A Consequence of Ordinary
iUniverse, 2006 ($14.95)
If Holden Caulfield's anomie and Sal Paradise's restlessness were combined in a single character, living in millennial America, he might resemble the unnamed young narrator in Zoli Rozen's first novel, A Consequence of Ordinary. In this post-9/11 world, phonies are everywhere and people have ceased burning like the fabulous yellow roman candles they used to be.
A not-so-recent college graduate, the protagonist has been biding his time in a quiet, picturesque college town in the mountains outside of New York City, which bears a striking resemblance to Rozen's New Paltz alma mater. Trapped in a hellish cycle of mourning from his last relationship, he bartends by night and runs from wolves in nightmares by day. "It was the mountains themselves that kept me there. A glorious backdrop when all you wanted to do was look away." But man cannot live on mountains alone. The bar the narrator has tended for half a decade closes, becoming the catalyst for his move to the big city, where a whole new arsenal of existential crises await. Equipped with a new suit and a job he hates, the protagonist views the people around him with the fresh alarm of recognition.
One day, his boss at the publishing company sends him on an errand to get their most profitable author to sign a contract. He meets Theodore Paz, a talented ghostwriter whose beloved wife has left him because she believes he's sold himself out. Anguished and half demented from grief and scotch, Paz begins to confide in the protagonist, leading to some of Rozen's most effective scenes. On discovering that his confused listener has never heard of the bestselling Paz, the old man laughs and climbs down the fire escape of his Manhattan apartment.
"'I'm going to solve a riddle for you,' he told me and headed south down the street, a mad man into traffic, a mad and stoned man in a robe, a coat, and morning slippers, weaving in and out of city consciousness." Paz proceeds directly to the nearest bookstore and buys all the trashy celebrity biographies he's ghostwritten, which have made him rich but robbed him of self-respect. When he lights them on fire on the roof of his apartment building, he insists that the narrator throw in his tie, too.
When our narrator returns to the office with a ripped suit, no tie, smelling of smoke and scotch, and with no signature on the contracts, he is promptly fired. However, Paz has taken a shine to him. The author appoints him his agent, leaves him a check and his apartment, and whisks his newly regained wife off to Europe. Freed, our narrator takes off on a cross-country trip with his two best friends in search of the elusive truths which have sent generations of confused young Americans on the road. And they find it, sort of.
Rozen's strengths lie in his pitch-perfect portrayal of some of the biggest issues post-grads face: the search for love, for meaning, and for work they can do without selling their souls in the process. Rozen does a thoughtful job of weighing the consequences of ordinary against the allure of the unknown. The specificity of these themes may limit the book's target audience; some readers over 30 may have a "been there, done that" attitude toward such musings.
The copyediting of this book leaves much to be desired. Rozen frequently misuses commas and overuses capitalization for emphasis. These may seem like minutiae, but their effect is distracting. It seems ironically appropriate, however, that a book focused on the evolution from student to professional would itself exist in a state between promise and polish. The plot and characters are engaging and intriguing enough to suggest that the author deserves a much more careful production by a more discerning publisher. After reading A Consequence of Ordinary, I have no doubt that there will be a next novel. Zoli Rozen is one to watch.
- Bri Johnson
Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse
Seymour P. Lachman with Robert Polner
The New Press, 2006 ($23.95)
Readers of the popular press may be forgiven for thinking that all government emanates from Washington. But as Seymour Lachman, a former professor of political science and five-term Democratic State Senator, points out early on in this easily readable, 194-page-book, state governments have far greater power over our day-to-day lives. As Lachman observes, however, the people of New York have virtually no say in how their laws are made, or by whom, or in how taxpayer money is spent. "New York State does not conform to generally accepted accounting principles," writes Lachman. "It runs on a cash-based system worthy of a Prohibition speakeasy or a nineteenth-century political machine."The titular reference is to the Governor, Senate Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker (respectively, as of this writing, George Pataki, Joseph Bruno, and Sheldon Silver). Lachman describes how all political power in New York is wielded by these three alone, with virtually no accountability to, or oversight by, other elected officials or the public. Commendably and accurately, he describes them not as uniquely corrupt, but as products of the State's history and current constitutional structure. Therefore, he explains, simply replacing one or even all of them will provide no relief. One of the book's most revealing passages appears in the foreword by Norman Redlich, New York City Corporation Counsel under former Mayor John Lindsay (1966-73), who says that while reading, "I was struck by the similarity with which legislation was handled more than 30 years ago."
Much of the contents will be familiar to readers of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice's 2004 report (updated in October 2006) on what it called the most dysfunctional state legislature in the nation, and Lachman obviously relies heavily on that report to bolster his observations. But comparing the Center's report to Lachman's book is like comparing a textbook description of an operation to a surgeon's memoir describing what it is like to cut into a living body.
