Cabernet. Where there is vino there is generally happiness. I think the best match would be a Pinot Grigio or a Chardonnay. I guess my wine knowledge isn’t completely pedestrian after all.

It was a mellow night here so I put on some old school Cat Stevens, you know, when Cat Stevens was still Cat Stevens. I may not instill you with confidence regarding my wine selections, but rest assured, Cat Stevens and watercress are fully compatible dinner pairings.

Good night and good eats!

xo,

j.

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juicy juice

While I dream of someday doing a 30 day juice fast, that day has not yet come. Until then, I am trying to work juice into my everyday diet. Here is one of my favorites. This is my rendition of Natalia Rose’s ever popular “Green Lemonade.” It’s very similar to the original, but with a few additions. It makes a good amount of juice for breakfast or lunch and will fill you up for hours!

Spring Cleaning Juice

- 1 heart of romaine

- 3 apples (try to pick something sweet, i.e. not granny smiths. Honeycrisps, fujis, braeburns and jazz apples are all delicious choices)

- 1 cucumber – 5 stalks of kale

- 1/2 of a golden beet

- 1 lemon

- 1 nub of ginger

Unfortunately, I can’t afford all organic produce right now so I do peel my cucumber and also my lemon. However, if you are using organic veggies and fruit, you can easily skip the peeling and just give everything a good wash.

Drink up, friends!

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winter asian salad – recipe


 

Hands down, salads are one of my favorite dishes. In the winter months, though, it’s far more difficult for me to eat my greens. Less variety at the grocery store, lack of a farmer’s market, and the chilling temperatures leave me craving hot toddies, creamy bisques and grilled goat cheese sandwiches. Basically, everything that’s not salad. Today I made an incredible salad that addresses most of the problems I have with eating healthy during off season. First of all, it’s made with ingredients that are available year round and secondly its spicy kick creates heat that’s excellent for feeling the warm holiday fuzzies or clearing up a stuffy head cold. The salad is inspired by my favorite winter veggies and the dressing is a spin off of Natalia Rose’s Amazing Raw Peanut Sauce. Enjoy!

(salad) 

ingredients needed:  cabbage, carrots, cilantro, eggplant, black mustard seeds

directions: 

First, chop/shred 2 cups of green or napa cabbage. Then grate 2 cups worth of carrots. Next take one bunch of cilantro and destem it and chop the leaves. Mix together in a large bowl and set aside.

Now take 1 medium eggplant and thinly slice it into rounds. Cut the rounds into fourths, creating eggplant wedges. In a skillet, pour a tablespoon or so of sesame oil over low to medium heat. Pour in a few teaspoons of black mustard seeds. Wait for them to start making a “popping” noise. Usually this happens within one minute. Once the oil and mustard seeds are hot, saute the eggplant to a tenderness of your liking. This should take 5-10 minutes on low to medium heat. Turn off heat and set eggplant aside.

(dressing)

ingredients needed:  almond or peanut butter, fresh lemon juice, serrano pepper, garlic, fresh ginger, Nama Shoyu , sesame oil, agave nectar, cayenne peppers

In a high speed blender, add the following:

1/2 cup of almond of peanut butter. Both are delicious but if you are trying to watch your calories, I totally recommend Bell Plantation’s PB2 powder. It only has 45 calories per 2 tablespoons of peanut powder! It’s powdered, so all you do is add the right amount of water to it to thicken it up. It comes in chocolate as well and both are delicious. Great for smoothies and sauces.

Juice from 1 small lemon

1/4 to 1/2 of a seeded serrano pepper (depending on your spice tolerance)

3 cloves of garlic

1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled (add two inches if you like a lot of spice)

1 1/2 tablespoons of Nama Shoyu. You can buy Nama Shoyu at any alternative grocery food store. It’s basically a raw (unpasteurized) soy sauce. If you don’t have it, you can use regular soy sauce but Nama Shoyu is so much better! It has a complex flavor all its own. I much prefer it.

2 tsp sesame oil

about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of agave nectar, depending on your liking. Start with 1/8 and add in more later if you’d like. Honestly, I just squeeze away and watch how much goes in. I’m not one for measurements.

