New York

Calvin Trillin.

TrillinI was so, so excited to get Calvin Trillin's new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, at the library.

But somehow when I got it home it just wasn't what I was expecting. It's a collection of Trillin's humorous pieces from the many places where he's been published: The New Yorker, The Nation, in books, etc. It's organized thematically; about five to seven pieces in chapters with such headings as "Biographically Speaking," "High Society and Just Plain Rich People," "Life Among the Literati," "Twenty Years of Pols--One Poem Each," etc. Because they're written by Calvin Trillin, all the pieces are funny. That wasn't the problem. I liked this bit, in which he suggests one of his wife Alice's economic suggestions:

"The true Alice Tax would probably inspire what the medical profession sometimes calls 'harumph palpitations' in those senators who used the word 'confiscatory' to describe a surcharge that would have brought the highest possible tax on incomes over a million dollars a year to 41 percent. To state the provisions of the Alice Tax simply, which is the only way Alice allows them to be stated, it calls for this: After a certain level of income, the government would simply take everything. When Alice says confiscatory, she means confiscatory...

Alice believes that at a certain point an annual income is simply more than anybody could possibly need for even a lavish style of living. She is willing to discuss what that point is. In her more flexible moments, she is even willing to listen to arguments about which side of the line a style of living that included, say, a large oceangoing boat should fall on. But she insists that there is such a thing as enough--a point of view that separates her from the United States Senate." (From 1990; pp. 109-110.)

The individual pieces were good, but for some reason I found the thematic ordering somewhat hard to follow. It threw me to learn that many of the pieces were published in the eighties or early nineties, and were sometimes about topics I just wasn't very familiar with. I think I would have preferred it in chronological order, so I could get a feeling for the context; or if the pieces' dates had been listed at their start so I knew "when" I was.

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.

Just Kids, part 2.

Yesterday I was so busy talking about my crush on Patti Smith, developed after reading her memoir Just Kids, that I didn't even get to talk about the love story/friendship at the heart of the book; that is, her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The story(ies) of how they met indicate, from the start, the sort of fated friendship they were bound to share (as well as illustrating what a small town late-1960s New York City seemed to be). When Smith first moved to New York City, with no money,* she went in search of some friends of hers who attended the Pratt Institute for art, but when she arrived at their address, she found they had moved. Instead she met someone else who would become hugely influential to her: Mapplethorpe.

"I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled." (p. 25.)

A bit later, after Smith found a job in Brentano's (where they also must have sold crafts and jewelry), that same boy came in and used a credit slip (he had a job at a different Brentano's) to buy Smith's favorite necklace on display. And not long after that, when Smith was on a date with a bookstore customer whose motives she didn't trust, she happened to see Mapplethorpe nearby and used him to make good her escape:

"It was as if a small portal of future opened, and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace, like an answer to a teenage prayer. I immediately recognized his slightly bowlegged gait and his tousled curls. He was dressed in dungarees and a sheepskin vest. Around his neck hung strands of beaded necklaces, a hippie shepherd boy. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

'Hello, do you remember me?'

'Of course,' he smiled.

'I need help,' I blurted. 'Will you pretend you're my boyfriend?'

'Sure,' he said, as if he wasn't surprised by my sudden appearance..." (p. 38.)

I'm sorry, but that, my friends, is a relationship that was meant to be. Three chance encounters across Brooklyn and Manhattan? Of course, their entire love affair doesn't stay that idyllic. But you've got to read this book: what these two did for art, the people they met (particularly while living at the Chelsea Hotel), the way they loved each other--take your pick. It felt like about four great books in one.

*Have I said how much I love Patti Smith? Check out this sense of adventure: "At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me." (p. 25.)

Not your typical love story.

I'll say this for memoirs: when I find a good one, there's really no nonfiction genre I enjoy more.

Kids Last week I decided that it was time for me to read Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their lives together in late 1960s and early 1970s New York City. Just to be clear: I don't think I've ever heard a Patti Smith song*, and I really didn't know anything about Robert Mapplethorpe except that he was a famous and controversial photographer (actually, to be honest, all I really had was a sort of fuzzy recollection that he photographed a lot of nudes). I picked this one up simply because it won the National Book Award and showed up on nearly every "best of 2010" list, and I always like to keep an eye on what nonfiction titles are winning awards and showing up on lists.

