The Cookbook Collector
by Allegra Goodman
The Cookbook Collector is about all kinds of appetites — for love, and sex, and God and money and, of course, food. The story revolves around two sisters: Jess, a beautiful 23-year-old graduate student in philosophy, hops impulsively from passion to passion. In contrast, we're told that Jess' older sister, Emily, is "possessed of a serene rationality." At only 28, Emily is the multimillionaire CEO of a dot-com startup. If that flighty sister vs. level-headed sister premise sounds familiar, it should. Author Allegra Goodman herself has called her latest novel "A Sense and Sensibility for the Digital Age." She says of one of her characters, a brilliant computer programmer, that "he had an acquisitive intelligence, and when he appropriated an idea, he improved it, until his own version ... obliterated its source." Goodman's update of Austen may not go quite that far, but this homage quickly comes to have a glorious life of its own.
452 pages, $15, Dial Press
by Laurence Gonzales
Lucy opens as an American primatologist named Jenny Lowe flees from a marauding group of Congolese rebels, and comes upon the camp of a British primate researcher who has already been attacked. She finds the primatologist's young daughter in the ashes of her camp, shuddering on the body of a dead bonobo. Lowe whisks her back to her home in Chicago, and finds that the girl raised in the jungle by her scientist father is bright, lively and sensitive. She quotes Kipling and Shakespeare and can smell the rain from a long way off. One night, Lowe returns home and finds the young girl racked by fever and asleep in the limbs of a tree. You see, Lucy is part homo sapien, part bonobo chimp. Lucy is the first novel that Laurence Gonzales, probably best-known for his book Deep Survival, has written in 25 years. And it's being acclaimed as a Crichton-like thriller.
320 pages, $15, Vintage
I Still Dream About You
by Fannie Flagg
In her latest take on Southern womanhood, Fannie Flagg focuses on a former Birmingham, Ala., beauty queen, now 60 and a Realtor, whose attempts at suicide are continually interrupted. Despairing over the recession and the 2008 election, as well as her fading beauty and lost chances in life, Maggie has planned a graceful exit, donating her sparse but tasteful wardrobe, paying her bills, leaving the balance of her meager bank account to charity. But when a friend calls with an irresistible invitation, her plans are postponed. Flagg, who is best known for her classic Fried Green Tomatoes, gives the story some breadth with a subplot about a friend's campaign to become Birmingham's first black mayor. Meanwhile, Maggie's quandary plays out with Flagg's trademark light touch and a sincere wit.
352 pages, $15, Ballantine
Three Cups Of Deceit
by Jon Krakauer
Journalist Jon Krakauer was an early supporter of Greg Mortenson, who has built a global reputation as a humanitarian for building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as detailed in his bestseller Three Cups of Tea. But Krakauer withdrew financial support for Mortenson's charity over concerns about how it was being managed. Last April, he collaborated with CBS' 60 Minutes on a damaging segment on Mortenson, alleging that many of the stories in the book are exaggerated or outright fabrications and questioning the financial practices of his charity, the Central Asia Institute. In Three Cups of Deceit, Krakauer turns his investigation of the layers of deception behind Mortenson's public image into a gripping account of good intentions gone wrong.
96 pages, $9.99, Anchor Books
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
So many books. So little airtime. So, below, a cornucopia of book choices — fabulous range, really — from some independent booksellers across the country. The theme of several of the books seems to be about place — going places, having a sense of place, getting stuck in a place. Every year, when we present these holiday book choices, I'm struck by how idiosyncratic the picks are. I suppose it's because of that immense world of books out there (we're talking hardcover here — independent sellers know about e-books, but their passion is for pages and print). These sellers have the chance to read publisher's lists, to see what will come out in a given season, and then to order, on the basis of what they know about the readers in their communities. It's such a personal process, so full of good and considerate connections. It's almost as nice as sitting down in the most comfortable chair in the place, and getting lost in a fine story. Happy holidays, and enjoy your choices.
Book reviews and book jackets can be pretty liberal about comparing authors to Jane Austen. When that happens, they often only succeed at driving committed Jane-ites away, but here's a book that actually lives up to that comparison.
Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector has much of what Jane Austen is most loved for: admirable and lovable heroines, ridiculous and foolish characters, and love stories that must overcome the impediments both society and fortune place in their path. And there's also food.
Goodman tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that she is flattered to be compared to an artist she loves, but, she says, "I'm my own woman also, and I've had many influences on my work."
Still, there are some undeniable similarities. Much like Austen's Sense and Sensibility, The Cookbook Collector focuses on two sisters who have very different ways of seeing the world.
"The older Emily is definitely seemingly the more rational, pragmatic of the two." Goodman says. "[She's the] CEO of a startup company in dot-com-boom Silicon Valley. And her younger sister ... Jess, is seemingly the more whimsical, dreamy of the pair: a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley and a part-time worker at an antiquarian bookstore."
Goodman follows the sisters' lives from the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2002 because she says she wanted to set their story in a time of economic unrest.
