2.25.2010

Cooking Dirty, by Jason Sheehan

Cooking Dirty
Cooking Dirty
I read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential a couple of years ago, and numerous food books and memoirs since. But I haven't found anything that could match the fierce joy, fun, and truth of Bourdain's book until I picked up Jason Sheehan's Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love, and Death in the Kitchen. Unless you are familiar with Westword, an alternative newspaper from Denver or follow the Beard Awards for food writing closely, there's no reason you should have heard of Sheehan. Sheehan would be the first to tell you that he wasn't a chef. He was a cook.

Sheehan started his life in food at the age of fifteen in a mom and pop pizza place in Rochester, New York. Cooking didn't come naturally to him at first. He had to learn and relearn everything. On the other hand, the brutal environment of the kitchen did come naturally to him. The kitchens Sheehan worked in sound a lot like Bourdain's: a multilingual and motley troop of illegal immigrants, social misfits, and losers. Brawling Sheehan fit right in. The best parts of this book are when he shares his war stories of 140 degree kitchens in Florida, bewildered and underhanded owners in Buffalo, serving up breakfasts non stop for the line dancing crowd at midnight.

One of my favorite parts was in Albuquerque, when Sheehan--despite his protests that he didn't know what he was doing--got hired as a baker. Since he was starting right away, he hurried off to buy supplies and a baking/pastry cookbook. Trying to learn all that material in less than an hour, Sheehan said, "was like trying to teach long division to a hamster" (290*). Stories like that had me snorting and chortling with laughter through the whole book.

Sheehan meanders around the country, picking up jobs with remarkable ease until he hits a wall in Albuquerque. He falls into food writing for local alternative newspapers and corporate magazines, inventing his own gonzo biographical style of writing. As I read, I didn't feel like I was reading so much as having the author talk to me. His voice as a writer is utterly real and I would think that the only difference between reading Sheehan and talking to him is that there would be more swearing in person.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was Sheehan's tendency to gloss over things. By his own count, the author worked in more than 30 restaurants in less than 15 years and, for him, they've tended to blur into one another. Consequently, they tend to blur by in the book, too. I would have love to hear more war stories. Since I know that I wouldn't last five minutes in a professional kitchen, I have to get my kicks through food memoirs. The honesty and the humor in the book balance out this minor flaw. I had a great time tagging along with Sheehan through his country-wide tour of cooking and carousing. If you like food memoirs and have a high tolerance for Bourdainian shenanigans, I would definitely recommend this books.

Hell, I'd read this one again in a heartbeat.

* From the 2009 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition.

2.22.2010

Blackout, by Connie Willis

It's hard to say what I think of a book that I only half-finished. While I read all of Blackout's 491 pages, I won't know how it all works out until the second half is published sometime this fall. This is the first time something like this has ever happened to me, since I don't read comic books. I wonder how long the second half is, since the publishers elected to split the book instead of published one big, whopping volume.

Blackout
Blackout
At any rate, Connie Willis' Blackout is another novel in a trio of loosely related novels about time travel. In Willis' world, time travel has been invented but the only people allowed to use it are historians, who use it go back in time and observe contemps (contemporaries) during important historic events. To prevent paradoxes and attempts at altering the timeline, there are checks in place. In Blackout, however, something has gone wrong with the system. The story follows three historians who traveled back to roughly the same time period--one to observe children evacuated from London before the Blitz, another to observe the beginning of the Blitz, and the third to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk.

The beginning of the book, I'll admit, is a little bewildering. Wills is, apparently, a firm believer in in medias res beginnings. You are thrown into the action, with little in the way of explication or explanation. There are so many characters that it takes a while for everything to settle down. I was over 100 pages in before I could keep every body straight. Complicating the cast issues is the fact that the first part of the book takes place in the Oxford of 2060, where all the time traveling originates. To create atmosphere, Willis has a whole troupe of people marching in and out of the lab on their what who knows when. Plus, you get the start of the three main plot threads here. While the chapters are labeled with places and dates, they are not labeled with character names. This would have been helpful since there were a lot of pronouns without antecedents there and I had to wait a page or two to find out who the character was. I did eventually start to remember who was where, when, but it was a bit of a struggle.

In spite of these flaws, Willis has written a book that had me on the edge of my seat all the way to the intermission (I can't really call it the end, since it isn't). I was panicking right along with the main characters when things started to go wrong with the drops (designated points where they can travel back to their own time). The trio of protagonists is stuck in one of the most dangerous periods in British history: the Blitz. Not only that, but they're in the middle of the 57 consecutive nights of bombing in September and October of 1940. And while they know where many of the bombs will land, History didn't record all of them. Willis does a fantastic job of recreating the atmosphere and the fear of the Blitz. We were lucky in America during WWII. None of our cities had to face something like the Blitz--near constant bombing focused not only on military and political targets, but on civilians.

