December 31, 2014

2014 Year in Review

2014 Year in Review


It's been a while since I have read so consistently, but I leaped right back into literature this spring and haven't looked back since. It's been a big year for me personally: my wife and I are finally co-habitating for the first time since our wedding last year and we've moved a couple of states over, having each landed a job in our chosen field. All of this is very exciting, but I must say that I've desperately missed reading and am absolutely elated to have come back to read 42 books in just a few months, coming only 10 short of my usual goal for a full year of reading. This year was particularly genre-heavy for me, as I notice a lot of science fiction on my list of recent conquests, but I dabbled a bit and was quite pleased with the results. I've found that short story collections, particularly those with contributions from a number of different authors, can often recede into memory, but some of the stories in Agents of Treachery have stuck with me throughout the year, to the point where I don't think I'll be able to resist buying the book much longer. Other highlights included Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which has also left a lasting impression on me, and (in quite a different vein) Terms & Conditions, which I see shades of in less successful comedies I've encountered since reading it. And I would be remiss not to mention the excellent What If?, which was absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Revisiting my all-time favorite book, The Giver, was also an absolute delight, and I was pleased to find that my initial impressions and images remain intact despite the intervening years. There's something comforting in the act of reading, in the kind of travel that literature makes possible, and I think that I have rediscovered that magic in part due to last year's lapses. 2014 was a banner year for me, personally, and I look forward to the real-life and book-bound adventures I will have in 2015. Cheers!

December 29, 2014

Book 42: Chop Chop

Chop Chop
Simon Wroe

If I'm being totally honest, I must confess to watching a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) amount of reality television that involves cooking, and to a few employment experiences in the (very) low-rent end of the culinary world. This book, with its promised blend of sarcasm, profanity, and insight into London's culinary underworld, seemed like a good option for lighthearted, modern book to counter the more serious classics I've been reading in the past few weeks. Irreverent, Chop Chop most certainly is; as for the rest of it, I'm not quite convinced. It's clear from the first page, which kicks off a visceral description of a culinary process involving pork (not for the squeamish!), that Wroe intends to pull no punches, and indeed he doesn't. The language is unapologetically brutal as our protagonist-narrator- dubbed Monocle on account of his English degree- reluctantly joins the staff of a somewhat aspirational restaurant, The Swan, in Camden. Wroe immediately and convincingly drops readers directly into the world of high stakes restaurants, profane chefs, questionable sanitation practices, underpaid and mistreated assistants, and the underemployed.

It is here that Wroe truly shines. He offers an uncompromising, and quite unflattering, peek behind the curtain, and his kitchen is full of unsavory characters who are, despite the exaggerations that drive their descriptions, uncomfortably believable. The cursing may become a bit uncomfortably misogynistic and homophobic at times, but it does effectively create and maintain appropriate atmospherics and can largely be forgiven. The book does contain a few truly disturbing scenes that are, perhaps, a bit too amoral and upsetting, though I acknowledge that they are effective displays of a villain's utter depravity. Many of the book's punches are delivered with a dry, English wit that suits the book's somewhat bleak- yet strangely hopeful- outlook; there's some subtlety and craft at work, and the restaurant-based portions of the book establish and maintain a strong tone that carries the plot quite effectively. Add this to a lively ensemble cast that runs the gamut from the head chef's relentless cruelty to the sex-obsessed Ramilov and the aptly named, musical-loving Racist Dave, and it's a recipe for success. The book isn't, perhaps, as continuously funny as it aspires to be, but the restaurant parts offer a solid, evolving plot, interpersonal intrigue, and hijinks galore.

