Monthly Archives: June 2013

Review: Gourmet Rhapsody

Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is not a novel to be read for plot. It’s an exercise in style and focus, with gorgeous results.

Gourmet RhapsodyGourmet Rhapsody takes place over the course of the last day of one man’s life, with musings from the man on his deathbed anchoring chapters from numerous other points of view, including the man’s wife, his maid, a statue in his office, his cat, his children, and a homeless man. The man at the center of the novel is Pierre Arthens, a world-renowned food critic. Monsieur Arthens had fame and wealth, but — apart from food — very little happiness. His marriage is frigid, his children are estranged, and the only purely loving relationship he has is with his favorite cat. In short, Arthens is leaving a world that will likely not mourn him. This is not what troubles him, however. In his final hours, he is obsessed with rediscovering some forgotten food, a flavor that he cannot identify but that surpasses all others.

The chapters alternate between those from the viewpoint of Monsieur Arthens and those from the viewpoints of the myriad people (and animals, and objects) who know him. Arthens’ chapters focus on food foremost, with the people that provided the meals only in the background. The descriptions of the foods he ate and loved are lusciously detailed, focused on flavors, sensations, and emotions. Barbery’s style and tone are reverent, painting scenes and meals with exquisite care; more than once I found myself so drawn in that I actually closed my eyes to better experience the dishes that Barbery’s words brought to life.

The chapters from the others’ point of view are focused on Arthens as a person, or more specifically, his many glaring faults and majestic failings. These chapters are shorter, more emotionally driven characterizations. There is pain and grief, as well as moments of tenderness. Many of the brief narrators revile the man, and even those that care for him do so with reservations. The reader learns much about Arthens that then colors the chapters from his point of view, leading the reader to feel that they begin to understand him, even if they don’t like him.

Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is a must for foodies. I do consider myself a bit of a foodie, though I don’t have the funds to go as far into that world as I’d like. But whether you’re an epicure or not, this short novel is certainly worth a read. It may not be for everyone (as I mentioned, the entirety of the plot focuses on one man’s struggle to remember a taste he once experienced), but I do think that many readers would enjoy the simplicity and beauty Barbery has created. Especially for those who read and loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog (like this girl right here!), this novel is not to be missed.

Happy reading!

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Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

I picked up The Cabinet of Curiosities, co-authored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for two reasons: The Cabinet of Curiosities

1. This past semester, I took an archival literature class that focused for some time on the phenomena of cabinets of curiosity, and how the form and function translated to literature. Hence, the title caught my eye.

2. I am incapable of leaving a bookstore — especially Bookmans — without buying something.

The novel opens with the discovery of an underground tunnel beneath a construction site in New York City, in which the bones of 36 murder victims are found stuffed into bricked-over alcoves. The charnel immediately catches the attention of FBI Special Agent Pendergast, who enlists the help of Nora Kelly, an archaeologist working at the Museum of Natural History. Nora in turn engages her boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, to help delve into the mystery. One note on the characters and their back-stories; this novel seems to be one of a series, since it refers to past events that the authors seemed to think I should be familiar with, but reading it on its own was generally not a problem. More than anything, it was just vaguely bothersome in those moments when previous events were referred to without explanation.

The investigation into the 36 century-old murders takes on a new urgency when new victims displaying the same kill signature begin to show up around the city. It seems that their is a copy-cat killer on the loose, but why? And what drove the original killings in the first place? The investigation takes place both on the streets of New York, as well as in the sprawling archives of the Museum of Natural History. The archives hold an astonishing amount of material, from artifacts to personal correspondence between scholars to known frauds. Among all of it, Nora and Pendergast find clues to the hows and whys of the killings of the original victims, as well as hints to why it might be happening again.

This novel is interesting, with a significant number of unexpected plot twists. However, I feel that the dual authorship had one major pitfall: it made The Cabinet of Curiosities significantly longer than it probably should have been. The novel is 629 pages, and it drags in some sections. Everything does build toward the final unveiling, but I think some sections could have been tightened up, shortened, or dropped entirely. For example, while I understand making a reader want to care about the victims, I don’t feel the need to have an entire chapter devoted to introducing that character solely so they can be found dead ten pages later. Maybe this is just me being crotchety, but I kept feeling like the novel needed to be more streamlined. This, really, is my main gripe with the otherwise solidly decent mystery. It’s good summer reading, though. I myself read much of it by the pool, and I can’t recommend that methodology (read, swim break, read, read in the pool, nap, read, swim…) enough.

While this was a unique novel, especially given the lens through which I was reading, thanks to my recent coursework, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my to-read list. It’s good, not great. I’ve recently read multiple books that I enjoyed more, including other  mysteries. I think I’m going to step away from mysteries — especially murder mysteries — for a while, since I don’t want to burn myself out on them. Let’s see about queuing up a lighter read next.

Happy Reading!

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Review: The Last Child

The Last ChildJohn Hart is a great author, and his style is bitingly realistic and engaging. Now… having said that, I have to say that reading The Last Child was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. In fact, it literally made my chest hurt at times. While this can be attributed to strong writing, it can also be due to the content and plot of this novel.

The plot focuses on thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s search for his twin sister, who was kidnapped one year before the opening of the novel. In that year, Johnny’s father abandoned Johnny and his mother, Katherine, and in his absence she has taken up with a drug-addicted, power-hungry abuser. This man sexually and emotionally abuses Katherine, gets her addicted to pills, physically abuses Johnny. Through all of this, Johnny refuses to give up his search for answers in his sister’s disappearance. It’s a tough read, no question.

I have trouble recommending this novel solely because of the emotional toll it took on me. Bleakness and violence saturate the story, and I’m the type of reader that feels that sort of thing very deeply. It’s made worse by knowing the sorts of things that are described in this book, though fictional, happen in real life, every day, to many people around the world. Kidnappings, broken families, murder, and abuse. Families that never get answers, or get answers they wish they’d never heard. That, really, is what became almost too much for me. The reality behind The Last Child is even more depressing than the novel itself.

While it’s hard to handle emotionally, the mystery aspect of The Last Child is strong. Johnny’s search is mirrored by a detective’s more official investigation; Detective Hunt is invested in the case to the point of obsession. While he publicly rebukes Johnny for skipping school and endangering himself in his investigations, Hunt secretly is rooting for the boy. The reader is put in a similar position. I felt myself holding my breath, willing Johnny to succeed, heart racing in the most harrowing scenes. I wanted to grab on to this young boy and keep him safe, yet I had to keep watching him plunge further down his path to the truth.

This novel, if you can stomach it, is certainly worth your time. (HALFSIES SPOILER!!!) Don’t hope for any happy endings, though. I held on to hope for nearly the whole novel, only to have it dashed near the end. There is closure and resolution, but much of it is still achingly sad. While there is some measure of peace, and the ability to look forward, it’s hard to imagine the characters fully leaving behind all that has happened. As a reader, I know I’m still having trouble doing so.

While this one wasn’t, I wish you, as always, happy reading.

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