Alone (I’d be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit – at least if you’re not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine’s readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer’s dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis’ equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one’s mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the rich are different from you and me”). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten – one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten’s superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten’s style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they’re otherwise (as many of Vogue’s contributors – to other, unintentionally comic ends – do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, “Temptation Island,” is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor’s office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month’s article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat – but that’s a story for another time.And of his wife’s spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife’s sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
Lisa is a bookseller from Colorado whose eclectic tastes are appreciated here at The Millions.Non-FictionThe Elements of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell 1938-1978: In this delightful volume English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and New Yorker editor William Maxwell’s relationship blossoms from professional correspondence to a deep friendship. The two never actually met in real life, but their love for one another is apparent in their incredibly erudite and often quite funny years-long correspondence.The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell: I’m not usually one for biographies, but The Sisters is a thoroughly engrossing tale of these Bright Young Things of England’s interwar years. The five Mitford sisters ran the gamut from Nazi sympathizer to best selling novelist. Lovell’s book is heavily researched, but she maintains a light tone throughout, which makes it enjoyable for those of us who prefer to take our history with a bit of gossip and froth.It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten, the inimitable gourmand, former Harvard Lampoon editor and lawyer returns with a sequel to his first collection of food essays, The Man Who Ate Everything. Many of these pieces appeared first in Vogue and the New Yorker. Steingarten loves food and the sociology and mythology behind the art of eating. He is, most definitely, a latter-day Liebling. Delightful!The First World War by John Keegan: This book seems to be the definitive volume on WWI. It is an all-consuming narration on all aspects of WWI. Incredibly moving and never dull, it is essential reading, I think, as it profoundly informs the politics and culture of the world today.FictionMadeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: More of a prose poem than a novel, this 2004 NBA nominee is a time and space bending fantasia populated by a young girl in a catatonic state, a photographer turned pornographer, a fat woman who sprouts wings and a woman who takes on the shape of a cello. Absolutely spell-binding.Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt: This most recent offering from A.S. Byatt, seemingly the most erudite and sensual of all women writing today, consists of five stories, some of which were previously published in various publications. By turn haunting and dark, Byatt maintains her trademark ability to effortlessly blend fairy tales into the everyday world.The Courage Consort: Three Novellas – Michel Faber: Michel Faber seems to be one of the most dynamic authors writing today. Coming off of his huge, Dickensian novel of last year, The Crimson Petal and the White, he returns with these three somewhat surreal, incredibly entertaining novellas.The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This is the best novel (or collection of novellas, I suppose) that I think I’ve ever read. Words cannot even begin to describe the stories here. The most imaginative, magnificent, gorgeous words I’ve read in a very long time. I didn’t want to ever leave Maqroll!Thanks for that, Lisa. We’ve got a few more year end lists on the way, and then I’ll be back at the helm.
Ms. Millions writes in with this culinary question:I came across this article in the NYTimes Dining + Wine section with a book mention, Know anything about it? Got any other great cookbook recommendations? I know Edan does..;] PS- Happy Birthday to me ;]As Ms. Millions certainly knows, I am no master of haute cuisine — I once made gazpacho from scratch, but it took me six hours — but I do have a sweet tooth for food writing. And it is in this capacity that I first encountered the inspiration for the article mentioned above, Ferran Adria. If memory serves, there is an essay in one of the two Jeffrey Steingarten books, The Man Who Ate Everything or It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, in which Steingarten makes a pilgrimage to Adria’s outlandish restaurant, El Bulli, outside Barcelona. Or maybe it was Calvin Trillin in his book, Feeding a Yen; I can’t remember (I’m a glutton for food books). At any rate, Adria is a fascinating character, part mad scientist part celebrity chef. He spends six months out of the year in a lab in Barcelona devising new technologies to push the limits of cooking. He creates foams and gelatins using unexpected ingredients and he layers flavors and temperatures in his dishes in disconcerting ways. In the book Chef’s Night Out, in which celebrity chefs visit one another’s restaurants, Todd English (whose latest restaurant is on the Queen Mary 2) compares Adria to Willy Wonka, and Nancy Silverton of LA’s own Campanile describes eating at El Bulli as “more of an artistic encounter.” Adria