What is fiction?

One of my favorite books of 2014 was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, so I've been pretty stoked about how much love the World War II novel's been getting from The Millions recently. (You can read my review of it here.)

It started in December, when the site ran a Doerr's Year in Reading. Then, a couple weeks ago, The Millions considered its US cover version the UK version (along with several other novels). For the record, I much prefer the US version. Last week, Michael Bourne wrote an entire essay based on a single line of the novel because, while gorgeous, it was an unexpected bestseller. Bourne posits that Doerr's "masterful" use of language made it attractive to a wider audience than anyone predicted it would. His sample sentence:

Cars splash along the streets, and snowmelt drums through the runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees.

See?

What is fiction? | www.paperplatesblog.com

This week, Bourne returned with a theory that a sentence selected far enough into the book to be random but early enough to still be in the "rising action" phase could offer a peek at the author's style. Enter the Page 40 Test, in which he selected the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40 of a number of books. The test is unscientific to be sure, but Bourne produces a number of examples that display the author's voice in a way that'd be difficult to discern in the course of a normal reading. 

I did it today with a random novel I picked up off my shelf, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I came up with:

"Go on Gogol, take something," Dilip Nandi says, drawing the plate close.

What do I learn from this? I can see the characters are Indian, though one has a strange name. One is reluctant, the other loving. They are close in proximity, but possibly also in relationship. There's more, but it's hard to separate from what I know of the book already.

Of course, fiction is more than the sum of its parts, as the quote above suggests. But maybe it's not much more. Maybe there's more storytelling baked into the prose itself than any of us realizes.

What's on page 40 of your favorite book?


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"It's Not Love, It's Just Paris" by Patricia Engel & Simply Delicious Granola

Take your thinking cap off. It's Not Love, It's Just Paris is as unsurprising but satisfying as a good romcom or your favorite granola.


Sometimes recommendations lead you to unexpected places. That holds true for the heroine in It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, and it happened to yours truly, the heroine of this review. I had to overcome some serious skepticism to dive into Patricia Engel’s new work — mostly because of the painfully saccharin teaser of “love” and “Paris.” I was craving something subtle and complicated, and it was hard for me not to judge a book by its title. But, giving credit to a source that promised a “fascinating, nuanced” novel, I (temporarily) put aside my cynicism.

Well, as Engel might say, sometimes you have to listen to your heart. It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is a sugary, gooey cluster of cliches and daydreams. We follow Lita del Cielo, a shy American girl, as she embarks on her first big adventure. That might as well be capitalized. Her First Big Adventure!  

Lita’s parents are over-the-top poster children of the American dream. Her mother, abandoned and raised by sweet, understanding nuns in Colombia, fell instantly, intuitively in love with a young boy who was working as a laborer after his family abandoned him, too. It was love at first sight, of course. Destiny had struck. They eventually, rather easily, made it to America (Lita’s father was so trusted and beloved that he was given a totally weird dog-escorting task that meant he could stay forever in the land of promise). There they built a wildly successful food business, and established a beautiful home in which all Colombian immigrants could find refuge and love when they needed it most.  

Lita’s family is astonished that she would want to jet off to Paris for a few months to “further her education,” when they have built such a wonderful life in America. But they overcome their feelings and support her in her journey (like the saints they are). So off she goes, to stay in a regal but rundown old place called the House of Stars. It’s managed by the vain Countess Séraphine, bedridden, jewel-bedecked, and full of yarns from the Good Old Days.

This kind of nonsense continues throughout the story. There’s a shortage of tension, but not drama. At first it appears that Lita may experience some insecurity or unpopularity in a house populated with posh, worldly girls. She is, after all, a plain Jane who doesn’t wear makeup or own any nice clothes (despite her wealth). But no. From the stunning, promiscuous daughter of artists (whose father famously murdered her mother) to the elegant daughter of an ousted African dictator, Lita’s roommates give her advice, relative kindness, and even offer up their old lovers.  

Of course, Lita’s new gal pals have plenty to advise about after she meets someone. “It was as if my blood had been moving slowly through me for years, and with Cato my pulse had been altered, changed course… I’d found a new piece of my life!” You guys, she can feel it!!! But the quiet, unassuming Cato turns out to be son of a notorious politician, and also has strange feelings about being in cities, inconvenient when you meet in Paris. Complications ensue.

Uh, Katie, why on earth are you recommending this book?  

Good question, friend. Once you abandon all hope that Engel’s tale will challenge you or make you think, you can indulge as you would in a good rom com. Her language is well-spun, and the sweet, expected story is a pleasant indulgence. I can recommend this book for long flights, sitting on the beach, and curling up on Valentines’ Day (or perhaps Galentine's Day?).

A comforting and simple granola recipe for any season | www.paperplatesblog.com

With that, here’s my favorite granola recipe — simple, comforting, delicious, and satisfying. It’s perfect when you want something a little sweet, a little salty, and without too many surprises.

A comforting and simple granola recipe for any season | www.paperplatesblog.com
A comforting and simple granola recipe for any season | www.paperplatesblog.com

SIMPLY DELICIOUS GRANOLA

Ingredients

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
  • 3 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Golden raisins, dried cranberrie or currants (optional)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Mix all ingredients except your dried fruit in a bowl, then spread evenly on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, then stir. Bake for 20 more minutes or until a medium golden brown. Stir in fruit, then let cool.

Isn’t it crazy that’s all there is to it?  Enjoy with milk, yogurt, ice cream, or by the handful.  


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