Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

I came to The Making of the Atomic bomb sideways, after reading a brief review of Rhodes’s new Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race that mentioned this earlier book, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1988. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the size of it—886 pages, not including three photo-insert sections (see picture)—but given the scope of what Rhodes has done here, in retrospect it could hardly have been any shorter.

The book is much, much more than a recounting of the Manhattan Project in the United States—which, in fact, isn’t even first mentioned (at least by that name) until page 449. Its first several hundred pages are devoted to the birth of the science of the atom, and how physicists at the beginning of the twentieth century—Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and many others—worked to uncover its structure and components. Like other great scientific histories, it reads almost like a detective story, with all the same suspense, false turns, and red herrings along the way. As the United States enters the war and the urgency behind the bomb project increases, Rhodes also provides an almost mini-history of the war itself. It’s a tremendous, completely absorbing read, with an almost novelistic approach to detail and character, and whatever quibbles I had as I read it pale in comparison with its unqualified success as a whole.

An epigraph quoting Robert Oppenheimer at the beginning of Part 1 encapsulates one of the central themes of the book:

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.

Rhodes might equally say that the atomic bomb was not made because it was useful; it was made because it was possible to make it. Once a few basic facts had been established—that heavy atoms could be split, that doing so released energy orders of magnitude greater than any conventional chemical reaction, and that the 235 isotope of uranium could potentially provide the material for a chain reaction of fissioning atoms—making the bomb was practically inevitable:

Patriotism contributed to many decisions, but a deeper motive among the physicists, by the measure of their statements, was fear—fear of German triumph, fear of a thousand-year Reich made invulnerable with atomic bombs. And deeper even than fear was fatalism. The bomb was latent in nature as a genome is latent in flesh. Any nation might learn to command its expression. The race was therefore not merely against Germany. As Roosevelt apparently sensed, the race was against time.

Many of the scientists involved were naturally ambivalent about what they were doing, but the knowledge that someone, someday, would make such a bomb meant that they had little choice but to barrel ahead, particularly since at the time it was not at all clear how long the war might drag on, and the bomb seemed a legitimate way that they might help shorten it. And, of course, they were all drawn to the scientific problems as a challenge to be overcome; the technical hurdles to overcome were formidable and, therefore, must have been tremendously satisfying to overcome even in service of a weapon of terrible (and terribly inhumane) power.

That it would be used at least once was, in its own way, as inevitable as the building of the bomb in the first place—some even arguing that it must be used against Japan simply to justify the enormous expenditures of resources and personnel the United States had devoted to building it. (As French chemist Bernard Goldschmidt put it in his memoir, the project amounted to “the astonishing American creation in three years, at a cost of two billion dollars, of a formidable array of factories and laboratories—as large as the entire automobile industry of the United States at that time.”) Others argued that it should be used simply to demonstrate its power. Everyone could see that such a weapon was going to cause a major shift in world politics, with the more idealistic of the scientists hoping that it would ultimately lead to the end of war—and a visceral example of the terrible consequences of its use, some hoped, might shock the world onto a more peaceful course. As Rhodes describes it, it may ultimately have been dropped because of an error—a slip of the tongue by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech in which he accidentally used the phrase “unconditional surrender” in describing Allied demands for the end of the war. That subsequently became official Allied policy in part because Winston Churchill didn’t want the Allies to appear disorganized or confused in their goals. And because Japan was prepared to fight to the death before offering unconditional surrender, ultimately using the bomb seemed like the only way to stave off a wholesale invasion of the Japan at the cost of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of lives.

The descriptions of the aftermath at Hiroshima were tremendously difficult to read. Rhodes retreats to the background in favor of the voices of those who were there, quoting, page after page, short passages from memoirs and oral histories and later studies of the bomb’s brutal devastation: Hiroshima not as a land of the dead and the living, but as a land of the dead and the walking dead. It’s deeply affecting, and throws everything that has come before it—all the basic science, all the technical problems, all the fears about Germany and Japan that drove the project from start to finish—into sharp perspective: ultimately, this was the result of all that work over the decades, a hellish, blasted place of unimaginable suffering.

The paradox, of course, is that despite the horrific outcome, it’s difficult to second-guess the reasoning that drove the project and the bomb’s eventual use. If the United States hadn’t made it, the bomb may have ended up in Stalin’s hands, without an equally matched opponent as counterweight for the Cold War. The bomb was coming; the tragedy was that the only question was who would have it, and how they would or would not use it. At one point, midway through the war, General Leslie Groves, the thoroughly competent military head of the bomb project, “proposed to the Military Policy Committee that the United States attempt to acquire total control of all the world’s known supplies of uranium ore”:

That uranium is common in the crust of the earth to the extend of millions of tons Groves may not have known. In 1943, when the element in useful concentrations was thought to be rare, the general, acting on behalf of the nation to which he gave unquestioning devotion, exercised himself to hoard for his country’s exclusive use every last pound. He might as well have tried to hoard the sea.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Service Included (Phoebe Damrosch)

I find the title Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter to be a little misleading. The subtitle sounds like a celebrity/socialite expose instead of a thoughtful book on the finer points of being a server at Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York restaurant. But this was apparently the publisher's meaning, even though it doesn't appropriately represent the book, given this blurb (from William Morrow): "Kitchen Confidential meets Sex and the City in this delicious, behind-the-scenes memoir from the first female captain at one of New York City's most prestigious restaurants." And if by that they mean it's about the inner workings of a restaurant and involves Phoebe Damrosch's (who lives in New York) personal life, then yes, I guess you could say that. But Tony Bourdain and Carrie Bradshaw were not even close to the first two people that came to mind while reading, I can tell you that much.

As I myself have waited tables (in such fine establishments as your local neighborhood Applebee's and everyone's favorite "Australian" steakhouse Outback Steakhouse), I was pleased to see a food-centered book written from the front-of-the-house perspective. (Michael Ruhlman does an excellent job exploring the back-of-the house perspective Thomas Keller's restaurants.)

Keller's attention to detail extends to the dining room of his restaurants and the intensity of the training his employees receive. As some may know from their experience (or, in my case, from watching Top Chef), the head chef in a restaurant is referred to as "chef." Things roll a little different in Keller's restaurant:

I had already noticed that in Chef Keller's kitchens, everyone was called "chef," not only The Chef. In fact, everyone who worked in the restaurant, from the reservationist to the coffee server, was called "Chef." It was an equalizer, a sign of respect for people's metiers, and a great way to get out of learning hundreds of coworkers' names. Not that Thomas didn't know our names, because, for the most part, he did. It was surprisingly hard to resist, and I was soon calling my mother "chef," as well as cabdrivers and guests. I even fell into the habit of calling friends "chefie," which even I found irritating. Once, when I called a man I was dating "chef," he became irate.

"Who's Jeff?" he demanded. When I tried to explain that I had actually called him "chef," he looked dubious.

"I bet you know who this Jeff is, you little Judas?"" he said to the dog sitting at the end of the bed---whom I regularly called "chef" as well.

Damrosch began working at Per Se as a backserver but quickly found herself promoted to captain:

It would be a relief to talk about something other than the bread, butter, and water selections. As a backserver, from the moment the first table entered my section to the time I had changed all the tablecloths at the end of the night, I moved nonstop. Pouring, marking, clearing, surviving the wrath of the captain who had barely survived the wrath of a chef or maitre d' and needed someone to blame. It was an exhausting job, but at least the time went by quickly. Being a captain, on the other hand, would carry more responsibility, but it would also be a hell of a lot more fun. No longer would I feel like a marking machine. I could make real connections with the guests, get to know the chefs better, and become even more familiar with the food.

The Per Se story is entertaining, especially regarding the many visits Frank Bruni made prior to his review of the restaurant in The New York Times. But what really made me keep reading was Damrosch's romance with a sommelier at the restaurant. That's where the real story lies in the book, in my opinion, making it accessible to people who aren't obsessed with food as well.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami)

I actually thought I had read this collection before until I idly picked it up the other day and realized that, no, I’d just read a number of the stories in other places—usually the New Yorker, either when they were originally published or in the Complete New Yorker collection. The unexpected discovery of an unread Murakami book right there on my very own bookshelf naturally required immediate attention.

