Monday, November 29, 2010
The Elements of Cooking is an interesting almost-narrative glossary of most things you'd need to know to understand what a cook is talking about. I learned the definitions of lots of terms that you see on fancy menus (or hear thrown about on Top Chef or on food blogs), what beurre blanc and beurre rouge are and how to make them, and also how to make stock. We made a great deal of that using the Thanksgiving turkey, which was spectacular. I'd highly recommend this book for the non-cook, the cook, and he experienced, snooty cook.
Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense at a time when essentially all governments in the history of the world had been monarchies, ruled by despotism, or small enough to be totally and functionally nonexistent at a societal level. His articulation of the injustice of hereditary monarchies, military dictatorships, and colonial rule (of white people) is brilliant and ... wait for it... revolutionary.
His reasoning is clear, concise, and absolutely correct. The examples he uses, which range from biblical stories to the political landscape of the 1770s are fitting when one considers that the only information most people had at the time was printed in a bible, printed in small newspapers, read to them from a bible, or told to them by people who had read newspapers. I didn't need the story of the Jews' choice of a king to show me that kings are bad, but when most people learned to read by their bibles, I'm sure it was a smart move.
What is hilarious is that the Glenn Becks of the world use Common Sense as a manifesto for the evils of government. Well yes, he does castigate monarchies pretty thoroughly, and with good reason. And yes, they are governments. Governments that overreach and are fundamentally unstable in a changing world. But Paine speaks with passion, reason, and vigor about the brilliance of an elected representative government. Democracy is good. That is his thesis. We still have a democracy, as do most "socialist" European countries. Therefore it's folly to interpret this brilliant long pamphlet is a conservative treatise that gives you proof that the Founding Fathers wouldn't like liberals.
Highly recommended if you haven't read before.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Well, and I think that a review of The Good Earth needs to start with a "well, and" and end with a "well, now" because literally every other line of dialogue in this classic starts with one of those phrases. I assume it's a translation thing she was trying to get across, and I assume that she knew what she was talking about because she spent a good chunk of her life in rural China after having been born in West Virginia.
Anyhow, it's a classic, won a bunch of awards in the 30s and is seen as an accurate picture of Chinese rural life by much of the world. I'm not sure about that - it was interesting and it seems feasible she got the setting and customs right - but it was really a bildungsroman. For those who had to Google that, that means a coming-of-age story, but she really takes it into almost allegorical form by making it about all people (and by that she means men) and about all lives. Regrets, success, forgetting, making your mark, fear, the tenuousness of happiness, materialism - all of these are a part of Wang Lung's life.
(Spoiler alert.) He goes from poor farmer to happy poor farmer to farmer-ruined-by-drought to city beggar to extremely lucky draft-dodger to extremely lucky thief to wealthy farmer to wealthy landowner and happy old man. There are plenty of twists and turns in there for him, but that's his arc, and I was struck by how different his life would have been had he not lucked out and not come across a scared old rich guy carrying a lot of money. Buck tries to make it a story of success - poor farmer turns into the rich lord he once groveled before - but I just took the point that some people are lucky and some people are not. His hard work had very little to do with his later success.
And let's not get started on the famous misogyny - his wife and mistresses and daughters barely rate a mention, though his wife is one of the more admirable figures in literature. Maybe that's how Buck chose to make a feminist point - I sincerely hope so.
Well, now I really enjoyed it for the most part, I'm glad I read it.
"When we got into Dr. Breed's inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul."
"Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas... So begins the courtship of a certain Unguentine to the woman we know only as Mrs. Unguentine, the chronicler of their sad, fantastical tale. For forty years, they sail the seas together, alone on a giant land-covered barge of their own devising. They tend their gardens, raise a child, invent an artificial forest--all the while steering clear of civilization. Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is a masterpiece of modern domestic life, a comic novel of closeness and difficulty, miscommunication and stubborn resolve. Rarely has a book so perfectly registered the secret solitude of marriage, how shared loneliness can result in a powerful bond."
