Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tender at the Bone

by Ruth Reichl

In her memoir Spoon Fed, Kim Severson describes Ruth Reichl as the intimidating popular girl of the food writing world. And I can't claim to really love food writing without having read any Ruth Reichl. So I thought I'd start at the beginning, with Reichl's first book, Tender at the Bone. It hasn't created the same stir as Sapphires and Garlic, but it is a wonderfully detailed account of the coming-of-age of this iconic food writer.

As Reichl explains in the introduction to the book, she is first and foremost a storyteller. And she has great stories to tell, starting with her mother, "the queen of mold." Reading about Reichl mother, I wonder how she made it out of her house alive, let a lone without a debilitating case of food poisoning. I suppose it's really no surprise, then, that Reichl went on to master the kitchen. She gives due credit to the important food mentors in her life, including her Grandmother and her Grandmother's cook, in addition to Marion Cunningham.

The book does, however, lose steam in its final two chapters. Reichl's writing is consciously composed, without feeling overworked. But the last two chapters are not as fully-fleshed out as the rest of the book. They seem out of place and almost an afterthought. I don't think the book necessarily needed the feel-good wrap-up. That could have been left off for the next book.

Reichl has lived a life that is hard for me to imagine (my mother is fairly even-keeled and I don't have a communal-living temperament), but her writing makes me want to live it. My favorite chapter has to be "Eyesight for the Blind" about her and her husband's shoestring European honeymoon. It seems that wherever Reichl finds herself (New York City, Greece, Italy, Canada, California, etc), she finds a family in food. Reichl's life hasn't been without struggle or disappointment, but it's food that seems to hold her together in the toughest of times.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This isn't a a real post

But it's something that made me laugh, and it's too long for twitter.

Yesterday at the book store, a father came in with his two small boys (I can't gauge children's ages. They were stroller-sized.) After they spent some time looking for books, I heard the father to say to the older boy, Ok, now bring that one up to the nice lady so we can pay for it. And like some tiny, quiet Jerry Lewis, this little boy walked around the store, up to the front desk, book in hand, saying, Nice LAdy? Nice LAdy. . . Nice LAdy. . .

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Spoon Fed

by Kim Severson

I really enjoyed this book. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to food writing is that I love reading what people have to say about their passions. Severson's passion and reverence for food and the communities and families food creates is obvious, and really comes through in her writing.

My one complaint about this book is that it's only half the story. Severson continuously refers to her mess of a life in Alaska and her drug and alcohol addiction. She mentions several times about how her addictions would have killed her. But we never get that part of the story. Granted, this book is about food and food writing and Severson making her life and finding out what he likes. However, I feel like if she's going to keep bringing up how potentially devastating her way of life was, and how crucial it was for you to make the change to move to California, then she needed to give the reader a little more about that previous life. Maybe this is just me being a greedy reader, but I needed a little more.

It is in the last four chapters that I think this book really shines, where her strongest lessons are learned. I especially love the way Severson intertwines food and faith. Cooking, and particularly baking, in themselves require an act of faith. "And we believe because someone told us the recipes would work. And so, on faith, we tried them. And once we tried them, and we saw that they worked, we became believers even though we had no idea how they worked. We spread the word to others who then tried them on faith, too. They became believers. Entire culinary cultures have been built on this kind of faith and trust." This beautifully sums up the magic and mystery of food and why food and cooking are so important to people. It's easy to forget how many people are involved in a recipe, that recipes are invented, tried, and tested. They are in and of themselves a record of communication and collaboration, and increasingly so in a well-worn, sauce-stained cookbook.

While Severson's book is a memoir, it is just as much a record of those she encounters on her journey from childhood kitchen table to her desk at the New York Times. Severson's book is inviting and admirably honest (not "frighteningly true" as Julie Powell's blurb says. And while I'm on the subject, the book needs no endorsement from Powell. Also, WHY would you refer to the memoir of a former alcoholic as "gimlet-eyed?"). She holds her food icons in high regard, but does not paint them through rose-colored glasses. While her respect and love for them certainly comes through, she is not afraid to take them off their pedestals, which is one of her best lessons.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Jesus' Son

By Denis Johnson

I don't often read collections of short stories, but this was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend, so I went for it.

Johnson's stories are a hazy account of a life on drugs and an attempt to get sober. I have mixed feelings about this book. If I want to read stories of addiction, I'll look for a memoir. However, as I've been told, Johnson's stories are grounded in the facts of his own struggles with addiction.

I have mixed feelings about these stories. The main character is cold and often unlikable. The narration jumps around chronologically and is somewhat vague. But what caught me about Johnson's writing are the poetic moments. Johnson describes the ordinary, like clouds, in extraordinary ways. And the best instances in each story are the narrator's epiphanies of self-reflection. "Work" is one of the better stories, with one of the best reflective statements: "Because, after all, in small ways, it was turning out to be one of the best days of my life, whether it was somebody else's dream or not." It's sentences like these that really stick with me. In "Emergency" (another one of the better stories), the narrator concludes that "nothing I could think up, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me." These glimpses of self-awareness and honesty are what give the reader hope; that maybe the narrator could sincerely get clean and improve his life.

What's difficult about this book is that the narrator seems so disconnected from himself. The way he acts and reacts is drastically different from those instances when he steps outside himself to look back on them. On the whole, this is not one of my favorite books, and probably not one I will pick up again. But if you do feel so inclined to read it (and I don't want to discourage any one from doing so, because the book does stretch the limits of reader's expectations of what a story or narration should look like), it is the poetic, insightful moments that will compel you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New Staff Pick

I've already written about John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, but now I've made my love for this book official by writing a staff pick for it.