2.24.2009

Service Included, by Phoebe Damrosch

Service Included
Service Included
Service Included is another insider's view of the restaurant industry, this time from the wait staffs' perspective. A co-worker recommended it to me after I mentioned that I loved Kitchen Confidential. Phoebe Damrosch took a job as a busboy and worked her way up to captain at Per Se, one of Thomas Keller's New York restaurant.

This book is essentially a collection of Damrosch's musings about life in the restaurant business: why there are so few women waiters and the challenges of being a female waiter, learning how to serve at a Keller restaurant and how to deal with food critics, and her deepening relationship with a sommelier named "Andre." Part of Damrosch's attraction to being a waiter comes from a love of food and experimenting with food, and a lack of motivation to become a writer or work in publishing.

Service Included is an interesting read, but it has convinced me that I don't want to eat at Per Se or any of Keller's other restaurants, for two reasons. In spite of the fact that the serving style--generally invisible while anticipating the diner's needs--would be really off putting for me. Sure, the waiters, especially the captains, are allowed to banter with the customers (which I like), but overall it sounds really fussy to have backservers (less visible wait staff) whisking your used cutlery and plates off after every course and bringing you far too much silverware for the next. (Those of you who know me, know that I prefer to go for the simplest options when it comes for food. If I can use a regular knife to slice up my fish, I'm not going to muck around with a fish knife.) The other thing is the food itself. I like simplicity when it comes to food. I like the natural flavors and textures. Basil and lemon and a bit of salt and pepper is about as far as I feel I need to go with seasonings, most of the time. I want food that's recognizable for what it's made of (except for sausage, obviously). I much prefer ethnic foods to foodie experiments. If I ever ate at Per Se or El Bulli, I'd probably spend half of my time laughing and the rest trying to figure out what the hell was on my plate.

And then there's the cost...Yikes. In one of the middle chapters, Damrosch wonders why some people who are fairly wealthy think that a dinner at Per Se is too expensive. They'd rather buy art or take a trip. I think I know the answer to this one: because the art or the trip lasts longer. A dinner at Per Se will last a few hours, and then it's over. Granted, you are paying mostly for the experience, but at least the trip will last a couple of days, and the art will stay with you much longer. It's a bang for your buck thing, I think. When Damrosch wrote that sometimes a meal at Per Se, depending on what you order, can cost up to $20,000, all I could think was that that amount is a significant portion of my yearly income. I expect that Per Se and other luxury restaurants are really taking a hit right now. Yowza. It's been more than twenty-four hours since I read that, and the amount is still staggering. I realize that a significant portion of the cost is the wine, but still. It's just staggering.

2.23.2009

Fool, by Christopher Moore

Fool
Fool
I'm so glad that Moore manages to get a novel out about every year. I'm not sure if I could wait much longer than that to read a new Moore story. The man is hilarious, and never disappoints. Fool is, sort of, new territory for Moore. It's essentially a retelling of King Lear from the Fool's perspective and with a lot of comedic license. According to the Author's Note at the end, the idea can from a desire to write a story about a fool and, after a conversation with his editor, turned into a story about the fool from Lear. Because this is Christopher Moore, it has a lot of knob jokes in it. Pocket, the fool, reminds me a lot of another of Moore's characters: Biff. Biff, for those who haven't read Lamb (if you haven't, you simply must read this book), is Christ's childhood friend who is hilarious, horny, and unafraid to say what's on his mind no matter how much trouble he'll get in.

In this retelling Lear, it turns out that the Glouchester subplot started because Pocket helped Edmund trick his father into disinheriting Edmund's legitimate half-brother. And the rest of the Lear plot kind of snowballs from there. We learn more about the wicked elder sisters, Regan and Goneril, than you probably wanted to know. Moore highlights how whiny the fathers, Lear and Glouchester, are, since they were the cause of most of their own problems. Moore wrote in the Author's Note that, after seeing more than thirty productions of the play, you want to push Lear off a cliff to stop the whinging.

SPOILER ALERT! STOP READING HERE IF YOU DON"T WANT TO LEARN HOW THE BOOK ENDS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

For the most part, the retelling works very well. The only part that didn't ring true for me is when the ghost ("There's always a bloody ghost"), tells Pocket that his father was Lear's older brother and that his mother was raped at Lear's insistence. Up until Pocket learns this, his is firmly the king's man. But after that, of course, he hates the king and doesn't want to do anything to help him. He also doesn't care to get revenge on Lear. This plot twist seems like Moore needed something to turn Pocket against Lear. It doesn't really serve a purpose otherwise, and it seems rather extreme. Plus, I could totally see who the ghost really was about half of the way into the story.

END SPOILERS

Still, this is a fantastic read. I didn't do much today other than read Fool, because I  was hooked from the first chapter. I love reading Moore's books. I'm always assured of laugh-out-loud jokes and humor, wonderfully quirky characters, and a madcap plot. I can't wait to see what Moore cooks up for his next novel.

2.20.2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Darkly Dreaming Dexter
A few years ago, I had a thing for serial killer novels. I read Patricia Cornwell. I read James Patterson. I read Caleb Carr. I think what eventually turned me off of this kind of mystery was that, after a while, I realized that I was pretty much reading the same book over and over again (except for Carr, who I re-read because his books are so fantastic).Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a serial killer novel, but the twist is that the narrator is a serial killer, too.

