Monday, May 21, 2012

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat


By Thomas McNamee
New York, Free Press, 2012
291 pages    Biography

Craig Claiborne was a food writer and critic for the New York Times from the mid 1950s until the mid 1980s. Although relatively unknown today, he changed the way Americans thought about food and restaurant fare and helped create a new generation of chefs who developed the epicurean climate that exists today in magazine, television, and books as well as on our dinner tables.

Thomas McNamee tells Claiborne's story in the biography, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat. The subtitle: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance just about tells it all. This is a straightforward biography--chronological, and tightly scripted. It speaks of Claiborne’s childhood in Mississippi, the son of a woman who ran a boarding house where good southern cooking was the daily norm. He was educated at the University of Missouri and then at a culinary school in Switzerland. He virtually willed himself into the job as food critic of the New York Times. One of his first articles was a condemnation of the culinary arts of the 1950s. It was on the front page of the New York Times in 1959. The article caused a sensation and made his career.

Claiborne was a “king maker”; his say could make or break a restaurant or a chef. This was before the days of “celebrity” chefs, the Food Channel, or even Public Television’s cooking shows. Cook books, including the Joy of Cooking were utilitarian. Claiborne changed all that. His endorsement of Julia Child’s cookbook made her famous. He felt quite strongly that chefs needed to be grounded in classic cooking before they could take off on their own ideas “to be innovative to the limits of their imaginations.” He loved all the cooking of the world and loved serving and eating cuisines of various cultures in one meal. He was a great cook in his own right and a wonderful host. He also enjoyed taking friends and co-workers out for meals, trying out new restaurants, or having favorite dishes at favorite restaurants. Much of what we have in our American cupboards and refrigerators today came about because Claiborne wrote about it—garlic, cilantro, fresh ginger, goat cheese, basil, pine nuts, arugula, balsamic vinegar, macadamia nuts. He even endorsed the salad spinner. Certainly these were things unknown to me as I began to cook in the 1960s, and certainly they were unknown to most Americans.

When his career at the New York Times ended, much of who Craig Claiborne was ended as well. His heart began to fail; he descended into alcoholism and self-pity. He died in 2000 at the age of 80. McNamee says of his life:  “He had lived as he had wished to live, had led his fellow Americans into vast new realms of enjoyment, and had had a lot of fun along the way, his way.”

Craig Claiborne was a complex person, and McNamee touches on many of his complexities, but perhaps in too straightforward a way. Much of the speculation about Claiborne’s propensities and peculiarities remain just that, with very little exploration of what really made the man tick. The review of The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat in the Los Angeles Times notes that Claiborne was: “Almost unfailingly helpful to others but utterly ambitious. Prim and proper but given to raging fits when drunk. A man who treasured his friendships yet ended up alienating almost everyone close to him. Someone who delighted in socializing with the chefs he covered but basically invented the ethical rules for restaurant critics.” The same reviewer suggests that McNamee didn’t attempt to understand any of these characteristics of the man. Much of the book depends on the reminiscences of Diane Franey, the daughter of Claiborne’s business partner, Pierre Franey, a chef and cookbook author. Some of what is missing in the book are the recollections of people at the New York Times. That would have been helpful.

My mother was a good cook, although not a brilliant one. She kept lots of recipes and tried out ones that she found in the newspaper and in magazines. She prided herself on serving well-prepared meals for guests. We never had TV dinners, and only occasionally had Banquet Chicken Pot Pies. I will never forget going to visit some friends for a Sunday dinner. The wife served frozen pot pies over mashed potatoes and my mother was a bit miffed about it. She commented on the way home that she would never do something like that. But, in the 1950s, a frozen chicken pot pie was a new “delicacy,” and I think that the wife thought she was serving us something special. What would Craig Claiborne have to say about that! 

You might want to check out my posting about Taste What You’re Missing by Barb Stuckey. It discusses the scientific aspects of good food.
A review of The Man who Changed The Way We Eat in The Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-thomas-mcnamee-20120520,0,4240373.story

A blog posting by Thomas McNamee in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thomas-mcnamee/famous-food-critic_b_1497904.html

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leading at the Edge


By Dennis N.T. Perkins
New York, American Management Assoc., 2012
Second Edition
256 pages     Non-Fiction
The Shortlist

Dennis Perkins is a consultant and an expert in effective leadership, coaching, and team development. He and fellow consultants Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy have written a fascinating study of leadership through the lens of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition--Leading at the Edge.