"When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his hear, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. ... For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation and war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill."
Monday, November 22, 2010
Meh. I love me some Jon Stewart and Daily Show, and I love how his work over the last decade has become timeless. The Daily Show has a long shelf life. This book does not. I bought it in a bargain bin maybe eight years ago, and forgot about it. After the Rally To Restore Sanity, I thought I'd give this a try.
It's a bunch of short essays about pop culture of the late 90s, where Hanson Christmas cards detailing their decline, a Martha Stewart sendoff, and Princess Diana's immature letters to Mother Teresa all seem very dated. Somewhat "heh" but not enjoyable. The other pieces that are older (the secret Gerald Ford tapes, Hitler's Larry King Live interview, JFK's Jewish schoolboy chum's trip to the Kennedy Compound) should have more staying power but somehow don't.
I'm glad Jon Stewart is doing what he's doing now. We're all better off this way.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Once again, Malcolm Gladwell releases a book, I read it, I like it a lot, and tell people about it. This one isn't even new material - just a collection of his New Yorker articles in book form. They're still fascinating. He looks into infomercials and Ron Popeil to explain sales and selling. Ketchup to explain taste and marketing. The Dog Whisperer to explain what animals see when they look at us. Birth control methods to explain reproductive cycles, historical change, and religion's effect on private matters. Mammograms and spy satellites to give context to supposedly foolproof methods of observation. Etc etc.
It doesn't have a central thesis like Tipping Point or Outliers did, but it's still fun and informative and challenges your brain. What more can you ask for?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I read A.J. Jacobs’ “A Year Of Living Biblically” last year, and judging by my review of it, it’s hard to imagine why I tried his other famous book. I thought his attempt to chronicle living by the words of the bible was a little juvenile and disappointing in its lack of historical analysis. I wanted to hear more about why things made their way into the bible, how people have interpreted it over the years, what it meant to him and people in our age. It ended up being a scattershot personal journey that was more about the importance of family than his intended subject matter.
This was also a lot more pop-psych than I would have hoped for. His “investigation” into what intelligence actually is amounts to various gestures toward common clichés, rather than his opinion about what being smart means. As he reports on interesting bits from the encyclopedia, he goes for the quick yuk-yuk joke rather than absorb the info or tell you what he thinks it means. “Apparently, there’s a whole group of people – and by people I mean losers – who also comb the Britannica looking for mistakes.” Ha, ha! Ha! Sigh.
All this said, it borders on informative, and it sounds like a fun way to increase your understanding of the world. A survey course of existence, forcing you to know about things you’d never read about.
I did find the entry on Thomas Paine interesting enough to want to read more of his stuff, if only to have ammunition in a theoretical fight with a Tea Partier: “His ideas were solid – relief for the poor, pensions for the aged, public works for the unemployed, a progressive income tax. But in England, where he was living at the time, it got him charged with treason. Things worsened with he wrote another pamphlet attacking organized religion. Though he made clear in the pamphlet that he was a deist and believed in the Supreme Being, he still got charged with being an atheist.” Sounds like Glenn Beck hasn’t read Paine.
I did have to identify with Jacobs in this respect:
“I’m wondering if – to continue Ezekiel’s metaphor – I bit off more than I could chew when I announced this Britannica project to the world. Because I have to tell you, I’m not sure I can go on. I’m not sure I can hear another one of those tissue-thin pages crinkle while turning. Or see another black-and-white picture of an old man with elaborate facial hair. Or learn about the average cubic meters of water discharged by another African river. Or crack open another volume with a spine emblazoned with the Scottish thistle – a plant with sharp thorns that serves as Britannica’s weird-looking and aggressive logo. Why exactly did I think this was a good idea again?”
This book was also the last one I read on a Kindle - I'll post about my thoughts on e-readers soon.
