Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Wishing Year (Noelle Oxenhandler)

The magazine Body + Soul has a book review section at the end, in which I sometimes find books to read. One recent one was The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul -- A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire by Noelle Oxenhandler. From what I remember of the book review, the essence was that Oxenhandler did indeed get a house and a man, partly from wishing, and I was curious as to how exactly that came to be.

Oxenhandler presents herself to the reader as a skeptic. She lives in Northern California and has many friends who believe strongly in wishing, in letting their desires be known and waiting for opportunities to come from that. And she doesn't feel she fits that mold. So she decides one year to experiment with the power of wishing, the results of which are presented here.

While The Wishing Year is a memoir, it also is part literary analysis of the term wish. Those parts to me weren't as strong or as interesting as the rest of the book. One thing Oxenhandler points out from this research, however, is that the power of the formation of the wish can focus your thinking and actions into fulfilling that wish, consciously or not. And I think this is true, as seen in the somewhat recent proliferation of 100 things lists.

Did I love this book? No. Am I glad I read it? I think so. It never felt like work to pick it up at the end of the day to read, and it was fairly enjoyable overall. If the subject seems like something you're interested, then I think it would be worth picking up at the library.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Comfort Food (Kate Jacobs)

As I posted earlier, I enjoyed Kate Jacobs' The Friday Night Knitting Club, so when I found out her follow-up book, Comfort Food, was about cooking, I immediately put it on my hold list at the library. I actually read the book back in August (and have since returned it to the library), so this won't be the most detailed review, but I can still definitely give you my overall impressions on it.

Powell's gives a brief plot synopsis that is better than anything I could do from memory here. The book's structure is similar to The Friday Night Knitting Club in that there are multiple narrators telling their sides of the story throughout the book. This worked really well in the previous book, but I felt like the story in Comfort Food wasn't as compelling, making this technique almost unnecessary. One of my biggest problems with the book had to do with a fairly minor character, whose behavior and personality throughout most of the book are explained and resolved way too easily near the end, making for an abrupt 180-degree turn that just didn't resonate as real.

All that said, I read the majority of the book on an airplane, and it definitely was interesting enough to keep me reading and entertained throughout my flights. So if you're going on a trip, and read and enjoyed The Friday Night Knitting Club, I'd recommend Comfort Food for that kind of reading.

Somewhat related, we just finished our first summer as CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. We had held off becoming members because Madison has great farmer's markets that I love to shop at, but eventually we wanted to directly support a farm. I knew the weekly CSA box would change the way I cook, but I wasn't fully aware of the extent of it. I became more of a cook-what's-on-hand person, and when confronted with an overbounty of broccoli or potatoes, learned quickly to either blanch and freeze or make a soup that would freeze well. The CSA ended this week, and now it's going to be very strange to go back to what was "normal" meal planning and grocery shopping.

One recipe that became a regular this summer helped out when our CSA box had a lot of beets: chocolate beet muffins. Jim likes to point out that these muffins sound like they would taste awful, but that they are so delicious. And, they're pretty good for you, too. (I'd recommend waiting until they cool to eat them, otherwise they may have an overly "beet-y" flavor.)

Double Dark Chocolate Beet Muffins

1 C. whole wheat flour
1 C. all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 C. (split into two half-cups) Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 C. chopped pecans or walnuts

1/8 C. butter
1/8 C. milk
3/4 C. packed brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 C. beet puree*
1 C plain lowfat yogurt
1 t. vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin or line it with paper cups; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together first 5 ingredients until well combined.Stir in the half cup chocolate chips and nuts; set aside.
  4. In a small saucepan, melt the other 1/2 cup chocolate chips and butter over very low heat. Stir to combine, add milk, and set aside to cool until lukewarm.
  5. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, brown sugar, beet puree, yogurt, vanilla, and melted chocolate.
  6. Pour the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Don’t over mix.
  7. Immediately spoon batter into 12 well-greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Batter should completely fill the cups.
  8. Place muffin pan in a preheated 375 oven and bake for 18-20 minutes. Muffins are done when they spring back when touched lightly in the center (or when a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean). Don’t overbake!
  9. Cool muffins for 10 minutes in pan then remove them to a wire rack to cool completely.

*To prepare beets: Cut off the greens leaving about one inch attached. Don’t cut anything off the root end. Gently scrub the beets being careful not to cut the skin. In a medium saucepan, cover beets with water, bring to a gentle boil and cook, covered, 30-45 minutes until tender. Drain and let sit until cool enough to handle. The tops should pull off easily or they can be cut off. The skins will slip right off. Puree beets with a little bit of the cooking liquid in a food processor until they are the consistency of applesauce.

Recipe adapted from here.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lush Life (Richard Price)

Short version: Do you like great dialogue? Do you particularly like great cop dialogue? Lush Life is for you.

Somewhat longer version: I hadn’t read any Price before seeing him do a reading with Charles Baxter. The plot spools out from the shooting of a white kid on New York’s Lower East Side, centering on Matty Clark, the detective who ends up working the case, and Eric Cash, a waiter and perpetual failure who had been out drinking with the victim and standing next to him when he was shot. Much of the early going follows Matty and another detective, Yolanda, as they thoroughly disassemble Eric’s account of what happened in a lengthy interview that rapidly turns into an interrogation as they start turning up inconsistencies and outright falsehoods in Eric’s account of what happened.

The book is, as Price said at the reading, really a novel of place, though—the Lower East Side itself almost the main character, and the book works not just as a compelling police procedural as Matty works to solve the murder, but also as an extended exploration of the neighborhood and the people in it, from the projects kids to the roving beat cops and up to the wealthy entrepreneur Eric works for.

