A dark and comic family drama, Ronit Matalon’s And the Bride Closed the Door takes place in Tel Aviv and begins with Margie making a big announcement through her bedroom door: “Not getting married.”
The ensuing action takes a few short hours. Those left on the door’s other side scramble to understand Margie’s motivations. Matalon is a unique literary stylist whose pitch-perfect novel focuses on the spectacle of the big day, two families’ lives, and the couple’s relationship as it falls apart.
As Margie’s declaration wrests the day from its expected trajectory, everyone who’s used to having control spirals out. Acrid as burnt hair, emotions waft through relationships and conversations as parents and the abandoned groom struggle to cope. Desperation mounts, and their collective efforts to make Margie emerge become more chaotic and absurd.
Matalon nails how families relate to each other. Her scenes are cinematic and evocative, every gesture packed with emotional tells. The tiny fractures hidden in daily life become rifts until no one moves; “Roped inside the circle of their breaths, they looked neither at one another nor at themselves, as though they’d been emptied out like a soft egg from its shell, and left hollow.”
Jessica Cohen’s translation gives Matalon’s winding sentences the easy, metrical rhythms of speech, and Matalon’s layering of language, emotion, scene, and cultural references comes through. This novel is a masterful rendering of a failed wedding day and the embedded failures that individuals, a family, and a culture accrue in the process of trying to manage their circumstances.
As complex and chaotic as life is, And the Bride Closed the Door is lightning and molasses, a true “blend of aromas that contained allusions and hints, mere allusions and hints of different smells, which slipped away and evaporated the moment they were defined.”
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (August 27, 2019)
Nina Allan’s exquisite and strange The Dollmaker is a postmodern fairy tale, both whimsical and aching in its appeal.
Andrew felt lost among his contemporaries until he discovered that he had a gift for fashioning discarded and forgotten antique dolls into more haunting versions of themselves. His hobgobliny creations—with their scarred faces, reconstructed sockets, and peculiar charms—are sought after and prized.
But as his dolls are sent off into the adoring homes of children and adults who find appeal in their imperfections, Andrew remains lonely and ill-fit within society. Most people see and interact with him only as a dwarf. Yearning for a real connection, he responds to an ad in a collector’s magazine for a pen pal and falls in quick, long-distance love with the correspondent, Bramber.
Bramber, who’s been secreted away from society for years, has her own reasons for being enchanted by dolls, fragile but undying as they are. She also introduces Andrew to the works of Ewa Chaplin, a fellow dollmaker and a Holocaust survivor whose short stories are intriguing in their familiarity.
Every careful step the story takes is magic. When Andrew elects to surprise Bramber with a visit, his affection for the old-fashioned makes the trip meandering, utilizing trains and leisurely stops in old English towns. Though he believes that he’s out to rescue Bramber, these drawn-out movements give him time to question what his true expectations are.
As he draws connections between Chaplin’s stories, his own history, and what he knows of Bramber from her letters, Andrew comes to realize that he knows Bramber more as a treasure than as a woman. It’s a startling, lonesome realization that permeates the ifs and unknowns of the book’s last pages, but that does not impede the book’s enchantment in the least.
Whether read as a romance, a fairy tale, a lament, or combinations of the three: The Dollmaker is a bewitching story.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 20, 2019)
New and Old Recipes from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Simon Bajada’s enticing and inspiring cookbook Baltic is an ode to a region that, though influenced by outsiders, remains all its own.
Bajada presents the post-Soviet cuisines of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as diverse and responsive. They draw upon tradition, playing with spices from periods of Byzantine trading and tricks learned under Soviet restrictions, but they also shift and change according to the bounty of the farmer’s market and the local environment.
Bajada’s text inveigles the senses, deploying the scents and appeals of Baltic kitchens—spicy from alder smoke and dizzying from “the forest, the mushrooms, the mint, the wild thyme.” Recipes are divided into sections focused on dairy dishes (the Balts like it sour), dishes specific to coastal and farming regions, baked goods and sweets, and drinks.