Unsurprisingly, The Elephant Vanishes is a great collection, full of Murakami’s usual array of directionless men, mysterious women, surreal events intruding into otherwise normal lives, and ordinary events taking on sudden and unexpected meaning. “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” which later appeared in revised form as the opening of the sprawling, phenomenal Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is a great little story on its own. (Oddly, the novel’s sinister Noboru Wataya character is here named Noboru Watanabe, a name that Murakami also uses in two other stories, with no obvious connection between them and to no obvious end.) Others feature both weirdly inexplicable occurrences (the title story, in which an elephant and its keeper vanish mysteriously one evening, and “The TV People,” in which smallish men appear in the narrator’s apartment, rearrange his living room, and set up a television); more traditional realist stories (“Lederhosen,” in which a pair of German shorts impels a woman to suddenly divorce her husband); and events that fall somewhere in between (“The Second Bakery Attack,” in which a newly married couple decide to dispel a curse on the husband by robbing a McDonald’s of bread in the middle of the night; “Sleep,” in which a housewife suddenly loses her need to sleep).

Unfortunately, after finishing it, I examined our bookshelves closely and found no other unread Murakami works hiding there. So I guess I’ll have to wait for more until I get a chance to pick up After Dark.

My Life in France (Julia Child)

I have a hard time packing things I'll actually need when traveling. For one, I can't imagine how the climate at my destination can be any different from the climate at home. (This caused a lot of problems when traveling from California to anywhere cold.) I also will either overpack reading material or not bring nearly enough. So a few weeks ago when I went to Salt Lake City for work, what I brought to read only made it through the flight there. So I spent some time once there wandering around downtown Salt Lake City in search of a bookstore. Even though I did not run into either Dooce or Ken Jennings (really, the only two celebrities I know of in Salt Lake City), I was lucky enough to stumble upon Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, a large independent bookstore that sold both used and new books. I could have spent the afternoon there, which was good, considering that what I had seen of the rest of downtown Salt Lake City didn't have much to offer. Of all the great books they had available, I finally decided on a copy of My Life in France by Julia Child.

I loved this book. It is written by Alex Prud'homme, Julia's great nephew, who sat with Julia for long discussions of her life and looked through old photographs and letters written both by Julia and her husband, Paul. The book is in Julia's voice and he did an excellent job getting the tone just right. It reads much the way I imagine she spoke.

What impressed me most about Julia Child is how hard she worked in her life, although work might be the wrong term to use, as she seemed to enjoy almost every minute. She was an awful cook when she started, but was determined to get it right. While working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she constantly testing recipes, all variations of coq au vin, for example, and did significant research, so much so that the book took her and her coauthors years to complete.

She and her husband Paul had a wonderful relationship that really shines in the book. (The photograph on the cover of the book is one of many of their Valentine's day cards, which they sent in lieu of Christmas cards, partly because they could never seem to get the Christmas cards out in the mail on time.)

This is one of those books I will read again. Probably often. The tone is comforting, the story engaging and warmhearted, and she never takes herself too seriously. The book is full of fabulous passages, and here is one of my favorites:

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook. . .," or "Poor little me. . .," or "This may taste awful. . .," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed---eh bien, tant pis!

How SASSY Changed My Life (Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer)

"So how did Sassy change their lives?" Jim asked, looking at the book on the table.

"The same way it changed all girls lives my age," I said. "Our lives sucked before we got the magazine. Then we got it. And everything was awesome."

A bit of an overstatement, yes, but how many girls out there read Sassy and then felt like it was okay to be different from the popular girls at school? And while I can't remember every issue I ever received, I remember the first one. I believe I read the whole thing with my mouth wide open. As a young girl, I was a supporter of Tiger Beat (not a subscriber, but I surely convinced my mom to get me the issue with a fold-out poster of Kirk Cameron), and when I was in sixth grade I started reading Seventeen, which made me feel like I had a long way to go before I would be cool (which, in all fairness, was probably true). But Sassy didn't look or feel like Seventeen. It introduced me to independent actors and musicians, made fun of the 90210 celebrities who could do no wrong at the time, and told me how to dye my hair with kool-aid.

And then, many years after my very first issue, Sassy disappeared for a while in a pre-Internet age where you couldn't easily find out why. A few months later, Sassy came in the mail. But I was immediately put in the defensive: Who is this super smiley bland girl on the cover? I flipped through the magazine. It was like bizarro-Sassy, Sassy without the Sassiness or any of the writers that had made the magazine what it was. I was furious. And I, apparently like almost every other Sassy reader out there, wrote them a letter expressing my discontent. For my efforts, I got an extension on my subscription, the worst possible outcome.

Since that time, "what happened to Sassy" has been a mystery to me. How SASSY Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greated Teen Magazine of All Time documents the story of the magazine from its inception to the dark unSassy Sassy days. There are stories of the conservative outrage that sparked advertisers to pull out in the early days because they felt the magazine was too explicit about sex, the writers who were in their early teens who wrote as if they were talking to their younger sisters, the story of how Sassy paved the way for such great magazines as Bitch and Bust. Jesella and Meltzer do a good job presenting the whole story, which for me helped make what had become almost a myth (the undeserved downfall of the most amazing teen magazine ever) into a story that involves real people not always making the best decisions.

I will say that the design of the book is a bit odd. It's a two-column magazine style, but the font is rather large for the look, and there are no photographs. (Not that the design of the book would have affected my decision to read the book, but the part of me that spends every weekday working in publishing can't let it go.)

This is a quick read and good one, filled with lots of inside stories about the staff (including interesting stories involving Spike Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Courtney Love). Highly recommended for every girl who read Sassy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

I’d heard a lot of good things about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so when I saw it at a used-book sale for our local library (along with Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual; review), I snapped it up. Told from the point of view of Christopher Boone, an autistic boy in Swindon, England,* it opens with Christopher discovering that a neighborhood dog has been killed, and then—as he is a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes—his attempts to uncover the killer.

Interestingly, Haddon said in a Powell’s interview that he actually didn’t set off with the character in mind:

Dave: Where did you find the original impulse to write this novel? I know that it wasn't a matter of you thinking you'd write a book about an autistic boy, as some might presume.

Mark Haddon: No, very deliberately not. And I think if I had done that I'd have run the risk of producing a very stolid, earnest, and over-worthy book.

It came from the image of the dead dog with the fork through it. I just wanted a good image on that first page. To me, that was gripping and vivid, and it stuck in your head. Only when I was writing it did I realize, at least to my mind, that it was also quite funny. But it was only funny if you described it in the voice that I used in the book.

So the dog came along first, then the voice. Only after a few pages did I really start to ask, Who does the voice belong to? So Christopher came along, in fact, after the book had already got underway.

That voice is everything in a book like this, and Haddon nails it—the affectless, deadpan voice allows a uniquely paradoxical blend of sadness and humor, one that can slip down all sorts of side roads without losing the continuity of the story. At just over 200 pages (with more than a few diagrams), it’s a quick, wonderful little read, and highly recommended.

* Which, if you’ve seen the British version of The Office, you will always think of as the location of the Wernham Hogg branch absorbed into David Brent’s Slough branch.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Super Natural Cooking (Heidi Swanson) and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen (Jack Bishop)

I've been meaning to write a post about these two cookbooks for a long time now, and today seemed like the most appropriate day. I love Thanksgiving, and besides the friends and family (to which we are forever grateful), this day is all about the food. Yes, even for vegetarians. Jim and I both like Thanksgiving so much that we're spending today with some good friends and then tomorrow is Thanksgiving 2, The Sequel (thank you, Doug, for the official name), where we're going to fix more of our favorites to last through the weekend.

Lately I've been cooking mainly from three cookbooks: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, which I've written about before, Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop.

Heidi Swanson is the creator of 101cookbooks.com, where she posts recipes from her many cookbooks, with her adaptations, helpful tips, and her beautiful photography. When I first picked up Super Natural Cooking at a Berkeley bookstore, I debated buying it. I had heard great things about it, but after a quick look, placed it down. At first glance, it seemed too complicated, with the ingredients too exotic. Luckily, I picked it up again at a different book store not too long after. And this time I gave it more than a glance. Once I actually looked at the recipes, I realized that they weren't that complicated, that many of the ingredients could be purchased at a natural foods store, and some were quite simple.