Plus (just to get back to the dialogue, which seriously, is first-rate), it never hurts when you can get off incidental lines like the last one here:

“Sunday night,” Berkowitz said, closing the book like a cigarette case and slipping it back into his jacket. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Sunday night going into Sunday morning?”

“Going into Monday morning.”

“Boss, we’re looking for habituals. Who’s going to be out there. Who goes barhopping on a Sunday night.”

“You want this happening or not. Saturday’s too soon. Monday I can’t promise. Tuesday’s unpredictable to the point of science fiction.”

Or, for anyone who’s ever been to open-mike poetry:

“What time are we talking?”

“Eight-thirty, eight-forty-five? They were having some kind of open-mike thing in the back room. I take a look and I see Ike at the podium, and he’s reading.”

“Reading out loud?” Yolanda asked.

Eric stared at her. “That’s what the microphone was for.”

“What was he reading?”

“I guess it was poetry because it had that pronouncement thing, you know, where you say each word like you’re angry at it?”

Hehe. So, yeah, great dialogue. If you need further convincing, he also wrote for The Wire and did the screenplay for The Color of Money, among other things. Go, read.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Friday Night Knitting Club (Kate Jacobs)

Why, hello! Fancy seeing you all here. Please, please don't leave! I can explain my 5-month-long absence. It all started back mid-March when I was overcome with constant nausea. I completely lost my appetite, which (for someone who loves cooking, eating, and thinking about food most of the time) was a completely foreign feeling. And the book I was reading at the time (Secret Ingredients, a wonderful collection of food writing from The New Yorker, a Christmas gift from Jim) I could no longer even look at. I was also exhausted, so much so that I pathetically watched Jim pack everything into boxes for our move. (I'm sure I must have done something to help, but I have no recollection what it could have been.)

We then spent our free time repainting the interior of our new house, trying to get the work done before our impending, very busy summer, one that included multiple business trips and vacations (Boston, Dallas, Seattle, Vermont, Philadelphia). And, back in February, I had enrolled in a UC Berkeley extension course in chemistry for work. So on plane trips and any time I could, I had out my calculator, a notebook, and my textbook, working through calculations and stoichiometry problems.

But then I found myself in O'Hare one week with a 3-hour delay, no chemistry book, and a low computer battery. So I went looking for a book, nothing high-brow or nonfiction. I wanted something entertaining but easy on the mind. And I found The Friday Night Knitting Club.

I'm having a hard time judging this book because, as my friend Amanda put it, pregnancy can make you want to watch movies like The Notebook over and over again. I can cry at a moment's notice, no problem (watch out Olympics!). So, in my enhanced emotional state, I very much enjoyed this book. The knitting part wasn't overly done or gimmicky, but was an organic part of the book. The many story threads, from different characters' points of view, interwove nicely, and it was a good, entertaining (albeit very female) read. However, the blurb on the front cover ("Like Steel Magnolias set in Manhattan") was a harbinger throughout. I found the ending unneeded and overly dramatic, but I enjoyed Jacobs's writing enough that I'll check out her other book (because there's no way she could end both books this way).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Soul Thief (Charles Baxter)

We went to see Baxter give a reading here recently, a double-billing with Richard Price (whose new novel Lush Life I’ve also just finished, and thoroughly enjoyed), in which he explained the origin of The Soul Thief. When he was young, he said, he’d had a friend in Los Angeles he used to exchange manuscripts with so they could give each other feedback. At one point, he’d had a couple stories published, and then discovered that his friend had been going around the L.A. area giving readings of his stories, presenting himself as Charles Baxter. (I may have gotten some of the details wrong here, but that was the gist of it.)

Needless to say, he had no idea what to do with this, except that he knew it was too strange not to write about. But he kept putting it off, until a few decades later, he decided to finally sit down and get it out.

The resulting novel is about the relationship between Nathaniel Mason, a poor graduate student in Buffalo, and Jerome Coolberg, the brilliantly eccentric fellow student and titular soul thief who begins appropriating parts of Nathaniel’s identity both physical and metaphysical. Eventually Nathaniel is driven to a mental breakdown, and the book skips forward thirty years, to find Nathaniel settled down in a relatively normal domestic life, until Coolberg suddenly contacts him again out of the blue, and they meet again for the first time since Nathaniel’s breakdown.

The book is shot through with doublings and mirrors—the young Nathaniel involving himself with both another odd fellow student, Theresa, and a lesbian artist, Jamie, who works at a soup kitchen with him; at one point Nathaniel and Theresa even go to a literal room of mirrors—and has Baxter’s usual sharp intelligence and careful attention to structure, character, and language. On those counts, it’s an unmitigated pleasure to read. The twist ending—which I won’t give away, but which throws a considerable amount of the rest of the book into doubt—is, from the other reviews I’ve come across, considered either the place where the book succeeds best, the place where it lets you down after an otherwise excellent read, or the place where it falls flat on its face and drags everything else down with it. (And no, don’t worry, it’s nothing so gauche as Coolberg being a figment of Nathaniel’s imagination.)

You can’t really say a whole lot about it without giving away too much, so I’ll just say that for my money, it works well enough. But I suspect it might not have if the book weren’t so short—210 pages, and small pages at that. At that level of investment, a bit of cunning trickery goes a lot further, and is a lot less likely to elicit resentment, than it might in a 400- or 500-pager.

If you’re already a Baxter fan, by all means pick this one up. If you haven’t read him before—well, you should, but I’d probably suggest starting with his well-known The Feast of Love (a National Book Award finalist, and rightly so) or with the superb story collections Through the Safety Net and Believers.

