books

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!

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.

The Bloody Chamber

She falls for an animal. Pretty creepy when you actually think about it.

Have you ever read original versions of Little Red Riding Hood or the Little Mermaid? Depressing, twisted stuff, full of deep symbolism and quite grown-up themes. Most of the stories, Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm alike, got cleaned up considerably for your bedtime version.

But there’s been a recent trend of re-tellings of these tales for an adult audience. The Myths (published by Grove Atlantic in the US) has recruited superstar authors including Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Ali Smith to re-imagine both classic and little-known folk tales. I’m excited to read a 2010 collection edited by Kate Bernheimer called My mother she killed me, my father he ate me which includes forty riffs on traditional tales.

The real allure in these updated versions of childhood classics is the experience of uncovering the stories’ dysfunction, repression and eroticism. Angela Carter, in her 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, peels back layers of meaning on these stories. In her words, the collection was “to extract the latent content from the original stories.”

Carter’s best story I think is the first one – a version of the Bluebeard myth called “The Bloody Chamber.” In it, an innocent young pianist meets and marries a phenomenally rich man, who then takes her to his magnificent estate. She is given control of the entire castle, except for one room. Even as the reader expects every turn, the narrator’s slow realization of her predicament makes the story sing again.

“The Lady on the House of Love” is apparently based on a radio play called “Vampirella,” but the Gothic decay is familiar to any horror fan. A young woman lives in a decaying castle in Romania, keeping herself alive by feeding on the blood of the occasional male houseguest. A young, virginal Englishman on a bike tour stops by, and manages to vanquish her festering existence through his human vitality.

It’s a slim collection, but each tale fulfills a treacherous balance between the familiar and the creepy. I’ll give it my highest honor, which is the desire to actually own the book so I can come back to it, again and again.

Want more? Check out this great 1986 interview with Angela Carter (via Isak).

Freedom

Freedom is what I’d call a meat and potatoes novel. It’s the story of a family. It’s a linear narrative. It follows traditional story arcs and takes care to develop its characters. But it does all of this in such an elevated way that you’d think your mom collaborated with a Michelin chef to prepare your favorite childhood meal: you know you’re experiencing something unique, but it also tastes like home.

 

The best writing illuminates sentiments that you have felt, but articulates them with such clarity that you pump your fist in the air when you recognize your self on the page, and think, “Yes! This is exactly what I too would say if I was clever enough.” Like:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for her choices and all her freedom was more miserable (181).

Freedom is the story of a marriage, a family, the new upper-middle class liberal America, growing old in the aughts, growing up in general. Specifically it’s the story of Walter and Patti, two college sweethearts who marry and settle down as part of the early gentrifier wave in St. Paul, Minneapolis.

I know I’m lavishing praise here, but it really is a novel to reckoned with. The sentences are crisp, the story moves with purpose, and the characters are real to any reader, not just those who personify their demographics. It’s also an angry book, raging against the state of the world as well as how today’s young people choose to engage with it:

The nation was fighting ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids in the mold of the banana-bread-baking Sarah, with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement–to what? To emotion (369).

You know that term “actor’s actor?” This book is like a novel’s novel. It’s got all of the strength and wisdom of the classics with all the potent immediacy of a newspaper.

 

I give it up, everyone in 2010! You were right!!
(In my defense, I had was #318 on the request list for the SF Library so that is why it took me so long.)

Seven Gothic Tales

I’ve been on a bit of an Isak Dinesen kick lately. It started when I rented Out of Africa, then picked up the book. She’s become one of my historical crushes (in good company with Frida Kahlo and Katharine Hepburn), and I’m itching to read her biography, as she had the most dramatic life: photographed by Richard Avedon (see picture), written about by Truman Capote, and played by Meryl Streep.

Born in 1885 to a wealthy family in Denmark, she married and became the Countess Karen von Blixen (Isak Dinesen is her pen name – in Hebrew, “Isak” means “the one who laughs”). She and her husband moved to Kenya, where they ran a coffee plantation. It was not the happiest of marriages, and they divorced in the mid 1920s when she got infected with syphilis from her husband. She then returned to Denmark and lived on her family estate, writing and maintaining her image as an aristocratic, enigmatic lady of letters.

