Sunday, July 18, 2010

Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman exploded onto the literary scene in 1996 with the publication of her first novel, The Family Markowitz, and followed up that success with Kaaterskill Falls in 1998. Both novels dealt centered around Jewish families, and the latter was set in an Orthodox community in upstate New York.

Goodman was born in Hawaii in 1967, got her bachelor’s degree from Harvard, and her PhD in English from Stanford University. Her succeeding novels, Total Immersion, Paradise Park, and Intuition are set in those various locales.

Her latest book, The Cookbook Collector, reflects the time Goodman spent in California. Set in both Berkeley and Palo Alto, the cookbook collector traces the lives of two sisters, Emily and Jess, who are as different as they can be. Emily, who lives in Palo Alto, is the CEO of a Veritech, a fledgling technology company on the verge of going public. Tess, who lives in Berkeley, is getting her doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley and is making ends meet working in an antiquarian bookstore and Yorick’s. Since Emily is practical and Jess is dreamy, the book has been marketed as Sense and Sensibility for the technology age.

The story opens in 1999 when the NASDQ was on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory and ends in 2002, after the country is humbled by the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The Cookbook Collector deals with America’s last period of economic instability: the stock market crash of the late 1009s.

The Cookbook Collector has many scenes of Berkeley, particularly its great bookstores. Ghost Word caught up with Goodman to find out why she set so much of her book in Berkeley.

Many of your previous books have been set in New York state and center on Hasidic communities. Why did you decide to set a book in the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley?

Actually, only one of my books is set in New York.  "Kaaterskill Falls" is about a community of orthodox  (and anti-Hasidic) German Jews who summer in the Catskills.  My new book is set in Cambridge Mass and in the Bay Area--where I went to graduate school.  I think Berkeley interested me so much because I lived for four years on the Farm at Stanford!  The mystique of what seemed like a real college town across the Bay!

When did you spend time in Berkeley? (I know you spent some time at Stanford.) Your book is filled with specific details about the city, including references to Pegasus Books, Amoeba Music, Moe's, etc.
As a grad student I loved to explore the bookstores of Berkeley--particularly the used bookstores.  I'd try to find old hardback copies of classics I was reading for my oral exams.  My husband and I also had friends who lived in Berkeley and we attended a wedding in the Rose Garden.

This city has a reputation for being politically progressive and food oriented. Do you share that impression? What do you like best about Berkeley? Least?

I think Berkeley is politically progressive and also historically progressive, by which I mean that dissent and political debate inform the city's traditions.  Cambridge also has a progressive tradition, but sometimes I suspect its heyday was in the 19th century during the time of the firebrand Abolitionists, and earlier during the Revolutionary War.  The food in Berkeley is better than the food in Cambridge because of the abundance of lovely California produce.  I love the fact that in Berkeley you can get organic whole wheat pizza AND greasy falafel AND vegan muffins AND Korean take out AND an elegant expensive dinner if you so choose.  Cambridge restaurants--both the fast and slow kind--are generally less imaginative.  We have fewer hole-in-the wall places serving unusual dishes.  At the other end of the price spectrum, places like the Harvest or Henrietta's table are good, but boring.  The Mediterranean restaurant Oleanna is much more fun.  We do have good bakeries in Cambridge, like the Hi-Rise, a superb chocolatier, Burdick's, and our ice cream parlors, Toscanini's, J.P. Licks, and my favorite, Christina's can stand toe to toe with any in Berkeley.

Many of the book's early scenes are set in a bookstore run by a man who has made "old" money at Microsoft, and almost seems like he would prefer to keep his books rather than sell them. Is this based on a particular bookstore or individual? What is it about rare books that makes people want to hold on to them?

Rare books hold a certain romance, especially for people who make their fortunes writing software!  Why?  Because they are singular, tangible, delicate objects in a virtual world.  My bookseller George says rare book dealers are the last romantics.

The book is being marketed as "Sense and Sensibility,"  for the technology age with pragmatic sister Emily and romantic sister Jess. Did this extend to the settings as well? You depict Berkeley as a city of dreamers whereas those living in Palo Alto are wrapped up in the high tech explosion of the late 1990s.
I think extending that theme to places would be a bit reductive, so I try to avoid it.  After all, those in Silicon Valley are arguably the biggest dreamers!  Emily is one of them.

A main part of the book has to do with a collection of antiquarian cookbooks that Jess catalogs. Why did you choose cookbooks rather than, for instance, botanical books?
I am fascinated by cookbooks as guidebooks.  We read about what to eat and by extension how to live.  One of the central questions for the sisters in my novel:  Can you find a recipe for conduct?  Or do you have to make up your own rules?

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