(Interesting side note: In the second half, we learn that Nathaniel has two children, Jeremy and Michael. At the reading, Baxter was asked whether Nathaniel would really give his first child a name so close to the name of his old antagonist, and what was up with that. Baxter—seeming slightly embarrassed—confessed that he hadn’t even noticed the similarity until people had started asking him about it after the book was published. It was just one of those accidental things that happens from time to time when you’re writing a novel, he said, and “I guess it is what it is.” Whether he gave his editor a hard time for not bringing it to his attention, he didn't say.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Angel on the Roof (Russell Banks)

I bought The Angel on the Roof a few years ago, based mainly on a Banks story I’d heard on This American Life and really liked (“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” as it turns out). Although I pulled it down and dipped into it from time to time, mostly it sat on my shelf and shamed me for never getting around to reading it all the way through.*

Well, finally the shame has ended. In The Angel on the Roof, Banks collects what he feels are the best stories from throughout his career along with nine new ones—thirty-one altogether. Unsurprisingly, the later stories tend to be the most most fully realized, and a few of my favorites, like “Djinn” and “Lobster Night,” the first and last stories as presented here, were among the new ones. Banks has ordered them more thematically than chronologically, and a few recurrent places and characters—a particular New Jersey trailer park and its eccentric inhabitants, a boy rejected by his father who drifts down to South America to fight with Che Guevara—thread through the collection in a series of loosely linked episodes. The stories themselves are largely concerned with the daily lives of working-class New Englanders, although a few venture off into weirdly comic/experimental territory. (“The Caul,” for example, is a second-person story where “you” are Edgar Allan Poe, trying to come to terms with being, quote, “Edgar Poe, author of ‘The Raven.’”)

In an introduction and author’s note, Banks also considers his motivations for telling stories along with some of the better thoughts I’ve read on the distinct pleasures and limitations offered by short stories and novels:

When I began writing, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closets to lyric poetry. In the intervening years, I’ve written a dozen or so novels, but the story form thrills me still. It invites me today, as it did back then, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, more broadly comic than is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely, circumambulatory exploration. By contrast, stories are like perfect waves, if one is a surfer. Stories forgive one’s mercurial nature, reward one’s longing for ecstasy, and make of one’s short memory a virtue.

The linked nature of many of the stories and the inclusion of the novella-length “The Guinea Pig Lady” make me suspect that Banks is more suited for (or at least more comfortable with) long-form fiction; compared with stories by writers whose talents seem to fall squarely in the realm of short stories—Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Jim Shepard, and Tobias Wolff come to mind—the stories collected here have a certain looseness to them, and lack the bite and piercing clarity that a great story from any of those five writers has. So while I enjoyed reading Angel, and I’ll have to get around to trying out some of Banks’s novels one of these days, this one isn’t going to unseat, say, Birds of America, Love and Hydrogen, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, or The Night in Question from atop my list of favorite story collections.

*See also: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Borges’s Collected Fictions, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m getting to them, I swear!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Alice Stories (Jesse Lee Kercheval)

Calling The Alice Stories a collection of linked short stories doesn’t really give a good sense of it—it’s really more of a novel in a stories, following its main character over the course of decades, from graduate student in Wisconsin, to San Francisco and Germany, back to Wisconsin, through marriage and children. It really manages to get the best of both forms: the relatively self-contained, evocative episodes of the short stories, accumulating into something that doesn’t quite have the weight of a proper novel, but certainly ends up in the general vicinity.

The stories themselves are a thorough pleasure to read, generous and funny even in the darker stories. From the first story, “Alice in Dairyland”:*

I stuck my left foot in the tub. The hot water burned like hell. “Jo Beth has a gun,” I said.

“Gun?” He pronounced the n very carefully, as if he thought maybe what I had said was gum. Watch out, Jo Beth has gum.

Hehe. Or (because I’m a sucker for a good simile), describing the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in the apartment of Alice’s brother, Mark:

The furniture, which Mark had inherited from our mother, was all on castors—Mom, who’d worked long and hard at becoming a typical American housewife, had had an irrepressible German mania for vacuuming under things—and the earthquake had sent it all rolling like boxcars across the clean parquet floor through the arch and into Mark’s study. The couch and table huddled with his desk like scared livestock.

Funny, vivid, and true—my favorite, and an apt description for the entire book.

(Full disclosure: Jesse Lee was co-chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when I was there, and I know for a fact that she’s awesome, a great writer, and a first-rate teacher. So there.) (Also, while I’m at it, I’m throwing in a plug for my thesis advisor Judy Mitchell’s excellent novel The Last Day of the War. Hi coach!)

*Which, as we just learned the other day, is an actual job title with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Who knew?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Know-It-All (A.J. Jacobs)

I actually read The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World a couple months ago, but since in those last couple months we’ve moved, found ourselves with a baby on the way,* and spent our weekends doing absurd things like thinking we could repaint our entire downstairs in two days, I hadn’t actually gotten around to reviewing it. Maria already had to renew it after it was overdue once (library fine: $0.25; result: cheerful turning over of quarter to library), and then discovered it was overdue AGAIN (library fine: $0.50; result: wild accusations thrown in my direction and a certain amount of crying, correctly blamed later on pregnancy hormones), so it seemed like I’d better get something down quick before more than just accusations started flying.