Wroe, however, aspires to more than satire, and these more lofty goals tend to derail, rather than strengthen, the book. Too much of the book focuses on Monocle's relentless (and annoying) self-doubt, and we witness too little change too late to salvage the story of his emotional maturation; readers are constantly a few steps ahead of him and can be forgiven for losing their patience as he remains stagnant for page after page. The book also suffers from uneven pacing and plot; somehow, it seems bloated despite its relatively small size (276 pages in my hardback edition), and it loses much of its momentum permanently after the first act. Though Wroe has Monocle's personal and professional stories to juggle, the family- and restaurant-centric chapters barely seem to influence each other and never achieve a proper sense of balance. The stories don't quite come together, despite the author's best intentions, and each thread's respective resolution leaves a lingering note of dissatisfaction. The novel is, by turns, appropriately and effectively humorous and serious, but it cannot quite reconcile its two moods.

Wroe also errs in making Monocle's narration a bit too self-aware, hinting that two of the book's major players have access to the text throughout its creation. Rather than offering readers this external commentary and context (with one notable, and successful, exception), Wroe filters their comments through Monocle, resulting in a sense of self-indulgence that adds nothing constructive to the book. The editors' impact is ambiguous at best, and Monocle's only clear indication of their influence is a statement blatantly ignoring it at the story's climax. Offering alternate perspectives could be a clever narrative trick, if the author made a legitimate attempt to do it, but as they are these references cheapen the novel and make it seem patently artificial- almost certainly the opposite effect than what was intended. Even more egregious are the author's constant reminders that Monocle is, in effect, writing an ex post facto memoir; the reader doesn't need to be told- repeatedly!- that the plot will thicken, the events will escalate, and things will get very interesting indeed. At some point, the story needs to speak for itself, and the author's lack of confidence inspires little in the reader. One gets the feeling that Wroe would do well to rely on his talents, which are many and evident, and not on his tricks.

Chop Chop is an interesting novel, but it is plagued by too many faults to be considered great; it ultimately suffers from its glut of good intentions. In attempting to write a coming-of-age story wrapped in a rollicking satire, Wroe loses the far more interesting plot at hand and creates a bit of a muddle. The characterization and satirical elements are often top-notch, as are many of the book's metaphors, and there are a few truly touching points of emotional resonance that betray the author's talents. Monocle's lingering guilt over his brother's childhood death, long past, feels viscerally real, as do the death's pivotal effects on the family, but at some point even these raw emotional observations become lost in the noise. In another novel, perhaps, they would ring clearly. Chop Chop contains the makings of a few good novels within it, but its ingredients never quite come together to make a satisfying dish.


Grade: B-

December 19, 2014

Book 41: The Door in the Wall and Other Stories

The Door in the Wall and Other Stories
H.G. Wells

I have long admired the works of H.G. Wells, but it has been a while since I read anything by him. As with Gwendolyn Brooks, I am now nominally in charge of a large collection of Wells manuscripts, including drafts of some of his most famous stories, and I happily took advantage of an opportunity to read "The Country of the Blind", this collection's final story. This collection is an interesting one, showcasing Wells's diverse interests and his skill in rendering both the mundane and the fantastic. With a distinctly matter-of-fact sensibility, Wells presents his tales as the truth, lending them a sense of plausibility by taking them seriously himself. His first-person narrators voice and reinforce the reader's anticipated doubts, making a claim for the stories' fiction that, in turn, makes them seem all the more plausible. By entrenching his characters firmly in his own present, Wells is able to tweak one or two elements of that present ever so slightly, weaving realistic tales of fantasy that nonetheless ring unnervingly true. Stories like "The Door in the Wall" revel in a kind of ambiguity (what, indeed, is the reader meant to believe about the titular door's supposed existence and magical properties?), but by exposing their doubts Wells invites his readers to believe.

