Sunday, December 17, 2006

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong (Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts)

Among baseball analysts, sabermetricians are defined by their skepticism and demand for hard evidence: “You think pitching is more important than hitting? Why? By how much? How do you know? Why are you looking at me like that?”* They particularly focus on trying to prove or disprove the value of conventional wisdom—asking, for instance, whether traditional offensive statistics like batting average and RBIs, and traditional pitching statistics like ERA, are really useful ways of deciding how good a player is, and how big a role factors like luck and environment play in those statistics. It’s an indication of their success that stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are now shown regularly on broadcasts and at games, and that it’s now general knowledge even among casual fans that a player’s home park can have a significant effect on his superficial numbers (with Exhibit A being Coors Field in Denver).

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong takes a series of questions about the game and tries to answer them with hard data and statistical analysis. Some of these are old sabermetric canards (whether the RBI is a useful statistic, whether there’s such a thing as clutch hitting, when teams should really use their closer), but others are just interesting questions that get to the heart of evaluating players; managerial strategy; the relative value of pitching, hitting, and defense; and even questions of payroll and stadium financing. Is Barry Bonds better than Babe Ruth? Does batting order matter? Is Alex Rodriguez overpaid? Do catchers really have an impact on pitching performance? And my favorite: Why doesn’t Billy Beane’s shit work in the playoffs? (For those who haven’t read Moneyball, this was Billy Beane’s famous answer for why the A’s did consistently well over the course of a regular season and consistently failed in the postseason: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”)

The answers to these questions are invariably interesting, but just as interesting is the discussion of what the questions even mean. Most people, if asked whether Barry Bonds is better than Babe Ruth, would go straight for their career numbers, and compare their batting average, home runs, RBIs, and so on. A more serious fan might also look at stats like their OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). But the discussion here starts asking the really hard questions: Wasn’t Ruth facing much easier pitching than Bonds does? Doesn’t Bonds benefit from modern nutrition and training methods? What about the different ballparks they played in? And how do their various core stats translate into actually helping their teams win—which is, after all, their purpose in the first place? This is how you end up with measures like EqA (Equivalent Average, a composite measure of total offensive performance) and adjustments like the Time Machine Effect and Timeline Adjustment, which are complex, but necessary to get at the truth of the question.

The book did have a few minor annoyances. The most substantial of these was that the discussion of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), one of their fundamental concepts, doesn’t occur until more than halfway through the book, meaning every time it came up prior to then (which was often), you always being referred to a future chapter—an idea as important as that really should have been thoroughly explained much earlier. Less substantial but still bothersome was that the 27 chapters are organized into an innings-outs scheme, from Chapter 1-1 to Chapter 9-3. This is clever, but is also always producing things like “Table 1-2.7”—which, in an already numbers-heavy book, is just too many numbers to simply identify a table, and became a little tedious after 100 pages or so.**

Balancing these somewhat, though, is that this is the first book I’ve ever seen to cite the Onion in an endnote, which you’ve just got to respect.

If you love baseball and are at least willing to put up with the math, you’ll like the book—I liked it a lot, but Maria passed it over to me right around Table BP.7 in the introduction (“Babe Ruth’s EqA, Adjusted for Time Machine Effect”). It also helps, I think, if you’ve encountered at least some of these ideas before, either in Moneyball or from reading a sabermetrically inclined sportswriter or two, but there is a helpful glossary if you get lost in the maze of VORP and WARP and PECOTA and BABIP and WinEx and SNLVAR. Despite the complex subject, though, you don't have to be a mathematician to understand it and enjoy it. And even if you don’t follow all the details of every last regression analysis or take the time to examine every last line graph, when you’ve finished, you’ll undoubtedly look at the game differently than when you started.

* Rejected opening #1: “If baseball analysts were states, sabermetricians would be Missouri—the Show-Me State.” What—I didn’t use it!
** And this may bug only me, but one of my pet peeves is the use of RBI as both the singular and plural form: 1 RBI, 120 RBI. I realize there are reasons for doing this (namely that RBIs appears to read literally as run batted ins), but I don’t happen to agree with them, and I frankly doubt that those who say “He had 120 RBI last year” would also say, for example, “During the war he and his unit were captured and held as POW.”

The United States of Arugula (David Kamp)

Anyone who reads this blog regularly should know my stance on food. I'm pro-food. Totally for it. In a single paragraph of the preface of David Kamp's The United States Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, he uses some of my favorite words: Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Bourdain, Zagat, Whole Foods, local farmer's markets, Cook's Illustrated.

Kamp presents a great history of how Americans started thinking more about food than just sustenance. He starts with what he refers to as The Big Three: Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, and I especially loved his descriptions of Child in her TV show: "She held up a roasting chicken and promised to help it realize 'the full glory of its chickendom.' She unapologetically patched back together a potato fritter that had fallen apart as she tried too flip it, saying 'You can always pick it up. If you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?'"

He also chronicles the availability of ingredients we can find easily today. In the late 1960s, chefs couldn't easily find fresh herbs to work with. (In its initial years, Chez Panisse in Berkeley took care of this problem by having customers bring their home garden herbs with them to dinner.) But once items became available, then there were ingredient explosions: balsalmic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, blackened redfish (a trend started by cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, which was so popular it almost decimated the redfish population).

Along with highlighting the higher end restaurants (such as Nobu and Spago), Kamp also discusses the influences of smaller restaurants: The Greens (started by Deborah Madison, the author of what I would call the best cookbook ever, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), the Moosewood Restaurant (which also has many great cookbooks), and Ovens of Brittany (a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin whose staff included Odessa Piper who went on to make L'Etoile, also in Madison, the success it continues to be today).

There's a lot of great information in this book. Among other interesting things, I learned that Peets coffee (a California favorite) began before Starbucks, and that the guys who started Starbucks had Peets as their initial supplier and roaster. I would think that anyone who watches even a little bit of Food Network would like this book, and all foodies would love it.

Next book up: Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager by Buzz Bissinger

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light (Mort Rosenblum)

Saying I enjoy chocolate might be an understatement. I really like chocolate, and I mean the good stuff. I'll take the Scharffen Berger. I'll take the extra-dark. And I'll especially take just one of the expensive handmade chocolates at the Whole Foods chocolate bar (I'd take more but that would cost me a lot of money). And thanks to Mort Rosenblum's Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, I now am much more educated on what makes good chocolate good, and the history behind it.

I was worried this book might be too heavy-handed and boring with the history, but it wasn't at all. Rosenblum mixes the history with his present quest to learn as much as he can about chocolate. He fully admits that he was a chocolate novice when he started this book, and he surrounds himself with experts as he travels country by country to taste and experience chocolate.

The chocolate stories from Europe, including France, Belgium, and England, were great, but I most enjoyed learning about American chocolate, especially the stories behind Hershey (and hearing what non-Americans think about the taste of Hershey bars) and the Mars company.

My mom-in-law told us a couple months ago that the public can tour the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory up in Berkeley, and I guess at the time I didn't realize how much fun that would be. After reading this book, however, I definitely want to tour the factory soon, especially because you get to taste chocolate during it. And Scharffen
Berger chocolate is really, really good. (You can buy it online if it isn't available at a store near you.)

Next book up: Not sure yet. I have a couple of books waiting on the hold shelf for me at the library.

In Persuasion Nation (George Saunders) by Guest Reviewer Jim

Way back in the Dark Ages of 1996 (visionary me, age 18: “This Internet thing is totally lame”), my dad got me a new book of short stories by a guy neither of us had ever heard of or knew anything about—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders. He bought it purely based on the interesting-sounding blurbs from Garrison Keillor, Tobias Wolff, and (particularly) the notoriously reclusive and not-given-to-spreading-effusive-praise-for-just-anybody Thomas Pynchon.

The first time I read it, I didn’t give it much thought. But when I picked it up again a year or so later, almost at random, it absolutely floored me. How I had missed this the first time, I don’t know—the stories were funny and weird and moving all at the same time, and not like anything else I’d ever read, featuring, among other things, an unfortunately chosen security guard run amok in a Civil War theme park, hapless resentment taken out on cows with windows in their sides, a guilt-ridden wave maker, and a mutant in the future making his way across an irrational American landscape trying to save his sister. I think I may have read it straight through two more times, and I’ve gone back to it at least five or six times since then.*

I’ve been an avid follower of his over the last ten years, even getting my hands on his children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, just because I had to see what a George Saunders children’s book would be like. (Answer: Very funny and very weird. And, I might add, outstandingly illustrated, and just nicely designed and well put together as a whole.) Which is a roundabout way of getting to In Persuasion Nation, his third short story collection and fifth book overall, released earlier this year.