So, the short version: This was the precursor to Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, previously reviewed by Maria, and takes the same kind of “immersion journalism” approach—in this case, he spends a year reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish, all 33,000 pages, all 44 million words. Like The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs brings the funny along with some interesting facts:

Fillmore, Millard
The thirteenth president was born in a log cabin. Why doesn’t poor Millard ever get press for this? Lincoln hogs all the log cabin spotlight.

nursery rhyme
My favorite Mother Goose fact thus far: “Jack and Jill” is actually an extended allegory about taxes. The jack and the jill were two forms of measurement in early England. When Charles I scaled down the jack (originally two ounces) so as to collect higher sales tax, the jill, which was by definition twice the size of the jack, was automatically reduced, hence “came tumbling after.” Kids love tax stories. I can’t wait to hear the nursery rhyme about Bush’s abolishment of the estate tax.

He also still finds himself unable to begin relating everything in his life to his current project, shoehorning random facts into every conversation and generally driving his wife (Julie) crazy:

“Brrrr,” says Julie as she unbundles her several layers of winter wear.

“A little nippy out there, huh?” says Shannon.

“Not quite as cold as Antarctica’s Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero,” I reply. “But still cold.”

Shannon chuckles politely.

We sit down in the living room and Shannon starts telling Julie about her upcoming vacation in St. Bart’s.

“I’m so jealous,” says Julie.

“Yeah, I can’t wait to get some sun,” Shannon says. “Look how white I am.”

“Albinism affects one in twenty thousand Americans,” I say.

Shannon doesn’t quite know how to respond to that one.

“Anyhoo,” says Julie, “where are you staying?”

An entertaining read from start to finish, although if you’re planning on checking these out, read this one first, then The Year of Living Biblically—certain developments in the Jacobs household will be considerably more suspenseful if you read them in order.

OK, now if we can just find a couple of quarters around here . . .

* Yikes! Names rejected by Maria thus far include Binomial, Flapjack (or Flapjill, if it’s a girl), and Tater. We’re working on it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Evolution of Useful Things (Henry Petroski)

Maria had picked up a used copy of The Evolution of Useful Things for me, and given how much I liked Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things (review), it definitely sounded like I would like it. Unfortunately, it turns out I’m not really interested enough in paper clips to take on a couple hundred pages of passages like this:

A great variety of such fasteners came into existence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and there was fierce competition among them. As in the evolution of all artifacts, each variation of fastener promised to solve some or all of the problems of the preexisting forms. One style, the Premier fastener, advertised that its points did not become crushed “as in fasteners similar in appearance to the Premier.” Fasteners of dissimilar appearance were also developed to answer the objection to the paper-piercing points altogether.

(I’ll refrain from boring everyone by listing all the reasons why that last sentence is the prose equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.)

I did make it about 80 pages in before moving on, so I can say that Petroski’s basic argument is that the commonplace phrase “form follows function” is wrongheaded and entirely inadequate as an explanation for how many of the objects we take for granted—forks, paperclips, zippers, etc.—came to be. Instead, he argues, these objects are the current result of a long, often meandering developmental process, one driven by the shortcomings of previous designs: “form follows failure,” as he puts it. Interesting enough. It turned out the book wasn’t really for me, but if you’re in to the history of these kinds of design and engineering problems, and if you didn’t blink at the excerpt above, it might be for you.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs)

Last fall, Jim and I were at a Wisconsin Book Festival reading (our second choice after Rabbi Harold Kushner couldn't attend), when I saw a stack of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs on a table in the back. Oh no, I thought, immediately. This reading includes the crazy bearded guy who followed the Bible literally for an entire year? His photograph (resembling a mug shot) in the festival program made me fear what may follow. But A.J. Jacobs turned out to clean up nicely (see the difference here) and was polite, quite personable, and hysterically funny. And the book is just as funny, if not more. And at the same time, it's incredibly sincere.

He describes his own personal religious background as follows: "I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very." Jacobs went at this year-long experiment with full force, studying as many different versions of the Bible as he could (including a hip-hop Bible, with translations such as "The Lord is all that"). He had spiritual advisers from different faiths. He "stoned" a grumpy elderly man with tiny pebbles. He had an unpaid intern has his modern-day slave. When trying to curb his lying, he made a list of his "daily violations" including, "I lied to Julie about how much internet access at Starbucks costs. I told her eight dollars instead of ten, so she'd be 20 percent less annoyed." Julie, his wife, had to put up with a lot during the year, such as a certain time each month where he explained to her that he couldn't sit any place she had, as she was "impure" then. (She solved this problem by sitting in every single place in the apartment.)

He spent time with snake handlers, the Amish, orthodox Jews, and creationists, among others on the extreme edges of faith:

It makes me think of [Answers in Genesis] resident astrophysicist, Jason. Before I left, he wanted to make clear to me that he's not geocentric---he doesn't believe the earth is the center of the universe. "Does anyone anymore?" I asked. He said, yes, there is a group called "biblical astronomers"---they believe the earth is stationary because the Bible says the earth "shall never be moved" (Psalms 93:1). Jason considers them an embarrassment

That was something I hadn't expected: moderate creationists who view other creationists as too extreme. But it will turn out to be one of this year's big lessons: Moderation is a relative term.

Jim also read this book, and pointed out that there were plenty of really funny parts that I hadn't marked, and he was right. There were just too many to note them all. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, February 11, 2008

No Reservations (Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain does not have kind words for vegetarians. Yet I like him. I think that says a lot about him (or maybe it says a lot about me). He can explain his rationale clearly: Most of the world does not have the option to eat a vegetarian diet, and when visiting these people, you will disgrace your guests by refusing the food they, who are often very poor, have prepared in your honor. (He has the same argument when it comes to the local liquor of choice.) Food unites people.