I read the account of Shackleton’s adventures with great interest. Perkins outlines the goals for the journey, and the ensuing trauma that unfolded as they attempted to reach Antarctica in 1914. The adventure began with an advertisement in the London papers. Would you answer this ad?

"Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."

Shackleton believed in the power of the team and he used his natural ability for team building and leadership to guide his men on their journey. The hazards expressed in the hiring came true in ways far worse than could be expected, but two years later, Shackleton and his men were rescued—all of them alive.

Perkins and his consultants extracted ten leadership traits from this remarkable adventure. What makes Leading at the Edge a valuable tool for people in leadership positions is that while the reader is engrossed in the adventure, she is also learning skills that can be transferred to business, industry, education or wherever leadership is practiced. Perkins backs up each leadership trait with examples from the Shackleton adventure as well as with examples from modern day business. A set of questions at the end of each chapter encourage the reader to find ways to modify each leadership trait for their own benefit. 

Very skillfully written; very motivating; very interesting.

An interesting video review of the book:  http://www.barenakedcommunication.com/?p=53
Information about the book from Perkin’s business, The Syncretics Group: http://www.syncreticsgroup.com/book.html

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hiding in the Spotlight addendum

by Greg Dawson
New York, Pegasus Books, 2009
288 Pages     Memoir

 The book Hiding in the Spotlight, which I reviewed in 2010, tells the story of Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who survived the Holocaust by playing the piano for the Nazis. She and her sister were child prodigies, and her son wrote the story of her remarkable life, Hiding in the Spotlight.

Yesterday (May 12) CNN did a story about Zhanna and about the honorary doctorate she received this week from Oglethorpe University. She was selected for the honor because of "her indomitable spirit, courage, honesty, and sense of purpose."

The book is very honest and moving. Check out my thoughts here.
The CNN article: http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/12/us/georgia-holocaust-survivor/index.html

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Folded Earth


By Anuradha Roy
New York, Free Press, 2011
259 pages    Fiction

The Folded Earth is Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and it was with great anticipation that I embraced it. I had read An Atlas of ImpossibleLonging last year and absolutely loved it. Does this one match it? Not sure. Does it make me want to go to India? You bet.

While the setting of Atlas was India in older times, The Folded Earth is set in modern times, in a village high in the Himalayas. (In actuality, the village is where Roy and her husband live.) There is quite a bit of the older India at play in the book, including English-style cottages, old military men, and a mystery regarding the romance between Nehru and the wife of the Earl of Mountbatten. I was not aware of the term Raj Fiction, but apparently this is the term for nostalgic fiction of the British time in India. 

The book is divided into two parts—the first moves leisurely, much like one would imagine life in a Himalayan village. The second part moves more rapidly to a stunning conclusion. The plot takes too long to establish itself, but the writing is so good that the reader is willing to forgive Roy that indulgence.

Maya (my granddaughter’s name, by the way) is a young Hindu woman, widowed before the age of 20 by a mountaineering accident that claimed her husband, Michael’s life. She is estranged from her family because Michael was a Christian. Having nowhere to turn, she takes an opportunity to teach at a Christian school in the mountains, so she can be nearer the spot where her husband died. The first section of the book sets the scene and introduces us to a unique group of characters, including a nobleman who lets her live on his estate, where she edits a book he is writing about the adventurer, Jim Corbett. She defines her purpose in life thus: “I would not look into the future. My life had been too cruelly overturned once before for me to think of anything but the present moment. I would negotiate each day as if I were riding a leaf in a flowing stream: enough to stay afloat. I would not ask for more.”

Maya develops great affection for Diwan Sahib, the nobleman, and the people around the estate. She teaches a young woman to read so she can carry on a long-distance romance with a young cook in Delhi. She falls for Diwan Sahib’s nephew, Veer, who also is a mountaineer. The plot meanders a bit, but we get a very clear picture of village life, the summer heat, the monsoons, the ever-present mountains. Here is one of the beautiful passages that gives us a picture of mountain living:: “In winter, the air is clear enough to drink, and your eyes can travel many hundreds of miles until they reach the green of the near hills, the blue-gray beyond them, and then the snow peaks far away, which rise in the sky with the sun, and remain suspended there, higher than imaginable, changing color and shape through the day.”

