Memoir


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“An Alphabet for Gourmets” MFK Fisher (1949); 172 pages.

Started December 24, finished January 4.

I’ve been a huge fan of food-writing for years. Restaurant reviews and food articles are usually the first thing I seek out in magazines, and Ruth Reichl’s memoirs of her various stages of self-discovery are among my all-time favorite books. I readily admit that I read cookbooks (the collection of which has far exceeded an appropriate shelf allotment) for fun– far more frequently than I actually use them for cooking. And I think I’ve read “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron a dozen times. (Since it may be unfair to count that as one of my 50 books, but still something I want to recommend to anyone and everyone, I’ll just quickly talk about it right here: It’s Ephron’s fictional account of her very non-fictional divorce from Carl Bernstein, complete with recipes by the food-writer protagonist. For a sad story, it’s an unbelievably funny– and even empowering– book. And despite it being originally published in 1983, it’s not too dated.  The movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep does not do the story justice- they play the characters as completely non-Jewish, which really irritated me; the film in general lacks the down-to-earth vibe and humor of the original. So skip the movie and get the book, it’s a classic is not to be missed.)

Anyway, one cannot read much food writing without finding lots of references to MFK Fisher. I can’t even tell you when or where I first heard of her, just that it seems like I’ve pretty much always understood that when it comes to classic food writers… She. Is. It. Years ago,  I bought two collections of her works, thinking that I’d get to them eventually. Well, guess what. Eventually = 10 years. The ones that I own are massive 700+ page tomes– not exactly candidates for a read in a week. And really, not exactly candidates for fun reading, ever. ( “The Journals of MFK Fisher” has joined me on vacations at least 6 times…. And still never read.) The sheer largeness of the book was just too overwhelming.

But I recently had an epiphany: if a book is available individually, then it could still count as a read for one week– even if my personal copy happened to be bound in a collection together with four other works.  I decided to start with  “An Alphabet for Gourmets”.  While some of her writings are much more personal, this one is simply an alphabetized series cuisine-related ruminations, with one or two recipes thrown in after each entry. The big question– is MFK Fisher worth the hype? Well, sort of. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous. When she writes about her family, her opinions on people and their habits, she is still so spot-on– amazing considering that this was published 60 years ago. The writing is clear, incisive, and amusing, and she was obviously a woman ahead of her time. But about food. Jeez. First, she’s pretty snobby when it comes to this topic, although I’ll forgive that because after all, food was her profession and she’s allowed. (It’s far worse to be a snob without the goods to back it up.) But, much of the cuisine that she wrote about (in this group of essays, anyway) is stuff that was fancy in the first half of the 20th century– so to me it’s either unappealing or just confusing.  Fisher talked alot about what she called “honest bread” (which I am guessing is what we now think of as “artisanal bread”)  in comparison to “puffy white stuff”. Of course this made me wonder if bad white bread existed in the same form in 1930 as it does today. (Does anyone happen to know?)  Despite this book not exactly being a page-turner, it did make me want to keep reading MFK Fisher. She would frequently throw in a random line that made me want to learn much more about her personal life (“my true love and I were taking a walk and discussing a meal….” then she goes on to talk about the meal, not how she came to be with the true love! In another essay she mentions off-handedly that she had a few ex-husbands– to me reading about marital dischord is much more interesting than fish in aspic…)  It’s a good thing that the other Fisher book that I’ve got on my shelf should actually cover some of the more People-magazine aspects of her life… thats right, it’s still waiting for me: “From the Journals of MFK Fisher.”

(But that will have to come later. For now I am finally reading another book that’s been travelling with me for years– also a classic, but one that weighs a lot less– “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Stay tuned…)

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assassinationvacation “Assassination Vacation” By Sarah Vowell (2005); 255 pages

Started reading around November 24, finished reading December 8.

So, I had never read Sarah Vowell before, but I’ve listened to essays on “This American Life” and heard her as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. If you know her voice, and her inflections, then you can’t help but imagine her doing out-loud readings from this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the rest of her shtick, it starts to get old. It didn’t help that a third of the way into it, I read Virginia Heffernan’s review of Vowell’s new “The Wordy Shipmates” in the NYT Book Review. Heffernan was mostly annoyed by the book, and while I hate to let outside reviewers influence my opinions, I can sort of see what she means.

Vowell is really smart, really nerdy, and loves relaying historical anecdotes.  So this book is kind of a memoir of her own “assassination vacations” (visiting the hot spots associated with three presidential assassinations – those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley). I know what you may be thinking- a book about assassinations sure sounds grim. Indeed, it does. It helps, kind of, that the most recent one she is describing happened 107 years ago. (But still, all the talk of these various villains plotting against the sitting president started to be pretty upsetting, for obvious reasons. I really hope that the Secret Service is more competent nowadays–pooh pooh pooh). But despite the topic, the book is upbeat, and Vowell is a good tour guide. I’d be really tired of her by the end of that vacation, though.