Bourdain's life has changed immensely since he first published Kitchen Confidential, which many considered to be an expose of the restaurant world. Since then, he has written many other books, and now has his second television show, No Reservations, which is on the Travel Channel. (He does not have the kindest of words for the Food Network, which was the home of his first show, A Cook's Tour.) He loves his job, and rightfully so. No Reservations goes where he wants. It's a small production crew (only five at most working on a shoot), and if a planned scene goes bad, they ditch it and see what else they can find. He does not have to take a bite of food and smile through his teeth for the camera if he doesn't like it. He does, however, often get invited to dance by the locals, something I'm sure the production crew loves because it always provides good television. (He hates dancing, looks incredibly awkward, and has on his sheepish smile the entire time.)

Bourdain's book No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach is a nice supplement to the television series. Bourdain's quick to point out in the introduction that he's "done [his] very best not to make this some cynical, cheap-ass 'companion' book to the series, filled---as those things so often are--with excerpts from voice-over scripts, a few maps, and a bunch of blurry photos taken from the show." The photographs featured are taken by the production crew on location for the Travel Channel website.

If you've watched the series, the book will remind you of some of the show's greatest moments. Each country's section has an introductory text, providing background information on the logistics of the shoot, followed by beautiful photographs. If you haven't seen the show but are a Bourdain fan, this will probably get you started watching. It's a good book to have around, for guests to flip through (though you may want to put the book on a shelf around dinnertime if you have guests who prefer not to see photographs of dead animals waiting to become dinner).

Bourdain is known to have quite the mouth. He's had words for the Food Network, for Emeril, for Rachael Ray, among others. But what I really like about him is that while he speaks his mind, he's also the first to point out when he's wrong or when his opinions have changed (e.g., Emeril can actually cook, Bourdain has noted, and is really a nice guy). Even though many people may find him abrasive, what you see is honestly what he is, and that rings true in this book.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Like You'd Understand, Anyway (Jim Shepard)

I do love me some Jim Shepard. Batting Against Castro and Love and Hydrogen (which also includes nine of the fourteen stories from the now out-of-print Batting Against Castro) are two of my favorite story collections, period, and I ordered Like You’d Understand, Anyway pretty much as soon as I heard about it. If you haven’t read him before, here’s as good a place to start as any. You won’t be disappointed.

Short stories aren’t usually known for being research-intensive, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Shepard: in his acknowledgments, he lists about sixty articles and books as research sources for these eleven stories. He’s always been drawn to historical material and fictional representations of real people or real events from the past—“Batting Against Castro,” about two journeyman American baseball players in Cuba in 1951; “Nosferatu” (later expanded into Nosferatu), F. W. Murnau’s diary of making his most famous film; “Love and Hydrogen,” about two men trying to hide their homosexuality on board the Hindenburg; and what his agent evidently refers to as his Libel Cycle, including stories told from the point of view of John Ashcroft and John Entwhistle, just to name a few—and Like You’d Understand expands on that fascination. Stories here (all first person) are narrated variously by Boris Prushinsky, the chief engineer at Chernobyl; an ineffectual Roman soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall; Ernst Schäfer, a German zoologist ostensibly exploring Tibet to further Nazi understanding of the Aryan race while really pursuing a quixotic quest for the yeti; a relentless British explorer of the nineteenth-century Australian outback; a middle-aged Aeschylus preparing to take up arms at the Battle of Marathon; Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; and Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner of Paris during the Reign of Terror. (Several stories from Love and Hydrogen would have fit seamlessly here—“Descent into Perpetual Night,” for example, told by William Beebe, a naturalist who made the first manned deep-sea exploration in a bathysphere.) It also includes a few more straightforward stories: domestic strife in “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian,” two star high-school football players in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” (which called to mind the adrenaline-fueled jet pilot of “Who We Are, What We’re Doing” in Batting Against Castro), a teenager at summer camp in “Courtesy for Beginners.”

Given all the research that went into them, the stories naturally have a great breadth and depth of detail to them, but it’s the humanity of the voices that makes them sing—characters striving to live up to their fathers’ expectations, to navigate the complex obligations of family, to make sense of the precarious worlds they find themselves in, to understand their own hearts and the hearts of others. In that sense, the historicity is almost beside the point: these are stories of unusual people in extraordinary circumstances, but also rooted in profoundly ordinary human yearnings.

P.S. Memo to Knopf marketing department: I’m glad this was a National Book Award finalist, and I hope the round, shiny stickers you put on here help sell more copies of this excellent collection. However, I don’t like round, shiny stickers on my books. So it would be good if, in the future, you could use stickers that don’t leave behind a sticky residue that, when you try to clean it off, ends up taking part of the cover off with it. Boooo.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Naked Pictures of Famous People (Jon Stewart)

Let’s be up front about this: Jon Stewart is a genius, and The Daily Show is hilarious, and America: The Book is pretty damn funny too. Naked Pictures of Famous People is a short, oddball little book (18 pieces in 163 pages) from a pre–Daily Show Stewart, and it’s unfortunate that the two places I really laughed hard were the dedication page (“For my loves—Tracey, Stan, and Shamsky. No offense, Sportscenter.”) and the “Microsoft Word ’98 Suggested Spelling and Usage” at the end, a list of suggestions his computer had made for words and phrases appearing in the rest of the book, in no small part just because it’s funny to see some of those words reappear devoid of context (“Wilford Brimley” “WILLARD BRAMBLY”; “Jewey” “DEWEY”; “Chickenshit” “NO SUGGESTIONS”). Well, OK, and also “Martha Stewart’s Vagina,” a fake decorating article in extremely poor taste that is pretty hilarious too.*

The rest is kind of uneven, in some places thoroughly dated (“Vincent and Theo on AOL,” putting Vincent van Gogh into an AOL chat room, mainly to reveal that people in chat rooms tend not to communicate in the most literate possible language; “A Very Hanson Christmas, 1996–1999,” following several years of Hanson rise and fall through Christmas newsletters) and in others covering some pretty well-trodden territory even at the time (“Lack of Power: The Ford Tapes,” on Gerald Ford being somewhat of an ineffectual dimwit as president), although with a few bright spots along the way (“The Recipe,” an outline for creating a successful entertainment awards show, all the more funny now that Stewart has hosted the Oscars; “Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold,” about a man who has spent decades creating a monster in his parents’ basement for the sole purpose of turning it loose at his thirtieth high-school reunion).