Super Natural Cooking is a vegetarian cookbook, but many of the recipes could easily be paired with your choice of meat or fish. It focuses on whole grains, such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, and many others. It also has an excellent section on what grains are best suited for different meals, different kinds of sweeteners (agave, brown rice syrup), and oils. The book includes my favorite preparation of quinoa (with some dry white wine, sauteed onions and mushrooms), an absolutely amazing "sushi bowl" that has a citrus-soy dressing that makes you want to eat every last grain of rice, peanut butter krispy treats, a panna cotta made with coconut milk, and many other hits. Her recipes are adaptable to each season and the vegetables you have on hand. There's a lot of room for making the recipes your own, or varying them each time you make them. For example, the raspberry curd cake can be make with any kind of fruit butter (I made it with pumpkin butter0, but you have to read the introductory text in that recipe to figure that out, so it pays to spend some quality time with the book before deciding on a recipe. My only complaint is that its organization is lacking. It's arranged by "Superfoods", "Cook by color", etc., which is not that helpful when you're trying to find an exact recipe. I find myself using the index a lot, but this has never stopped me from using the book.

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen is arranged by season, focusing on seasonal produce. I first got this book right after Christmas last year, and I chose it because the author, Jack Bishop, is an Editor for Cook's Illustrated, which is one of my favorite magazines. I was immediately ecstatic about it. The first two recipes I made from it, carmelized onion enchiladas and a creamy tomato soup, were phenomenal. And over time, I've realized that the strongest recipes are from the winter section, with some other very good ones in the fall and spring sections. So far, I've found the summer section lacking, but I think that may have more to do with
the overall bounty of fresh produce available in the summer. There's not much you need to do to vegetables in the summer, and most of the time you don't want to spend too much time at the stove then anyway. I love the seasonal focus of this book, especially that he doesn't list fresh tomatoes as an ingredient in the winter (only cherry tomatoes, which really are your best choice this time of year). I've made some amazing meals from this book, and others have just been okay, but again, there's a lot of flexibility here, and sometimes just looking at one of his recipes will give me an idea for my own take on it.

So enjoy cooking and eating today, and eating tomorrow and throughout the weekend. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King)

Between the ages of 12 and 18, I read, by my best count, 196,000 pages of Stephen King. He gets a bad rap in literary circles—mainly, I suspect, by people who either haven’t read much if anything by him, or by people who dislike horror and science fiction and the like on general principle—but his best work has always been about more than just monsters and the supernatural. The Stand is about an epic post-apocalyptic confrontation of good and evil, yes, but it’s also about the dangers inherent in human civilization, and whether we’re doomed to destroy ourselves. It is about a supernatural alien clown, but it’s also about the fears of childhood, and what it means to grow up. And, as his writing memoir On Writing showed, he cares a lot more about the craft of telling stories than he generally gets credit for.

His short fiction can be even more uneven than his novels—for every lovely, elegiac ghost story like “The Reach,” you also tend to get one like “Graveyard Shift,” about a group of mill workers being devoured by mutant rats. But I had high hopes for Everything’s Eventual, which I picked up at a used-book sale for our local library and which includes four stories published in the New Yorker, one of which won an O. Henry Award.

I have to admit I was more than a little alarmed by the first story, a semi-horror, semi-comic take on premature burial in which a man wakes up, unable to move or speak, as he’s about to be autopsied. (The way in which they eventually discover he’s alive provides the comic element.) Apparently he chose the order of the stories at random by drawing from a deck of Tarot cards (yes, yes, very good, Mr. King), but as can be the case with his short fiction, there simply wasn’t much to it other than the premise itself. (I’m looking at you, mutant rats.)

Fortunately, it just turns out that the Tarot cards were a bad idea, because that was hands-down the weakest story of the bunch, and the next one, the O. Henry winner “The Man in the Black Suit,” was a major relief. He includes a short paragraph or two on each story explaining how they originated and giving other thoughts on them, and interestingly, he says of this one, “I thought the finished product a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language. . . . When The New Yorker asked to publish it, I was shocked. When it won first prize in the O. Henry Best Short Story competition for 1996, I was convinced someone had made a mistake. . . . This story is proof that writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” Indeed. The frustrating thing about King is that sometimes he does seem to write stories that have depth and power to them by accident, while he’s occupied elsewhere with getting his monsters out onto the page. “The Man in the Black Suit,” about a boy who meets the devil during an afternoon of fishing, might be humdrum by the standard that no one is devoured by mutant rats,* but that’s because the story isn’t really about meeting the devil—it’s about a boy confronting mortality for the first time, both his own and that of those he loves. In that sense, it’s as good a story as he’s ever written.

Like his other collections, Everything’s Eventual can be uneven: alongside the opener of “Autopsy Room Four,” I’d be hard-pressed to make a case for “In the Deathroom” or “The Road Virus Heads North” as worth rereading, and I suspect “The Little Sisters of Eluria” would be of little interest to anyone who hasn’t already been sucked into the world of his thoroughly excellent Dark Tower books. But alongside “The Man in the Black Suit,” you also have stories that reach for deeper issues—like the title story, about a supernaturally gifted young man, working in a go-nowhere job and bullied by a coworker, who winds up recruited into work that lets him truly use his talent for the first time, but at the cost of deluding himself about both his employers and what he’s actually being paid to do. And those stories, like his best work, are well worth rereading.

* I promise this is the last time I’ll harp on the mutant rats.

Monday, November 19, 2007

See You in a Hundred Years (Logan Ward)

It's no secret I'm a fan of the Reality TV, and I especially like the PBS brand of reality TV, one of the first being The 1900 House. Not only did they have a modern-day family live in a Victorian-era house, they were British. Even better! The show was fantastic and led to such spin-offs as The Frontier House,which, Jim was solemnly tell anyone who will listen, is what we were watching the evening of Randy Johnson's perfect game. For the record, this was before I knew what a strike zone was, so you can hardly blame me.

Well, apparently others also liked The 1900 House, including Logan Ward, author of See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America. He liked it so much that he thought the idea was the perfect remedy for his modern life in New York City. Ward moved his family (his wife and young son) to rural Virginia, where they subsistence farmed using only the technologies that were available in 1900 for an entire year.

Ward was a recent presenter at Wisconsin Book Festival---I was able to attend his session as Rabbi Kushner was unable to attend his own earlier that day. Seeing Ward in person prepared me well for his book. He was thoughtful, polite, and a little subdued, well, he may not have seemed subdued if he had been paired with someone else besides A.J. Jacobs (whose latest book I have on hold at the library and will review as soon as I get it). I think any of us would have appeared subdued next to A.J. Jacobs.

Ward's book is very thoughtful and a good read. Sometimes the prose is little too lush for my likings, but overall I enjoyed it. What was most interesting to me was my own reaction to Ward's 1900 rules. I didn't get as angry at him as I did at the PBS family when he "broke" his own rules of 1900 living. Maybe it was because his rules were self-enforced, or that his version of breaking the rules did not seem to be as frivolous as the TV family. I also considered the character of people who would enter a project such as Ward's, for a book, not for TV. Think about it, with no producers to check in on you, would you follow self-made rules? Would you be able to make it through the whole project? I'm not sure I would.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Braindead Megaphone (George Saunders)

George Saunders is one of the few writers I’ll read anything by, whose new books I’ll go buy without knowing anything about them except that they’re by George Saunders. His short stories has always been terrific (if lately gone from a little weird to a lot weird), and The Braindead Megaphone, his first collection of nonfiction, has the same eye for the absurd and gigantic heart that made those previous books so good.

