The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Bourdain writes that this cookbook is not a cookbook, and he's got a point. It's an illustrated sermon. The point is to cajole you to pay attention to the food, and to enjoy this simple, tasty style of food.

Why wouldn't you enjoy? First, it's French, and for Americans even the simplest French cooking has a forbidding encrustation of snobbery and mystery. Bourdain's point is that this is simple food. "If you can make a decent chili, you can make cassoulet. A lot of the same principles are at work. Don't let the French name fool you. Ever."

Another obstacle is the insistence of gastro-porn on using only the finest, freshest ingredients and home-made everything. My mother gave me Gourmet one year in grad school, and it drove me nuts: if there's a long, inconvenient and costly way to do something, Gourmet wants you to do it that way. Bourdain has limits (Dried rosemary? "Do not get that dried trash anywhere near my bird!") but encourages you to take sensible shortcuts.

Bourdain's biggest point is planning and prep -- mis en place . And this is a great topic for a sermon. Lots of people who cook, nowadays, are pretty much self taught. Lots of people who cook, things being what they are, were taught by people who weren't really very efficient in the kitchen. People like tasty food at the end, but efficiency matters a lot. Efficiency is the difference between whipping up a nice three-course meal from what happens to be in the frig, or spending the same amount of time waiting for the pizza guy to show up.

Bourdain's got a schtick. He's a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-nosed guy with edges and attitude. He is not, in other words, Julia Child. This is fun when it's going well, occasionally tiresome when he's stretching the point, and sometimes peculiar because he's also thoughtful, literate, and well read, and he somehow thinks that being thoughtful and reading a lot aren't compatible with the tough working-guy image.

The recipes seem solid, too: the roast chicken was fine, the leeks vinaigrette were better, the porc à l'ail was a big win -- and I seldom cook pork.

March 4, 2005 (permalink)

Three fine, extended essays about cooks and cooking. The first describes the Certified Master Chef exam, a grueling ten-day marathon that's a cross between medical residency and Iron Chef. In some hands, this could be a routine Hero Overcomes Adversity saga, but Ruhlman has the skill and judgment to play quietly and cleverly with point-of-view, changing what could have become a sports story into something more interesting.

The other two essays are stronger. In one, Ruhlman looks at Michael Symon, a successful restauranteur, and tries to get a handle on why his food works and why his restaurants are fun.

The final essay is, in essence, that story of "how I got to write the French Laundry Cookbook". It's fun and funny; Ruhlman's core argument, I think, is that the legendary Thomas Keller succeeds because his food makes you laugh. Ruhlman is refreshingly skeptical about the idea that serious cooking is anything more than a craft -- he refuses to take claims of the chef as artist and auteur very seriously -- and he does a lovely job of avoiding CEO porn while remembering that this is, after all, an interesting (and famously difficult) business.

March 4, 2005 (permalink)

Father is a subhuman dedicated to the advancement of the species. He invented the portable volcano as well as important advancements in the arts and sciences. But Uncle Vanya keeps dropping in to dinner -- Uncle Vanya still lives in the trees, so the dropping is literal -- and he doesn't buy the program.

A clever little story, nicely told.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

A clever, witty, jaunt around Australia with a clever, witty writer. Bryson likes Australia, which he finds pleasant, and he likes Australians, whom he find pleasant. He's a nice guy.

When I read Bryson'sNotes from a Small Island, I wrote that they were

Charming, witty, and amusing travels of an American who, having lived for many years in England, takes one last swing through it isle before taking his family off to the U.S.

Do you see a theme here? Somehow, with an entire continent at our disposal, we might perhaps wish for more than a further demonstration of what a nice guy the writer is, as we already know this. Still, it's a pleasant read.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

A delightful little book, essentially a travel essay about the journey into school and back again. Ruhlman, a journalist who likes to cook, gets permission to take Skills 1 at The Culinary Institute of America, and finds the professional kitchen so exciting that he returns from time to time, over the next two years, to study with his temporary classmates until they graduate. Ruhlman is not a fancy writer but he can turn a phrase when he needs to: making his way home from school through the blizzard of '96, he spins out and recalls that

I was fortunate to have fishtailed into the oncoming traffic at a moment when no traffic happened to be coming on to halt, with a muffled thunk, my graceful spin.

When the class's worst student suddenly has everything fall into place and hands in a superb plate:

Erica, who had scrambled the eggs meant for sauce hollandaise, clouded her consommé, served onion soup in a cold bowl, Erica, whose roux had caught fire, was improving.

You've got to envy that casual caught fire.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

L. A. Banks

L. A. Banks set out to incorporate Buffy into the vampire mythos, the consensual natural history of vampires that writers all share. Everyone knows that vampires have fangs, everyone knows Dracula, and now everyone knows about slayers. Here, the slayer is almost 21, she's a black rock star, she's got an entourage of guardians, and we've got all sorts of interesting opportunities to explore race and inner-city violence as communal vampirism.

