Friday, February 26, 2010

Reading Can Be a Fine Dining Experience

"Bear in that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast." - Epicetetus

My feast of life includes books and food. It's no wonder I even love books about food. This goes way beyond the joy of cookbooks and Gourmet magazine. (R.I.P.). I even love books written by other people who love food about food.

The creme de la creme might be books by Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet and restaurant critic. Ms. Reichl has delighted our senses with Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table and Garlic and Sapphires: the Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.

If your tastes run a bit more bitter, you are no doubt a fan of Anthony Bourdain. His Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly caused both an uproar in restaurant kitchens across the country and a spate of similar books. For example, Mark Buford demonstrated his chopping technique when he went to work for Mario Batali at his restaurant Babbo and wrote about it in Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.
Of course, for the traditional palates among you, I'd be remiss not to mention M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) , whom many consider to be the mother of this genre. For a treat, pick up The Art of Eating.

"The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. " - - Calvin Trillin

Lately, food writing blended with memoir is very popular. Two of the most popular books are Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. In the former, Ms. Gilbert starts her search for metaphysical meaning deep inside a bowl of fettucine in Italy. Ms. Powell tries to find life's answers in nothing less awesome than Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She cooks a recipe a day from this institution-posing- as-a- cookbook and still found a few minutes to write a book about it. (Do yourself a favor and skip the aspic.) And I'd be sliced thinly and sauteed if I didn't mention Saint Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France.

"I went into a McDonald's yesterday and said I'd like some fries. The girl at the counter said, "Would you like some fries with that?" - Jay Leno

Still another sub-genre of the food writing trend is what I call the socio-environmental line. In Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser examines the impact of McDonald's on health, labor and agriculture. Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America and the companion documentary Supersize Me send author Morgan Spurlock around the country eating only McDs for one month and revealing his "robust" results.

Also consider Michael Pollon,the new darling of food writing with his ever-expanding bibliography: The Omnivore's Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals (the ecological impact of food choices), In Defense of Food (advise on how to make healthy and responsible food choices, summed up in Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.) and the recent Food Rules: and Eater's Manual (more advice on food choices).

Barbara Kingsolver also joins the buffet line with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life. In this combination memoir/environmental book, Kingsolver and her family move to Appalachia and spend a year trying to consume only locally produced foods.

"Food is an important part of a balanced diet." - Fran Lebowitz

Yet one more course of food writing features the history of food and food's impact on history. Mark Kurlansky is the master chef here with both Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: a World History. You might also take a taste of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation where author David Kamp analyzes why macaroni is now pasta and Wonder Bread is now whole grain.

"There is no love sincerer than the love of food. "- George Bernard Shaw

Which reminds me, our Des Plaines restaurant gift card raffles are just around the corner. Come on up to the 3rd floor and while you browse through the books and movies, why not fill out entry forms to win a free $25 gift card to one of these great eateries, compliments of our wonderful Friends of the Library.

Cheeseburger in Paradise

Dotombori Japanese Restaurant

Little Villa Restaurant

The Mexico Restaurant

The Silver Stallion Restarant

Thai Square Restaurant

Via Roma Restaurant

... and we even have one for Pesche's Florists.

The contest ends on March 1, the end of our Winter Reading Club so we'll see you before that. Bon appetit!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Agape, or, Food as Love

I admit it, I am addicted to the Food Network. When it comes to TV viewing, I think most of us want some kind of instant gratification. Some of us want a one hour who-dunnit, while others want laughter to end all domestic chaos in under half an hour. That's how fast I want hot, healthy, and yummy meals served up in colorful bowls on immaculate kitchen countertops. Cooking shows fulfill my need to feed. When I watch Rachael Ray, Claire Robinson, or Bobby Flay create a dish so appetizing that I can nearly smell its fragrance from my living room, I am transported to an imaginary land where I, too, can whip up such a delicious feast. Said feast will then bring me and my family both good health and gastronomic delight -- all in 30 minutes or less!

Naturally, my reality is far from my TV ideal, even if it is close to my TV. Meals at my house are often paper-plated straight from the microwave and eaten in front of a Food Network show. Yet I long to fill my family's plates with a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables, exotic grains, and slow-cooked sauces. Ironically, my picky eaters wouldn't eat most of the elaborate homemade meals I envision. Yet the mindset that artfully prepared food is lovingly prepared food persists.

I'm not alone in that perception. When I entered the search terms "love and food" into the library catalog, it yielded 138 titles. A few notable books on that list were Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar and The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway. No Reservations starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart and Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and Cher are two DVD favorites. Julie & Julia and Like Water for Chocolate celebrate that food/love connection in both print and film.

A few nights ago, I watched Babette's Feast on DVD for the fifth or sixth time.