"It was such a fraught time and so much happened," Goodman says. "So I was essentially writing a historical novel about the very recent past, and I was interested in the way these events — especially the booming economy and the bursting of the [dot-com] bubble — would affect individual people. It's a period that is well-documented by economists and sociologists and historians. But as a novelist, I thought, 'What I can contribute is to write about this from the inside.' "
Goodman uses unexpected devices to explore the importance to her characters of both material and immaterial things. One such device comes in the form a collection of early-modern cookbooks and its curators — or collectors — which include Jess's boss, the antiquarian bookseller, who lusts after the cookbooks.
"The book is very much one about collecting and possession," Goodman says. "It's a book about hunger for objects, for money, for fame, for new technology, for knowledge, and also about that hunger for things that are tangible — for connections with other people, for love. And the cookbook collector, to me, is a symbol of that, a person who's hungry, who's driven."
But the cookbook collector isn't just the person handling the books. Goodman's character Emily is just as career-driven as the collector is collection-driven, and in the end both Emily and the collector run the risk of losing sight of what really matters: virtue or wealth.
"These are the key questions, aren't they?" Goodman says. "Emily and Jess ... they're deciding how they're going to live. Part of deciding how you're going to live is deciding who you're going to be with, and part of [that] is deciding what to value in life. Where is value? Is value in your stock in your company, which could fluctuate wildly, where you are a paper millionaire? Do you find value in the natural world, as Jess does, with the redwood trees of northern California? Is what's really valuable and lasting a rare trove of cookbooks, or those companies whose names we can't remember anymore, who came and went? Or is value just to be found in other people, in the people that we love?"
Goodman says that while Jess and Emily do come to a sort of "conclusion" about these questions, the answer can be more elusive. She does offer, however, what she considers to be "a good part of the answer."
"In the end, people really are the most important thing," she says. "Flawed as we are, you know, we have each other."
The Cookbook Collector: A NovelRead An Excerpt
By Allegra Goodman
Hardcover, 416 pages
The Dial Press
List price: $26
There's a luscious party scene about two-thirds of the way through The Cookbook Collector in which a group of young-ish, very clever people gather in an exquisite mansion in Northern California. Champagne and strawberries are served, and the afternoon light turns golden as the day wanes. That scene, for me, captures the overall mood and appeal of Allegra Goodman's new novel: It's shimmering and astute and a little melancholy. In short, it's a midsummer's dream of a novel — there's even a nearby enchanted forest thrown in (in this case, filled with giant California redwoods rather than Arden's ferns and faeries.)
The Cookbook Collector is about all kinds of appetites — for love, and sex, and God and money, and, of course, food. The story revolves around two sisters: Jess, a beautiful 23-year-old graduate student in philosophy, hops impulsively from passion to passion. In contrast, we're told that Jess's older sister, Emily, is "possessed of a serene rationality." At only 28, Emily is the multimillionaire CEO of a dot-com startup. If that flighty sister vs. level-headed sister premise sounds familiar, it should. Goodman herself has called her latest novel "A Sense and Sensibility for the Digital Age." I confess, if anyone other than Allegra Goodman had made that claim, I very likely would have tossed my review copy away. I am very weary of the literary fad of contemporary authors shoplifting plots and characters from the 19th-century fiction warehouse. Poor Jane Austen, in particular, has been plucked clean. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out your local bookstore where you'll find the latest violations, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Is there no shame?
But Goodman, as she always does, makes a believer out of this skeptic. Goodman says of one of her characters, a brilliant computer programmer, that "he had an acquisitive intelligence, and when he appropriated an idea, he improved it, until his own version ... obliterated its source." Of course, I wouldn't go that insanely far in praising Goodman's update of Austen, but I will say that this homage quickly comes to have a glorious life of its own.
Jess, the faint reincarnation of impulsive Marianne Dashwood, bicycles around the Berkeley of the 1990s (when the novel is set), flitting from philosophy to veganism to tree saving. When Jess begins working part-time at a used and rare bookstore called Yorick's, run by a wealthy, single, middle-aged man called George, we Austen-savvy readers anticipate that wedding bells may eventually ring. But not before fresh complications ensue — especially because Jess is already involved with a charismatic radical environmentalist. Here's George musing resentfully at the sight of Jess and her hipster boyfriend: "Why was it [George asked himself] that the youngest, most innocent-looking women consorted with the creepiest men? Their boyfriends were not boys or friends at all, but shadowy familiars: bears, wolfhounds, panthers."
George himself has buried his own animal appetites in books, although Jess' entry into his life — and the incursion of the Internet into the book trade — is making George rethink his monastic ways and the all-too-rare pleasures of reuniting a customer with a long-sought-after copy of, say, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Goodman's nimble language, usually displayed in her characters' sharp readings of one another, is one of the great pleasures of her writing. The other is her ability to integrate serious metaphysical questions into her entertaining comedies of manners. The way in which The Cookbook Collector ultimately veers off from a mere riff on Sense and Sensibility raises crucial doubts about the value of a well-ordered life, as well as the existence of a benevolent God. In Austen's original, Elinor, the practical one, was rewarded for having two feet on the ground. That was the late Enlightenment talking through Austen. But here, in Goodman, Modernity pulls the rug out from under Emily's feet.