Monday, March 29, 2010

The Glass Palace

I finished The Glass Palace by Amtav Ghosh last week. I am sad to say it left me completely underwhelmed. It isn't an awful book; some of it is really quite good. In fact, it begins very promisingly before it starts to deflate. One of the problems with the novel is that it doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it a family saga? An historical narrative? An expose of the evils of colonization by the British Empire and its effects on South East Asia in general, Burma in particular? It could have been all these things, and it certainly tried, but it never quite gelled into one cohesive story. Missing too was the enthralling storytelling I found in Sea Of Poppies. Ghosh himself seemed to grow tired of the book and the last 100 pages came off as a flurried slap-dash attempt to quickly tie up loose ends. I felt like a dinner guest who was being rushed to the exit the minute I put down my dessert fork. "What's your hurry? Here's the door."

Do publishers employ editors anymore? There are novels in which every word has a place in the story (House of Mirth comes immediately to mind because I am listening to the final chapter on audio book); but, I have found that sloppy editing is my main complaint with novels these days. The Glass Palace could have benefited from the blue pencil had it been used to whittle down this 500 page book into a tight, well-told story of about 350 pages. Certainly, the author is talented enough. As it is, the book suffers from a multiple personality disorder which could have been successfully treated. Although not a complete waste of time, I hate to admit this book was a disappointment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Living Lean

Grad's rounding the bend...she's racing down the straight-away...toward the finish line. One week to go to prove a budgeted life is workable. Except for the mortgage (which has always been an automatic draft) all bills were paid (or scheduled on-line) on the first day of the month-regardless their due date. That one small change in habit has done wonders for sleep. No longer do I sit straight up in bed, in the middle of the night, in a panic that I've forgotten to pay the electric bill and am facing disconnection. All my monthly expenditures, fixed and discretionary, are now on a spreadsheet. Every dollar has a name. Every one. I love my spreadsheet. I pull it up on the computer and look at it, tweak it, gaze at it lovingly. "Who's the most adorable spreadsheet in the world? Hm?? Whooo? (tickle-tickle) That's wight. Widdle YOU." Well, maybe it hasn't come to that extreme, yet. But I ask myself, how did I manage all these decades without such an unflinching taskmaster? The answer is, not very well. The fixed stuff was easy, of course. But the discretionary spending has been the real challenge. It is much too difficult to say "no" to myself in a bookstore, so I spend a lot more time in the library.

I am staying far away from the kitchen-ware store. I've promised myself that for every gadget that comes to live in my kitchen, another must be banished. Since I can't abide waste, a replacement is allowed only upon something else's demise. That has been difficult. And sad. No more All-Clad cookware - not even the roaster I desperately desired. No more Lock 'n Lock storage containers, which already fill up an entire cabinet, even if they do make the pantry so neat. No cute rooster towel holders, no microfiber dish towels. No!

The third danger zone I face is the grocery store. I hate grocery shopping, and my modus operandi has always been to dash in, fill the cart up as quickly as I can with whatever looks good, and get out. This strategy does not work on a budget. I now take a more studied approach. Although I like to cook, I don't usually follow recipes. The paradox here: I own more cookbooks than any other type of book. I am shocked at the realization. Apparently, I horde them as well. What other explanation could there be for owning four copies of Joy? Actually, they are different editions, so that must be the answer. I have six books by Julia Child and only recently did I realize that two of them are identical (they only have different covers). I own every cookbook written by Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson, and several by Lidia Bastianich. But - with the exception of Julia, Joy and Ina - I seldom, if ever, cooked from them.

A written budget is a challenge. A test. Like trying to survive in the forest with nothing but a Boy Scout knife. It is a thing foreign to me. I am not saying I have heretofore been able to spend freely. Quite the opposite. I just never quite got around to putting it down - in figures I can look at. I simply came off the month with an incredulous look on my face. "Where had it gone?" But staring down the cold, hard reality of a spreadsheet brings it all into focus. So things have changed. As a result, faced with self-restriction of the most tangible sort, I now take out the aforementioned cookbooks and actually decide what I will prepare for lunches and dinners that week. I check what I already have in the pantry or freezer or fridge, and what needs to be used up.

Although I love nothing better than a rare bit of roast beef, or a Cornish game hen with wild rice stuffing, I am eating more vegetarian meals now. I found a lovely (and sometimes fearsome) recipe that combines bulgur and green lentils, and which embraces the odd, left-over bits of fresh broccoli rolling around in the vegetable bin, or a wayward spring onion, the tomato that didn't make the cut in yesterday's salad, the juice from the part of the lime left over from my gin and tonic (I am still debating whether alcohol should be included in the food budget, or is more the domain of the "miscellaneous" column of the spreadsheet.) It accepts all comers, that bulgur-lentil thing-y. Which is why it is lovely, of course. The fearsome part? Although bulgur and lentils together produce a complete protein, they also to put this delicately...flatulence. I suggest that if one embarks down the bulgur-lentil road, one does so gradually or one works Beano into one's food budget. (Forgive me for broaching the subject, but I wish someone had warned me.)

