Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman & Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, 2 reviews

Since Hanukkah starts tonight, I’m reviewing a novel and a Broadway play with Jewish characters. Allegra Goodman is one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed most of the stories in Total Immersion. One of the best novels I’ve read about science was her Intuition. Goodman researches her subjects thoroughly and then brings the workplace alive with passionate but fallible characters. Her most recent novel, The Cookbook Collector, would appeal to a wide audience. It tackles a broad range of topics from rare cookbooks to new technology start-ups.

The Cookbook Collector follows two half Jewish sisters in their twenties, pragmatic Emily and dreamy Jess. Emily has started a dot com business in Silicon Valley, and Jess is a philosophy graduate student at Berkeley who works at an antiquarian bookstore. Jess is in a relationship with an environmental activist but is attracted to her aloof employer, a man twice her age. Drifting and confused, Jess is drawn to Jewish mysticism. Emily is having problems of her own, managing a long distance romance with a competitor while weathering the astronomical ups and downs of the dot com industry in the 1990s. The close relationship between the sisters tie the disparate narrative strands together.

The third person narration includes multiple perspectives like a late 19th century novel, allowing for full development of even minor characters. The diverse cast of characters felt real down to their exasperating personality tics, and they avoided stereotypes. I loved seeing a young woman play a stellar CEO. Workplace romances resulted in unexpected consequences.

Despite the myriad plot strings and perspectives, the narrative is coherent and flows well. The Cookbook Collector is literary fiction but as easy and pleasurable to read as commercial fiction. This book was meant to be enjoyed by the fire on a long winter’s night. The warmth comes from within the pages:
“Who could resist cracking books like these? He wanted to open them right now, one after another on the kitchen table. He wanted to shuck these books like oysters in their shells.”
The Cookbook Collector also opens with one of my favorite quotations from Shakespeare's As You Like It: "I can live no longer by thinking."

Disclosure: I bought this book from an independent bookstore when it was released this summer. The author did not respond to my request for an interview.

Check out last week's post for my list of good gift books from 2010.

Shakespeare Watch: 
Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice 

Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice live on Broadway

While in NYC for Thanksgiving, we saw The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. Al Pacino was phenomenal as Shylock (better than Dustin Hoffman in the same role in 1989) and Lily Rabe was an equally strong Portia. The staging was terrific too. It was one the best performances I've ever seen, as good as Sir Ian McKellen playing Richard III at BAM. The strong cast could rival the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. The Americana actors avoided English accents and spoke the lines of Shakespeare naturally with emotional resonance. I was moved to laughter and nearly tears. My teenaged children loved it too, sitting on the edge of their seat for 3 hours. This performance is well worth a trip to NYC on its own.

The Merchant of Venice is playing through January 9th at the Broadhurst Theater. If you can't make it to NYC, rent The Merchant of Venice filmed in Venice. Al Pacino is really good in the movie, but he's even better live on stage. That's rare in a Hollywood actor.

The Merchant of Venice, the film (2004)

Happy Hanukkah!

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@Barrie Summy


David Cranmer said...

"I can live no longer by thinking." One of the best lines ever.

I enjoyed your insightful review and the trailer to The Merchant of Venice. First I've seen of it and it looks terrific.

Thanks, Sarah.

tina said...

And a Happy Hanakkah to you too! Hope you have a good one!

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah, Once again you have introduced me to an author about whom I know nothing but am intrigued to find out more. AG's book sounds exactly the kind of multi-layered novel that I should enjoy and am always interested to read of 'collectors' whose compulsive personalities are so compelling I find.

Happy Hanukkah to you and your family!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Ooh, wonderful recommendations. I was fascinated just by reading the reviews of Merchant. Intriguing that Lily Rabe is the daughter of the recently deceased Jill Clayburgh - an old paramour of Pacino's. Full circle.

walk2write said...

I'll bet that after reading this review, the author will change her mind and grant you an interview. Your Hanukkah gift to us couldn't have been better, Sarah. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!

Kelly H-Y said...

Wonderful review. How fun that you got to go see a Broadway play over Thanksgiving!

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Great review Sarah. I have taken note of Allegra Goodman's "The Cookbook Collector" as it sounds like my kind of read.

"I can no longer live by thinking."
Thank you Shakespeare.
Thank you Sarah.

Happy Hanukkah to you and yours.

Ellen Booraem said...

Ohhh, I WANT to see that play! I have seen the movie, which is wonderful. Problematic, befitting a problem play. (It's at our library and now I want to see it again.)

The book sounds marvelous--I'm not sure I've read anything by Goodman. Thanks, as always, for the tip-off!

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is one book and one play I hope to partake of. thanks for the review. I have read a lot of Allegra Goodman and rarely been disappointed.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow! Such an in-depth review! :) Thanks.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, The Merchant of Venice is the closest Shakespeare gets to pulp fiction. It’s gripping and disturbing. You’ll love it.

Tina and Keri, thanks!

