Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (Terry Ryan)

I had to let go of part of my modern day cynicism to really enjoy this remarkable and sincere book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. (It was even harder given that I had read Shadow Divers right before this, as the tone and style are complete opposites, but I enjoyed both books immensely.) During the 1950s, Evelyn Ryan, mother of 10 children, wife of an alcoholic who doesn’t do a very good job supporting their family, manages to keep her family afloat with her prize-winning entries, poems, and stories that always seem to save the day at just the right time. The jingles and rhyming poems may seem so different from modern-day advertising, but then, when I thought about it, we don't have to go back too far to find something similar (“Confident! Confident! Dry and secure! Raise your hand! Raise your hand if you Sure!”). Here’s an example from the book of a poem Evelyn Ryan wrote that was published in a newspaper:

Lawn No Time See

When I survey
My barren plot. . .
Long stamping ground
For tyke and tot . . .
I must conclude
It’s clear (alas)
One cannot grow
Both kids and grass!

Evelyn comes across a group of women who are also “contestants.” (This word may look familiar for those of you who read the review of Cookoff. There is a neat bit of overlap between the two books: Ryan mentions that a women in her contesting group was once a Bake-off finalist.) Contesting may seem like an obscure hobby to us, but it was a big deal at the time with companies promoting products through the contests by supplying blank entry forms at the grocery stores and requiring a proof of purchase, be it a label from a jar or a barcode, with each entry.

Along with the main story, this book is also full of nostalgic anecdotes, such as their pet baby chick who doesn't think he's a chicken because he was raised by a maternal cat, the same cat who can open doors by herself. Some may find the stories of the crazy antics/accidents of the 10 siblings unbelievable, such as the time Terry Ryan, the author, was left at home to babysit her younger siblings: the fixtures on the tub broke while they were filling it with scalding water so hot no one could reach in to unplug the tub. At the same time Terry tries to deal with that disaster, one of her brothers set fire to a moldy mattress in the basement. But I could imagine these things happening: my dad is the oldest out of nine children, and I’ve heard some pretty good tales from their house, including one story about one of his brothers falling through the floor of the second floor of the house and landing on the first floor, very surprised at what had happened.

Next book up: Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler

Monday, March 27, 2006

Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)

I don't like open water. Rather, I like to look at it from a safe distance. When we were snorkeling in Hawaii, I stayed in my "safe place" (where I could easily touch the sandy bottom) while Jim explored further out. (I would like to point out that I saw three different kinds of fish from my safe place, along with a sea turtle, and even though Jim was braver, he didn't see any turtles.) Still, as I learned reading this book, I do really enjoy reading about people who love open water and try to test its limits.

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II is not a book I would have picked out to read on my own (mainly because of the mention of World War II in the title and the fact that the blurbs on the back are all from men, including Scott Turow and Senator John McCain). However, it was recommended by Ashley Merryman, who works with Po Bronson and researched his latest book. If you check out the Ashley's comment on my post, you'll see that she recommended I check out Po's latest book Why Do I Love These People first. However, due to logistical problems (i.e., the library didn't have Po's latest book yet, so I put in a request for them to purchase it), I started with Shadow Divers.

I couldn't put this book down. It's a unbelievable true story about two deep wreck divers who discover a mystery U-boat off the New Jersey coast. Some of the main characters are gritty and tough (in my mind I pictured one of the sea captains being similar to Robert Shaw's character in the movie Jaws), and the dangers of deep wreck diving are very real (as my dad-in-law pointed out in a comment, real people do die diving the wreck). This book is incredibly engrossing, full of suspense, and great detail. The author Robert Kurson meticulously researched his subjects and gives his sources at the end of the book, yet while I was reading the book, it didn't feel academic, or too heavy with facts, or slow---he does an excellent job recreating this amazing story.

Next book up: The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Freakonomics (Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner)

I cannot believe that I'm about to say that I got really excited about a book about economics. I can't remember one single thing about the economics class I took in college except it was taught by a very enthusiastic economist, whose enthusiasm unfortunately did not transfer to his lectures.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything makes economics exciting. And I'm not kidding one single bit. I think this book is great. There are insights in this book that are fascinating (why most drug dealers still live with their mothers) and not always popular (their investigation into the correlation between legalized abortion and the drastic drop in crime). To make economics not only accessible to me but to most of America (this book is still on the New York Times bestseller list), the two Stev(ph)ens combine excellent writing with intriguing ideas.