A political scientist can describe "gerrymandering" (redrawing a voting district's boundaries to create unbeatable majorities for a party) and "member items" (government money disbursed at the discretion of the Majority Leader and Speaker for legislators to disburse as they see fit, without votes or accountability) and explain how these and other tactics preserve the power of incumbents in general and the legislative leadership in particular. But it is quite a different experience to read Lachman's description of a 2002 conversation with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, in which Bruno offered him "the safest Democratic seat in Brooklyn," together with an additional two to three million dollars in member items. His stated price? "All you have to do is either become a Republican or do what we tell you to do, such as supporting me for Majority Leader."
Lachman, a political scientist cum politician, has created a book that takes the reader on a tour of New York State government and manages to make even such wonkish esoterica as the history of public authorities both informative and infuriating. In one respect, however, the academic should have had a greater hand. Lachman frequently cites the Brennan Center's (www.brennancenter.org) report and makes a host of other references to studies, agency reports, court cases, and historical sources. Yet, he provides neither footnotes nor endnotes that would allow readers to examine these sources for themselves. Lachman has written an informative, often blood-boiling indictment of State government, but leaves anyone who wishes to do further research on the subjects raised to his or her own devices.
Some books are like hors d'oeuvres—while tasty, they stimulate the appetite without satisfying it. Reading this otherwise excellent book is like going to a party given by a host who serves a superb selection of appetizers, but fails to show you the way to the main dining room.
- Jeffrey Shapiro
Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006 ($25)
When Madhur Jaffrey was born in a large family compound in Delhi, her life was defined by her father, who named her Madhur, meaning "sweet as honey," and her grandmother, who dipped a finger in honey and wrote Om, the Sanskrit word for "I am," on her newborn granddaughter's tongue. "I was left with honey on my palate and in my deepest soul," the Dutchess County author writes in Climbing the Mango Trees, her new memoir. With a welcome into the world such as hers, how could Jaffrey become anything but a celebrated actress and the world's foremost writer on Indian food?
An enchanting and heady mix of childhood stories and recipes from pre-Partition Northern India, the book follows Jaffrey from birth through high school graduation, leaping from one fond memory to the next, each presented in vignette form and packed full of long-savored foods and magical moments experienced in a sprawling household filled with a seemingly countless array of relatives.
Each person and place encountered by Jaffrey is connected with a food described so explicitly, gracefully, and lovingly that reading this book literally makes the mouth water. The offspring of a liberal Hindu family influenced by Muslim culture as well as English and Catholic educational systems, Jaffrey grew up enjoying her family's largely traditional fare at home, while sampling the foods of other cultures and classes "beyond the gate" of the compound, including hot, freshly cooked street sweets and snacks and the exotic school lunches of her Muslim friends. For Jaffrey, food is more than a sensory and sustaining experience. Food also defines character and colors every situation. Her cousin Rajesh, for example, valiantly tried to rescue an airborne piece of toast with his air gun; her taciturn, meddling, authoritarian uncle Shibbudada was the purveyor of chaat, hot sour-and-savory snacks with a bitter aftertaste, providing what she called "a taste of heaven with many ifs and buts."
The most magical and appealing of Jaffrey's memories describe her family's typical dinners at home, presided over by her beloved paternal grandfather and attended by as many as 40 people; elaborate picnicking expeditions far into the Himalayas, where up to 300 extended family members dined on meatballs seasoned with raisins and mint and stuffed into fresh pooris; and escapes with her dozens of cousins in the heat of the day, while the grownups napped, into the mango orchard, where each child perched on a favorite branch and happily plucked and ate the fruit, sharing a spice mixture of salt, pepper, ground chilies, and roasted cumin.
Jaffrey's quintessentially happy childhood was not untouched by tragedy, including several unhappy marriages, a sister's serious illness, and the loss of her grandfather. However, her prose style is ever buoyant, revealing herself as an enormously curious and wry-humored young girl, who could tsk-tsk her ill sister's discovery of Coca-Cola while traveling to America for medical care, or note such ironies as the fact that she failed her final cooking exam at school largely because the course had focused on "British invalid foods from circa 1930," an incomprehensibly bland style of cooking and eating to the young Jaffrey. For Jaffrey, food is not only love but life itself, the thing that connects all the other senses to a given event, whether it involves sitting out a monsoon rain by drinking chilled mango juice and jabelis (pretzels) dipped in milk; eating her grandmother's chutney to relieve chicken pox symptoms; or watching her older cousins grow up and fall in love before her as she braved adolescence and indulged in creamy lassi, a kind of light, yogurt milkshake.
It wasn't until Jaffrey moved to London to study drama that she learned to appreciate her mother's and grandmother's cooking or the foods of her homeland, and it wasn't until Jaffrey helped the ailing James Beard teach his last classes in New York City that she began to think of food as embodying the past, thanks to Beard's question, "Do you think there is such a thing as taste memory?" In answer to both these experiences Jaffrey realized that by the time she left India, her "palate had already recorded millions of flavors."
Indeed, her evocative descriptions of hundreds of those flavors, and the events and people and places attached to them, accompanied by family photographs and 32 family recipes, make for the most delicious and sumptuous of memoirs.
- Susan Piperato