Edith, I think you’d love Goodman’s classic approach to writing and her subject matter. The cookbook collector was extremely compulsive but he also raises collecting to an art form. Come back and tell me what you think of the book.

Pamela, I knew Lily Rabe was Jill Clayburgh’s daughter, but I didn’t know her mother had a thing with Pacino – wow! Thanks for adding that fascinating tidbit. This is what makes blogging so fun.

W2W, I’d be happy to interview the author at a later date, although she missed the boat for this book. I’m looking forward to her next novel for adults. Maybe then.

Kelly, I’m lucky to have family in NYC. My parents treated us to the show. We also saw Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was an interesting piece, but the daughter character was poorly acted – too much shouting. The rest of the cast was strong.

Bonnie, this book will appeal to you. It has a great deal of psychological depth to it. The daughters had issues with their parents that affect their relationships with men as adults. I’d love to hear your reaction to that part of it especially.

Ellen, it is a disturbing play but this production handles it beautifully. As another author, you will appreciate the quality of Goodman’s writing. Come back and tell me what you think of it.

Patti, if you are already a fan of Goodman’s writing, you are certain to love this book. I’d love to hear how this one compares to her other work.

troutbirder said...

And Happy Hanakkah to you and yours. That looks like an interesting read, novel that is...
Since someone (not me) has two shelves of cookbooks here though, I not sure there is any space left to store it. :)

Les said...

Happy Hanukkah to you and your family. I reminded my wife that it starts tonight, but she is in no mood to celebrate. We do have seven other nights though, maybe she will feel differently. I just finished reading Roth's, The Plot Against America with its very strong Jewish theme. Considering the polarization going on in our society, his book could almost serve as a warning.

Rose said...

No wonder Pacino is considered one of the world's greatest actors--he was certainly convincing in this trailer. "The Merchant of Venice" is not one of my favorites, but I may have to rent this movie and watch it with a more open mind.

Another great review, Sarah, and a Happy Hanukkah to you!

A Cuban In London said...

"Jess is drawn to Jewish mysticism." Probably one of the better hooks for wanting to read a book I've come across in a long time. That was one of the reasons why I loved 'White Teeth' despite its length, because one of the characters was attracted to Muslim mysticism. In Allegra's case, the book seems to be a well-woven web of various plots and scenarios. Difficult to do, but if you manage to keep the beast under control (that is, the author's original idea) then both writer and reader come up trumps.

Well, Al, Al, Al... what can one say about Al? He never ceases to amaze me. Lucky you, seeing him on Broadway. Thanks for that clip. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Greetings from London.

Stacy said...

That sounds like a really fascinating read, but you always pick books that sound amazing.

Carol said...

Great review Sarah! I love this quote . . . "He wanted to shuck these books like oysters in their shells.” Yum! You certainly entice me to get this one. Happy Hanukkah!

Alyson | New England Living said...

I hope you're enjoying both holidays this season! Must be lovely to take part in both traditions.

I've never heard of this author, but I will definitely look her up now! Just in time for my book buying trip to stock up on some winter break reading.

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, I’m running out of bookshelf space too. Occasionally we cull and bring them to a used bookstore or donate to a school/library event.

Lee, the beauty of Hanukkah is having so many nights so it doesn’t matter if you miss one. We love lighting the menorah and sitting longer at the dinner table until it burns out. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Rose, The Merchant of Venice is not my favorite play either, although it is fascinating. These productions handled the controversial material very well.

ACIL, Goodman frequently writes about Jewish characters and how faith fits into modern life. That’s an interesting parallel to White Teeth. Goodman’s characters are more likable than Smith’s, in my opinion.

Stacy, thanks! I enjoyed your review too.

Carol and Alyson, I’d love to hear your reaction to this novel. I do more reading in winter too.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Sounds like a wonderful visit to NYC. And thanks for the personal review of The Merchant of Venice. I've loved Al Pacino since Serpico and Jill Clayburgh (and so I suspect Lily Rabe) since An Unmarried Woman. I sure hope I get to see that play.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, it’s worth a trip to NYC.

Bee said...

That line you quote? Funnily enough, when it comes to some of the most important decisions in life I think we tend to be guided more by heart and gut than brain.

The Cookbook Collector is going straight on my LIST for Santa/Simon. It sounds like everything I like in a book. You are more useful than the New York Times book review!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, thank you! To be perfectly honest, I first heard about The Cookbook Collector in the NYT although I've been a fan of Allegra Goodman's writing for years and had been waiting for her next novel. I rely on the NYT for book recommendations in literary fiction but not YA. I get YA recommendations from blogs, authors and in bookstores. Word of mouth is also a great source.

Sarahlynn said...

I've not read Allegra Goodman but believe it's time to correct that oversight. From your review, both The Cookbook Collector and Intuition have caught my fancy. Thanks!

TBM said...

Oh, so envious that you saw Pacino on stage!

Happy Hanukkah... a little late!

Sarah Laurence said...

Sarahlynn, I’d love to hear what you make of Goodman’s writing.

JAPRA, thanks!