I loved it. I really, really loved it. It didn't matter if I read it for five minutes or half an hour; it never failed to transport me to a completely different time and place. (And, as a girl who believes in safety first, and is not a drug user in any way, I can't say that 1970s New York City is a place I ever thought I'd want to be transported TO.) I felt like I was reading about eight books in one: a coming-of-age story; a vignette about New York City; a digression on the purposes of art; and a sweeping but bittersweet love story. Every day I would read in it, and every night at supper I would bore Mr. CR with stories from it.

A large part of the appeal of this memoir was, as it so often is with memoirs, character (and, by extension, voice). I found myself just really loving Patti Smith. Early on there is an interlude, before she goes to New York, when she becomes pregnant at age 19:

"When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble. In 1966, at summer's end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I and we conceived instantaneously. I consulted a doctor who doubted my concern, waving me off with a somewhat bemused lecture on the female cycle. But as the weeks passed, I knew that I was carrying a child..."

She continues, explaining how she "relieved the boy of his responsibility," and how she listened to her parents and family in the kitchen, knowing she would have to tell them she was pregnant. And then:

"It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would never return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen." (p. 18.)

She had the baby and gave it up for adoption, and felt she had done the right thing, but even after she went to NYC and met Mapplethorpe, the experience stayed with her:

"Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhuasted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie." (p. 42.)

I don't know why those bits appealed to me so; they just made me really, really like Patti Smith. I even liked Mapplethorpe, by extension, for calling her Soakie (affectionately).

More tomorrow on this book, whether you want to hear more about it or not.

*I've heard songs written by Patti Smith, especially "Because the Night." Unfortunately, it's one of my least favorite songs ever, as Natalie Merchant did a cover of it that was, to put it lightly, OVERPLAYED on the radio. (The years I lived with my brother, a certified Natalie Merchant fanatic, and he would play her CDs every morning, also did not make me feel more kindly towards Ms. Merchant.)

How convenient is a convenience store without smokes?

The second book about retail/service last week was Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.

Korean This one got a lot of pre-publication buzz, and a lot of good reviews, so I thought, hey, why not? Sounds good. A guy (who happens to be an editor at the Paris Review) agrees to help purchase a convenience store with his wife in New York City that they can give to her hard-working Korean parents, in order to "pay them back" for all the sacrifices they made immigrating to America. They'll help work in the store, too, the whole family will make it a success, they'll get their investment back, and they'll move out of his wife's parents' house and start a family of their own.

SPOILER ALERT: This is not how things work out.

Instead, the convenience store/deli nearly does kill them, starting with Howe's redoubtable mother-in-law. Howe weaves a tale of mishaps and bad luck, and if the stress from running a convenience store in Brooklyn (early on his mother-in-law Kay gives up the dream of owning a fancier deli, with a cash-cow lunchtime buffet steam table, in Manhattan*) isn't bad enough, he also witnesses the end of an era at The Paris Review as he and his colleagues try valiantly to make it more "professional" without stepping on George Plimpton's toes (and especially so in his absence, after his death).

And he does weave a fairly good tale. I started it at night, and then stayed up a bit later than usual to read it (fun in itself, as it's been a while since I've found something, anything, I really wanted to KEEP reading) and ended up blowing through 250 pages, so it's an easy read. And I really felt for him, as I can't imagine trying to serve the types of people he describes serving. It was, in its own way, an interesting look at a type of store I've (mercifully) never had to work in.

But this was another nonfiction book in which topics were raised and then never resolved. There is the incident, for example, where, when the deli/store is already struggling, Howe is seduced by a fancy groceries catalog into buying more than a thousand dollars' worth of upscale foodstuffs. There's some reference to his wife asking him if he placed an order that large, but that's pretty much all that's ever said about it. Now, me, when I hear about $1500 in fancy groceries bought for a convenience store which is mainly known for its sale of beers and lottery tickets, I kind of want to know what happened to those groceries. Did they sell? How fancy were they? Did his wife and mother-in-law ever chew him out for spending so much money when they were already hard up? 

At another point the family is faced with losing their license to sell cigarettes (for one violation for selling cigarettes to someone underage), so they voluntarily stop selling them. I ask you: what kind of convenience store owner thinks they're going to be able to keep the business going without selling cigarettes?

So there you have it: two books on retail/service, and neither of them fantastic reads. I'll have to give up on the subject for a while and wait for something better to come along.

