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