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Friendly Books

A little interlude in the stream of vacation consciousness. I’m sitting here on the 16th floor of a high-rise in Medellin, Colombia, looking out over the El Poblado neighborhood. It’s early, really early, and I thought it’s about time I finish this post which I’ve been poking away at on and off for a bit. I have friends who like to write. There, I said it. And some of them have actually published books. Usually, not always, I end up getting a copy, though I tend not to review them, because, is it really fair to review the book of a friend? I can’t be 100% objective. But hey, they tell people good things about Casa SaltShaker and recommend they eat here, right? (You guys do, right?)

So, here, a little shilling for a trio of books by folk I know and like.

First up, two books by FJ Rocca, whom you’ve met on these “pages” as Frank, in the guise of posts about some of the dinners I used to do in New York, visiting when I’m back in the States – earlier on in NYC and more recently in Baltimore, and, he’s the talented cartoonist who drew the covers for both editions of my dictionary. Over the last two years he’s published two novels that he’s been working on for some time – one of them I actually read an early draft of years ago, so it was nice to see how it shaped up in final form.

masterwednesdayNot the sort of book I’d typically pick up to read, my tastes, without an outside reason to select a book, tend towards food related, obviously, though in the world of literature I tend towards occasionally getting around to a classic that for some reason I’d never read (you know, those lists of “the 100 books that such and such authority says you should read before you die”), science fiction, historical fiction, and humorous sorts of things. Master of Wednesday Night is none of those things – it’s an intricate psychological drama that focuses on the rivalry between a young, up and coming, ambitious (both positively and negatively) symphony conductor, and the older, nearing retirement conductor who’s hovering somewhere between “still got it” and irrelevant. The characters are well drawn, the plot moves along at a good clip, and one of the things I like about it the most is that Frank (see, I’m going to use first names, rather than last names as is typical in a review) doesn’t dumb down his prose. Some folk may need to resort to a dictionary now and again, which admittedly may interrupt the flow, but hey, it’ll be worth it. I found the book engaging enough that I read through the nearly 500 pages in two sittings.

becarefulkillHaving worked with Frank for a short while when I was doing night-time word processing at a law firm while attending cooking school during the day (I’m trying to remember when it was that I actually slept), the setting and characters of Be Careful Who Kills You! ring familiar. We knew people like the four folk who dominate the story. What I particularly enjoyed in this little thriller is that none of the characters is purely antagonist or protagonist, they’re all well rounded and have elements of both. By turn, each was someone to admire or despise, to root for or against. There are moments in the plot line where the story edges into being momentarily preachy about right and wrong, good and evil, and I can hear Frank admonishing one or another of his daughters in the ways of the world, but he pulls back from the brink and continues apace. The story definitely doesn’t end up anywhere predictable, and what more can you ask for from a combination romance and thriller?

drivinghungryNow, Layne Mosler is not someone I know nearly as well as Frank. We were more social acquaintances during the time she lived in Buenos Aires, met up once in New York (hey Layne, I notice I didn’t get an acknowledgement for my “ride along” in the book credits – just sayin’), and have kept in reasonably regular touch over the years since she left. She was one of the early English language food bloggers in BA, starting up not long after I did, and her reviews often sent me off to check out one place or another. But, despite the ostensible food focus of Driving Hungry, a memoir that at first blush seems to follow her blog Taxi Gourmet as she heads off to eat wherever the whims of cabbies take her, this isn’t a book about food. It’s a book of self-discovery, mostly as Layne moves from her 20s into her 30s, about life, love, and relationships. Food, and tango, form the backdrop against which her story develops. Now, I have to admit, I approached the book with a certain amount of trepidation – after all, does someone in their 30s really have enough life experience to be writing her “memoirs”? I think of memoirs as something someone writes as they head into their “golden years”. But setting aside that moniker, the book is an engaging tale that traces her story from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin. One of the more interesting things about the structure, and I don’t know if it was intentional, or based on the timing of when the three sections were written, or simply based on her feelings about those three periods in her life, but each is written in a disparate tone of voice. You could almost come away with thinking that the events, as they unfold, were narrated by different people, viewing Layne’s life from a different perspective. Regardless of intention, I found that that added to my enjoyment of the book, as it felt like Layne, the author, was developing alongside Layne, the character.