*Howe's writing about the steam table and his mother-in-law is some of the most fun writing in the whole book, and it comes on pages 3-4: "My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria--the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance--pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money..." What's really sad is how much that paragraph makes me want to take another trip to New York City.

Here's an attention-grabbing title: Fist Stick Knife Gun

Gun The book Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada, has been sitting on my table for weeks now. I can't figure out what I want to say about it.

I can't remember how I originally found the book, but I think I saw the title and felt that I had to read it. (I abhor violence and yet can't stop reading about it.) If you've never heard of him, Geoffrey Canada is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and you may remember him from this American Express Members Project spot:

The book is a memoir, and short: 181 pages, so it can be read fairly quickly. Canada describes his childhood growing up in the Bronx, and how he learned early on the neighborhood codes of how and when to fight, how to gain a rep so he didn't have to fight, and how quickly things can spiral out of control once violence is introduced. Thinking of children across America, across decades, having to learn these lessons made me very, very sad.* This description of what happened before the fight really got to me, for some reason:

"During the time I was sizing up my situation I made a serious error. I showed on my face what was going on in my head. My fear and my confusion were obvious to anyone paying attention. This, I would later learn, was a rookie mistake and could have deadly consequences on the streets." (p. 20.)

It's a pretty shitty world where a kid can't let what he's feeling show on his face without having the fear that he'll get the shit kicked out of him.

About half of this book is Canada's coming-of-age memoir, and the other half is more about his experiences with the Harlem Children's Zone and his opinions about what is going on in today's inner cities (and he is not shy about saying that everything on the streets changed and became exponentially more violent as handguns became ever more available).

Do consider reading it. Oddly enough, it's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. I salute this guy and believe more firmly than ever that people like him are much more worthy of attention and charitable giving than any asshole politicians.

*Not least because I know if I'd grown up in these surroundings I'd have been toast--I cried easily as a kid, no matter how much I fought it.

Being Ariel Leve.

About a third of the way through Ariel Leve's essay collection It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me, I still couldn't decide if I was liking it or not. At first I thought it was a little, well, a little too over-the-top "woe is me." (I just couldn't get myself to feel too bad for a woman who splits her time between New York City and London, and who is making a living as a writer.)

Leve But somewhere in the middle of her essays she started to charm me. Leve is a journalist and writes for The Sunday Times Magazine, The Guardian, and other publications, so I'm not sure if these are pieces from a column or what; here, they're organized into thematic sections like "Getting through the Day," "Personality Defects," "Health Concerns," and "Not a Fan." They're deceptively easy--she'll take you along on a perfectly valid rant for a couple of pages, and then she'll throw in a last zinger of a paragraph that just wins you over. By the time I was done with the book I was sorry it was over.

I didn't have bookmarks handy where I was reading this one (an aside, for no reason: would it ever be acceptable to have a bookshelf in the bathroom? Or does that strike people as unhygienic?), so I'm just flipping through now and will share a couple of her asides--a lot of which made me feel very close to her. Consider:

On the week between Christmas and New Year's: "No-one expects any work to get done, the streets are empty, the pressure is off. Changing out of my pyjamas feels like an accomplishment." (p. 101.)

On going out: "Getting older has rewards. Behaviour that was once unacceptable is becoming what's expected. For instance, when I was twenty-five and wanted to stay home on a Saturday night, everyone thought I was a loser. My friends would nag me to join them: 'C'mon, you're young. Live it up!' I tried to explain I was barely interested in living. What makes them think I'd be interested in living it up?" (p. 107.)

Here's the truest thing I've read in a long time: "People say you live and learn, but sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes you just live. And keep going. Or what you do learn you forget." (p. 159.)

And here was something on low-maintenance and high-maintenance women that someone should have shared with Mr. CR before we got hitched: "A low-maintenance groomer with a high-maintenance personality is not considered a catch." (p. 252.)

I could go on, but you get my point. Actually, the back-cover* copy of this one gives a good clue to its contents. Does this make you laugh (after inwardly cringing, because it's what you do to?): "If someone tells her everything will be okay, she asks: How do you know?'" It made me laugh. That's what I ALWAYS think first when someone tells me everything will be okay.

*Speaking of the cover, you can't tell in the horrible graphic I've used, but in the stock photo on the cover of this one the person covering their head with a pillow is wearing a ring on their left ring finger, which bothered me, as Leve is clearly not married. Yes, I am demanding about my book covers. Find a different stock photo!

