Saltie Book Bag: Chapter One

bookbag

by Melissa Henderson

April 29, 2014: Welcome to the launch of Salted Scarletry’s irreverent, unpredictable and not even remotely academic reviews of books we’re reading and think you should, too. Like an episode of “Doctor Who,” time is elastic here at Salted, so we’ll be scribbling about all the books we’re digging—past, present, future. What we won’t be doing is slamming books we don’t like, because that’s lame and mean-spirited and not how we roll.

This week’s focus is on PEN/Faulkner award-winning author Kate Christensen, subject of a Spotlight Feature Q&A we’ll be running Thursday, May 1, so keep your grapes peeled for that. It has been said of Christensen, novelist and now memoirist, that she “writes like a man“. Apparently, this is a compliment. We think not. Kate Christensen writes like a woman—a strong, salty, full-bodied Rioja of a woman—and that’s even better. She’s also been lumped in as a writer of books condescendingly categorized as “chick lit.” We prefer “lit by chicks.” And this is some seriously good lit written by a seriously talented chick.

First, a comprehensive look at her memoir, “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites,” coming out in paperback May 6, 2014, and then a trip backward in time through her entire oeuvre, book by book. If you’re in a hurry, here’s the short version: read them all.

blue-plate-special

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites: First printing 2013. Out in paperback May 6, 2014. Buy it here.

Kate Christensen’s food-infused memoir is not your usual “Oh me, oh my, this was my super traumatic childhood, let’s have a big cry together and eat a bucket of ice cream” tale of woe. Yes, “Blue Plate Special” acknowledges Christensen’s chaotic upbringing and unblinkingly addresses spiky topics like her father’s violent outbursts and subsequent abandonment of her family; the sexual molestation she experienced at the roving hands of a high school teacher; eating disorders; bouts of depression and reckless behavior; and a devastating foray into infidelity shortly before the collapse of her first marriage. The memoir never, however, dips into treacly self-pity or, worse, the self-aggrandizing that accompanies so many of the wounded yet triumphant survivor stories jostling for pole position on bestseller lists.

Instead, Christensen straightforwardly reports the (often fascinating) life passages that shaped her, both as a woman and a writer, describing events internal and external with the elegant prose, wit and unerring ability to slice straight through to the bone that characterizes all her writing. She then ties the entire thing together with a lifelong love of food, weaving meals into every chapter and capping each section with recipes for the stick-to-your-ribs, uncomplicated yet tasty fare that characterize a typical blue plate special: Farmers Fritters, Bacon Cheddar Biscuits, Hoppin’ John and Bachelorette Puttanesca being fine examples. The cherry on this extremely tasty pie is the voyeuristic thrill of peeking into the mind of Christensen-the-writer and discovering what was going on when she wrote this story or that story. Then, going back to re-read her other works armed with this new information, shiny easter eggs of insider knowledge shimmer in the pages, patiently waiting for us to find them.

In-the-DrinkIn the Drink: 1999.Buy it here.

“In the Drink,” Kate Christensen’s first novel, took seven grueling years to get published and endured countless rejections before finally hitting the stands in 1999, when it was swept up in the “chick lit” fever sparked by the huge success of Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” While mid-30s Bridget, Fielding’s over-the-top hilarious heroine, and late-20s Claudia Steiner, Christensen’s brittle but equally funny anti-heroine, share many of the same qualities (boozy, socially inappropriate, bad with money, stuck in crap jobs, love all the wrong men), stylistically the writing couldn’t be any more different. Claudia is darker and her story grittier. A frustrated journalist, she slaves as ghostwriter and whipping girl for a papery old beast of a pseudo-countess, churning out lurid, socialite-infested bestsellers on the order of Barbara-Cartland-meets-Dominick-Dunne for a measly wage and no byline. She also pines for her (possibly gay) best friend, William, shirks her rent, sleeps around, slithers out of responsibilities, steals, resorts to underhanded behavior in revenge for genuine and imagined injustices, and comes face to face with what might be a very real, unfunny drinking problem. Like Bridget, our heroine does seem to find her happy ending in a man’s arms, but a closer read makes it clear Claudia’s paramour is no Mark Darcy, her future still hangs by a thread, and, no disrespect to Ms. Fielding, Christensen’s prose sparkles and seethes with gallows humor and unflinching insight rarely seen in anything categorized as “chick lit”—not to knock a valid and extremely fun genre. It’s just, this ain’t that.