This book is such a mess than you wonder what St. Martin's was thinking. After combat and chases and brooding foreshadowing, it climaxes in.... exposition! Buckets and pools of exposition! The exposition solves nothing and resolves nothing. It's delivered by characters ex machina de profundis that trot onto the stage only to deliver the exposition. Nobody goes, nobody comes, nothing ever changes.

I'm very uneasy about the title. The Huntress's nemesis, a New Orleans master vampire named Fallon Nuit, calls his circle of followers "The Minion". This makes no sense -- minion is not a collective noun. Could L. A. Banks possibly mean us to read it as minyan ? I hate to think that's what Banks intended, and since she's capable of writing about "The Knights Of Templar," you know that precision of language is not her strong point. The rest of the mythos is strongly Christian -- crucifixes really work, swearing will summon dark forces, and unbelief is explicitly cited as a strategy of the dark forces.

The book, if it's about anything, is about trying to build a metaphor for the conflict between elements in African-America street culture, conflict between guys in the street and the womenfolk in the church. In the context of race and religion, this is too close for comfort. It should have been caught, if accidental, or excised if not.

There are a few places you just can't go these days -- mythos elements so dark that you can't use them for stunts. High school coaches that turn the swim team into monsters? Sure. School cafeteria cooks brandishing huge knives? Go for it! But blood libel -- suggesting that the Jews are vampires? You do not want to go there, you do not want to visit that neighborhood after dark.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Graceful, honest, and intelligent stories about young women. In "The Smoothest Way is Full Of Stones" -- the title is a Yiddish proverb -- a Brooklyn girl who is sent to live with her Orthodox cousins while her mother convalesces. Her cousin finds a dirty book, hidden by an Orthodox boy, and this becomes their infinitely-divisive shared secret. It's a wonderful story. So is the meeting of a fat young artist and her supermodel cousin in "When She Is Old And I Am Famous", a story in which the title says everything that needs to be said, but the saying of it is so elegant we are delighted to watch it unfold.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

A fine, funny little book about a young rabbinical student who, visiting a hospital, discovers that she's not cut out to be a rabbi.

As I went down into the lobby and out into the spring sun

That, plus a nice sense of place (the place being the modern Brooklyn of supermoms and dotcom hipsters), pretty much sums up the book. Much later, when Rachel Block and Hank Powell, a Famous Old Writer she's trying to sleep with are playing tennis with Richard (Rachel's dad) and his very young lover, things get predictably weird:

"Are you all right?" But there was a glint in his eye like he cared more about the point than his own daughter's welfare.

"She's fine!" Powell said. "Let's keep going."

"You're amazing, Richard," Liz said, skipping toward him and planting a soul kiss on his mouth.

"Could you cut it out?" I said.

"You're just bitter we're winning," Liz said.

"I'm just bitter you're fucking my father!" I said. One of the middle-aged guys on the next court looked over with a raised eyebrow.

"This could be a reality show," Powell said.

The first and the final chapters are exceptionally strong.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Wonderful Town
David Remnick, ed.

A collection of New Yorker stories, from the New Yorker, each with some connection or other to New York. Sometimes the connection is tenuous; I think Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa" would play just as well in LA, and Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" appears nightly on Law and Order.

But I don't think I had even heard of Deborah Eisenberg before, and her story, "What It Was Like, Seeing Chris", is approximately everything you can ask from New Yorker realism.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

In Texas, schoolboy football is the most important thing in town. Bissinger follows the season of the Permian High School Panthers, whose rivals include the high schools from George Bush's hometown, Midland.

Bissinger says he set out to write something like Hoosiers, that the darkness of the story -- the way the kids are mistreated, ignored, derided, discarded -- came as a surprise. Still, it's a predictable tragedy. What's best, here, is the way Bissinger expertly plays with narrative rhythm, how he keeps the games themselves largely offstage, and how we gives space to the cheerleaders, the parents, and the tired old Texas guys who, long ago, were themselves schoolboy stars.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Dave and Elli gave this to me a year ago. I gobbled it up; it's brilliant. It got me into a fight with the in laws; I thought perhaps I'd better let it cool off a bit.

20th century Europe is about the conflict between three Big Ideas: Communism, Fascism, and Liberal Democracy. Mazower sets out to reconstruct, with directness, simplicity, and astonishing vividness, what these ideas were and why they seemed good at the time. A lot of these ideas, repackaged, are flourishing today in New Jersey and Kansas and Midland, Texas.

If you aren't exactly sure what Fascism is, if you think it's just a term of opprobrium and can't imagine why any decent, intelligent person would back it, you need to read this book before the next election.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Count Zero
William Gibson

Even after ruthless pruning, my stack of pending reading is intolerable. So, naturally, I embarked on an unplanned rereading of this Gibson classic.

it's been eighteen years since this novel -- Gibson's second -- appeared, and it's easy to find holes. The world changed: Japan's demographic problems weren't obvious back then, and the relegation of ideology to the dustbin of history seems a lot less likely today. The matrix, of course, isn't going to look much like Gibson's 3D videogame world, and perhaps there's not as much cultural energy in the Caribbean as Gibson hoped.

