Monday, June 23, 2008

what I'm reading now

in the car: Kitchen Confidential
À bas la gas prices [pardon my French]. Mr. Bibliotonic and I are the team managers for Son #1’s soccer team, and, as such, need to be at all his games. The away games are in far-flung East Metro suburbs so we spend quite a bit of time in the car, which is, for me and Mr. Bibliotonic, a perfect read-aloud opportunity. At the moment, I’m reading Tony Bourdain’s first literary success, Kitchen Confidential. Back in 2000, I was given a manuscript of Kitchen Confidential to read in preparation for selling it to bookstore buyers. I knew we had something well written and entertaining, but I had no idea the book would hit the NYT bestseller list or that Bourdain would become a household name as a result. This collection of essays is one part memoir, one part no-holds-barred professional chef expose. Bourdain is foul-mouthed, funny, and honest as he explores his career in the kitchen, as well as all the characters involved in running a restaurant.

in the den: Hens Dancing
I’ve read about a quarter of this delightful British comedy of manners, a classic example of what we called—when I was repping at St. Martin’s Press in the days before chicklit was its own genre—women’s fiction. Raffaella Barker's novel, Hens Dancing, is set in romantic rural England and features a mother of three, whose husband has recently left her. The story is told in journal form, which allows for reading in chunks.

on my bedside table: Petite Anglaise
Plain and simple, this is a memoir of a blogger. Catherine Sanderson is a Brit living in Paris with her French boyfriend (Mr. Frog) and their daughter (Tadpole). Sanderson started blogging in 2004, detailing the frustration with her relationship and her subsequent affair. I know that she will lose her job for blogging at work, but I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet. It’s a quick, juicy read.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Salman Rushdie

I had the pleasure of meeting Rushdie in 1998, shortly after he emerged from nearly a decade of hiding under threat of death. He was a special (and secret) guest at the sales conference I attending when I repped for Holtzbrinck (now Macmillan USA). Henry Holt was about to publish The Ground Beneath Her Feet and brought Rushdie to a company dinner to launch the book. At the time, Rushdie traveled with a heavy security
detail. It was widely believed that the bathroom attendants on duty that evening weren't employees of the hotel, if you catch my drift. I never, in a million years, thought I would get to meet Rushdie, whom I'd admired as a writer since the early 1980s. Needless to say, it was quite a treat for me to eat dinner at his table. But Rushdie had a present for us, too—a very rough studio cut of the song "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," performed by Rushdie's friends, U2.

Happy Birthday Salman Rushdie!

It's the birthday of Salman Rushdie, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1947), two months before India's first day of independence. He comes from a wealthy Muslim family. His father had a huge library and was a wonderful storyteller. He told Rushdie stories every night, many of them fairy tales inspired by One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

As a teenager, he started going to an elite high school in England where he didn't get along with his classmates, who made fun of his accent.

Home from a school vacation, he found out that his parents were moving to Pakistan as part of a large Muslim exodus, and Rushdie was crushed. He didn't like England, he didn't like Pakistan, and now he couldn't go home to Bombay. He tried working as a journalist in Pakistan, but there was too much censorship, so he went back to England and tried to become a writer. When he told his father his plans, his father said, "What on earth would you write about?"

He spent a year as an actor at a fringe theater in London and then supported himself in England by writing for advertising. His first assignment was to write a jingle about the merits of car seat belts, to the tune of a Chuck Berry song. While he was working there, he wrote a science fiction novel called Grimus (1975) that didn't do well. Then he decided to write a book about India, the country that he hadn't seen in years.

Rushdie's novel was called Midnight's Children (1981), the story of a man born the same day India gained independence. The book was a huge success, among both Westerners and Indians. It won the Booker Prize, and Rushdie became the leader of so-called "post-colonial literature." Only Rushdie's family hated the book. He had revealed a lot of family secrets in the novel and nobody appreciated it.

When Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. In the book, Rushdie makes a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion, he names the whores in a Mecca brothel after the Prophet Muhammad's wives, and he suggests that the Koran is not the direct word of God. The book was banned in India the month after publication and then subsequently in other countries. It was also publicly burned. There were bomb threats called in to the publishing house. Translators of the work suffered assassination attempts; the Italian translator was wounded, the Japanese translator killed, and the fire set by Islamic extremists to the Turkish translator's hotel left 40 people dead.