Although it carries the familiar “stories” description on its cover, In Persuasion Nation also includes pieces more classifiable as humor or straight satire than fiction (for example, “I CAN SPEAK!™” is a letter written from a product service representative to a customer complaining about the title product, a computerized mask that lets parents pretend their babies can speak, and “My Amendment” outlines a proposal to outlaw not only same-sex marriage, but also “samish-sex marriage” when a somewhat effeminate-seeming man marries a somewhat masculine-seeming woman). In addition to some classic Saunders lunacy, full of the kinds of guilt-ridden losers and hilarious bureaucrat speak that populated his first two collections (see “CommComm,” in which an unfortunate government PR flack becomes enmeshed in a fellow employee’s failed attempt to cover up historical artifacts at a dig site) (and also there are ghosts) (and a department called Odors), the book also includes some surprisingly straightforward narratives (see “Christmas” and “Bohemians,” both set in reasonable approximations of the real world) alongside a few that charge full speed into satirical unreality (both “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” are set in a sort of TV dimension inhabited by characters from sitcoms and advertisements, struggling against the limitations of their existence).

The sheer variety of material and approaches, and his forays into what might understatedly be called wildly imaginative absurdity, make this book less coherent than either CivilWarLand or Pastoralia (his second collection); it feels like what I suspect it is, which is a sort of jumble of different kinds of work he’d done over the last five or six years while also working on Gappers of Frip and his terrific semi-allegorical short novel The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. That’s more of an observation than a criticism—he’s clearly given his imagination free reign to lead him wherever it wants, and I’m happy to follow. But for anyone who hasn’t read him before, it also means that I’d recommend either of his other two collections as a better place to start. But if you’ve already jumped on the Saunders train (as, incidentally, the folks over at the MacArthur Foundation did earlier this year, handing over one of their $500,000 no-strings-attached, keep-up-the-good-work "genius grants"), you won’t want to pass it up—even if the strange meta-landscapes of stories like “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” aren’t your thing, it’d be worth it just for stories like “Bohemians” and (a favorite of mine that I’d saved from the New Yorker back in 2002) “My Flamboyant Grandson.”

And then you can start doing what I do, which is keep a keen eye out for news of his next book.

* Side note: I went to see him give a reading a couple years ago, and took along my battered old copy of CivilWarLand to get it signed. When I handed it over he looked at it and said, “Oh God, you’ve got the one with the ugly cover.” Hehe.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

This I Believe (Jay Allison and Dan Gediman)

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women caught my eye on the new book shelf because of three little letters at the bottom of the cover: npr. I love those letters and the many wonderful things in life they bring me, most especially This American Life. (I am very pleased to pass along the news, which was rumored by my dad-in-law and confirmed by Jim, that This American Life is indeed offering free podcasts of their current shows.)

This I Believe was a radio program originally started in the 1950s and revived after 9/11 with the idea that people would state their personal beliefs in a couple hundred words. The book includes selections from both the original series (Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson) and the more-recent one (Bill Gates, Gloria Steinem, Errol Morris), and it also includes nonfamous people, including one woman who wrote an essay for the original series at age 16 and an updated one for the more-recent series.

I started reading this book a couple essays at a time in the evenings before I went to bed. In that way (and at the pace), I found it to be very inspiring and calming. However, because I am now spending this week and the next or so fulfilling my civic duty in jury duty, I went through the bulk of the book in a day, which I'm guessing is not the best way to read it, and that experience left me much less excited about it.

Am I glad I read it? Yes. Do I have enough enthusiasm to recommend it to others? I don't know. But again, that could be situational (see above). I'd say if it crossed your path, you should pick it up, but I'm not sure about searching it out.

Next book up: Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ultramarathon Man (Dean Karnazes)

Right from the beginning of Ultramarathon Man, it is very clear that Dean Karnazes is first and foremost a runner, not a writer. The beginning of the book is to the point, barebones writing, and comes off even a bit melodramatic. But then I got sucked into this unbelievable story about Karnazes' life as an ultramarathon runner, and I could care less about the style of writing (and what I felt was melodramatic at the beginning turned out to be very genuine, I realized near the end).

For those unfamiliar with the term, an ultramarathon is any distance past that of a marathon. Apparently for some people, 26.2 is just not enough. Karnazes is one of those people. He was always a runner, but didn't really begin the very-long-distance running until after he turned 30. His first ultramarathon was the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, where participants run up and down the Sierra Mountains and try to finish in 24 hours. (To train for this, among other things, he would run up Hyde Street hill in San Francisco. I personally think "hill" is the wrong term for this street. It's very, very, very steep, even in San Francisco terms.)

Probably the best part of this book is Karnazes' descriptions of what happens both to his body and his mind during these long runs. During the Western States run, he develops night blindness, where he can barely see. (And even though those in the aid tent suggest he quit, he keeps right on racing.) And as if the Western States run wasn't enough, he then enters Badwater, which goes from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, 135 miles, where for the Death Valley part runners have to wear special UV protective desert suits so their skin doesn't scorch, they have to run on the painted white line on the highway to keep their shoes from melting, and Karnazes thinks he hallucinates that a bunch of rattlesnakes are on the road, but it turns out that they are indeed really there.

There are even more astounding runs in the book, including the first ever Antarctic South Pole marathon. This is a short book (took me an afternoon to read) and I think it's worth it to read Karnazes' story. Oh, and wonder what he's doing now? He just completed Endurance 50, 50 marathons in 50 days, and now is in the process of running home from New York (home is San Francisco).

Next book up: This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Blue Latitudes (Tony Horwitz)

Prior to our recent trip to Hawaii, I thought it might be a good idea to get some island-themed books at the library. One I ended up taking with me was Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz. My knowledge of Captain Cook prior to reading this book didn't really go beyond name recognition, and I'd say that would probably be true for all my knowledge of the explorers. Other than learning their names along with a brief career synopsis in 4th grade, Cook (and the others) haven't really come up that much in conversation. Though, thanks to my trusty Lonely Planet guide, I did know about his eventful end on the shores of Hawaii.

Horwitz writes history in my favorite way to read it. He intersperses Cook's voyages (even with excerpts from Cook's journals and journals from others on the ships with him) with his own voyages to these places, where he talks to both experts and everyday people who live with Cook's legacy, in places like Fiji, Tonga, Australia, Hawaii, even in the very remote Unalaska Island in the Bering Sea. One of Horwitz's goal in doing this research and writing this book was to get as close as he could to a balanced account, no only presenting the English side, but also that of the natives of the places Cook visited.

Among Horwitz traveling adventures are many trips at sea, which prove very entertaining as he readily admits it's not his favorite way to travel. During a yacht race in Australia, he says, "I sprawled flat with my face against the desk. This seemed to help, so long as I hugged the mast and kept my eyes firmly shut. Eventually I felt not so much sick as listless and profoundly apathetic, like a polar explorer who announces, 'I'll just lie down in the snow for a while.' Or like the pitiable few in Bligh's longboat who, after being set adrift from the Bounty, became so thirsty and despairing that they drank seawater and died. It was depressing to realize that I was the type who wouldn't have made it."

In Cooktown, Australia, a remote town best known for its rowdiness and drinking, they have an annual "Discovery Festival" celebrating the Endeavour's landing there. When Horwitz takes part he learns, "the reenactment also had a shifting cast. A mainstay of the troup once failed to show up because 'he was on holiday at the Queen's request,' Rob said; in other words, in prison, for possession of drugs. Another lost his part due to 'lead poisoning,' meaning he'd shot himself. Also, since the reenactment came on the last day of the festival, it inevitably suffered from AWOL sailors: men too hung over to show up."

In Horwitz's travels, he encounters almost every possible emotion regarding Cook. Many islanders felt rage at what he had done to their ancestors. Even more it seemed were apathetic about it. And in many places, Horwitz found people trying their best keep the best of Cook alive and honored. He also encounters people living, as he and often they refer to it, on the edge of the world, such as in a small town on the Alaskan Peninsula, where he goes for a walk onshore. "Almost no one else bothered to disembark, and it was easy to see why. The wind blew so hard that I was almost crawling on all fours by the time I reached the end of the long pier. Taking refuge in the first building I came to--the harbor office--I found four men sipping coffee and staring out the window. . . . 'A bit fresh out today,' I said, as a conversation started. One of the men looked at me strangely. 'This is a nice day today,' he said' Last month we clocked the wind at a hundred and thirty-seven miles an hour.'"

This book is interesting both for the stories of the history and those of the present. It's a long book, but worth the read, and entertaining the whole way through.

Next book up: Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball (Molly O'Neil)

I found Mostly True on the new book rack at the library. How could I pass it up? A book that combines food and baseball? What's not to love? Molly O'Neill is the sister of former Major Leaguer Paul O'Neill (he's one of her five brothers). And if you're like me and that name doesn't ring a bell (because you are not a Yankees fan), Jim helpfully reminded me that Paul O'Neill guest-starred as himself in a Seinfeld episode (the one where Kramer makes him promise to hit two home runs in a game for a sick kid in the hospital).

