Category Archives: Book Reviews

Three Books for Conscientious Epicures

One pretty great thing about last year, besides getting a bit of my own work out in the world, was all the research I got to do to complete it. This meant reading a lot about food, drinks, agriculture, ecology, entrepreneurship, distilling, et glorious al. Here are a few of my favorites, very good starting points if you’re concerned that you can’t eat tuna on the reg AND be a good conservationist (hint…you can’t. I know. I’m sad, too.).

The following books helped me sort my thoughts on food-as-culture, drinks-as-food, and the many-tentacled concept of sustainability when it comes to what we consume.

The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

For all the likely deserved criticism of Dan Barber as a tyrannical and self-important chef figure, this was a fascinating and important book. Barber is the classic-French-trained, Alice Waters-indoctrinated chef/owner of the seminal farm-to-table Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants, and he has used his caché as a world-class chef to go a few stops further on the Michael Pollan food train. The book’s premise: looking for the future vision of American cuisine, since its present, prime meats-centric incarnation has wrought ecological, nutritional, and economic ruin. Barber has well-researched takes on biodiversity on land and sea woven in with entertaining stories of meeting chefs and farmers from Upstate NY to Extremadura. Sure, we’re talking about expensive restaurant meals most of the time, but I do think there is validity in Barber’s stance that what chefs at high-end joints do influences how the majority eat, over time. It’s not every book that gets you this excited about wheat breeding.

Bread, Wine, Chocolate, by Simran Sethi

Again, great research, distinct voice, topic I could LITerally and FIGuratively eat up all day. It’s like seasoned journalist and podcaster Simran Sethi asked herself “What does Hope feel like reading about?” and the answer was this. Through the book, Sethi examines the need to preserve genetic diversity of not only the three title foods, but also beer, coffee, and seafood, by dishing out history and expert opinions from around the world.

Along the way, we meet scientists, chefs, yeast-hoarders, coffee nerds, and my favorite oenology legend, Dr. Ann Noble, who hilariously forgot the author was coming and wound up inviting her in to lunch, instead. One of the most interesting choices in the book, for me, was the inclusion at the end of each chapter of detailed tasting instructions. Sethi’s theme that we can “save” these foods by eating a wider and more expensive variety of them is hammered home by the insistence that parsing flavors in, say, a bar of nice chocolate is not only a fun thing to do, but a responsible one. No, this doesn’t absolve anyone of being otherwise socially responsible, but it helps this small part of the world.

Not everyone will be down with this premise, nor with the narrative voice. I was. I liked it a lot. I also spend more of my income on food and drink than on clothing, electronic gadgets, personal grooming, and housewares, combined, so you know where my loyalties lie.

Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production, by Sarah Bowen

I wrote about this book in Movers & Shakers, but really, my hopes for how many people will read the book all the way through are not super high. Not because it’s a boring book (it’s not!) but because reading is hard, and takes a long time, and we didn’t have the dough to make an audiobook, which is how I personally consume 95% of my reading material. So far, I know my sister has almost done it. Brava.

Anyway, IF you peeked into the “Mezcaleras and Madrinas” chapter, you would know the depth of my appreciation for Sarah Bowen’s comprehensive tome on the history, production, politics, regulation, consumption, etc., etc. of agave spirits. Her research into how ancestral foodways around the world are preserved through the DOC system is an essential read if you are concerned with how small farmers get paid and how good your cheese tastes. It really is the best exploration I’ve read so far about what “sustainable” does and can mean, socially and environmentally.

These three books vary in tone and subject matter, but what ties them together for me is not only how carefully researched and put together they are, but the common emphasis on flavor as an essential component when talking about food production. Industrial tequila, Bowen finds, is detrimental to Jalisco’s small farmers, and also tastes like turpentine. Why not do better? Dan Barber compares the rich and rangey flavors of heirloom wheat as opposed to the “dead” mass-produced wheat with as much concern for the taste of the bread as the health of the soil. The inseparability of the concepts–healthy soil = healthy plants = tastier and more nutritive food–is central to his book. Sethi concurs: specialty food production isn’t a wholesale solution to monoculture, but the speciality chocolate and coffee markets are helping hang on to the diversity that remains, and greater consumer demand will help change the agricultural systems, if we keep demanding it. They all acknowledge the need for systemic changes, but put the ball in the consumers’ court, as well. If you can afford to make better choices, it’s your responsibility to do so. Otherwise the mono-culturalists will win and really awesome chocolate will always be crazy expensive, and probably go extinct.

What other books belong on this list? LMK.

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Ferrante Fever

“Elena Ferrante” is what James Wood called her. Apparently we don’t know if it’s a real name or a real person or what. I don’t much care.

