Book Fourteen: The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club, Alexander McCall Smith

Ooh, it's the first two-timer on my list! Or rather, it's the first author I've read two books by this year. Seriously, this isn't usually my thing, but I've had this urge this year to read mysteries. I suspect this isn't quite a typical mystery, since it was relatively uneventful and the ending is a little... shall we say, not so thrilling? More time is spent developing characters and describing relationships than on actually solving the mystery at hand (which is: a young man falls from the balcony at the symphony and our intrepid philosophical heroine feels compelled to investigate). But since I'm a bit of an anglophile it seemed like a good match as it's set in Edinburgh, and that sets me off on wild fantasies of rainy nights and castles and thick accents and tea and plaid... sigh. I honestly can't think of much else to say about this book, other than that I enjoyed it while I breezed through it, but I may forget it just as quickly. (Sidenote: I finished this one several days ago, but just hadn't been able to muster up the energy to write anything... should I take that as a sign?)

Book Thirteen: Heat

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, Bill Buford

Food books are my comfort food. My mashed potatoes, my grilled cheese, my giant bowl of noodle soup, my hot chocolate. This is what I turn to when I need to be refreshed after reading something boring or disturbing or just plain bad. It was nice timing to read this after In Cold Blood, however, that was more a factor of something being forced on me, thanks to the Seattle Public Library system and that whole pesky due-date thing. I put a hold on this one, and what with it being recent and popular, I was something like 120th on the list. However, all of a sudden, it turned up as being ready for me, so I was kind of forced to read it now. But what a super, super book! I really had very little interest in Mario Batali, so it was nice to get a kind of roundabout introduction to him through Bill Buford trying to learn about him through cooking in his kitchen and studying with people that Batali had studied with. And, of course, what I came away with is that Batali is just plain crazy.

The only point at which the book lost me was the whole butcher thing, since as a pescatarian I'm not so down with appreciating the subtleties of different cuts of meat on cows and pigs. One of the lead-in quotes to a chapter starts with, "The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite." Which I totally agree with, and might add that a requisite for reading food writing is a good appetite for what they're writing about. And, up to the chapters that get into all the meat-talk, I definitely did with this book. Also, between the descriptions in this book of working in the kitchen at Babbo and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, I've decided I would be sooooo not cut out for working in any kind of kitchen, no matter how much I like food and cooking. Their descriptions make it sound as if all restaurant kitchens are teeming with testosterone, something I know I couldn't even remotely handle. However, I can definitely appreciate their stories about it all.

Book Twelve: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

There is a very good reason why I refuse to watch horror movies. That reason is that after I watch them I will be petrified for weeks, months even, unable to go to sleep or be alone in our house at night or go to the basement to do the laundry. I am especially disturbed by movies about serial killers. For some reason I can easily imagine some disturbed sociopath creeping into my house and raping or slaughtering me in the most horrifying way possible. Heck, I can't even watch trailers for horror movies without wanting to hide my eyes and cry. I remember having to sit through the trailer for Haute tension, and even with my head buried in my arms the whole time I am still totally freaked out when I think of it now. And so now after reading In Cold Blood, I should probably add books about mass murderers to my list of things to avoid, since this totally had the same effect on me. I did find it fascinating and wonderfully written, and yet every time I picked it up I had palpitations and had to double check the locks on the doors and windows. I haven't seen Capote or Infamous, though now I'd be interested to see how they both reflect the book. Of course, only if they don't also scare the shit out of me. Seriously, I think sometimes scary movies might make me literally poop my pants.

This book was read for my book club, and now that I think about it, I was the one who advocated for us to read it. I had already checked it out from the library and when someone else suggested it, I jumped all over it. So the moral is, I only have myself to blame. We talked a little bit at book club about the controversy surrounding the possible fabrications in the book, though, to be honest, that kind of thing doesn't really bother me. I mean, Capote himself even referred to it as a "non-fiction novel," which says to me that maybe he's admitting that there are parts that aren't 100% accurate (such as the last scene around the grave with the detective or some of the "facts" about Hickock). There's some good information about it on Capote's wikipedia entry that's worth reading. But honestly, this book is so freaking well-written, so interesting and absorbing, with developed characters and an interesting plot structure, that I don't mind the bits that may have been manipulated to make it a better read.

Book Eleven: The Slaves of Solitude

The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton

This is, by far, the best book I've read since the beginning of the year. It is the story of Enid Roach, a boarder at the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the fictional London suburb, Thames Lockdon, during the second World War. She, and many others, have fled the bombings of London for the tedium of the suburbs, though, by the end of the book, you get the sense that having bombs dropped on you in London may not be so bad after all. The boarding house is filled with the funniest, best-written characters I've read in years, including Mr. Thwaites (an older, pompous poop who speaks in silly voices, constantly attacks Miss Roach, and drives everyone else in the boarding house crazy), Vicki Kugelmann (a German expat who everyone presumes is a Nazi spy, and even though she isn't, comes close in her acts of evilness), and the American Lieutenant (who can't stop drinking or kissing girls).

Most of the dialogue with Mr. Thwaites really killed me. At meals he rambles on and on in his "Thwaitesian" speak, and at this point he's been going on for quite a while, when:

"I Hay ma Doots, that's all..." said Mr. Thwaites. "I Hay ma Doots..."

(He is not, though Miss Roach, going to add "as the Scotchman said," is he? Surely he is not going to add "as the Scotchman said"?)

"As the Scotchman said," said Mr. Thwaites. "Yes... I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said--of Yore..."

(Only Mr. Thwaites, Miss Roach realised, could, as it were, have out-Thwaited Thwaites and brought "of Yore" from the bag like that.)

The book is filled with scenes like this, balanced with scenes of such uncomfortableness that you want out out out. Which is perfect for the book, and gives this feeling of being trapped in this horrible, bleak boarding house. I'm not sure how to sum up what happens, because it's not much in the the way of action, but is a huge amount in the way of human psychology and emotions. Which totally makes this book sounds super boring, but I will assure you that it's not.

I'm pleased that I was not fooled by a pretty cover (oh, what a pretty cover!) and the stamp of New York Review Books, as I was by Envy. It's probably also an opportune time to note that the NYRB is publishing one of my favorite books of all time, The Dud Avocado, in June. Up until now it's only been available from the UK, so I'm pleased that maybe more people will read it. So, there's two books for you to read now. Right now!