Award-winning history in my book.

I really, really enjoyed Alice Sparberg Alexiou's history title The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It.

Flatiron Most people are familiar with the Flatiron Building in New York City, even if they've never been there, because it is nearly as iconic as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. It's been widely photographed and painted, largely because of its unique triangular shape and old-world styling. In this history of the building, Alexiou* offers a broad architectural and social history tale, describing the business of Harry Black, the man who contracted to have it built (and who wanted it named the Fuller Building, after his company, but that name never stuck), the construction of the building itself, and the broader social and architectural history of New York City. Consider:

 "People gasped at the sight of the skyscrapers. They waited for them to collapse, but none did. Critics denounced what they considered the sheer ugliness of the new buildings. There was no possible way, they shouted, for skyscrapers to be made beautiful." (p. 13.)

I really enjoyed the tidbits like that; they helped me feel the context of the times. Imagine thinking, now, that skyscrapers might fall down.

There's nothing fancy here, but Alexiou does a great job of mixing up personal stories with architectural and engineering details; it is simply a very readable history on an interesting subject. Perhaps its subject isn't "big" enough, but this is the type of history book I'd like to see win a few more awards. I tend to think of this type of book as good journeyman nonfiction--a subject that hasn't been done to death, good straightforward prose, strong storytelling but not necessarily story-driven or breathlessly told, good basic research, endnotes and indexing. In short: two thumbs up, and definitely a book you'll want to read if you're interested in New York City, architecture, or early twentieth-century American business and social history.

*Alexiou is also the granddaughter of a man who once owned the Flatiron (along with several others), giving this narrative a nice personal touch as well. (And it looks like she's also written a biography of Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, which I will have to look into.)

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wrestling with Moses

One of the best books I read last year was Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Moses I know I said enough with the heavy nonfiction reads, but I don't think this one really qualifies as "heavy." It's serious, but for one thing, it's not a really long book. And even though it is a serious historical story, it's also a very personality-driven and lively one.

In it, author Anthony Flint describes how Jane Jacobs (author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I still desperately want to read), a New York City resident and budding urban activist, took on Robert Moses, the New York city planner/builder who dreamed of dropping huge highways right through neighborhoody parts of Manhattan, in the 1950s and 60s. It's a fabulous book, and tells the story from both the urban design and personal activism points of view. I finished this one with a true appreciation for yet another feisty lady--Jane Jacobs--and the rare feeling that individuals can (or at least they were successful once) in taking on unnecessary "progress." Even if you can't think of anyone to buy this book for, consider gifting it to yourself.

So, who might like this book?

Anyone with an interest in or love for New York City.

Anyone with an interest in urban design or architecture.

Readers who enjoy character-driven histories.

Feminist readers who will find a lot to like in feisty (and very smart) lady Jane Jacobs.

Has Anthony Bourdain jumped the shark?*

This is a question it hurts me to ask.

Bourdain I love Anthony Bourdain, and was very excited to read his new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. So it was very disappointing to find that, while I read the whole thing, very few of its chapters really did anything for me, and I got the distinct feeling in the earliest chapters in the book that Bourdain has started to phone it in in order to keep publishing new collections (to do which, I'm sure, his publisher is always pushing).

My apathy started with the prologue, in which he describes a group of food notables and a special meal in which they were invited to partake. Now, Bourdain has never been one to mince words, or his love of eating animal flesh. So, if you're a bit squirrelly about delicacies like little birds that are meant to be eaten bones and all, you may want to skip the first chapter. I'm just sayin'. I am emphatically not a vegetarian (let's put it this way: I have eaten cow the same day I have helped butcher it) and it was a little much for me. In subsequent chapters he just seems to be trying too hard to maintain the hard-living facade, sharing stories from when he visited the Caribbean with a mentally unstable rich woman and holding forth on what luminaries in the food world he thinks are heroes and villains.

Which is not to say there's not any good material here. As always, he's at his best when describing food and how people prepare food. The absolute best piece in the whole thing--and it's toward the end, wait for it--is a chapter describing how one of the employees of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City cleans and prepares the restaurant's daily fish portions. It's fascinating, and beautifully written:

"...every one who passes by and sees me standing there with a notebook in hand has to linger for a second, to determine if I've gotten it yet, how phenomenally, amazingly, supernaturally fucking good Justo Thomas is at doing this job. They appreciate this better than I ever could, because when Justo goes on vacation, it will take three of them to cut the same amount of fish that Justo, alone, will scale, gut, clean, and portion in four to five hours...**" (p. 237.)