I had not heard of Molly O'Neill before, but I found out she has made quite a name for herself in reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, and while developing her cooking and writing career, she became good friends with such food personalities as Julia Child.

I figured that I had my hopes up too high for this book as it combined two of my favorite things in life, so I was fully prepared for it to be mediocre. I was so wrong. From the very beginning of this book, it was clear that O'Neill writes well and with energy. It's a beautiful book that moves from baseball to cooking seamlessly. I spent a good half-hour on a sunny beach in Hawaii finishing the book before I would get in the water because I didn't want to put it down. It was that good.

Next book up: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lost and Found (Carolyn Parkhurst)

I haven't read very much fiction lately, so I was looking forward to Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst. All I knew about it was that it was about contestants on a reality TV show and it had gotten good reviews, which was enough for me to want to read it. The first chapter begins from the point of view of a mother who is competing on the show with her teenage daughter, and by page six, the reader finds out their big story, the reason why they're on the show, which is that the daughter was pregnant and had a baby with the mother unaware of this until the night she gave birth. This information was presented so dramatically that I wasn't sure I could handle the rest of the book if it was all this emotionally supercharged.

Luckily, a few of the other contestants in the show (including the daughter) also take turns telling their stories in the chapters (former child actors, a "saved" gay man and lesbian woman now married to each other), and while I still felt there were uber-dramatical moments throughout, it got better and better, and I had a hard time putting this book down. I was sucked in and had a lot of gasp-out-loud moments. This book would be a good one for traveling or when you have an afternoon or two where you don't have to be anywhere or do anything and you can lose yourself in a book.

There'll be a slight haitus for the blog while Jim and I head to Hawaii to enjoy hikes in dormant volcano, a tour of a goat cheese farm where we'll get to help herd the goats and feed them, and various kinds of water activities. Mahalo!

Next book up: Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball by Molly O'Neill

Friday, October 27, 2006

Galloway's Book on Running (Jeff Galloway)

A few weeks ago, I found myself awake at 5 am on a cold, dark morning in downtown San Jose with a bunch of other green T shirt-clad people who were volunteering for the San Jose Rock n' Roll Half-Marathon. (For those of you not familiar with a Rock n' Roll marathon, it is a marathon where a live band plays at each mile, and there's usually a big concert at the end.) Even though my friend Ashley and I had volunteered for the finish line portion of the race, we still had to be there by 5 am. Luckily, though, we ended up with an even better job. We were two of the three official timers for Meb Keflezghi, who won the silver medal back in Athens for the marathon. He was trying to set a new 10-mile record, so we stood at the 10-mile marker, stopwatches in hand, index fingers poised, and clicked the millisecond worth of time that his chest crossed our line. (Meb was not having the best day and he was the third elite runner to cross the 10-mile line, so he did not set a new record.)

Once our official job was over, we stood at the 10-mile marker and cheered on everyone who ran by, and it made for an inspiring day. There was a blind runner aided by a guide who ran directly in front of him, while they each held onto a pole in each hand. There was a woman with a prosthetic running leg, and her running partner was completing the race barefoot. There were old and young runners, runners in great shape and those who were really struggling. We cheered on friends, and after a couple hours of watching people stream by, we thought, you know, maybe we can do this, too.

I was never an athletic kid. At all. Jim has fond memories of his elementary school PE class, with juggling, roller skating, and hula hooping. I remember being picked last for softball, being hit again and again by a stiff gray foam dodgeball, and hanging on a rope I couldn't climb until they told me I could let go. But a couple years ago, I found myself in great shape (thanks to the Monkey Bar Gym in Madison, Wisconsin) and decided I wanted to run. I completed two 5 Ks, and even an 8 K, but then didn't run regularly after that.

But I learned something very valuable from some of the half-marathoners. You don't have to run the whole time. There's this wonderful formula called the "5-1" where you run for 5 minutes, walk for 1 minute, and then repeat until you finish the race. I had never heard of this before and had always thought of walking during running as giving up (whenever I stopped to walk I could never get up the energy to run again). Well, according to Jeff Galloway, one of the reasons that the 5-1 works is that you start taking the walk breaks before you're really tired, so you keep your endurance but you give yourself a breather and you work all your leg muscles, which helps from cramping or overuse. I find that the best part of the 5-1 is that 5 minutes seems doable. Running 3 more miles may not, but 5 minutes? I can do that.

In Galloway's Book on Running, the original edition coming out in 1987, Jeff Galloway presents what was probably at that time a fairly revolutionary program of running. Not only does he talk about the walk breaks (which he even recommends to elite runners, though with a less than a minute walk in between the runs), he also talks about how it can be better to run every other day than everyday.

In this book, I learned how much you need to run a week to progress toward a goal for a race or to keep weight off. He goes into the science behind what happens to your body when you run, how to be faster, how to find the right pair of shoes, how to prevent injury, and his wife talks about the differences between men running and women running. The best thing I learned from this book is that you only have to run 3 times a week (two 30-45 min runs and then one long run) to run a half-marathon or even a full marathon. And (even better), you should not run your long run fast when training. It should be slow. Galloway's book does give some advice to elite athletes, but I feel like his main audience is what he refers to as the "neighborhood runner," and he's all for people running throughout their lives (he gives plenty examples of people who start running very late in life and have great experiences).

And for those who are afraid running for 5 minutes at a time seems too long, don't worry. Galloway recommends that beginning runners start walking first, and running just a bit at a time (even as little as 30 seconds at a time) and then working up to more. When I first started running again a few weeks ago, I started with a 2-1 and worked up to the 5-1. I have to say, I've had a lot more fun running these past few weeks than I ever had before. I'm going to do my first-ever 10K on Thanksgiving morning, which really, is just a very good excuse to eat a lot of pie later in the day. And I am training for a half-marathon in February up in Golden Gate Park, and my goal isn't to finish fast, but just to finish.

Next book up: Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson)

In A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson is excited. So excited in fact, that you, the reader, get really excited (enough to want to start a Bill Bryson fan club).

In The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, he's not excited. He's young and brash, easily annoyed, disrespectful, quick to judge, and frankly no fun to be around. I did not find the first half of this book to be very entertaining or funny (though I felt that was the intention). Now, I may be especially biased about this, I'm well aware. Let me explain.

I am, like Bill Bryson, from Iowa. However, he is from Des Moines (king of all the cities in Iowa in terms of bigness and prides itself for being bigger than any other city in Iowa), whereas I am from Davenport (a medium-sized Iowa city that would be small in most other states but prides itself in being near a muddy river and being bigger than the small towns in Iowa). And, just like your family, you can complain all you want, but no one can make fun of them but you.

Technically then, Bill Bryson qualifies to make fun of the Midwest, but the problem is that he has been out of the country, living in England, for a long time, so he's especially put off by American life for most of the book as he takes a 38-state tour of the country via car for 300-some pages. Single-person road trips can make people cranky, and I feel like he's covered too much material. I found the second part of the book better, but not enough to recommend it. Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation does a great job presenting somewhat similar material in a more focused, and more entertaining way.

Next book up: Galloway's Book on Running by Jeff Galloway

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Interview: Chad Davidson and John Poch

Poets Chad Davidson and John Poch teamed up to write their new book, Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection, and I may not know much about hockey, but I do like the haiku, am a big fan of Chad and John, and happen to know they're writing is excellent. They were kind enough to brave the time zone differences (me in California, Chad in Georgia, and John in Spain) to talk about their book with me.

MD: Are you afraid of Canadians?

Chad: It's not so much fear as a guarded fascination. During my years researching for this book at the Hockey Haiku Institute in Nova Scotia, I came to be drawn to their peculiar customs. I once perchanced to see two Canadians conversing in what appeared to be a foreign tongue. Turns out it was a form of French spoken in part of that great land. Who would have guessed the Canadians possessed so much interest! Endlessly evocative, I must say. Stories of cannibalism circulate, of course, but these seem mere rumor, near myth, in fact.

John: I’m afraid of many Canadians but not of anybody from Winnipeg. With hockey haiku, in general, one learns not to be afraid, but to embrace ones fears. What is a tough check on the boards to me? Nothing, I get back up. The same goes for writing a difficult haiku and failing to find that third line. Back to the question, though, one should generally fear Canadians more than Americans.

MD: Who is the bigger hockey fan of the two of you?

John: I know very little about hockey. Wallace Stevens said that one of the sources of poetry is ignorance, so I find myself more adept at understanding hockey haiku than Chad, at times. We are different kinds of fans, for sure. Chad likes to sit in fancy schmanzy press boxes with private bathrooms while I like my face pressed up against the glass, feeling the percussion of the sticks on the ice, the vibration of the Zamboni as it sweeps by, the blood sweat and tears of the players and my fellow comrades in the pit. It’s primal, really. Chad does spend time down below with us, but he does like to hang out with the bigwigs now and then. He wears cologne while I prefer Speedstick alone.