So: Funny at times, but you can safely stick with The Daily Show and not feel like you’re missing out.

*Yes, you can guess what is being decorated.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Atonement (Ian McEwan)

I’d been meaning to read some McEwan for a while now, and the release of a movie version of Atonement coupled with the appearance of a 50-cent used copy at a local used-book store seemed as good an excuse as any. I haven’t seen the movie, but damn if this isn’t a great book.

Of its 350 pages, the first 175 are devoted to a single day at the Tallis household in 1935, in which a sequence of misunderstandings leads precocious, imaginative, and self-absorbed thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis to accuse her sister’s lover, Robbie Turner, of a crime he had nothing to do with, and convinces both herself and everyone else that Robbie was guilty. The second section follows Robbie, who who has since enlisted in the army in return for early release from prison, as he makes his way across France with two other men during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940; the third shifts to an older Briony, working as a nurse in London, who as an adult has realized the enormity of the injustice she brought on Robbie and Cecilia.

That’s the outline of the plot, anyway, although trying to explain the book like that is a little like trying to explain the Grand Canyon by holding up a postcard. What makes Atonement so compelling is the depth and nuance of the characters’ internal lives, and the way even scenes in which nothing much outwardly happens offer McEwan a canvas to paint those interiors in rich detail. (I understand the movie is pretty good, but it’s difficult to imagine how the complex interplay of motivations, misconceptions, wrong ideas, and imagination that drive the novel could have possibly translated to the screen.) It’s by no means an upbeat book, but it is a tremendously satisfying and cathartic one, and I was more than a little sorry when it was over. So I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes out for Enduring Love, Amsterdam, and Saturday.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver)

Our town believes in good food. We are surrounded by farmland and work hard to keep the family farms alive, buying local and joining community supported agriculture programs. Our university partners with farmers on new projects and techniques for organic farming and provides information for value-added products. Two of our nationally renowned restaurants (L'Etoile and Harvest) focus on local food year-round. We aren't just consumers. We are creators. Our local pastamaker was an normal everyday guy until he returned from a trip to Italy with stars in his eyes and determination. Former chemistry teachers are reborn as specialty bakers. We have surplus of chocolatiers. Madison is a good place to eat.

Madison may be unique among cities, but it's clear that the focus on local food is growing nationwide. This current trend is something Barbara Kingsolver may not have imagined when she began writing her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which chronicles her year of eating locally, growing much of her family's food in their own garden. The book begins with a couple chapters defending this decision, providing a synthesis of the information Michael Pollan presents in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma in a style that feels uncharacteristic for Kingsolver. Her books are full of beautiful, vivid prose that sucks you in on the first page. I was reluctant to read The Poisonwood Bible, an Oprah book club stamp on the cover providing more of a caution sign for me than one of approval, but loved the book, gushed about it the whole time I read it. So when I picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was not ready for what a friend referred to as "textbook" prose. This introduction may be useful for the Oprah Book Clubbers who don't know who Pollan is, or who aren't familiar with the arguments for eating local, but for others, who may feel disappointed at the beginning, I have one word for you: skim. Skim this part (and the well-meaning sidebars written by her husband and her oldest daughter) and you will be gratefully rewarded with the rest of the book, which reads the way I feel a Kingsolver book should.

In preparing for their year of eating locally, her daughter Lily, age 8, lover of chickens, decides to run an egg business. When Lily asks if she can have a horse, Kingsolver figures the best answer is to say that Lily can raise the money herself through her egg business. "When I was a kid, I would have accepted these incalculable vagaries without a second thought, understanding that maybe a horse was out there for me, but I'd just have to wait and see. The entrepreneurial gene apparently skips generations. Lily got out her notebook and started asking questions." After inquiring about the cost of a horse, the selling price of a dozen organic eggs, she went to her room to run through calculations.

In a while she popped out with another question.

"How much can you sell chicken meat for?"

"Oh," I said, trying to strike a morally neutral tone in my role as financial adviser, "organic chicken sells for a good bit. Maybe three dollars a pound. A good-size roasting bird might net you ten dollars, after you subtract your food costs."

She vanished again, for a very long time. I could almost hear the spiritual wresting match, poultry vs. equines, fur and feathers flying. Many hours later, at dinner, she announced: "Eggs and meat. We'll only kill the mean ones."

