Guest Reviews

Guest Review: Blood, Bones, and Butter

A while back a very nice CR reader named Susan Kennedy emailed me and asked if I ever planned to review the book Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton. She had just finished and loved it, and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Blood I was touched by her very nice email, so it broke my heart to tell her I had indeed started the book, read maybe a chapter, but had gotten bored and decided I wouldn't be finishing (or reviewing) it. But then we had a great idea: she'd read the book, and I wondered why she'd liked it. So why not have this conversation on the blog? She graciously acquiesced, so below you'll see my questions about the book (in bold) and her answers.

1. In a sentence or two, could you summarize what this book was about?

A chef grows up in kitchens. She learns about life from her French mother, her work experience in varied kitchens in NYC and beyond, and finally with the opening of her own restaurant.

2. What did you like about it?

I liked the vivid and almost fantastical storytelling.  I could smell and hear and taste things she described with humor and honesty.  I listened to the story as an audio book so perhaps this kept my attention better as Gabrielle read the story herself. I particularly enjoyed her account of the writing group in grad school and the Italy stories.  I hated the abrupt ending – seems like she holds something back for another book.

3. Do you typically seek out "foodie" books, or how did you find this title?

I spotted it on a NY Times bestseller list and gave it a try.  I read foodie books if an expose label fits.  As a home cook, I tend to read more recipes than foodie lit.  Let’s see.  Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential cracked my Top Ten list.  Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma educated me.  Foodie books like Julie and Julia that are more fluffy do not interest me much.  Anything that can be described as “slice of life” gets a chance.

4. Would you recommend it to other readers or book groups? Why or why not?

I recommend it for a book club.  It takes you on a tour of various kitchen environments and the lifestyle that group showcases.  It offers many topics to discuss like what is marriage/motherhood/success to the author?  She leaves a few major points unanswered.  For example, how does a lesbian in the 21st century NYC marry a straight man?  She breezes over her relationship with her father and siblings.  Maybe she left them out for the sake of the kitchen theme or perhaps privacy.

5. What are you reading now?

Behind the Palace Doors.  It’s about the British royals from Henry VIII forward.  I tend to be in more than one book at a time.  I am halfway through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which had to go back to the library as it was overdue.  Naturally it is a popular book here in Baltimore.

Many, many thanks to reader Susan Kennedy, and her willingness to share her thoughts on this book. Now, I've got to go get the British royals one she just referenced.

Methland: Guest review, and other assorted thoughts.

Today I'm very pleased to offer a guest review of Nick Reding's Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by my friend Robert Brown. This is partly because I am lazy today, and I'm really not sure what to say about this book. But it is primarily because Robert has written a better review than I ever could. Somebody please give Robert a job reviewing books, would you? I have his contact information. Here goes:


"Meth is a chemical developed a century ago, and with a long history of acceptable use, in the US and around the world. It makes one a kind of invincible robot laborer. Tough times and narrowing options in the rural midwest US opened the door for the explosion of meth onto the national scene, laying waste to the traditional values of the region.

Reding follows the trail of meth's slow, steady spread throughout the country, interviewing politicians, scientists, federal agents, police, and a meth-head or two to get at the truth. What he uncovers is disturbing and bleak. What he attempts to do is to use meth as a tool for understanding the plight of the individual during our current globalized society. Most of the book is given to analysis of the agricultural upheavals of the last quarter century and the decline of organized labor in a distributed labor market. Reding also covers the effects of the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying of the US congress, and courageously opens the immigration can of worms. This gives the book a larger frame, but compromises its depth.

I bought this book because I've been wondering about what meth has been up to the last year or so. I haven't heard much about it, and that makes me nervous. I remember when speed was just a joke, and I hoped for a clearer understanding of how uppers became crank. I now have that understanding, and I'm not sure I'm better off with it.

Methland is not a light read, nor an uplifting one. Reding tries to end on a high note, stressing the small-scale success of the mayor of the town of Oelwein Iowa and his allies in rehabilitating both the material circumstances of the town, and the collective spirit of the townspeople. He shows how one meth addict is trying against his own will to be a good father and stay clean.

The overwhelming feeling engendered by the book, however, is one of weary resignation. Meth is here, and it isn't going away, and the people who now control the supply and delivery of the drug are unpleasant. Things are probably going to get worse: third-world worse.

Part of the reason Reding's attempt to ameliorate the dread his investigation induces fails is that he doesn't believe it himself. His interpretation of events speaks volumes about his own convictions regarding the future, and I happen to find his interpretation and his convictions convincing. The other reason is because Reding's research seems spotty, or perhaps most of his research didn't find its way into the book. He didn't dig as hard as he could have, perhaps. Where are the interviews with a variety of addicts, or regular citizens? How does meth affect the "heartland?" What is the "heartland?" Who are all these people? Reding provides a few perspectives, but not a wide enough spectrum to make an impression.

Methland is an informative book, but it is too brief and too shallow a study to provide anything definitive or lasting. The people we meet are interesting, but we don't meet enough people. The anecdotes and interviews and studies are compelling, and the book is full of insight, some of it all too plausible. But it seems haphazardly organized, and rushed from initial material through final draft. Still, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand how uppers became crank."

Thank you, Robert. Actually, reading his review made me re-evaluate this book; more on that tomorrow.