Chad: I am, of course. John has no skill at all. Fan skill, that is. He has no sense of rhythm when we have to clap our hands at games after a goal, has no real taste for Molson Ice, and also hates hot dogs.

MD: Do you think people who aren't schooled in poetry (but are very schooled in, say, the San Jose Sharks) would enjoy this book?

Chad: Definitely. Look, there are two kinds of hockey haiku fans out there. There are the fiercely aggressive and loyal fans--the type who tattoo certain hockey haiku on their thighs and chant them to the harvest moon. There are also, though, the more common, staid varieties, people like you and me who, as chance may have it, work in San Jose, St. Paul, or New York, who work at desk jobs, perhaps, whose only source of joy is that fleeting sense of satisfaction amid the workday when a moment of clarity transports us to that peaceful realm known as hockey haiku. Religions have been formed around less.

MD: I think hockey season is just starting up, is that correct? Did you guys plan for the book to be released at the beginning of the season?

John: We planned for it to be released during the playoffs and the run into the Stanley Cup, but the editors at St. Martin’s realized what a good stocking stuffer it would be for every little hockey hooligan out there just waiting for his boot (in Canada they hang boots over the fireplace rather than stockings) to be full of hockey haiku. The kids love it. They can’t get enough, and we should be thankful to St. Martin’s for realizing this. We get caught up in the game and forget about things like money. We’re poets, after all.

MD: I have to say that there are people who are bigger hockey fans out there than me. I'm a baseball girl myself. Do you see a baseball haiku book on the horizon?

Chad: After Davey Lopes' classic Baseball Haiku Quarterly went under in '79, I am sure we all had visions of reviving it, or, better, trying ourhands at an anthology. Really, though, if you look at the baseball haiku that have been promoted as of late--mostly in the Northeastern schools, I think it's fallen away. It's become too disembodied. They've lost a sense of the populace, what Williams called "the pressure of reality." Some of the South American baseball haiku, especially those indebted to Marquez and the magical realists, are quite stunning.

MD: Can you write a haiku for me about the sad state of this past Cubs season and perhaps their hopeful rebirth for the next?

Chad: No, but what comes to mind is Yezzy Gradebill's classic haiku on just that subject: Chicago snow falls / long past spring, past summer cubs / still at mother's teats.

MD: Thanks for that. Back to hockey, any predictions for this season?

Chad: What with the book's release and our Japanese tour poised to begin, I haven't had a chance to look over my stats, yet. I hope, childishly, for Modano to play on another winning Stars team.

MD: I think it’s great the two of you did this project together. Do you see any other joint projects in the future?

John: Well, we can’t talk about too many of them, as others will want to swoop in and try their hand at what we alone can do. I do know that we’re a little dismayed that we’ve left out the Kyoto school from this anthology, but the poems are so singular and foreign to the American cultures, we just didn’t think anyone but a scholar would realize the beauty. But we’re beginning to think otherwise. You can’t underestimate hockey fans. Zamboni, after all, the word itself, comes out of an ancient Kyoto haiku. Most people think it’s Italian.

MD: Given this is for a website about book reviews, could you recommend a book?

Chad: I think Fivolovic's last collection of hockey haiku, The Path Sick Senators Took, is perhaps his most challenging. It's not the type of hockey haiku you relax with. It demands a lot of its readers, sort of the Scotty Bowman of recent hockey haiku collections, but it pays off in spades.

John: Black Ice. It’s the story of the rise and fall of former Dallas Stars net minder Eddie Belfour and his current recovery from substance addictions. Do you know what’s bringing him out of his depression and addiction? Yes, of course, we all have heard. Practicing hockey haiku in the mornings and evenings, when he would normally be out cruising the seediest parts of town looking for the biggest bouncer he could find to challenge to a bare-fisted brouhaha. Eddie Belfour has also started quoting famous Presidents at lunch. I’ve heard this is a favorite of his that he is bringing onto the ice this season to mess with the offensive linemen who deign sidle up to him: As FDR said: “I’ve seen war and I’ve seen Eleanor. I’ll take war!”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Two for the Road (Jane and Michael Stern)

I grew up in a town in Iowa where it was a big deal when we got an Olive Garden. (As a kid, I thought it was a very fancy restaurant.) We did have some national chain restaurants, but mostly of the fast-food persuasion. Instead we had family-owned restaurants, ones we went to after dance recitals to get ice cream sundaes and others that for some reason served a kind of fish called smelt, which I cannot judge because I have not tasted it, but the name alone doesn't bode well.

In Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, Jane and Michael Stern's memoir of their lives on the road as food writers, they take you back to a time before Olive Gardens, when almost every roadside restaurant served up local specialities. When they decided to write a national food guide in the 1970s, they had no idea what they were doing, so they decided the best thing would be to write about ALL the restaurants (they had never been outside the East Coast before), and so started a long span of eating 12 meals a day (they do detail in the book how this is humanly possible). They went to restaurants where they'd be the only strangers and Midwestern cafes where the salads contained no lettuce but instead gobs of mayonnaise, marshmallows, and sugar. (The chapters on Midwestern food especially hit home. Just a few years ago when my grandmother passed away, the sweet older ladies at her church prepared our family a salad luncheon following the funeral, and there was a lot of mayonnaise, a lot of marshmallows, and meat in places you'd never even think of. I went straight for the homemade pie.)

This pre-Olive Garden world may seem foreign, but I think there's still enough small, local restaurants around. In Iowa City, for example, there's this diner that serves pie milkshakes. When you order, you tell them what kind of milkshake you want and then you ask what kind of freshly baked pie they have that day. They make the milkshake, then take a piece of pie, put it in with the milkshake and blend it all together. We had vanilla with apple pie. It was the best milkshake I ever had.

From their years of experience, they also discuss the art of menu writing ("we cater to prim Donnas"), signs of a bad hotel (a TV that's chained to the wall), and signs of a good restaurant (a handmade larger than life pig wearing an apron on the roof). This book is a quick, fun read with a lot of nostalgia.

Next book up: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Salt: A World History (Mark Kurlansky)

This is how I usually check books out at the library: I have a list of books I want to read, I search for them on the San Jose library web site. If they have it, I request it and depending on it's status (check shelves, current unavailable, on hold), it could be ready in a couple days to a couple weeks. Sometimes I come home from a trip to the library with an insurmountable pile of books, both ones I've requested and ones that caught my eye on the new book shelf. Three weeks seems like a long time unless you have a really big pile or a couple of very long books. And with Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, I sadly learned that there was a limit to the number of times you can renew a book online.

I made it about halfway through the book before it was due. Jim pointed out, (and to his credit, he was most likely right) that I probably could have taken the book in and renewed it in person, as long as there wasn't another hold on it. But, I have to tell you, as much great history as in this book, it was lengthy, and there wasn't any big impetus for me to keep reading, other than the looming due date. I loved the old recipes in the book, and I feel like there were so many small gems of stories in it that I don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. Maybe the best advice I can give is not to read it during the baseball playoffs. Yes. That's advice I can stand behind.

Next book up: Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food by Jane and Michael Stern

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson)

I going to start a personal campaign to have Bill Bryson rewrite all the science textbooks the American public school system makes children read. All of them. And while he's at it, maybe he could also rewrite all the history textbooks, too. Why? He's exciting writer. A great one, too. And he takes topics that have been treated poorly in the past by other writers, or deemed too abstract or too scientific for nongeniuses, and he makes them not only accessible, but interesting, and dare I say, cool.

I highly recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything. I may even start a Bill Bryson fan club. (I realize I've only read this one book of his, but I plan to read many more in the near future. And, I just found out on Powell's website, he's a fellow Iowan!) This book is not small (but when you think about it trying to cover "nearly everything" isn't a very small task), but it didn't feel like a chore to get through at all. It has the right mix of hard science with historial, yet very lively, anecdotes, and explanation. I will admit I had some what I will call wimpy moments---I did not enjoy the chapters on the supervolcanoes and the who-knows-when-they-will-come-at-a-moment's-notice-and-destroy-us-all asteroids/comets. But then again, I don't like scary movies. Overall, it was highly enjoyable, with way too much information to cover it all here. I will, however, share some personal favorite moments:

  • The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781. However, the discoverer wanted to call it George. (Luckily he was "overruled.")
  • "In 1785, [Dr. James Parkinson] became possibly the only person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle."
  • As mentioned in Strathern's book, the distinction between chemistry and alchemy was a tough one in the beginning. "Into the eighteen century scholars could feel oddly comfortable in both camps---like the German Johann Becher, who produced an unexceptionable work on mineralogy called Physica Subterranea, but who also was certain that, given the right materials, he could make himself invisible."
  • "Physicists are notoriously scornful of scientists from other fields. When the wife of the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli left him for a chemist, he was staggered with disbelief. 'Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood,' he remarked in wonder to a friend. 'But a chemist. . . "
Next book up: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Friday, September 15, 2006

Mendeleyev's Dream (Paul Strathern)

I've been working with scientists for a little over a year now, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that they believe in, and love, data. So, following in their footsteps, I'd like to present a little data from my experience reading Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern. The inclusion of the word "Mendeleyev" in the main title leads the reader, in this case me, to believe that the book is indeed about Mendeleyev, the Russian scientist who created the Periodic Table of Elements. (Seems straightforward, no?) However, out of the 294 pages of the book, only 39 pages are about Mendeleyev! Thirty-nine! Clever title? Perhaps. Mistitled? Indeed.