"'This knife only for monkfish,' says Justo, producing a long blade that might once have been a standard chef's knife but which has been, over the years, ground down into a thin, serpentine, almost double-teardrop edge. Once the monkfish meat is cut away from the bone, one loin at a time, he grabs the tail ends and runs the flexible blade down the body, pulling skin away. With a strange, flicking motion, he shaves off any pink or red." (p. 244.)

Frankly, that chapter made the whole book worth it. I'll still read whatever Bourdain writes, but I'll be happier if he goes back to describing, primarily, the kitchens and the food he loves so much.

*For the record, I thought of this phrase and title before Bourdain used it describing the work of another chef on p. 153. Weird coincidence.

**Normally italics bug me, but Bourdain doesn't use them often, and I like the emphasis they give here.

How does that keep happening?

Waking up a few times every night and not being able to get back to sleep is not doing much for my daytime productivity, but it is doing wonders for my reading track record. Several times this week I have caught myself not particularly enjoying books, but finishing them nonetheless. There must be something about the wee small hours that make them very efficient reading times.

Crosley The book I started and finished in the dark this week was Sloane Crosley's essay collection How Did You Get This Number. I read Crosley's first essay collection, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, and although it got raves from every single critic there is, it didn't do a whole lot for me. So I'm not sure why I got this next volume, but there you have it. And again, there's either something about Crosley's subjects or writing that just doesn't light me on fire.

But yet...I read the whole thing. And in the last essay I got a little bit of Crosley's appeal: she's got the "essay twist" skill (this is what I call it when an essay takes a turn from its subject matter to its deeper meaning, usually aided and abetted by some sentences that take my breath away). In "Off the Back of a Truck," she combines the topics of a love affair gone wrong with her acquaintance with a furniture store employee who helped her get some questionable deals on merchandise. Sounds simple, but it's one of those essays where you know a lot more is going on than you're appreciating. I hope I'm not giving too much away, but in the end she gives up her furniture deals and her sadness over the failed relationship:

"Time passed, and I found myself wandering into Out of Your League [the store in question]--where I was apparently wearing an outfit that indicated I should be followed around like a fourteen-year-old shoplifter...I went over to the carpet wheel and spun, but I couldn't find one to fall in love with. I think I had just outgrown my fascination with the store in general. A thin, older saleslady in pearls lowered her glasses and asked me if she could help me with anything. But I could tell she didn't mean it.

'I think I'm set.' I waved, repeatedly pressing the button for the ground floor while she pretended not to judge me.*

What can you do? Time grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you forward. You get over it, of course. Everyone was right about that. One mathematically insignificant day, you stop hoping for happiness and become actually happy. Okay, on occasion, you do worry about yourself. You worry about what this experience has tapped into..." (pp. 270-271.)

There's more, in a totally fabulous conclusion, but I don't want to ruin it in case you read it. I just love the "time grabs you by the scruff" bit, because that's exactly what it does. Damn talented essayists, even when they're not my favorite essayists.

*I must always look pretty low-rent because this is how I usually get treated in stores too. Oh well. I can live with it.

She can really write, I'll give her that.

I did not like Meghan Daum's Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House as much as I liked her essay collection My Misspent Youth (remember? "Carpet is Mungers.").

Daum This is not to say that I didn't like it. I did read the whole thing, and enjoyed parts of it immensely. I think Daum really knows her way around nonfiction prose. The whole book is nothing but a dissertation on Daum's fascination with her own living arrangements: her childhood home, her desire to live in New York City (a certain kind of apartment/place in NYC, mind you), her move to Nebraska, her living situations there, and her eventual search (at the height of the real estate boom) for the perfect house in Los Angeles.

Her descriptive powers are at their height when she describes the house she ended up buying in L.A. (for $450,000), especially when she discusses its "fixer-upper" qualities:

"And then there was the garage. I realize that this is the kind of statement that makes people think women are not equipped to own property other than full-service condos, but I'll just come out and say it: I didn't really look at the garage right away because I was afraid to. But let's understand something: many a grown man was also afraid of this structure (a weirdly endearing macho man who I know owns a gun refused to even approach it; another man told me he wouldn't go near it without a life insurance policy). What wusses, I thought, though undoubtedly they just thought I was a moron and a sucker...The property had been sold in as-is condition, not least of all because the garage, which was presumably built in 1928 or shortly thereafter, had been completely caved in for decades. Somewhere along the line, the slabs of broken concrete from the roof had even bisected a Volkswagen bus parked inside." (pp. 175-176.)