I have also discovered that I am willing to make concessions on some things - the store brand frozen veggies are just as good as the "Ho-Ho-Ho" brand with the picture of the green dude wearing a pea-pod suit for instance - but not on others. I'll pay the extra two bucks for the organic milk and cage-free, vegetarian-fed chicken eggs, as well as the organic limes and lemons if I'm using the zest. Oh, that reminds me...I always use the zest, it freezes wonderfully.

For years I only bought artisan breads...those hearty, hefty loaves with crusty crusts and dense yet yielding insides. I also love baking my own loaves and find the long process enormously gratifying when I have lots of time. But bread-baking isn't very practical as a daily office. I have a bread machine. A bread machine is one of those contraptions that I bought and then stuffed into the pantry after a try or two. I didn't like the texture of the bread baked in it. But I have since discovered that I can throw all the ingredients into the machine and simply run it through the dough cycle. All the real work having been done for me, once it has risen, I simply take it out of the machine, knead it a few seconds (more for my benefit that for its) and let it rise without any further help from me while the oven heats up. Bang it into the oven, and pull out a perfectly-textured artisan loaf - for less than half the price at the bakery.

I suppose I shouldn't get too puffed up yet. I still have a week to go - I could blow it with an ill-timed visit to Barnes and Noble, or a sojourn in the shoe department of Macys. And, although this whole thing has been a revelation to me, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that I am the last person on the planet who hasn't followed a strict, written-down budget all along. I should have been the first. Certainly, no one has ever accused me of being financially solvent.

With luck, and some self-control, I just might be able to retire and, like Sherlock Holmes, keep bees - or something. Of course, there's always the possibility of Prince Charming coming to the rescue. In which case, it's caviar my dears!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Voices In My Head

Not all audio books are created equal. I've been listening to Wharton's House of Mirth, and am not loving it solely because I cannot abide the narrator's voice. When simply reading without embellishment her voice is pleasant enough - a little Kathy Turner-ish maybe. But unless adept at it (let's say a Robin Williams or a Meryl Streep) I wish narrators would not attempt a collection of voices to represent the characters. In the version I have, the deep-throated and hackneyed interpretation of Lawrence Seldon's voice was at first amusing, and then became downright annoying, as it makes him sound like "wolfie" dressed in Granny's clothing emoting, "Oh so better to see you with..." or a thinly moustached, slick-haired debaucher of young women urging, "Have some Madeira, m'dear," while twirling his waxed handlebars. It is escrutiating to the point I dreaded any conversation involving poor Mr. Seldon, and so I will have to brace myself for more to come. A shame really, since I am enjoying the story itself. The narration is such a...I guess the word is "distraction." And, of course, Wharton's language is so richly beautiful, I regret not being able to linger over a passage that strikes me. Audio books travel at their own pace. I suppose I could fiddle with the buttons and replay the portions I particularly like, but that's not so easy when eyes are on the road. However, since it is the only way I will be able to get it read within the next few months, I am resigned to hang in there. This is the first audio book where I have run across this particular problem. Naturally, I wouldn't want the text read as though being done by an automaton, but I think it's possible to find a happy medium. Mine is, of course, purely subjective criticism and I imagine others have found this particular audio edition delightful.

On the opposite end of the enjoyment spectrum, The Lost City of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon, written by David Grann and narrated by Mark Deakins was spellbinding. The background story surrounds British explorer and member of the Royal Geographic Society, Percy Fawcett's unrelenting quest to find an Eldorado-like lost city deep in the uncharted Amazon that he named simply: "Z". In 1925, Fawcett (after already trying and failing multiple times), his 22 year-old son Jack, and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell disappeared during an expedition into the Amazon jungle. What happened to them remains mere conjecture. All that is known for certain is that they were never heard from again. There were many subsequent attempts to "rescue" the lost men, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of others bent on solving the Fawcett mystery, and thereby garnering a sort of immortality. Numerous theories have been offered to explain Fawcett's fate. But none of those theories have been supported by any tangible proof. The truth is impossibly illusive. Grann, a writer for The New Yorker magazine and an admitted "couch potato," set out on a mission of his own to retrace the steps of the Fawcett group. Luckily, he survived to tell this wonderful tale. The Lost City of Z is part personal memoir, part biography and a totally mesmerizing adventure tale filled with Indians who could sling poison arrows with the precision of surgeons, maggots that crawl into human flesh and fester there, maddening insects, and fish and animals (not to mention cannibals) that would love nothing more than to make a meal of a hapless adventurer. It was so gripping it was almost dangerous to listen to while driving; one should be concentrating on the road. "How did I get on my driveway? I was just on the Upper Xingu badly in need of bug spray and a bath." Interspersed with listening to the book, I would Google Earth the Amazon coordinates where the Fawcett group was last seen, and then "fly" overhead, northward. That was close enough for me, and scary enough for me since my idea of roughing it is a hotel room without room service.

