Sunday, November 23, 2008

sunday afternoon snooze pick

My workweek at the store is Friday - Tuesday. By this time, Sunday afternoon, I'm feeling a bit run down. I really just want to find a corner of the store with minimal sunlight, maximum heat, pull a blanket over me, and nap until we close. It's tempting to do so, but with the surefire presence of management's watchful eye, I'll get busted and booted before I can emit the first snore.

So, to perk myself up, I'm going to make an effort, every Sunday, to pick a book to perk up the senses and either accompany you through your lazy, sleepy Sunday, or ease you through you decidedly un-lazy Sunday at work.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
Thomas McNamee

I've got to hand it to McNamee: Not only did he make a lovely sense out of the lovely disorder going on at Chez Panisse, he carefully crafts the depiction of Alice Waters, so as to capture all facets of this prism personality. In the late 1960's, Waters, an admitted Francophile and dreamer, opens up the Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where she could serve the kind of food that she ate while in France, the idea of food that she had been chasing ever since returning to the U.S.

The early history on Waters is brief, and very fittingly so, because this is not a woman whose childhood seems like an improbable notion. Even into her old age, Waters bears a whimsical presence on the restaurant she founded, on her family, friends, colleagues, students, and business partners, on her fans and devoted followers, and this whimsy is fueled by a residing childlike notion of purity, cleanness, simplicity.

It's also fitting, then, that the bulk of the background behaviors at Chez Panisse could be described in opposing terms. In lesser work, the personalities and presences of so many people coming and going would read as an impassable blur, a messy, ill-defined group of misfits, romantics, artists, cooks, outlaws, etc. But McNamee's patience is well utilized. He handles each kitchen personality with careful character crafting, following their story to the very end of their time at the restaurant, and many of them long after. He sketches such clear pictures of the supporting players, that they stick with you throughout the entire history, much like their actual presence in Alice Waters's life.

The ultimate achievement of this book is that it accessibly relates the story of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse without sacrificing the spirit of mercurial disarray and sentimental disaster. The reader can understand how botched the accounts were for 30 years, how close the restaurant came to financial ruin (the many, many times), and yet, nothing dampers the sentimental glow of the dining room, the idea of fresh, simple foods served lovingly, the endless search for better, finer, fresher, local ingredients. The perfect radish, the perfect lemon, the perfect bunch of herbs, the perfect lamb. To track down the freshest ingredients, as told from the perspective of even the most freelance of scavengers for the restaurant, is a devotional task to a higher calling of a glorious slow food revolution.

To sink your teeth into something ripe from the vine, or to liven a dish with herbs freshly sprung from pots in the window. Wild vegetables and fruits. In a way, McNamee makes sense of Waters and Chez Panisse the same way they make sense of their work: In his mission to provide the best history of the woman and her groundbreaking restaurant, the author keeps it simple, fresh, and goes straight to the source for the perfect information. It's slow, tedious work, but at the end you have a literary meal hearty, delicious, and soul-satisfying.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

bookchat picks

At the store, a few of us have been asked to pick five books to talk about to the general book-buying public. The idea is that twice a day during weekdays, four times a day on weekends, a bookseller will sit at the desk near the fireplace, displaying their five book picks and discussing them to anyone who will listen. So far, the results have been disappointing. Paul kicked things off with the first bookchat on Sunday, and it went decently. He sold three books total, which is three more than anyone else has managed to sell. Hell, no one so far has been able to get anyone over to the table, let alone sell them a book.

But I've got a plan. My first bookchat is on Friday. I plan to make cookies, cupcakes, muffins, anything that will lure unsuspecting consumers to my book lair. Here's a cookie, listen to me talk about this book. I've been drawn in that way. There's nothing more direct than a pile of delicious baked goods. People sense free food from the moment they walk into the building. I seem to have a sixth sense, honed to pick out potential food giveways and samples. That's why it's so much fun to go to nice grocery stores on the weekend. Customers love to get free food, and I'm not even trying to get them to donate to my charity or join my religious group or vote for my particular candidate. If they stand there and eat the cookie while pretending to listen to me talk about my choices, then so be it. At least it will kill the fifteen minutes.

We were allowed to pick any book that the store sells, so I tried to make my list ecclectic and varied enough to sell to anyone. I think I should have included a stronger selling title, but... well, I tried.
In no particular order:

1. After Dark - Haruki Murakami - This was the first book I wrote down when I was picking choices, and I think I know why. Of all the Murakami to read, this, his most recent novel, is the easiest to sell to the uninitiated. It's not as strange and haunting as Sputnik Sweetheart or Norwegian Wood, and it doesn't have the intimidating heft of The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, but it carries the same unique accesible qualities that even his denser works carry. It's a short book too, and contains a fairly linear plot line. Two sisters, one stuck in a constant sleep, imprisoned by her dream state, the other sister unwilling to return home and rest. Also included: a sweet, shy saxophonist, a "love hotel" and its unlikely caretakers, and the rapidly beating heart of a Tokyo nighttime. Perfect quick reading.