Politics – same pitch, different day

Joffe, Josef (2013-11-04). The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies

Quite possibly the best debunking of the misuse of statistics and political rhetoric I’ve ever read. For anyone who laments the loss of bipartisan cooperation in America, and the rise of shrill extremism, this is a must read. I’m just going to include a little excerpt from the book here rather than carry on with my own opinion:

Actually, “the sky is falling” should not be a very lucrative pitch. Such alarms stoke fear and panic; why invest in the future if the clock is running down? But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flip side, which is redemption. Darkness is the prelude to dawn. The gloomy forecast reviles past and present in order to promise the brightest of futures. Start with fire and brimstone, then jump to grace and deliverance in the here and now. Listen to Jeremiah as he thunders, “Turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; then you will live in the [promised] land.” Jeremiah may have been the father of modern campaign politics.

Preachers and politicos take naturally to this one-two punch because ruin followed by renewal is the oldest narrative in the mental data bank of mankind. The device is even older than the verdict of doom— the Mene, Tekel on the palace wall— revealed by Daniel. Start with the Flood, a universal theme played out over four chapters in Genesis, but found much earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian myth, as related in the Gilgamesh Epic dated 2700 BCE. Genesis, written in the fifth or sixth century BCE, expands and embellishes the original. It relates how “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” So He decides to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, for I am grieved that I have made them.” The end is nigh, but don’t despair. Mankind will be spared after all, because the Lord selects Noah, who has “found favor in His eyes,” and commands him to build an ark that will save mankind.

So after death by Deluge, it will be rebirth for the righteous led by an ordinary mortal who knows the future, and how to act on it. This story never ends. The Children of Israel were punished for the Golden Calf, the idol that embodied a wicked past, with forty years in the wilderness. Yet if true to the Law and to God’s messenger Moses, they will be rewarded with the Promised Land. As the Resurrection follows the Crucifixion, so misery will segue into salvation, but there has to be a leader, spiritual or political, to show the way: Moses or Jesus, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack (“ Yes, we can”) Obama. The pairing of doom and deliverance defines the eternal archetype.

In all these narratives, ruin is the means, and rescue the end. Terror is the teaching device that will change the course of history. For all his tirades, every Jeremiah actually wants to be disproved by making his errant flock atone and amend. “Declinism is a theory that has to be believed to be invalidated,” explains Samuel Huntington. It is the opposite of the familiar “self-fulfilling prophecy,” a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The alarm starts out with a “false definition of the situation” and then triggers “new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ ” To predict a bank failure is to unleash a run that will actually cause the collapse.

Declinism markets a “self-defeating prophecy.” Since these predictions deal with humans, and not planets or protozoans, they are designed to trigger reactions that lift the curse. Merton puts it thus: Evil does not come true “precisely because the prediction has become a new element” that changes the “initial course of developments.” So to foretell is to forestall— that is the very purpose of Declinism. Take the “impending exhaustion of natural resources” from Malthus to the Club of Rome, which foresaw the end of global growth some forty years ago, especially because of dwindling oil reserves. Myriad changes in behavior— from conservation to exploration— followed, causing oil gluts on the market in the 1980s and a gas glut in the 2010s. The world economy grew twentyfold in this period (nominally). Would that all catastrophes had such a short shelf life!

None of America’s Declinists over the past half century, as presented in the preceding chapter, actually wanted the country to suffer its foreordained fate. The prophecy is designed to be self-defeating, and the structure of augury is always the same: This will happen unless . . . Holding up another nation as a model is to correct one’s own, not to condemn it— from the Sputnik Shock of the 1950s to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in the 2010s. To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan, et al. will overtake us, unless we labor hard to change our self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant; only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer.

In politics, “the sky is falling” has yet another purpose. It is no accident that the figure of the prophet, in the legend or on the stump, stands at the center of the narrative. We have to believe in the messenger so that he can rise above us and guide us to a better tomorrow. Hence dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood, are part and parcel of the prophecy. To hype is to win. Never mind that the Missile Gap and the Window of Vulnerability were mere myths. Expediency beats veracity in campaigning and sermonizing. And so, hyperbole paves the road from the vale of tears— or to the White House. “Follow me, and ye shall be saved!” is the eternal message. Or in Kennedy’s words, borrowed from Churchill, “Come then— let us to the task, to the battle and the toil. . . .”