There are many fine, surprising, moments in this book, with constant reminders of the origins of food and food traditions, and the importance of food in our lives. Returning to traditional practices (homebaked bread, preparing the summer harvest food for winter storage) reminds Kingsolver of her own childhood rituals, such as harvesting apples, which then makes her turn to her own children:

I don't know what rituals my kids will carry into adulthood, whether they'll grow up attached to homemade pizza on Friday nights, or the scent of peppers roasting over a fire, or what. I do know that flavors work their won ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branches and steal apples, the world will still have trees enough with arms to receive them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

About Grace (Anthony Doerr)

I’m surprised it took me this long to get around to reading About Grace. Doerr’s story collection The Shell Collector was first-rate, and one of my favorites of the last five years or so. I think the title may have put me off a little bit—with apologies to Doerr, it sounds more than a little like a generic holiday-season romantic comedy, perhaps starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.*

Which, of course, it’s absolutely nothing like, except maybe that there’s snow in it. About Grace is actually about David Winkler, an Anchorage “hydrologist” semi-obsessed with snow crystal formation and occasionally cursed with dreamlike visions of the future. It opens with Winkler on a plane back to America for the first time in twenty-five years, then backtracks to his life in Anchorage, where one of his visions led him into an affair with a married woman, Sandy, and then to run off with her to the Midwest. When they have a daughter (the eponymous Grace), he has a recurring vision of her drowning in a flood despite his attempts to save her. When the flood arrives, he decides that she might live if he does something—anything—except try to save her as he does in the dream. So he flees, eventually ending up in the Caribbean, where he lives the next several decades without knowing whether his daughter is alive or dead.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this book for the first hundred pages or so—the characters seemed, in a way, too much like characters in a literary novel, with passions that seemed too overtly symbolic (David with his water cycle and snow crystals, Sandy’s penchant for constructing enormous metal sculptures in their basement, to say nothing of the name of their daughter). But once it establishes David in the Caribbean, and was able to follow his purgatorial life there and then his later quest to find out whether his daughter is still alive, the book really hits its stride, and ends up in all sorts of surprising and satisfying places.

*Oh, wait, that was Serendipity.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Lovingkindness (Sharon Salzberg)

I do not do well with general news headlines. Stories of bombings, wars, possible wars, weapons, and crime do not agree with me, make me feel bad about the general state of the world, and leave me with an overall sense of helplessness about it. A while back, however, I found a strategy that helped me deal with those kinds of situations a little bit better. It was an article in Yoga Journal about the practice of metta, or lovingkindness. Basically, the article explained that when there is not much you can do about a situation (global ones, such as those mentioned above, or local ones, like a car accident you see on the way to work), you can still send your intentions to those affected by meditating on a phrase such as May you be at peace. As simple as it is, or as crazy as it may sound, this is very effective.

The book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg fully explains the practice of metta, including the different levels of meditation (lovingkindness for yourself, for close friends, even for your enemies). Salzberg's tone is straightforward and she provides real-life applications that make the material easier to understand.

Metta isn't about putting a rosy twist on everything you see. It's about bringing a fuller sense of intention to your life, which lets you experience joy more fully and provides a better understanding of others and their own situations. Salzberg is clear that every life has wonderful moments and painful moments. She explains, however,

How we think, how we look at our lives, is all-important, and the degree of love we manifest determines the degree of spaciousness and freedom we can bring to life's events.

Imaging taking a very small glass of water and putting into it a teaspoon of salt. Because of the small size of the container, the teaspoon of salt is going to have a big impact upon the water. However, if you approach a much larger body of water, such as lake, and put into it that same teaspoonful of salt, it will not have the same intensity of impact, because of the vastness and openness of the vessel receiving it. Even when the salt remains the same, the spaciousness of the vessel receiving it changes everything.

Salzberg includes meditation exercises at the end of each chapter, which makes a good book to purchase for anyone interested in exploring metta.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Job Hopper (Ayun Halliday)

I have a really fabulous job. I think I appreciate how great it is because of my previous jobs: Once I was a temp at a dairy in El Paso and had to, using a typewriter, type price orders in Spanish on carbon paper for 12 hours straight in exchange for low pay and all the cottage cheese I could eat. I also taught kids with learning disabilities, which in theory was a noble enterprise, except when I learned that management had been Disney-fied, meaning that my time teaching a student was time I was "on stage" and the break room where I could grab a snack and a quick run to the bathroom was now the "green room." Oh, and then there was that little incident where a company I worked for went in major debt, got bought out by a new company that fired 60% of the staff, saying, "We're just asking you to step out of the boat. Once we earn more money, you can step back in." (No one bought the boat metaphor.)

So I could completely relate to Ayun Halliday's book Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante. In her case, Halliday had a string of low-end day jobs to support herself while she was an actress for an experimental theatre group. While her jobs varied (nude model for an art class, security guard for a museum), her experience in the service industry provides some great stories:

The indecencies of Turman's service didn't rest entirely on my shoulders. Kyle could perform his duties with a somnabulist's grace, but all pretense of refinement hit the bricks the moment he opened his mouth.

CustomerContemplatingDessert: "Can you tell me a little more about this 'triple-layer Ghirardelli gateau with mocha-fudge ganache'?"

Kyle, after much consideration: "Wellll. . . it's a brown cake with brown icing."

As an example of some of her less-pedestrian jobs, she once spent a few hours being Bert from Sesame Street for a meet-and-greet event in a department store:

Without warning, she thrust the infant into my arms. To say I was ill prepared to receive this bundle grossly understates the situation. I hadn't held anyone that small since high school, when the neighbors, reassured by the presence of my mother right next door, had indulged my desire to earn a dollar an hour baby-sitting. The giant felt-and-papier-mache Bert head obscuring my vision did nothing to make me feel more confident that I would remember how. Equine in its ability to sense fear, the baby started to shriek and buck, twisting its muscular torso in its mad desire to get free of the monstrous creature who had taken it from its mother. It was like trying to haul a healthy young sea bass into a rowboat with my bare hands. Actually, bare hands would have come in handy right about then. The accuracy of my Muppet gloves put me at a distinct disadvantage for going the distance with that thrashing mass of fragile human tissue.