You should also know that for this week, I got a slow start. I wanted to read a book about Lincoln, so I started one called “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson (also about historical tourism, but slighty more history-book-ish). I liked it, but was reading a grand total of three pages a night before falling alseep. Not going to be helpful towards the overall goal. I told Josh the book didn’t have enough zip, and he said if I wanted zip + Lincoln, Sarah Vowell was the way to go. And historian that he is, he was correct! So I liked reading all about Lincoln, and truth be told, anything I had ever learned about Garfield or McKinley in high school did not stick, so all that was fun too, despite the overall theme of the book. Vowell characterizes the presidents, their cohorts, and their assassins and fills us in on the news of the day, circa late 19th century. (Her descriptions of the assassins in particular can be very funny. In case you were wondering, but don’t get around to reading the book: John Wilkes Booth was a handsome, charming racist; Charles Guiteau was cheerful, although delusional and stalker-y; Leon Czolgosz was a complete sad sack, with a crush on anarchist Emma Goldman). She ties it all together nicely, and manages to work in some of the history of how the Republican Party started to evolve into what it is today. It’s not bad at all, and not as slow a read as my 2-week-reading time should lead you to believe… but I was ready to be done with it. Mostly because I had a couple of fun novels waiting for me (stay tuned for the next posts, and soon!!) than because of Sarah Vowell, but you get the idea. Good book, and a nice change of pace, but definitely not my favorite.

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” By Barbara Kingsolver (2007); 354 pages

Started reading October 26, finished reading November 14.

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After just getting back on track with the blog, I could have picked a book that I could have read a bit faster. But alas, no. This one had been recommended to me by at least two of you (my friend Sherrie was one; she called me from Israel every day to remind me about this book until I swore that I actually had it in my possession… and let me know if you were the other one so I can give you due credit) so I knew I simply had to read this next. A lovely memoir, easy to read and completely fascinating, but it is pretty long. And 350+ pages is a lot to read while being caught up in election mania. So despite several days mostly devoted to reading (including during breaks between poll-watching on now-historical Nov. 4; and two long hours a week later in the hair salon) it took me enough weeks to read that I’m starting to get embarrassed about how I’m faring in this 50 books project. (Which begs the question- should I be choosing books purely because I can get through them in a week? Or because they’re books that I’m dying to read? So yeah, I want to complete this challenge…. but my choices are going to continue to lean to the side of “books I really want to read.” I already know I can read a fun fluff book a week. But wouldn’t that be missing the whole point?)

So was it worth it to spend three full weeks on “Animal Vegetable Miracle”? Absolutely. Worth every page. If you are a food-eating human, I recommend this book. And if you are one who eats and cooks, I recommend you read it once a year. I’m a bit afraid that as inspired and excited as I am right now…. might I forget by April that I swore to change my eating/gardening/shopping/cooking ways? A periodic re-read may be required just as a reminder…

Barbara Kingsolver – novelist, farmer, biologist, mom, cook – and her family moved from Arizona to Appalachia, started to eat local and even grow much of their own food, and documented the entire year in this memoir. Her professor husband contributed sciency-essays, and her teenage daughter provided recipes and her own thoughts about the whole experiment. They explain what is wrong with conventional agri-business (its horrifying) and why it’s good for us (all of us) to eat more organic, support local farmers, do some of our own growing, do lots of our own cooking, etc etc. It all makes a lot of sense. And if you believe Kingsolver, which I do, we’re all going to have to come around to this way of thinking sooner or later– before we run out of fuel, land, or worse.

While at first this seems like is a whole new way of life–and for Kingsolver’s family, it was– it’s not hard to adapt ideas from this book and make them work for you.This local-food movement has taken off even more since this book was published in 2007. Some of my friends here in Alabama even have their own awesome blog about their own similar locavore experiences… between talking to them and reading this book, I’ve already been able to start incorporating new habits into our daily and weekly routines.  Sure, growing all of your own food may seem completely unfamiliar, or even incomprehensible. But what about going to your own local farmers’ market? Make a commitment to buy more of your veggies from local producers, buy just what is in season (something you don’t even need to think about at a farmers’ market, because what’s in season is all you’re going to see) and you’re already most of the way there. So join me in a new challenge: visit a farmers’ market once a week, spend at least $10 (it just would have ended up being spent at Publix, anyway) and cook something new with it. Or just make yourself an easy, locally-grown baked potato. You’re going to love it. And then go get this book.