Ferrante is the author of a bunch of novels, including the lauded Neapolitan series, which catalogues the lives, from childhood, of two friends from an impoverished corner of Naples starting in the 1950s and progressing through their adulthoods.

Ok. I’m into it. I listened to My Brilliant Friend over a couple of days off, cleaning and running on the treadmill in the workout room of my apartment building in between the two garage modules. I love audiobooks, since I’ve realized that I’m an incredibly slow reader because I basically read everything out loud to myself, in my head, and pretty much can’t process anything non-aural. I continually despaired at my inability to finish books, from childhood onward, until I discovered that you could have people read them to you, while you did mundane shit like wash dishes and shop for groceries and walk to work and back. Things that don’t really need your full attention, and that would otherwise be occupied with your obsessive negative thoughts, anyway! Since this realization, I’ve finished a whole bunch of books that I’d have otherwise thought too long or boring to consider. Just ASK me about the Plantagenets! Somehow, just having someone keep going with the story, no matter what random thoughts also pop in to visit, is an amazing help. Go figure.

I’m five hours into The Story of a New Name, and though I repeatedly think, whenever I have to stop Hilary Huber’s electrifying voice in my ears to go to work or have a conversation, I can’t help thinking that the book is a bit soap-opera-y, a bit tawdry, though shot through with existential insights, and above all, profoundly “female,” which is something I can hardly stop thinking about since as my brother is the owner of the audiobook account I use and he recently told me he was listening to volume 1.   Continue reading

Review of Lowboy by John Wray

LowboyLowboy by John Wray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A real time look into schizophrenia, Lowbow neither romanticizes nor demonizes the disease or its sufferer. Will Heller is a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic wandering the New York subway system on a mission to save the world. His mother Violet and detective Ali Lateef tail him around the city, under and above ground trying to bring him home.

Wray uses his multiple points-of-view brilliantly, eking out information as the story develops, giving us this lovely slow reveal of the situation as characters let things slip, bit by bit. His range of voices is impressive and the language goes from tense to lyrical without trying too hard.

Mental illness is one of those topics that can result in a story that’s tired, weak or maudlin, but Wray treats his characters right and avoids the obvious pitfalls. Against my better judgment I sympathized with Will and the other troubled, beautiful people in the book.

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Interview: Molly Jong-Fast

Interview with Molly Jong-Fast, author of The Social Climber’s Handbook (Villard 2011)

In the world of Molly Jong-Fast’s comic novel The Social Climber’s Handbook, zip codes and social status go together like white on rich people. Her cast of Upper East Side mums and philandering financiers function as if morality, like riding the subway, is something poor people do. Set in the summer of 2008 during the onset of the credit crisis, Handbook introduces UES anti-heroes Dick and Daisy Greenbaum, a power couple holding onto their Brahmin existence by doing What’s Necessary: covering up fraudulent lending, silencing rogue sex bloggers, or old fashioned murder.

Coming from un-humble literary roots as the only daughter of what she called “the short and ill-fated union” of Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast, this 32-year-old mother of three and lifelong Upper Eastsider satirically eviscerates her neighbors in this intelligent beach read. Jong-Fast recently spoke at The New School about the credit crisis, children named after fruits and why women can too be serial killers.

Were you personally affected by the 10021 split?

I’ve always been obsessed with zip codes and phone numbers. For a while I had a [212] 772- number; I was really happy with that. I am still 10021, though I think some people fancier than me were changed to 10028. But that’s right next to 10128, so…

The Social Climber’s Handbook is your third novel. Did you start writing because of your parents?

My mother wrote Fear of Flying, my grandfather was Howard Fast who wrote Spartacus. When your entire family has the same profession, you think: this is easy, this is what I’m going to do. It’s proven to be absolutely horrible and really hard, but now I’m in it. I tried to be a literary agent for a while, because when you’re surrounded by writers you think being an agent is a leisurely pursuit. It turned out that wasn’t the case. Writing is like being in the witness protection program, once you’re in it, you can’t get out.

How has their fame influenced your career?

It opens a lot of doors, then slams them on you. Sometimes I think nobody has as much mean stuff about them on the Internet as I do. I have medium-to-low self-esteem. I love the process of writing; being a public figure is the hard part.

I actually haven’t read my mother’s books, for obvious mental health reasons. There are people who love my her work and hate mine because it’s so different, or hate her and are looking to hate me, by extension. The way I figure it you can either hate her and like me, or vice versa, but not both.

You’re from the Upper East Side. Were you concerned about your neighbors thinking you were trashing the hood?