is so out there that even the most adventurous eaters find themselves bewildered by his creations. Nonetheless, Matt Lee and Ted Lee of the Times decided to throw a dinner party using Adria’s techniques. As a guide, they use the El Bulli cookbook, a book that sounds remarkable but appears to be very difficult to get a hold of. After searching around, it doesn’t seem as though there are any books that delve into Adria’s techniques, but I was able to find a couple of books that appear to blend traditional Spanish ingredients with contemporary methods. In The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen Paula Wolfert applies the recent “slow food” trend to Spanish cooking, as well as other Mediterranean cuisines. And El Farol is a book full of contemporary and traditional Spanish recipes from a restaurant of the same name in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hope this helped. Happy birthday Ms. Millions! (If any cookbook mavens out there have a hot cookbook recommendation, don’t hesitate to leave a comment)
Whew… Ok, I feel much better now. Well rested and ready to continue:Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin: It’s not that I love all food writers or that I necessarily am enamored by all writing about food. I’ve just noticed these past few years that there are particular characteristics shared by a lot of food writers that attract me to them as writers. They are very knowledgeable but also self-effacing. They tend to be intrepid travelers with acquaintances on most continents who will gladly direct them to the finest cuisine in the area, and often times these writers, in order to fuel their pens, will receive the finest that these far-flung kitchens have to offer. Ideally, the reader will get an insider’s view of a place, one that he will not be able to necessarily be able to replicate, but that he might strive for. An example, when I was in Barcelona this summer, stoked by the writing of Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Jonathan Gold, I was probably most intrigued by the food of the place, a regional cuisine that isn’t duplicated elsewhere. Though I might not end up at a four star spot nor be able to decipher the recipe for the grilled sardines or paella that I just ate, I can nonetheless follow in these writers’ footsteps as I strive to learn about a place by looking for and at its food. And most of all I can follow in Trillin’s footsteps as I seek out deliciousness in all its forms. There’s something wonderful about devoting yourself to seeking out the joy comes from a good meal.The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten shares with Trillin a love for food, but beyond that they couldn’t be more different. Trillin is folksy and innocent, while Steingarten is a brash, but hilarious, know-it-all who spends as much time writing about himself as he does about food. He puffs himself up and then lets out the air. Most often this occurs over the course of one of his kitchen experiments where he attempts to make the perfect french fry or the perfect fried chicken during which he makes an unholy mess, comes to no conclusion (which is all the more funny considering the certitude with which he undertook the venture), and fun is had by all. The Man Who Ate Everything, his first collection, is good, though a bit wearying by the end. I’ve read bits of It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, and it seems to be even better, since by this time he has really mastered his style.Yours, and Mine: Novella and Stories by Judith Rascoe and…..Last Courtesies and Other Stories by Ella Leffland: I was inspired by a couple of things to read these two books. First, I had the opportunity last summer to meet Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB press. We talked a lot about The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, of course, but we also talked about how he finds titles to bring back into print. Many are books that he has long been aware of, that he has watched go out of print, and then he has stepped in and reissued them, but there are other titles that he has found by trolling the sidewalk book tables in Manhattan looking for hidden gems, a name that sounds familiar or a title that sounds intriguing. At the time, I had recently finished the collection Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards, and I though that it might be interesting to track down the long out of print books by a couple of the writers whose stories I had enjoyed, but whose names were unfamiliar. Though the books themselves were quite good, I really enjoyed reading these as an exploration of the trajectory of the American short story. There is a sorrowful decadence to these stories, a feeling that the world might be unraveling before our eyes. Leffland and Rascoe certainly deserve their places in the O. Henry collection, and it’s a shame that they cannot be more widely read today.The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: In August, over the course of this post and this one there was a discussion here at The Millions about who currently holds the title of best young writer, and who, among those under 50, will still be read voraciously a generation or two from now. Many names were batted around, but the one book that everyone agreed upon was The Corrections. Due to my perhaps unfounded dislike of Franzen, I hadn’t yet read the book, but inspired by the discussion, I immediately went out and read the book, was pretty dazzled by it, and wrote this post about it. I hope that The Millions can be host to more great discussions like this one in 2004.Well, it looks like there will be a part four. I promise I’ll finish soon. Maybe even this afternoon!
Quote from the book I’m reading right now: I have always been suspicious of countries (or subcultures) in which a majority of the men wear mustaches, but Tunisia is a delight.