“Foreskin’s Lament” By Shalom Auslander (2007); 310 pages

Started reading August 31, finished reading Sept 7.

I’ve been planning on starting this memoir for at least a year. I read an excerpt a while ago in the New Yorker, and not long after, the cute toile-covered book appeared in our house, courtesy of one of Josh’s nice book reps. But with something else always waiting to be read, this memoir of a yeshiva-boy-gone-bad kept getting bumped down the list. It was only this challenge (and that I needed non-fiction this week) that prompted me to start (and finish) it. Yeah, that makes it sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, which is not true–It’s just really disturbing.

Auslander grew up in a very observant orthodox Jewish community and was told pretty much from the beginning all the bad things that would happen to him if he didn’t follow God’s every word. This really did a number on him. And I thought I was neurotic. Wow. Worrying is indeed a learned behavior (thankyouverymuch, family & Hebrew school) but now I see how I escaped relatively unnscathed: Shalom Auslander’s family and teachers really screwed him up. He began rebelling when he was around 8. And what would be considered run-of-the-mill rebellion for regular teenagers (shoplifting, porn… eating non-kosher) is really bad in his community. The book jumps back and forth from his childhood and adolescence to the present day and includes an ongoing dialog with God, as well as a lot of discussion about circumcision. Thus the title, which is quite apt. (And take a close look at those cover images – upon further inspection, I discovered that the sweet toile print actually isn’t misleading at all.) Auslander is a terrific writer but his story is much more about why his own life was screwed up than about why religious Jews are the way they are. He covers the neuroses and the confusion and the whys, and for people who grew up in similar communities, parts of this book will really ring true. And for people like me, who know religious Jews but are themselves more secular, this is a rather compelling insider tell-all. But if this your introduction to Jewish people, I’d start out with someone a lot less troubled.

“Dreams from my Father” Barack Obama (1995, 2004); 442 pages

Started reading in um… Primary Season. Yes, February. Finished August 21.

I know what you’re thinking. There is no way I could read 400+ pages in one week. (Actually, five days; refer to the “FAQ” page) So I confess. This one took six months to read. Not that it wasn’t engaging and wonderful, which it was. I just kept getting distracted by other books, Ben, trips, work, etc. (Yes, completing this book was one of the main considerations when starting the challenge) And now that I’m done, finally, I’m happy to report that I’m as excited about Obama now as I was when I started it, way back in primary season. (For proof on exactly how excited I was, see above: my birthday cake decorated by a very clever husband.)

I can not recommend this book highly enough– whether or not you are a supporter now, I’m guessing you will be when you finish it. OK, unless you’re a Republican, in which case you may not be converted into an Obama supporter, but I expect you’ll still find him likeable and the book to be extremely worthwhile. (And don’t be put off by the length of time it took me to read: my sister Rachel borrowed it during our vacation–while I was busy reading Amanda Hesser– and finished it in about four days. Rachel does have a reputation for being a fast reader, but no matter.) Barack Obama is a beautiful writer, and his personal history is fascinating. This, his first book, covers his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his time spent as a community organizer in Chicago, and a journey to Kenya to meet the African side of his family and to learn more about his late father. The story is amazing and moving, and so well told that I feel like I know him and his family personally. Although he does’t discuss political aspirations in this memoir, obviously his life experiences have contributed signifcantly to the politician that he has become. And yes, he is a politician, but he’s also down to earth and self-aware. The idea that a man this articulate, intelligent and thoughtful could be our president makes me practically giddy.

“Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes” By Amanda Hesser (2004)

Started reading July 26, finished reading Aug 1.

I’ve been looking at this book on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf in New York during every visit for the past few years, and when I start reading it this most recent vacation, about a third of the way through the book I realized I had actually read some of it before. While that may have been because I had already borrowed her copy during a previous visit, it also could have been because much of this book has previously appeared in Amanda Hesser’s food column in the NYTimes magazine. But thats OK. Once I got back into it, I remembered that I like Amanda Hesser (and according to Ruth Reichl, one of my favorite food writers and memoirists–and who used to work with A.H. at the Times– Hesser is as adorable in person as she seems to be when she writes) and overall this was a good book to kickoff the challenge. It was a fast read, and although parts of it were too precious, it was fun, and just the right amount of gossipy about the NY food world (just enough to make you feel like she was providing interesting dirt–including about her own personal life–but none of it in a mean way.) And, I did want to cook a fair amount of the food she described. Will I ever actually prepare any of these dishes? Probably not. But that’s mostly because the book stayed in New York when I returned to Alabama. But anyway, first book: a success. If you like food writing or following the careers of new york-y people, you’ll probably like it too. And FYI, I’m not so sure about writing a book review every week… with all this time spent reading, I may not have the energy left to become a critic, too.