The second part of the book moves a little faster as the carefully crafted life Maya has established starts to unravel, beginning with the decline of Diwan Sahib’s health until his eventual death. The reader develops a great deal of affection for Maya because her narration is mostly gentle and kind to those around her. She is like a wounded animal and the reader wants to make life better for her. The final events in the narration comes as much a blow to the reader as to Maya. The reader awakens rather abruptly from the dream-like state the beautiful words have thrust us into. 

Reviewers speak to the strength of Roy’s writing: “Roy's talent lies in her ability to infuse hard bits of social and political reality into a narrative that would otherwise have assumed the soft tinctures of light reading.” Another says: “. . . a poem to the natural world and its relentless displacement by the developed one.”

Roy calls upon the reader to embrace the slow pace of The Folded Earth, to savor the words and the character development, to feel Maya’s pain, and to discover a life that is unknown to her American audience. Although not as remarkable as An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth is worth reading for its own strengths and its own beauty.

Here is my review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing.
Anuradha Roy’s blog: http://anuradharoy.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Tribute to Maurice Sendak


Maurice Sendak died on May 8 at age 83. His influence in children’s literature is immeasurable, primarily because of his groundbreaking picture book, Where the Wild Things Are.  I don’t believe that it would be an overstatement to say that Where the Wild Things Are may be the most influential picture book of the 20th century. So influential, I might add, that I have a grandson named Max after the hero of the book.

Max is a naughty boy who gets mad at his mother and is sent to bed without any supper. And like the hero of Greek mythology he sets sail:
              "Through night and day
   and in and out of weeks
   and almost over a year
   to where the wild things are.”


My favorite line in the book is “Let the wild rumpus start.” I think of that line every time all my grandchildren arrive at the house and every time we have a party. My other favorite line comes at the beginning of the book when Max begins his mischief, and his mother reprimands him. He gets so mad he tells his mother, “I’ll eat you up!” which is the reason he is sent to his room.

Before Max, most picture book children were well-behaved little things, and picture books told stories with morals and nothing bad ever happened. Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of the interior life of an angry little boy and how he deals with that anger. I believe that is why children identify so strongly with Max. He can get really angry, but he finds ways in his imagination to deal with that anger. Kids get the moral of that story. . .we can learn to deal with anger in an interior way and return to the real world calmed and reflective. Where the Wild Things Are opened a floodgate of picture books which dealt with children’s anger and all the other things that children face—death, fear of abandonment or not fitting in, as well as all the other childhood experiences, including the rich imaginary experiences so similar to Max’s. 

I watched my year-old granddaughter get really mad at dinner a couple of nights ago. Her father pulled her out of the high chair and carried her into the living room to cool off. Her fit subsided and she returned to finish her dinner. . .”and it was still warm.”


 Here is an article in the Christian Science Monitor about Sendak with a video interview:  http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2012/0508/Maurice-Sendak-with-the-Wild-Things-now-video

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Road


By Cormac McCarthy
New York, Knopf, 2006
256 pages   Fiction
AudioBooks 2006 read by Tom Stechschulte   6.75 hours

The road for us was the interstate driving home from our spring vacation. We slipped the disks of The Road by Cormac McCarthy into the player and took off. Cocooned as we were in our car, we became so totally engrossed in the journey of the man and the boy on the post apocalyptic road that we were totally disoriented when we stopped to get gas. “Where are we?” my husband asked? There were well-fed, well-dressed people all around us; we felt like refugees.
  
Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for The Road, a bleak dystopian novel about a father and son who are on their way to someplace warmer following some type of disaster—the type never disclosed. They have been traveling for years, since the boy was very little and now he is about 10. Their bond is so definitive that the boy very seldom questions a decision the father makes, unless it involves being unkind or hurting the few people they meet, or when they have to scavenge through an abandoned house. The boy is so pure that his father calls him “the one” and tells him that they are the “good guys” and they are bringing “the fire.” We never know the names of the two—they are only “the man” and “the boy” until the very end of the book when the man becomes known as “the father.”

The story is deceptively simple in its telling. The father and the son speak to each other in short sentences—the dialogue is very spare. The father frequently hugs his son when the boy tells him, “I’m so scared!” He comforts him by saying, “It’s OK” over and over again.