While the prologue and the last two chapters focus on Mendeleyev, the rest of the book presents a historical look at the beginnings of chemistry, all the way back to the Greeks. I did learn some interesting trivia: (1) Most of our understanding of chemistry began with (and was driven by) alchemy, the quest to turn nongold objects into gold. (2) Despite not having a substantial role in science for much of history, it's possible that the very first chemists were women, Babylonian women, who made perfume.

But mostly I have to admit I suffered through this book (until about page 100, when I decided to skim the rest until the Mendeleyev chapters at the end). There were some interesting moments throughout (Lavoisier's life and experiments, for example), but overall the format and presentation just didn't do it for me. It felt a lot like the assigned reading in high school, the ones that made science seem uninteresting enough for me not to want to learn more. But I'm learning more interesting scientific things everyday at work, and I just started the next book I'll be posting about, which is also about historical science (and this is clearly stated in the title), only it's so much better. A bajillion times better. (I've only started the first chapter, and it's fairly hefty, but so far it's great.)

Next book up: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Heat (Bill Buford)

It’s not exactly a secret that I enjoy books about food. And I rarely tire of them. However, sometimes I read too many of them in a row and I begin to take them for granted. As a friend recently said, you kind of take it for granted if you eat out a lot---the same way you may take a homemade meal for granted, that is, until you’re on a two-week trip serpentining across the country and find yourself in South Dakota, sadly ordering a cheeseburger without the burger to a shocked waiter, in desperate need of a vegetable. And your husband (then husband-in-training) has to take you to a fancy Italian restaurant the next night because you can’t stop crying about how horrible the food has been lately (did I mention he still married me? That’s true love.). And all you can talk about during the fancy meal is how great the vegetables are.

If you are the type of person who believes that Olive Garden equals Italian food, you may have a lot to learn. I don’t profess to be an expert. I’ve had my fair share of frustrating evenings with fresh pasta making disasters in a small galley kitchen (collapsed flour volcanoes, unsturdy giant raviolis). But when it’s not a disaster, it’s divine, with the right texture and elasticity making it worth the trouble.*

I was lucky. I learned to make pasta from someone who learned in Italy, and someone who very much enjoyed entertaining his friends with great homecooked meals. And I was glad to discover in Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford that the method I learned for making fresh pasta was the “correct” method he learns in Italy. Flour and eggs. Nothing else.

Heat begins like many other foodie books, the uninitiated (similar to Michael Ruhlman) taking on the “back of the house” in the kitchen. But the first thing that makes this book stand out is that Buford isn’t in just any kitchen. He’s in Mario Batali’s kitchen, and Mario Batali is one heckuva interesting man: perverse (but somehow in a charming way), larger than life (both in body and in presence), exacting in his food, and the center of attention, and he can probably drink each and every one of you under the table.

And if working in Mario’s kitchen isn’t enough to make a great book, Buford then goes to Italy, to really learn the food, and to learn from those who taught Mario himself. He learns pasta from an older Italian woman; he becomes an apprentice to a butcher in a small Tuscan mountain town (a place that would make me cry as much as South Dakota, as Buford often refers to the lack of vegetables and the “brownness” of the food in the meat-loving region). And this isn’t any ordinary butcher. He’s a butcher with giant hands, a giant voice that signs arias loudly to the crowd and quotes Dante with full force, one who makes what he wants, because he can, because he doesn’t consider himself a businessman, but instead an artisan, and because he wants to continue the traditions of the ways things have always been done.

While reading this book, I subconsciously began cooking a lot more Italian food from scratch (although, really, it shouldn’t have been subconscious, if I had only been paying attention). Last weekend I made lasagna, something I rarely do, and the day before that I made batches of a homemade vegetarian ragu.

So if a book presents an uncensored look at Batali, takes you to Italy, and makes you cook great food, what more could you ask for?

*I have to admit that I didn’t make fresh pasta in that tiny galley kitchen again when we lived in Madison once I had discovered RP’s pasta, a small local business that makes excellent fresh pasta. If there are any Madisonians reading who haven’t tried this pasta, you must! Also, I have heard that the owner of RP’s has recently opened a restaurant, so I would recommend trying that as well.

Next book up: Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Healing with Whole Foods (Pitchford)

Healing with Whole Foods is not a light reading book. First of all, its hefty. Second, it uses words like "beta-amyloid" and "xanthine oxidase." But it also presented way more information than I was expecting. In fact, I was expecting the book to focus on what foods would be best during illness, and while that definitely is a part of it, I would say the overall focus is on good health. This third edition also starts with an introduction focusing on the latest diet fads and how those affect overall health. (If you do read this book and read nothing else, read the introduction. It's really informative and interesting.)

I've been a vegatarian for 10 years now, and this book reminded me that even if you're a vegetarian, you can still manage to make some unhealthy choices. Processed foods can really get you, as can sugar. As the title suggests, whole foods are the way to go, and the book gives you excellent scientific data to back up the claims. I also think it's important to remember (and they do say this in the book) that you shouldn't expect to change your entire diet to match the recommended one in here. It's just not feasible for most people, especially in the West (the recommended diet in here is based heavily on Chinese medicine). But beginning to make healthier choices is the best thing to do.

I wouldn't recommend getting this book from the library and expecting to read it all (it's over 700 pages, and I ended up having to skim the last half to get it back in time), but I would recommend getting it from the library to see if this is something you would like to own. I think it would make a great reference book (and there are recipes in the back, some that sound very good, and others that sound like they may be too healthy, such as "Toasted Kasha with Cabbage Gravy,"---I just can't get excited about that).

Next book up: Heat by Bill Buford

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Game Time (Roger Angell)

I used to not divide the year into baseball season and the off-season. Now, when winter drags on in February (when all the holidays are gone and all we're left with is cloudy, gray weather), I have severe baseball withdrawl. But now I've finally figured out how to make it through the off-season (besides contemplating who I'm going to draft for next year's fantasy baseball team): Read about baseball, and specifically, read Roger Angell.

Game Time: A Baseball Companion is a collection of some of Angell's writing from the 1960s to the 2000s. It's a fairly hefty book, but never boring, and always interesting (especially the conversation he has with Ted Williams, which is near the end of the book. Scandalous!).

This is the perfect off-season companion, and one you could return to often. There's Tommy Lasorda, talking about the Big Dodger in the sky, and the debut of the young Julio Franco (currently the oldest active MLB player). There's a great piece on Bob Gibson, and how he may be mainly to blame for the lowering of the mound and the shrinking of the strike zone. There the humble beginnings of the term "walk-off home run," spoken by a player with a knack for an unusual vocabulary. And there's Derek Jeter's fan mail: "Another day, Derek Jeter brought over a letter from his thick daily stack and asked Scott Brosius for help with the handwriting. Then Chris Turner read it, too---there's a lot of interest in Derek's mail. 'I am a sixty-eight-year-old window,' they made out, line by line, 'and I would like you to accompany my eighteen-year-old great-niece to her graduation dance. She is a good person and so are you.'"

Oh, and by the way (this is especially for my dad), I noticed that Angell is wearing a Wooden Boat sweatshirt in his author photo (it took a careful look at the photo to make out the logo but it is indeed Wooden Boat), which is a company that publishes Wooden Boat magazine and also runs Wooden Boat school, of which my dad is a frequent student. So, as if Angell didn't have enough going for him, there's that too.

Next book up: Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Seeing Voices (Oliver Sacks)

When I was about 13, I decided that I was going to learn sign language. I think the impetus was that someone in my family had found an old "Teach Yourself Sign Language" book, and I thought if there's a book, then surely I should learn the language. I made it roughly one-third of the way through the first chapter, and really just learned the alphabet (which I still remember most of today).

I'm a big fan of Oliver Sack's writing: He has the perfect balance of scientific fact and narrative that makes his books interesting and accessible. I highly recommend the books of his I've read in the past (Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and his memoir Uncle Tungsten, which signals how much times have changed, given the kinds and amounts of dangerous chemicals and materials Sacks had accessible as a kid).

