|photo © Pawel Pacholec|
I just finished kicking my feet up in the last of the summer sunshine, and reading two new books back to back on the weekend. It was uncanny how similar they were in tone and style. And also structurally. I guess these young guys are hitting the zeitgeist of new fiction in the same way.
To tell you how similar they were, in voice and characterization, let me give you an example: in Fishbowl, a young woman named Katie is one of the main characters we follow from the start. The conclusion of her part in the story leaves her future open.... and then, near the end of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, we meet one of its characters from one of the early chapters, with a new wife named Katie in tow. I thought to myself, oh, so that's what happened to her! Yes, the character from the other book. I had them piled up together on my bookstack for the day, perhaps she jumped ship to find herself a better ending!
Anyhow, on to a few comments about each of these books separately.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest / J. Ryan Stradal
New York: Viking, c2015.
This book is getting all sorts of buzz. I would probably have liked it more if it hadn't... it's a good book, but I didn't find it a great one. It's centred on Eva, a woman with extreme food skills, from a very young age. Her father was a chef, and it's apparently been passed down in her genes. She turns into a beautiful, cryptic, hipster chef running a fabulously popular "pop-up" restaurant scheme.
Each chapter follows her into a new era in her life, and each one has new characters who then turn up again later in the book. There are all these strands of people who know Eva who don't know they are all connected. It's a charming conceit, but one that is perhaps just a little overdone. I did not feel like Eva was more than a central focus for all of the other stories that Stradal was telling; she didn't seem like a real person once she had grown out of her childhood. And her mother's story was interesting but not investigated thoroughly. Anyhow, if you are a foodie you will adore this book. Even if you're aren't, you may enjoy this modern story of "hipsters meet the midwest."
Fishbowl / Bradley Somer
New York: St Martin, c2015
This fishy tale is told in the same tone as the above mentioned book, though strangely I haven't heard the same hype around it. It's centred around a fish, not a chef: Ian the goldfish has escaped from his fishbowl, which unfortunately for him, was perched on the balcony of the 27th floor of the Seville on Roxy.
Ian falls with increasing velocity, and as he does he gets a glimpse of lives inside the windows he is passing. We get a longer glimpse, as all the characters mentioned get some back story and all begin to bump into each other and interact.
There is quirkiness galore, with a wry tone and asides that speak to the reader in the way that the narrators in shows like Pushing Daisies do -- with an overarching storyteller effect. There are young people fighting over their love affairs (ie: Katie, mentioned above, who jumped books in my reading process) and there are agoraphobic, pregnant, and homeschooled tenants as well (not all the same person!) There's a charming element in the overworked, gentle superintendent who is trying to fix the elevator for much of the book; and in the construction worker who is hurrying home with his clandestine package, which isn't what we might expect.
Another charming touch is that in the margins, if we flip the pages like an old-fashioned flipbook, we watch Ian falling, falling.....but don't flip until the end or you may be hit with a spoiler. Both of these books feature mostly young, mostly urban characters and they both have the same effect with their deliberately constructed storytelling. They are a bit mannered and, well, both easily pictured as art movies of the Amelie sort. Not to say that they aren't enjoyable. This style may not be my most favoured kind of book, but I read them both, one after another, and had a good time doing so.