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Archive for February, 2010

Food, Glorious Food

Here’s another one of my shelves. This one is The Shelf of Food Writers    and I don’t go near it when I’m hungry. Everyone on this shelf uses butter in everything, you’ll get fat just by looking at it for too long. These aren’t cookbooks, mind you, those are in the kitchen on yet another shelf. These are books about food. There isn’t a lot here yet (traditionally, it is my sister who buys the food writers) but what is here definitely satisfies.

There’s “Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink” which I love to dip into for a quick 2 or 3 page fix. It’s an anthology of food-related articles and stories culled from the magazine. In here you find things like  Calvin Trillin’s quest for the perfect bagel (“The Magic Bagel”. Hand-rolled, boiled in a vat and then baked and served with Nova Scotia salmon and cream cheese.  Can you already imagine how good the damn thing must taste?), “Your Table is Ready” by John Kenney, where he pokes fun at the crazy-expensive Masa restaurant in New York (“We met our waitstaff: Nine people, including two Buddhist monks, whose job it is to supervise your meal, realign your chakras, and if you wish, teach you how to play the oboe” hahaha) and “Night Kitchens” where Judith Thurman travels to Kyoto to check out traditional tofu making. I am indifferent to tofu at best, but who wouldn’t crave the stuff after descriptions of zaru dofu (artisanal tofu with a mousselike consistency) “served with pinches of sea salt  or sesame seeds and dribbles of olive oil in a bowl of thick and fragrant miso“?

Then there are Jeffrey Steingarten’s  “The Man Who Ate Everything” and “It Must Have Been Something I Ate”. The man lives for food. He does pages on bread,  cheese, wagyu beef, chocolate. He gives you recipes, he will try them himself too. He will fly to the ends of the earth for the best ice cream or for the ultimate toro sashimi. He writes about this in such glorious detail that you can almost taste the food. Through him, you can eat vicariously and never gain a pound.

There’s Thomas McNamee’s “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse”, an ode to slow food and an important argument for sustainable ingredients and deliciously healthy eating and an interesting history of an American institution. I especially love that I got it at a steal…hardcover for under 200 pesos (roughly 2 US dollars).

Other behind-the-scenes books are Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and “Waiter Rant” (written by the now famous, anonymous blogging waiter). Both are fascinating and often funny and they’ll make you think twice about how you behave and what you eat when you dine out. Then there are the books about the Michelin stars: Leslie Brenner’s “The Fourth Star” and Rudolph Chelminski’s “The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine”.Both are chronicles of chefs who struggle to gain, keep and regain the stars that spell life or death for high end restaurants. I haven’t read the former yet but I’ve read the latter twice. Poor Bernard Loiseau. Bipolar in a decade where we didn’t yet fully understand what that meant, obsessing over his stars and trying to keep it all together. Chelminski does not scrimp on detail and the book is full of anecdotes about the history of the Michelin guide and those iconic stars, about French bistros and restaurants and about the food. All the wonderful, butter laden food!

Newly arrived are “Julie and Julia” (which I have not read yet) and “My Life in France” (which I have). I bought both on the strength of the Amy Adams/Meryl Streep film so they have movie stills on the cover which is kind of annoying. All the same, Sole Meuniere and Boeuf Bourguignon will never be the same again. Pre-Julia, they were just dishes. Post-Julia, they have become holy grails.

While I don’t own a copy of Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires”, I have read and enjoyed it with my Book Club. Being a food critic is a whole other ballgame and reading about Reichl having to disguise herself to avoid getting preferential treatment at restaurants is both fun and enlightening (they really DO treat you better when you look good). I’m now eyeing Bill Buford’s “Heat” and  Dianne Jacob’s “Will Write for Food”. I’m also looking forward to any other food books you may know and want to share.

Ah yes. The Food Writer shelf is expanding.

And so is my waistline.

BON APPETIT!

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I’ve always enjoyed ballet, both watching it and doing it, and growing up I counted a lot of ballet stories among my favorites.  Sadly, so many of those books were lent and never returned (grrr) and most are now out of print.