Jeremy-Thrane

Jeremy Thrane: 2001. Buy it here.

Christensen’s second novel, 2001′s “Jeremy Thrane,” is in many ways an ode to the glorious steel and concrete canyons of pre-9/11 New York City. Frustrated writer (a theme?) Jeremy Thrane stalks the streets of his adopted city, biding time until his longtime lover and patron, the closeted movie star Ted Masterson, swoops back into town and his arms. That Ted married a strumped-up starlet and adopted a child seven years ago—the better to solidify his reputation as an Extremely Heterosexual action hero—complicates things somewhat but doesn’t deter Jeremy from enjoying his life as Ted’s for-reals, albeit part-time, true love. Jeremy loafs happily in Ted’s ritzy brownstone, enjoying his benefactor boyfriend’s generous line of credit while torturing the memory of his absentee father in the pages of a novel he may or may not ever finish. Granted, sharing a house with the loathsome Yoshi (Ted’s former martial arts trainer/now in-house gardener) and Basia-the-cook (likeable in the scary way that only a former Soviet gymnast can be and seemingly hell bent on killing them all with her inedible meals) cramps Jeremy’s style somewhat, but life seems good. That is, until Ted unceremoniously dumps Jeremy, and everything goes to hell. Suck on that, “chick lit” critics.

The-Epicures-LamentThe Epicure’s Lament: 2004. Buy it here.

I realize you’re not supposed to have a favorite child, but, not going to lie, Hugo Whittier may be my favorite of Christensen’s characters. I love Hugo, the miserable bastard from Christensen’s third novel, 2004′s “The Epicure’s Lament.” Hugo—food-loving, piss-taking, whiskey-swilling, skirt-chasing, Montaigne-obsessed black sheep of the once-lofty Whittier clan—barricades himself in the ramshackle, possibly haunted family seat in semi-upstate New York just off the Hudson. Stricken with Buerger’s disease—a terminal and extremely painful affliction, the cure for which is as simple as quitting smoking—Hugo is determined to hurry things along, cigarette by glorious cigarette. Hugo is tired of life and just wants to be left alone to endure the encroaching decrepitude of his failing carcass in peace, finish translating Montaigne’s gloomiest essays by memory, and eat his way through the entirety of M.F.K. Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster.” So of course Christensen, no stranger to the importance of torturing one’s protagonist, sets the entire Whittier clan upon our hero directly. Invaders include Hugo’s older brother, the insufferably noble Dennis, recently given the boot by his sharp-tongued wife, Marie; Hugo’s own estranged wife, Sonia, and her cheating heart; Bellatrix, the supposed child of Hugo’s loins (although he strongly suspects Sonia of passing off another man’s spawn as his own); “Fag Uncle Tommy”; and various other interlopers, not least of whom is Shlomo, Hugo’s former hit-man nemesis, now drinking buddy. It’s a good, good time. (Sorry, what’s that about “chick lit” again?)

The-Great-ManThe Great Man: 2007. Buy it here.