2. The Big Ass Book of Crafts - Mark Montano - A nice Christmas present, and I already know that this book sells itself. It's big (obviously), has a great aesthetic, and Montano's crafts are actually stuff you would want in your home. The focus is on interior design projects, from new ways to deal with those pesky subscription cards that fall out of magazines, to an incredible lampshade made of bendy straws to foot scrubs, hand creams, and homemade soaps. The amount of projects alone justifies the price, but it's the quality of project that's the real draw. Montano doesn't require you to buy expensive supplies, or a lot of supplies, or lose your sense of personal taste. He gives the reader just enough of a framework so that they can add and subtract what they choose to. The instructions are clear, the supplies accesible and easy to obtain, and the best part: the projects are actually really cool.

3. Winner of the National Book Award Jincy Willett - After releasing the short story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life in 1987, Willett didn't release another major work until 2005. But with a book this good, it turns out the wait was well worth it. Rhode Island is the remarkably unremarkable setting of this tale of twin sisters, Dorcas and Abigail, the first a dour and sardonic lover of the written word, the second a promiscuous small-town hussy, happily pursuing her own lascivious desires until she meets Conrad Lowe, former gynecologist and famous memorist. Lowe is also a sadistic, manipulative mysogynist, and his marriage to Abigail and intrusion into the world of both sisters sets the stage for a downward spiral of hideously hilarious proportions. Dorcas is an incredible narrator: her dry, near-detached bemusement lifts to reveal a woman deeply attached to her twin sister, despite all the differences between them, despite the near and realized tragedies of their circumstances. Willett also paints a vivid portrait of Rhode Island as the ultimate middle of nowhere, a place where natives neither flash their academia or revel in low-class pursuits, but where everyone attacks the grocery stores on the eve of an impending giant storm.

4. Black Hole - Charles Burns - If you're a fan of graphic novels, chances are you've already read Black Hole, but in case you been residing in a hole of your very own, then absolutely seek out this giant volume of the collected Black Hole comics. Set in suburban Seattle in the 1970s, the novel follows a group of teenagers as an epidemic slowly grows to include several members of the local high school. The artwork is astounding; whether shocking, grotesque, or strangely beautiful, it's the absolute perfect method of storytelling for this particular story. Some graphic novels work because of the writer's particular voice, some work because the artwork is so beautiful, some work because the comic format is the only way that particular story could be told. Black Hole is the perfect example of a graphic novel that was meant to be: the visuals are perfect, the plotline absolutely engrossing, the characters sympathetic and fully realized, the themes unsettling, the tone haunting... A dense, wonderful, terrible head trip, and an absolute must read.

5. La Dolce Vegan - Sarah Kramer - Truth be told, between the two reigning vegan divas, I kind of prefer Isa Chandra Moskowitz's recipes, because they are a bit more sophisticated. Still, if you have one vegan cookbook on your shelf, then it should be this one. I'm not vegan, not even vegetarian, but I own both this book and In the Garden of Vegan, because the recipes are simple, great, and inexpensive to produce. Kramer gives the home cook a lot of wiggle room with volume and type of ingredients, but the instructions are easy to follow. What's more, she provides endless tips on living a fun (but frugal) vegan lifestyle, including that ever-so-useful egg-replacement chart and a bunch of easy recipes for fake meat flavors. The cookbook's full of sassy style, and looks right at home in any kitschy kitchen, and it's trade paperback, so you won't mind getting a glob of banana or spot of tofu on the pages.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

When I Grow Up review

The last two weeks have been easy reading time. I’ve been a bit lazy, reading a pair of very different new releases and a graphic novel. One of the books, The Gargoyle, and the graphic novel, Alison Bechdel’s excellent Fun Home, offered the kind of challenges so necessary in a reader’s diet. The other book, Juliana Hatfield’s memoir, When I Grow Up, wasn’t what I would classify a challenging read. At points, it wasn’t even that enjoyable, as Hatfield is novice memoirist and resorts to cliché and redundancy on more than a few occasions. The trio, however, formed a near-perfect unit of reading, and, I admit, I’m a bit desirous to repeat the formula. It breaks up as this:

1 lightweight non-fiction + 1 heavy work of contemporary fiction + 1 heavier work of contemporary graphic fiction = satisfied literary appetite.

Perhaps it doesn’t breaks down quite so easily. But I had hit a bit of a slump following the hilarious and weirdly inspiring Stiff (Mary Roach), and following Roach’s own glowing review of Traffic, I gave it a try. And while the book is written with extreme intelligence and style, I put it down about halfway through. Maybe because I don’t drive, the detailed implications of the hows and whys of traffic conditions didn’t hold my interest. If I ever do manage to get my driving license, I’ll probably pick up Traffic again. It’s one of those books that is good, and good for you, and unfortunately, I’m almost never in the mood to really get the most out of a book like that.