Still, for those of you who are diligent at scouring second-hand book sources, here is my “ballet novels”  list. One day, i hope to find them all again and have them back on my shelves, never again to be lent out. If you have kids who love to  dance, they’ll love these. If you used to dance (or still do), these will strike a lot of familiar chords and bring back a flood of memories.

The Sisters Impossible by James Davis Landis

Lily’s sister Saundra is an elegant, beautiful, unreachable ballerina. When Lily is forced to try and  follow in her sister’s footsteps, she discovers that her sister’s life is a lot less glamorous and a lot more complicated than she thought. It’s interesting to look at the sometimes ruthless world of ballerinas through Lily’s very candid eyes and it’s fun to watch Lily struggle through things like  her first visit to Capezio and her first ballet class where she is clearly the fish out of water. We’ve all been there, we survived and thankfully we can now look back and laugh!

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Do you remember the scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan is sitting inside Fox books and a lady comes and asks the salesperson for the Shoes Books? He clearly has no clue, and then Meg, all teary eyed, waxes rhapsodic about The Shoes Books which are all “completely wonderful. Ballet Shoes is my favorite…” She and me both. Completely classic story about three sisters training for a life on the stage. Almost all of Streatfeild’s books center around this theme but “Ballet Shoes” is the most well-known. I wanted to BE the Fossil sisters and spend all day in an Academy for Dancing and Stage Training. I wanted to audition for pantomimes! Read Shakespeare! Dance on my pointes! I wore out 3 copies of this book before finally getting it in hardcover. And guess what? My sister and I run a school for Dance and Music training and in my other job, I teach children Musical Theater. Go figure.

To Dance (a Ballerina’s graphic novel) by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel

“Dancing fills a space in me”, says the heroine of this lovely autobiographical book about a girl who grew up on Jill Krementz’ “A Very Young Dancer” (see below) and eventually found herself wearing a hemlock green leotard at the School of American Ballet and dancing with the NYCB. Then life happens (as it tends to do) and suddenly she’s not dancing anymore. It’s every wannabe ballerina’s dream and, in a way, also her worst nightmare. As an added bonus, it’s beautifully drawn.

A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz

Responsible for many girls’ Nutcracker fantasies, for sure! The author chronicles the life of a young School of American Ballet student in photographs. The lucky child gets handpicked to be Mary in the NYCB Nutcracker. She has private coaching sessions with George Balanchine! Charlotte d’Amboise is her babysitter! She shares elevators with Suzanne Farrell! Karinska herself fits her costume! Read this one over and over again. Seriously.

Maggie Adams, Dancer by Karen Strickler Dean

My older sister had this book first and I could not wait to inherit it from her. I then proceeded to wear out several copies. I think I’ve still got one. Maggie Adams is 15. She has braces on her teeth and a potential boyfriend she never has the time to see. Her dad thinks she’s got too much ballet on the brain and she’s probably going to lose the part of the Sugarplum Fairy to pudgy Cynthia Bellermont whose mom is on the Board of Directors. Her friend Lupe is probably anorexic and her other friend Joyce is considering giving up dancing in favor of choreography. All that teenage drama! This book came out in the era of Sweet Dreams romances and is every bit as fun to read. It had 2 sequels but for me, neither came close to the original.

Just Like Jenny by Sandy Asher

Stephanie’s best friend Jenny is beautiful and funny and can whip out double pirouettes on pointe like nobody’s business. Steph’s good enough, but nowhere near as good as Jenny. The two girls have their professional lives planned out, they will both join the same ballet company and rise to stardom side by side. Of course, everything changes when they actually start having to audition against each other. I love the way it turns out for both of them in the end.

The First Step/Dancer in the Wings/ One Foot on the Ground by Jean Richardson

A trilogy that follows a young dancer from her very first lesson to her company audition. I feel really bad that these books were never returned by the kid who borrowed them from me but i do understand why she decided to keep them for herself! Great story and well illustrated too.