But Gibson still writes wonderfully, his plotting is nifty, and he sure can be spooky.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Nick Horby's monthly book column for The Believer begins with a monthly list of Books Bought, and another list of Books Read. This alone is brilliant, honest, revealing, and (you won't believe me when I say this, but it's true, really) hilarious. The book is endlessly amusing, and I've been plaguing poor Linda all weekend by reading aloud entire passages. A simple parenthesis -- "Books bought: David Copperfield (twice)" -- had me laughing louder than did anything in Jonathan Ames' funny (and Notable) Wake Up, Sir!"

If you really like to read, drop everything and read this.

January 28, 2005 (permalink)

Peter Steinhart, a naturalist and nature writer, found that he couldn't do his work any longer -- found that his writing about nature kept slipping into writing about people and their impact on nature. When Steinhart is stuck, he finds drawing helpful. He was, it seems, badly stuck, and so he wrote a book about figure drawing.

He approaches figure drawing as a naturalist, not an art critic or an art historian, and this gives the book an original flair and rhythm that is oddly intriguing. He explores the habitats of people who draw. He observes their customs and manners, their rules, their disguises and excuses. He takes a very close look at the complex interdependence of model and artist, and explores their economic interdependence.

January 28, 2005 (permalink)

Mark Twain's elder brother had been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and offered him a chance to come along as his own private secretary. It was to be an adventure of a few months in the wild West, but with the silver boom in full swing, Twain stayed for years.

This is a witty and fond recollection of a bubble. Twain and a friend were millionaires -- for ten days. Chastened, Twain got a real job and invested prudently and was about to sell out for about $100K in Civil War dollars -- not a fortune, to be sure, but enough to retire on if he chose. Then the silver mine stocks all crashed, and his stock was the same fairy-gold wallpaper that so many internet veterans own.

It's nicely observed. When Twain recalls the stagecoach and the pony express, he's writing about technologies that shaped the world but that lasted only eight or ten years before they were replaced by faster technologies with better throughput. The internet generation didn't invent internet time, it simply made it faster.

But George's [revolver] was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage drivers afterwards said, 'If she didn't get what she went after, she would fetch something else.' And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

We were very tired, and we were very merry after an injury settlement left us $250,000, and so we have a failing writing career and a valet named Jeeves and an invitation to the Rose Artists' Colony. Amusing, frothy, and farcical, this nicely executed but sugary confection misses the chance to tell us what people do, and why, at these intriguing institutions. (It tells us they drink a lot and sleep with each other, but we knew that. What else do the artists do?)

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

At the outset of a novel, I'm often anxious to get on with it, coaxing the author to get the plot moving. McEwan, though, is at his best when the plot's not moving at all. Amsterdam opens with a wonderful setpiece: two men in a cemetery, old friends attending the cremation of a woman who was, at once time, each man's lover.

Booker prize 1998.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Boris Starling

Review forthcoming in Drood. A calamitous mess.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

A Caress of Twilight
Laurell K. Hamilton

A darkly delightful, sensual romp, this is the second novel in the Meredith Gentry series that I like to call faerie porn. Well executed and delightful fluff, beach reading for cold winter nights.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Ancient historians were not unbiased. Our sources for the late Republic are primarily nostalgic gentlemen who longed for an imaginary past of genteel order and were hostile to honest work and social justice. Parenti tries to balance the score by telling the story of Caesar from the people's side.

Unfortunately, Parenti doesn't undertake the work needed to construct a picture of Julius Caesar's actual policy, and so we're left idly cheering for the Left against the perfidy of the Right. Parenti does a fine job on Cicero, to be sure, but he's hardly the first to view Cicero as a vacillating trimmer.

What's missing here is a serious effort to figure out what Caesar intended to do -- how he envisioned reconstructing the Roman world. This may be impossible -- it's conceivable, for instance, that he had plan but had not yet confided it to anyone at the time of his assassination. And it's bound to be difficult, not only because our sources are incomplete but also because Augustus worked long and hard to make it appear that his own plan was Caesar's.

Parenti deplores the Roman reliance on slaves and freedmen, without noticing how vital these legal and social institutions would prove after the Republic to constructing a comparatively uncorrupt civil service. Honest administration had always defied Republican regulators, because the temptations of wealth and power were simply overwhelming. A slave could wield the power of a king and live in the comfort of a deity and yet, because slaves could not own property or bequeath estates to their children or sue in the courts, a slave was hard to bribe. Augustus built a civil service of educated slaves and freedmen; understanding what Caesar intended is the key to constructing a true people's history of the end of the Republic.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

Great Expectations turned inside-out and spun like a top. Brilliantly done.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)

The Game
Laurie King

Labour is coming into power in England, and Mycroft Holmes is uneasy about the ambitions of the Russian Bear in India. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes take a quick trip to India to investigate the unexpected dissapearance of an intelligence agent who, as a boy, was known as Kim and whom Sherlock knew in the years after Reichenbach Falls.

A delightful romp.

August 2, 2007 (permalink)