There was a riot in Kashmir over the book, and the Ayatollah Khomeini saw scenes from the riot on Iranian television in which police shot demonstrators. After that, the Ayatollah announced that "all zealous Muslims of the world" should try to find Rushdie wherever he was and kill him. The order of death came from Iran's leader on Valentine's Day, 1989. The Ayatollah promised martyrdom for any Muslim who was successful in killing Rushdie, and another religious leader promised a million-dollar reward, doubled if the killer was Muslim.

Rushdie had to go into hiding for nine years. On the first anniversary of the fatwa, he wrote, "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense."

The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998. Rushdie later said, "The experience taught me ... a lot about the human capacity for hatred. But it also taught me the opposite: the capacity for solidarity and friendship. ... My Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and ... his first reaction, upon recovering from the bullet wounds, was to reprint the book. That's courage." After the fatwa was lifted, Rushdie decided to leave London and move to New York City. He was attracted to New York because he said, "A lot of people had a lot of stories not unlike mine. Everybody comes from somewhere else." His most recent book is The Enchantress of Florence (2008).

Read a Book, Save the World

A great reading list via this morning's Shelf Awareness:
Read Orwell, save the world. SciFi channel's Visions for Tomorrow initiative asked fans to pick the "Top Things You Must Read, Watch and Do to Save the World." Wired reported that the "top three planet-saving activities were reading, recycling and registering to vote."

And what should you read?

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  3. Dune by Frank Herbert
  4. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  5. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  6. The Stand by Stephen King
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  8. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  9. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  10. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
I would revisit any of the books that I've already read (bold red). Dune captivated me in high school. In fact, I somewhat regret only making it through the first three books in the series because I don't think I'll ever take an opportunity to dedicate myself to it again. I read Orwell and Huxley while in college, studying British writers, and I thought they were each so profound. Just after I graduated college, when I was working in a bookstore and had just met the future Mr. Bibliotonic, who bought a copy of Brave New World to catch my attention. Very romantic.

I have just added all of these titles to my TBR list, and I think I'll start with some H.G. Wells. Plus, I've got the new TV movie of The Andromeda Strain queued on my DVR.

Which of these books have you read?

Friday, June 13, 2008

FINISHED: Devil May Care

Earlier this week I finished Devil May Care, the new James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks. It was, at best, entertaining in a page-turning sort of way. I could recommend it to anyone who looking for a beach or airplane read.

Faulks is the author of such highly acclaimed works as Charlotte Gray, Birdsong, and On Green Dolphin Street, the Cold War novel that allegedly inspired the Bond estate to handpick him as Ian Fleming’s latest successor. When I was in high school, I read the John Gardner Bond books, which were pretty stinky so I was thrilled to learn that Faulks had been selected to write the franchise’s new adventures. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations for Devil May Care, hoping that Faulks, who is an approachable literary writer, would have infused a little more substance into this novel.

Devil May Care picks up where Fleming left off, skipping the intervening adventures. The year is 1967. Bond is on a three-month sabbatical—he’s off adventure, cocktails, and women. That is, until he’s summoned back to London for a new mission: Stop an Eastern Bloc plot to destroy Great Britain by flooding it with heroin.

From here, the novel skips along predictably so there’s little point in examining the plot. There are no intricacies or nuanced elements. Occasionally Faulks delights with a zesty passage, such as this:
Silver screamed in anger and raised his gun to fire at Felix’s heart, but before he could pull the trigger, part of the contents of his head shot through his nose, as Hamid crashed a heavy white rock down on to his skull, with a crack that echoed round the foothills of Noshahr.
My biggest complaints: stagnant dialogue, sparse but inelegant prose, awkward stabs at writing historical references, a milquetoast Bond girl, and a freakish but not scary villain (Julius Gorner, a bad guy whose right hand is a monkey’s paw). There are frequent smaller problems with the book. As I read Janet Maslin’s NYT review, I found myself wanting to quote rather extensively. Instead, I’m linking here. She’s spot on in her assessment, and far more articulate than I have the energy to be.