Prophet or politico, the strategy is to paint the nation in hellish colors and then to offer oneself as a guide to heaven. The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again— if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader. It worked for both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who rode all the way to the White House on nonexisting Soviet missiles. Shakespeare wrote the original script. To “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” was Henry IV’s advice to his son and successor. The democratic equivalent is to scare up votes with foreign threats. After the election, dawn always follows doom— as when Kennedy called out, “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear that had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again, twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted, “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back” and again on top. Collapse was yesterday, today it is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why Declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration— and wilts quickly after victory.


Cooking the Books #2

A round-up of some of my recent food reading.

Pollan, Michael (April 28, 2009) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Setting aside that in some ways this is another book with more of the same diet advice that’s been published in countless books, the most interesting part of this is that not only is it well written and engaging without being preachy, but I like that it really explores how statistics and media messages have been manipulated by corporations and government agencies with agendas that aren’t in our best interests. For those who are Michael Pollan fans, this is a must read.


Davis, Michelle & Holloway, Matt (October 7, 2014) Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck

Yawn. Really, just yawn. Look, I don’t care about people using curse words, but these folks don’t even know how to use them. They’re trying for some weird version of “street cred” and they come across as completely inept at it. It’s as if they wrote the book in a final version with every i dotted and t crossed and all the grammar perfect, and then said, “hey, let’s do a global search and replace on some words like ‘things’ to change it to ‘shit’, and everywhere we use the word ‘delicious’ let’s add in the word ‘fucking’ in front of it”. It comes across as completely formulaic and forced (as it does on their website), and it’s no surprise that they were recently “outed” as a couple of whitebread yuppies just trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a shame, too, because they actually have some decent recipes on the site and in the book, but the quality of those, and the underlying message for healthy eating, just get lost in a big motherfucking pile of word shit. (See, annoying. It doesn’t work when I do it either.)


Orkin, Ivan & Ying, Chris (October 29, 2013) Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint

Most people will probably head to this book for the recipes. After all, why not learn how to make ramen from a westerner who took the time and effort to learn everything he could about the subject and then interpret it and reinterpret it for western palates? And, the recipes sound great, are well written, albeit at times a bit complicated or at least time consuming. But, for me, it was the story of how Ivan Orkin dove into his life and developed his passion for ramen that made the book. Completely captivating.


Sokolov, Raymond (February 11, 2014) Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

Part of my introduction to the world of food came through the brilliantly researched and well written articles by Raymond Sokolov in my monthly subscription to Natural History magazine when I was growing up. Later, I would snag a friend’s daily Wall Street Journal after she finished with it, purely to read his restaurant reviews and food writing. His Saucier’s Apprentice and Cook’s Canon were long ago staples of my bookshelf. This book just continues the saga, with an autobiographical look back at how it all happened, along with an insightful look at where food trends are headed in today’s culinary world. For anyone interested in food history, this book is a must to pick up and enjoy.


Cooking the Books #1

Like my new little series of “Bite Marks” on my food blog, SaltShaker, for mini-restaurant reviews, I’m trying to be a bit more organized, and I thought I’d start with doing much the same with book (and other media) reviews. Let them be gathered together and all that….

So I have this vague recollection that a few years ago someone told me about a new food novel about some Indian chef in France. It sounded kind of interesting, but I forgot completely about it. Then, of course, last month, everyone started going gaga over this new film about some Indian chef in France. It sounded kind of interesting, but I thought I’d read the book first. And there on the cover of The Hundred-Foot Journey is a quote from Anthony Bourdain claiming that it’s the bestest everest novel set in the cooking world that’s ever been published, or something to that effect. Novel, mind you, not best cooking or chef or food book. But that’s a pretty bold claim and a big gun name to get on the cover of your book. So I sat down to read it. And read it. And… pretty much, I couldn’t put it down.