This beautiful film centers upon an agape, or love feast - a meal shared as a sign of love and fellowship. Meticulously prepared by the title character, the feast elevates food to an art form and an expression of unconditional love. If you're looking for a film that feeds your need to feed, I highly recommend it. However, if you are looking to share the spirit of agape with others but, like me, can't serve up gourmet every night -- bring bagels to a meeting or contribute to a bake sale. Food can be art, but as an expression of love, it doesn't have to be.

Faster, Higher, Stronger

As a kid, snow days were awesome, but every four years they were something more: snow days were magical. Upon learning that school was called for the day due to wintry weather, I would make a mug of hot chocolate and sit down to watch the Winter Olympics - all day. I could never get enough of helmets shaking about in a bobsled or the graceful turnings of the slalom skier. I was fascinated to find out what people from New Zealand looked like (normal, as it turned out) or to realize the excitement of countries like Estonia competing as their own country for the first time. Ice hockey was my favorite sport, but I would even watch curling and the biathlon. I was a Winter Olympics junkie.

Today, twenty years and 5 Olympiads later, I am no different. Armed with the capability of recordable television, I am determined to catch as much of the Vancouver 2010 games as possible. I've already seen the lowest of lows regarding the tragedy of a life ended to soon, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. I've also witnessed a euphoric high: Montreal native Alexandre Bilodeau (pictured above) rocking the men's mogul competition, the first ever Canadian to win a gold on home soil.

While I am confident there is much more to come in these games, I wonder if there isn't a way I can channel the determination, stamina, and focus of all of the Olympic athletes into my own life. Because I can't hit tricks on the snowboard halfpipe or skate blindingly fast doesn't mean that I can't apply the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to my everyday experience. I hate to sound motivational, but the real reason I love the Winter Olympics is because they always remind me of the untapped potential available in all of us. We all have the capability to stun and astonish ourselves, kind of like Shaun White uncorking the Double McTwist 1260.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Miners Wanted

There are eleven days left to EXPLORE! The Adult Winter Reading Club ends on February 28th.

Let me clarify the above two sentences. The Adult Winter "READING" club is not just about reading. It's about listening and watching as well. And it is about exploring new things and there is never a time limit on that.

The theme this winter has been Read-a-Likes and View-a-Likes and we invite you to explore alternatives to your favorite authors and genres. The Readers' Services staff has compiled information for you in the form of bookmarks and posters to help you.

Come up to the third floor and discover eight stations of suggestions. At each you will find a raffle ticket for a drawing for a gift certificate for a local restaurant or business. Thanks to the Friends of the Library and their generous donation, these certificates are fabulous. $25.00 to Cheeseburger in Paradise, Dotombori Japanese Restaurant, Little Villa Restaurant, Mexico Restaurant, Pesche's Flowers, Silver Stallion Restaurant, Thai Square Restaurant and Via Roma Italian Eatery.

No hard hat, flashlight or complicated rules for mining the vast array of materials. Just visit the 3rd floor and EXPLORE.

* a New way to Read with MyMediaMall
* View-a-Likes for Popular Movies
* Classical Music
* Marley & Me Read-a-Likes
* a New Era in Historical Fiction
* World Music
* Teen Reading for Fun, Not School
* Gentle Reads

Friday, February 12, 2010

ZZ Packer: The Next James Baldwin?

James Baldwin
Toni Morrison
Richard Wright

The above are three great American writers that just about all of us have read or are familiar with. But what about ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones and Colson Whitehead?

This question arose as I thought about African-American History Month, which is celebrated in February. Baldwin, Morrison and Wright are staples of African-American literature displays, and deservedly so. But as I selected books by African-American fiction writers to display along the side of our fiction collection, I decided to pair, as much as possible, one of the greats of the previous century, such as Baldwin, with greats and potential future greats of this century, such as ZZ Packer.

ZZ Packer has only published one book so far, but oh, what a book! (If you don't trust me, trust the late John Updike, who selected it for the Today Show Book Club.) Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a masterful and funny short story collection that features engaging but often isolated characters, several of them young women struggling with issues of identity. In "Brownies," some members of an African-American Brownie troop summering at Camp Crescendo determine "to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909," when one of its members uses the N-word. "We'd seen them from afar," says the narrator, a quiet girl always on the periphery nicknamed Snot. "Never within their orbit enough to see whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV--ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money." Their anger and intentions are thwarted, however, when they make a startling discovery about the girls in the white troop. Other stories feature a mistrustful Yale freshman who behaves less than compassionately when her sole friend comes out of the closet, and a repressed, cross-eyed nurse who tries to bring the word of God to her patients.

Colson Whitehead has been on my to-read list since I heard the charismatic MacArthur "genius award" recipient read from his impressionistic nonfiction book about New York City, The Colossus of New York, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. But he's best known for his novels, the most wildly inventive of which are The Intuitionist and John Henry Days. Praised as "ingenius and starkly original" by The New York Times Book Review, The Intuitionist stars one Lila Mae Watson, the first African-American woman graduate of the "Institute of Vertical Transport," and an elevator inspector who uses intuition rather than empirical methods to determine an elevator's safety. When one of the elevators she inspected fails, she goes on a sort of underground odyssey. Kirkus Reviews characterized the books as "equally effective as detective story and philosophical novel. Ralph Ellison would be proud."