1 pinch of cayenne pepper (only if you like it spicy! otherwise skip this last step)

purified water (use it to slowly thin the dressing down to the consistency you like)

Turn the blender on and slowly add water to help thin if too thick. I like my dressing a little on the thick side so I don’t add too much water.

Fill a bowl with the salad mix, top it with some of the sauteed eggplant and mustard seeds and drizzle the whole thing with dressing. Voila!

This amount of salad will make about 3-4 servings.

 

 

 

 

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unica zürn, birdo and miranda july walk into a bar

When I was in Houston last month I went for a short walk to check out the Menil Collection. It’s the perfect size for me, as I often get lost at museums and exhaust myself before I’ve made it past antiquities. It’s also donation based admission, which translates into free for us budget conscious twenty somethings. (Don’t worry, I slipped a fiver in.) There’s no pressure to see everything at once, but even if you do want to roam the grounds it’s very doable in a few hours. The outside of the building is sheathed in zen clusters of bamboo and across the street is a serene park with the Rothko Chapel being only a few blocks away. I look forward to spending more time there once I move, and have fantasies of waking up super early and taking a mug of hot tea and a journal with me on a brisk stroll to the Rothko Chapel where I will sit in the gardens and meditate and be alone with my thoughts before the world can wake me. I’ll let you all know how that one turns out. My guess is anything that involves me waking up early to meditate will probably remain in the realm of fantasy.

One of the exhibits up at the Menil right now is Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawings From the Collection. Apart from the surrealist rooms (which includes a sublime room full of strange objects that either inspired surrealists or were owned by actual painters in the movement), this was my favorite gallery. There are drawings from famous artists such as Jackson Pollock and a beautiful, large Henry Darger piece but also a whole slew of artists I’ve never heard of. One of those artists is now on my worship list: Unica  Zürn. If you want to read up on this uber talented German writer, artist and bonafide schizophrenic there’s a wonderful article found here.

Here are a few images I’m going gaga over. The first one I saw at the exhibit.

Her art reminds me of three things dear to my heart.

Number 1: Birdo, circa Super Mario Brothers 2. The figure in the first image is especially reminiscent of my favorite pink, egg spewing dino.

Number 2: Fantastic Planet. Perhaps one of the strangest and best French movies ever.

Number 3: Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose triptych, the Garden of Earthly Delights remains completely and utterly unparalleled to this day.

 

Oh, and speaking of Birdo. I truly wish I had thought of this. It’s rather mind blowing, don’t you think?

And of course I can’t see a knitted, full body suit without immediately smiling and thinking of Miranda July making weirdly poetic contortions with shirty in her film The Future.

Which reminds me, if you ever get a chance to speak with Miranda July, do not ask her a two-part question. Trust me on this one. I have paved the awkward Q&A path for you and it is a path you’d be best to avoid.

WILL I MEET YOU SOMETIME? by Unica Zürn

After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.

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an object of beauty

During a layover last month I picked up a copy of Steven Martin’s most recent book, An Object of Beauty. I’ve been seriously falling short in the reading department lately. By lately I’m afraid I might be referring to the last five years since I was an English major in college. Armed with an Amazon.com giftcard, a set of magnetic kitty book marks, and the rare gift of free time, I am ready to set things right. I hope the new year finds me finally paying off my atrocious library fines and making the transformation from the girl who has an impressive amount of really cool books to the girl who has an impressive amount of really cool books and has actually read most of them.

My only complaint about reading books is that I love them fiercely and then often forget them. It’s not intentional, of course, just an inevitable consequence of my seemingly defective long term memory. Since consuming large quantities of ginkgo biloba doesn’t sound like the most sustainable plan of action, I figured I might devote some time to book blogging. In addition to providing literary prey for my inner snark, it will also be a nice way to catalogue what I’ve read. I realize there are websites designed exclusively for these things, but it turns out I need help remembering a lot more than just books and one URL is plenty enough for me. Blog = dear diary meets sticky note.

The back cover of An Object of Beauty says that with twenty-two lush, four-color art reproductions throughout, the book is “both a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run.” Now, few people can argue with the intrigue of four-color art reproductions, but having finished the novel last week, I’d say it was more collegiate art history class than a collecting primer and that the personalities that make the business run rather made the book lag.