The book includes several long travel pieces—exploring Dubai (first section head, “Put That Stately Pleasure Palace There Between Those Other Two”), staking out the Mexican border with a group of Minutemen (“I announce myself as an Eastern Liberal, and am thereafter treated like a minicelebrity or lab specimen, a living example of a rare species they’ve heretofore only heard about on Fox”), and visiting a Nepalese boy who has supposedly been meditating without food or water for seven months (“At 7:20, oddly, a car alarm goes off. How many cars in deep rural Nepal have alarms? It goes on and on. Finally it dawns on me, when the car alarm moves to a different tree, that the car alarm is a bird”)—as well as essays on politics (the title story, comparing the state of modern American media to a pretty good party that unfortunately includes a guy shouting things into a megaphone at everyone else; and two essays revolving around the “fluid-nation” People Reluctant To Kill For An Abstraction), writing (“Thank You, Esther Forbes,” about Saunders’s young love for Johnny Tremain; “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” about his slightly older love for Kurt Vonnegut; “The Perfect Gerbil,” a nice piece on story structure examining Donald Barthelme’s “The School”; and “The United States of Huck,” his introduction to the Modern Library paperback of Huckleberry Finn), plain weirdo-ness (“Ask the Optimist!,” in which a ludicrously upbeat advice columnist gets into a fight with one of his readers), and the British, in front of whom he conducts a reading with Margaret Atwood:*

Margaret Atwood is a famous Canadian genius. Our crowd consists of approximately three hundred Margaret Atwood fans, with the remainder of the crowd being my fan. After the reading, Margaret and I were overrun by our fans, crowding around her to get her to sign our books. It was at this point that my fan (Larry) changed his mind and became Margaret’s fan, and, in a fury of conversion, scribbled out my autograph and thrust my book at Margaret, while unfavorably comparing my work to Margaret’s, leaving me with zero (0) fans! (Thanks, Larry! To hell with you, Larry! I may not be as talented as Margaret Atwood, but I am less funny, and it has taken me a lot longer to write a lot fewer books! So there! Do I come to your work and disavow you, Larry?)


The cover may be among the most garish of all time (see left, but don’t look too long unless you have a ready supply of ibuprofen), but what’s inside is, as usual, inventive, insightful, generous, and hilarious, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

And George, even if we see you read with Margaret Atwood, we promise to be your fans too.

*Not sure how I ended up with a 260-word sentence there. Yeesh.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Apartment Therapy (Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan)

Apartment Therapy (the website) is a place for small-space living, with helpful tips for home decor, paint colors, storage, ecofriendly living, and all around cool camaraderie. Originally started in NYC, there are now separate online areas (San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles), so there's a little bit of local flavor. Apartment Therapy (the book), as its subtitle states, is "the eight-step home cure," designed to help turn your apartment into a home. The author (and website founder) Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, an interior designer, lives in a 250-square-foot West Village apartment so knows a little bit about living small.

I love the website. I get four of their blog feeds---Chicago, the Kitchen (which has a lot of great mostly vegetarian recipes), Home Tech (how we found the best way to hide all our home office cords under the desk), and Green (lots of ecofriendly tips, many helpful). Sometimes, however, I have a problem with the tone (there's a lot of anonymous "we" in their prose when I think it's really just the current blogger's opinion) and the focus is usually on modern styling, which can be somewhat limiting.

The book suffers from a few problems. First, it's a design book without any photographs. I'm not an interior designer, and hand-drawn floor plans showing me layouts of furniture do me little good. (I can't really tell the difference between the "befores" and "afters" with that kind of drawing.) Apartment Therapy the website has interested online participants join in on The Cure (as they call it) at least once a year, and I can get more out of their posted before/after pictures than I can from the book.

Second, this book is really focused at small apartment people, especially in New York. One week has a major task of cooking at least one meal at home. At least one? I see the good intentions behind it, but it's not applicable to me. Another thing he asks his readers to consider is getting rid of their televisions. Again, I understand we're talking very limited square footage here, but I find this request of his a little odd, given that he's been featured on at least two cable television home decorating shows (Small Space, Big Style and Mission: Organization).

Overall I find his use of metaphors a little too overreaching and some of the writing overdone (the couple who was having problems conceiving, and then once they revamped their bedroom the woman was pregnant. I'm sure it really happened, but it's a little cloying in the book), there are some very helpful tips in here, such as focusing on one room (easier to see what you need to get done, more likely to finish), what height to hang art (much lower than you think, though Jim thinks Gillingham-Ryan might be really short), some tips on furniture dealers, and what colors to paint certain rooms.

The Honourable Schoolboy (John le Carré)

I had The Honourable Schoolboy reserved at our local library branch when we happened to go to a street fair nearby, which happened to feature a book sale by another local branch, which happened to have an old paperback copy on sale for 50 cents. Who could say no?

This book picks up where the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review) left off, with George Smiley now head of a British Intelligence in complete disarray after the discovery of the Soviet mole in Tinker. In casting about for a way to get off the defensive, Smiley begins searching for operations that the mole had shown an unusual interest in suppressing, and comes upon one in Hong Kong—large payments made to a mysterious bank account by Smiley’s counterpart in Moscow, Karla, tied somehow to drug shipments at a tiny airline business.

Schoolboy has the same attention to detail and character, and the same wrestling with the nature of spy work—the constant drive, as he puts it at one point, “to be inhuman in the defense of our humanity . . . harsh in defense of compassion”—that made Tinker and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold so good. It did, however, suffer from unfortunate bouts of Research Syndrome—apparently le Carré made a number of trips to Southeast Asia, and at times the book starts to read more like journalism than a novel, with long stretches of Jerry Westerby (the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy) hoofing it around Cambodia and Laos and Thailand and meeting people and seeing various horrible things in various war-torn regions. The passages do theoretically tie into the story—Westerby is searching for assorted unsavory characters on Smiley’s orders—but he probably could’ve gotten the job done in a hundred or so fewer pages, and they definitely slowed things down to a crawl for a while. (I get the feeling that they worked better at the time the book was first published, when the Vietnam War had barely ended and the Khmer Rouge were still in power in Cambodia, and the events described in Schoolboy would have had more immediacy.)

Schoolboy also felt a little more distant than Tinker—the stakes not quite as high, the subject perhaps not quite as close to le Carré’s heart. (Kim Philby, the model for the mole in Tinker, had ended le Carré’s own career with British Intelligence.) But it’s still a compelling read, and I’m still looking forward to the last of the trilogy, Smiley’s People.

(Also, note to the cover designers: When you have to hyphenate two words in your title? Maybe time to bring the font size down a few points.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is This a Great Game, or What? (Tim Kurkjian)

Any watcher of Baseball Tonight knows what a Web Gem is. For those of you who are staring at your screen blankly, 1. Baseball Tonight is a daily ESPN show that airs during baseball season. It is awesome. 2. A Web Gem is a spectacular defensive play, the best of which involve outfielders catching a ball while running backward into a wall, or a shortstop just barely throwing out the runner at first while on his knees. They are also awesome. This past season, there were a few new features to Baseball Tonight, including the Kurk Gems (named in the spirit of the Web Gem but for the baseball writer Tim Kurkjian). A Kurk Gem goes something like this: Tim Kurkjian's voice over (in a tone that is somewhat professorly with a touch of monotone, but in a likeable way) telling you that X player hit into X number of double plays in the month of July, which is a new record, but only in away parks and only off left-handed pitchers named Joe. It's a lot of information thrown at you at once, some of it weird, some of it awesome. In this past season's Rangers/Orioles game at Camden Yard where the Rangers beat the Orioles 30 to 3 (mind you, in the Oriole's own field), the Baseball Tonight crew got Kurkjian, who was at the park that night, on the phone. The joy in his voice rang through loud and clear, his voice cracking as he tried to not to get his words out through his laughter, he said something like, "And the Ranger's closer! He got the save!" It was probably one of his happiest moments.

Tim Kurkjian's book Is This a Great Game, or What? is awesome. It is awesome like Web Gems are awesome. It's full of stories, much like the Rangers game I mentioned above. I think I read half the book aloud to Jim because it was so funny that I kept laughing so hard. I'm afraid to pick small sections to highlight here because I might not do them justice, so consider this a small sampling:

  • On how the White House was a perfectly good place to discuss Pokey Reese:
[Baseball writers] are seamheads; we are the unlaundered, often overweight, usually unathletic baseball nerds who are trained only to cover baseball. We have covered winter ball games, Instructional League games, Arizona Fall League games, simulated games, and we have traveled two hundred miles to watch a "B" game on a back field in spring training. The White House? We know more about pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander than we do about Grover Cleveland. The opera? When you say Placido, we think Polanco, not Domingo.
  • On the not so smart players:
I promised never to reveal the name of the player who was told in the early 1990s that Major League Baseball might be moving a team to Washington, D.C. And the player said, "The league can't give Washington a team. It already has two teams, Baltimore and Seattle."

