Things read

Things read 9.22Some books, but mostly New Yorkers because I’m back at work. Also allowing myself to get sucked into a Longform vortex occasionally.

“A Meal Observed” by Andrew Todhunter: This is a book I’ve had for years and have re-read several times. Todhunter recounts a meal at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Taillevent in Paris. The book is divided by course and has details not only for each dish eaten, but history of food, musings from world-class chefs and details about the inner-workings of a restaurant.

I still love this book and get inspired by the chefs profiled in it, but now I realize that it’s really lacking in style. It’s more like reading the notes of a very organized reporter right before he begins to write his piece. But I still enjoy reading about these master craftsmen — what makes them tick, how they develop dishes, what they eat when they’re at home — and also about a culture that is/has disappeared.

There’s something really beautiful to me about a kitchen staff that has worked together for decades. While there are still brilliant chefs and restaurants, it seems that now everyone must have six restaurants (a different concept each, of course), have a TV show, write a memoir along with a slew of cookbooks, run a publication, blah blah blah. (This is the case with many industries.) Why not just stick with one restaurant and just make that one really good? I know, it’s such a romantic idea, but it’d be great to see people do things without making such a commercial enterprise out of it. Speaking of which…

“A Day on Long Island with Alex Lee” by Francis Lam: Alex Lee’s well-respected among chefs and he could’ve been a celebrity chef himself. He’s trained with Ducasse, worked as a chef de cuisine at Le Cirque and was Daniel Bouloud’s right-hand man for a while. But no, he just likes cooking, feeding people. So he left the game and is now growing a garden and running a good kitchen at a Long Island country club. Again, there’s something I really respect about someone who does and continues to do things for the sheer love of it.

“As They Were” by M.F.K. Fisher: A lot of people have recommended M.F.K. Fisher to me, because I love reading about food. But I can’t really get into her, even though it seems like she’d be my idol: A confident woman who did her own thing in a time when it wasn’t common, all the while relishing food and wonderful places. I’ve tried and failed to read more than five pages of “Two Towns of Provence” more than 10 times. I quit reading one of her most famous pieces, An Alphabet for Gourmets. When I read her, I see a beautiful Old Hollywood star talking in a breathy voice while taking long drags of her cigarettes. Beautiful and elegant for like one minute, but over 500 words-plus, I want to just shoot myself.

But this one I’m having a little better luck with. It’s a compilation of essays of her writing about things “as they were.” They’re not just writings about food, but observations from her childhood in Whittier, Calif. and her various travels. Her writing still drags, but the shortness of each piece prevents each subject from getting bogged down. It also helps that she writes about life in southern California in the early 20th century, as I love southern California history. I’m not done yet — I will finish it — but it’s not the greatest thing I’ve read. Perhaps I am too uncouth to see the beauty of her writing yet.

“The Teahouse Fire” by Ellis Avery: A historical fiction about a young French-American girl who after being orphaned, is taken to Japan by her Catholic priest uncle. He dies in a fire that she escapes and she is absorbed into a Japanese family famous for its tea ceremony.

This book felt sooooooooo contorted. There were a lot of long pauses to the plot to explain this and that about Japanese history, society and culture. Which I admit, I am now very curious about the period after Japan opened itself to the world (The “Meiji Restoration” is mentioned here and there in Murakami novels). But it made it difficult to keep up with the plot and ugh… I was relieved when the book finally ended.

(Apparently M.F.K. Fisher aside, I have the unfortunate compulsion of seeing any book I start to the very end, even if the book totally blows. It’s one of the rare times I’m a hopeful, forgiving person — “You still have 50 more pages to make you worthwhile!! YOU CAN DO IT!!!!”)

The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel: This isn’t a book but an article from the September issue of GQ, but it’s one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read in a while. It’s a profile of a hermit, who finally came back to the rest world after decades in seclusion.

One thing I wished Finkel asked the hermit was why he didn’t just kill himself. Granted, the hermit, being a hermit, isn’t very forthcoming overall, but I thought it’d be a natural question to ask. It’s one thing to live a solitary life with the comforts of a heater and access to Amazon for your toilet paper and reading materials, but to live alone under physically taxing situation and limited mental stimulation?

“Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” by David Sedaris: This is book while still humorous, is more introspective than “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” It’s a bunch of vignettes that illuminate the various personalities that makes up the Sedaris clan and the relationships between them.

That’s what I noticed about David Sedaris: He doesn’t often express directly — “It made me feel sad/angry/happy” — but he let’s the actions of himself and those around him establish the mood, emotion. I think it’s more powerful that way; there are many things that people experience that are inexpressible by words, but if you are able to describe everything else around that emotion, you can get people to understand (sort of like Murakami).

But the humor is still there, especially when it comes to his brother Paul.

He took a sip of my father’s weak coffee and spit it back into the mug. “This shit’s like making love in a canoe.”
“Excuse me?”
“It’s fucking near water.”

To have wit like that…

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