Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BOOKS: At the Edge of the Cookbook Collector's Orchard

Did you ever read two random books that end up having something unusual in common? That happened to me recently. And now that I put their two covers together, there is even more in common! Surprise - it is not apples.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (304 pages)

My favourite historical fiction writer had a new book out this spring. With Johnny Appleseed! Backstory: my sister and I had a record that we loved to listen to. It told the story of simple Johnny Appleseed, spreading the word of the Lord along with apple seeds, to settlers in America. So when I saw my favourite author wrote a book with great childhood memories, I was pumped!

The first half of the book is about a family, an unhappy couple who end up on a swamp in Ohio, trying to grow apples to claim their land. (Johnny doesn't actually play a big part; he drops some seeds or seedlings off and preaches. That's okay, I had the songs in my head the whole time. "Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord....''') The husband is obsessed with getting his apples to grow, and grafting. The wife is all about the cider Applejack and being drunk. The kids are all struggling what with the no money, the drunk mother, and the dad trying to get his trees to grow. 

The second half of the book follows one of the sons as he leaves his horrible family and heads west. Robert Goodenough has his father's interest in trees and he eventually ends up in California. There are some great letters written as well which move the story along. He finds the redwoods and the giant sequoias. I don't think I really realized how rare and huge the trees were, and now obviously I would love to see them! The seed collector that Robert works for, William Lobb, was a real person (about him) involved in the competitive seed collecting world of the mid 1800s. Really!

Anyway, lots happens to Robert, the poor guy, and the story happens. I liked it, good happy ending. Chevalier does amazing research and you feel like you learn a lot, but not really learning. I wouldn't say her stories are heavily character driven. They are a balance of plot and characters, but the reader never gets inside the head of the characters and is kept a distance from the head, but not the action. Not my favourite Chevalier book, but a good solid entry in her booklist.

The next Chevalier novel for me: The Last Runaway, or Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories based on Jane Eyre, edited by Chevalier.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (394 pages)

After read Intuition a few years ago, I really wanted to read The Cookbook Collector. The main characters are two sisters Emily and Jess. Emily is the elder, the CEO of a computer start-up from the Bay area in the late 1990s. Money is flying and Emily is very successful. Her boyfriend is the CEO of an equally successful computer company in Boston. Emily is the younger, hippie type with no real focus. She works part time at a book story (owned by the cookbook collector) while completed her MA and saving the trees with her eco group.

The trees! I couldn't believe after never being really aware of the extent of the redwoods and sequoias, I landed on my second book in three months. Jess ends up at one point staying on top of a redwood to prevent it from being cut down.

The story is more than just the two sisters. From each, we branch off and take tangents from each sister to the people involved in their lives. Boyfriends, the people at their work, neighbours, their father. We meander around, but still moving forward. If I started to mention all the topics and issues that get brought up, it would seem too much, but Goodman has her story firmly in her hand and she connects the dots by the end. All these seemingly loose threads get braided up by the end in a very satisfying way. The element of recent history with the collapse of the dot com industry, and 9/11 seem closer than the fifteen years ago it is.

The biggest distractor was that one of the computer companies was called ISIS. I had to look it up because the book was written in 2010, just before the initials became more sinister and well known.

Like the other book I read, Goodman writes real characters, flawed and all, but all the situations are real life, conflict that is real but not far-fetched.

Next Goodman novel for me will be The Other Side of the Island, the only other book my library has.