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June 5th, 2007

SoHot: Book Reviews

by Chip Maloney

boom-box-cover004.jpgOne Block. Four Neighbors. One Very Loud Problem. This is the opening to the official book description of Gabriel Cohen’s new novel, “Boombox: A Novel.” If it sounds like the tagline to several movies you’ve seen in the last two decades, that’s probably because it is…Taglines are usually forgettable and reductive, and this is no exception, because despite the fact that some of the themes and characters (and even the central plot-line of a young black teenager blaring gangsta rap and thus causing a heated racial conflict during the hot summer in an otherwise quiet neighborhood that ends in tragedy) seem straight out of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Cohen’s second novel is emotionally substantial and sensitively written.

The somewhat predictable plot surrounds a courtyard in the quickly gentrifying Boerum Hill which is shared by the several main characters, each representing a different demographic now occupying the same turf. There is Jamel – a black sixteen-year old father who lives with his mother and is friends with the teenagers from the projects across the street, Carol – an Italian secretary from Bay Ridge who also lives with her mother, but is married to a Bosnian immigrant, Mitchell – a yuppie banker with a frustrated wife, and Grace – a West Indian administrator, struggling with the glass ceiling. Though the novel’s beginning immediately announces that it will be about racism (Carol comes home to her mother who gripes about her friendship with “that woman,” Grace, and then goes on to express her disappointment about her marriage) the characters do manage to breathe with life.

Cohen is at his best when the issues of race and xenophobia are ancillary to the characters of the novel, which he creates with attention to detail and tenderness. The smart, urban dialogue tends to ring true and is oftentimes quite funny. At one point, Jamel, while noticing one of his white neighbors, muses, “Don’t these people have any self-respect? They wear old sweatpants, gray sneakers, torn shirts.White people don’t know how to dress; either they wear something old and sloppy, or uptight business clothes with no style, or something wack like the punk rockers sometimes taking the F train to Manhattan, all done up in sorry-ass Halloween costumes.”

The descriptions of Boerum Hill are rich and lovely, and will ring true to any reader familiar with the area; Cohen’s sentences are beautiful and poetic and ripe with imagery that sometimes borders on excessive but ultimately gives the book its tone. Cohen is clearly a master of his craft, and his second novel is quite readable, but it often falters when its characters’ issues with race are too obviously addressed through expository and forced third-person narrative trains of thought.While it is a finely-observed urban drama, it ultimately fails to answer the question it so obviously poses – “Can’t we all just get along?” – because the characters are compromised when they become plot devices to an ambiguous political statement.

lazy-slut-cookbook005.jpgFor those of us who find cooking for friends or loved ones more akin to Playing House than an expected and necessary part of our day, “The Unofficial Lazy Slut Cookbook,” by Rhoda Carroll Fairman, is a fun, playful guide to the oftentimes daunting world of the kitchen. This is made clear in one section of her introduction about potential deterrents to cooking: “TheWrong Man, The Right Man, theWrong Pan, Money Loss,Weight Gain, New Diet, Old Diet, A Small Kitchen, AVery Small Kitchen and/or a kitchen that’s even smaller than that.”

The recipes throughout the chapters of the book, organized first by the different types of Meats, then Soups, “Stars of Starch”(Pastas and Potatoes), Veggies, and Desserts, are intended for an entire rainbow of busy women and creative men and their various culinary ailments. The chapters are headed with famous quotes, or humorous anecdotes about the subject and how its fashion has changed over time (“The mothers taught the daughters well. Instead of saying, ‘Eat fish, you’ll live longer,’ they probably said ‘Fish makes you sexy. I won’t let you eat any until you’re eighteen.”‘)

The recipes themselves come from actual friends of the author, and sometimes with a little back-story; they have fun names, are quite delicious, and indeed are easy to make, each requiring little more than an hour in total preparation time, and only several commonly found ingredients (unlike most conventional cookbooks which call for a dash of fresh basil and leaves the other 8 oz to rot in my refrigerator for a month). They also include tips for simplification, such as asking your butcher to cut the meat in advance, and their preparation is explained in simple, layman’s terms in a paragraph, rather than over a page. But for all its lack of pretension, “The Unofficial Lazy Slut Cookbook” contains some bangin’ recipes–my particular favorites are “Rosemary’s Roasted Rack of Lamb with Rosemary Au Jus,” (p.74) the “Simple Frittata,” (p. 95), and “Tiffany’s $100 Hamburger,” (p.55) which is pretty cheap to make, and absolutely dreamy. The desserts are great too, and laughably easy, showing how a little sugar and cream can really go a long way. Fairman ends the cookbook with a tip: “Put the coffee on first, before dinner starts. Then it’ll be ready for dessert. But you knew that, didn’t you? Oh, you didn’t. Well, now you do.”

The greatest thing about “The Unofficial Lazy Slut’s Cookbook” is Rhoda Carroll Fairman’s emphasis on the “creative, curative power in preparing food for people you love, like, respect, or just haven’t absolutely made up your mind to hate yet.” This truly comes through in the city of Bouley, Balthazar, and 8×10′ kitchens, in the age of “Top Chef” and “Martha Stewart Living.” And while if you are a Lazy Slut, you may not be inclined to go out and buy this book, buy it as a present for another member of the tribe. It’ll surely prove fun and delicious.

Filed Under: Arts & Leisure | New York





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