Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef.  She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not.  At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure.  I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him.  Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer.  She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive.  Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable.  Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow).  But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me.  Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage.  She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually).  She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him.  Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow a good or exciting man.  So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that.  Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell.  I just want to hear the professional part.

four stars

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

by Anthony Bourdain

Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece).  I’m a Bourdain fan, but most of these essays are simply too short to have any real impact.  That’s not to say they’re not bad; they have his trademark snide remarks, the New York swagger tempered by open-minded desire to learn more about others.  In a magazine I’m sure they’re fine.  But, for example, a mere three printed pages on Bourdain’s first taste of Szechuan food is nearly pointless; he barely begins to describe the taste before the essay is over.  A lengthy examination of Brazilian food and culture demonstrates how much more powerful his travel writing can be when he has room (on the page) to explore.  This edition had some commentary by Bourdain on his own pieces since their publication; some of his opinions have changed, and it’s fun to read him mocking his old self as briskly as he used to mock TV chefs.

three stars

Friday, October 18, 2013

Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable

by Dan Gutman

Twin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plot to use “YAGs,” or Young American Geniuses, to solve the complex problems of the nation, and find that they are on the list.  When they learn that a shadowy group is preparing a terrorist attack at (one of) the country’s biggest ball(s) of twine, their road trip becomes a race against time, made all the more desperate by the fact that their parents know nothing about their mission and by the fact that dangerous “dudes with bowler hats,” as well as their old health teacher, are trying to kill them.

It’s a very light, silly book, crammed with gimmicks like codes presented within the book and a suggestion that readers follow the trip via Google Maps.  With lots of actual spots of Americana oddities mentioned, such as the Donner Party Memorial, the PEZ museum, a Yo-yo museum, and the House on the Rock, the book is at times more gimmick than plot.  Some parents might find it troubling that the preteens are instructed by a stranger to keep secrets from their parents, but it’s all in fun, with no real violence.  It’s a simplistic kid’s book with some humor, such as when the kids gets their spy bags with Frisbees, cards, and fruit, which the kids are disappointed to learn are not laser Frisbees, spy camera cards, and bomb fruit, but actually just plastic toys and food.

four stars

Saturday, October 12, 2013


by Christopher Buckley

In the not-so-distant future, America teeters on the brink of economic disaster as the baby boomers start retiring. Enter beautiful young ex-Army-turned PR flak, coulda-gone-to-Harvard-but-Daddy-spent-the-tuition-money crusading blogger Cassandra, who on her blog suggests that Baby Boomers voluntarily kill themselves for tax breaks, saving Social Security costs.  When young people take to the streets, the ineffectual president (who happens to be in cahoots with her father, who is now a software tycoon and party patron) makes her an enemy, as does a TV preacher.  But the cause is taken up by a young congressman who shares an eyebrow-raising past with Cassandra, and soon people are starting to talk about actually passing the “Transition” bill into law.

I wasn’t too impressed with the previous Buckley I read, Supreme Courtship, and this book is of about the same weight.  Buckley’s satire, as I said about that book, is the toothless satire of the contented conservative shooting blanks at straw men.  The fact that his heroine must be “hot” and blonde “with liquid, playful eyes and lips” shows how concerned he is with serious ideas.  In over 300 pages, none of the characters seem very interesting, and the dialogue at times is positively ridiculous; his ideas about software are equally out of touch. His scenarios are mildly amusing but not actually comic, and he has no real point to make about Washington, just a modern modest proposal.  Light, frothy, somewhat arch, but it lacks punch.

three stars

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Zero

by Jess Walter

In the days after 9/11, New York police officer Brian Remy tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but succeeds only in causing a sort of temporal brain damage, in which he flits in and out of awareness of his own life as though through staccato, disconnected snippets of film.  Apparently recruited for some black ops anti-terrorist unit, he sporadically comes to his senses to find that he has gotten involved in some unpleasant and untenable situations – taking mysterious packages, going through citizens’ correspondence, beating and intimidating Arabic suspects, sleeping with women he doesn’t know whether he loves or is just using for information.  He has no idea what the reason for it all is – his genuinely confused question about what he’s doing inevitable taken as kidding or rhetorical musing – and as the black ops sting heads toward an insane, disastrous conclusion, he is helpless to stop it.

It’s written with more of a satirical black humor than this plot summary implies, a sort of modern Catch-22 as written by Don Delillo, with the typical distant lens he views humanity through to make it seem foreign and alien.  There are, indeed, a couple of scenes that pay almost direct homage to Joseph Heller’s masterwork, such as when Remy’s high school son pretends that Remy is dead, and he, his wife, and son have a straight-faced, absurd conversation about honoring grief and having respect for the son’s wishes.  Or another scene where some intelligence officers looking at some evidence, including a photo of a man eating in a restaurant, begin an earnest, utterly irrelevant discussion of how to properly cook it, and what wine might go best with it.  But the mordant humor gives way to a spooky noir feel in the second half of the book, and although the botched terrorist sting is clearly political satire, it lacks the deadpan absurdity of the earlier half, and comes to a comparatively predictable ending.  Altogether, this a tense, readable, original political satire, the work of a major modern talent.

four stars