Blackout isn't just about surviving the Blitz, either. One of the protagonists, Michael Davis, the one who was sent to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk, fears that he may have altered the time line by actually participating and pulling soldiers out of the water and taking them back to Dover. In spite of the checks and the firm belief that history is self-correcting, Davis managed to get into a so-called "divergence point." A divergence point, in Willis parlance, is a historical event that changes things, where even a small act can alter the course of history. Examples in the book are major battles like Waterloo and, of course, Dunkirk. Normally, the time travel apparatus won't let the historians even close to a DP. They get dropped days later and/or miles away. Davis was off course, but managed to get a ride to Dunkirk with a crazy boat captain and his grandson. Davis was supposed to stay in Dover and merely observe. Because of his actions on the beach, David worries for the rest of the narrative about whether he has irreparably altered things.

Blackout is a fascinating book that asks fascinating questions. I very much look forward to reading the rest of it this fall.

2.14.2010

Day After Night, by Anita Diamant

Day After Night
Day After Night
I read Anita Diamant's Day After Night because the review in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago. The story sounded fascinating, about four women who meet in Atlit after the war. Two of them were in the death camps in Europe, one managed to hide--not unscathed--in Paris, and one was a resistance fighter in Lithuania.

It's painfully ironic that so many Jewish people who arrived in Palestine after the war (and before the founding of Israel) ended up in detention camps with barbed wire while the British tried to sort out who was who and maintain immigration quotas. There are a couple of scenes in the book when new arrivals freak out at the sight of barracks and more wire fences. It's just heartbreaking. The story starts a few weeks before a mass breakout that reminded me a lot of the movie Exodus, based on the novel by Leon Uris. Only without Paul Newman.

Until the breakout, we are treated to scenes of camp life, starting with the horribly evocative showers. Then there is the spying, as survivors try to find the Christians who are, for some reason, trying to hide in Israel. And there are the machinations of the Jewish Agency and the Palmach, who are ferrying people out of Atlit as soon as they found places for them at the kibbutzim around the country. Along the way, the back stories of the four main characters are revealed. We also get to know a little bit about the political situation that keeps the survivors and refugees in the camps, but only a little.

The problem with this book is the the characters don't really evolve much past two dimensional. The characters are there to represent different experiences of and reactions to the Holocaust. Sometimes, their dialog turns into speeches. It's a surprisingly slim book to try and contain so much. The plot and the characters suffer for it. When I reached the end, I wished that there had been more to this book. With four characters and this historical setting, Day After Night should have been bigger. As it is, this book is just a glimpse into Atlit and the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The Law of Nines, by Terry Goodkind

Law of Nines
The Law of Nines
I've read the first few books in Goodkind's massive Sword of Truth series, before giving up to pursue other books before the end of the decade. They're so big that I wonder sometimes if Goodkind gets paid by the pound instead of the world. The Law of Nines drew me back because it takes place in our world, but it has ties to the rest of the series. I love meta stories, so I decided to take a closer look.

The Law of Nines takes place mostly in Nebraska, right after the protagonist's twenty-seventh birthday, and things immediate start to get dangerous and weird. Alexander Rahl (those who've read the Sword of Truth series will recognize that name) finds himself in the middle of a violent conspiracy where no one really seems to know what's going on until near the 350 page mark. Which I kind of like. Few things draw me into a story like puzzling out the mystery along with the main character.

At the beginning of the book, Alex inherits a mysterious parcel of land in Maine and then people start trying to kill him. He has an ally from the Sword of Truth world, but she doesn't know much about what's happening either. Together, they start to figure out who's behind the death and destruction and why. Things really start to pick up in the middle of the book after Alex and his ally find out how deep the conspiracy goes. Things also get really violent around this point, too. There are some fantastic action scenes in this book, almost movie-grade.

While the plot, at times, is a little sketchy, there was enough action and intrigue to pull me along. Even though it's 500 pages long, I was able to start it yesterday evening and finish early this afternoon. When I say that the plot is sketchy, what I mean is that there are some pseudo-Dickensian deus ex machina societies and events in the second half of the book that couldn't help but make me wonder if Goodkind had dug a plot hole that he couldn't get out of without stretching the bounds of disbelief. Still, I was hooked until the end. And I wonder if this book is going to turn into a series. If so, I would definitely read a sequel.

2.08.2010

Far North, by Marcel Theroux

Far North
Far North
I didn't expect to enjoy Marcel Theroux's Far North as much as I did. I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting last night, finishing up a little after midnight. For an end of the world novel with little or no dialog, it was surprisingly engrossing. While the novel has some unmistakable similarities to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this book has something that McCarthy's book was missing: hope. And that makes all the difference.

Also, characters with actual names helped.

Far North is the story of a more than probable future for our world. As global warming takes over in the south, places in northern Canada and Siberia become attractive places to settle for folks with a desire to reconnect with the land. Makepeace, our heroine, is the daughter of Quaker settlers who create the town of Evangeline somewhere in Siberia on the Arctic Circle. When we meet her, she is the only one left alive after hordes of starving people from the South overrun their town. Makepeace was a constable in those last days, and now she spend her time patrolling her town and staying alive.