Seven Gothic Tales was written in 1934 (in the U.S.). She wrote her books in both Danish and English, and I would be hard pressed to peg her as a non-native speaker. The Tales hearken back to a time when the act of story-telling was a noble and respected art. Each character in the Tales brings has at least one story to tell, leaving the reader feel all the richer as you jump for Denmark to Italy to Africa.

I wouldn’t say that the Tales are Gothic in temperament, but rather in their setting, both spooky and off-putting. Beautiful women perform furious ballets in the dead of night. Monkeys hold the souls of elderly abbesses by their prickly little claws. My nighttime dreams became more vibrant while I was reading this book. The Tales highlights the belief that stories and myths are magic, that they both take us away from the everyday and are ingrained within it. I highly recommend them for reading by the fire as these winter nights drag on.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from a Tale called “The Monkey”:

“Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.”

Book review: Eating the Dinosaur

The library gods must have a curriculum for me! Shortly following the fascinating Reality Hunger, I picked up Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur.

Klosterman has made a very successful career based on his ability to analyze pop culture and sports and infuse both with meaning and historical context. Why obsess over Britney Spears? Because she was a sixteen-year-old blonde, virginal vessel where we whispered our hopes and dreams, and then punished her when she failed us. Klosterman articulates the absurdity of celebrity worship and provides deeper meaning for our cultural products in an accessible, yet undeniably clever, way. You wish Klosterman could write the script for your late night, boozey arguments on why Twitter represents the inevitable feminization of the internet. Or something. (Plus, his essay on the Sims always makes me giggle).

Now on his sixth book, Klosterman has landed the kind of success that has taken him from one more nerdy journalist, I Love the 80s commentator to being THE most famous and successful nerdy journalist type. In a nutshell, critics are experts on criticizing. Klosterman has moved from acting as critic to being criticized, from writing about people and trends to being written about.

The first essay of the book attempts to work through this transition by examining the rationale of interviewing. Klosterman interviews Ira Glass, host of This American Life, on the pratfalls of interviewing someone who interviews for a living. He interviews Errol Morris, documentarian, on the limitations of interviewing. Throughout the piece, there is a distinct sense of unease. Klosterman admits to lying in interviews, to not seeing the point of doing an interview for a Finnish publication when his work isn’t even translated into that language. Essentially, he undermines the Klosterman of 10 years ago, who made his name conducing the very interviews his present-day self loathes. It’s not a very easy place to be in, resenting the role that gave him his career, and Klosterman is self-aware enough not to bite the hand that created the monster (holy mixed metaphor!).

Reading Eating the Dinosaur so closely after Reality Hunger was an interesting exercise. Klosterman uses many of the same techniques Shields does (quotations from other sources, flipping from theory to personal history) in order to address a very narrow problem in his reality, instead of Shields’ admittedly broad analysis of our treatment of representations of reality. As he writes on the back jacket of the book,

Q: Is there a larger theme?

A: Oh, something about reality. “What is reality,” maybe? No, that’s not it. Not exactly. I get the sense that most of the core questions dwell on the way media perception constructs a fake reality that ends up becoming more meaningful than whatever actually happened.

As a teenager, I used to dream of someday having a celebrity profile written about me. Not to be famous, but because I thought the interview process would be a bit like therapy, and that the profile would be like a written up analysis of ME. Reading it, I would discover my hidden tics, depths and fascinations. How much I would learn!

Today, I would feel so uncomfortable having my brain picked by someone else who then produces a piece that attempts to “decipher” me. So as solipsistic as Klosterman’s problem is, it’s definitely the most compelling piece in the book. The rest of the essays are clever and well-paced, but can’t compare to that first essay, thinking about how odd it must be to suddenly have your study of celebrity refracted back at you, realizing that, all this time, you were only illuminating aspects of yourself, rather than anyone else.