Seeing Voices is divided into three parts, none of which really capture the beauty of Sack's writing. The first part began as a book review and follows much of the history of the deaf. The middle part deals more with scientific data, which is what I found most interesting, and especially explores the lives of the congenitally deaf. The section does sometimes capture the best part of Sack's writing but then quickly moves on. And the third part, well, I didn't quite make it to the third part. I meant to, but the book was due and on hold, so I couldn't renew it. Such is the life of a library book sometimes.

If you haven't read Oliver Sacks, you definitely should (see my list above). He's always almost interesting and insightful.

Next book up: Game Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger Angell

Send in the Idiots (Kamran Nazeer)

I was really excited to read Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer because Nazeer attended a special school for students with autism when he was a child, and he decided to follow up on some of his classmates. Many years ago, I'd worked with kids who had learning disabilities, including a few who had autism, so I had a special interest in this book.

Maybe it was all the advance good reviews I had heard about this book or because I had built it up to heights it couldn't reach before I had read it, but I was kind of let down. I found the writing hard to follow; this, along with the author's many British-isms (referring to the shower as the shower cubicle), made for a lot of work to get through the book on my end.

However, I think Nazeer's perspective is quite valuable, especially for anyone working with those with autism, and I really wish I had read this book prior to working with those kids.

Next book up: Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Candyfreak (Steve Almond)

This is how I know of Steve Almond: Jim, many years ago, attended Breadloaf, the writer's conference, at the same time that Steve Almond did and enjoyed his work. So now Steve Almond is a household name. If we see his work anywhere, we yell out "Steve Almond!" And after I read his book Candyfreak, I found even more Steve Almond connections. Turns out he grew up in Palo Alto, where I work, and not only that, he grew up on a street right nearby my work. Steve Almond!

Steve Almond is a candybar fanatic. Now I'm a bonafide chocolate lover. And I eat my fair share. But I also know that I am somewhat of a food snob, or to use a nicer word to describe it, a foodie. So I don't eat the brand name chocolate bars. I'm a Lindt, Sharfenberger, organic, local chocolate fanatic. Steve Almond, however, likes candybars in every shape and form (he has a hoarded surplus of the now out-of-production dark chocolate KitKat bars). In his book, he finds out that chocolate makers will actually let him tour their factories (except for the big names because their processes are "top secret"), and he finds himself mesmerized and entranced by the many "chocolate enrobers" on the factory lines.

Now I have to note that Steve Almond does not have the cleanest vocabulary, which adds an unexpected level to the chocolate musings. Also, the book isn't exactly even throughout. It wanders around for a while in the beginning before starting the factory tours. But overall it was still a good read. Steve Almond!

Next book up: Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)

When I first heard of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, I didn't want to read it. I didn't want to hear about some woman who traveled to all these great places and experienced enlightenment. I think I was jealous of her before I even picked up the book. But it was on Powell's recommended reading list, and so far I've really liked all the books I've read from that list, so I eventually got it from the library.

Gilbert won me over right away. Reading her book is like talking to your best friend late at night after you've shared a bottle of wine, you know, having one of those deeply satisfying conversations where you're completely honest with each other and find out that your fears and worries in life aren't yours alone.

Going through a painful divorce, Gilbert found herself wanting, for no practical reason, to learn Italian. After an Italian class in New York, at a school that she refers to as "Night School for Divorced Ladies," a magazine-work-sponsored trip to Indonesia, and some serious yoga and spiritual sessions, she finds herself wanting to travel to Italy, Indonesia, and India. And eventually she makes it happen.

Gilbert admits that she's not the world's best traveler, but that her strongpoint is making friends, and she does this in each country: Luca Spaghetti in Rome, Richard from Texas at the ashram in India, and an Wayan, a single-mother who is also a healer, in Bali.

Her year-long journey is amazing, and she does a great job telling it, describing both the highs and the lows, with a lot of humor and compassion. Jim and I spent most of our weekends in June traveling, and I took this book with me on every trip, and even after long days where I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to crawl in bed and fall asleep, I couldn't help but read a little bit each night, and often had to make myself stop. I highly recommend it.

Next book up: Candyfreak by Steve Almond

Friday, June 30, 2006

Living Well on a Shoestring (Yankee Magazine)

Oh, to be American means to enjoy the pursuit of not being suckered when buying a car, or any other large purchase, to revel in the amount of money saved on sale items, and to find the best deal possible. I have not read their magazine, and I am not technically a yankee, but the editors of Yankee Magazine promise me that the yankee tradition of living the good life for less (of which I was unaware) can be universal.

In Living Well on a Shoestring, the editors give you "1,501 Ingenious Ways" to save money. I have found that books promising over 1,000 ways or recipes or tips are not filled with 1,000 good things. They include mostly mediocre ones, and sometimes some bad ones.

About half the book is devoted to money management, with a thick section on getting out of debt. If you are in debt, then I think this would be really useful. Some of their tips, though, were either too funny or not quite up-to-date: Instead of suggesting readers request the one free credit report every citizen is entitled to once a year, they suggest that instead you apply for a credit card with a giant limit that you would never be approved of, and then when you're declined, go to the bank to ask to see the credit report.

They also suggested that if you are an impulse credit card user, then you should freeze (literally) your credit card in the freezer in a container of water. This, they reasoned, would make you have to take it out of the freezer when you wanted to use it and wait for it to thaw (which could take over a day), during which time you could think about if you really wanted to spend the money. You couldn't, they said, put it in the microwave to speed up the process because that would melt the plastic.

Jim thought this whole scenario was so funny and ridiculous that he decided we should try it. We took a credit card, placed it in a large plastic cup, filled it with water and put it in the freezer. The next day it was frozen solid. But then the Yankee's plan went awry. When we took it out to thaw, within minutes the ice cracked (along the length of the card) so we were able to free the card easily. Not only that, it smeared the signature on the back and left the card with a funny, cloudy sheen, or as Jim put it succintly, "gross."

They also had tips for saving money throughout the year and some of them were good (such as ways to make an expensive hobby less expensive) and some of them were, um, strange (such as using old bras as support for tomato plants).

If you are interested in ways to save money, I'd recommend checking this book out at the library, knowing that you'll have to skim through a lot of less-useful tips for the good ones.

Next book up: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik)

In his book Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik recounts the five years he, his wife, and their young son spend living in Paris in the late nineties. In the chapter "The Rookie," he recounts trying to teach his three-year-old son about baseball while living there, where baseball is almost nonexistent: "Luke and I tried playing a little catch in the Luxembourg Gardens but gave up after about five minutes. For a present, around that time, he asked us to make him his own carte d'identite, marked with a metier de journaliste---a press pass from the government---so that he could pretend to cut through red tape. We made him an impressive-looking fake government document, with a black-and-white photo and lots of cryptic, official-looking stamps. At bedtime now before the Rookie story starts, he likes to act out a French bureaucratic drama: I play a functionary guarding an entrance to something or other who scowls until he haughtily flashes his carte, and then I let him pass with many apologetic, ah-monsieur-I-did-not-recognize grimaces and shrugs, while his mother acts out the role of the irate bystander, fuming in line as the priveleged functionary serenely passes by. I suppose it is about time we took him home."

I actually minored in French, not for the love of the language so much as the amount of credits I had. I got to a point where I could carry on a somewhat prolonged conversation ("I do very much like the music, and do you? Do you like to hear the music at the same time that you are dancing at the discotheque?"), but only with a Canadian (I was far too terrified to converse with a native).

I also think the little French, Russian, and German kids we see shopping with their parents at Trader Joes are the cutest things ever, and lucky for me there were a few adorable little French girls in Gopnik's book, such as Jolie and Armandine, who discover (much to Gopnik's horror) Barney: "Then we decided to hold a party to celebrate the coming of spring, and I went out to Mulot to get a four-part chocolate cake. When I came back to the apartment, half an hour later, the roomful of lively children whom I left drawling in haute French was silent. They were all in the bedroom. I walked in . . . and saw the three girls spread out on the bed, their crinolines beautifully plumped, their eyes wide, their mouths agape. Barney was in France, and the kids were loving him. The three perfect French children looked on, hardly able to understand the language, yet utterly transfixed. I held out cake. Nothing doing. . . . It was too late."

Gopnik also explores the intricacies of French government, and I had a hard time getting through those parts. Not that they weren't interesting. It's just that, as Jim put it when I pointed out to him that his beloved chessboard was (gasp!) covered in dust, you come home from work where you spent most of your day thinking really hard (in Jim's case, of servers, and all things techie computer having to do with servers), and to me, exploring the intricacies of French goverment right then doesn't sound too appealing.

