Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I must read this!

In today's New York Times Food Section I read a review of several books by Lara Vapnyar, a Russian immigrant to New York whose fiction is centered around food. [UPDATE: I ordered the book right away, read and enjoyed it. The photo shows it with some broccoli I cooked in its honor!]

I love books that work this way: using food to illuminate the characteristics of life here and there, like Stealing Buddha's Dinner and others. This one reminds me of what I learned from my friend Natasha, originally from Russia -- now Israeli, from interviewing some Russian immigrants to Ann Arbor, and from my sister's friend Luda.

Here is the reviewer's summary of a couple of the stories and their food themes: "A young woman, trapped in Brighton Beach by her immigrant parents’ expectations, finds her place at the family table by sitting down with a knife to make Salad Olivier. It is the Russian party dish par excellence: a mound of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, potatoes and meat, diced and bound with a tangy mayonnaise. For particularly swanky occasions, the salad is covered with aspic." Yes, Natasha made us a salad like this.

I had already read another Times excerpt from Vapnyar's work: Pot Luck - Food - Eat, Memory. It included sentences like these: "Asparagus was another mystery. I didn’t know it as a child, but once I started reading adult novels set in 19th-century Russia or 20th-century Europe and America, asparagus seemed to be the primary food a literary character would eat. I would read the asparagus pages over and over, trying to conjure a picture of it. The descriptions were maddeningly incomplete. The author would go on and on with his boring psychological insights, mentioning asparagus only in passing. Nobody I knew had ever seen asparagus. I couldn’t even find it in the huge Household Encyclopedia that had pictures of various fruits and vegetables I had never tasted, like mango or kohlrabi. I constructed an image of asparagus from bits of novelistic description. To me, it was green, expensive and exquisite, and it had a stem and a head, with the head being the juiciest part."

Also, the Times book section offers readers the first chapter of her book Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love. Now I'm even more eager to read the stories of this author.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I must read this, too! You already know I love books like this, but you may not know I was on a couple of Russian exchanges - both teaching a semester of English and bringing teens to Russia for a summer. I've worked on many, many exchanges in the other direction, too. Thanks for writing about this!