I'm a bit of a bookworm. (Ahem, understatement.) For whatever reason, I've always preferred fiction to non-fiction. Perhaps because non-fiction felt like homework? Our non-fiction bookcase has two entire shelves full of excellent works on theology and philosophy left over from my classes in college, and I haven't read more than a handful of pages out of most of them. Meanwhile, I'm one of the only people I know who has kept up a continuous habit of novel reading through college and new motherhood.
Recently, though, I haven't read very many novels, because I've discovered a new genre of non-fiction: food writing. I love food writing. I want food writing to be my roommate so that we can paint each other's toenails and stay up talking and giggling until 2 am.
I'm always looking for new books to read, and I'm guessing some of you are as well. Wouldn't it be fun for me to review the books I've read, so you can check them out if you want? I thought so, too.
Here's what I've read, in the order I read them.
My rating system:
zero stars = skip it
* = only worth reading if you're stuck in an elevator
** = better than a random pick from the library shelves
*** = have the library hold it for you
**** = buy it if it's on clearance
***** = buy it at full price
The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman: This was a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law's book club, and I usually skip those. I almost skipped this book, and that would have been sad, since it is gripping. As gripping as a book about a cooking exam and two chef-slash-restaurant owners can be, anyway. Ruhlman's a journalist and he writes like a good one. Technical details, historical facts, basic biography, conversations and events all blend together to create a book that made me feel like I was having an experience rather than reading information. At the same time, I learned a lot. And now I really want to go the French Laundry, except I don't have the million dollars it would take. ***
Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell: Julie Powell decided to spice up her boring life by cooking every recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In one year. In a tiny apartment kitchen in Queens. Clearly she is insane, but she did get a book deal out of it, so I guess insanity can pay off. She blogged about it while it was happening, and wrote the book afterward. I think I would have loved the blog if I'd been reading along at the time; unfortunately it's easy to get bogged down trying to read through the archives. As for the book, I would have enjoyed it more if Powell had stuck to talking about the cooking and skipped the politicizing and philosophizing about completely non-cooking-related topics (surprise! our ideologies don't match). Also, she's happily married to her high-school sweetheart but apparently believes that marrying your high-school sweetheart is provincial and moralistic, and adds a lot of tangential material about her friends' casual affairs in order to prove that she is neither of those things. That bugged me, for obvious reasons. Still, it was a fun, quick read, and it kind of made me want to cook my way through a cookbook of my own. (Not a French one, though. Blech.) Also, it made me grateful for the comparative enormity of my own kitchen, and being grateful for what you have is always a good thing. **
Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl: This is the story of Reichl's stint as the restaurant critic at the New York Times. It is true - fairly true, anyway, as I get the idea that the best you get from Reichl in non-fiction is "fairly" true - but it reads like a novel. This is not a bad thing; I really enjoyed it. She's an excellent writer and she has crafted a scintillating work from her own experiences. While working for the Times she used a number of false identities to avoid being recognized in restaurants, and she manages to make the use of the identities and the process of reviewing restaurants seem like real drama. That takes skill. Highly enjoyable. ****
The Making of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman: Ruhlman started his series on chefs by enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America, and this book is about his time there. I have a feeling not many people could make lessons on basic knife skills and the proper preparation of brown veal stock into a page-turner, but Ruhlman does it. I found the book surprisingly fascinating. Just as with The Soul of a Chef, I learned a heck of a lot. I passed the book on to my sister, who is considering going to culinary school. The book would probably be a bore for anyone who's not at all interested in cooking or food, but anyone who is should check it out. ***
Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser: Ariella recommended this book on her blog ages ago, and I finally got around to reading it. Subtitled "A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes," it's the story of how Hesser and her husband met and got married. I was expecting a chapter-by-chapter narrative but it's actually a series of stand-alone pieces that Hesser originally wrote as a newspaper column. I probably would have enjoyed it a bit more as a novel-like piece, but I still liked it. I tend to get attached to narrators and it didn't take me long to get attached to her, so even though she is a bit pretentious, I was still rooting for her the whole time. Unfortunately, Hesser is not as good as Reichl at making ordinary life events seem extraordinary, and on their own the essays are a little lackluster. Fortunately, the book also has recipes, a good number of which made me want to hop to the kitchen right that minute. Hesser's recipe for peach tart impelled me to put peaches on my grocery list immediately, and I'd rather not admit how many times I've made it since then. Yum. The recipes save this book. ****
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain: No one can claim that Anthony Bourdain doesn't have the requisite experience to write knowledgeably about life as a chef. He's also a passably good writer, and this book is definitely a captivating glimpse behind the scenes of the restaurant world. Even so, I didn't enjoy it. It was just too gritty for me. I understand that in order to create an unsavory reality for your readers you're going to have to include some unsavory details, but Bourdain goes overboard, in my opinion, and appears to get a voyeuristic pleasure out of doing so. I'm shuddering just remembering a couple of scenes from the book. Also, the man has either an enormous ego or a wicked inferiority complex, because the tone of the book is inexcusably arrogant. On the other hand, I did finish it, and I'm always willing to stop in the middle of a book if it doesn't hold my attention, so that's something. *
Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, by Ruth Reichl: These are billed as memoirs, and I usually find memoirs boring, but Reichl's got a way with the memoir, and these read like novels. The first one covers her life until after college, the second is about her adulthood. In Tender at the Bone, Reichl writes about her development and the part food played throughout, without making the food theme seem affected. She offers amusing and poignant anecdotes, like the one about her mother accidentally giving food poisoning to a hundred charity-luncheon attendees. I enjoyed it and expected the same sort of fare from Comfort Me with Apples and so was unpleasantly surprised to find that, a few chapters into the book, Reichl is matter-of-factly describing her first extramarital affair. The fact that her husband is having affairs as well, and the fact that they eventually divorce amicably, did not make me enjoy reading about it any better. The book is still well-written, the stuff about food is top-notch, and there are some heartwarming moments, but the whole thing was soured for me. I'd definitely recommend the first book, but the second only with reservations. Tender at the Bone: *** Comfort Me with Apples: **
The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin: This is a collection of three of Trillin's books: American Fried; Alice, Let's Eat; and Third Helpings. It's basically Trillin going on about the food he likes, but that doesn't make it sound as interesting as it is. I doubt there's any way to make it sound as interesting as it is, actually. Trillin writes like Dave Barry toned down a couple notches, and I love me some Dave Barry, so I was bound to love this book. I almost didn't check it out because it looked boring, and I shudder to think what I would have missed. Anyway, like I said, it's pretty much indescribable. Read it your own self. *****