I’m usually not drawn to apocalyptic novels, but Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is so much more than a foreboding tale about a small group of people who survive a pandemic. It’s also about getting through the trials of what we might consider the normal elements of life: existence before the disaster. She blends the backstory of the half dozen characters she masterfully introduces with their lives following the devastation; and it works!
The story follows the characters whose lives shared parallel paths with Arthur Leander, a famous actor, and which orbit around the fall of society. Unrelated to the flu that kills most of the world’s population, Arthur dies of a heart attack. Nonetheless, he remains a substantial character as viewed by those who knew him: one of his ex-wives, his best friend, a young girl who watches him die and the man who tries to save him. Another ex-wife and Arthur’s son have important, albeit tangential, roles. Each character is connected to Arthur, although they don’t all intersect with one another.
St. John Mandel creates a bleak, but not black and white picture, which is often the case in similarly-themed novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as a portrayal of a dismal post-catastrophe world. Sure, there is plenty of anarchy and death in Station Eleven, but somehow they don’t overshadow the power of friendship, love and art.
The author deftly illustrates that fear and loss exist before and after the collapse of civilization – as does hope.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
I recently returned to enjoy dinner at Scarpetta in Bevery Hills. It was as good as I remembered, although I think one element was even better: the service.
Our server, Christian, enhanced our meal with his knowledge of the menu and attentiveness. He knew the ingredients, the preparation and offered to make changes if needed.
The next evening we dined at Redbird, the new restaurant in what was once the rectory of St. Vibiana’s in downtown Los Angeles. The press about chef/partner Neal Fraser’s new digs has made getting a reservation feel like winning the lottery. However, thanks to the service, we didn’t feel victorious.
Our questions about the menu were answered by our (nameless) server rote-style stating what we could read for ourselves. A few items were unknown and he did fill in those gaps, but without the passion Christian radiated at Scarpetta.
I ordered Ora King Salmon served with roasted beets, farro verde and pomegranate. The fish featured the most beautifully-crisped skin I’ve ever tasted. However, the farro was ripe with the distinct infusion of goat cheese. Had I known, I would have made another choice or at least requested a different side dish. Half the fish and beets were gone by the time our server returned to check on us. It was evident I wasn’t eating the farro.
I inquired about the offending ingredient and the server needed to check with the kitchen. He returned praising my discerning palette — admittedly, it wasn’t much of a stretch. I continued to enjoy the fish, which, again, was cooked to perfection. A manager offered apologies, explaining that staff is trained to ask about dietary restrictions. My dislike of goat cheese is based on personal preference; I can’t, in good conscience, call it a restriction. At that point it appeared it was my fault for not informing the server of my aversion. Even if I had, he hadn’t been aware of its presence. I was offered another side, but at this point my entrée was nearly consumed.
A friend suggested a complimentary dessert. That didn’t happen. Instead, the farro was boxed up for me to take home. I’m confident Christian would have handled things much differently.
225 N. Canon Dr. 114 E. 2nd St.
Beverly Hills Los Angeles
In her debut novel, An Untamed State, Roxane Gay serves up a brutal story about cruelty, survival and love. In the process she’s created haunting characters who don’t easily disappear from the mind’s eye — even days after putting down the book.
While vacationing in Haiti to visit her parents, Haitian American Mireille Duval Jamison is kidnapped just outside the gates of their well-heeled estate. Her husband, Michael, and young son are threatened, but it’s Miri the kidnappers want for the ransom she’s likely to bring. What they have no reason to expect is her father’s steadfast and misguided refusal to ante up. Nor can they have any clue regarding Miri’s tenacity to survive.
Gay tells the story in two sections. The first includes the kidnapping and Miri’s past: how her parents came to leave their island home only to return years later having led successful lives in the U.S., as well as how Miri and Michael fell in love. A particularly moving section recounts Miri’s care of her mother-in-law and the evolution of that relationship from tolerance to respect and even friendship. This plays a significant role in the novel’s second section which comes after Miri is released from her 13-day ordeal. There’s no need for a spoiler alert, since the beginning of the story reveals as much.
Gay doesn’t temper her descriptions of Haiti’s poverty or of the brutality inflicted by the captors. Miri’s pain, fatigue and even filth are tangible. So is her despair.
An Untamed State
Black Cat, 2014
I used an ATM for the first time on a recent visit to California. It’s not because I haven’t seen them before or had a need for cash at an odd time of day or night. I just have an inexplicable aversion. The ATM I recently used was for cupcakes! I’ve wanted to try Sprinkles Cupcakes ATM in Glendale at the Americana shopping area for quite a while. The ATM experience was fun, but the cupcakes were unsatisfying.