I was still struggling through Traffic when I received a copy of When I Grow Up, and in the interest of timeliness and courtesy to Stephanie Corby from Wiley Publishing (thanks!), I took up the memoir immediately, and upon following, I needed something that would be its opposite, and in the middle of The Gargoyle, my copy of Fun Home arrived at the store, so I read bits and pieces of it during register shifts. So now, at the end of my three- book streak, I’m on the hunt for the next trio. My reading habits seem to come in three-book bursts, with about a week- long period where I can’t seem to find anything that grabs me.

But I think the new streak has begun, because I picked up How to Be Idle just yesterday, so I think I’ve found the one lightweight non-fiction book in the formula. Maybe I really should try the equation again, see if I can perfect it.

When I Grow Up – Juliana Hatfield (September 2008 -Wiley Publishing)

I have a tendency to fetishize 90s alternative rock. I was just old enough to see women like Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, etc., as older sister archetypes, women who I didn’t exactly want to be (okay, I did want to be Lisa Loeb), but I wanted to be just old enough to really relate with at the moment. Really, at heart, all I really want to be is Wynona Ryder in Reality Bites, with an adorable short hair cut and adorable clothes listening to mid-90s alternative rock, “Spin the Bottle” spinning in rotation with The Lemonheads, Pixies, Pavement, as well as all kinds of terrible mid-nineties radio jams that I absolutely loved. (I also have to point out that both Lisa Loeb and Juliana Hatfield are on the Reality Bites soundtrack. Also, if I were Wynona Ryder in Reality Bites, I would have picked Ben Stiller over Ethan Hawke. I have complex reasoning as to why, so I’ll explain at a later point.)

Anyway, so I have an enduring fondness for Juliana Hatfield, despite that I find her later music to be irritatingly self-possessed. Actually, her music is almost always a little gratingly self-possessed, and it’s an early strength and belated weakness. Still, she’s a woman who has been on the scene since the late 1980s, starting with her band The Blake Babies, through her moderate alternative-rock success as a solo artist and subsequent breakdown, semi-come back, semi-retirement, semi-come back. The chapters are written in back and forth view points, half tour diary, half recollection. Both halves suffer from redundant storytelling. Hatfield either doesn’t trust her readers to recall simple information, or her copy editors weren’t nice enough to do the job for her and cut out the repeated information.

The tour diary is the stronger of the halves overall. It feels more immediate, fresher, more vividly recalled. It dates back to the first Some Girls tour, Hatfield’s latter day trio with fellow former Blake Babies’ drummer, Freda Love. Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard a Some Girls album, Hatfield provides enough details on the people in and working for the band, the places they visit, and the music they play to give the reader a full picture of the tour experience. In fact, the tour chapters read as a kind of generic diary of an artist dealing with playing a scene that she has less and less in common with, and a dwindling fan base of devotees that she is simultaneously grateful for and exhausted by. And for as much apologetic self-explanation that Hatfield resorts to, she exhibits a brave willingness to expose all of her bad behavior, unappealing bitchiness, neurosis, and insensitivities all. Like when a quiet fan in Columbus approaches her after a show, asking her to sign a giant, career-spanning pile of Juliana Hatfield merchandise. Hatfield balks:

“He didn’t even say hello to me – and not a word about the show- and now he wants fifteen or twenty autographs? But why? So he can sell them on eBay? Why can’t he just be happy to see me, like all those smiling people over there talking to Heidi and Freda? He’d probably be just as disappointed with me if I chopped off one of my fingers right now and gave it to him. It wouldn’t be enough. He’d want the whole hand.”

Melodramatic, yes, but then again, whose diary isn’t? Hatfield could have edited a lot of the conflict, nail-biting, self doubt, and bad mood stuff out, but she would have lost the cranky heart of the book (as well as more that half of the chapters). Her overwhelming point is that she’s not exactly cut out to be a public figure, and the stories she tells back that up to a strong degree. Still, even devoted fan reading this might feel like Hatfield is overreaching a bit when she talks about the oppressiveness of being in the spotlight (especially when she’s talking about the spotlight as it exists upon her now).
The other half of the memoir, the real memoir-ish half, remains compelling when Hatfield discusses her childhood, her painful early time at Berklee College of Music, the nitty gritty of her Blake Babies/solo success in the early 90s, and her emotional/physical breakdown in the midst of her career decline. Especially of interest is the later chapter regarding God’s Foot, the lost Juliana Hatfield album that, lacking a single, Atlantic pulled from release and shelved. Candid writing about that level of artistic castration is rare, and the subsequent bravado/vulnerability that Hatfield details of her post-label career is heartbreaking.

Hatfield is a gifted enough writer that she knows how to carefully construct a scene, and the environments and players she depicts are genuine. Hatfield, herself, plays up the “remarkably unremarkable” image, and she’s not above a little cloying self-deprecation, “I’m so horribly ordinary, how could anyone care about me, care about my music, love me and appreciate me and think I’m pretty,” etc, etc. It’s almost a neat literary trick when, in the later chapters, as Hatfield discusses her emotional growth and subsequent return to making music, the writing gets stronger and stronger. For all the emotional outreach that she attempts to depict with her interactions with fans, friends, fellow artists, she finally nails it on the last page. With a single paragraph, Hatfield finds grounding, and When I Grow finds its true heart.

- Em