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

A literary memory the author (and chef) of Prune. This successful and accomplished literary memoir redeems the author’s early MFA: she can write as well as cook. The subject, of course, is the writer. That’s the subject of Prune, too, though it might be harder for people who don’t cook to see the extremely clever and skillful blending of commentary, anecdote, and advice in the latter. This book, with accounts of youth hostels in Europe and early struggles with the restaurant, is more familiar in construction but also replete with subtly skillful touches.

In the food, Hamilton is arguing against Keller and Adriá and Redzepi and making a case for simple and comfortable food. She affects to dislike overtly complex texts and overtly complex food. Yet she is not beyond being clever herself: in Prune, she keeps the Brandy Stinger (brandy and green creme de menthe, once inexplicably favored by USAF fighter pilots) on the menu but tells her staff that she wants to meet anyone who actually orders one. And here, while affecting to simply record here progress toward owning a successful restaurant, she carries on an interesting dialogue first with Anthony Bourdain (whose brilliant Kitchen Confidential celebrated and popularized a viciously macho portrait of the professional kitchen) and then with MFK Fisher. Fisher famously wrote of love and food, but her loves were seen in the shadows and the food was always foremost; in the second half of Blood, Bones, and Butter, her failing marriage (a marriage she always expected to fail, since she entered into the marriage simply to help a friend get a green card) takes the focus to the virtual exclusion of food. In the end, we see the chef only on vacation in Italy, where she is not permitted to cook, and much of what food discussion remains is only about what we cannot eat (burratta at home, because it’s never good; anything but eggplant at the summer house, because that’s all they grow there).

It’s striking that while the author is gay, and is not particularly shy about alluding to her relationships, this memoir almost never focuses on her orientation.It’s nice that we can have a candid autobiography of a woman who simply happens to be gay, a woman for whom this is part of her life, in the way her parents’ divorce is, but it’s not a central concern.

December 19, 2014 (permalink)

Gabrielle Hamilton

A delightful portrait of a chef, masquerading as a cookbook. This looks like a collection of recipes, but the recipes are written (and the book designed) not as if they’re adapted for the home cook, but instead as if they’re odd sheets of instructions to be handed to new line cooks. There are lots of canny and charming words of warning and advice – including several mentions of shortcuts that we wouldn’t take if we were “a real restaurant.”

There’s an entire chapter on garbage: how to use up food that even professional kitchens would throw away. (Example: sardine heads and bones: season, deep fry, and send ’em out to guests who are chefs, line cooks, or other professionals who’ll understand; not to be wasted on mere VIPs.)

In prepping the paté for a bar snack sandwich, the recipe advises that for a half batch one should make a cardboard and foil partition so you can use half the paté pan, and if you don’t know how, you should “find me and we’ll do it together.” Yes, chef. In prepping a dish based on lamb-filled wontons, the recipe calls for grabbing any intern or trailer in the house that night, because the prep is such a bitch. You don’t get this stuff from Joy of Cooking.

Recipes are scaled for service — but that often works out conveniently to 8, which is to say a dinner party, and we all know division. There’s some reverse-snobbery at work here too: a “duck liver garbure” is made with foie gras (and, we’re warned, is not really a garbure so don’t call it that if you get a job someday in a real restaurant).

This is impressive writing; in the guise of writing yet another restaurant recipe book. Hamilton has written an intelligent and sympathetic response to Kitchen Confidential.

December 3, 2014 (permalink)

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

National Book Award nominee, featuring a front-cover blurb by Erin Morgenstern, author of the estimable The Night Circus.

This is the story of the end of civilization and what came after. It’s a pandemic flu, but that’s not the point: the point is the people who keep going, and where they go.

Planetary romance is the a problem for all Armageddons; if civilization becomes the central character of the story, then the story becomes simple a pathetic deathbed scene or, if life marches on, a hospital melodrama. Here, Mandel uses avant-garde fragmentation to straightforward and evocative narrative effect: frequent time shift and changing points of view leave us in little doubt with regard to the Great Questions of whether civilization is saved and whether everyone is wiped out, and this leaves us space to build a moving novel of small achievements and small (but pressing) desires amidst the universal wreckage.

November 24, 2014 (permalink)

In Real Life
Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow

A suburban teenage girl goes online, joins a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game, and discovers that there’s a big and complicated world out there. Before she’s finished, she’s a key figure in a new Chinese labor movement. A power fantasy for a new age, but a good time is had by all.

November 17, 2014 (permalink)

Volume IV of this masterful series covers Johnson’s failed campaign for the presidential nomination in 1960, the many miseries of his vice presidency, and the sudden, terrible transition to the presidency that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that forever transformed the country. Caro’s sources are manifold and his methods scrupulous, which often lands him with a technical problem: there’s so much evidence, and that evidence is so good and so various, that is becomes a challenge to remember why we are reviewing this evidence in the first place. The result is sometimes repetitious, but the story bears repeating.

