books

Rules of Civility

I frequently wonder about first-time novelists who had alternate careers. According to his bio, he studied English at Stanford, then went on to become a principle at an investment firm in New York.

This gives me a complex. How many other of my fellow commuters, 9-to-5ers, coworkers, have such a rich and varied novel brewing within them?

Forgive the digression. I just find it astounding that someone who was working somewhere else could have the time and energy to produce a first novel as polished as Rules of Civility.

It’s a New York story, through and through: girl grows up in Russian Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, then moves to a Manhattan boardinghouse and begins to haunt various Village bars with her roommate, a vivacious, ambitious woman named Eve. On New Year’s Eve in 1937 they meet a monied, WASPy perfect gentleman who seemingly falls for both of them – until a tragic accident forces priorities to shift.

Wow, that made it seem like a soap opera. There is is much more character development, and meditations on class and personal drive and how we deceive ourselves in doing what we think is right.

This quote, for example:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. …[This] risk should not be treated lightly. One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements (128).

The title comes from a pamphlet written by George Washington – a collection of 110 rules by which to live simply and decently. The book manages to evoke a glamorous lifestyle of New York in the 1930s and 1940s but also how the choices one makes to get there ripple out.

Want more?

Rules of Civility on NPR.

Read Washington’s list here.

Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, courtesy Goodreads.com

Hype is huge in the food world. New restaurants will float or flounder based on diners’ need to try the Next Big Thing. What’s new and in is not always what is good (think of how much upscale comfort food you’ve eaten in the last few months) but somehow impossible to avoid.

So trying to get away from the hype – that’s my excuse for not reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s much-lauded, delicious, solidly satisfying book Blood, Bones & Butter (“Magnificent. Simply the best book by a chef ever. Ever.” – Anthony Bourdain).

But this book! I simply adored it. I ravished it. I consumed it. It will make you hungry for food and more good writing.

Hamilton begins her book with a description of a family dinner party. It’s the 1970s in rural Pennsylvania, and her set designer father and glamorous French mother host a lamb roast outside for dozens of friends. The descriptions – dinner slowly cooking outside, candles and a fire pit illuminating the darkness, the bohemian sensibility – are evocative reminders of how food works with memory to create something more far more rich and complicated than just what we consume to survive.

Shortly after the magic of the barbeques, Hamilton’s parents split up. Her brothers and sisters, all older, scatter. She writes about the period, later, reflecting with her sister:

We have had long incredulous conversations with each other about our often starkly different experiences of the very same family. … There are only five years between us, but five years is enough time for the geography and topography of a family to change dramatically, for ravines to form, trees to upend, streams to run dry (156).

She ended up working prep in a kitchen, then as a waitress and for a catering company. It’s through a combination of hard work and some luck that she ends up chef and owner of Prune in New York.

Hamilton’s work with food and appreciation of good, simple ingredients is evident, but we’re able to almost taste everything with her because she is such a strong writer. Take this description of visiting her husband’s family estate in Italy, where his mother cooks every meal:

Pine nuts in the shell that fall out of the tree in the courtyard of her youngest sons’s summer house–so piney they taste almost metholated; her own orages, their juice squeezed over ice crushed in a dish towel with a mallet for a midday snack fo the kids; figs that are juicy and cool when picked at ten a.m., warm and jammy at four p.m. Burratta and buffalo mozzarella and giuncata- the fresh cow’s milk cheese that sits in giuncata (rush) baskets that impart its flavor and its name-were brought to the hourse by the local man who makes them–still warm!–the first time I tried them (172).

Blood, Bones & Butter is nothing but satisfying, and inspires me not only to get in the kitchen, but to write as well. I’d say one of the best books I’ve read about food, and definitely one of the finest books of 2011.

Want more?

She has written a recipe series on the NYT, including day-old roast chicken and butter cake!

She cooks with Mark Bittman!

She gives her favorite places to eat in New York!

She’s interviewed at Epicurious!

 

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Annoying water hyacinth

You could hardly call me a horticulturalist. Certainly I enjoy nature, but I have killed more basil plants than should be legal.

But this doesn’t stop me from being an enthusiastic, if ignorant, fan. After 8 years in the Bay, I finally made it to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (it’s the ornate white building that looks like a cross between a mosque and a meringue).

I went to check out  a specific exhibit: Wicked Plants: Botanical Rogues and Assassins, based on the book of the same name by Amy Stewart.