What is remarkable about this particular collection of stories is its range. "The Cone" is chilling for its stark realism, requiring no fantastic embellishments to establish and continually ratchet its tension as it drifts ever forward to its remarkably brutal conclusion. "The Diamond Maker" is likewise realistic but also a bit more understated and lighthearted, tinged with a less consequential sense of regret than that which propels and haunts "The Door in the Wall". I found the latter story and "A Dream of Armageddon" a bit too apologetic in their attempts to be read as straightforward, plausible narratives; at some point, Wells has to just admit to himself that he's stretching the bounds of reality and go with it, to believe it himself so his readers can, too. Nonetheless, these and other stories do retain enough of a sense of the uncanny to haunt the reader while provoking interesting lines of thought and discussion about the power- both good and evil- of imagination and fantasy. "A Moonlight Fable", too, attempts to explore this theme, but far less successfully; it is easily the collection's weakest story, neither rewarding while being read or after it has been finished, passing harmlessly into the realm of the (rightfully, in my opinion) forgotten.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the collection's two strongest offerings, "The Star" and "The Country of the Blind", are those that dive wholeheartedly and unapologetically into the world of the fantastic and remain there. "The Star" is a scientific exploration of the consequences of the planet's encounter with a comet set at a tense slow burn that creates and exploits dramatic tension through every page. The last-minute curveball, though perhaps a bit ham-fisted for modern sensibilities, adds a surprising dose of perspective and a slight hint of black humor in what is otherwise a bleak tale indeed. "The Country of the Blind" is a nuanced exploration of a valley whose inhabitants have lived without sight for several generations, with a spectacular amount of detail that stands up to any modern standards for full-fledged worldbuilding. Wells precariously, but successfully, balances the protagonist's very European self-righteousness with the natives' own arrogance, forcing readers to reconsider some preconceived ideas about physical and cultural differences without exonerating a group that likewise dismisses a representative of the writer's (and reader's) world. The result is a refreshing take on these issues that feels fresh and relevant despite its advanced age, providing fodder for personal reflection and philosophical discussions galore.

Wells has accomplished no small feat in crafting a number of stories that are readable, enjoyable, and thought-provoking into the 21st century. He straddles and blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in so many compelling ways that can continue to entice modern minds. Some of the language and attitudes in these tales do betray the time and place of their origin, but they are nonetheless forward-thinking and exciting, providing excellent conceits that still resonate and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable (ha) future. Wells is able to drill down past whizzbang flash and fury and deliver tales that capture part of the excitement and essence of being human. Though The Door in the Wall and Other Stories betrays a literary style that has, alas, aged over the intervening years, H.G. Wells remains a-thinking and literary force to be reckoned with, capable of changing and challenging modern readers' perceptions and igniting the imagination as vividly as he must have done in his own time.


Grade: A

December 17, 2014

Book 40: Maud Martha

Maud Martha
Gwendolyn Brooks

As the person nominally in charge of a large collection of Gwendolyn Brooks papers at the University of Illinois, I figured that it was about time that I got around to reading some of her work. Instead of beginning with any of her many poetry collections, I started with Maud Martha, her only lengthy work of fictional prose. Calling it "fiction" and "prose" is accurate, but just barely: Maud Martha is a semi-autobiographical work that is more concerned with its language than with its characters, setting, or plot. To Brooks's credit, this language often gets one or more of those points across, though it makes for rough going at first and throughout, as the book never really gains any narrative energy. A few characters and incidents appear in repeated motifs, but the book is a set of illustrative vignettes that explore Maud Martha's experiences and surroundings rather than a proper novel about her life. These stories range from isolated to deeply emotional, particularly when issues of race are confronted head-on. Maud Martha- and, by extension, the reader- experiences the casual racism that allows a white saleswoman to casually drop the n-word in a black beauty salon and a white homeowner to presume that blacks live only in squalor. There is a visceral reality to these stories that comes across so clearly in Brooks's prose, which effortlessly places the reader into Maud Martha's shoes despite any differences of time, space, and race that might exist between author, character, and reader. That the book is compelling despite its scattershot plot is a testament to the author's enduring talents.

As a poet, Brooks naturally trades in a kind of subtlety and nuance that asks the reader to contemplate the many meanings of a chosen word or anecdote, and the book is full of small clues and brief quips that betray the author's greater comfort with sparser prose. Despite the fact that many of the vignettes in Maud Martha are compelling, they do not, as a whole, offer a nuanced exploration of the characters, which appears to be at least part of the point. Maud Martha is at once an everywoman and a representation of Brooks herself, which makes the book alternately interesting and bland. Brooks undoubtedly possesses a master's command of the English language, bending it to her will, but the book is much more valuable as a historical artifact, a time capsule, than a story in and of itself; I feel fortunate to have encountered it as part of a multi-generational reading group rather than in a solo venture. Maud Martha feels like Brooks's attempt to explore the nuances of the particular time and place in which she grew up and became a young woman; as such, it is a crucially important and well-executed, though somewhat limited, firsthand depiction of the lives of young black women in mid-20th-century Chicago.