An Object of Beauty is narrated by Daniel Franks and follows the story of Lacey Yeager, chronicling her successes and failures in the New York art scene. Daniel is mostly an admirable narrator. He’s a smart, art critic whose slightly sullen and reserved personality costs him a lasting romantic relationship and makes him seem just a little too stereotypical “quiet nerdy guy who never gets the girl” for my liking. He reminds me of a downgraded John Cusack in one of his High Fidelty-esque romantic roles. His ho hum lack of initiative is in stark contrast to Lacey, who is the quintessential Gemini. It would seem Lacey, herself, is an object of beauty– young, ambitious and charming. Her restless personality keeps her flitting around from one project to the next, be that project a painting or a boyfriend.

As a Steve Martin fan, I had high hopes for the book when I started reading. Lacey, it turns out, is really a subpar protagonist and the one dimensional descriptions of her left me frequently dettached. Daniel, who tells his readers he had sex with Lacey “exactly once,”  is always describing how when Lacey walks into a room, heads turn. Lacey rides her bicycle, heads turn. Lacey enters the gallery, heads turn. Lacey goes to dinner, heads turn. Etc. and etc. There are many chapters that open or close with such depictions of Lacey’s physical prowess and it all becomes super redundant super fast. Being the “carpe diem” hottie that she is, her unpredictable take-life-by-the-reins attitude actually renders her a completely predictable character. With the exception of one minor “twist” near the end of the book, Lacey’s actions leave much to be desired as far as a plot.

In an NPR interview Martin said: “the artistic side of the world has people with more flamboyant personalities, or more uncategorizable personalities, and Lacey is certainly one of those people.” Lacey is about as uncategorizable as a Sex in the City episode. And I mean that with insult only to Lacey, and not to Carrie, because I adore Sexy in the City.

If Martin conceived Lacey as some sort genre-defying  anti-heroine, he had a fetching idea. Somewhere along the production line, however, the execution of this idea got botched. As a cunning and cruel heartbreaker, Lacey’s not designed to elicit empathy from readers. Under the influence of X she tells her friend she loves him and then doesn’t return his call for three years. Upon learning he is the identity behind the elusive up and coming artist, she nabs him for a show with a little sweet talk. Lacey’s an opportunist and a lush– two desirable qualities, if you ask me. She exhibits minor complexities here and there but over all, she is flat out boring. As a Gemini, myself, I feel I must apologize on her behalf.

You’ll be pleased to know there is a character I fell in love with, so before I start going all cray cray on Steve Martin I will say that Patrice Claire was the jewel of the book. Patrice is a middle aged, European, millionaire with an insatiable appetite for two things: art and Lacey. He has some of the most poignant lines in the novel and a sweetness to him despite the fact that he’s kind of skeezy which makes him kind of hot. I also really enjoyed the conversation Lacey has with John Updike on the train.

I found the book to be fairly funny overall, with its descriptions of exhibition trends and jesting attitude toward art snobbery and avaricious dealers. However, there was a lot of superfluity. At times, I definitely felt like I was wading through a litany of artists, hoping to past through the didactic illuminations about modernism and move into something more interesting. You know, like, a better storyline.

I suppose I could have ended the book thinking about what drives rich art collectors and if it’s possible for something to be beautiful and famous if it doesn’t come with the appropriate price tag that signifies its cultural worth. What is the intersection between art as a commodity and art as aesthetics? Or maybe I should have finished the novel mulling over the fine line between passion and obsession. Or I could have been thinking long and hard about Lacey, questioning the intent of her cool and calculated rise to the top, wondering what she was really thinking all those years she climbed the ladder. Will she every truly be happy? Did she finally find love? Does she even believe in love? Do I believe in love? What is happiness? Why are Warhols so fucking expensive?

But no. I just felt a little annoyed after the last page. Actually, I felt a little annoyed on the last page. I didn’t so much care for the ending.

Martin is a fab and skillful writer and some of his passages are very eloquent and moving, but those passages are isolated patches of brilliance. They work stunningly as a paragraph but not as impressive when woven together into a novel. Whatever its flaws, I still think An Object of Beauty is worth reading, and hey, it will look damn good on your bookshelf. You know, with those twenty-two four color illustrations and all.

 

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