Recent Reading: Kitchen Sink

I was doing well with blogging more regularly until I got the cold from hell. And my husband has been in England since last Sunday, so this week was rather hectic. In the interest of getting back in the swing, some random things I’ve been thinking and reading about.

I’ve got two kids, four cats, and a dog to keep me company in my husband’s absence. Still, I’ve been feeling lonely this week. Elizabeth Renzetti’s piece on loneliness in today’s Globe and Mail really resonated with me. I heard a speaker from the Vancouver Foundation discuss the survey mentioned in Renzetti’s article, where Vancouverites reported social isolation as “their most pressing concern” about their city, and what the Foundation is doing to bring people together. I need to undertake my own anti-isolation initiatives. I don’t see friends enough. (I’m totally not as depressed as this makes me sound, though).

In my lonely and bored Friday night state, I browsed Netflix and watched a little bit of Inspector George Gentlya British crime show set in the mid-1960s. I thought it was pretty run-of-the-mill (but I’m only 30 minutes in). However, some of my readers will like to know that the first episode features Richard Armitage as the leader of a motorcycle club. OK, the emo leader of a British MC, the “Durham Defenders.” And his name is Ricky. Hardly the stuff of the Kristen Ashley hero. Nevertheless, you might want to check that out.

My city is banning doorknobs. I’m all for more accessible design. At the same time, I have Art deco doorknob with a raised cross pattern.yet to see a door handle as aesthetically pleasing as the vintage art deco knobs in my 1930s house. On the other hand, the front door knob doesn’t work properly and traps our guests. At City Hall, they’re replacing the equally beautiful knobs (visible in the link above) with handles, and so they should, because a public building should be accessible. All the same, I think Vancouver has a bad record both of preserving its architectural heritage and of creating interesting new buildings. I wish they’d find a better balance between pragmatism and art.

In my class this week, we started discussion of Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. We had two group presentations: one focused on Nina Mikkelsen’s “Insiders, Outsiders and the Question of Authenticity” in relation to the novel; the other group looked at some online resources on multicultural children’s literature (including the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Exploring Diversity site) and talked about criteria for evaluating depictions of different cultures. Both presentations generated lots of interesting discussion. And once again, I thought about the connections between class discussion and romance fiction, where issues of authenticity and who can best tell certain kinds of stories also come up regularly. Mikkelsen argues forcefully for cultural insiders as the best people to write about a culture; I didn’t expect students to agree with her 100%, and they didn’t, but a strong position is a great place to start a discussion.

Some of my favorite moments from class:

Something a presenter said made some students think for a minute that Alexie was not himself a Native American and was writing as an outsider. As one of them said, “I thought for a minute I was going to have to hate this book.” This led to a really interesting discussion of why some things can only be said–or can only be said in a certain way–by an insider: it’s one thing to laugh at yourself, another to be made fun of. And would Junior’s alcoholic dad have seemed more of a negative stereotype in the hands of an outsider writer?

When the autobiographical elements of the novel came up, I mentioned that I follow Alexie on Twitter, and he had tweeted that very morning about something he shares with Junior in the novel:

I thought this was cool serendipity. My students all laughed. I am not cool enough to have figured out why they think it’s funny that I follow the author on Twitter.

Mikkelsen’s article mentions an interview in which the author Walter Dean Myers is asked “Do you think it’s possible to write a story about kids who just happen to be black?” Our class thought that this might not be possible–at least in a racist society. For instance, Junior mentions his dad being stopped for “Driving While Indian.” Would a story that didn’t deal with this kind of reality be authentic? One of the presenters gestured to her headscarf and said, “Yes, I understand what that’s like. People see you and judge.” (They had read a Horn Book op-ed by Myers’ son, Christopher, also a writer, who talks about how he’s seen when wearing a hoodie). It did not escape my notice that in a classroom as diverse as ours, many students can speak to these questions with more insider authority than I can. It was a great day of class, and not because of me.

Recent Books I’ve Enjoyed:

I read Elizabeth Lowell’s Amber Beach thanks to a Twitter conversation between Diana and Keishon. I figured I’d enjoy the gemology bits even if the book didn’t really work for me (is this where I confess that I have utterly failed to like some classic romantic suspense authors like Sandra Brown and Linda Howard? I guess it is). I ended up liking this book a lot. It did have the elements that made me wary, like a tough guy hero (who engages in a spot of head-in-the-toilet torture to get information from a bad guy) and a heroine who is in over her head and sexually inexperienced (not completely, but she’s never really liked it before). But. Honor is smart, she stands up for herself, and Jake respects her. Jake cooks. They don’t have sex at inopportune moments. There’s a nice slow build-up to the action as the characters get to know and trust each other, and the banter is funny. For example, Honor is hiring Jake to teach her to fish (though he knows she really wants to search for her missing brother):

“If your hands are half as quick as your tongue,” he said, “I’ll make a fisherman out of you in no time.”

“Fisherwoman.”

“Ain’t no such animal.”

“Fishersan, then.”

“Fishersan?”

“Man and woman both end in an. Do you want the job?”

“Fishersan,” he said, rolling the word around on his tongue. “Yeah, I want the job. We’ll be the only fishersen on the water.”

He totally did not make fun of her for being a feminist! There were a lot of moments like this that qualified the rather gender stereotypical roles they played. I was unexpectedly charmed by Amber Beach.