The conservatory was quite small, and the exhibit was even smaller. Yet each plant had a detailed description, plucked from the book. You’ll find out fascinating facts like:

[The water hyacinth] is so horrible it has earned its own Guinness World Record as the world’s worst aquatic weed.

Reading the book was more on the facts-side than I would have wished, but I still learned fascinating tidbits like:

Quinine is the medication that saved the world from malaria, and its addition to tonic water gave rise ot that class summer drink, the gin and tonic. (This proved to be an easy way for British colonists in India to take a mild does of their medicine).

The whole feel of the show was like your creepy aunt’s Victorian garden: Gothic, romantic, and might just kill you.

Want more?

The exhibit runs until October 30! Check out more pictures below.

 

Wicked Plants, but oh-so-lovely

 

Nasty buggers

Peace lilies

Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan

Continuing with celebrity memoir week, I thought I’d share some impressions about Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. 1, a book that I bought when it first came out, then proceeded to never read completely until a recent long plane ride. Chronicles Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan (courtesy Tower)

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has proven himself extremely adept at refusing to take responsibility for his public image. He lies in interviews, purposefully misdirects, and generally has a palpable dislike for anyone, fan or journalist, who believes that he or she is “owed” a piece of him. In short, you must read Chronicles with a grain of salt the size of the Chrysler Building.

That being said, Dylan is a fine writer, at times both lyrical and direct. He divides the book into five parts: his early days as a folk singer in New York City, his attempt at family life in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a farm in Woodstock, and his later touring years in the 1980s.

Young Dylan was famously inspired by the folk singer Woody Guthrie. He tracked the dying artist down to a hospital in New Jersey, where he would visit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reflecting on his younger self, Dylan recognizes the desire to do something different musically, to move beyond the tame folk resurgence to a movement with more teeth. He describes the musical, literary, and social influences that inspired his art, but:

The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.

Frustratingly, the book skips straight over his most interesting recordings, including Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The next section picks up with an unhappy Dylan in the late 1960s, holed up in a farm in Woodstock. He’s trying to escape the responsibilities lingering from his early roots as a protest singer, actively recoiling from being any voice of a generation. The emotion behind this section rings true and even current.

The third and fourth sections might be the most tantalizing, as you glimpse his mid-career struggles. Dylan writes of his (relatively) recent past recording the album Oh Mercy (1989). He describes his frustrations with touring and a hand injury:

The previous ten years had left me whitewashed and wasted out professionally. Many times I’d come near the stage before a show and would catch myself thinking that I wasn’t keeping my word with myself. What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.

How much is true? Does it matter? You’re a fan before you pick up Chronicles, not after. And if you are, it may make you appreciate the man even more.

Want more?
I created a Youtube playlist of songs Dylan spoke highly of in Chronicle: Volume 1. Listen and enjoy!

Top 5: Things I learned from Rob Lowe from reading his memoir

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe

1. Location matters. Lowe had liked acting ever since he was a little kid, but it wasn’t until his parents got divorced and he moved with his mom from Ohio to Malibu, California that his career as a TV teen heartthrob took off. While he was in high school, he was able to take the bus to Hollywood to go to auditions. And his neighbors and playmates? Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Chris (brother of Sean) Penn…

2. Learn from the masters. The strongest part of the book was Lowe’s telling of filming Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders in 1983. He learned how to bring his acting A-game to the mercurial director, giving it all for 15 takes only to learn that Coppola had been filming a long shot. Most important on that shoot? Observing then-A lister Matt Dillon picking up ladies with a whisper.

3. Keep famous friends close. Oh, did you forget that Lowe has been famous some time in Hollywood? Because he hasn’t. And he’s willing to share some stories (although not the really saucy ones) about crashing Liza Minelli’s hotel room, about getting set up on dates as a child star with Sarah Jessica Parker, about conceiving his child at Sting’s country estate after a weekend trip with Pavarotti. He knows what people want to hear about: other famous people. And the book delivers, reading like a better-written People magazine.

4. Admit your mistakes. Well, kind of. Lowe definitely owns up to his debauched ways in the 1980s, and credits his wife and family for keeping him on the clean and sober path today. But the 1988 sex-tape controversy gets no more than two pages. And the West Wing pay kerfuffle that led him to quit in 2006 was similarly glossed over and not exactly explained.

5. When in doubt, be really, really good-looking. Because it never hurts.

Want more?