Sprinkles has been a mainstay in the cupcake world for a decade with shops around the country. I’ve enjoyed their small frosting-laden cakes in Beverly Hills and New York City. Cupcakes are one of my favorite foods. I like their compactness, the ratio of cake to frosting and the creativity of flavors many bakers incorporate.
It all begins at the ATM’s touch-screen that reveals a menu with several flavor options, including Red Velvet and a few gluten-free varieties. I know the Red Velvet is rich and moist, but decided to try something new: peanut butter and chocolate. We also ordered Double Chocolate, Marshmallow Chocolate and Black and White. Four is the maximum number per order. With a quick swipe of the credit card, within minutes four separate boxes containing the baked goods are ready for retrieval.
My choice was underwhelming. It was dry and the amount of frosting was disappointing. The other flavors were fine, but I regret not ordering the Red Velvet. Guess I’ll have to give the cupcake ATM another try.
629 American Way, Glendale, Calif.
Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vial Phenomena demonstrates that families are often created by need, proximity and shared experiences – sometimes more than bloodlines.
Marra writes of worn-torn Chechnya. More accurately, his story involves the newly-formed family of Akhmed, Havaa and Sonja, three genetically-unrelated characters whose lives intersect because of friendship, obligation and fate.
Moving back and forth between 1994 and 2004, Marra details the poverty and fear of those living in a small Chechen village. Eight-year-old Havaa is rescued by Akhmed, a long-time family friend, when the girl’s father is “disappeared” by military authorities.
Akhmed, a third-rate physician, takes the child to the city hospital 11 kilometers away. There, he convinces Sonja, a surgeon, in charge of the facility to keep Havaa. In exchange, Akhmed offers his medical services, which prove to be lacking.
The novel’s beauty is Marra’s writing. The people and landscape are bleak, and are vividly portrayed. Yet hope surfaces in spite of the harsh conditions. Havaa is optimistic about her father returning; Akhmed hopes he can keep the child safe; and Sonja needs to believe that her younger sister, Natasha, is still alive. Hope also makes cameo appearances when Marra foretells characters’ futures. At first this is done with incidental players, then minor ones and finally those about whom the reader cares most.
Trying to understand the historical context of Chechnya is confusing. Fortunately, Marra’s emphasis is on a handful of characters, each who do what it takes to survive while trying to remain true to themselves.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Trends are like appetites, which is particularly true in the food industry. Sometimes we binge, sometimes we graze, sometimes we walk away when we’ve had enough. New food treats show up for our palates to enjoy, extol and, eventually, outgrow.
In an engaging and intelligent manner, David Sax examines food trends in his book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. There are foods that are hip, inspire copycat versions and subject to whims. In other words, the popularity of some foods depends on more than taste. Sax quotes a trend forecaster who says, “If you can Google a trend, you’ve completely missed the trend.”
Culture, economics, politics and marketing are among the areas Sax addresses. He incorporates humor with extensive research that took him coast to coast interviewing food truck owners, a heritage rice grower, goat farmers and Baconfest organizers, among many others.
Sax often seems as baffled by some food trends as the rest of us, especially when he writes about the Summer Fancy Food Show sponsored by the Specialty Food Association. As if describing the Academy Awards or Golden Globes, Sax puts the reader at this annual event where new foods are introduced and their purveyors cling to the possibility that theirs (anything from iced rice tea to beer-flavored crackers, and more – much, much more) will take the spotlight on America’s plates and napkins.
Sax’s research is thorough, but it’s no surprise that food trends are difficult to anticipate.
The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue
PublicAffairs, New York, 2014
318 pages, including index and selected bibliography
I enjoyed Orange is the New Black, the book by Piper Kerman. I haven’t seen the Netflix series of the same name, but after reading Kerman’s account I’m now inclined to watch because Kerman’s account intrigued me.
The author, privileged and intelligent (except for the episode in her life that landed in her prison), writes about her year in a minimum security facility in Danbury, Conn. She is honest about her own fear at being incarcerated and the guilt she has for vicariously putting her family, fiancé and friends through her ordeal. Yet, she does so without self-pity, with humor and insightful respect for most of her fellow inmates.
It’s the latter that particularly garners the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Kerman learned to survive thanks in large part to the women around her. It’s no surprise that Kerman would undergo a transformation, but perceptions about prisoners and their crimes do, too. Although it wasn’t an easy 12 months, Kerman shares moments of fun, revelation, pride and friendship – in addition to the aforementioned guilt.
Of course, hers is not a summer camp experience, but neither is it as brutal as initially anticipated. At least that’s the case while in Connecticut. This changes, though, when just before her release she is transferred to Chicago to await testifying in a related trial. There she confronts the woman who years earlier revealed Kerman’s name to authorities. Nonetheless, the author’s honesty and humor make this a worthwhile read.
Orange is the New Black
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback, 2013