Interestingly, the parts of the book set in L.A. were my favorites (which surprised me, as I am not an L.A. fan). But mainly what wowed me about this book was hearing how Daum got by on a writer's salary and without health insurance until at least her mid-thirties (at least that's the way it sounded). I salute her. But I also don't think that's what I was supposed to take away from her book.

Not quite sure I liked it until I finished it.

I've never been a big Truman Capote fan, Audrey Hepburn is a movie actress I can largely take or leave, and I was completely bored throughout all of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's when I watched it a million years ago. So why exactly did I get Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Womanout of the library? I have no idea.

Fifth What's even weirder is that I read the whole book, and enjoyed it. It delivers exactly what its subtitle promises: an in-depth look at the making of the classic movie, from Capote's writing of the story on which it's based, through its screenplay development, casting, and filming. It didn't hurt that it was only about 200 pages long.

I would think any film buff would enjoy this book; likewise, anyone who's ever had any interest in Truman Capote or Audrey Hepburn might find a lot to like here. It's a nice look at film and social history, and it's very readable, broken up into workable chunks throughout each chapter. (I particularly enjoyed the bits about how Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to be cast in the lead, and how the screenwriter had to fight the studio/film censors on every teensy little risque item. It must have been a different world. 

The Great Fiction Reading Adventure of 2010: Part 5

And now for something completely different: historical fiction!

Now, normally, I'm almost perfectly ambivalent about historical fiction. When I chance across a great title in the genre, I tend to really like it, and even if I don't remember all the plot points, I can usually remember the tone and feeling of such books (a few examples: Jane Urquhart's superlative The Stone Carvers; Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus), which is a vast improvement over how poorly I remember other fiction titles that I read.* But the majority of historical fiction doesn't do much for me--it tends to be too long and too detailed.

Fierce So when I picked up Lauren Belfer's A Fierce Radiance, I was actually kind of pumped to read it, as I remembered reading and enjoying another historical novel of hers titled City of Light (about Niagara Falls). Imagine my disappointment, then, as I struggled through about 150 pages of this one and had to give it up.

The story's compelling enough; the main character is independent 1940s woman Claire Shipley, a freelance photographer with Life magazine who is assigned to cover an early story on advances using penicillin, the new wonder drug. Claire's interest in the treatment goes beyond the professional; her daughter died years previously of blood poisoning, one of the diseases that penicillin would become useful in treating. While photographing the patients and doctors involved, she falls in love with Dr. James Stanton, but his duty during World War II interrupts their love story.

There's actually much more to the novel than that--read the Powell's annotation if you're looking for the full version--but I had two problems with this book. One, I hit the obviously insurmountable (for me, at least) subject deal-breaker of World War II. Two, I thought the writing was a little phoned-in, which was a disappointment after her first novel. Consider:

"Even in the restaurant's half-light, she was more beautiful than he remembered, with a combination of wayward sexiness and demure elegance that he hadn't registered before. She was dressed simply, in tailored trousers and a close-fitting sweater. Without her ubiquitous cameras and equipment bags, she was more vulnerable and feminine than he recalled. He wanted to reach across the table and caress her hair. Actually he wanted to do much more than that--making love with her flashed through his mind--but he held back. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable by moving too close too fast. He was willing to wait for her." (p. 138.)

I don't know..."making love with her flashed through his mind"? Am I the only one juvenile enough around here to get a giggle out of that? Once I started giggling at what was supposed to be a serious story I  knew it was time to hang it up.

*Mr. CR is continually amazed at my amazing swiss-cheese memory. Nonfiction titles, film trailers of any kind, and BBC actor names are in my brain forever; novels I read yesterday and most conversations or events from last week are gone forever.

The great fiction reading adventure of 2010: Part 2.

I love, love, LOVE Anthony Bourdain's nonfiction. I loved him when I read his first foul-mouthed memoir Kitchen Confidential, and I loved him even more when I read his essay collection The Nasty Bits, in which he told the story of accepting some food award and telling a roomful of NYC foodie notables that none of them would have any food to eat or restaurant staffing to speak of without immigrants, illegal or otherwise. I can't wait to read his new collection, Medium Raw, although I haven't heard great things about it.

