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.