So it took me longer to read this book than I expected, but it was a wonderful book, truly, in the end. Paris is so different from the United States, even their "New York--style" gym is Parisien New York style: "Best of all [the health club saleswoman] went on, they had organized a special 'high-intensity' program in which, for the annual sum of about two thousand francs (four hundred dollars), you could make an inexorable New York--style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week." "We asked her if we could possibly come more often than that, and she cautiously asked us what we meant by 'often.' Well, three, perhaps four times a week, we said. It was not unknown, we added quickly, apologetically, for New Yorkers to visit a gym on an impulse, almost daily. Some New Yorkers, for that matter, arranged to go to their health club every morning before work. She echoed this cautiously too: they rise from their beds and exercise vigorously before breakfast? Yes, we said weakly. That must be a wearing regimen, she commented politely."

Next book up: Yankee Magazine's Living Well on a Shoestring

Monday, June 12, 2006

Swimming to Antarctica (Lynne Cox)

As I've said before, I am not an open water person, but I do like to swim in the saltwater pool at my apartment complex. I like the pool because it's clean and not as chlorine-y as the one at the gym, and I especially like to be able to touch the bottom in case I get tired. In Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox recounts her life in the open water, where she prefers the unexpected nature of long-distance swimming. Cox became the youngest person to swim the English Channel when she was fifteen (she also broke the current world record with that swim).

Cox's tone is conversational, and she absolutely loves what she does, which comes through in the writing. Her tone can become too matter of fact at times (such as that time when she was swimming in Africa and, oh by the way, when she was almost finished with her swim, one of the people in the water with her hit a shark with a spear gun, a shark that had its mouth open and ready to eat Cox). But I don't think Cox wants those kind of adventures to be the focus. Instead she explores how much work went into her preparation, and how even though her body was more well-suited to cold water than most people, she still worked very, very hard. This is a great book and definitely one I had trouble putting down.

Next book up: Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Making of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)

The CIA (no, the other one, the Culinary Institute of America) is the most-prestigious cooking school in America, and Michael Ruhlman documents the innerworkings of the school in The Making of a Chef by spending time in classes and learning the skills of the trade.

The CIA is all about the basics, so there's a lot of consomme, terrine, and brown sauce making, stuff that you and I rarely (if ever) eat but that create the basis for classic French cooking. There is also more-modern fare (gourmet pizzas), and a bread-making class where the rising dough is in charge instead of the chefs.

Having worked in the food industry and having a great love of all things food, I very much enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and as fast-paced as food service during a lunch rush. But I can't tell if I have any sense of a nonfoodie's perspective on life. Once, when I was going through a phase where I was eating very little dairy, I was convinced that soy ice cream tasted just like the real thing. It didn't. Not that it wasn't tasty, it just didn't taste like ice cream. I had completely lost perspective.

But I do think that this book would be a good read for people who aren't foodies, because Ruhlman comes into the situation as a novice and leaves the CIA able to hold his own in the kitchen. He demonstrates how chefs think differently than most people (e.g., the school stays open during a large snow storm that closes the rest of the town). Bottom line: chefs get things done. And they get it done right.

Next book up: Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox

Friday, June 02, 2006

Fantasyland (Sam Walker)

Something has happened to our household. Back in March, Jim joined a fantasy baseball league. Since then, he's spent most waking hours checking on "his guys," yelled expletives at his laptop at the unfairness of that week's matchup, created a detailed spreadsheet that proved how triumphant he would have been if said matches were reversed, and has done the unforgivable: He's rooted against the Cubs. ("But Freddy Garcia was going to get them all out anyway," he said, as he was in need of strikeouts from Garcia, one of "his guys." "He might as well do it by striking them out.")

Last time I went to the library, I found Fantasyland by Sam Walker on the new book shelf and thought it would be interesting, given the current situation. But even then, I wasn't prepared for how funny and entertaining it would be. Sportswriter Sam Walker decides to enter the fantasy realm by going straight to the top of the Rotisserie leagues to a league composed mainly of fantasy baseball experts. Walker figures he can beat these "show me the data" guys by using his clubhouse experience and scouting players.

To prepare for the fantasy draft, he hires a statistician, a baseball astrologist, and an assistant he calls Nando who helps him create the "Hunchmaster," a player database that includes categories such as players that are single, players that have been arrested and when they were arrested, and players who are devout Christians. "As for the impact of religion, Sig's analysis yielded a troubling conclusion: 'Turning to God' he says, 'costs you 2.5 runs a season.'"

Walker visits the teams during Spring Training, and talks to the scouts he meets there about what he should look for in a player. "What they gave me was a synopsis of all the cliched ballplayer quotes I was likely to hear. 'I'm in the best shape of my life.' 'I got a personal chef.' 'I had Lasik surgery.' 'I'm on a macrobiotic diet.' By the middle of May, Schwartz continued, most of the players who say these things will go right back to sucking." Armed with this information, he goes into the various clubhouses to feel out the players. "I have a lively chat with general manager Chuck LaMar about the intangible benefits of having a bunch of track stars on your ballclub, and a ten-minute conversation with first baseman Tino Martinez, from which I glean the following: Tino has been doing a lot of sit-ups."

I can't say if those who have no knowledge of fantasy baseball will find this book as entertaining and on the mark as I did. If you haven't read any baseball books (and would like to) I'd recommend starting with Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which is a great, accessible, very funny book that will give you a good introduction to the stats side of baseball. Then read Fantasyland.

Next book up: The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Eat More, Weigh Less (Dr. Dean Ornish)

In Eat More, Weigh Less, Dr. Dean Ornish dismisses a lot of common myths about weight loss. Not only does he do this with good arguments, but he supports his claims with scientific data from large clinical studies. (And he gives an excellent response to the low-carb Atkins diet.) Ornish is a cardiologist who became interested in weight loss when he was studying heart disease. What he and his colleagues have found is that it's not necessarily the amount of calories that you eat that makes you gain weight, it's the amount of fat that you eat that makes you gain weight. He promotes a nonfat vegetarian diet filled with lots of fruit, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. Granted, people who are at risk for heart disease who follow this diet get results right away and stick with it, but it's a big leap for the general public to make. But, as Ornish notes, this isn't an all-or-nothing deal. Eating more veggies and less fat will have great benefits.

The second half of the book includes recipes by many famous chefs. However, famous chefs sometimes forget how we normal people cook and what kinds of ingredients we have access to. For example, one chef has a recipe for persimmon muffins. I'm sure they're delicious, but I don't think I even knew what a persimmon looked like before I lived in California, where they're abundant and grow on trees in people's front yards. Not only is it a regional fruit, it's also a highly seasonal fruit, available only in the fall. That said, I also did find many recipes that sounded great and seemed relatively easy.

Even if considering becoming a vegetarian makes your mouth water for a porterhouse, I'd still recommend reading this book for an understanding of how the body processes fat, why people who diet hit plateaus, and how best to fuel your body throughout the day.

Next book up: Fantasyland by Sam Walker

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why Do I Love These People? (Po Bronson)

Po Bronson is a good listener. When you read his books, you feel like you could tell him all your problems and he'd look you straight in the eye while you talked, and in the end, he'd make you feel better about yourself. And even though he often gives small pieces of his own life in his books, his writing seems selfless. Granted, I'm sure he's just as flawed as the rest of us, and I know a lot of hard works goes on behind the scenes, but he seems like a mediator, the kind of guy you could invite over for dinner, and it would be okay if you accidentally burned the biscuits a little bit. In fact, he'd probably like them better that way because it would give them character.

The families he explores in his latest book Why Do I Love These People? have problems just like everyone else. He explores families struggling with divorce, blended cultures, joy, loss, and faith. Some are involved in extraordinary events, such as the man raised in a low-income family who finds out his father (who he thought was dead) is alive and part of a prosperous, respected family in Nigeria.

Bronson interviewed hundreds of people while writing this book, and the stories selected for inclusion are the ones that stayed with him. They'll stay with you too. One person interviewed said that we don't get miracles in life, we get moments of clariy. Those moments of clarity exist in these stories and that's what makes the book so powerful.

Next book up: Eat More, Weigh Less by Dr. Dean Ornish

Monday, May 15, 2006

Interview: Lee Martin

The Pulitzer winners were announced recently, and among the nominees for fiction was Lee Martin for his book The Bright Forever. I’ve known Lee a long time, and cannot think of a better person to receive this recognition. He writes both fiction and nonfiction, teaches at Ohio State University, and is an all-around great guy. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog via e-mail.

The Bright Forever has received much well-deserved praise. What's life like post-Pulitzer nomination?

Life after the being named a Pulitzer finalist hasn't been all that different. I'm still teaching, still eyeball-deep in reading MFA theses, still mowing my yard, still feeding the cats every morning (they couldn't care less about this Pulitzer business). The day the news hit, my wife, Deb, was in a grocery store and she heard two men talking about the Pulitzer winners. She couldn't resist. She said, "You know, my husband was a finalist in fiction." One of the men said, "Not good enough to win, heh?" And I don't even care that this guy said that. I'm too thrilled with the news. I tell you, I've never been so happy to be a runner-up.

What was your first publication?