Ballerina by Edward Stewart

This is a novel for adults, although I read it as a teenager which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as i did. Two best friends struggle for survival and to keep their friendship together in the cutthroat world of ballet. It’s every bit as melodramatic and cheesy as it sounds and when I read it as an adult I found myself laughing and cringing at the same time. But all the same, it makes a great guilty pleasure and it usually comes cheap in places that sell used mass market paperbacks. It’s got no literary value whatsoever, it’s fluffy as hell but it’s FUUUUUN . Read it for the ballet stereotypes (the pushy ballet mother who had to cut her career short to have a child! the beautiful, rich and terminally ill ballerina! The hot Russian male dancer everyone wants!). Read it for the drama (of which there is plenty!). Or don’t read it and forever after deprive yourself of the literary equivalent of hostess twinkies.

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Ah, vampires.

There are entire websites devoted to vampire books, but of course in this day and age, there are a few titles that hang on everyone’s lips. You know where this is going, don’t you?

I’ve been wanting to weigh in on “Twilight” for quite some time now. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing and I have to say I belong squarely in the hate-it camp. It would have been very easy (and quite pleasant) for me to go on and tell you the many reasons why I think Bella is a total loser who has no friends and who spends most of the book fainting/waiting-to-be-rescued. And why Edward, hottie though he may be, is kind of a  two-dimensional character to me (he’s a high school boy, for crying out loud). And how i really wanted to hurl the book against the wall about 100 pages in (we read it for book club  to see what the fuss was all about, and I gave my copy away as soon as we were done). But so many other people have said just what i was thinking, and in far funnier ways. Here, one of my favorites:

http://postavant.com/2009/07/the-twilight-backlash-is-warranted/

I like my vampires creepy, crawly, afraid of the sun, and seriously undead. I like it when the vampire is the creature you run away from rather than into the arms of. I guess I’m funny that way. Here, a small selection:

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker- there is a reason why this book is a classic. I literally read and reread my copy to tatters. I now own one of those definitive editions with annotations and tons of footnotes. Love it. And also loved the Coppola film which adapted the book more faithfully than most.

“Interview With the Vampire” by Anne Rice- with Lestat and all of his ilk, Anne Rice made vampires sexy but still kept them mysterious, sinister, gothic and eerie.

“Baltimore or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire” by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden- This is a story about a small group of brave men with a vendetta against the vampires who are wreaking havoc and destruction on their world. It’s dark and bleak. It’s violent and gory. It’s ILLUSTRATED. Here is a vampire tale you can (pardon the pun) really sink your teeth into.

“Bloodsucking Fiends” and” You Suck” by Christopher Moore- If you really MUST read about vampire love, this is the way to go. The first book chronicles the budding love affair between new vampire Jody and her mortal boy Tommy. The second book begins moments after the first book ends. Tommy wakes up in his girlfriend’s arms, now a vampire himself. And what does he say?  He says “You bitch! You killed me! You suck!” Now THAT’S what you say to someone who turns you into a creature of the night in the name of love! Seriously though, Christopher Moore is insane and funny and brilliant. I love him.

I know, I know. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the vampire literature that should be on everyone’s must-read list. But these are my favorites and that’s that. I’d gladly read anything you might want to recommend. Anything except the rest of those “Twilight” books, that is. 😉

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No, it’s not a book title, it’s an actual shelf in my library which i have dedicated to disturbed girls, both fictionalized and real as well as disturbed girl writers. Though I’m going to have to make more room. The world is full of disturbed girls and they make for fascinating reading. You can’t see the titles very well but there’s “The Bell Jar” along with the journals of Sylvia Plath. There’s “Girl, Interrupted”, “Prozac Nation” , “Lolita” and all the Shirley Jackson books I own. “Reviving Ophelia” is here and so is “Rebecca” (Mrs. Danvers…definitely disturbed). “The Red Shoes” is here too because let’s face it…an obsession with Dance, while completely romantic, is also kind of disturbing. Especially as evidenced in Vicky Page (Mr. Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance?” Vicky: “Why do you want to live?”) who goes all Anna Karenina on us in the final chapters. There’s the beautifully tragic “The Virgin Suicides” and the kookily, happily disturbed “Mermaids”. There’s “Lisa, Bright and Dark”(“Daddy, I think I’m going crazy” Lisa said. Mr Shilling said “You’ve seen too many movies.”) If and when i find my long lost copies of “Sybil” and “The Best Little Girl in the World”, they’re going onto this shelf too.  And then there is the double whammy disturbed mother-daughter duo from “Carrie” (“OH MOMMA! HELP MEEEE!”).