After meeting a Chinese refugee and seeing a plane, Makepeace decides to make contact with the wider world. Theroux downplays the epic journey she takes by describing it in simple (but not Hemingway-simple) language, with sparse dialog. We get to tag along as she travels through the remains of her parents' generation's experiment in Siberia. We never quite get to see what happened to the rest of the world. Makepeace remarked at one point that there were as many answers to that question as there were people you cared to ask. The most likely one is that the earth just couldn't support the population anymore after the climate changing effects of global warming. One character posits that the world is experiencing an extinction event.

This novel could have been as utterly depressing as The Road except for the presence of hope. In The Road, the world is clearly dying. There's no safe place to live. There's nothing to eat (unless you resort to cannibalism) and nothing will grow. In Far North, people can live if they can find the right place and learn how to fend for themselves. Sure, there are slavers and radiation blighted Zones and deadly Russian winters, but people like Makepeace can still survive and live.

The other thing that made this book work for me was Makepeace herself. She's gritty, determined, sort of like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, but with two X chromosomes and a stronger sense of justice. She's the toughest woman I've seen in fiction lately and, as you read, you can't help but admire her strength. She may not say much, but you get her internal dialog all the through the book. Theroux has a light touch with the flashbacks and the historical information dumps; you mostly get this information through Makepeace's musing. While he leaves you wanting more, Theroux doesn't overload the book.

This book had everything I like: action, suspense, peril, believable villains, and a kickass hero. It was fantastically written with every word that needed to be there and nothing else. Excellent book.

2.07.2010

Waiter Rant, by Steve Dublanica

Waiter Rant
Waiter Rant
I came across this book when it was still in its blog form, while it was being written by an anonymous New York waiter. Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip, Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica is, weirdly, the biography of a waiter who starts a blog about his life, gets a book deal out of it, and tries to juggle being a semi-professional waiter while trying to become a published writer.

In the first third of the book, Dublanica explains how he fell into being a waiter after a series of failed careers. His brother helps him get a job at a dysfunctional restaurant in New York. Like Kitchen Confidential, which exposed the dysfunctional and maladaptive behaviors at the back of the house, Waiter Rant does the same for the front of house. Having read both books, it's a wonder that restaurants succeed at all. In the second third of the book, Steve begins his anonymous blog to bleed off some tension and to share the "war stories" that drew me to this book in the first place. Later, he gets and agent and starts shopping around his book proposal. Meanwhile, things at "The Bistro" start to deteriorate under a paranoid and anxious owner who decides to open a second restaurant.

The best parts of this book are the customer stories. I am amazed to see what people with a fierce sense of entitlement and poor social skills put waitstaff through when they dine. Which was why one of my favorite chapters in this book was the one entitled Vengeance is Mine. Steve is above spitting in peoples' food, creatively punishing the schmucks for their behavior. The horror stories are really the best parts of the book. To be honest, the book could have used more of them. After nearly seven years as a waiter, I don't doubt that Dublanica had thousands of stories to tell.

Parts of this book are frankly odd to read. I've read other blog-based books before. For the most part, the translation has worked well. Dublanica spends an awful lot of time, however, explain the process of writing the book in such a way that I got the impression that chunks of this book was the author thinking aloud about the process. I don't know what was in the original book proposal, but I doubt that there were a lot of similarities between the plan and the book that came from it. Still, it's an interesting read. I want to track down the blog and read the early entries that I missed. If you want to follow along, here is the link to Waiter Rant the Blog.

2.05.2010

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8 Lee

Fortune Cookie Chronicles
The Fortune Cookie
Chronicles
Jennifer 8 Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a short, but disjointed, history of Chinese American food. The best parts of this book are the chapters that deal with the food itself. The other chapters cover the working life of Chinese immigrants who work in those restaurants, traveling around the world in search of the greatest Chinese restaurants, and Chinese immigration among other topics. I'll admit that I skipped some of these chapters in my rush to get back to the food.

I knew that a lot of the dishes you find in Chinese restaurants in America are not authentic. Lee devotes a chapter each to trying to track down where chop suey and General Tso's chicken (a favorite of mine) come from. I was surprised to learn that there really was a General Tso, though he has about the same relationship with the recipe that the Duke of Wellington had with his eponymous beef. Lee also has a couple of chapters in which she traces the history of fortune cookies. Interestingly, fortune cookies never caught on in China when American companies tried to introduce them. Lee has evidence that fortune cookies are actually based on Japanese tsujiura senbei, a kind of cracker with written fortunes inside.

These food history chapters are the best part of the book, but I really wish the Lee had been better about citing her sources. She mentions finding articles in nineteenth century issues of The New York Times, but she doesn't mention the dates so that a curious reader could track them down unless you track them down in the notes at the end of the book. Most of her information comes from speaking to the descendants of immigrants who may or may not have been the first at whatever Lee is investigating. This bothers the scholar in me, because a lot of this testimony is not backed up by other evidence.

This book was an interesting read, but it's far from the definitive history of Chinese American food. If you're looking for just a taste, though, this is a pretty good book.