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The Sunday Salon: An Impulsive Reading of “The Cookbook Collector”

The Sunday Salon.com

I think when I read too many review copies of books in a row, I start to get a little stir crazy. February was the month I planned to focus on review books, and I read five of them, with a couple library books in the middle for good mix. I read review copies with a little more focus than books I’m just reading because I want to, which I think gets tiring.

This week I decided to take a little break — TBR Dare, be damned! Forget you, overflowing bookshelf! Get away, review copies! I want to read freely and at random.

The book I ended up grabbing was The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which I discovered after reading a post at The Guardian which compared the book to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. According to the article, the books have a number of similarities: stories about live in America before and after 9/11; structures reminiscent of great works of literature; protagonists obsessed with the environment; and a struggle with politics at war. Given these similarities, the article wondered why The Cookbook Collector is just a great American novel, while Freedom has been dubbed the Great American Novel (with all that the capital letters imply).

I really didn’t care about reading Freedom, but The Cookbook Collector intrigued me. Plus, the wait list at the library for Freedom is 523 people long, while I was able to pick up The Cookbook Collector in just a few days. Score!

Instead of writing anything about the book myself — which I finished in just two days, despite the fact that it’s almost 400 pages long — I just want to tell you to read Ron Charles’ review from The Washington Post last July because it is just so excellent. I love the way he describes characteristics of the book in ways that invoke the feeling of the story–”one more quirky ingredient of a story that can seem too lightly mixed” or “plenty of delicacies are simmering in The Cookbook Collector” are lovely examples.

Or, noting that one character is, “a single man in possession of a good fortune” and asking about a particular romance, “Can these opposites finally overcome their pride and prejudice?” to invoke the sense of Jane Austen that permeates the book. So clever! Charles pulled the same sort of trick in a recent review of The Weird Sisters, invoking Shakespeare-esque turns-of-phrase to write a review that is almost as fun to read as the book itself.

But of course I won’t just do that, since I know you are just dying for my thoughts on a book that’s a few capital letters short of greatness.

The book is definitely a sprawling family epic, even if family is defined rather loosely to include neighbors and coworkers and roommates. At the center are Emily and Jessamine Bach. Emily is the CEO of a small tech firm, Veritech, on the cusp of going public and making millions of dollars. Jess, in contrast, is a tree-loving vegan, studying philosophy and working part-time at a used bookstore. Despite their very different natures, there’s a clear affection between the sisters, and their relationship stays at the center of the book even when it flies off into a million different directions with more minor characters that I can even remember.

The time the novel is set — starting in autumn 1999 and ending in March 2002 — provides a big clue where the novel is going and some of the themes there might be: innocence and confidence before a fall. The fact that many of the characters also work at start-up tech companies reinforces those ideas, as companies at the time had the potential to make millions of dollars, but it was all dependent on the stock market. Anyone who clearly remember the before and after of 9/11 will, I think, pick up on those emotions in the book.

That’s really what makes this book so good — Goodman nails the spirit of the time she’s writing about and really draws the reader in. The ups and downs for the market and for Emily and Jess feel as if they could have actually happened amidst all the things that did actually happen then. It’s not exactly a happy book, but there are definite moments of levity. I loved this passage, for example, which is about two account managers from Goldman Sachs who work with the characters after their stock goes up and they are suddenly millionaires:

These reps from Goldman were all named Josh and Ethan, and they arrived bright-eyed, cuff-linked, trussed in ties of burgundy, and they were thrilled to answer every question, psyched to help out in any way possible, and honestly happy to talk whenever, because most of all they were about having fun and learning and teamwork and making dreams happen — not just short time, but long term, which was very much what they perceived ISIS to be about. They loved innovation, said Ethan. They lived for flexibility, said Josh. When the lockup ended, they couldn’t wait to innovate with everybody in the company. They worked with your lawyer and your accountant and your bank, but when it came to strategy, they said, Picture, if you will, myself and my colleagues as the quarterbacks of your team. This above all: They loved to communicated. Communication was the key, as in live, because at the end of the day, it was relationships that mattered. It was all about trust — just knowing that your team was there. Bottom line, that’s why they were in private-wealth management — your time, when you were worth ten million or more.

I just find that very funny, in a quiet sort of way, which I always appreciate. In other sections, the writing is much more lush — full of descriptions of food and recipes and love that are really beautiful. I’m still not sure how this book compares to Freedom, but I get the sense The Cookbook Collector is probably more my style: a little quieter, a little less self-aware, but still a beautiful book capturing a certain time in our country. I’m glad I took the break to read it.

But now, I am off to finish some blog posts and hopefully get some reading in. I’m slowly making my way through War and Peace, which I hope I’ll get caught up with in March. I also started reading a business book, The Mesh by Lisa Gansky, which is a nice contrast to the beast that is Tolstoy’s novel. Happy Sunday, everyone!