I listened to Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. I enjoyed this, being interested in food and taste, but I thought Barr rather oversold the importance of his subjects (Fisher was his great-aunt). It’s not that they didn’t influence American taste and cooking and the food world. But when Barr talks about the 50s as the era of convenience foods–casseroles featuring canned mushroom soup, etc.–and how these writers changed all that, I wonder about all the cooks he is not talking about, like immigrants and the food cultures they brought with them, and the influences that had (he does talk a little about that). If the subject interests you, though, I’d recommend it.

I’m reading Cold Fire, the second book in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy. I started this series because of a Twitter discussion which led Sonomalass to host a discussion of Cold Magic. That discussion will give you a good idea of why I’m enjoying the series (though it’s a bit spoilery).

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10 Responses to Recent Reading: Kitchen Sink

  1. Liz Mc2 says:

    Comment from JanetNorCal, sent via e-mail as WordPress was being unfriendly:

    Lovely blog when the first thing you do after reading it is hustle over to Amazon to download a sample of the Elizabeth Lowell book you enjoyed. Perhaps it’s the darkness of the world outside but November is seeing me at my contrary best–speaking for myself, I think it’s quite possible to like both Sons of Anarchy (TV) and Kristen Ashley (books) as well as Inspector George Gently. Last night the hubs and I re-watched About a Boy and the aftermath feeling is of wistful sadness. I did so like the boy though, and you spoke of loneliness–the message of the movie is that a parent or a spouse is not enough, to survive (or should I say thrive), a circle of friends is definitely in order.

    Agree with your thoughts about door knobs. Why aren’t aesthetic values considered as — or equally as important — as functionality.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I definitely didn’t mean to imply that one couldn’t enjoy both, just that they are a very different style of thing! Didn’t want to give the wrong impression of Armitage’s character. I got the Lowell from my library, nice and no-risk. If you read it, do let me know what you think.

  2. rosario001 says:

    The Donovan series, of which Amber Beach is the first, is probably my favourite of Lowell’s. Her earlier books tend to have pretty horrible sexual politics and her later books are a bit too focused on quite tedious and infodumpy suspense plots. The Donovans were the happy medium for me. I actually liked the second one in the series, Jade Island, best of all (especially because it reminded me of my favourite Lowell single title, Tell Me No Lies).

    I really think Lowell is probably one of the strongest writers in the romance genre. Her dialogue can be amazing -not particularly realistic, but quick and witty and funny. I enjoy it much in the same way I enjoy, say, Aaron Sorkin’s. I also love the way she can explore a particular theme in each book, with it coming up again and again in different ways. And she can do quite beautiful prose without veering into purple territory. Hmmm, I feel a reread coming on!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Horrible sexual politics were what I feared, but I agree, they really weren’t there. And I appreciated the humor with which the sexual politics were treated–not poking fun at either sex but more . . . playful about conventions of gender.

      I agree about the writing, especially the dialogue. It had some of the verve of 40s comedy films (where the humor also often revolves around gender conventions). Not realistic, and yet, there is something real in what people talk about and in the way they often approach things indirectly. I think that part of the reason I enjoyed this more than some of the Howard and Brown I have tried and not got on with is that the voice/style worked so much better for me.

      My library has the whole Donovan series in both e-book and audio, so I will most likely read them all eventually.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Another Lowell fan here. And thanks to this post and comments, I’ve just figured out that AMBER BEACH Elizabeth Lowell is also ONLY-series-western-historicals Elizabeth Lowell. I agree about her gift for dialogue that manages to be witty and banter-ish while retaining the feel of the way real people talk. In the historicals the old school gender roles are sort of predictable, but the heroines are tough in a gritty way that also feels authentic, and not “spunky.” She does great conversation, along with beautiful renderings of the Rocky Mtn landscape. I’m intrigued enough by Liz’s post to give the Donovan books a try.

  3. Mara says:

    Doorknobs work just fine if they’re properly taken care of. But of course that would require attention and work and God forbid we should put any effort into preserving something old and beautiful. :/ Dumbing down architecture for ease of use? Has the world always been so lazy and careless?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I should probably have made clearer that the “doorknob ban” (which has gotten a lot of press in those terms) is part of a larger package of requirements that new residential construction be made more accessible: wider hallways, lower light switches, barrier-free showers, etc. Doorknobs are a problem for many people who can’t grasp them easily or at all. Particularly given an aging population, I think these requirements make sense.

      But this city has a tendency to tear down the old and replace it with bland boxes that I dislike. Our idea of heritage “preservation” is a joke (e.g. you can gut a building to the studs). I wish we gave as much attention to the old as to the new, and thought about creativity and aesthetics more in regard to new residential construction. I’d rather have variety than the faux-Arts and Crafts that is required for new building in my neighborhood. No interesting contemporary architecture. Where there isn’t a requirement for “heritage” style, we get stucco boxes that could be anywhere in North America.

  4. I’m trying to recall if I read that particular Lowell. I know I read some of her category romances from the late 1980s up until 1990 or so. I didn’t hate them at the time, but I actually liked the Linda Howard categories of that time frame better.

    I also read her western Only books and her medieval series. Those sure were angsty, but I suspect they wouldn’t work as well for me today. I’m trying to recall her dialogue and it’s bugging me that I can’t remember it. I do recall finding some of the metaphors in the Only series flowery.

    • rosario001 says:

      Flowery, yes, but those were surprisingly memorable. I can still quote the whole “love is the light that casts no shadow” thing!

  5. sonomalass says:

    Okay, I bought Amber Beach. It sounds like a relatively undemanding book, which is what I need right now. It’s only three bucks for Kindle, and I’ve never read anything by her. Thanks!

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