Among other topics, the Stev(ph)ens describe how the Chicago Public School system caught teachers cheating on their students standardized tests and explore how a violent gang is structured quite similarly to a fast-food franchise. They discuss (over)parenting (it turns out most parents worry about the wrong things) and the importance of a name (citing one father who names one son "Winner" and another "Loser," and the paths they both take in life).

Near the end of the book, they state, "If morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world." I don't think I would have really understood that statement before reading this book. I can't recommend it enough.

Next book up: Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Soul of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)

When I was nineteen, I started waiting tables at a chain restaurant in El Paso. I worked until 2 or 3 in the morning, slept until noon, got out of bed to go swim at the pool up the street, then went back to work to do it all again at 4 in the afternoon. I could carry three heavy plates on one arm at a time. Ladies from Mexico with heavy gold jewelry and large sunglasses came in for lunch on Sundays, ordered Coke "sin huelo" and warned me "God forbid" if there were tomatoes on anything I served them. A drunk man tried to bite my arm when I took away his empty beer glass. A mariachi band left me a two-dollar tip on an $80 tab.

Anyone will restaurant experience will appreciate Michael Ruhlman's book The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. The two restaurants and chefs he profiles are on a much different level than anything I worked in or anyone I worked for, but the basic operation is still the same. And in this book Ruhlman focuses on the basics of cooking, the smallest details of them and those great chefs that extend those details to great food and great restaurants.

The book is separated into three sections: the first on the Culinary Institute of America's (CIA) certified master chef exam, the second on Lola, a Cleveland restaurant run by a chef who's personality and style exemplify his cooking style, and the final section on the premier Northern Californian restaurant, the French Laundry, and its chef, Thomas Keller.

Ruhlman's writing is excellent, and I very much enjoyed the book. I do, however, disagree with Ruhlman when he says (and he's pretty adamant about this) that cooking is a skill, not an art. I think it can be an art. I'm a bit amazed he still held this opinion after the amount of time he spent with Thomas Keller, given the examples in the book of Keller's creativity and concepts with the dishes he prepares. I found the last two sections most engaging (though I did enjoy the competition aspect of the first section), and I especially was intrigued with Keller's story.

After I picked this book up from the library, I learned that it was a follow-up to Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef, where Ruhlman attends the CIA and writes about that experience. If I had known that before, I probably would have started with that book, but I think this one stands alone just fine by itself.

Next book up: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Don't Get Too Comfortable (David Rakoff)

As soon as I started reading David Rakoff's book Don't Get Too Comfortable, I was aware of a shift in my reading habits. I slowed down to really take in the sentences and I could hear David Rakoff's voice in my head. That may sound really strange, but I first heard David Rakoff before I read him. He's a contributor to This American Life (you may hear Jim and I bring that radio show up a lot. We're big fans), and like other TAL contributors David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, his voice is part of what makes his stories so great. I'd highly recommend that anyone remotely interested in reading Rakoff should listen this streaming audioclip at TAL's website here (put "Episode 192" in the search box and fast-forward to his section).

In his latest book Rakoff writes about his consultations with two top-notch Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, where he learns that a procedure replicating six-pack abs without the actual musculature will, if you gain weight, cause these "artificially differentiated lobes of your fat [to] expand and rise from your stomach like a pan of buttermilk biscuits." He becomes a pool ambassador for a few days in a fancy hotel in Miami, rides Hooters Air, takes a 20-day fast, and has a surreal encounter with the cryogenic company that has Ted Williams' head in cold storage.

The book is funny, at times infuriating (such as his conversation with Robert Knight, who is on the radical right and spent ten years at the Family Research Council), and does at times discuss some not so, oh how should I say, PG-related material.

Other good books: Have I mentioned that we love This American Life and all it's contributors? If you haven't checked out TAL, go to their website--you can get all their shows free on streaming audio or you can purchase them at Audible or through iTunes. Some of our other favorite TAL contributors include Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, John Hodgman, to name a few. Also, we once got to see TAL host Ira Glass live, and it was an amazing show. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, I'd highly recommend it.

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

Monday, March 06, 2006

How to Read a French Fry (Russ Parsons)

I was excited about How to Read a French Fry: and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons. I had heard good things and it was on Po Bronson's recommended reading list, which also included Garlic and Sapphires and Operating Instructions, both of which I absolutely loved. That said, I felt like this book let me down.

