East of Eden Readalong BadgeSo, somehow I signed on to read East of Eden this summer as part of The Estella Project Read-a-Long. (Peer pressure in book blogging circles is subtle, but powerful.)

Everyone knows East of Eden is a classic novel by John Steinbeck from the 1950s, but do you know how long it is? 601 pages. I’m also trying to read these two doorstoppers this summer, not to mention 1Q84 (1184 pages!):

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544 pages

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848 pages

Here goes with the discussion questions for Chapters 1-13:

1. What do you think of the style of Steinbeck’s writing? Readable and awesome, or slow and slogging?
Very readable! The narrator’s voice is quietly ironic, and the shifts from first-person into third-person, and every now and then back into first, are intriguing, making me wonder who is narrating the story. This is from Chapter 6 when Charles has been alone for a long time, with Adam gone into the Army:

“His dark face took on the serious expressionlessness of a man who is nearly always alone. He missed his brother more than he missed his mother and father. He remembered quite inaccurately the time before Adam went away as the happy time, and he wanted it to come again.”

2. We have a wicked case of sibling rivalry going on here. What are your thoughts on Adam and Charles’ relationship thus far? Their father’s influence?
Adam and Charles are half-brothers and the dysfunction between them starts early, helped along by their father, but Adam doesn’t feel any sibling rivalry, apparently – only Charles, who is poisoned by thoughts that their father favors Adam, the first-born, and hates Adam for it.

3. Just….Cathy. Expound.
She’s the serpent in the garden? Although the farm and the brothers’ relationship was hardly idyllic before Cathy arrives!

“It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.”

Visit The Estella Society for links to other Installment #1 discussion posts from the East of Eden Read-Along.

 

 

cover imageThe Vacationers by Emma Straub is the perfect beach read for people who like their escapist reading to take them to a villa in Mallorca on a family vacation with two generations of family, along with a long-time family friend, all suffering individually and/or as couples from first-world problems. Sun, sexy Europeans, Scrabble, and great meals are all included. Emma Straub, you can take me on vacation again anytime!

Inveterate New Yorkers Jim and Franny Post, a married couple on the verge of divorce, are taking one last summer vacation together with Sylvia – their teenage daughter who will head off to college in the fall – and Bobby – their older son – Bobby’s girlfriend, Carmen (the only outsider, i.e. non-New Yorker), and Franny’s old friend Charles and his boyfriend (now husband), Lawrence – who are both secretly waiting to hear about adopting a child.

I dogeared many pages of my advance reading copy to make note of sharp observations or cleverly worded descriptions that made me laugh, but I’ll just share just a couple of passages to give you a feel for the author’s style. This passage (a peek into Jim’s thoughts) is from just after they’ve arrived at the gorgeous two-story house on sunny, palatial grounds, and Jim sees Franny has settled in to sunbathe by the pool, looking relaxed:

“To say that Franny had been uptight in the preceding month would be too delicate, too demure. She had been ruling the Post house with an iron sphincter. Though the trip had been meticulously planned in February, months before Jim’s job at the magazine had slid out from under him, the timing was such that Fran could be counted on to have at least one red-faced scream per day. The zipper on the suitcase was broken, Bobby and Carmen’s flights (booked on Post frequent-flier points) were costing them hundreds of dollars in fees because they had to shift the flights back a day. Jim was always in the way and in the wrong. Franny was expert in showing the public her good face, and once Charles arrived, it would be nothing but petting and cooing, but when she and Jim were alone, Franny could be a demon. Jim was grateful that, at least for the time being, Franny’s horns seemed to have vanished back inside her skull.”

And this one, from the middle of the book, setting a scene where we find out what Carmen, Bobby’s girlfriend, is thinking:

“The chest in the living room had been well stocked with board games: Monopoly and Risk, Snakes and Ladders. Charles had made a brief but impassioned speech in favor of a game of charades but was quickly shot down. They decided on Scrabble, and Lawrence was winning, being the best at math, which everyone knew was all it took to truly succeed. He knew all the two-letter words, the QI and the ZA, and played them without apology, even when it made the board so dense that it was difficult for anyone else to take a turn. Bobby, Sylvia, and Charles all stared hard at their letters, as if simple attention alone would improve their odds.”

I enjoyed the family tensions, understated drama, and the witty humor of The Vacationers so much, I’m sorry that I haven’t already read the author’s two earlier books: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and Other People We MarriedThe Vacationers has blurbs on the back cover from Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette), Maggie Shipstead (Seating Arrangements), and Elizabeth Gilbert (The Signature of All Things). It reminded me a bit of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter; so if you liked that, you might like this one too.

Add The Vacationers to your beach bag or suitcase for your summer vacation reading, if you haven’t already read it!

The Vacationers
Straub, Emma
Riverhead Books
May 29, 2014
978-1-59463157-3
304 pp.
$26.95, hard.

Disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Other opinions (all good to excellent):
Bibliophile by the Sea
Lakeside Musing

nomadreader

Weekend Cooking buttonWeekend Cooking is a weekly feature hosted by Beth Fish Reads, linking up food-related posts. Click here for links to other Weekend Cooking posts on Beth Fish Reads and other blogs.

 For my last Weekend Cooking post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Salad of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year by Georgeanne Brennan.cover image

I returned Salad of the Day to the library, but took inspiration from it afterwards to keep having salad meals. Last night we had this variation on a Greek salad, using baby spinach from the farmer’s market and fresh parsley and grilled zucchini from the garden.

photo of Greek salad on plate

I sliced the zucchini after it was grilled, so you can’t see the grill marks in this picture, but they’re there!

We also had fresh green beans from the garden drizzled with the balsamic vinegar reduction I had left over from a Salad of the Day recipe and topped with fresh parsley from the garden and leftover toasted pecans. From here on out until the fall, we will probably put fresh herbs on everything possible, and I will definitely be making more of the balsamic vinegar reduction.

photo of green beans

Green beans from the garden are delicious even plain, but the balsamic reduction brings out the flavor!

A balsamic vinegar reduction is made by boiling down the vinegar to a thicker, more concentrated form. I think this was more in vogue a few years ago, but I’m always behind in my food trends. (If you want to see a recipe, this is a nice one on The Wimpy Vegetarian.) I have used it before on what we usually call tomatoes and mozzarella, but is actually a Caprese salad.

photo of tomatoes and mozzarella sliced and arranged on serving plate sprinkled with chopped basil

Before I knew about balsamic vinegar reduction, we would just drizzle this with olive oil.

You can use your balsamic vinegar reduction on grilled peaches and ricotta, in a Balsamic Blast Cocktail, or in combination with spinach and strawberries in a salad or on crostini.

strawberries and pecans on spinach

This spinach-strawberry salad would have been good with goat cheese, too, but someone had eaten it all.

If you buy good-quality balsamic vinegar and not the cheap stuff from Ocean State Job Lot, you don’t even need to reduce it to drizzle balsamic vinegar over ice cream.

Happy Weekend Cooking!

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cover imageAt page 191, I’m giving up on To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris and letting it go to the next person waiting for it at the library. It’s 337 pages long, so I got over half-way through before deciding it just wasn’t clicking with me. I really liked the author’s first book, Then We Came to the End, which used the unusual narrative device of first person plural voice throughout the whole book, as if everyone who worked or had worked at the ad agency was speaking collectively about how bad things were there, so I was looking forward to reading this one.

Here’s the publisher’s description of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (minus a spoiler-ish line that I deleted from the middle):

A big, brilliant, profoundly observed novel about the mysteries of modern life by National Book Award Finalist Joshua Ferris, one of the most exciting voices of his generation

Paul O’Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn’t know how to live in it. He’s a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.

Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online, and he watches in horror as a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account are created in his name. What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online “Paul” might be a better version of the real thing.

At once laugh-out-loud funny about the absurdities of the modern world, and indelibly profound about the eternal questions of the meaning of life, love and truth, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR is a deeply moving and constantly surprising tour de force.

Set in New York City, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour sounded like something I thought I was really going to like – especially the “laugh-out-loud funny” and “indelibly profound” parts – but I didn’t get the profundity and Paul struck me as humorless. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for this book, or maybe I just didn’t get the humor of it. Paul comes across as a shallow person, which I realize has got to be intentional, but that made him seem an unlikely person to be delving into mysteries of religious faith and human nature. As a character, Paul seemed too much a collection of characteristics and not as much a fully realized person.

And then there’s some really flaky stuff about religious beliefs and ancestral secrets that I just couldn’t get myself to be interested in. With all the talk of dentistry, however, it did convince me that flossing is a habit I need to keep up!

Does anyone out there want to talk me into giving this book another try? Maybe I would like it better as an audiobook?

Other opinions on this book (good to excellent):
Fashioning Fiction
That’s What She Read
Verbatim

P.S. I see To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the first on the recently released Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist, so what do I know? [Note added 7/28/14]

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