That guy wouldn't do well in the geography category on Jeopardy, but Jeopardy was on TV in the Charlotte Knights (AAA) clubhouse one September day in 1994. I was doing a story on the minor-league play-offs since there were no play-offs in major leagues due to the players' strike. I was watching the show out of the corner of my eye. The Final Jeopardy category was Poetry. Suddenly, a Knights' player ran out of the player's lounge screaming as if he had won the lottery. "Did he get the Final Jeopardy answer in Poetry?" I asked, incredulous. "Oh no, that's not how we play," said Tim Jones, a Knights infielder. "The way we play, if you guess the Final Jeopardy category, you win. Hey, we're baseball players."
  • On Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia's reports he makes players give during Spring Training:
One spring, Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn, and a couple of young players, were assigned to cover a local ostrich festival. For $150 and a couple of autographed balls, Washburn, the team prankster, convinced the workers at the festival to bring the ostrich to the Angels' clubhouse the next morning. . . . "At 9:30, in they walked with the ostrich. It was chaos. Guys were screaming with laughter." Scioscia was one of them. "[Pitcher] Ramon Ortiz jumped in his locker," he said. "He was holding on to the walls and yelling, in Spanish, 'Get that big chicken away from me!' Washburn smiled and said, "It was hilarious. I don't think anything we ever do will ever top the ostrich."
First baseman Scott Spiezio did . . . in a way. "He was given the word 'erudite' to research," Scioscia said. "He got all mixed up and researched the wrong word. He researched 'hermaphrodite,' not 'erudite.' So he's up there talking about all this sexual stuff, and everyone in the room is laughing. From 'caveat' to 'hermaphrodite,' I've learned a lot of new words."

I agree completely with Kurkjian when he says that the best four words in the English language are "Pitchers and catchers report." This book is for baseball lovers, baseball geeks, and baseball nerds. Read it, but only in places where it's okay to laugh out loud. It would make a great present for your friends who love baseball, even if you don't understand the game at all.

Overcoming Life's Disappointments (Harold S. Kushner)

The Wisconsin Book Festival, an annual free event every October, took place a few weeks ago. Madison is a city full of readers, and the festival takes over downtown over the course of 5 days with many venues.

The Sunday of the festival there were two sessions that I wanted to attend, but the timing on them was pretty bad. One went from 4 to 5:30 and the other from 6 to 7:30. For any normal person who does not have the tendency to cry when they get too hungry or who does not go to bed at 9 so they can go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning, this would not be a problem. For us, however, this was monumental. The only way we were going to get to eat dinner that evening at a reasonable hour was for me to make a decision: Which should we attend? I ended up choosing the first session, Rabbi Harold Kushner discussing his book Overcoming Life's Disappointments. Like the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Harold Kushner gets quoted a lot in Body + Soul magazine, and I've had a couple of his books on my list to read. So we headed downtown, got to the Orpheum Theatre for the reading, and there were signs on the doors: Kushner's reading has been canceled. Due to bad weather in Boston, he couldn't make it. Jokingly, I said to Jim, "Well, if I had already read his book, then I would know how to overcome this disappointment." (It turned out to work out fine. I got to go to the other session I wanted to, but I'll talk more about that one in future reviews.)

Being neither Jewish nor particularly religious, I didn't really know the story of Moses (or really any Biblical stories beyond that whole Jonah and the whale thing). But Kushner uses Moses's story fairly seamlessly as the basis for his book about handling life when life is not what you expect. Even more, Kushner also quotes Buddha scholars, therapists, movies, and other popular culture references that I found quite surprising. It's a really nice read and helps to remind you about what is good in people and how you can continue to be a good person to others (keep your promises! Kushner's really big on that one). I read the book not really having any large disappointments to overcome at the time (or now for that matter), but still felt like I got a lot out of the experience. It made me thankful for all I have and it made me feel more conscientious of how I treat others. I think I was an especially kind and helpful person to everyone I met for at least a week after I finished it. (This is not saying that I am not kind in everyday life, but that week I was the person who would REALLY go out of my way for you. Like when I offered to take a man's luggage through the turnstiles at the CTA station in Chicago, and then was fairly surprised when he agreed by giving me the piece of luggage that was almost half my size.) I'll definitely read more of Kushner's work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Searching for Bobby Fischer (Fred Waitzkin)

I’ve been wanting to read Searching for Bobby Fischer for a long time—I’ve seen the movie three or four times, and I’m one of those people (sometimes to Maria’s dismay) who enjoys sitting on the couch with baseball on the TV and a book of tactical chess puzzles in his lap. It was inexplicably not available in our previous library system (despite my repeated detailed submissions in their “Suggest a Purchase” section), but fortunately it didn’t come to that with our current system.

It’s always interesting to read something after having seen the movie version of it, to see how they’ve reshaped the material to fit into a two-hour film. Both focus, of course, on the early life of young chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. The movie sets up its conflicts in a straightforward, concentrated, dramatic way—the slow, serious chess of Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, vs. the wild blitz chess of Vinnie, the Washington Square Park vagrant; the all-consuming, completely chess-focused life of Josh’s rival, Jonathan Poe, and his almost robotic desire to destroy his opponents, vs. the Waitzkins’ struggle to have Josh live some semblance of a well-rounded life. The Vinnie character in the movie, played by Laurence Fishburne, is essentially a wholesale invention, or at least a composite—a man named Vinnie is mentioned briefly in the book, but wasn’t anyone especially notable, and certainly didn’t come to the national championship with Josh and his father. Bruce Pandolfini wasn’t ever thrown out of the house by Josh’s mother after he comes down hard on Josh for not concentrating during a lesson. And, interestingly, at the national championships that end both the book and the movie, Josh didn’t beat the boy the Jonathan Poe character was based on—a kid Josh’s age named Jeff Sarwer, whose father really did keep him out of school so he could study chess full time—nor did he offer a draw in a won position out of empathy for his opponent: instead, he was able to work a tricky draw out of a lost position to finish in a tie, leaving Josh in first place based on the tiebreaker rules. (I was delighted, however, that at the end of the book Josh actually says the line to his younger friend Morgan that ends the movie.)

So although the movie is terrific (with a first-rate cast—highly recommended if you haven’t seen it), it naturally takes plenty of liberties with the source material to fit the story in, and leaves plenty out. The book approaches the same themes in a more complicated and often darker way. Waitzkin struggles constantly with what chess is doing, or might do, to his son and to their relationship. He wants his son to succeed, to fulfill the potential of his inexplicable talent for this game, but is always aware of the sacrifices that have to be made to reach the highest levels. He worries about whether working Josh too hard will cause him to lose his love for the game and quit it, and at the same time worries about the kind of life he might have if he does continue, and succeeds—the book is shot through with grandmaster-level players living in poverty, unable to support themselves on the one thing in life they are truly exceptional at, seemingly taking little joy in grinding out one win after another but at the same time unable to stop playing.

The book was also written in the 1980s, when the Cold War was still on and the Soviet Union still intact, and one of the longest and most interesting sections of the book that was left completely out of the movie is devoted to a trip Waitzkin, Josh, and Pandolfini took to Moscow in the summer of 1984 so Waitzkin could cover the first Karpov–Kasparov World Championship match. In contrast to America, chess is a serious, well-respected pursuit in Russia, where top-level players could live comfortable lives supported by the state. But at the same time, the game was almost absurdly politicized: tournament players were regularly asked to throw games if it would help certain favored players do well, or prevent certain disfavored players from winning (particularly Americans and Jews), and the battle between Karpov and Kasparov was fought as much behind the scenes as on the board, with each maneuvering through their political connections to gain advantages or to force concessions from the other side. When Waitzkin tries to arrange to visit Soviet chess classes for children, he’s told that that won’t be possible; all the schools are close for repairs. When he finally gets a teacher to let him sit in on a class, the visit is conducted like an undercover casing of a military facility—the teacher nervous, urging the Americans not to speak at all, to just nod if anyone speaks to them.