(Rating: ★★★½☆)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steph February 27, 2011, 10:04 am

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review. I remember reading lots of good things about this book when it came out, but when I was browsing Amazon the other day, I was surprised to find that the reviews for it were so mixed. It made me reconsider whether it was something I really wanted to read, but now that I’ve read your review, I do think I will give it a try. I read Goodman’s book INTUITION a few years ago and really loved that one, so hopefully this will be a good one to follow that up with.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:20 pm

      Steph: Other than the Guardian article, I didn’t read any reviews of the book before I read it. I figured if I didn’t like it after a couple chapters, I’d just quit reading, but I ended up very absorbed by the whole book. I hope you like it!

  • Vasilly February 27, 2011, 10:30 am

    I read the same article featured in The Guardian. I hurried to my library’s website and downloaded the book on audio. I’m glad to hear that it lives up to your expectations. I can’t wait to listen to it now that I’ve read your review.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:21 pm

      Vasilly: That sounds like almost exactly my reaction 🙂 I hope you enjoy it too!

  • Trisha February 27, 2011, 10:39 am

    I love how we both mention that damn TBR Dare. 🙂 I may be joining you in kicking it to the curb so that I can read A Discovery of Witches.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:22 pm

      Trisha: As much as I complain about it, I actually really like the TBR Dare — it’s helping me focus on the books I have rather than acquiring more and more of them. I’ve had a couple exceptions, but overall it’s going well!

  • Iris February 27, 2011, 11:04 am

    You make this sound so amazing that I put it on my wishlist right away, while I have to admit that the title and cover would not have convinced me otherwise.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:22 pm

      Iris: I don’t think I would have grabbed it based on the title or cover either. They’re both a little bland. But I liked the book a lot – I hope you do as well!

  • Florinda February 27, 2011, 1:18 pm

    This one’s been on the Wishlist since I first heard about it – I’ve read and really liked just about every novel Goodman’s written. Having said that, I’m not sure I’d paid much attention to the specifics of this book, so I’m really glad you shared your thoughts on it! I may need to see if there’d a Kindle edition so I get to it sooner.

    (If you check out the “additions to TBR” list in my Sunday Salon post today, I think you’ll see one that meets w/your approval :-).)

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:23 pm

      Florinda: I’ve never read Goodman before, but I’m going to look for her books at the library next time I’m there. Her writing style is really lovely.

  • The Girl from the Ghetto February 27, 2011, 2:21 pm

    I get the same way when I read too many ARC’s in a row. It’s like you have to take so many mental notes or actual notes that is takes away from the pleasure of just getting lost in the book.

    Last night I went off my ARC shelf and read 2 books not to be reviewed, and it felt so liberating!

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:25 pm

      Girl from the Ghetto: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. When I just read my books or library books, I know I can just skip reviewing them if I feel like. I feel like I should write up something on review books and that makes them a little tiring after a bit.

  • Tina February 27, 2011, 2:50 pm

    I just read this back in November, but couldn’t really remember it that well, so I went back to my review (http://tutus2cents.blogspot.com/2010/11/review-cookbook-collector.html) to discover that I too was quite ambivalent about this book, although I obviously had a positive assessment at the end.

    It’s one of those books that is a good read, not great literature, but unfortunately, for me anyway, did not have much staying power.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:25 pm

      Tina: I’ll be interested to see about the staying power of the book. I enjoyed it at the time, but we’ll see how it lasts.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) February 27, 2011, 6:06 pm

    I like a good sprawling family saga. I’ll have to look into this book.

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:26 pm

      bermudaonion: This is a very, very sprawling saga. Hope you like it!

  • Melissa February 27, 2011, 7:17 pm

    Huh. I have this checked out from the library now, even though I admit I just grabbed it based on the fact that I’d seen it on blogs. I didn’t really pay much attention to the specifics of the story until reading this wonderful review. I’m thinking it might need to be bumped up a little higher on the stack of books …..

    • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:27 pm

      Melissa: I don’t know how I missed this book, but somehow I don’t remember hearing about it before reading the Guardian article. That’s weird, actually!

  • Andi February 28, 2011, 6:57 am

    Ha! I love that passage. Having worked for a Fortune 500 around that same time period, I’ve heard so much of this crap. lol This does sound like a fantastic novel, and I’m even more excited to read it now than I was before. It’s available from my library in e-book format, so I’ll definitely take advantage of it.

  • Kim March 1, 2011, 6:28 pm

    Andi: There were lots of just dry funny parts like that. The whole spirit of the start up tech companies really set a tone of unlimited excitement and then a big crash. It was really good.

  • Unruly Reader March 1, 2011, 11:13 pm

    Rage on! Reading freely and at random is grossly underrated. Glad you broke loose.

    Great review — way more informative about the tone of the book than the other reviews I’ve read.

    • Kim March 4, 2011, 6:07 pm

      Unruly Reader: Oh, it definitely is! I love going off the plan once in awhile, just to see what I end up reading. And thank you — the tone was one of the things that really struck me about the book, since I think she captured a sense of time so well in it.

  • Lisa March 4, 2011, 8:30 pm

    One of our members picked this for our book club selection for June. Boy am I looking forward to it now!

    • Kim March 5, 2011, 10:30 am

      Lisa: I hope you enjoy it!