Then there’s Dorothy Parker. The smartest, wittiest, saddest and funniest Disturbed Girl ever. She’s on another  level AND on another shelf (The Writer’s Anthologies shelf, as the only Parker book i own is just that). To show you what I mean about the fabulous Mrs. Parker,read this:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/frustration/

and this:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/coda/

Don’t get me wrong, though. I absolutely LOVE the disturbed girls. And I’m not alone.They fascinate the world. Do you realize almost every title i mentioned here has become a film? Most of those films were hits and a few garnered Academy Award Nominations for their very disturbed leads (notably Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”, although she didn’t win, and Angelina Jolie in “Girl Interrupted” who DID win for playing a character even more disturbed than the film’s main heroine).

Disturbed girl stories are cautionary tales, but they’re also stories about extremely complex characters, real and imagined, that are all the more disturbing because sometimes we may find we’ve been those characters too, or known them…or even worse, that we’ve been the characters who made their lives disturbing in the first place. Check out the bullies in “Carrie”. The well-meaning but ridiculously overprotective parents in “The Virgin Suicides”.  Lolita’s mother. Even the misguided, always-entertaining Mrs. Flax from “Mermaids”.

Then there’s the wondering how they got that way. Especially with the writers. What on earth happened in the life of Shirley Jackson to make her produce a story like “The Lottery”? (And the rest of her many stories, though equally brilliant, are no less eerie, creepy and well…disturbed). How did Sylvia Plath get from “The Bell Jar” to the inside of her oven?

How do girls turn out this way? And how can we make it so that they don’t?

Food for thought. And really great reading.

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Damn Tana French! She gave me dark circles under my eyes! Made me overdose on caffeine! Made me antisocial!

I was doing a random stroll through the suspense/thriller aisle at my local bookstore and lucky me, I stumbled upon this author and her two novels “In the Woods” and “The Likeness”. Both feature the same heroine, the twentysomething, Vespa riding, fast talking Cassie Maddox. While the books aren’t really related, it’s better to read them chronologically because of the way Cassie evolves from one novel to the next.

As thrillers go, both these books are good solid reads. The first involves the murder of a twelve-year-old girl which Cassie must investigate with her Murder Squad partner Rob Ryan, himself a survivor of a similar attack in the very same woods where their victim is found. Cassie and Rob have a very Scully and Mulder vibe about them and their partnership is as entertaining and interesting in and of iteslf as the case they are trying to solve.

The second finds Cassie going undercover to investigate the murder of a girl who bears an eerie resemblance to Cassie herself and who goes by the name of Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie previously used. To solve the case, she must assume the identity of the dead girl and move into the house she shares with a bunch of graduate students. Of course, she gets deeply wrapped up in their lives (If you’ve ever read Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” this one will feel like its more sinister spiritual cousin).

Both plots offer enough twists and turns to keep you reading all night long and both give you the creepy,eerie feeling that the best of these books give. Both are curious hybrids of police procedural (I love forensics, don’t you?), psychological thriller and whodunit which make them pretty unputdownable. Both have received a ton of awards (Edgar Award, Salon.com/Christian Science Monitor/Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, LA Times Crime Fiction Favorite and Book Prize Finalist, Seattle Times Best Mystery,etc etc. Even the New York Times Book Review gave French a nod).

What I find really great about them though, is that while they work excellently on that level, French is also a master at creating these really complex characters that you don’t want to stop reading about. You get so involved in their lives and stories that by the end, when the murderer is revealed you just want to shout “NOOOOO! It can’t be him/her/them! Why?!? Why did he/she/they do it?!?” You’ll close these books at the end and have to sit for a minute and just let those characters simmer for a while. Then you’ll impatiently tick of the days in your calendar until July 2010 when the next book comes out.

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If you can, get the 25th Anniversary edition, and not this one with a movie still on the cover. Hate it when they do that!

Did you finish that line? AHA…you’re a “Princess Bride” groupie too!

I love “The Princess Bride”. I love reading it, I love watching it. I just LOVE it.