Grade: A-

December 13, 2014

Book 39: Forest of Fortune

Forest of Fortune
Jim Ruland

This book is billed as a novel that tracks three individuals who are- in one way or another- down on their luck, laced with just a hint of the supernatural. It is, in fact, much more of the former than the latter, a hardboiled book without the mystery and a series of three loosely linked portraits that never quite come together as the author seems to intend. The premise- all three protagonists are linked to an Indian casino in the California desert- is solid, and it is clear that Ruland knows his way around the casino industry. But for all of his canny understanding of casinos and the various people who are drawn to them- whether by the lure of lady luck, desperation, or a bit of both or neither- Ruland isn't quite able to fully embrace the possibilities that his concept promises. Each of his three main characters is compelling in their own way, but they remain largely the same people throughout the book. Sure, things happen to them, and they wobble and waver like all people do, but each character's pivotal point comes far too late in the novel to provide a meaningful opportunity to engage with the ramifications of these realizations and events. Likewise, the supporting cast drifts in and out according to the author's whims, which do not always align with the book's own inertia; their personalities, along with the protagonists', lend the novel a gritty credibility, but their convenient appearances and disappearances often ring untrue. Ruland can't quite manage the distinction between showing and telling the reader about aspects of his characters' personalities, though there are certainly times when he admirably manages both.

Though the novel fails to arrive at the deeper, meaningful understanding of its characters that it seems to strive for, it is nonetheless compelling. Ruland's prose is well-suited to the novel he has written, neither too flashy nor too dumb and full of intriguing metaphors and refreshingly realistic dialogue in a variety of unique, distinguishable voices. Moreover, Ruland successfully juggles his three loosely related, but usually distinct, stories, displaying a remarkably keen intuition for when to drop one for another and when to move on. His use of a framing narrative comes off as a bit hokey and ultimately predictable, but it, too, fits into the structure of the book, appearing at its beginning, at its end, and between the four distinct sections; the main fault I found with it was an ending that not only predictable but also completely unconnected to the relevant character's narrative arc. This highlights the book's main fault: it has interesting characters and interesting plotlines for each of them, but fails to derive any deeper meaning; something is always just a bit out of reach.

Similarly, the novel teeters at the edge of fantasy but can't quite commit, much to my dismay. Whether or not there is actually some kind of spirit, malevolent or not, haunting the casino is beside the point; Ruland refuses to commit one way or the other, and the novel suffers for it. These are more than hints, and they occur to more than one character; surely it isn't too much to ask Ruland to actually go somewhere with the idea. The fantastic aspect, alas, becomes another unfulfilled promise as we watch Ruland's characters continue down their destructive paths. It must be said, however, that the book remains an enjoyable read despite its inability to be either entirely shallow or entirely deep. I tend to dislike books that refuse to decide what they are, but there are enough redeeming characteristics to Forest of Fortune that I didn't mind. Ruland's prose is remarkably visual and incredibly effective; I immediately felt immersed in the story and in its settings, which range from a beach-side suburb to a downtrodden trailer park in a downtrodden town to the flashy, but decaying, casino floor itself. The book displays Ruland's keen understanding of hard luck and his keen sense of humor, often wry and cynical but very well suited to the book and its characters. In the end, Forest of Fortune is a book that just is what it is: a well-developed, but ultimately shallow, portrait of the types of lost souls lured to the Thunderclap casino, with sufficient plot, prose, and themes that hint at- but don't quite showcase- the author's potential.


