Tuesday, August 19, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Sometimes you just get lucky and come across a terrific book by accident. That was the case with this delightful story which I devoured in two sittings and longed for more. Bertino is the author of the short story collection Safe As Houses, which received considerable praise and several awards. 2 A.M pubbed just this month.

"It is dark, dark 7 am on Christmas Eve Eve" the book begins and, in a linear fashion, concludes close to the time in the title. We are lucky to meet 9 year old Madeleine Altimari, a cigarette-smoking, budding jazz singer as she practices in front of the mirror and grades herself harshly. Her mother has died a year before and her father has withdrawn from the world in his grief. Mrs. Rose Santiago, a neighborhood shopkeeper, looks after Madeleine but mostly the kid is raising herself. 

She yearns to sing at her school, St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, but that's never going to happen. Her rival, Clare Kelly, always gets to lead the class at Mass. Madeleine hates the way Clare sings, entirely without soul. The bright spot of the coming day is that her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had one and wants to try one desperately. While I was immediately smitten with Madeleine, her yearning for a caramel apple was where I knew Bertino had me on the hook. This poor child, with all the grief and loss and disappointment that hangs over her like the inkiest of clouds, and she still has that child-like intensity for something so simple.  

From there we move through the day and several Philadelphia neighborhoods. We are introduced to a number of colorful characters but the three main threads that tie together 2 A.M. are Madeleine, her teacher, Sarina Greene, and Lorca, owner of the jazz club, the Cat's Pajamas. Each has their own worries. Miss Greene, a recent divorcee, is attending a dinner party that night with old friends including an ex-beau. Lorca may lose the club by closing time (2 A.M.) if he can't raise the money to offset serious violations brought on by a new, by-the-book, neighborhood cop. 

Bertino has a light touch and a wonderful way with words. Some readers may find some of the storylines a little too tidy but the story is such fun, these minor issues are easy to overlook. Besides, not everyone has to write The bloody Goldfinch. Where the writing shines most is in the humor and pathos surrounding Madeleine. She has the mouth of a dock worker, the burning desire to sing torch songs, and the pain and sadness of a little girl who has lost one parent to death and the other to grief. The other characters that people the novel are inspired and interesting, full of tics and truths, but if I had my choice, I wanted MORE Madeleine. Which leads to the question I must ask aloud: can we expect more Madeleine, Ms. Bertino? Are you through with this marvelous character or will we be lucky enough to cross paths with her again? I can only hope so.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Cooks and Books and Leopards

Round-up time, kids! I have been so busy (and so busy procrastinating) that I'm going to give these three books the quick and dirty treatment.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This debut was an absolute winner. The book follows two young men who yearn to become writers. As their relationship blooms into a best friendship, success for one creates a rift between them as does the presence of an unattainable woman. From there, author Jansma deftly utilizes a series of funhouse mirrors to turn the book on its head and not just for the sake of doing so as young writers sometimes do. There is a mood that the author is able to conjure and maintain throughout that feels claustrophobic and desperate and reminded me of The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, another clever debut from a few years back. A challenging read and a writer of great promise.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The pre-publication hype on this book was huge, particularly from friends whose opinions I trust and value, as well as a publisher that is tops on my list. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. While I enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped. It is a light, engaging read with likable characters and is especially appealing to booksellers and people in publishing. Despite that, it just didn't grab me as especially good storytelling or writing. That said, it has sold by the barge load, so you may need to read it for yourself. 

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

Another sparkling debut that takes us into the world of the restaurant kitchen and all the sadism that goes with it. Our hero is an aspiring writer who can't seem to write much and whose dwindling savings force him to get a kitchen job in a restaurant that has seen better days. With no experience, he is hired as the lowest of the low, the kitchen bitch. When the staff learns of his literary aspirations, he is nicknamed Monocle. 

The cast of the kitchen is perfect: Racist Dave, so named because, well, duh; Ramilov, the pugnacious Russian; Dibden, the hapless pastry chef; Camp Charles, the swishy maitre d'; the quiet girl, Harmony, and the evil head chef, Bob. Wroe perfectly captures the testosterone-fueled boys club that is the kitchen and its endless cruelties, insults, and pissing contests. It is that harshness that also manages to turn these oddballs and assholes into something vaguely resembling a family. 

Soon we are introduced to a disturbing character who looms large in both physical presence and in the story, a customer known as The Fat Man. Somehow, he knows everyone's dirty secrets, vices, and peccadilloes and is able to use them to his advantage. His character is memorable for how absolutely distasteful he is; a glutton with power, money, and influence. 

Since we fixate on food to the point of exhaustion (let's put bacon on absolutely everything and then act as though we discovered bacon and agree how delicious bacon is!), since there are endless cooking shows (remember when Food Network aired shows about cooking and not just crappy reality show contests?), since everyone fancies themselves a "foodie" these days (see you at Whole Foods where you'll buy a watermelon for $12, dumbass!), Chop Chop should have broad appeal. It is funny without being obvious and thoughtful without being maudlin. A dash of romance, yearning, and redemption even find their way into the kitchen.