This book has been made into a television series, so I'm not going to much about with plot summaries (not that I do most of the time, anyway). What I like about this book most is how Lindsay wrote it. It's a fantastic challenge to use a narrator who is a serial killer that gets away with it. I mean, who in their right mind would root for this guy? There are a few things that redeem him. First, he only kills people who have committed multiple murders and were never caught or punished for it. Second, he does care (as much as he can) about his family. And third, his sense of humor. Dexter is a very funny, if macabre, guy and a highly developed sense of snark. The story is told in a wickedly funny stream of Dexter-consciousness. The other thing that lets Lindsay get away with his choice of narrator is that you don't read much about what Dexter actually does to people when he kills them. You learn why his victims were chosen, but not what actually happens to them. If you did know...Yikes.

The mystery itself is a bit humdrum, I think. It was much less interesting than learning more about how Dexter gets away with his crimes and how he thinks about the world. Mostly, he solves the crime because he can intuit what the other killer is up to, though he has a hard time explaining how he knows these things without incriminating himself. The ending was a let down, too, mostly because Dexter is kind of out of it during the big confrontation scene, and is trying to reconcile his sociopathic urge to kill with his code of honor to only kill the people who "deserve" it. Consequently, a lot of really important things happen--like what happens to the lead detective and the killer himself--without Dexter noticing. Granted, I've studied enough literature to know about unreliable narrators, but this ending was rather annoying after all the build up. Plus, at a scant 288 pages, I can't help but feel that there was so much more that Lindsay could have done with this story.

2.13.2009

Hammer and Tickle, by Ben Lewis

Hammer and Tickle
Hammer and Tickle
I've always had a special place in whatever parts of my brain find things funny for communist jokes. (Well, I couldn't say heart, could I?) About a month ago, I ran across a review of Ben Lewis's Hammer & Tickle: The History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes and had our Interlibrary Loan department find me a copy to read.  In this book, Lewis attempts to argue that communist jokes had a role in the end of Communism. This book is not written like the typical non-fiction-work-with-a-point-to-make. Rather, it's more like a memoir of Lewis's attempts to find the origin of the jokes, how many people were arrested and punished for telling jokes, and, ultimately, if those jokes had anything to do with the events of 1988-1991.

Let me say straight of that I don't buy Lewis's argument. Like Christie Davies, one of the scholars Lewis interviewed, I agree that:
The effect - the consequences - of jokes are so small in comparison with other social forces that you might as well forget them. The jokes are a thermometer; they're not a thermostat. (224)
Throughout the book, Lewis refers to the minimalist and maximalist arguments of jokes. On the one hand, the minimalists say that jokes are a way for people to vent their frustrations and nothing more. One the other hand, maximalists like George Orwell, think that "Every joke  is a tiny revolution" (19). Sure, telling jokes is subversive, and if the wrong person heard you telling communist jokes in the wrong country at the wrong time, you could be arrested and sentenced to prison. However, as Lewis goes on, he finds evidence that fewer and fewer people were getting into trouble for telling jokes and that by the 1970s, fewer and fewer new jokes were being made. He is also told time and again by other scholars and by people who lived in former Communist countries, that the jokes were just a way for people to vent their frustrations, no more.

Despite his discouragement, Lewis soldiers on and decides that the fall of Communist came about because of 1) the standard of living, 2) the frustrations of the populace, and 3) because after 1968, the Soviet Union and other governments were reluctant to shoot protesters. After the Solidarity Movement got started in Poland in the early 1980s, other mass movements started. After that, it was just a matter of time. In spite of this, I still sometimes repeat the joke that once the White Album made it over the wall, it was just a matter of time.

Plus, the extended jokes about the "Zimpsonoviches" just sounds like so much bullshit, in spite of Lewis's claims about its veracity.

One of the things that made this book (and consequently) Lewis's argument hard to buy was the way that he presents himself in this memoir/history. In the latter third of the book, Lewis recounts a number of interviews that he has with other humor scholars, former and die-hard Communists, and, remarkably, Lech Wałęsa himself. In his rush to prove his points and show off his knowledge of communist jokes, Lewis mostly manages to piss people off. He comes across as an obnoxious know-it-all. While I know full well that Communism was a pipe dream, I can still respect the beliefs of Socialists and Communists. Lewis just mocks them.

What I liked most about the book was the jokes themselves. With a little knowledge of history, many of them are still very funny. Lewis is very good also in places were he is recounting parts of Hungarian, East German, Romanian, and Soviet history. At any rate, here are some of my favorite jokes from the collection:
You remember the police investigator who asks the accused: "What were you doing five years ago on 23 October at 17:15?" The accused replies promptly: "I remember exactly. I had one eye on my clock and the other on my calendar." (15) What is colder in Romania than the cold water? The hot water. (3)
And my very favorite:
After the October Revolution, God sends three observers to Russia: St. Luke, St. George, and St. Peter. They send him three telegrams. I've fallen into the hands of the Cheka--St. Luke. I've fallen into the hands of the Cheka--St. George. All's well. Doing Find. Cheka Superintendent Petrov. (25)

2.02.2009

The Crippled Angel, by Sara Douglass

The Crippled Angel
The Crippled Angel
Finished! The Crippled Angel is the conclusion to Sara Douglass's trilogy about angels and demons and the Hundred Years' War. In this book, time gets even more compressed and Henry IV ends up leading the English at Harfleur and Agincourt. (If you remember your history (or your Shakespeare), you'll know that Henry V was there, not his dad.) At any rate, all the machinations and plots and prophecies come to fruition in this book. It was a rather satisfying ending, thought I could see Mary Bohun's role for miles off (or pages off) before it actually happened.

Not too much to say about this series that I haven't already said in the entries for The Nameless Day and The Wounded Hawk. I do recommend this series for people who like seeing the supernatural blended with reality and/or history. This was a very interesting book, and I really liked what Douglass had to say about the role of the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, feudalism, and gender roles.