At work yesterday, after my first 15 minute coffee break, but before my 30 minute dinner break, I thought about some things. Among them was the idea that The Millions really ought to have a manifesto. A manifesto takes this messy collection of asides and non sequiturs and gives it purpose and meaning. You are no longer reading my uncollected natterings… you are reading a means. And ideally this is a means to an end. It seemed like a good idea save one problem. I’m not really a manifesto guy. They strike me as too rigid, too static. Will I adopt a manifesto and then stop delighting myself, and perhaps a few others, with the promise of a varied discussion on varied topics? On the other hand, I decided a while ago to devote the blog to books primarily, so what’s another artificial restriction anyway? Plus, what if my manifesto is purely a force for good, and by devoting myself to it, I provide a service to whomever encounters this little blog. Still, that word manifesto bugs me… so maybe it’s just a problem of language then. Perhaps if I think of it as a declaration, a statement of purpose, an annunciation, a mission statement… a pronunciamento if you will, perhaps then I will have less reservations about its formulation. Luckily, last night when I decided that perhaps The Millions needs a manifesto (or whatever you want to call it), a manifesto sprung fully-formed into my mind. It stems from a fact that most readers are not fully cognizant of: there is a concrete number of books that you or I will be able to read in our lifetimes. I’d say that on average, given my moderately busy lifestyle and the fact that I read the New Yorker in full each week, I am able to read approximately one book a week, and therefore, allowing for longer reading time for some of the behemoths that I occasionally undertake, about 50 a year. (n.b. I set a goal for myself to read 75 books this year, but it looks like I’ll be lucky if I hit 50). So therefore, I would estimate that I have probably read about 500 real books in my life, give or take a few dozen, and assuming I live until I’m 80 (and am still able to read at such a rate), I’ll read another 2750 give or take a few hundred. 3250 books may seem like a lot to read in a lifetime, but a look around the book store and you quickly realize that it is possible to read only a very small fraction of what has been written, and only a fraction of what is worth reading. Which brings me to my manifesto (or whatever), given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy.I know, heavy shit: death, obligations, the conversion of unimportant choices into important ones… that’s why I wanted to keep my mouth shut. But we have to look at this the right way. I am not making the declaration that if you haven’t read Dostoyevsky or Joyce, you are under some sort of moral obligation to do so. I am saying that, given the finite number of books that you will be able to read, you ought to read ones that are good for you, not so much nutritionally, but spiritually. I’m partly inspired here by the food writers that I seem to enjoy inordinately. Calvin Trillin refers in Feeding a Yen to seeking “deliciousness” wherever he can find it. He and his fellow food writers are not saying that if you don’t eat at this place or eat this type of food you are doing yourself a disservice; the goal is simply deriving joy from food as often as possible, ideally at every meal. The list of foods that qualify as delicious is different for different people. Likewise the list of books is different for different people. To reiterate: this isn’t about compulsory reading; this is about making sure that whatever you read will serve a purpose for you and that, as often as possible, this purpose is to bring you the curious sort of joy that only a book can. Clearly there are some problems with my manifesto, first among them being that, I need a word as good as deliciousness to describe the quality we are looking for in our books. Any suggestions???Lighter NotesMy good and old friend Hot Face has finally joined the rest of us and got himself a blog… follow his adventures if you dare. I continue to feel obligated to mention The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis at least twice a week. I do this because, more than any other book, I insist that you read this… Never have I enjoyed a book so profoundly. My excuse for mentioning it this time is that I just found an interview of Mutis in Bomb Magazine. The interview is conducted by another Latin American writer Francisco Goldman, who is an old friend of Mutis’ and provides the introduction for Maqroll.The book I’m currently reading refers to this historial event that I was unaware of: “Dan White, on trial for shooting and killing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder after his lawyer raised the Twinkie Defense, the claim that Dan White’s brain had been so deranged by Hostess Twinkies and other sugary junk foods that he should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Twinkies, the argument went, made him do it.” (Apparently this occurred in 1979, but it was news to me)Anybody know of any decent book blogs or websites about books?… I haven’t been able to find any besides Arts & Letters Daily and the various newspaper book sections, of course… I’d like to find something that’s a little less review focussed and more discussion focussed. (Something I hope to do here in the future).