Thursday, August 19, 2010

OK, I started off writing a book review....

Although Jeff and I do watch TV and movies, we never watch “idle” tv – that is, we never sit ourselves done in front of the tube and check to see if anything is on. We have our shows, typically 2 or 3 at any given time – typically we PVR them or watch them “on demand”. We watch them and then turn off the tv.

Instead of idle tv, we read books together out loud in the evenings. This may well be my favourite activity. Over the last couple years, we’ve read Paradise Lost, Shadow of the Wind, 2666 (that was a months’ long waste of time!), the Steig Larsson trilogy, Ann Marie MacDonald’s  Where the Crow Flies (I think our favourite so far) and Fall on your Knees, Kavalier and Clay, Bonjour Tristesse, The Sparrow (which I love and Jeff doesn’t get), one of Lawrence Hill’s books, a vampire book whose name is escaping me, and various others whose names aren’t coming to me this instant.

Last week, we finished up The Cookbook Collector – A Novel, by Allegra Goodman. I’m not sure how many pages this book is, because we read it on the Kindle App for the iPad, but we wailed through it in about two weeks, which is pretty darn quick. Jeff indulged me – I couldn’t put it down.

Reviewers say that is it is a bit of a Sense and Sensibility riff, which it may well be. The characters are extremely engaging. I think my favourite is George – a Microsoft millionaire who falls in love with the “sensibility” sister, Jess, and fantasizes about the meals he’s going to cook for her. It practically breaks his heart when he finds out she is a vegan, but he comes around eventually and finally seduces her with a gorgeous ripe peach. I get George.

I also relate to Emily – the “sense” sister. She is calm and level headed no matter what happens, until, events unfolding, she is pushed out of her self-protective shell and forced to confront her emotions and learn to live with them.

But the thing about this book that really drew me in was the milieu. It takes place among software people, starting during the early 90’s tech bubble and ending shortly after 9-11. I had to explain all the inside jokes and tech company rituals to Jeffry, but I enjoyed doing it. Reading the book was like re-playing my previous life.

I worked at Castek. At that time, Castek was in a shooting star growth phase. The feelings the folks in the book have – feeling invincible, optimistic, like the whole world was there to be seized BY US… I had forgotten that feeling – the incredible excitement of going to work every day, the optimism about what your shares would be worth, the insanity of the growth curve and trying to take in new employees fast enough to meet the customer demand, everybody working 15, 18 hours a day, the all nighters. The talented, generous people. It was fun. I think with everything that came after, I’d forgotten the sheer fun of it. If nothing else, I got the memory of the fun back from reading this book.

The Cookbook Collector is also the first novel I’ve read that talks about 9-11 in a personal and non-ideological way. In the book, Emily’s fiancée Jonathan is on the flight from Boston to LA, and he is killed.
I had the exact same reaction to finding out about the twin towers as Emily did. I was managing the claims project - sitting in my nook concentrating on a spreadsheet. Amanda (who had been my Project Assistant and then promoted to Business Analyst, because she was too smart to waste doing my admin) stuck her head in and said, “a plane has flown into the world trade centre”. I looked up, slightly annoyed at the interruption and said “What a horrible accident” and went back to my spreadsheet. Same words as Emily. I have to imagine that was a pretty common reaction – at least at first.

Everything else that day is a blur. Some might ask that since we aren’t Americans how could we possibly be hit hard by the attack? Well, all I have to say about that is that Toronto is a LOT closer to New York than LA is. There were rumours that the CN Tower was going to be attacked next, that the attack was a prelude to an invasion of the US, that it was hoax, a conspiracy, an accident. The tall office buildings in the financial core were evacuated and men and women in dark suits were milling all over the streets. Many of our colleagues were in the states and we didn’t know where they were. Our COO lived in New Jersey and was beside himself. All of our clients were in the US. Many of us knew people who worked in the World Trade Centre, or who lived in New York City. We watched everything unfold on CNN on our computer screens. No-one did any work that day. The people on my team were mostly young, and they were scared. So was I. Mostly, I remember thinking that I just had to be calm and make sure my team was ok. I really wanted to talk to my mom, so I called her.

The novel continues into the aftermath of both the “bubble” bursting and 9-11. I remember that, too! After 9-11 the tech market really tanked. Although the “bubble” had burst prior, it hadn’t effected us too much, because we weren’t public yet. But after 9-11, insurance companies had no money for or interest in big software. Things went downhill rapidly. Although it wasn’t “over night”, it seemed like it. We laid people off. Work got hard. It wasn’t any harder in the literal sense – it just wasn’t fun anymore, so everything seemed to take more effort. We weren’t young, brilliant winners after all; we knew now that we weren’t going to rule the world, so things that we just sucked up before became annoyances, people started to move on. Everything we touched seemed tainted by the miasma of disappointment. Eventually, the company shrunk down to something like 20 people (from over 300).

The upside, is that I got laid off while my stock was still worth something. I used the money plus my package to put a down payment on my first house. Another upside, I never had a time in my life where I learned more, or where I cared more about the people I worked with.

I haven’t thought about those times for years. I’m glad I read this book. I think because I was part of the life described in the book, I found it all very compelling. Jeff liked the book as well, but he was much more interested in the relationships. Would Emily really marry that jerk, Jonathon? Would awkward but wealthy and almost middle-aged George figure out how to woo and win the quixotic and delightful young Jess? Would Jess fall out of a tree? Would the evangelical rabbis convert everybody? Who was Emily and Jess’s mother? Would Karen sell the cookbook collection to George? 

And most important, what is everybody having for dinner?


  1. "Software people"??? I have heard of good people, bad people, and smart people. "Software people sounds like cylons!

  2. Jeff - software people are cylons. I thought you knew.

    Candace - sounds like a good book, I will ahve to borrow it.