Waitzkin also goes to considerable lengths to track down a high-level player named Boris Gulko whose outspoken political views had left him under house arrest, and who, when he was allowed to play in tournaments, was excised from news reports of the results (if he won, they would simply not mention the winner):

I was told that Gulko would be willing to discuss the politics of Soviet chess, as well as the problems of Jewish chess players in the Soviet Union. . . . “To find Gulko, you’ll need to contact a man I know who is a well-known grandmaster, an expert in the endgame,” said the Russian American, who gave me a name and a Moscow phone number. “He is also a KGB agent, but don’t worry, he is totally corrupt. The first day you meet him, give him a present worth fifteen or twenty dollars—a digital watch, maybe. Don’t expect him to speak candidly at first. Most likely he’ll seem apathetic. But I know this man, and you’ll have aroused his curiosity. He will suggest dinner. During the meal present him with pornographic books and magazines; then the chances are he will arrange for you to meet Gulko.”

In case this approach didn’t work, the man gave me the name of a second grandmaster to bribe with a few digital pens; he wouldn’t be as expensive. He cautioned that I must never mention the name of the second grandmaster to the KGB grandmaster because they were enemies.

The KGB seem to be everywhere, although they rarely know for sure when or if they’re being monitored. When they are planning to leave, Waitzkin has to go to the American embassy and arrange to have them transport his notes and interview tapes back to the U.S.—a process arranged by writing on scraps of paper while the Americans loudly assured Fred that they could not help him with anything, to fool the KGB bugs—while he went back with fakes in case anything was confiscated. (“What madness, I thought. My chess notes were hardly espionage material.”)

If you like chess or liked the movie, definitely give the book a read. And for those who are interested—Josh eventually gained an international master ranking (one level below grandmaster), and is also a Tai Chi champion.


Update: Also, by the way, it looks like Jeff Sarwer has reappeared in the chess world this year after a long absence, and that his sister is writing a memoir of their childhood.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz)

The New Yorker does this thing that drives me crazy, where they publish excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels without mentioning that they are excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels. So I read them, occasionally think “Man, that was a good story,” and then four or five months later, when I hear that the writer has a novel out, discover that this “short story” was actually an excerpt from that novel. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or “Saturday,” as it was presented in the magazine) leaps to mind. So does Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (or “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

But although I might wish they gave some little indication when what they’re publishing might have three or four hundred more pages to it lying around somewhere, it’s difficult to fault them on Oscar Wao. They published the excerpt in 2000, four years after Díaz’s excellent debut story collection Drown—and now here’s the novel, published seven years after that. So it’s been a while. Fortunately, all that time seems to have been well spent, because this is a first-rate book.

Narrated by Yunior, an ultra-male, girl-chasing Dominican American (although with hidden corners of nerdery), the story revolves around a cursed Dominican American family and both the life they have in the United States and the ties they still have back in the Dominican Republic. Although the focus initially seems to be on Oscar—a nerd’s nerd, a virgin’s virgin, unable both to stop himself from falling in love with unattainable women and to get those women to fall in love with him—one of the main pleasures of the book is the way it continually opens up, drawing back, turning to different characters, incorporating lengthy footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo, who both seems to lurk at the edges of every scene and is central to the fukú curse that sits at the story’s center. It moves back first to a lengthy section on Oscar’s mother, and then back again, later, to her own parents—an upper-class family ruined by Trujillo, her sisters dead, herself left orphaned for years as a young child before being rescued by her aunt.

The narrative voice is a slangy mix of street talk, uncountable allusions to other books (mainly sci-fi and fantasy), and Spanish. The Spanish was certainly the most frustrating part of the book, because although some of it was clearly incidental, other parts seemed hugely important—and online translators can only tell you so much, and don’t do well at all with the idiomatic speech Díaz uses so heavily. It helps me a little bit to have Google tell me that, in its opinion, Tú ta llorando por una muchacha means “You ta crying for a girl”; less so to have Coño, pero tú sí eres fea return “Jesus, but you do you are ugly.”

“I don’t write enough,” Díaz admits in a Powell’s interview (in response to the weirdly job-interviewish question “What do you consider your greatest weakness as a writer?”). I hope I don’t have to wait eleven years for another book, but hey, if that’s what he needs to produce a terrific novel like this, I’ll happily see him in 2018. (And Junot, I’ll see if I can learn some Spanish by then.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Little League, Big Dreams (Charles Euchner)

For me, it all started with a skinny, short second baseman nicknamed "Mouse." It was during ESPN's broadcast of the Little League World Series one year, and as soon as Mouse stepped up to the plate, I said two things to Jim: 1. Look how cute he is! and 2. What's a strike zone?

I love the LLWS, so I was incredibly excited to read Charles Euchner's book Little League, Big Dreams, which focuses on the 2005 LLWS. Unfortunately the book has some major structural problems. First, the book assumes you know who won the 2005 LLWS. (That being a year that we moved and were without cable for a month, I had no idea. Plus even if I had watched the game at the time, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you now off the top of my head.) This is incredibly distracting and takes away some built-in tension/organization/reason to keep reading to find out what happens. Second, the organization of the book doesn't make sense to the reader. The most organic structure for this kind of book (and one that has been used quite successfully in other baseball books such as One Day in Fenway) is the natural time frame of the World Series tournament format. When reading Little League, Big Dreams, it was easy to forget who was on which team and which team made it to what level in the series. And why some chapters went where (or why some material went in them in the first place) was unclear, such as a section about pushy parents in a chapter about faith and religion in the sport. There's also a chapter titled "The Greatest Little League World Series Ever" but it was never clear to me why this particular one was the greatest. I really wanted this book to succeed. But in the end, I was disappointed.

I did come away with some new knowledge about Little League. For example, it's not considered the highest level of competition for youth baseball (with PONY leagues, travel teams, and Ripken baseball all above it), but what it has that the others don't is the television broadcast.

For now I'll just have to settle with grown men playing baseball in a grown-up World Series (as the Cubs are out, go Rockies!).

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Century in Food (Beverly Bundy)

Three words. Coffee table book. I don't understand coffee table books. Are they that popular that they get their own category? Who buys them? Do people who buy them place them on their coffee table and read them there? Or do they buy them for their guests? And wouldn't it be kind of rude to ignore your guests and expect them instead to read your coffee table books while you go about your business? Seriously, if anyone understands the mystery of the coffee table book, please share it with me.

The Century in Food: America's Fads and Favorites by Beverly Bundy is a coffee table book. It presents information without information, meaning it tells you some things, but not all things, or even related things. For example, at the end of the first chapter is the recipe for Perfection Salad. Aha! I thought. She's going to tell the story about this unusual salad and where it came from. No. Just the recipe. Which would seem pretty random and meaningless to anyone who didn't know the history of the salad.

There are some neat historical ads, photographs, and quirky bits of information, with the best sections being the timelines presented by decade from 1900 to 2000. Here are some highlights:

1902: Nabisco introduces Barnum's Animal Crackers. The crackers appear just before Christmas in boxes topped with white string so they can be hung from Christmas trees.

1911: Procter & Gamble introduces Crisco, the first solid vegetable shortening. The product is a hard sell for women who had been taught to cook with butter and lard. To promote its product, the manufacturer suggests glazing sweet potatoes with brown sugar and Crisco, and spreading sandwiches with Crisco mixed with an egg yolk, Worcester-shire sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar.

1917: The hamburger becomes a "liberty sandwich" and sauerkraut is "liberty cabbage" during World War I.

1927: Pez is introduced in Austria as a peppermint breath mint for smokers. In 1948, the plastic dispensers are introduced and the United States begins to manufacture the brand and market to children.

1937: Sylvan Goldman . . . devises a shopping cart by fabricating lawn chairs into a frame that holds two hand baskets. He figures if the shoppers can carry more, they'll buy more. But the first shopping cart is a hard sell. Men find the carts less than masculine and women don't see the point---they're accustomed to shopping often. Finally, Goldman pays "shoppers" to cruise the stores using the carts.

1946: Earl W. Tupper invents resealable food containers. The inventor's plastic, a lightweight but sturdy "Poly-T," was probably first used in gas masks worn on European battlefields.

1958: Tang Breakfast Beverage Crystals is introduced nationally. . . Contrary to playground myth, Tang is not invented for the astronauts, although it does go into space with Gemini 4 in 1965 and on all manned U. S. flights throughout the rest of the century.

1962: John Glenn says that his first meal in space, applesauce through a tube, is nothing to write home about.