I’d recommend reading the book! Especially now that it’s summer, makes for an entertaining and gossipy beach read.

Blacksad vs. Rango

Let’s call this the battle of the animated animals. NO, the battle of the genre’d animated animals.

In one side of the ring we have Blacksad, the noir graphic novel starring a giant black feline private eye named John Blacksad. In the far side of the ring, we have plucky Rango, a laissez-faire chameleon who ends up deep in the heart of a Western movie.

Blacksad

Blacksad will draw you in with its art, done by Juanjo Guarnido, a Spanish-based illustrator who used to draw for Disney. For adults of a certainBlacksad, courtesy Dark Horse generation, this means all of the animals feel slightly familiar, like they are echoes of childhood animated movies you can’t remember. Of course, the effect can be a bit creepy, as these are meant for adults, and there are definitely some adult situations for your run-of-the-mill cartoon dogs and cats.

The book it reminded me of most was Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Holocaust memoir by Art Spiegelman. Blacksad doesn’t address the same dark issues, or have the same level of sophistication, as Maus, but several plot points rely on the “species as race” divisions for their conflict.

As far as the stories go, if you’re a fan of private eyes and the like, you’ll be well pleased. It’s really the amazing illustrations that set Blacksad apart. I’d recommend it to any casual comic reader to show that there really is something for everyone.

Rango

In all honesty, I caught Rango on a plane, so I may have missed some precious jokes.

Rango is crazy. Director Gore Verbinski must have got real sick of the pirate genre, because he crammed every film reference he could into his first animated movie. It was more Tarantino than Tarantino; I counted: Apocaplyse Now, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chinatown, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, any spaghetti western you can name, and, indeed, Pulp Fiction.

Rango, courtesy Movie-listA tangent that shall become related soon enough: my dad always used to complain about kids’ movies that pander to the adults that have to watch them too (Shrek being a key culprit). Watching this movie, with its filmbuff asides and prostrate jokes, did make me wonder who this film was for (sleepy twenty-somethings on planes?).

Luckily the characters have enough loopy charm (although Johnny Depp! are you ever going to play normal again!) and the plot is just simple enough that the film works. Plus, the animation is really captivating, with scenes of a (rodent-sized) Western town and the surrounding desert.

Winner?

I’d say Blacksad by the whiskers of his chin.

Want more?

Check out the Dark Horse preview for Blacksad.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video for Rango.

Mister Jelly Roll

Must be the New Orleans trip fever, because I’m finally writing up a great book that I found at a used book store ages ago.

The book is called Mister Jelly Roll, and it’s about the famed early boogie woogie pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton played all over the United States in the first forty years of the 19002, but was born and raised in New Orleans.

Mister Jelly Roll cover

Alan Lomax, the author of the book, might be familiar to you for his ethnomusicology work and folklore efforts. Mister Jelly Roll is one of the many oral histories Lomax collected from famed musicians of the early 20th century.

Being an oral history, it’s all you can do to take Morton as his word. He’s a larger than life character, with a pretty strong self-pronounced claim for being the “father of jazz.”

He certainly did originate early arrangements of jazz music, and helped to popularize them all over the U.S. through a grueling tour schedule. Whether or not he is the “father of jazz,” Morton’s life story takes you through marriages, success, failure, small clubs, big band halls, racism, and impressive musical creativity.

The book is illustrated by David Stone Martin, whose strong graphic lines can be found on many jazz album covers of the day. The drawings, as well as the musical notes included in the appendix, make the book a fully engaging historical document. Recommended for music history buffs.

Want more?

Check out the original Time Magazine review of the book here (1950)

Jelly Roll videos: Hesitation Blues, Crazy Chords, and the Steamboat Stomp.

More illustration by David Stone Martin:

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, illustrations by David Stone Martin

The Tiger’s Wife

The Tiger's Wife

There is much quiet beauty as well as power in Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It’s a novel that creeps up on you and make you believe in the mythology it has created.

The story follows a young doctor in an unnamed, war-ravaged Eastern European country. She must pick up her dead grandfather’s belongings in a remote town. At the same time, we learn of the time a tiger came to her grandfather’s town when he was a young boy, and the kindred affiliation that grew between the tiger and a young mute woman in the village.

By not specifying the country, Obreht frees the events of her book to represent any area’s wreckage from years of conflict. The names of her characters and places are like words on the tip of your tongue: yes, you can picture them, but where would they be from again? Yet she manages to invoke very specific details: isolated patio chairs, abandoned zoos, lean cats roaming the streets.

