Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Vanity Fare by Megan Caldwell and White Truffles in Winter by NM Kelby

"Man cannot stand a meaningless life." Iconic psychiatrist Carl Jung
Never has the above quote been more apparent than in Lev Grossman's YA fantasy novel (and I know those of you who have read the book will say it wasn't supposed to be YA, but it actually is YA fiction for the millenials) The Magicians, which I just finished reading today.
I was, in all fairness, going to drop this book on page 245, just from sheer whining fatigue, but I figured I'd better finish the darned thing to see if Grossman at least had the decency to make one of his Brakebill's characters worthy of the spare fantasy storyline in the end. I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that he does.
If you plan on reading this series, don't read this review, because I will reveal things that will spoil major plot points for you.

Anyway, The Magician was touted as a combination of Harry Potter and slacker-characters from bad 80s and 90s fiction, like Brett Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, which I felt was a terrible book that didn't really need to be brought into the world in the first place, but many consider it a paen to the drug and alcohol-fueled kids of the 80s. I found it to be less Harry Potter and more "pathetic characters from "Clerks" discover that magic is real."
Here's the publisher's synopsis: "Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn't real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin's yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they'd imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians, the prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the forthcoming The Magician's Land, is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren't black and white, and power comes at a terrible price."
What happens throughout most of this book is that Quentin, the protagonist whom we're supposed to love, or at least empathize with, whines his way through high school, (poor little rich kid whose parents don't pay him enough attentiion! Oh the sadness! The lamentation!) then whines when he finds his way to Brakebills, the magic school that reads like a down-market Hogwarts without the charming instructors or the interesting magic. Though he discovers that magic is hard, he still manages to learn it despite spending an inordinate amount of time spent drinking like an alcoholic, trying to get into the pants of one or both girls in his group, and kvetching about hangovers or fighting over nothing. We are lead to believe that Quentin and Alice are scary-smart, and that many of their peers are as well, yet most of the group have the emotional intelligence of a toddler.

They find their way to a Narnia rip-off that Grossman implanted in the book as a series of books about a magical land called "Fillory." Quentin is a huge fan of the Fillory books, though they're meant for children. He's read them multiple times, and even re-reads them at Brakebills. Why, then, when he actually gets to Fillory does he seem so indecisive, or unsure of what to do? He acts fairly inept the whole time he's there.  Again, more whining ensues, and then we have more relationship blathering, most of it fairly sexist and stupid. We're meant to believe that Alice, for example, is "soiled" because she had an affair with Penny, mainly in retaliation for Quentin having an affair with both Janet and Eliot previously. But because he's a guy, Quentin assumes he should be forgiven for something he did while drunk (never mind that he's drinking throughout the book) and that Alice should somehow be above having sex with someone other than himself. Nauseating, crappy misogynist thinking. Quentin acts as if Alice, once bedded, "belongs" to him, and therefore she has no rights over her own body. I actually cheered when Alice smacks Quentin in the face, because he deserves that for being such an idiot, but really, I was hopping she'd hit him in the gonads and tell him to f-off forever. Because a man wrote this story, however, that kind of thing just was never going to happen. There were instead the inevitable constant descriptions of women's breasts, obsession with women's body size (the smaller and more fragile, the sexier of course) and the ridiculous double standard, where men can have sex with anyone, but women who do the same are sluts, and men can have power, but women who do the same are evil, or dead. If you find yourself wondering why you'd read this book, you're not alone. It got so dull, tedious and annoying that I just about gave up on it myself.

As one amazon reviewer put it:
"I saw through the eyes of a fairly apathetic protagonist, who messes things up and blames everyone else, who had chances to become a hero and fails each time. I read about a person who wanted something, got it, didn't like it, and became apathetic. I read about the antagonist being defeated, the protagonist winning in the end, and no one feeling ... well, happy for having accomplished anything." 

I will therefore not be reading any more of Mr Grossman's books, and I give this one a very tepid C-, only because it was the fair Alice who finally matured enough to give her life for the lives of her friends in the end. What happens to whiny, immature Quentin from here on doesn't interest me.

I was also not enamored of "Vanity Fare" by Megan Caldwell. This was a book about a woman who is writing for a bakery that is going to be set up like a bakery-bookstore and is supposed to have food alluding to characters in classic literature. Two of my passions, food and books usually lead to a novel that has me riveted to the page for hours of entertainment. Unfortunately, the novel's protagonist is a complete idiot, and following her painful path through trite romances was almost enough to give me diabetes. I would only recommend this to those who like their heroines simple and their plots full of clues you can spot a mile off.  This fare gets a D, and I'm being generous for a novel that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

White Truffles in Winter (NM Kelby) wasn't at all what I expected it to be, but then my expectations were low after reading Vanity Fare. It's the story of Escoffier the world's first real "Chef" or at least the first celebrity chef.
The story runs thus:
"Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935) was the unparalleled French chef whose impact on restaurants and high cuisine is still with us.
The novel opens near the end of Escoffier’s life, as he writes his memoirs. He has witnessed a tumultuous sweep of history from a unique position, and he recounts his days as a cook in the Franco-Prussian War, a chef for the beau monde in Paris and at the London’s Savoy, and a confidant of royalty and world leaders.
The heart of Escoffier’s story, however, lies in his love for two very different women: the famously beautiful and reckless actress Sarah Bernhardt, one of the most adored women of her day, and his wife, the independent and sublime poet Delphine Daffis, whose hand in marriage Escoffier gambled for, only to live apart from her for much of his career.
Now Escoffier has retired and returned to Delphine. She requests just one thing: that he produce a dish in her name as he has done for so many, including Bernhardt and Queen Victoria. Yet how does one re-create the complexity of love in a single recipe? The great chef has no idea. Aided by a headstrong young cook who looks remarkably like Bernhardt, Escoffier must rediscover food’s emotional capacity, its ability to communicate passion, regret, grief, forgiveness, and love."
While the book was full of descriptions of the sensual delights created by Escoffier, it made the point that he profited very little from those delights, in a literal, nutritive or monetary fashion. His obsession with Bernhardt, while understandable, didn't make sense as to why he wouldn't just divorce his wife and marry Bernhardt and travel with her. Why keep getting his wife pregnant when he didn't plan on being home long enough to help raise his children or deal with his wife? He claims to love Delphine, yet waffles and whines about not being able to name a recipe after her.  She was dying, and would have been happy with anything simple that the two of them shared together. He also seemed to discount his children as being his legacy, when if he'd had the decency to stick around and teach them to cook, as he had so many others, they could have carried on in his tradition, instead of being parasites on their parents.  Described as a small and meticulous man, Escoffier seemed to suffer from that Napoleonic "short man" syndrome of having to be ferocious sexually and in the kitchen to prove his excellence to the world. The prose, which is as rich and filling as the recipes, is what makes this book worthwhile. The depressive finances, the decay, the injustice and the existential miasma that seems to permeate every French novel I've ever read would otherwise make this book too much to take, especially for an optimistic American. I'd recommend it to foodies and historical foodies and those who are interested in famous, doomed love affairs of the past. An A-, with the caveat: Do not read this book if you are sad, depressed or anxious.

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