Parson begins by saying that a lot of us don't know the very basics of cooking because we never learned through our mothers/grandmothers as they did before us, and that science can teach us things that tradition used to (and that science can't break some previous myths about cooking). There are two other people out there that I know who follow similar approaches to food: Jeffrey Steingarten, who takes the words "test kitchens" to new meanings in his books (with great wit), and Alton Brown, who combines his scientific food tests with wacky antics on his television show Good Eats (and in his cookbooks). Both present information that can be somewhat hard to understand (or to take in all at once) in humorous, entertaining ways. I think that was what was missing in Parson's book to me.

How to Read a French Fry reads more like a condensed textbook, with a lot of information in a short amount of space, so much information that it is almost overwhelming (though there are summary points at the end of each chapter). He explains, among many other things, how to make mayonnaise, what the right temperature is for deep frying, what is the best way to store certain fruit, and how to make a pie crust. I did find the chapter on meat fascinating. It reminded me of my first week working at Outback Steakhouse where my training materials included a diagram of a cow sectioned into the different cuts of meat and my "hands-on" training feeling the different thickness of raw meat (with the kitchen manager responding to my disgust wtih "don't make that face--you eat this stuff!"---oh, little did he know).

With Brown and Steingarten, you feel like you're being entertained so much that there are no bad feelings about lack of retention. With Parsons, I felt like there might be a quiz at the end.

Next book up: Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Operating Instructions (Anne Lamott)

Anne Lamott is a writer who, at age 35, found herself pregnant with the father of the child wanting nothing to do with the baby. Throughout her son's first year, she documents the experience of having her son by keeping a journal.

Operating Instructions
is a beautiful, thoughtful, spiritual, funny, and heartbreaking book, filled with wonderful small observations and very true emotions. I read it quickly because a) it was so good and b) it's broken down by the days of the journal entries, so the short little sections kept me thinking, okay, maybe just one more. . .

It's not a large book, and her language is so beautiful that the most justice I can do it here is to give an excerpt:

"This is strictly sour grapes. I wish I had a husband. I wish Sam had a dad. . . . Some friends of mine are having a baby in a couple of months and they already know it is a boy and that he has only one whole arm, which of course is also a huge thing not to have. They are also going to call their baby Sam. . . . I pictured the two Sams at the fiction workshop the following year, hanging out together while we taught our classes, and my Sam studying the other Sam and saying, "So where's your arm?" and the other baby shrugging and saying, "I don't know, where's your dad?"

Next book up: How to Read a French Fry by Russ Parsons

Friday, March 03, 2006

Garlic and Sapphires (Ruth Reichl)

I always wondered what it would be like to be a food critic. There are many reasons I would not be a particularly good one: a) my adjectives wouldn’t go much beyond “not good,” “good,” and “yummy,” b) at many restaurants I’d be limited to one or two choices due to my personal eating habits, so the reviews wouldn’t be representative, and c) I’d get tired of all that eating out. Yes, even though I am, when tired after a long day, the first person to suggest we go out or get take-out, I know I’d really rather have a home-cooked meal.

In her latest book, Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl chronicles her time as the New York Times food critic. Even before she officially begins her work, she realizes that NewYorkers take their restaurants way more seriously than they do in Southern California where she had previously worked as a critic. So much so that almost every restaurant in New York had her picture in their kitchen and were on alert before she started her job. Reichl goes to great lengths to disguise herself when on assignment so as not to be recognized, and the disguises are so good, in fact, that she even fools her doorman and her coworkers.

The restaurants she reviews during this time may be high-class expensive places few of us will ever eat at, but this book is more about this particular moment in her life. In all of Reichl’s books she contemplates the place food has in our lives, how it connects people, and revives old memories and traditions.

After graduate school I stopped reading for the most part. The books that I did read (slowly and uninterested) were books left over from grad school or ones I knew I was supposed to read and like because they were “literary.” This went on for over a year. Then one day I found Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone (her first book) at the library in Wisconsin, and I spent that afternoon comfy on the couch, reading the entire book in one sitting. It had been a long time since I had read a book like that. There’s something in Reichl’s writing voice that I find very comforting. Some people may find her too passionate or perhaps over the top in her descriptions. And even though most of the food she describes is nothing I would eat, we still share a great love of food and she conveys that love so well through her writing.

Next book up: Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott