Rules of Civility

I frequently wonder about first-time novelists who had alternate careers. According to his bio, he studied English at Stanford, then went on to become a principle at an investment firm in New York.

This gives me a complex. How many other of my fellow commuters, 9-to-5ers, coworkers, have such a rich and varied novel brewing within them?

Forgive the digression. I just find it astounding that someone who was working somewhere else could have the time and energy to produce a first novel as polished as Rules of Civility.

It’s a New York story, through and through: girl grows up in Russian Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, then moves to a Manhattan boardinghouse and begins to haunt various Village bars with her roommate, a vivacious, ambitious woman named Eve. On New Year’s Eve in 1937 they meet a monied, WASPy perfect gentleman who seemingly falls for both of them – until a tragic accident forces priorities to shift.

Wow, that made it seem like a soap opera. There is is much more character development, and meditations on class and personal drive and how we deceive ourselves in doing what we think is right.

This quote, for example:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. …[This] risk should not be treated lightly. One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements (128).

The title comes from a pamphlet written by George Washington – a collection of 110 rules by which to live simply and decently. The book manages to evoke a glamorous lifestyle of New York in the 1930s and 1940s but also how the choices one makes to get there ripple out.

Want more?

Rules of Civility on NPR.

Read Washington’s list here.

Mister Jelly Roll

Must be the New Orleans trip fever, because I’m finally writing up a great book that I found at a used book store ages ago.

The book is called Mister Jelly Roll, and it’s about the famed early boogie woogie pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton played all over the United States in the first forty years of the 19002, but was born and raised in New Orleans.

Mister Jelly Roll cover

Alan Lomax, the author of the book, might be familiar to you for his ethnomusicology work and folklore efforts. Mister Jelly Roll is one of the many oral histories Lomax collected from famed musicians of the early 20th century.

Being an oral history, it’s all you can do to take Morton as his word. He’s a larger than life character, with a pretty strong self-pronounced claim for being the “father of jazz.”

He certainly did originate early arrangements of jazz music, and helped to popularize them all over the U.S. through a grueling tour schedule. Whether or not he is the “father of jazz,” Morton’s life story takes you through marriages, success, failure, small clubs, big band halls, racism, and impressive musical creativity.

The book is illustrated by David Stone Martin, whose strong graphic lines can be found on many jazz album covers of the day. The drawings, as well as the musical notes included in the appendix, make the book a fully engaging historical document. Recommended for music history buffs.

Want more?

Check out the original Time Magazine review of the book here (1950)

Jelly Roll videos: Hesitation Blues, Crazy Chords, and the Steamboat Stomp.

More illustration by David Stone Martin:

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, illustrations by David Stone Martin

The Cookbook Collector

Normally I stay away from “re-tellings,” especially of Jane Austen books. Books “inspired by” Austen seem to bring out the worst in chick-lit cliches, as they tend to sneak in retro gender roles under the guise of maintaining historical accuracy. Or something.

I first heard of The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, from a magazine mention (EW maybe?) that emphasized the book’s connection to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In truth, the book’s flap jacket doesn’t mention it at all, and any sort of resemblance is loose at best. The Cookbook Collector describes two sisters, one sensible (Emily) and one sensitive (Jess), in modern day Berkeley and Silicon Valley.

Confession: I love books set in places I know. When Goodman mentions Top Dog, or Greens, or other streets in Berkeley, I get very excitable. Despite my hyper-local prejudice, it’s a very lovely, thoughtful book. The characters are full-bodied and complex, and quite true to life to Bay Area types. One sister volunteers for a Save-the-Trees like organization, while the other sister’s start-up’s IPO just went public. And while their lives are undeniably modern, especially compared to the lack of choices afforded to 19th century women, what’s striking is how timeless those conflicts are: how much are you willing to surrender for those you love?

I’d see this book being a great bookclub choice, and a great holiday present for a booky friend. And if you don’t get hungry from all the luscious food descriptions found in the cookbook collection in the title, well, you might have a stomach made of stone.

Book review: Year of the Flood

My friends and I have lately started a book club (although I am trying to call it a “literary collective”). Three of the four of us are former English majors, and although we are only on our third meeting, it’s really gratifying to pore over a piece of literature and dissect it. (Sometimes it’s easy to forget that talking about books can be just as fulfilling as devouring them.)

Our first book – my pick – was The Remains of the Day, which broke my heart into a thousand proper British pieces. The second book, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Top of the Stairs, only one of the collective finished, but we managed to wrangle a discussion about it anyways.

This month is Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood. A little personal touch on Atwood: my mother is Canadian, and used to work for the CBC (Canada’s equivalent of the BBC). She recalls how reporters interviewing Atwood would be practically eviscerated if they did not show enough knowledge about her latest book. She does seem like an intense lady, from her bookjacket pictures.

But what about The Year of the Flood? The story is not quite a sequel, but runs parallel to her previous novel Oryx and Crake (which I read when it came out but had to use the great Wikipedia entry to catch up). I think the best trick about the book would be to re-read Oryx and Crake again and see how the stories line up.

Both books take place in a dystopian future, where a giant corporation runs everything and sex is completely commoditized and food comes from mass market sheets of flesh (if you’re lucky).

Flood focuses on the cult-like Gardener group, vegetarians who eke out a pastoral existence in the urban jungle. In the midst of our post-Pollan food justice culture, the Gardeners seem ripped from the pages of the New York Times Style section, and frankly less scary than some vegans I have known. But it was difficult to pin down a point to their idealism—misguided? A blueprint? ??

The story also focused on some of the sex trade, now legalized. Atwood has written about power relations between men and women before, most masterfully, in The Handmaid’s Tale. I didn’t really glean any new themes from Year of the Flood, except that women always seem to get the short end of the stick in her books.

I found it an enjoyable read, but far less resonant than the Handmaid’s Tale, and less personally enjoying than the Blind Assassin.


I just finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666, his 800+ page epic undertaking, published after his death. (I also finished it the day after it was due at the library-no mean feat, especially given my late fee track record!)