Ah, the big one. “The Great Man” won Christensen the 2008 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, placing her firmly on the literary map of Writers To Be Taken Seriously, not that she hadn’t already earned that distinction on her own merits. What I found most interesting about “The Great Man” was that the lead character dies months before the novel opens. The larger-than-life myth of Oscar Feldman, enfant terrible of the art world, haunts his two families (one legit; the other not) and his very pissed off sister after he has the poor taste to die. Dueling biographers battle over the telling of Oscar’s life story, providing the framework for this sprawling masterpiece. Christensen filters Oscar’s life through the eyes of every character—each complex, maddening, fascinating, all of whom now have to figure out their lives in the absence of an Oscar-centric universe. And, as is the Christensen way, there is so much food in this book it’s almost a plotpoint in itself. It’s hard to pinpoint the juiciest element of “The Great Man,” but I defy anyone to deny their minds weren’t more than a little blown by an astonishingly steamy septuagenarian love scene that certainly gave me hope for the future. (Am I the only one getting tired of even dignifying the whole “chick lit” debate?)

Trouble-coverTrouble: 2009. Buy it here.

“Trouble,” like the title implies, is an audacious, sexy romp. Two lifelong friends, both bucking middle-age and the sell-by date such a term implies for women, are on the run from their disintegrating lives. Josie, a Manhattan shrink eager to escape her flaccid marriage, and Raquel, a fading L.A. rockstar on the lam from her inconstant boytoy actor lover, his righteously victimized baby mama, and the gleeful condemnation of the online celebrity gossip-mongering machine, meet up in Mexico City to, yes, get in trouble. Cue slinky latino suitors, a vibrant bohemian artist scene and endless servings of tequila-soaked, majestically mouthwatering food. This being a Kate Christensen novel, there’s of course much more going on beneath the surface of what looks at first glance like a girly romp. This one moves and will catch you unawares with its darkness, always lurking just beneath the breathless adventure. (Lit about chicks. Enough said.)

The-AstralThe Astral: 2011. Buy it here.

“The Astral,” Christensen’s most elegiac of novels, is a Dear John letter to North Brooklyn, beloved neighborhoods, lost friendships and the decaying beauty of post-9/11 Manhattan as seen across the soiled waters of the East River. It’s the sort of novel you read slowly, take breaks from, come back to again. It’s in no hurry and neither should you be. The plot trails after poet Harry Quirk, freshly turfed by his spitfire, jealous wife, Luz, who’s convinced he’s screwing a woman he isn’t screwing—not that he hasn’t strayed in the past. To add insult to injury, Luz tossed the laptop containing Harry’s most recent book of poems out the window of the apartment they’d shared for the past 30 years—The Astral, the faded giant around which all the action swirls. A subplot concerning Harry’s freegan, dumpster-diving daughter, Katrina, and her mission to rescue her lostboy brother, Hector, from a fundamentalist, Messianic cult on Long Island positioning him as the second coming of Jesus Christ while fleecing vacant-eyed devotees, adds a surge of urgency, not that this book needs one.

A New York Times review described Christensen’s language in “The Astral” as “plain, plain, plain”. No offense to that most venerable of publications, but that’s just, pardon my French, plain crap. Christensen’s writing in this book surpasses the constraints of mere “language.” It is rich, mournful, wildly descriptive, crisp and drenched in feeling. It’s also spare and economic, which is nothing like “plain,” but is instead the hardest thing to craft without sounding like you’re penning a want ad for the Woo Woo Tennessee Free Press or similar. Christensen’s evocative descriptions of murky sunsets over grimy buildings, appreciation of a welcoming watering hole that opens before noon, and tender depiction of a no-longer-young man’s struggle to reconcile personal reinvention and the necessity of letting go of the past are compelling and poignant without ever devolving into the maudlin. “The Astral” is not an easy read or even a quick one, but in this era of drive-thru book-bingeing, that’s a good thing. More poetry than prose at times, this may be Christensen’s finest work to date. (I think we’re done with the whole “chick lit” conversation, amirite?)

Images courtesy of Anchor Books

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Melissa Henderson was born in Boston, raised in the backwoods and tends to gypsy around, no fixed address. Her work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, The L.A. Times’ Brand X, Greater Long Beach, up! Magazine and Soundspike.com, and she’s currently writing her first novel. She responds well to threats, deadlines and anyone willing to pay her bar tab.

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