Friday, December 31, 2004

Books about Food, Part II

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by Sallie Tisdale. I remember enjoying this book, but it has been several years and, at this point, I'd be hard pressed to say much else about it. (Note to self: this is why it is a good idea to have a book blog. So that you might have a record of these thing.)

Never Satisfied by Hillel Schwartz. (Perhaps this isn't technically about food, but rather a history of dieting. I'm including it in this catagory since it it the best fit.) You'd think with a subject as emotionally charged and complicated as dieting, this would be one humdinger of a book. It wasn't. It was a missed opportunity.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry by Dean Edell. You know, the one with the radio show. This guy delights in being a naysayer to the naysayers and debunking the conventional wisdom about what is going to kill you. I wasn't enthralled by this book.

We Are What We Eat by Gabaccia. Yet another in my growing collection of Anecdotes about Food Books. This one was pretty good.

Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Vissier. See above. I especially liked this one. And I remember that it settled a curious question we had when reading The Gospel of Luke: Did they really have 'corn' in Jesus' day? (Answer: no. But the KJV translators used 'corn' to mean 'the most common grain crop.' So, Jesus' corn was wheat.)

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast. This is one of the very best books that I have ever read. You wouldn't think that a history of the Coca-Cola Company could be so incredible, but it is. Most likely because Coke is the Forest Gump of American history: there at all of the crucial moments. This is a must-read, and would make an interesting supplemental text to someone studying twentieth-century American history. My favorite anecdote in the book: when New Coke was introduced, an elderly woman was in the grocery store and came across the guy stocking the Coke. She began beating him with her cane (!) and saying "How could you do this? It tastes like s*%&!" Drawn by the commotion, a Pepsi stocker began to giggle. She turned on him, saying, "You stay out of it! This is family business! Yours tastes worse than s*%&!" Apocryphal? I don't care. It's one of the best stories that I have ever heard, and it does encapsulate the essence of people's response to New Coke. This is a must read and highly recommended.

Consuming Culture by MacClancy. (Do you wonder sometimes why I don't give the authors' first names? Because they aren't on the spine of the book, and there is no way that I am getting out of this chair to pull the book out of the stack and check the first name. Google it if you need it.) At any rate, this book explores the philosophical impact of food choices. I liked it, but I don't remember much about it.

It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten. I mentioned in Part I that I love this guy. This book, true to its predecessor, The Man Who At Everything, sets the bar for the Anecdotes about Food genre. I especially love his tenacity and lunacy in pursuing culinary perfection (ask about the time that he tampered with the temperature control on his oven so he could get it hot enough to make a proper pizza). Highly recommended.

Beard on Food by James Beard. I know James Beard is the granddaddy of writing on food, so I eagerly approached this book, and was disappointed. It might just be an issue of dating; much of this book seemed waaay out of date.

The South Beach Diet by Agaston. (Again, perhaps doesn't technically belong in this catagory, but this is the best fit.) I am not a dieter, but I liked this book. It worked very well for me (although it is incompatible, for me at least, with pregnancy and nursing). I plan on returning to it when the baby is weaned.

Why We Eat What We Eat by Raymond Sokolov. Yes, another Anecdote book. I liked it, and apparently it was another pretty forgettable one.

The Last Days of Haute Cuisine by Patric Kuh. Why did I read this? Haute cuisine died a long time ago. Who cares? And how exactly did I live in Berkeley and never make it to Che Panisse? (Poverty is no excuse.)

Food Politics by Marion Nestle. (Who is a professor of nutrition with no relation to the chocolate people.) An excellent, important, although perhaps sometimes boring book. There is a lot of politics hiding behind the supposedly scientific federal food policies, which is only to be expected when you consider how much money is at stake. A good, solid read.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

babyville by Jane Green

Ugh. I was so looking forward to a funny book about mothering babies, but . . . come on, it's not as if there isn't enough material to work with. From the first page, I was annoyed by an omniscient narrator giving us the innermost thoughts of a character so dispassionately; it reminded me of the short stories in women's magazines that I have never been able to read. When she has a pregnant woman craving chocolate ice cream with green olives and prawns, I gave up. Puhleeze. Reject.

Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg

Wow. This book deserved the Pulitzer Prize that it earned. (And may I be so shallow as to note that it has one of the most beautiful book covers that I have ever seen.) There is so much going on in this well-written book, because there was so much going on in Linbergh's life, that it is hard to know where to begin:

(1) Lindbergh was the first celebrity of the media age. The attention he received was amazing, unfathomable in this age of reality TV and blogs, where everyone, everyone, gets their fifteen minutes. His fame probably cost him his first born son. (A photographer actually broke into the morgue and took and later sold photos of the very decomposed corpse of his baby. Unbelievable.)

(2) The psychological effect of his flight is not something that anyone of my generation can easily appreciate.

(3) He was a jerk. By the end of the book, I hated him, with sorrow, because I admired him in the beginning. He allowed his wanderlust to torment his wife.

(4) I didn't realize that he was the main voice of isolationism in the years leading up to WWII. It was interesting (tho not convincing) to read of his reasons for opposing war: (1) that Germany was a buffer state against Russia (he had a very valid point, however, that Stalin had killed many more people than Hitler ever did/would) and (2) that he admired Germany's technocracy and thought that Hitler's excesses would end with his life. Early on, he was more or less a US spy (under the direction of Truman Smith--hey, I have a son named Truman Smith!) because his celebrity allowed him access to Germany's aviation facilities.

(5) Which brings us back to (1), about the media and celebrity. His sister-in-law noted that it only took 15 years for the press to take him 'from Jesus to Judas.' As an isolationist, he was branded anti-semitic (which appears to be partially true), a fascist (hmm. maybe. But you can understand his feelings about democracy after what the press had done to him . . .), and disloyal to his country (not true).

(6) At the end of his life, he became very interested in conservation and primative people, and he spent time living with several prehistoric tribes in various places around the world. Of course, now the man who previously wouldn't sign autographs or seek publicity was more than happy to sign letters asking for donations and make appearances to promote conservation. Was he finally using the press as they had used him, or was he just a hypocrite?

In general, I like the Thorough Biography Genre (favorites include Truman and John Adams). This is a fine addition to that list, and well worth the time to read. Because of the interesting philosophical issues raised by his life, mostly concerning politics and the media, this is one biography that would lend itself to discussion.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Books about Food, Part One

Books about food are one of my favorite types of non-fiction. It's amazing, really, how important food is (financially, nutritionally, environmentally, culturally) yet how little we think about it. Here's half the list of books that I have read about food; I'll do the other half later:

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. This has been on the best seller list forever. And it should be. The book's main strength is that he doesn't just focus on one area but several (nutrition, the meat packing industry, etc.). And, while I enjoyed reading it, I can't say that it changed my eating habits. Does that mean that the book failed? I don't know. We don't eat fast food a lot (maybe three times per month), by the way.

Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichel. It must have been forgettable, because I can't think of a single thing to say about it, and it hasn't been that long since I read it.

Fat of the Land by Fred Powledge. An out-of-date book about American eating habits.

Secret Formula by Frederick Allan. This is a history of the Cola-Cola company. And its main fault is that there is another history of Coke that is fabulous, which makes this book completely unnecessary. But more on that other book later . . .

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten. This is one of the best books that I have ever read and one of the rare books that I would consider reading a second time. Steingarten is a cantankerous non-foodie who ends up with a food-writing job and, well, you know. Funny, funny, funny, more so because he is obsessive. (Not in an OCD way. In a funny way.)

Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin. Similar to Fast Food Nation in that it is great muckraking, but no so great that I would stop going to Culver's.

Why Does Popcorn Pop? by Dan Vorhees. I've read several books in the little-anecdotes-about-food category. They're fun. They aren't going to change your life, but they're fun.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. I haven't seen the movie, but my impression just from the ads is that it has virtually nothing to do with the book. The book was a gem; it gave me deeply good vibes. Relaxing. Luscious. A vacation on paper.

Spoiled by Nicols Fox. What I decided after reading this book: any Scout campout that any of my boys go on will not involve raw meat. I'm not convinced that the food supply is quite as bad as Fox thinks, but there are dangers there. My adult brother had no idea that raw eggs could be dangerous. (I personally, eat cookie dough with raw eggs in it, but I won't let my kids. I feel that I can assess the 1 in 16,000 risk and decide to take it. But I don't feel comfortable imposing that risk on them. So I hide in the pantry whenever I partake.)

Can You Trust a Tomato in January? by Vince Staten. Yep, another entry in the little-anecdotes category. I think you can trust a tomato, but you'll get what you bargained for. We had a subscription to a demonstration farm on the UC Davis campus. That's when I learned what real produc tasted like. Wouldn't it be nice if people outside of the Central Valley of California could actually afford real produce? Until then, I'll continue buying tomatoes in January from Wal-Mart.

American Pie by Pascale Le Draoulec. (Has nothing to do with the movie of the same name.) Imagine a cross country trip with the sole goal of finding the best pie in the country. Funny writer, good book. Be sure to budget some time to make your own pie, because you'll crave it after reading this. This book is responsible for adding the phrase "dumpster pie" (exactly what it sounds like) to our family lexicon.

The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin. A collection of his writing on food; uneven. Some of it was good.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Children's Literature

I'm unsuccessfully resisting the urge to write about books that I have read in the past. So here is entry one of pre-November 2004 books. Instead of doing entries on individual books, I'll group by topic.

Like most homeschoolers, I read out loud to my children. This is one of my favorite parts of the day. I'm going to write briefly about the books we read outloud last year (this year, we're doing the Little House series).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This is one of only a few books that I remember reading (and having read outloud to me when I was a child). This is a classic that everyone, young and old, should read. One note: it was only reading it as an adult that I realized how moralistic it was. Interesting that I didn't notice this as a child. But I wonder: Does that mean that I subconsciously internalized the moral lesson? Or did it go right over me head? Is moralizing literature wasted on children?

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. (The other book that I remember from my childhood. I read it at least a half dozen times.) I'm not quite as gaga as the people who cry everytime they get to the end of this book, but I do like it.

The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum. I had, of course, seen the movie, but hadn't read the book until I read it to my boys last year. It's about what you would expect.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. What an odd little book. The flights of fancy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory resonated with me, but this book didn't. The boys liked it, though.

The BFG by Roald Dahl. We didn't make it through this one. Even weirder than James.

Stuart Little by E.B. White. I'm going to have to say that this one was forgettable because, um, I've forgotten most of the plot and my impression of it.

Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Another one that I loved as a kid. And don't see the movie; it is awful and screechy. But this is a sweet story of a boy and a trumpeter swan who can't make noise. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding

I only picked this up because of the frequent comparisons to I Don't Know How She Does It. But this wasn't nearly as funny. I found Bridget to be vaguely pathetic and, no, I haven't seen the movie.

I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson

This may be the funniest book that I have ever read. You cannot get past the pies-and-orgasms comparison in the first scene without being hooked on this true yet outrageous look at family life. I kept wondering why, as an at-home mother, I loved this book so much, but I love the ambiguity of the ending: Is she back to square one? Or will it be different this time? Is she a stay at home mom?

The Lovely Bones by Alice Seibold

I cannot believe I read this book. I have an extremely low tolerance for horror and this one pretty much freaked me out. That said, it was a compelling story. I kept wondering what was necessary for Susie to 'advance' in heaven, and whether she would help her family catch her murderer.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Hadden

A painfully sweet novel from the perspective of an autistic boy. It was painful to see his interactions with the world, and sweet because he reacted to situations in much the same way that my six year old would.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Our book group discussed this book and I was surprised that several people justified the father's lie, since it resulted in the son's growth (i.e., would he have ever taken the train by himself otherwise?). I don't know about that.

I struggled with my feelings of compassion toward the mother: we always hear of these saintly women who mother special needs children. But I doubt I would be one of them. I would be the one embarrassed by the very public breakdown in the department store.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

I read this because I loved Crossing to Safety. And I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't. It was painful to watch the husband drag his family around a continent on a hopeless quest. (It reminded me a little too much of someone I used to date, but that's another story.)

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

First, let me say that this book was right up against the edge of what I will tolerate for vulgarity, and I skipped several pages that crossed the line for me. At the same time, I was entranced in this meandering, odd novel that I can't even begin to describe. It is a family saga that manages to send up most of the conventions of modern life.

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr.

This is a funny, charming little book detailing the lives of the first industrial efficiency experts who, not coincidentally, were the parents of twelve. The details of their life are sweet, cute, and somewhat forgettable. I read this book in a day and it was a nice little escape.

Middletown, America by Gail Sheehy

Many 9/11 victims left families in Middletown, NJ. Sheehy followed several families for many months and relates their stories. She puts a human face on the tragedy. It was intruiging to see how some people bounced back and others slid into depression as the months passed by.

Modern Manners by P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke is one of the two best humorists out there (the other is Dave Barry) and I adore some of his other books, especially Eat the Rich, but this book was so slow. I couldn't get into it and it is in the Reject pile.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I tried to read this years ago, but couldn't get into it. This time, I realized that a ponderous first chapter sets the stage for a wonderful novel. A must-read.

The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher

I bought this because I think everyone should read Reviving Ophelia, Pipher's better-known work. This odd book uses Pipher's trademark case-study style to explore the lives of modern refugees. Their stories, equal parts tragic and touching, make an interesting read.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner

If there were awards for genre-crossing, this book would win. Part mystery story and part history of philosophy text, this unusual gem is a must-read. I'm not sure whether the philosophic community generally regards Darwin and Freud as members, but I'm in no position to quibble. And although the mystery didn't have the ending that I thought it should, the unraveling, re-raveling and ambiguity of reality certainly makes its point in a book about philosophy. The long passages covering the history of philosophy don't, surprisingly, weigh the book down. The author must have been an outstanding teacher.

A Perfect Arrangement by Suzanne Berne

So I don't normally read novels but I have been devouring them while enduring the constantly-nursing-sleep-deprived-fuzzy-brained newborn state. This is a beach read, an instantly forgettable yet enjoyable adventure into the world of a nanny that can't be trusted.

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