Everything you could possibly want in a book is in this one. Adventure! Romance! Swashbuckling! Sicilians! The Dread Pirate Roberts! Vizzini, the Evil Sicilian! Fezzik, the giant with a thing for rhymes! INIGO MONTOYA! WOOHOO!

It’s your classic fantasy. Boy meets girl.They fall in love. He sets forth to seek his fortune and is believed dead. She despairs and eventually is betrothed to an evil man whom she does not love. But WAIT! Is he really dead? Kidnapping, poisoning, revenge, swordfights and Rodents of Unusual Size ensue. Among other things. I could summarize the plot for you, but WHY??! Just go read it yourself! It’s so GOOD!

The  first great thing about this book is that it never takes itself too seriously, but is always so sincere, heartfelt and joyful that you really can’t help but like it.  The second great thing about it is that is a near-perfect adventure story, in the most classic sense of the word. The plot really DOES move along at a very fast clip and you’ll be turning pages with bated breath.  The third great thing about it, is that it’s so damn funny! I’m talking universally funny here, as this book has been known to find a captivated audience in kids as young as 5 (for whom it is read aloud) to full-grown adults (who like to read it, then see the film, then proceed to quote all the lines from the film ad nauseam).

Added bonus here…there is a film version and it is every bit as good as the novel upon which it was based. Maybe even better because it’s essentially the book in live action form. Rob Reiner directed it (I love him for both this movie and for the equally excellent but totally different “When Harry Met Sally”), and it featured a cast with the likes of Robin Wright (debuting as Princess Buttercup), a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage and Billy Crystal. How could it go wrong? Answer: It didn’t. 🙂

And so, in true Princess Bride groupie form, I leave you with these words. Never mind that you might not understand them now. You will. Oh yes, you will.

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

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What is it they all feed on in Sweden that makes them so gosh-darned cool?

They make cool clothes (such as the perfectly lovely oddmolly.com). They make stylish-yet-completely functional furniture with the funny names(ikea.com, duh). They spawn many,many cool bands (the cardigans/peter, bjorn and john/david and the citizens/etc etc ) and they produced Stieg Larsson, the man behind the Millenium Trilogy.

Said trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) introduces the world to an unlikely tandem: Lisbeth Salander, a dysfunctional girl with severe socialization issues and a freakishly brilliant mind for computers, numbers and aggression, and Mikael Blomqvist, a fearless journalist who also happens to have a thing for the ladies. Together, the two join forces uncover the secret to an unsolved disappearance (this happens in the first book) but soon get involved in much uglier, creepier situations culminating in Lisbeth’s desire for revenge against the men who wrecked her life(2nd and 3rd volumes). If you want a better synopsis, look here:

http://www.stieglarsson.com

If you want a REALLY GOOD, FUN, THRILLING READ, skip the synopsis and go buy the books. Lisbeth Salander is the best fictional character you will come across for a long time. She’s smart and complicated and resourceful and her story kicks ass. She makes you want to whip out your computer and start hacking into other people’s hard drives. I’d read them for her alone, but it’s a bonus that the plots of all three books are totally absorbing, complicated but not convoluted and  thrilling enough to keep you turning the pages (as soon as you can wrap your head around all the Swedish names. They’re a bit complicated, i will admit). What about the other guy, Blomqvist, you ask? Yeah, yeah, he’s interesting enough but he spends way too much time hitting on women while Lisbeth is running around putting herself in dangerous situations.

The Millenium Trilogy is one of those series that is light enough to be considered easy reading (as in, good for a plane or the beach or something) but weighty enough not to be lumped in the Dan Brown category. Now before you go all ballistic, let me say I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code and all, but when you get right down to it, it’s fluff. The equivalent of Cheetos. Yummy, sure, but no nutritional value whatsoever. The Millenium Trilogy…that’s more like mac and cheese with truffle oil. It shouldn’t be a mainstay in your diet and it’s not that healthy, but man, it tastes good and is a cut above.

Sadly, Larsson died before completing the 4th book in what was originally a 10-volume work. No matter. Let’s be thankful for the three that we do have…and let’s await the international releases of the film versions with bated breath.

Just go read it already! It’s available EVERYWHERE.Otherwise you’ll be the one loser who hasn’t and all your friends will laugh at you.

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