The love between father and son is religious in nature; the father is consumed with getting his son to a safe place so that the boy will restore the world to its former goodness, so that his purity will bring salvation to the world. When the father dies, the boy is found by another pilgrim family “some good guys” who are also carrying the fire. The father dies knowing his son is “the one” because the boy tells him so. When they capture a man who stole from them, the father leaves the robber naked on the road to freeze. The boy protests but the father chides him: “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.” And then the 10-year-old messiah, who is compassion incarnate, and carrying the fire, gives up his secret. He says to his father: “Yes I am. I am the one.”

One would think that such a austere novel would be difficult to read (or in our case) listen to, but it is so magnificently written that the reader hangs on every perfectly placed word. One reviewer said that it was so beautifully written that readers would seldom ever find another so magnificent in its prose. 

Dennis LeHane has said of The Road: “McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out—the entire world is, quite literally, dying—so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith.”

This is the first novel by Cormac McCarthy I have read, although I had seen the movie version of No Country for Old Men. I tried to watch The Road when it first came out on DVD, but it was too bleak. The audio book was beautifully read and in our confinement in the car, we were able to hear each carefully chosen word. I envisioned McCarthy honing each sentence, over and over again until it was just perfect.

As we reached the middle of the sixth CD and I knew that the father was going to die, I thought to myself, “I can’t bear it! I’m not going to be able to bear it.” The pathos is so stark; I couldn’t stop crying, even though I saw it coming. When the CD ended, I turned off the dial, and my husband and I sat in stunned silence for a long time. Finally, he turned on the radio to NPR and we listened to David Sedaris tell a long silly story about dogs. It was only a novel after all. 

Cormac McCarthy’s website: http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/
Here is the beautifully written New York Times review of The Road: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/books/review/Kennedy.t.html?pagewanted=all

Monday, May 7, 2012

Redemption Day

By Steve O’Brien
Washington, A&N Publishing, 2011
300 pages     Fiction

Conspiracy theories, terrorist threats, plots against the government—these are the bread and butter of fictional thrillers, and all of these are active in Steve O’Brien’s newest book, Redemption Day. A government contractor and terrorism analyst, Nick James, is accused of being complicit in the kidnapping of a Supreme Court justice, but because he is familiar with a homegrown terrorism group, Posse Comitatus, he is sure that they are involved in the crime. He sets out to prove his theory, convince the FBI that his judgment is correct, and rescue the justice. 

Redemption Day is very fast paced and angry. The protagonist, James, is angry because he has been fired from his job; the Posse Comitatus is angry because the “redemption day” they seek is not coming fast enough; an FBI agent is angry because James is getting all the attention; and a former co-worker of James is just angry in general. All of this anger feeds into the plot along with the flickering romance James is having with a female FBI agent. A final warning lets the reader know that the battle against home-grown terrorism is not over when the Supreme Court justice is finally rescued. The conclusion is satisfying and complete.

This s a serviceable thriller and it serves as a reminder that there are a lot of fringe groups in our country—terrorism is just as scary when it is homegrown as when it comes from a foreign group. On our vacation, we drove up US highway 219 in West Virginia. Shortly before we drove up that gloriously beautiful but unpopulated road, I had eaten at Smitty’s Best Dang BBQ spot on Interstate 81 in Virginia close to the border of West Virginia. (BTW, Smitty’s BBQ was reviewed on the Down Home Foodie blog.  and truly it was “dang” good.) It wouldn’t have been a stretch to say that some of the guys I said hello to at Smitty’s Truck Stop could have been part of the Posse group hiding out on that very lonesome, mountainous highway. West Virginia is the perfect setting for homegrown terrorism, and it proved to be a perfect setting for the Posse Comitatus in Redemption Day

Several years ago when we had just gotten our first GPS for the car, my husband and I went for a drive down country roads near our cottage in Michigan. We were trying to see just how far into the wilderness the GPS would take us. As we traveled down a dirt road that ran parallel to the highway, we discovered ourselves at the end of the road. A wooden gate closed off any further progress. The gate was emblazoned with a No Trespassing sign with two crossed rifles across the center and a small Michigan Militia logo in the corner. We realized, then, that the possibility of homegrown terrorism is ever present. 

Redemption Day is self-published by the author’s publishing company and came to me from the publicist. I would consider it good airplane reading or a good beach read since it is face-paced, fun, and satisfying without being too taxing on the brain. You can find a review for another of O’Brien’s books, Bullet Work, here.
Steve O’Brien’s website: http://www.aandnpublishing.com/