1974: The first product printed with a UPC (Universal Product Code)---a 10-pack of Juicy Fruit Gum---is scanned at March Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. An IBM engineer is credited with the patent, although several companies are working on the project at the request of a group of grocery stores.

1980: Whole Food's Market opens in Austin, Tex., with a staff of 19. By the end of the century, through growth and acquisition, the chain is the No. 1 natural-foods grocer in the U.S.

19992: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barbara Bush duke it out with rival cookie recipes published in Family Circle.

The Reach of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)

I've previously reviewed two other Michael Ruhlman books (The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef), and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen is the third book in this informal series. Ruhlman’s writing is good, the kind of good where you don’t even notice it because you’re so caught up in the story he’s telling. I am also a frequent reader of his blog, which I recommend because it not only provides good food discussion, but he actually engages in conversation those who comment, and you just never know when Anthony Bourdain will stop by and guest blog, going on one of those juicy, expletive-laden (but in the best way possible) tirades it is in his nature to do. Life is never boring at ruhlman.com.

Ruhlman begins this book by explaining how confused we are as a country about food:

Since the end of World War II, this country has been out of sync with the natural order of sustenance and nourishment, embracing processed foods, revering canned goods, “instant” breakfasts, and frozen dinners, then elevating fast food to a way of life with such force that its impact has become global, then simultaneously abhorring animal fat for health and dietary reasons, while still becoming the fattest community on earth, then turning around to proselytize on diets composed entirely of salt-rich protein and animal fat, and banishing bread of all things---the staff of life was now the evildoer, and just when bakers in this country had figured out how to make it well. We completely upended the food pyramid we’d always accepted as undeniable and good common sense. Ours is a country that for years held out a silver cross at eggs. Eggs are bad for you. Eggs! The most natural food on earth, a symbol of life and fertility, a compact package of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates whose versatility in the kitchen, pleasure at the table, and economy at the store is unmatched by any other food. We learned to hate the egg! Do you need any further proof that something is seriously wrong with this country that teaches people to avoid eggs?

He also returns to the Culinary Institute of America (the subject of the previous two books mentioned above) to see how the school has changed since the rise of the celebrity chef:
[Eve Felder] suggested the change in the dynamic may have begun in 1989, when the school first gave students teacher-evaluation sheets, officially called "Feedback Forms," to fill out at the end of each block. This was a revolutionary idea (and not a very pleasant one) to a chef who had been pretty much allowed to do what he wanted in his own kitchen. "My staff gets to evaluate me? Grade me?"

The Reach of a Chef focusing on some newer talents, two especially: Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly. Grant Achatz (who worked for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry) is the executive chef of Alinea, which is among the first Chicago restaurants to get the a four-star New York--restaurant amount of press for the quality of the food and the sheer creativity. (“the PB&J. . . A peeled green grape, still attached to its stem, had been glazed with peanut butter, sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and rolled in a very thin slice of bread, then lightly toasted”). [A brief update on Grant: Doctors recently found a cancerous tumor in his tongue, needing aggressive cancer treatment. The standard treatment would mean loss of part of his tongue and most likely loss of his taste buds, which would be a tragic fate for one of the country’s top chefs. However, a team of doctors at the University of Chicago is working on an alternative treatment for him, trying to take care of the cancer, while saving his sense of taste. So far the initial stages of the treatment have been quite successful. I do wish the best for Grant.] Melissa Kelly seems to be at the opposite spectrum as Grant. While both chefs are centered in classic technique, Melissa takes a different approach, cooking food her grandfather would love. She and her husband own Primo in coastal Maine, located in an old Victorian house and have a large garden on the grounds they use for their restaurant, focusing on fresh food, new menu items daily. No foams, no deconstruction. Real fresh food, heirloom food, cooked well.

Ruhlman also discusses “the branding of the chef”---Wolfang Puck soups, chef’s outposts in Vegas, Emerilware---and talks some about both Rachael Ray and Emeril. Oh, and the chef consensus on Emeril? While everyone may not love what he’s doing on TV, they all say what a nice guy he is. Even Tony Bourdain.

If you like food, read Michael Ruhlman. That's really what it comes down to. Read his books, read his blog, watch him in the Cleveland episode of Bourdain's No Reservations. Watch him on his upcoming show The Next Iron Chef America (which starts this Sunday on the Food Network). I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball (Derek Zumsteg)

Derek Zumsteg wants to make one thing clear: in baseball, there are “cheaters,” and then there are cheaters. The difference between the two is often subtle, and things that most fans might consider cheating (think of that pine tar on Kenny Rogers’s hand in game 2 of last year’s Cardinals-Tigers World Series) are actually considered “cheating” by most of the players themselves (recall that Tony La Russa didn’t make nearly as much of a fuss over that pine tar as, say, Joe Buck did).

Sticky stuff on a pitcher’s fingers to get a better grip on the ball? “Cheating”—at least as long as the hitters don’t come back to the dugout complaining that the ball is doing crazy things. Stealing signs? “Cheating”—at least as long as the as the team doing the stealing doesn’t have a guy sitting behind the scoreboard with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie.

Zumsteg, in The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball, notes that that all sorts of things that are technically against the rules—a runner sliding far outside second base to break up a double play, a shortstop dancing across the base without actually touching it to make that double play, a catcher blocking home plate—are a traditional and accepted part of the game, so much so that many might be surprised to learn they’re illegal even in a technical sense (I know I was). And without players trying all sorts of rule-bending maneuvers early in the game’s history, the game would be less strategically rich today.

The distinction he makes between this sort of “cheating” and real cheating is a basic one: If everyone did this, would it fundamentally damage the game itself?* A hard slide into the opposing shortstop at second base does not. Throwing games (the 1919 Black Sox) or betting on baseball (Pete Rose) does. So does steroids, although the line here is less clear. (Does it damage the game when a pitcher takes steroids to help recover from an arm injury that, in the past, would have ended his career? Probably not—in fact, the game probably benefits. But what if those steroids, incidentally, also add a couple miles per hour to his fastball?)

Cheater’s Guide covers the broad and colorful history of cheating both with and without the quotation marks, from the win-at-all-costs approach of the 1890s Orioles (who routinely tripped and elbowed opposing players trying to run the bases and distracted and intimidated umpires, but also invented the modern hit-and-run and other strategies), to spitballers like Gaylord Perry and corked bats like Sammy Sosa’s, to the unexpected power groundskeepers have over visiting teams, to—yes—the notorious Black Sox, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds.

The book is informal and colloquial throughout—broadly informative, but not scholarly by any means—and full of weird and occasionally unfortunate sidebars based on extended riffs that don’t quite work (“A hypothetical conversation between the commissioner and a team stealing signs”; a whole series of “What a conversation with Pete Rose would be like if he hit your car while you were standing next to it and you caught the whole thing on video”; the almost non-sequitur-caliber “A discussion of Jason Giambi with Fulbright scholar Jeff Shaw”). But it’s a quick read on an interesting subject, and certainly worth picking up for anyone wondering exactly what a spitball does, what Will Clark has to do with pitchers covering their mouths during mound visits, and how they can finally start corking their own bats.

* A rule that brought back unpleasant memories of all-night arguments about Kant while studying for an undergrad philosophy final.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon)

I’d read a few of Michael Chabon’s stories before being handed a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (thanks, Mom!), a sprawling, genuinely amazing novel about the intersection of comics, World War II, escapism, revenge, art, and love that includes Antarctica, the premiere of Citizen Kane, and Salvador Dali in a diver’s helmet. (What’s not to like?) I’ve read it three times, and I assure you that the Pulitzer committee got this one right.

So it’s not really a criticism to say that his new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, doesn’t match Kavalier and Clay—it’s still an idiosyncratic, inventive, thoroughly enjoyable ride, with the same fluidity in the writing that has always been Chabon’s greatest asset. Set in an alternate time line in which Israel failed and a temporary Jewish home was established in Sitka, Alaska (as was apparently actually proposed by Franklin Roosevelt at one time), the story follows alcoholic, divorced, entirely unhappy police detective Meyer Landsman after a murdered man is discovered in the hotel where he’s been living. Hanging over every moment is the imminence of Reversion, when Sitka ceases to be an independent district for Jews and becomes just another part of America, one where Sitka’s current residents may or may not still have homes. Reversion has brought a sense of weary fatalism to almost everyone in the story, one that comes out again and again as Meyer investigates the case and confronts both the barely concealed underworld of Sitka and the various broken pieces of his own life, including a sister who may or may not have been murdered herself, his ex-wife, and their long-ago unborn baby.