Grade: B-

December 9, 2014

Book 38: Small Plates

Small Plates: Short Fiction
Katherine Hall Page

Though Katherine Hall Page is the author of a long-running mystery series, I decided to pick up Small Plates anyway, figuring that short story mysteries are somewhat difficult to find. I found it to be a remarkably even collection, although my overall feeling was one of disappointment. Most of the stories star her longtime heroine, Faith Sibley Fairchild, and while first-time readers can easily become acquainted with Faith and the other regular cast members who make frequent cameos, Page has a tendency to introduce too many background details into these stories. It's lovely that Faith is such a well-rounded character with a robust history, but too many stories offer unnecessary backstory that is not only distracting but also misleading; the overall effect is not one of solid character development but, rather, of tedious exposition that verges on bragging. Page's tendency to over-explain is on display throughout these stories, which is all the more frustrating because she often abbreviates her treatment of other, more crucial story elements, such as resolutions. Stories such as "Across the Pond", "Hiding Places", and "Sliced" spend too much time building up to the last-minute surprise and far too little exploring the consequences of said twist, often abandoning the narrative just when things get interesting. This becomes a more egregious error when you consider that many of these sudden turns are telegraphed, or at least fairly easy to guess; though they are, as a rule, interesting and appropriate for the story at hand, they hint at greater themes and more intriguing tales that remain unexplored, left to the blank page and the reader's imagination. The exception is "The Proof Is Always in the Pudding", an amusing, if overly clich├ęd, period piece that offers its solution during a mid-story flashback, only to have our heroine discover the (very same) solution a few pages later, in a way that adds nothing to the story; still, though, its ending- unlike most of the others- is entirely satisfying.

This inconsistency, I believe, highlights Page's central fault: though she has a fantastic knack for creating believable characters and bringing her suburban Boston, midtown Manhattan, and rural Maine settings to immediate, vivid life, she just cannot use subtlety to her advantage. The mundane is explained- often ad nauseum and usually in far more depth than a short story warrants- and the unique is suited only for cameo appearances that quickly lead to more tedium. Too many times I found myself backtracking over poorly constructed, confusing sentences, and the book contains a startling number of simple errors, misplaced words, and missing commas that an astute editor could easily fix. The writing is far from lazy- nor is it belabored, for that matter- but it is often marred by an inherent clumsiness, a lack of intuition for what information to include, when to include it, and how to effectively do so, all errors that are magnified greatly in short fiction. Likewise, the dialogue often rang untrue to me, with characters explaining things to each other that each surely must have already known and using strangely formal language that yanks the reader right out of the story.

All is not horrible in Small Plates, and I have no doubt that a certain kind of reader would be happy to gloss over some of these faults and appreciate the stories that lie underneath. Page's overly saturated prose does not mar the tactfully paced, appropriately tense, and emotionally effective "The Two Marys" and actually suits "The Would-Be Widower". The latter story is by far the collection's strongest, a darkly funny tale whose final twists resonated perfectly despite the fact that I had mostly predicted them about two paragraphs in. This story, and elements of the others, prove that Page has the imagination and some of the right instincts to write compelling, clever mystery stories; nonetheless, I still feel like she over-thinks her writing, trying too hard to cram everything in and not trusting her stories and characters to speak for themselves. Again, this kind of style can work in lengthier fiction, but short work magnifies the error of every extraneous aside, every misplaced modifier, and every unnecessary bit of information. I really wanted this collection to be fantastic, and I would really like to see Page step a bit more outside of her comfort zone to really explore what happens to her characters after she drops the curtain. As it stands, however, I fear that Small Plates- while showcasing the Page's cleverness, sympathy, and surprisingly dry humor- is a victim of its own prose, comprised of good ideas that get away from the author, strong characters who can't quite become believable enough, and compelling stories that are not allowed to simply breathe, or be, or truly embrace what they are.