Bone I still remember browsing one day, long ago, in Barnes and Noble, and coming across a novel by Bourdain titled Bone in the Throat. Huh, I thought. He writes novels too! (It was actually published before Kitchen Confidential) And although that was years ago, I'd always vaguely thought about getting the book from the library. And now I finally got around to it!

It's a pretty standard mystery/mafia novel, in which Bourdain's main character Tommy is a sous chef who comes from a "connected" family, but who would rather cook than learn the family business. And he's almost out of it, too, until his uncle (more of a father figure, really, since Tommy's father "disappeared" when he was small) asks him for one small favor. Tommy is to let his uncle and two other men into the restaurant where he works, after hours, for what Tommy thinks will just be a little chat.

Some fairly graphic details of jobs you should NOT use your good kitchen knives for follow.

I wouldn't say this was a caper novel, or particularly light-hearted, but I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read, with a pretty satisfying ending and good characterization. And the descriptions of the food and cooking? Pure Bourdain, by which I mean, spectacular.

Today's fiction lesson: Like Bourdain's nonfiction? You'll probably like his novels as well.

Still looking for a book that grabs me.

I have been decidedly "meh" about a lot of nonfiction books lately. Sorry about that. I know that these types of experiences make for rather "meh" book blogging as well.*

Darling The latest entry in the Meh Files is Katharine Darling's Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School. Darling chronicles her stint at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, dishing on the experience as a whole, the chef professors, and her fellow students. She also includes a few personal memoirish details about her life and love affair (she gets engaged over the course of the story), and throws in a few recipes for good measure.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with the book, and I did read the whole thing, and the recipes do look good. But there was something about Darling's tone that didn't do a whole lot for me. Then again, I may just be biased by her author photo, which really bugged me, for some reason. If you can picture it, the tone of the book sounds a little bit like how she looks in that photo; ever so slightly a bit too over-confident for me. Consider:

"It was 8:00 a.m. sharp on our very first day of class, and as I walked into the large room that was dazzlingly bright with the glow of many overhead fluorescent lights bouncing off the stainless steel workstations, ovens, pots, pans, sinks, and even the tools of my classmates, I saw that Tucker [a classmate] had taken up a spot at the front of the room, closest to our chef-instructor's dark green marble-topped lecture station...And my parents thought I was too competitive. If I were competitive, I would have created a diversion and just snatched his spot when he was momentarily distracted. Okay, maybe I was a little bit competitive, but as it turned out, so was Tucker." (p. 18.)

The lady also doth protest too much--throughout she worries about her class standing and never, ever dreams that she deserved to be at the top of her class--and of course she graduates with the top honor. It reminded me a little bit of an old college roommate who used to throw herself on her bed in despair after tests, wailing that she had failed, but who would then tell me later she got something ridiculous like 110% (with extra credit).**

But, if you're a foodie, and you love all things cooking, you might still enjoy this one.

*No, I'm not trying to shunt the blame for lackluster blogging on lackluster authors. Well, maybe a little bit.

**I still love this roommate, she's a sweetie, but I just never believed in bewailing your performance on tests unless you really did fuck it up, with at least a C or lower.

What was the point of this farming experiment, exactly?

I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.

Manny I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).

This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:

"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)

I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?

Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.

For now, I have to enjoy New York City in pictures.

If I was independently wealthy, I would go to New York City at least once a year. Alas, I am not. So retirement and annual visits to my favorite city in the world will have to wait.

Neighborhoods Until such time as I hit the lottery, I am lucky that other writers and photographers seem to enjoy New York City as well, and that books such as New York: The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods exist. This is a large-format illustrated book about neighborhoods in the city's boroughs, including Brooklyn's "Little Beirut," the Bronx's "Little Ireland," Manhattan's Chinatown, Queens's "Little Egypt," and "Little Sri Lanka" on State Island (among many others). The author, Naomi Fertitta, grew up in Queens, but moved to Manhattan after college and very rarely left it, until she developed an interest in the city's other boroughs and neighborhoods. The result of that interest is this book.

Each neighborhood chapter includes a 2- or 3-page description, a list of places to visit, and at which to eat and shop, and a number of beautiful photographs. I enjoyed this book very much, but I'll admit I would have enjoyed it more if the photos had included captions. But I really enjoy reading photo captions.* If knowing what you're looking at isn't as important to you, then you won't have any complaints about this book.