That said, last night I picked up Casino Royale, the novel that introduced the world to James Bond. Granted, I have only read the first chapter, but I love what I have read. Here’s the opening paragraph:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of great and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
Ian Fleming has a casual and suave style, which is exactly what I want in a Bond adventure. I can only imagine what it was like for a reader in 1953—with no predisposition to any movie-screen Bond!—to have met this character.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

FINISHED: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Over the weekend, I finished reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s delectable memoir of eating in China. The Guardian called this book a “cultural immersion,” which is apt, as the memoir entails much more than food.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Dunlop lived in China, off and on, for over a decade. As a student—and as a professional writer—she has traveled to remote corners of the country, engaging every person she could in conversation. That rich experience certainly imbues her writing with great depth. Between descriptions of food and meals, Dunlop dazzles with history, geography, modernization, growth, and more.

In the early 1990s, Dunlop lands in Chengdu in Sichuan province—the area recently devastated by earthquakes—where she researched Chinese policy on ethnic minorities. She falls for street food, as well as the incendiary food of Sichuan province and the snout to tail eating of China. When her visa expires, she enrolls in a professional training school for chefs, as the only Western student and one of three women.

As a student of Sichuan cookery, Dunlop learned about mastering the arts of flavor, starting with fu he wei, the complex flavors. Sichuan cuisine boasts twenty-three official complex flavors, one of which is “home-style”—salty, savory, and a little hot. In her travels, she had an opportunity to challenge her culinary comfort zone by eating a lot of truly exotic foods, including civet cats, goose intestines, and more. The chapter on food textures and mouth-feel—an integral part of Chinese cooking—is eye opening.

All is not delicious. Dunlop explores the SARS health crises, which temporarily put a damper on eating in restaurants, where the risk of disease transmittal was high, especially with such practices as “public” chopsticks. She also looks at other issues, such as food safety (use of toxic food additives is rampant) and the controversial consumption of endangered species (shark’s fin and bear paws, to name a few).
In addition to Shark's Fin, Dunlop has written two authoritative cookbooks, one of which—Revolutionary Chinese Cookbookwas nominated for a James Beard Award (Asian Cooking) this year.

If you’re interested in China, food, or travel—or if you simply appreciate sparkling prose—this book is for you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Just a few more items for the “so many books, so little time” column:
~ NPR’s Alan Cheuse, who always makes reliable recommendations, presents his summer picks.

~ Also at, Emily Wylie takes a turn at Three Bookscowboys and indians, which includes Sherman Alexie's wonderful The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

~ The LA Times offers a nice, annotated round-up of summer releases. I've added the following to my TBR list: Come on Shore and We WillKill and Eat You All (Christina Thompson, Bloomsbury, 7/08), What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami, Knopf, 7/08), Man in the Dark (Paul Auster, Henry Holt, 8/08)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Three Books

Here’s something you’ll want to add to your RSS feed. National Public Radio has a fantastic new feature—Three Books, in which a writer recommends three great reads on a single theme. So far, the books chosen run the gamut from popular to lesser known, hot-off-the-press to classic, as well as literary to lighter fare.

Sloane Crosley, author of the much-buzzed I Was Told There'd Be Cake, riffed on the theme of sun and sand. Diane Abu-Jaber weighed in with three books about blood and brains.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Truth to Power

The NYT recently asked a handful of writers to recommend books to the presidential candidates. The survey results were published in the Book Review this past Sunday. Many of the responses were remarkably astute, but my favorite recommendations, which spoke most directly to each candidate, were made by John Edgar Wideman:
Thanks for an opportunity to school the stars. As required reading for Obama I assign “The Prince” (Machiavelli), a manual detailing strategies for handling situations when turning the other cheek won’t do; for McCain “The Little Prince” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), a lyrical narrative about loving that’s not taming but loving by letting go; and in the spirit of gender equity, since there is only one female candidate, two books for Clinton — “Black Beauty” (Anna Sewell), a tale from the horse’s mouth about the trials and triumphs of being a dark horse; and any volume by Miss Manners that reminds a reader civility matters, even in presidential campaigns.
Which books would you recommend that the presidential candidates read?