Grade: C+

December 7, 2014

Book 37: Caribou

Caribou
Charles Wright

I don't have much of a history with poetry, and certainly not modern poetry, but as I now find myself in charge of some significant archival collections pertaining to American poets I figured that there's no time like the present to reacquaint myself with the poetic. I was intrigued by the promises and quotes on Caribou's jacket and picked it up. I was, alas, somewhat disappointed, finding a few gems but largely feeling that the poems suffered from a lack of consistency, both internally and throughout the collection. Some motifs, such as Wright's reliance on nature as the source of recurring metaphors, are consistent throughout the book, but it often proves difficult to move from one poem to the next- or even one stanza to another. Some poems are seemingly at odds with their titles in ways that did not enhance my understanding or experience of the poetry, and others seem to shift without warning or a poetic purpose that I (in my admittedly limited experience and knowledge) could discern. That said, there are a few truly beautiful standouts in this collection. Wright is at his best when pondering the transcendent nature of life, whether in short bursts such as "Whatever Happened to Al Lee?" or longer, almost narrative pieces like "Little Elegy for an Old Friend". There is occasionally a thrilling beauty to be found in lines that leap off the page, even within some of the poems that, taken as a whole, grasp unconvincingly at coherence. At its best, Wright's poetry explores life from an existentialist outlook, grabbing readers with sharp observations; even at its worst, it is far from incomprehensible or indulgent for its own sake. The majority of the poems, even those I didn't quite get, offered me some intellectual fodder, which is, in a way, all you can really ask of a poetry collection. Nothing drastically altered my outlook on life, but there are a few lines and shorter stanzas that lend themselves well to repeated rumination. Overall, I found Caribou to be an interesting collection containing a lot of beauty, meaning, and wisely stated truths for those who are willing to overlook some of its weaker points and pan for its gold.


Grade: B

December 4, 2014

Book 36: What If?

What If? Serious Scientific Answers in Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe

I've been reading xkcd for years and its companion blog, What If?, for the entirety of its existence, and I was thrilled to see that Randall Munroe decided to release a book based on the latter concept. What makes What If?- in both blog and book form- so wonderful is that it shows how complex, stunning, and downright silly the world can be when taken seriously and not so seriously, all at once. The book is composed of Munroe's thorough, and often very literal, answers to readers' hypothetical questions, ranging from the mundane (How high can humans throw things?) to the absurd (What if we had a bullet as dense as a neutron star? What would happen if a baseball pitcher threw at the speed of light?) to the strangely profound (What is the furthest a living person has ever been from every other living person? How long would it take the last two people on Earth to find each other?). It is evident, both from the questions he selects and the answers he provides, that Munroe is intelligent, witty, and, above all, human. What If? indulges our collective curiosity and creativity, asking us to question our world and, more importantly, to figure out a way to find the answers. Laced with a fine layer of sarcasm, the book tackles even the most mundane questions with surprising energy, often finding ways to make even the more straightforward questions (What effects would a Richter 15 earthquake have? What did Times Square look like a million years ago?) surprisingly poignant. This is a book about being alive, questioning everything, and enjoying every goddamn moment of it.

This is often where I voice my criticisms, and I'm struggling to think of one. Perhaps loyal What If? readers will be slightly disheartened to see that many of the book's chapters are recycled wholesale from the blog; I, for one, was eager to read and rediscover them again. Munroe's blend of explanatory text and cartoons is as well suited to print as it is to the Internet, and I actually found much of it (especially the footnotes) easier to read in printed form. The stick-figure drawings and more elaborate cartoon explorations of world destruction are- of course- terrific, illustrating (ha) Munroe's inclusive and enthusiastic approach to scientific inquiry. The illustrations enhance and interact with the text in an innovative way that makes some of the more advanced concepts much more accessible and much of the book far more lively than most others. It is refreshing, too, to note how many of them are or contain jokes, lending the book a degree of levity that would benefit works across all disciplines. The science is real and I'm sure the math checks out (Munroe worked for NASA, after all), yet Munroe approaches science in a very relatable way. He never talks down to his readers, but strives to make even the most challenging, complex concepts easily understandable to anyone who is willing to stretch their mind and expand their horizons. Munroe is at once completely serious and completely irreverent, and the result is absolutely perfect.