*I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty certain another favorite New York picture book of mine, Steven Jenkins's The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway, included photo captions.

Evidently I'm just reading the wrong graphic novels.

Rall I read all of Ted Rall's and Pablo Callejo's graphic novel The Year of Loving Dangerously: A Graphic Memoir, and about the only lasting impression I have of it is that it left me depressed as hell.

And then I thought, every time I read graphic novels I end up depressed as hell. Consider: David Small's Stitches. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Art Spiegelman's Maus. Neil Gaiman's first episode of Sandman (Preludes and Nocturnes).* What I can't decide is, do I end up depressed because so many nonfiction graphic novels deal with somber and graphic stories, or do I end up depressed because I either don't understand the book (this is always the case with Gaiman) or because literally picturing things is too intense for me? It's a quandary.

But. Back to Rall's graphic memoir, in which he tells the story, and Callejo provides the drawing. The teaser for this story is "dumped, fired, arrested, expelled, and evicted--Ted Rall lost everything in the summer of 1984. Survival meant breaking all the rules." And that's pretty much it, really. Through no real fault of his own (and due to an unforseen medical emergency), Rall got booted out of Columbia University in the summer of 1984 and didn't have any place to stay in New York City. What he did then, basically, was put together a string of one-night stands and amorous encounters so he usually had a place to stay at night.

Which is resourceful, to say the least. But I still found it depressing. (Mr. CR didn't understand me at all when I was trying to explain my feelings. I think he was just impressed by the chutzpah of the solution.) Maybe it's because the cartoon of Rall on the cover doesn't look all that happy (although the women around him do). Maybe it's because later in that summer he had a slight STD scare, and nothing puts me off the idea of a summer of free lovin' more than the idea of an STD. But all of this is neither here nor there. As an attempt at a graphic memoir, there's nothing wrong with this book. I picked it up primarily because I find Ted Rall to be a very interesting writer, in the same camp as Matt Taibbi,** and I'll always look at anything he writes. But this one just wasn't for me.

*There are exceptions. Brian Fies's Mom's Cancer, although it was really sad, didn't actually leave me depressed, nor did Mat Johnson's Incognegro, which was just such an unbelievable story I didn't know how to feel about it.

**And like Matt Taibbi, he is completely underrated, which is wrong. If you've never heard of Rall, please do look into anything he's written.

Langewiesche strikes again.

Here's a real shocker: I enjoyed William Langewiesche's short book Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson, about US Airways flight 1549, piloted by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009.

Fly Now, if you know me at all, you know that I love William Langewiesche's writing beyond all reason. His writing is what I think of when I think of "well-crafted nonfiction prose." I am particularly enamored of Langewiesche because he can make highly technical information sing, and he can make any subject interesting. I promise you that I've read nothing else about the Hudson crash, and I have no real interest in the story whatsoever.

Langewiesche starts the story with the investigation of the crash, and then offers short chapters describing what happened on every step of the short flight, which took off from LaGuardia around 3:30 p.m., hit a flock of Canada Geese mere minutes after take-off, and made the emergency landing in the river a few minutes after that. He also manages to discuss the airline industry and its labor issues, as well as (and I found this the most fascinating part) the differences between Boeing and Airbus airplanes, and how Airbus has endeavored to engineer not only "crash-proof," but also, to some extent, "pilot-proof" planes (which are referred to as "fly-by-wire" planes). This is how he begins his description of the Airbus A320:

"Without doubt, it is the most audacious civil airplane since the Wright brothers' Flyer--a narrow-bodied, twin-turbofan, medium-range jet with the approximate capacities of a Boeing 737, but with extensive use of composite materials, a brilliantly minimalist flat-screen instrument panel, sidestick controls without tactile feedback, and, at the core of the design, a no-compromise, full-on digital fly-by-wire control system that radically redefines the relationships between pilots and flight." (p. 103.)

All right, I may not have picked the most exciting bit to quote, but I found it all very interesting nonetheless. The book will probably face the same criticism that Langewiesche usually faces--that it was first published as a series of magazine articles and is not as cohesive as a book, but I'm never really bothered by that. Mainly I enjoyed his writing about flight and the insight into the airline business (the author is a pilot himself, so he knows his stuff) and the fact that he got his story told in fewer than 200 pages.