I understand a movie based on the book and starring Brad Pitt is due out in 2012. Although I think Pitt is too pretty for the role, not gritty enough, I will be in the audience with the largest tub of popcorn they sell.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Awake and Arise

I have been caught in a Rip Van Winkle-ish maelstrom. I leaned too far over the edge and was sucked into its vortex and am only now flogging my way out. So...okay...probably too dramatic a description, but that's how it seems. Blink and weeks have flown by. I don't know if it's because I've just been very busy in my personal and professional life, or crazed about reading my way through that lousy 1001 books to read before you keel over list, or spend half of my leisure hours in a stupor of wonder at just how much needs to be accomplished on that house of mine.

At any rate, The Curious Reader has been neglected, and yet, ever faithful, it sits and waits. Perhaps I have just had nothing of particular interest to say. Boring oneself with one's own thoughts does not trigger any creative drive. In such an atmosphere it is better to remain silent. Not that any of my gems are all that gem-y. And, come to think of it, one simply does not HAVE to have an opinion about all things. So (blink-blink) I awaken and stretch and yawn and plop back down into the comfort of my little blog. The dripping sink will continue to drip, the bookmark will stay in its place, and I am "out of the office" for just a moment while I recount "some kinds of crazy."

First and foremost, Katharine moved away. She's off to find her fame and fortune in the big Windy City. Although she was born there, she's a totally southern chick - True Grits (Girls Raised In The South). Fully realizing she's all grown up, all I saw was a little girl with skinned knees packing up her car with her clothes and (most importantly her shoes), and some sandwiches I made for her. As I watched her car drive away, I wondered where the years had gone. "The last thing I remember," I said to myself, "I was forty and she hadn't started school yet." The intervening one and twenty are nothing but a blur. But, as Shorty said (in one of those awesome and brilliant moments when she is once again, briefly, herself), "You raised her to fly on her own. You have to open your hands and let her take flight." And then she added, "You know, like when we let Sparky go." Uh-oh. Moment gone. "Mom, we didn't let Sparky go. It was Tommy, and we didn't let him go either. He flew out of the bathroom window and although we hunted all over the neighborhood, we couldn't find him." "Really?" "Yes, and while we were looking, a neighbor said he'd just found a parakeet. But it wasn't Tommy. This parakeet was yellow. So we took her home instead and called her Peaches....remember?" "Of course I do. Don't be silly." Katharine didn't have to leave by an open bathroom window, but I still find myself scouring the neighborhood looking for her. Is she out on the patio, or crossing the lawn? Do I hear her foot on the stair, or her keys turning in the lock? Some mornings I walk down the hall to awaken her...but stop before I reach her door. Old habits die hard.

Then, there is the book list. I am really not at all concerned about reading all the books listed on that confounded list. However, reading the list made me realize that there is so much out there that I have not, and will never, experience. It has become an obsession with me lately to use all my free time to read as much as I can. In that regard, I've taken to reading books on tape rather than listening to the radio in the car, and while doing the dishes and cooking rather than having the television on, and turning off the television by 9:00 p.m. and reading until it's time to turn out the lights. There is a danger there for someone such as I. Reading is such a solitary pursuit, and not being a very socializing type to begin with, I realize I'll have to make a special effort to spend time with friends and family. Otherwise, it's totally feasible that someone could drop by one day and find a big pile of dust, and discover it is I. Of course, by then they may have missed me at work when they come to the realization that an eerie quietude has descended upon my office and no snoring emanates from within.

Jumbled in with gearing up for Katharine's move and my reading surge and home maintenance issues, is the Total Gym. I am using it, but am slowly realizing that I will never look like Christy Brinkley, no matter how much time I spend on it. (Just, please God, do not let me start looking like Chuck Norris.)

My current book life is as follows: During the last month or two I've re-read The Maltese Falcon, and finished Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (on tape). I'm doing something I've never liked doing, which is reading more than one book at a time. The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse is thin and fits in my purse (one never knows when one will be stuck in a line someplace with nothing to read but one's checkbook register) and is being read in tandem with The Glass Palace by Amitov Ghosh. (my current "at home" read). I just picked up House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Lost City of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon by David Grann - both on audio CD. After the Ghosh, I'll begin An Academic Question by Barbara Pym and then Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu. The latter I got with a gift card from Barnes & Noble. Like all book lovers I agonized over what to get with my precious card. These things must be handled with deep care and only after careful consideration - lest a mistake be made and the card is wasted on something that will disappoint. I am not certain, but the cover looks mighty familiar. I hope it is only because it is fairly creepy, and not that I have already read it. I am 17th in line on the library wait list for Wolf Hall. Seventeenth? Groan! Probably all followers of Doctordi, and I lay the blame for my long wait on her conscience.

Finally, I've been working on my budget and take satisfaction in saying I have been faithful to it. I had been spending like Congress of late (and not at all like a drunken sailor who spends only his own money) and got fed up enough to rein it in. There is a perverse pleasure in seeing how well one can live on how little. And there is a euphoria in paying off debt. Wouldn't it be just as lovely and peaceful to bank away posts as it is dollars? I'll have to work on that one.

Next time around, I might get to talk to you about one of the books I've finished...provide you with an erudite and insightful synopsis of character and plot...OR...perhaps we'll simply discuss how to make soup!