I think it’s the use of these details that makes The Tiger’s Wife‘s magic realism a far more lucid affair than, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These are real people, butchers and doctors, who come across lonely tigers and deathless men – all of which make just as much sense as the random acts of violence around them.

Much has been made of Obreht’s age. I recommended the book to a coworker, adding, “And she’s my age! Makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.” My coworker wisely responded, “But she grew up in Yugoslavia. I’d say she’s lived several lives already.” And it’s true  that her storytelling is so confident, so poised that I keep wanting to use book jacket words like “luminous” and “candescent.” Really a remarkable book for anyone’s career. Highly recommended.

Want more?

Obreht was the youngest on the New Yorker’s 20 Under Forty. Here’s a PBS interview with her.

 

Bossypants


Tina Fey Bossypants 2011 Shankbone

Bossypants

Tina Fey has a book! Tina Fey has a book! There are now new ways for us to love and admire Tina Fey!

The Saturday Night Live former writer and Weekend Update host, screenwriter of Mean Girls, and producer/star of 30 Rock is beloved. So beloved that the first thing that Google suggests when I type “girl crush ti” is “girl crush tina fey”!

Bossypants is her first book, and it’s a very readable blend of personal memoir-showbiz chronicles. The tone is self-deprecating and clear. Fey manages to balance heralding her nerdy past (mid-20s virgindom and decades of awkward hair cuts, pictures included) while still withholding some of her more recent personal impressions.

She tells an anecdote about an interview in the Sarah Palin news cycle where she exclaimed, off-handly, that she’d leave Earth if Palin were elected. This, of course, was picked up as the lead on the article. Fey, daughter to two Republicans, is conscious of both her unexpected political heft due to a resemblance to a vice-presidential candidate, as well as the dangers that entering the vitriolic political realm can bring. I bet she’s never received hate mail from the sandwich-loving Liz Lemon on 30 Rock.

The best bits are the stories that, while told in a pretty matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental manner, illuminate much about the treatment of women in comedy. Amy Poehler, in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live, finished up a joke in a pretty vulgar manner. As Fey writes,

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it!”
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eys for a second, and wheeled around for a second. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

Fallon comes off as a bit naif and privileged, and I discover I still have things to add to my “Amy Poehler is my hero” list.

Fey also writes about Photoshop (pro!), honeymoon cruises (con!), and working motherhood (impossible to balance!). Fey just announced that she’s pregnant with her second child, so the decision that has plagued her during the writing of this book has been answered. And more power to her, a woman who’s done a lot for comedy, politics, and recognition of awesomeness in women. I just wish that the book gave us more, instead of a tangible feeling of holding back.

But if you have an opinion, please feel free to offer to to me through the gap in the door of a public restroom. Everyone else does.

Want more?

Classic Palin (Fey)/Clinton (Poehler) sketch from SNL. It may have been three years since you’ve watched it.

American Gods

By Jhack via Flickr

I’ve been way into myth lately. From retellings, to reading the tales themselves via Edith Hamilton, to picking up literary criticism about the trickster figure, it’s been an unofficial theme of this winter.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, therefore came into my life at the perfect time. It tells of the gods of the Old World, Odin and Anansi and the Queen of Sheba, and imagines them in American of today. They live among nonbelievers, and exist by their wits and godly gifts.

Gaiman has kind of crept up on me. I dug the Sandman graphic series, Coraline made my skin itch with creepiness, and my preadolescent love of fantasy means Stardust holds a special place in my heart. But American Gods was the first time I appreciated his writing, not just his storytelling.

When you create a world of fantasy, it’s important to keep your reader grounded. These gods crave food, sex and cigarettes. And now they must face the New World gods of media and internet and cities, who don’t require worshippers because they control the hearts and minds of their viewers without any effort.

The main human character, Shadow, is not a hero in the mythic sense, but his story adds an earthiness to the otherworldly tone of the story. The flashbacks serve as reminders of the potpourri of beliefs that came to America, from Ireland and Sweden and Africa. It’s an epic, sweeping book that covers much of the United States as a battle looms imminently between the fading guard and the new gods, and a perfect coda to my mini-obsession.

Want more?
This website looks like it was made in 1996, but has some great stories arranged by theme.
And this photo of Gaiman’s library makes me drool.