I ended up reading through it over two evenings, before bed. I got completely caught up in the story, the writing is tight, well paced, and I thought the story developed beautifully, I found myself right there along with the protagonist, our erstwhile Indian chef in France. I loved it from cover to cover, be it the food and ingredient descriptions, particularly those relating to his Indian influences, and I could see exactly how his drive to succeed pushed him into this world without social connections – it’s what happens to many chefs who get singled minded in pursuit of their craft. At some point, it all comes crashing down, or, they find a balance.

And I started to think, there’s no way they could make this into a movie, no one but chefs would want to watch it, which means that one of two things has happened – either they’ve made a really arty film that will become a cult hit with people who are really into food – foodies, if you will, or, they’ve torn out the soul of the book and replaced it with some Hollywood feel-good storyline. The movie’s getting raves all over the place, take a guess….

[spoiler alert if you keep reading]

I just knew it, I never should have gone to see the movie (which, inexplicably, here is called Un viaje de diéz metros, or the Ten-Meter Journey, when it should be Thirty-Meters). I can’t say it was a heartless adaptation, because first, it wasn’t heartless, it was all about heart, it was all about romance – two parallel romance stories that never occur in the book, in fact, one of the romance lines involves two people who in the book are dead, part of what drives our young chef to become what he becomes – it was, however, soul-less. Second, it’s not an adaptation. That assumes that there is some relation to the original story, one that involved racism (in the book) rather than politics (in the movie) – oh so blatantly dropped out of the early scenes, in fact, the family name is changed from a Muslim one to a Hindi one (to be more specific, a Kshatriya clan name), just to bypass that whole arena (a bit of racism comes in later on, but that’s not until the family is in Europe). All the intense, graphic scenes of dealing with ingredients (like nearly a chapter spent on the hunting and butchering of a wild boar), are sanitized into an idyllic bicycle ride through the woods looking for mushrooms and the occasional fishing line cast into the river.

I could even forgive the romantic storylines and whitewashing the grittiness (whatever for? watching someone butcher a pig is far less gruesome than watching, say, an episode of Bones) that make the movie a box office draw if it wasn’t for the most egregious offense, one that amounts to food racism (and I’m a bit surprised, given some of the people who are behind the movie) – in the book, it’s our Indian chef in France’s refined, elegant, modern Indian food that shocks, surprises, delights, and opens doors, and the French food comes in later; in the movie, despite his evident passion, he’s shown cooking homestyle and street Indian food, and it isn’t until he embraces the French classics (and later molecular gastronomy, which never happens in the book) that anyone pays a moment’s attention. Indian food, it’s made clear, is something that Indian people eat, not those with any taste. At most, we can allow a few spices to be added to the “real” haute cuisine in order to make it a bit “exotic”, but no more. (Actually, there’s a whole second racist overtone – the family goes from in the book being well-off, well-dressed, albeit outsiders from India, to being relatively poor, grubby immigrants, and the family restaurant is ignored by the townspeople until the family starts dressing up in Bollywood costuming. Oh, Oprah, were you paying any attention? Or do you think the only people hurt by stereotypes are black?)

Now, how would I have felt if I hadn’t read the book first? Obviously, I can’t really know. Would I have picked up on the whole shift of cuisines? Probably not, but that’s also because he wasn’t shown making the elegant, modern style Indian food, he didn’t start going for elegance, presentation, refinement, until after starting to learn about French food. Had the movie followed the book, it might have been more evident. I wouldn’t have known about the dropped racism in India storyline. I wouldn’t have known there were no romances developing. I wouldn’t have known it was missing the deep diving into the guts of animals that was so graphically portrayed in the book. So my guess is, it would have come across as a reasonably well acted and directed story about love and a passion for food, albeit a bit schlocky. Read the book, save your movie dollars for when it shows up one day on WE tv.

Now, a bit less in-depth, just short thought on another book finished this week:

Awhile back someone recommended this book to me, I don’t recall who. Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu and Kenji Miura, is a beautiful look at a type of Japanese cuisine and an approach to preparing it that most of us in the West probably will never experience. As such it’s a great journey, well illustrated and with easy to follow, step-by-step instructions. The flipside is that many if not most of us may simply not live somewhere with access to the ingredients necessary to make these dishes properly, and if there’s any fault in the book it’s the lack of suggestions for substitutions on ingredients, equipment and method. While I can appreciate the commitment to the integrity of the dishes and their tradition, it leaves much of the book as something interesting to read and dream about.