My first real publication was a story called "Duet," in The Sonora Review in 1987. I'd published fake stories in other places, but we won't talk about them.

Could you talk a little bit about how your first book got published?

My first book was a collection of stories called The Least You Need to Know, and it was also my doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It give me great pleasure to know I got a Ph.D. with a dissertation called The Least You Need to Know. But that's neither here nor there. In the early summer of 1995, just before I was getting ready to leave Nebraska to be a visiting writer at James Madison University in Virginia, The Least You Need to Know was accepted for publication at a reputable university press that published quite a bit of good literary fiction. I was thrilled. Then, before the press could send me a contract, I got a call from Sarah Gorham at Sarabande Books, telling me that Amy Bloom had chosen The Least You Need to Know as the winner of the first Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. "I'm sorry," I told Sarah, "but it's been taken at such and such press." I'd sent Sarabande a letter to that effect, withdrawing my manuscript from the contest, but they hadn't received it yet. I fully expected Sarah to say, "Oh, that's too bad," and that would be that. Instead, she said, "Let me tell you why you should go with us." Later that day, I had a phone message from Amy, trying to persuade me to go with Sarabande, which I ended up doing, and they published the book in 1996. A side note: a week or so after I closed the deal with Sarabande, I got a call from another major contest, telling me The Least You Need to Know was its winner. Again, they'd received my letter telling them I was withdrawing too late. By this time, I'd already signed with Sarabande, and I've never regretted the way things worked out because they did a beautiful job with the book.

Some people have negative associations with the term "literary fiction." Do you think there are misconceptions about it?

I like literary fiction that's accessible. I have no misconceptions about that. To me, good literary fiction gets readers caught up in a story while also peeling back some layers into the mystery of what it is to be human on this earth.

What are the last fiction and nonfiction books you read that you really loved, and what did you love about them?

I just finished reading an advance copy of The Horizontal World, a memoir by Debra Marquart. Here's the blurb I wrote for it: "The Horizontal World is as full of grit and grace as the North Dakota farmland it portrays. Debra Marquart writes of home and how we carry it with us no matter the miles and years we travel. If you dare think that nothing really happens out there in the middle of nowhere, read this gorgeous book about a family and their land, about the girl who strained against both and finally left. From the first words, you’ll feel a taproot set down in your heart, one that won’t let go because the story is as old as the land itself. You know the one ­that story of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, that rough and tender story of the ties that bind."

I believe the last novel I read and liked was fellow Pulitzer finalist E. L. Doctorow's The March. I love the authenticity of the book and the way it captures the texture of a country at war. And, of course, sentence by sentence the writing is full of heart and sinew. I have Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer winning novel, March, in line next. Gotta read everyone in the club, right? Hey, maybe if I'd titled my book, The Bright March Forever, I would've won.

What are you working on now?

I'm happy to say that just last week my agent closed the deal for my next novel. My editor had made a nice offer. . .hmm. . .maybe that's one of the perks of being a Pulitzer finalist. . .and my agent did her agent thing, and now I have a book to finish. My editor hasn't seen a word of it, so her offer came completely on good faith,and I hope I can deliver the goods. I'm almost at the end of a first draft. Then the real work, and I hope fun, will start. For some reason, I haven't been able to make myself talk about this new one with anyone yet. Superstitious, I guess. Or maybe there's just nothing there to talk about. We'll see.

I happen to know you're a baseball fan, and specifically a Yankees fan. Who's your favorite current Yankee? And your favorite non-Yankee?

Ah, the Yankees. Well, folks will really like me now or really hate me. With the Yankees and their fans, there doesn't seem to be much in between. My favorite current Yankee? How about Bernie Williams, the old horse at the end of a good run. He's full of grace and dignity, even now as his skills have diminished. He does his job and keeps his yap shut, and I admire him for that. My favorite non-Yankee? Alfonso Soriano. Hey, you didn't say anything about ex-Yankees, and, besides, how can you not love that name.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The History of Love: A Novel (Nicole Krauss)

I read The History of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss because back in December 2005, my NPR Books podcast mentioned it as one of the best novels of 2005. That was all I knew about it. If I had known more, I probably wouldn't have read it. Sometimes that kind of situation is a good thing (such as with Distant Land of My Father), and sometimes it's not. In this case, it was the latter. Here is a small list of reasons this book is not for me (but may very well be for someone else):

1. It's about a novel about a writer (as I've mentioned before, see my review of The Book Doctor, I'm not a fan of those kind of novels).
2. It does a lot of jumping around in time, place, and narrator, verging on the too clever.
3. It takes itself very seriously in its language.

That said, there were some moments I really enjoyed, which were funny and poignant. This book has gotten a lot of praise and may be for many, but not for me.

Next book up: Why Do I Love These People? by Po Bronson

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Plan B (Anne Lamott)

Really, it's just this simple: you should read Anne Lamott. I've loved the other books by her I've read (such as Operating Instructions), and I loved Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. The aunties reappear (read the review of Traveling Mercies for more on the aunties), as Lamott treats them to a vacation on a cruise ship. Her son, Sam, becomes a teenager, and she describes "Phil," Sam's teenage alter-ego who appears without notice and luckily sometimes leaves just as quickly.

Most, if not all, of the writings in this book take place recently, during the current administration, an administration Lamott, like many of us, has grave concerns about. "I felt soul-sick this summer to discover the secret gladness in me that the war was going so badly. I hated it about myself. I felt addicted to the energy of scorning my president. I thought that if people like me stopped hating him, it would mean that he had won."

She quotes a priest friend of hers who says that the opposite of faith isn't disbelief, it's certainty. I love that Lamott shows that being spiritual doesn't mean that your perfect, enlightened, and peaceful all the time. She's always honest about her feelings and experiences, and it's often incredibly funny and sometimes quietly, beautifully sad.

Next book up: The History of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Blink (Malcolm Gladwell)

I had no idea that Chef Boyardee's first name is Hector. Yes. Hector. And apparently when consumers choose canned ravioli, they want Hector's picture on the label to look like that of a real person. If he's too cartoony, people will think the ravioli doesn't taste as good (although of course they won't realize this is the reason why they think that). In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell explores these snap, unconscious decisions we make every day without even knowing it.

The exploration of these quick decisions are intriguing (such as in speed dating, the New Coke debacle, and what emotions politicians give away in their face) and terrifying (such as the policemen who shot Amadou Diallo). In some contexts, we can train our unconscious to make better, more-informed snap decisions, and in other cases, we need to learn not to rely on them (such as when these decisions are informed by stereotypes). Blink will definitely leave you questioning your decisions and your first impressions.

Next book up: Plan B by Anne Lammott

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

The Tipping Point, "that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once," is about social epidemics, such as the case of the stunning and dramatic revival of the once-square and forgotten Hush Puppies shoes, which became the hippest shoe you could wear in the mid-1990s, to use a prominent example in the book. Malcolm Gladwell, much like the Stev(ph)ens of Freakonomics, takes theory that could very easily be mind-numbing in someone else's hands and makes it exciting and revealing with clear examples.

Gladwell explores word of mouth, how it spreads, and the differences between those we take information from (such as restaurant advice or what kind of car to buy) and those we don't. For example, many may not know there was another man who took part in Paul Revere's midnight ride (I didn't). There's a reason we don't remember him. Most of the people he warned that night didn't remember him either. They were much less prepared than those who were warned by Revere. Turns out Revere would have been a supremely popular guy who everyone knew if he was around today. And that's part of what made him the perfect person to spread the message about the British.

And as we are in the age of information, if you're trying to sell a product, you have to be aware of the "clutter problem" in advertising. We're inundated with so much information, it's really hard to get our attention. "Coca-Cola paid $33 million for the rights to sponsor the 1992 Olympics, but despite a huge advertising push, only about 12 percent of TV viewers realized they were the official Olympic soft drink, and another 5 percent thought that Pepsi was the real sponsor."

Gladwell also shows how small modest changes can create a social epidemic. Blue's Clues, the highly popular children's show, took what worked best from Sesame Street, and then made it "stickier." Surprisingly, stuff most people would think made Sesame Street most effective (the humor that also worked with adults, creativity, and word play) was not what the creators of Blue's Clues kept. They made a very literal show, which turned out to be perfect for preschoolers, and they made it interactive. "Sometimes Steve will play dumb. He won't be able to find a certain clue that might be obvious to the audience at home and he'll look beseechingly at the camera. The idea is the same: to get the children watching to verbally participate, to become actively involved. If you watch Blue's Clues with a group of children, the success of this strategy is obvious. It's as if they're a group of diehard Yankee fans at a baseball game."

I go could on with every more interesting and surprising examples. Like how the degrees from Kevin Bacon isn't six, as most of us believe, but is instead 2.8312. I think saying that a book will make you think differently about the world is a fairly big statement, but I do think this book is one that can change your perception of everyday life.

Next book up: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell