Saturday, January 14, 2012

2011 Top 10: Radioactive

Eighth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss, ©2011

In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss uses art (primarily illustrations created through a process of “cyanotype printing” that evokes negative images and glowing radiation) to present a biography of Marie Curie ... and of radiation itself, from Roentgen to Hiroshima to Spider-man.

Even the words are art, in a font (developed by the author) that looks like delicate hand printing, arranged interestingly on the pages. I enjoyed seeing the personal side of Marie Curie, loved learning that Roentgen “dubbed the invisible light an ‘X’ ray, X for unknown,” and can understand how, at the turn of the century, the piling-up of discoveries of so many invisible forces (electricity, radio, telegraph, x-ray, radioactivity) “blurred the boundary between science and magic.”

It’s a part-linear, part segue-filled slideshow. Lovely.

Friday, January 13, 2012

2011 Top 10: My Own Country

Seventh in a series of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

My Own Country by Abraham Verghese, ©1994

A fascinating, moving memoir of a doctor treating (more accurately, devoting his life to) early AIDS patients in small-town Tennessee. It's a startling reminder of how much more closeted gays were in the late 1980s and how much a death sentence AIDS was then. The last hundred pages are just sad with loss, which is exactly how it was.

Jan 14 edit: Fortuitous timing -- just came upon this TED Talk by Abraham Verghese on the importance of touch; it concludes with a moment that could have been in this book.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011 Top 10: Boys of My Youth

Sixth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, ©1998
My mother is sewing a button on my father’s shirt while he’s still wearing it. “I was having this terrible feeling,” she says, “that she’d be this forty-year-old woman, going around telling people that we took her d-o-l-l away from her.” She leans down to bite off the thread. My father tests his new button and it works perfectly. “In three days she won’t remember she even knew that d-o-l-l,” he predicts.
But of course Beard remembers, and tells, in this non-linear collection of linked personal essays. They’re coming-of-age essays, where growing up is as likely to occur at thirty as at thirteen or three. Each age is rendered perfectly, as are the characters and the 1970s-80s period details of small-town Midwest.

Among the boys of Beard’s youth are Hal, that beloved d-o-l-l her mother’s oldest sister bullies her mother into throwing away; teenage boys who mostly ignore her at backwoods parties; her father who drinks and disappears for weeks at a time; Eric: boyfriend, husband, …; and a school-shooter in the University of Iowa physics department on a day Beard has gone home early to care for her aging dog. There are girls, too -- aunts and cousins; her older, nemesis sister; her mother who smokes on every page; a lifelong best friend she consults while writing these essays.

I love these people and their settings, love Beard’s writing and want more. I've also read her new novel In Zanesville, the first half of which feels exactly like these essays. I'm still scouring the Internet for anything else she's written.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2011 Top 10: Blood, Bones & Butter

Fifth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Blood Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, ©2011
Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter -- just as my father had imagined -- and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.
Gabrielle Hamilton looks back on her nine-year-old self in that passage -- over-the-moon infatuated with her older siblings, her mother’s way in the kitchen and her father’s way with setting a stage ... and unaware that divorce and neglect are just around the corner.

By 13, she’s drugging with an older crowd and lying about her age to get work in restaurant kitchens to support herself; before long she's participating in a felony-level employee theft racket. Yet she has a knack for stumbling onto cooking mentors and gradually learns enough to run the kitchen at a kids’ summer camp and freelance-cook at high-volume caterers for fancy Hamptons (NY) parties. She completes a fiction-writing MFA, but only because she simultaneously finds a wellspring of sanity and true creativity in a side cooking job that recalls the down-to-earth food and settings of her childhood. And it's with that "real food" perspective that she eventually opens a restaurant -- New York City’s acclaimed Prune.

There's evidence of that MFA in this memoir -- a beautiful mix of literary and culinary creativity. I marked evocative passages throughout, and especially recall Hamilton’s homage to the simplicity and humility of 75-year-old (chef extraordinaire) Andre Soltner preparing a perfect omelet. Although she does settle into a somewhat straightforward prose to tell the bulk of her story, and I don’t think she’s quite figured out her relationships with her parents or partners, these pages are fierce and vivid. And thus I also find myself over-the-moon infatuated -- with Hamilton’s writing and with her story of reclaiming family ... or at least an adult, work-centered facsimile of it.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

2011 Top 10: Being Wrong

Fourth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, ©2010

Being Wrong turns the camera inward to our own personal experience of error. Kathryn Schulz writes that we relish being right:
“Our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient. […But of] all the things we are wrong about, […] error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. […] it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”
In a gentle, leisurely narrative filled with curiosity and even humor, Schulz explores philosophy, psychology, history, and the personal experiences of people being wrong (lovers, explorers, crime victims and economists, among others). Over four sections, she 1) defines error; 2) investigates how we get there (e.g. our senses, memories, beliefs, the data at hand); 3) examines our reactions to being wrong; and 4) encourages us to embrace error. Extensive endnotes and an index complete the book.

She’s adamant that error isn’t an intellectual inferiority or moral flaw but rather something beneficial, a way of learning and becoming -- where, quoting the philosopher Foucault, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” Schulz writes, “When you were a little kid, you were fabulously wrong about things all the time”; she suggests that when we seek new experiences it is a way of plunging ourselves back into the childhood experience of not-knowing, where error leads to rapid learning.

She also suggests that there is no actual state of “being” wrong -- we believe we’re right and then we discover we were wrong and we transition to a new state of being right. And it’s those “hinge moments” of awareness that provoke the revelatory shifts that change us; it’s also our reluctance to acknowledge error and complete those transitions that keeps us stuck in painful life situations.

It's an intelligent and deeply researched book, highly readable and highly recommended.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 Top 10: Alinea

Third in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Alinea by Grant Achatz, ©2008

Achatz is a wunderkind-chef now in his late thirties, and Alinea presents his debut restaurant, opened in Chicago in 2005 and now regarded one of the world’s best.

Alinea seats 64 diners for its nightly tasting menu of “upward of 28 courses” -- some of which are a single bite and most of which are more likely to be plated using tweezers than tongs. It’s “molecular gastronomy,” which I’d associated with manufacturers’ artificially processed food-like substances, but which actually is just playing with the physical and chemical properties of food. Achatz focuses on a food’s flavor, then creates interest (and usually surprise) by manipulating its appearance, texture and temperature -- for example, reducing lettuces to an intensely flavored liquid that is frozen and served as a sort of sorbet and topped with a salad dressing that has been similarly transformed.

Like diners who enter his restaurant through a monochromatic hallway, so too readers open the black-and-white cover of this oversized, overweight coffee-table book and find themselves transported, Wizard-of-Oz style, into hundreds of stunning color photographs (see some in the restaurant’s gallery). The book opens with 50 pages of terrific get-acquainted essays about Achatz and Alinea, followed by 350 pages of recipes and detailed procedures for preparing the approximately 100 dishes from four seasonal tasting menus. It’s armchair reading, or kitchen-table reading -- but only to rest the book on the table, not because you’re going to prepare many (any) of the recipes. I would have liked Achatz to deconstruct a menu thematically, but perhaps theme, more than technique, is his trade secret.

I came to this book simultaneously impressed by Achatz’s originality and derisive of most culinary over-the-topness. I come away in awed respect and with a desire to find the $200+ per-person for an evening at Alinea the restaurant. Meanwhile, Alinea the book exceeds 5 stars.

P.S. What’s the most ironic disease for a chef who puts flavor first? Take a look at this New Yorker profile.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2011 Top 10: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Second in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, ©1997

A collection of seven essays about the popular culture, written and previously published in the early-to-mid-‘90s in Harper’s, Esquire, and scholarly journals.

Some are entertainingly observational, some are densely erudite, all are brilliant. Most include DFW’s signature styles of verbosity, footnotes and textual shorthand. There’s analysis of rural life via people gathering at a state fair; of pampered life via guests on a luxury cruise ship; of athletic (and mathematical) excellence, specifically in tennis. And of film, television and literature, for example “Greatly Exaggerated,” which turned out to be literary criticism on authorial context, a topic on my to-pursue list. (I read the essay twice, at first nearly laughing at its over-the-top density and assuming it must be satire. But it’s not, and I’m drawn to explore it elsewhere to figure it out.)

The essays are about pop culture but the setting is clearly DFW’s mind. Maybe he manipulates the reader’s attention toward it, but honestly, it feels gravitational. I have everything else of his still to read, yet I despair because eventually there will be no more.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2011 Top 10: A Bittersweet Season

First in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

A Bittersweet Season by Jane Gross, ©2011

Excerpted [with some paraphrasing] from the book's section on a geriatrician’s presentation to healthcare policymakers:

“How many of you expect to die?”
[All members of the audience eventually raised their hands.]
“Would you prefer to be old when it happens?”
All hands flew up in unison.
Who would choose cancer as the way to go?
Just a few.
“What about chronic heart failure or emphysema?”
A few more.
“So all the rest of you are up for frailty and dementia?”

This outstanding book -- part memoir, part instruction manual, part expose on eldercare and financing -- is a sort of documentary about that third route. Cancer deaths come relatively early (age mid-60s) and with a rapid decline for 20% of Americans, and organ failures follow a decade later, via lengthier up-and-down declines, for another 25%. But it’s frailty and dementia -- “a drawn-out and humiliating series of losses for the parent and an exhausting and potentially bankrupting ordeal for the family” -- that lead to 40% of deaths.

The topic may be heavy but the treatment is extremely readable, accessible (suspenseful and fascinating, even), and packed with useful information. New York Times writer Jane Gross uses her mother’s decline as a springboard to present statistics and discuss issues, for example:
• elder housing (“assisted living is a social, rather than a medical, model of long-term care”);
• elder care (home care, nursing homes, physicians, hospitalizations);
• private savings and public financing (“assume that whatever it is you need, Medicare won’t pay for it”);
• family relationships and responsibilities
• end of life.

Gross gathers dozens of resources into a useful appendix, and the blog she launched (The New Old Age at the NYT) remains active although with new contributors. Her mother’s 2001 decline prompted this book, but Gross incorporated up-to-date research when she wrote it in 2010. It was published when my 92-year-old mother was a couple of years into her decline into frailty, and I read it in a cycle of putting it aside and then invariably being fascinated to find recognition and comfort when I picked it up again; I finished it a month before she died.

Of the many books now about caregiving and elder care, I recommend this single volume. It’s one to read for your parents’ aging and then again for your own.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 Reading Stats

Some statistics from my 2011 Reading

Total books finished: 96
Fiction: 35
Nonfiction: 58
Other (poetry, mixed): 3

Female authors: 49
Male authors: 39
Mixed: 8
Authors new-to-me: 69
Authors with more than one book in my 2011 reads:
Jo Ann Beard (2 -- moving coming-of-age material)
Carrie Fisher (2 -- ballsy yet poignant celebrity memoirs)
James Lileks (2 -- hilarious pop-culture anti-homages)
Keiji Nakazawa (3 -- horrific graphic-novel memoirs of Hiroshima)
Original publication date:
1800s: 1
1920s: 2
1930s: 1
1970s: 5
1980s: 3
1990s: 11
2000s: 25
2010s: 48

Date acquired:
1980s: 2
1990s: 3
2000s: 12
2010s: 79

Notable tags:
Audiobook: 11 (more convenient but more difficult for me than reading)
From the library: 27 (many luscious illustrated books)
History or historical fiction: 26 (a goal, see below)
Humor: 14 (yay!)
Illustrated: 33 (a pleasure)
Novella: 7 (in 2012, it’s tomes)
Translated: 10 (an unwritten goal)
Workplace: 7 (my favorite setting)

Ratings: 77% are 3- to 4-star (okay to good), which exactly describes my reading year. Next year, I want better.

From my goals last January:
“In 2011, I want to read a little more history
--success! read 26 books of history/historical fiction--
and a few more classics,
--marginal, with 4--
to pull predominately from my TBRs,
--success! read 38 of 40 I’d set as goal and decreased my TBRs from 291 to 263--
and to [get to] other (non-book) reading [e.g. backlogged stacks of New Yorkers].”
--fail, but I'm going at it again in 2012--

Beginning tomorrow: reviews (or less-formal comments) on my ten favorite reads in 2011.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 Reading Recap

I read some good books in 2011, a few great books, and a couple I’m now an evangelist :) for. My full list follows, sorted by fiction/nonfiction/other in reverse chronology by order read, including ratings (out of 5 stars). I tried to decrease my ballooning stacks of TBRs (to-be-reads), so books acquired pre-2011 (some acquired decades ago) are designated by “#”. Click the link to read my review; click the book’s image (most are included at the end of this post) to peruse it on Amazon.

Tomorrow, I’ll post some statistics about my reading year. Then I’ll highlight my Top 10 via individual reviews, in alphabetical order by title, over the next ten posts.

96. The Fiction Class# by Susan Breen (2)
88. Further Interpretations of Real-life Events by Kevin Moffett (3.5) (See review)
87. Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern (3)
86. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick, read on audio by Yelena Shmulenson (3.5)
84. Little House on the Prairie# by Laura Ingalls Wilder (4)
83. Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg (3.5)
80. A Farewell to Arms# by Ernest Hemingway (3)
76. One Amazing Thing# by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (3.5) (See review)
70. Speak# by Laurie Halse Anderson (3.5)
68. Number the Stars# by Lois Lowry (4)
65. Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary# by Joseph Conrad (3.5)
64. The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell (3) (See review)
62. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (4) (See review)
58. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (4) (See review)
55. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, read on audio by Natalie Ross (4)
53. The Summer Book# by Tove Jansson (4) (See review)
52. American Salvage# by Bonnie Jo Campbell (3.5)
51. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
46. The Notebook# by Nicholas Sparks (1.5)
45. Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister (3.5) (See review)
42. Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, read on audio by Samuel L. Jackson (4)
39. The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman (3) (See review)
37. Translation is a Love Affair by Jacques Poulin (4) (See review)
34. The Girls# by Lori Lansens (3)
32. Hope for the Flowers# by Trina Paulus (3)
31. Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog# by Mark Leyner (3)
26. We Need to Talk About Kevin# by Lionel Shriver (5) (See review)
18. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (3.5) (See review)
14. The Housekeeper and the Professor# by Yoko Ogawa (3.5)
11. Marcelo in the Real World# by Francisco X. Stork (4)
9. Room# by Emma Donoghue (4) (See review)
8. The Art of Racing in the Rain# by Garth Stein (3.5) (See review)
7. Machine# by Peter Adolphsen (3) (See review)
3. The Silent Land# by Graham Joyce (4) (See review)

94. Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher, read on audio by the author (2.5)
93. The End of Overeating# by David Kessler (3) (See review)
92. Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch, read on audio by the author (3.5)
90. Blue Nights by Joan Didion (4.5)
85. The Problem of Pain# by C. S. Lewis (3)
82. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (4)
77. My Own Country# by Abraham Verghese (4.5)
74. A Bittersweet Season by Jane Gross (5) (See review)
73. Bossypants by Tina Fey, read on audio by the author (4) (See review)
71. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher, read on audio by the author (3)
69. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn (4) (See review)
67. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, read on audio by Kirby Heyborne (4) (See review)
66. The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites (3.5) (See review)
61. County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital by David Ansell (4) (See review)
60. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again# by David Foster Wallace (4) (See review)
57. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, read on audio by Robin Miles (4)
50. Bomboozled by Susan Roy (4) (See review)
49. Barefoot Gen: Life After the Bomb Vol 3 by Keiji Nakazawa (4.5) (See review)
48. I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish (3.5) (See review)
44. A Friend for Einstein, the Smallest Stallion by Charlie Cantrell (2)
43. Radioactive by Lauren Redniss (5) (See review)
41. Barefoot Gen: The Day After Vol 2 by Keiji Nakazawa (4)
40. The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (3.5) (See review)
36. Barefoot Gen Volume 1 by Keiji Nakazawa (4) (See review)
35. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (3) (See review)
33. Fast Food Nation# by Eric Schlosser (4.5)
30. A Room of One's Own# by Virginia Woolf (3.5)
29. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (4.5) (See review)
27. The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke (3) (See review)
25. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, read on audio by Cassandra Campbell (4)
24. Thinking in Pictures# by Temple Grandin (4)
23. Women Food and God# by Geneen Roth (3.5)
21. Spark: How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein (3) (See review)
20. Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand, read on audio by Edward Herrmann (4.5)
17. Poke the Box by Seth Godin (3.5) (See review)
16. Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives by Arthur Plotnik (3.5) (See review)
15. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error# by Kathryn Schulz (4.5) (See review)
13. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (4.5) (See review)
12. Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker (3.5) (See review)
10. Persepolis# by Marjane Satrapi (4)
6. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation# by Elissa Stein/Susan Kim (3.5) (See review)
5. Frank Lloyd Wright: American Master# by Alan Weintraub/Kathryn Smith (3) (See review)
4. Gracefully Insane# by Alex Beam (3.5) (See review)
2. Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson/Marina Budhos (3.5) (See review)
1. I Remember Nothing# by Nora Ephron (2.5) (See review)

95. Fodor's The Complete African Safari Planner (4.5) (See review)
91. What I Hate from A to Z by Roz Chast (3) (See review)
89. Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s by James Lileks (4)
81. The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks (4)
79. Alinea by Grant Achatz (6!) (See review)
78. The Food52 Cookbook by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (4) (See review)
75. The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World 2012 (5) (See review)
72. Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America by Brian Vanden Brink (3.5)
63. Paul Fusco: RFK by Paul Fusco (4) (See review)
59. Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore/Philip Levine (3.5) (See review)
56. Thoughts From the Seat of the Soul# by Gary Zukav (2.5)
54. Fodor's Essential India (4) (See review)
47. Mother Said by Hal Sirowitz (3.5)
38. Bellevue Literary Review Vol 10 No 2 (Fall 2010)# (4.5)
28. Insiders' Guide: Key West in Your Pocket by Nancy Toppino (4) (See review)
22. Bellevue Literary Review Vol 9 No 1 (Spring 2009)# (4)
19. Lonely Planet Discover Europe# (3) (See review)