November 12, 2014 (permalink)

Stephen King

The contemporary school story ends with the dissolution of the school, and Stephen King here kicks off a remarkable career with the loving demolition of the school, the schoolchildren, and an entire town. It’s a direct and straightforward book, a simple book really; I wonder whether anyone knew, holding the manuscript back in 1973, what a sensation this would become.

November 7, 2014 (permalink)

How To Roast
Michael Ruhlman

Conventional food writing assumes that, aside from “serious” cooks, people simply want cooking to be fast, easy, and (if possible) nutritious. Take-out food is ideal fast and easy and could be nutritious: why cook? Lots of people don’t cook much: Ruhlman wants to change that.

What Ruhlman argues in his superb Twenty is that even serious cooking isn’t terribly hard or mysterious. There are a bundle of techniques — Ruhlman counts twenty — to master, and a bundle of ingredients one might acquire from your market. Match those ingredients with the techniques and you’re pretty well set.

Another way to put this is: you don’t need recipes. The core techniques give a dish a basic structure; once you've got that structure, you can do just about anything. This has also been Sally Schneider’s indispensable message: once you’ve got a general idea, you can do wonders with variations. For example, vinaigrette+anchovy+garlic+cheese makes a caesar salad, a bagna cauda, a stuffed artichoke, or a tasty roast mackerel.

Twenty is a dandy book, but it’s a big brick, and people who Don’t Cook don’t need another big brick. How To Roast takes one technique, gives people permission to try it, and shows a small spectrum of variations. You’ve got roast chicken, roast beef, roast cauliflower, roast peaches. You can roast in a roasting pan, you can roast in a skillet, you can roast on your charcoal grill. You can even roast in butter in your Le Creuset, which is as close as you can get to not roasting at all, but it’s poêlé and transgressive so let’s give it a try. (Ruhlman doesn’t talk about it, but you can roast in your toaster oven, too.)

One thing that set the wonderful Making Of A Chef apart, and that distinguishes the very best of Ruhlman’s food writing, is his flair for character, for Erica whose roux caught fire and for angry fellow-student Adam, the working man who hopes someday to open a restaurant/gallery/performance space. There’s not enough scope for character here, or for drama, beyond the shadowy partner with whom we can enjoy an hour’s frolic while the chicken roasts. That’s fine, but there’s space for more.

Roast chicken is a very interesting dish, when you come to think about it, in the controversy about home cooking.

  • Given an oven and the simplest bones of knowing what to do, it’s hard to really foul up a roast chicken.
  • Even the simplest of techniques and very mediocre execution will leave you with a dish that’s pretty good, especially if you're accustomed to frozen food.
  • All the likely failures are obvious. (Not done? You didn't use your thermometer. Put it back. Burnt? You entirely forgot the roast was cooking. Bland? More salt — and you can fix that right now at the table.)
  • There’s enough scope for Doing It Right that you can add some variation and you can improve. It’s quite possible to make really good roast chicken. Aside from not making silly mistakes, there’s using a better bird, using a much better bird, brining, basting, rubbing with dry southwestern spices, smoking, stuffing with lemon, making pan gravy, maybe sauce supreme: right there you’ve got two months of roast chicken of the week without repeating yourself.

One thing that I do miss is that, along with the 20 techniques (and of course the modest number of Ratios – an early Ruhlman systematization), there are a modest number of basic structures and symmetries that compose kitchen idioms. A French sauce, for example, is flavored water, flavored fat, and acid: veal stock+shallots sautéed in pan dripping+mustard is sauce Robert; egg yolk+ olive oil + lemon is mayonnaise; vanilla-infused milk+egg yolks+sugar is crême anglais, and you get the acid from the fruit in your dessert.

But it’s not just fancy stuff.

  • What is dinner? A protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Get them all, and everyone will recognize this as a proper meal. Leave one out, and the kids might complain.
  • What is a sandwich? I always thought it was two slices of bread with something in between, but now that you mention it, a sandwich crucially has a sauce between the bread and the payload. The exceptions are easy to work out: peanut butter and jelly (two sauces, one of which acts as the payload), or hot pastrami (a payload with enough spicy fat to provide a built-in sauce). Otherwise, you need the condiment. Salami and mustard on rye is a nice sandwich; a slice of salami between two slices of bread is a crying shame. Someone should have explained this to me before I turned fifty, but there you are.
  • What is a dinner party? A table for eight, with drinks, an appetizer, a dinner plate, and dessert. You can add a salad and no one will complain. I tend to add a course between the appetizer and the dinner plate – they do this routinely in Italy and they do it in every Victorian novel. I started doing this because I misunderstood a book by Susan Goin about menus, but it works because it introduces a little tension in the dinner (what’s he doing?) without frightening the audience (well, at least we won’t go hungry). A second dessert is another fun trick – ridiculous and festive.

There are a bunch of these structures and strictures for each style of eating. McGee covers some of these issues, and Ruhlman’s Ratio looks at others, but there’s still plenty to do. I’d love to see more.

But How To Roast is a terrific little book. It’s friendly, approachable, and it will give your oven a pleasant workout.

October 30, 2014 (permalink)

This Edgar Award winner is no fun at all.