I am convinced that the central question of What If? is not any of the questions it contains but, rather, an exploration of what it means to be human. If a central facet of our humanity relies on our desire and ability to question the world around us and devise ways to discover whatever answers the world might yield, then the book is a perfect manifestation of this desire. Why not ask what might happen if absurd and impossible thing x happens? Just imagine what we might learn if we suspend disbelief and believe, if only for a few pages, that the most wonderful (and utterly terrifying) things could happen. What If? goes there, managing to balance scientific rigor with the evident, honest, and unbridled thrill of being alive. Hell, I'm a humanities person to the core (with degrees in English, history, and library science), and I am half considering becoming a physicist after reading this book. What If? encourages- no, forces- readers to engage directly with the world around us, to question our assumptions and to think boldly about all of the possibilities the world offers us; no matter how absurd our questions may seem, they can often lead to some pretty surprising, and surprisingly poignant, answers and questions about the world around us.


Grade: A

December 1, 2014

Book 35: My Drunk Kitchen

My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking & Going with Your Gut
Hannah Hart

While I haven't seen all of Hannah Hart's My Drunk Kitchen videos, I admire both her concept and the obvious joie de vivre with which she appears to approach life. Nonetheless, I do know that she does some actual cooking on her show and was thus disappointed to discover that this is a book of jokes joke recipes rather than the recipe book with autobiographical asides that I had hoped for. Despite the fact that most of the recipes, which do form the core of the book, either sound awful or are actually just over-thought jokes, each provides a segway (however relevant) into a brief aphorism; these aphorisms form the book's emotional core and are worth seeking out and remembering- even if you don't bother with whatever small bit of context the anecote-joke-recipes might provide. Hell, I might even try a couple of these culinary abominations: to claim that I wasn't tempted by Pizza Cake and Things in a Blanket would be a lie, although I do think that including recipes that are essentially ordering Thai food and reheating Indian food leftovers is too much of a stretch, even for a book this lighthearted.

Harto does do a wonderful job translating her vivid on-screen personality into words, and the book's casual, conversational tone often makes it seem like she's right there in the room, encouraging you to live life to the fullest and calm your inner critic. It's easy to get immediately and completely hooked on the book- I read it over the course of day, during my commute and lunch hour- although it does leave a bit to be desired. The core conceit- barely plausible recipes combined with folksy, hard-won wisdom- is a good one, but the format changes little throughout the book. There is little surprise to be had after the rules are established, and the sections get weaker as the book goes on. With its focus on family, the final section oozes with potential, but Harto settles for the lazy jokes and played-out stereotypes instead of the fresh cleverness that makes her so endearing. Then, too, she tends to overplay her hand, taking a joke just too far or not trusting a sarcastic aside to carry its load, calling attention to the book's silliness and subduing its raw emotional power, which gets lost somewhere among the shouting. Thus, the book often seems at odds with itself: for every genuinely insightful moment, those when Harto lets her guard down and really connects with readers on an emotional level, there is a failed, exaggerated joke to quickly spoil the moment.

It is difficult to tell what, exactly, the book is meant to be, and I have a feeling that it would be much more effective if Harto had chosen a single shtick. Is it a memoir made out of fake recipes? A self-help book disguised as some sort of hilarious romp? An actual recipe book peppered (ha) with autobiographical anecdotes? My Drunk Kitchen is, in its way, all three at once, and thus simultaneously none of the above. It provides an enjoyable, though temporary, diversion for an afternoon despite its flaws, and it is beautiful as a physical object. Harto and her photographer hit the mark time and again, and the overall design is bold, aesthetically pleasing, and perfectly suited- and connected- to the text. And though she sometimes disappoints, shying away from too-personal revelations and the vulnerability they introduce, there's a convincing honesty to Harto's work, a sense that- despite the occasionally overblown attempts at humor- she's right there struggling, failing, and succeeding along with the rest of us. My Drunk Kitchen may not have met my expectations, but it was worth the short amount of time it asked of me and I might, if drunk enough, even dare to try a recipe or two.


Grade: B+