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!