Years ago, school girls Annabelle and Jade met on a summer day, came across a very annoying four-year-old, and everything went as wrong as they possibly could go. Years have passed, they have been released from prison. They have new names and identities; no one knows anything about their childhood, and they never speak of it. A condition of their parole is that they never, ever meet. Jade is now Kirsty, a reporter. Bel manages night-cleaning in a horrible little amusement park in a ghastly British resort town where someone is killing young women, and where the ghouls of the British media are gathering.

Much could have been made of this, and indeed much has been made of it: it won an Edgar and its atmosphere of claustrophobic, creepy, slime is rendered with skill and detail. Marwood does not shy away from challenges: in the crucial final chase, we have three separate heroes, all isolated, blundering about on a deserted amusement park pier on a dark and stormy night, all told in present tense through internal dialogue. As a mystery, The Wicked Girls does not precisely play by the rules, but it never promised to obey those rules and it doesn’t profit from the transgression.

One conspicuously-withheld bit of information is what really happened on that long-ago summer day when two unknown girls transformed themselves into notorious murderers. This story is doled out incrementally in flashbacks which are resolved only as the climax approaches, and this natural choice creates a problem. Readers will recognize at once that the accepted story of what happened cannot be right: first, because this is a mystery, and second, because mystery readers will all know Anne Perry. The gradual disclosure must necessarily build toward a revelation, but here the revelation can only reveal pretty much what we expect. The longer the arc, the greater the apparent tension, the angrier we grow because Marwood is, in effect, making a great show of withholding from us something that is already ours. Even if the backstory had gone completely otherwise, we’d tell ourselves that we expected that. and we would not be wrong. It might have been better to avoid the drama entirely: after all, as both women tell themselves many time, they know perfectly well what happened, and it was a very long time ago.

October 27, 2014 (permalink)

The conclusion of the promising series begun with The Magicians and The Magician King, this completes Grossman’s exploration of fantasy in the mode of high realism. We thought perhaps this would be Julia’s book, but it belongs instead to Alice, our lost lover who gave up her life (and indeed her humanity) in the first volume to save her former lover, young Quentin Coldwater, and incidentally to save Fillory, the land of faerie he loves.

This trilogy is a fine, engaging, and memorable story. It’s a single work; the novels stand alone, more or less, but the overall story is the entire point. Grossman’s trilogy is, of course, a response to Harry Potter, and its argument is well worth hearing.

Grossman’s land of faerie, Fillory, is also a response and a tribute to Narnia, but where heroic fantasy tries to evoke awe and wonder, Grossman strives to retain realism even when things are happening that simply don’t take place in the fields we know. This could work, but Grossman subverts his world even as he builds it. Fillory is filled with myriad marvelous beasts, wonders so numerous that no one cares very much about anything because another marvel is bound to crop up soon. This had a promising effect back in The Magician, since it reflected the louche, feckless, but engaging protagonists who had so recently graduated from Brakebills and who were engaged in discovering all sorts of marvels: whiskey, wine, sex, and mastery. But this is a long journey, the marvels tend to blend together, and the relentless cynicism of the your narrator necessarily undercuts the sense of wonder that is the whole point of faerie.

There’s much talk of gods in this conclusion of Fillory, but these gods don’t get things done. You could say the same for Narnia, of course, but emulating flaws is a limited amusement. There’s quite a lot of fighting in Fillory but, in retrospect, almost every fight is merely a question of discovering which side began with an impossible advantage. Contrast Tolkien, for example, where actual fights are few and where the question is almost never who is strongest but rather what winning actually means. Weathertop, Moria, Helm’s Deep, Pelenor Fields, or The Last Battle: it’s never a question of unstoppable force, but rather the murkier matter of knowing what victory might really be.

Fillory is a story within the story, a construction that becomes explicit in The Magician’s Land. Internal stories are sometimes well wrought (Possession) but often they are sometimes deliberately bad (Hamlet). The technical issues that mar Fillory are certainly evident to Grossman and so must be intentional; I'd long assumed that Fillory was either a façade or a sham, but it is what it is; we’re so firmly realist that even our fantasy world is pretty shabby.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies (at terrific personal risk) restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

October 14, 2014 (permalink)

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. That used to herald something remarkable: Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Ringworld were the first three books to do it. Some of the joint awards were really lifetime achievement awards, and if you exclude those the full list of double winners is has lots of terrific books and only a few possible clunkers.

Ancillary Justice thinks seriously about alien minds – in this case, about collective entities with many human or humanoid bodies, all guided by a single intelligence. What happens when communications break down? What happens when the mind become bicameral? When self-doubt and self-loathing can find expression in civil war?

Some of Leckie’s world building is extremely clever. A collective mind that controls numerous humanoid agents is simply not going to be very interested in gender, and that gets expressed in all sorts of interesting ways, most notably in lots of play with pronouns that reminds us how pervasively interested in gender we are. There’s also a strangely nostalgic vein here for the space opera of a vanished age. Some passages feel like Jack Vance or Cordwainer Smith.

October 2, 2014 (permalink)