Monday, November 15, 2010
This was recommended on a few lists that contained mostly grown-up books, and I understand why - but I wasn't expecting such a short book when I ordered it online. In Me Own Words isn't in any library system I belong to, so I had to try Amazon. It's supposed to be Bigfoot's tell-all autobiography. It's more of a short graphic novel with a lot more words than you'd think. "Me have opinion. What happen world me ask? Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit, just like bigfoot screenwriting career." It gets better and better, and the illustrations are funny and graphic and weird and not what you'd expect. Definitely recommended.
So far this year in books written by comedians, I've read Craig Ferguson's book "American on Purpose" and Bill Maher's book "New Rules." Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is much more Ferguson's than Maher's. I truly enjoyed a thoughtful, sincere, and funny novel-length biographical essay on comedy. Martin's book doesn't try for laugh-out-loud moments, but manages to make you chuckle to yourself here and there, smile, and furrow your brow with "ahhhhhh" moments. His take on what comedy means is refreshing. He begins with a brief childhood sketch and then gets right into his career, education, and stand-up failure through success through departure to movies. I think this quote will illustrate what I liked best about the book:
"I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on The Virginia Graham Show, circa 1970, unseen since its airing. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow, and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After viewing the show, I was - especially since I was writing an autobiography documenting my success - depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance. I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
I was not expecting to like Hunger Games - young adult books rarely satisfy me. But Collins' voice was intelligent and interesting, the story pulls you along from about page ten, you want to know exactly how far things will go, and what it all means. The meaning of this book has more to do with just how far voyeurism, reality entertainment, and exploitation will go. With these subjects it manages it does well. The larger political meaning I'm told will have to wait until books two and three - which makes me want to read them. I want to know what a post-second-civil-war-brought-on-by-resource-battles-and-regional-infighting United States looks like from another perspective than its cruel sacrificial exploitainment game system. Collins seems like she's got more to say and I'm willing to give it a shot.
Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigrants to Massachusetts in the 1600s. After the Mayflower landed, John Winthrop showed up with a dozen ships and became the first Governor of Massachusetts. I grew up playing the town of Winthrop in track and lacrosse, so I always find it fun to learn about the origins of Massachusetts names. Newton was a new town, Swampscott was… a swamp?
Anyhow, Vowell’s contention is that the pilgrims were nerdy religious types. When talking about how few books they were able to bring over, she says: “Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children’s children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox.” Perfect.
She takes us through the voyage over from England, and this passage jumped out at me:
“To see a ship similar to the Arbella, you can go to Plymouth, Mass., and climb aboard the replica Mayflower II, which to me is a claustrophobic floating vomitorium I couldn’t stand to be on for more than nine minutes, much less nine weeks. (A replica Arbella was built for Massachusetts’ 300th anniversary in 1930; but, according to Francis Bremer, it ended up beached at Salem’s Pioneer Village and the city of Salem tore the thing down after it “became a haunt for youths indulging in various questionable activities.”
Sounds like the north-of-Boston suburbs I grew up getting to know. The book is interesting, and well-researched, but I found it dragged here and there. I liked Assassination Vacation better, which I absolutely did not expect. There’s a lot about the religious philosophy behind what drives these people, and though the colonists’ interactions with the Native Americans looms large in the narrative of the book, for some reason I thought those parts weren’t as interesting as they should have been. Though you can see the importance of these relationships and, knowing bits of the history that unfolds through the next few centuries, you have a sense of dread as alliances are made and broken. Your mind runs through possible alternative futures – how could America have developed in peace with the people who’d lived there for millennia? Would it have been possible? It must have been. What could they have done? Something. The book doesn’t talk about this at all (it’s not its bailiwick, so that’s fine), but I was hoping for a little more. My disappointment is only a 4 out of 5 kind – I did enjoy the book and learned a lot, and her voice is very enjoyable. Definitely recommended.