If you follow awards, you may have heard of Edward P. Jones, whose first novel, The Known World, won the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and more. The Known World is an expansive and sometimes challenging book with many characters and multiple story threads, some fascinating and some, to this reader, anyway, digressive and frustrating. (I admit I prefer his short story collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children, set in Washington, D.C.) But the novel nevertheless compels with its rich characterization and often exquisite sentences. Two of the main characters are Henry Townsend, who was born into slavery and whose freedom was purchased by his parents, and his wife Caldonia, both of whom ultimately own slaves themselves (a rare but historically accurate occurrence). It was sentences like this, in which Henry's father, Augustus, ponders his son's future, that kept me reading:

"Augustus Townsend would have preferred that his son have nothing to do with the past, aside from visiting his slave friends at the Robbins plantation, and he certainly would have preferred he have nothing to do with the white man who had once owned him. But Mildred made him see that the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be."

Which African-American writers have expanded your world, inspired you with their sentences, or, since this is African American History month, enhanced your understanding of our nation's history?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Congratulations New Orleans!

I happened to be in New Orleans the night the Saints beat the Vikings to get into the Super Bowl. It wasn't planned that way. I scheduled the trip as a winter getaway a couple months back. I'd never been to New Orleans before. We watched the game in a little jazz bar on Bourbon Street. When the game ended the city erupted in a way that I can only describe as magical. I came home transformed not only into a Saints fan, but a fan of the city.

Before going on any trip, I like to read everything I can about my destination. Aside from all the travel guides, I also like to read some local fiction. I read the Ann Rice vampire novels years ago (and I am kind of done with the whole vampire thing). So prior to this trip I read The Neon Rain, the first of the Dave Robicheaux mysteries by James Lee Burke. It is a gritty and rather graphic cop novel set in and around New Orleans.

I also read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This was the funniest book I have read in a long time. It's the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, a geeky wannabe writer, who is forced to get a series of jobs in order to help out his mother.

Reading both or these books provided a snapshot of the city that I would not have gotten through the travel guides. It made me look at the policemen and hot dog vendors a little differently.

I also came away from the trip a huge fan of New Orleans food. From the turtle soup to the Mufaletta's to the pecan pie, everything I ate was delicious. You don't need to go quite so far for great Cajun food. The decision to take this trip was made when I ate an amazing dinner at Cajun Connection, a tiny restaurant in Utica (near Starved Rock State Park).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Sometimes reading is serial monogamy. Did it ever dawn on you that you just don't like author XYZ any more? This happened to me with John Crowley's latest novel, Four Freedoms. When I read Little, Big in 1981, it immediately became one of my favorite books. Ditto with Aegypt, which came out in 1987 (am I dating myself?). These novels were not quite fantasy, definitely more than fiction, and too British to be magical realism. They were supremely satisfying for a longtime SF reader who was then tentatively branching out from genre fiction. At about the same time I also fell in love with Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, which rendered fin de siecle New York with a slightly fey luster: a carthorse that learns to fly and a fatally ill heiress who sleeps on the roof in the open air . One Amazon reviewer calls it "Sheer Insanity and Gorgeous Magic".

I continued to read Mark Helprin with pleasure. Both he and John Crowley are not exactly prolific, and since I was so excited to have a new one, I didn't notice that their novels seemed any less enjoyable. But last week I admitted to myself that not only was I not going to read Four Freedoms, it would be wise of me never to take out another John Crowley book. He has gone in a different direction than I have. We have grown apart. "It's not him, it's me." We have irreconcilable differences, and so I am breaking up with him. I'm a little sad, but I will always treasure our happy memories.

I'm feeling a little less kind about author X these days. Her tough-as-nails Chicago PI thrilled me back in the day. She was sexy, short-tempered, and brought the city to vivid life in her relentless pursuit of justice. I stopped reading series fiction in general about a decade ago, because I felt I needed to read as broadly as possible for my job. But I picked up the latest novel by Madame X with pleasant anticipation of some Chicago history and a sharp-tongued feminist detective. This time around, the experience felt bitter, angry and hopeless. The mystery and its resolution was fantastic, but the emotional hit was painful. I'm sorry, Madame X, and I wish you well in your other relationships.

Fortunately, there are plenty of literary fish in the sea. I still adore Martha Grimes and Joanna Trollope. I have a serious crush on Charles Finch and Stephen Hunt. There are hundreds of appealing authors out there, and I'm going to have coffee with each one of them. We'll see how it works out.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Coming Attractions March 2010

Harlan Coben

Jennifer Crusie

Clive Cussler

Linda Fairstein

James Grippando

Jonathan Kellerman

Karen Robards