Reading this book I was reminded of how you can meet the strangest people in the workplace, people who you might never encounter otherwise, and how they can either make a bad situation bearable or much worse. I would say this book is like the movie Office Space. You'll laugh that much harder if the situations ring true.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Early Bird (Rodney Rothman)

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman was in the bundle of books I brought with me to the airport for our Christmas vacation. But before I talk about the actual book, let me explain a little about our Christmas vacation.

We dutifully arrived at the airport at 5 am for our 6:50 am flight only to discover that it was delayed for almost 4 hours because of dense fog. We stood in line for 2 hours to get rebooked since we were going to miss our connecting flight. We found out that our new flight would get us to Portland, our destination, about 5 hours later, which wasn't too bad. A lot of flights were canceled, so we considered ourselves lucky. We went to the gate, where I proceeded to read a good half of Early Bird before our new departure time.

But then our departure time came, and our outbound plane wasn't there. We noted that the fog outside appeared to be getting thicker.

About an hour or so later, the airline worker at the counter announced that the plane was in fact "here" if you count the airspace above us "here," but that it was circling above waiting for clearance to land. Everyone got excited, until a half an hour later when the airline worker announced that the plane above had to return to Minneapolis because it could not get enough clearance to land. Our flight was officially canceled. There was no chance for us getting out that day. They rebooked us for the next day.

We managed to stay remarkably calm throughout the experience. (We ended up not getting out the airport the next day either. It was basically the same story as above, but you can replace the word "fog" with "blowing snow and ice" and "incoming plane that had been circling now returning to Minneapolis" with "incoming plane that had been circling now diverted to Cedar Rapids"), and I can tell you, with some authority, that Early Bird is excellent airport reading material. I first heard of the book at an A.J. Jacobs/Logan Ward reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival in October.

While he's between jobs, Rothman, at the age of 28, decides to check out retired life in Florida, much to his friends' surprise. One thing he learns very quickly is that most of the retired people in his neighborhood think he's someone else's grandson, not a fellow retiree. And he finds trying to explain his situation to others to be challenging, but he eventually enters some of their inner circles, such as the group of ladies who sit around the pool daily to gossip.

He notes that the value of the early bird special is very important because very few people he meets actually cook. (And free food usually trumps healthy food.) But not everything is how he expects it to be. He's invited to a Senior League softball team and quickly finds out that these guys can outplay him any day, except the game is a little different:

The opposite side of the "strong arms/weak legs" issue is this---the hitters, once they put a ball in play, run very slowly. And the fielders, once they reach the ball, have the arm strength to fire the ball wherever it needs to go. So when people do get out, it's in ways I have never seen before---like someone hitting a line drive deep into the hole in left center, and then getting thrown out at first.

Rothman also spends his time trying figure out what he wants to do with his life, and everyone offers him advice. Many of the old men want to know why on Earth he's hanging around them instead of out in the world, dating every woman he meets. (This is what they would do, after all, if they were in his position, they say.)

My parents may be considered "older" by some people (not me), and I'm sure there are people their age living in retirement communities. But I can't even begin to picture my parents in a retirement community like the one in this book. My dad has an artificial leg and plays raquetball frequently. My stepmother is getting her volunteer EMT certification (and she's a member of the sheriff's posse). And I think the differences between my parents and the people in this book kept popping up in the back of my mind as I read. I found the book to be funny, but maybe I was expecting more; it didn't quite live up to my expectations. But I was certainly glad to have it in the airport, where it made the "holiday travel" a bit more bearable.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

No Touch Monkey! (Ayun Halliday)

Here's a little background on Ayun Halliday. She writes the Mother Superior column for Bust magazine and is also the creator of The East Village Inky (a zine started soon after the birth of her first child, India, aka "Inky"). You can read her bio for a full plate of information on her, but I'll say two important things here: she was a theater major at Northwestern and her husband wrote Urinetown! The Musical, which she refers to in one of her books as "the golden egg."

The Mother Superior column is where I first read Halliday, and it's a welcome respite from the Huggies commercial--style parenting familiar to many of us through commercials on HGTV, TLC, and the Oxygen network. I love her writing about her kids, so when I was loading up on books to read for my Christmas vacation [now forever known as The Incoming Plane(s) That Would Never Land], I got two of her books from the library. No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late details her adventures traveling overseas, usually on a very small budget.

It starts with stories of the Eurorail variety, sleeping in train stations, hanging out with boyfriends who eventually get replaced with different ones. And those are good, but I felt a definite shift about halfway through the book, when she tells a story about traveling to Paris with her mom. This and the stories that follow, which involve her husband Greg, are even better than the ones in the beginning.

In Sumatra, she dislocates her knee, which fills with fluid, and can't walk. With no Western-style hospital or doctor available, she eventually gets in touch with an Islamic holy man:

Without warning, he pounced, pinning my thigh to the mattress as he wrenched my shin like someone throwing the lever on a seldom-used electric chair. The dislocated knee snapped back into alignment with the resounding crack of a gunshot. The audience at the window burst into spontaneous applause while I gasped, trying to regain my composure following an exquisite blast of torture that was almost over before it had began. . . As far as I was concerned, the bone setter could have declared himself the great and powerful Oz right there, but as I suspected, he was not a man to milk it. Instead he gestured that I should take a few steps. Having played the titular role in the Indianapolis Junior Civic Theatre's production of Heidi, I could appreciate the drama inherent in the moment. Weak and wary of falling, I rose to my feet and staggered unassisted to Greg, just like Clara, the lame rich girl to whom Heidi's infection can-do spirit gives the courage to eighty-six that wheelchair.

It's a good, quick read, making my high school camping trip on a Mexican beach with my friend's overly religious family, the trip where one camper got stung by a poisonous scorpion, look like a cake walk.