The brackish waters of the Baltic lead into dishes like Salmon Cured in Beer with Poppy Pancakes and Sprat and Herb Omelette, which are paired with dreamy photos of boxes teeming with fish and hemp nets drying in the air. Gardens that extend beyond the fence line into the Baltic woods and wilds mean that ingredients like nettles, dill crowns, and blackcurrants can be incorporated.
Recipes like that for Chilled Beetroot Soup take luscious twists to traditional dishes, while curd doughnuts and curd-filled chocolate arrive with their own strange appeals, bridging sweet, sour, and savory. Pear & Pollen Cake proves both straightforward and—by virtue of one pricey ingredient—lavish.
Simple food reigns, and it doesn’t get simpler than the book’s Cucumber and Honey dish, whose description waxes poetic on the primacy of bees and the necessity of choosing cucumbers “warmed by the summer’s rays.” A sense of comfort is imparted by dishes like Lamb, Beer & Honey and Hakklihakaste (“essentially a meaty gravy served over boiled potatoes”), accompanied by pickled roots and crisp chicory.
Whether you dive into it craving “deconstructed Shepherd’s pie,” Cranberry Manna Mousse, or the nectar sweetness of Rhubarb Kissel, the recipes of Baltic will awaken hunger for lands long shrouded in mystery and fed by the traditions of the earth.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2019)
The Story of “Abbey Road” and the End of the Beatles
While the album itself is a definite masterpiece, the Beatles’s Abbey Road also served as a coda for the world’s most influential band, the last set of studio sessions before the four musical geniuses went their separate ways. In the enjoyable deep dive Solid State, Kenneth Womack tells a detailed story of how the album came to be.
One of the standout aspects of the book is the level of information about the music itself. With mastermind producer George Martin back in the fold and a new “solid state” recording station, the band was able to make different use of multitrack recording and generate a “warmer” sound. Solid State explains how these processes were applied to individual songs, including tracking how the individual parts of the album-ending medley (“Carry That Weight,” “Golden Slumbers,” et cetera) came to life and ultimately came together.
Of course, Abbey Road‘s fame comes nearly as much from the band’s dynamic as from the music, and Solid State tracks those stories well. There’s ample discussion of the band fighting over a possible new manager, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recovering from both heroin addiction and a car accident in the studio, George Harrison gaining confidence in the caliber of his songwriting, and Lennon and Paul McCartney struggling to buy the publishing rights to their songs. Those tensions are all explored in detail, and the band’s musical success against that backdrop comes through.
Because of its laser focus on the period surrounding the Abbey Road sessions, Solid State does a great job of describing the final weeks of the Beatles as a going concern: the personal disagreements, the breakup, and most importantly, their ability to put that all aside long enough to write and record a set of songs that stands the test of time.
JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2019)
“The sky above us holds limitless wonder,” astrophysicist and television producer Sarah Barker declares. Technology may have made it easier to spot and understand heavenly bodies, but it will never explain away their magic. Barker first experienced that thrill as a child in England when she climbed onto a shed in the backyard to watch the Hale-Bopp comet. She shares her enthusiasm in 50 Things to See in the Sky, a richly illustrated, layperson-friendly guide to everything from constellations to quasars and how to find them.
Step-by-step instructions and helpful diagrams ensure that beginners won’t get overwhelmed. The same general advice applies to every situation: find the highest and darkest vantage point that you can (away from a city if possible), pick a clear night, and give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Binoculars are a good tool to start off with, while a telescope is an investment for more advanced hobbyists and can initially be accessed at a local astronomy club.
Moving from the closest sights to those farthest away, the book is a tour through peculiar and breathtaking phenomena such as meteor showers, comets, eclipses, the auroras, sunspots, lunar craters, Martian ice caps and volcanoes, and spiral and elliptical galaxies. Starting with what is easiest to spy with the naked eye, Barker gradually advances to things that require a telescope or other specialized equipment to be observed, such as the “baby solar system” in the constellation Taurus. At 450 light years away, it is best seen from the ALMA Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
Maria Nilsson’s whimsical and accurate drawings enhance the book’s tasteful blue-and-white color scheme, while a glossary and a closing section on resources such as star map apps guarantee that readers will soon be looking to the skies for themselves.
REBECCA FOSTER (August 27, 2019)