I wasn’t trashing the Upper East Side. It’s my home. I grew up in a townhouse on 94th and Park, went to NYU and Barnard and got my MFA from Bennington College. I’ve never lived anywhere else. But you do encounter ridiculous things every day, like children named after royalty or fruit. You meet unbelievably wealthy people who will never want for anything and are still unhappy, and you feel sorry for them. There are questionable people everywhere, this happens to be the world I know.

What made you want to write about a serial killer? 

I read a lot of mysteries and I love Patricia Highsmith’s work. I wanted to write a female Mr. Ripley, or a female Dexter. I read an interview a few years ago with Bret Easton Ellis [The Guardian, 2001] where he said he didn’t think women had it in them to be serial killers. I was like: Fuck you! Women can totally be serial killers!

It also occurred to me that if you wanted to commit a crime, it would help to be a woman with a really nice handbag. If I actually was a serial killer, this book would be the perfect cover.

The book is set during the 2008 credit crisis and you use a lot of detail about shady bank practices. Any correlation to your murdering anti-heroine?

What the credit crisis taught me is that people can commit unthinkable crimes and absolutely get away with it. My husband works in finance and when this happened, neither of us could believe the kind of criminal behavior these guys had gotten away with. I still don’t think people understand how close we were to breadlines, to going to Starbucks and there not being coffee. The taxpayers got screwed and almost all the banks got away with it.

Molly Jong-Fast, The Social Climber’s Handbook, Villard 2011. On sale April 26.

Review: The Ask

The AskThe Ask by Sam LipsyteMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Ask evoked bouts of uncontrolled laughter and wincing during my daily commutes from my apartment in Astoria to my fundraising job in Manhattan. Why all the wincing? Because Milo, Lipsyte’s lovably unlikeable protagonist, is a mediocre development officer who lives in Astoria and works in Manhattan. This book is a caricature of class, professional and neighborhood relations that skewers the conceits of every demographic it presents.

It is clear that Lipsyte admires the rare person who works hard, has clear expectations, puts forth their best. But he does not fill his book with such people. Instead we have the nebbishes, the whiners, Gen-Xers coming of age in midlife, struggling to find affordable daycare and still maintain their edge. Coddled Milennials spout profanity and expect approval, taking their ambition and paperwork home with them to chicken wire cages in old Bushwick warehouses. The unconscionable privilege of the privileged, the righteous, tragic anger of the non-privileged, and the comical failure of those who squander their privilege.

There are a lot of ideas in The Ask, and you can pick and choose from them. For the most part, Lipsyte’s rapid, wit-infused dialog makes up for in fun what it lacks in believability. Those of us steeped in Joss Wheedon-speak should have no problem with this. Milo is stomach-turning at times, I did get tired of hearing his sexual inclinations to each and every woman he encountered, but it’s forgivable. We’re rooting for him by the end. For all its wild parody this book is spot on in its characterizations, and extremely enjoyable.

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Book Review: Tales of Woe by John Reed

The feeling that has just manifested in your digestive tract upon hearing something irredeemably awful — that bad-to-worse sinking sensation and the inexplicable need to repeat it — pervades John Reed’s Tales of Woe, just out from MTV Press. The author describes it as the sin-suffering-redemption model of storytelling, minus any cumbersome sin and redemption.
Twenty-five true stories of senseless human suffering accompanied by full color artwork appeal not only to those of us still toting our post-goth adolescent morbidity, but to rubberneckers of all ages. The collection tugs at our fears of the freak disaster (a PVC bouncy castle that first crushes, then poisons) to the dregs of inhumanity (sex trafficking, infanticide, and yes, bestiality). The MO is uncut and unapologetic despair in the human experience — not horror, but horribleness.Tales of Woeaims directly for the viscera, but can’t be written off as a simple sideshow. Reed is a well-practiced satirist, having, in his own words, “mangled Orwell, Shakespeare, Carroll and more,” and now presents what he claims is an older kind of catharsis than “Hollywood catharsis,” where the hero overcomes adversity and we all feel better about ourselves. Nope, this is pure suffering, he says; we read it and feel better about our own, relatively painless lives. I don’t know if I feel better about anything after reading this, but I sure feel different.

It’s hard not to question, however, elbow-deep in the shiny black paper and slick artwork, one’s role as a reader. Sure there is something deeply human about the sharing of suffering, but where does the line between observer and participant fall? At what point do we stop being horrified and start being titillated? Thankfully, Reed’s prose is spare; journalistic enough to secure our status as mortified witnesses, rather than rabid consumers, of agony. If we’re meant to be unsettled on many levels, this is a triumph. Woe is a 25 car pile-up of literary grotesques, enough to keep the Debbie Downer in all of us turning pages, and with no redemption or tidy lessons learned to let us walk away.

 

Tales of Woe, MTV Press August 2010
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