If I have a criticism, it would be that at times the story leans to heavily into the conventions of detective noir—Meyer too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, his partner Berko (despite having the singular distinction of being a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit giant) too much the buddy sidekick, the ghosts of Meyer’s past sewn up a little too well into his current troubles. But the vibrancy of the setting, the pleasure of Meyer’s stubborn, self-destructive quest—the pleasure of all stubborn, self-destructive quests in the face of tidal historic forces—and Chabon’s writing make up for a lot. Sure, Landsman is too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, but I’m a sucker for a well-turned metaphor, and it’s difficult to resist exuberant ones like these:

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with the crude hammer of hundred-proof brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead. . . . The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

Or this description of Meyer as a boy playing chess with his father, a skilled player unable to understand his son’s incapacity for the game:

Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face.

Or this sleazebag American muckraker attempting (and failing) to speak the Yiddish native to Sitka:

“I want a story,” Brennan says. “What else? And I know I’ll never get one from you unless I try to clear the air. So. For the record.” Once again he lashes himself to the tiller of his Flying Dutchman version of the mother tongue.

It’s the kind of writing where, whatever other flaws there are, every once in a while you have to stop reading and shout, “Yes, dammit! That is how it is done!”

Saturday, September 22, 2007

How to See Yourself as You Really Are (The Dalai Lama)

A few weeks ago, we walked to the library to pick up the books I had on hold. Once inside, I noticed that all the hold books were behind the librarian's counter, meaning I had to talk to an actual person to get my books, and that this actual person would check out my books for me, looking over the crazy assortment of books I've chosen (a book on cheaters in baseball and one by the Dalai Lama? Really?) and judge me. I've spent the last two years in California, where I didn't interact with one single person to get my library books. I searched for them online, requested them online, and then in the library I picked up my books from an unguarded hold shelf, and used a self-service checkout machine. No one needed to know about the Bollywood dance workout DVD I checked out. No one.

But so far, after two trips of what will become many, this actual personal interaction hasn't been bad at all, which is good, as they're going to see a lot of me, given my library book habit. And really, it's the Wisconsin Public Library's system's own fault I'm hoarding their books right now---I have a lengthy list of books to read, many of which I couldn't find in the San Jose system, and the Wisconsin system seems to have them all.

How to See Yourself as You Really Are
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (oh that the poor Library of Congress worker who got stuck working on the cip data for this book. I can see her saying, the official author name is what?) is one of the books on my list, probably jotted down after reading an article in some issue of Body + Soul magazine. I thought, if you want to know the secrets of true happiness, who else would you go to but the Dalai Lama, himself?

It turns out that the Dalai Lama and I are two very different people. And we live in two very different worlds. The book is translated and it reads like it is, so much so, that I had a hard time connecting to it. Most of the language was abstract, even in the examples given, and one example he kept mentioning was sewing (I have no idea why), and how sewing may seem to be a beneficial task, but it may keep you from seeing yourself as you really are. (Okay, he didn't say it that way, but he did point it out as a form of procrastination---which in my life, is usually the opposite case. Like right now? I'm writing this review, procrastinating from the sewing I need to do!)

I don't need a hipster version of the book, or it dumbed down, but I do need a version that applies more to my life as it really is. I'm sure the Dalai Lama and his translator get his message across to many people, but in the end, the book made me feel like I would never really see myself as I really am, according to the Dalai Lama, because I do not speak the language to get there. But I'll try some other books that may be more on my level and report back again. In the mean time, if you see me, let me know.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Underworld (Don DeLillo)

A friend and I once had a lengthy late-night argument—as only heavily inebriated college-age people can—about what meaningful distinction there was between liking something, and actually thinking it’s good. Playing devil’s advocate, I was arguing that it’s absurd for someone to say, “I don’t like X, but I think it’s good”—that this was a straight cop-out. “No, I didn’t really like 2001, but I thought it was good.” By not liking it, don’t you really think, deep down, that 2001 was bad in some basic way, even if you can’t articulate it? Or, similarly, if you claim to like something while simultaneously admitting it’s bad, doesn’t that mean that you secretly think it’s good?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the book I was slogging through before our Great Cross-Country About-Face: Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Because here’s the thing about DeLillo: He’s very good. Very, very, very good. And I just don’t like his books at all.

Granted, I’ve only read one other: White Noise, seven or eight years ago. At the time I was on in a postmodernist phase, reading a lot of Donald Barthelme and John Barth and Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino and so on, and DeLillo’s name popped up from time to time in a similar context, so I figured I’d try him out.

What I remember (vaguely) was thinking that White Noise felt far too anesthetized—the atmosphere, the characters, everything had this sort of cold fluorescence about it, drained of blood and emotion. Given the book’s subject, I don’t doubt that this was intentional. I didn’t even really think it was a bad book. In fact, it was undoubtedly a very good book.

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t particularly care what happened in it, or what happened to the characters. At the time, I was willing to put up with a lot from books where caring about the characters wasn’t really the point. But I find that lately that’s become much more of a deal-breaker for me. (Although Barthelme can still hook me with his sentences alone, and with his gonzo, Dr. Seuss-ish logic.)

I had the same reaction to Underworld as I did to White Noise. It’s obviously very, very good. Great writing. Highly accomplished. But when I had to return it to the library a few days before we moved, 350+ pages in, I didn’t feel any real need to finish it. I just didn’t care about any of these people. In spite of whatever ostensible passions they had, or longings, or betrayals, there was something robotic about them. One of them was having an affair: Didn’t care. One of them was tracking a baseball: Cared a little bit, but not a lot. And so on.

You get the impression that DeLillo himself doesn’t particularly care for his characters—that rather than involving himself with them, or approaching them with empathy or understanding, he’s critiquing them. Or using them as a vehicle to critique “society” or “modern America” or some similar abstraction. And I find that I’m just not interested in reading an 800-page critique these days, even one as well crafted as this. If I’m going to live with these people, I want to care about them. I want to care what happens to them, and I want to care about what they care about.*

I should make two caveats. First, of course, is that I obviously didn’t finish the book. It could be that DeLillo weaves everything together marvelously in the second half, and that had I finished it, I would’ve ended up liking it. But somehow I doubt it.

The second is that the long prologue, originally published separately as a novella titled Pafko at the Wall, is phenomenal. Loved it. Fully worth reading on its own. I had read it before as part of an anthology, and it was actually because I had liked that novella, and because Roger Kahn kept mentioning Andy Pafko, that I started reading Underworld in the first place. Set at the 1951 Giants-Dodgers game when Bobby Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning home run for the Giants, it starts with a bunch of kids leaping the turnstiles to get into the game and then wends its way around the stadium, picking up Russ Hodges in the radio booth, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover in their box seats, the players themselves, and one of those turnstile-leaping kids who first befriends the man sitting next to him and then ends up fighting with him over the game-winning ball.

The ball is one of the centerpieces of Underworld—the kid takes it home and, unable to resist, shows it off to his father, who steals it later that night with the intention of selling it. The book then jumps forward into the 1990s and works its way backward, with the ball popping up now and then with different characters, one of whom is trying to track its lineage of ownership back to the game itself, to prove that the ball is really the ball. Finishing the prologue was, unfortunately, the high point for me for the next couple hundred pages. The original theft of the ball was resonant in all sorts of ways, and involving in a way the rest of the book was not, maybe because the kid’s complicated attitude toward it—as a prize, as a talisman of power, as a bit of luck in a down-and-out sort of life, and then as an embodiment of the naïve trust he had in his father and his own need to impress him—had a genuine emotional heft to it that everything else lacked. I wouldn’t be surprised, again, if that were intentional, and if DeLillo was making some point about how America had changed since then, how nobody cares about anything anymore the way people cared about that game, and that kid cared about that ball. But that made it awfully hard to care about the book, too.

But enough of that. Next up, the book I read instead of going back to Underworld, which I both liked and thought was good: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

* This is a very different thing, and much harder, from making characters “likable.”