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Archive for the ‘Biography/Autobiography’ Category

Nancy Milford: Savage Beauty- The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Posted by nybookworm on October 17, 2009

millayI should begin this review by disclosing that the author, Nancy Milford, is a family friend.  It is because I know her personally that I first picked up this book but Nancy is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist and a  best-selling biographer so there is plenty of reasons to read her writing.  Nancy’s most famous biography is probably “Zelda” about Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife but it was her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) that most attracted me at the bookstore.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, known to her friends as Vincent, was a Pulitzer prize winning poet whose poetry and lifestyle became a symbol of the jazz age.  She began writing at a very early age and impressed much older critics and authors with a maturity of writing that no one expected from a teenage girl.  Both as a result of her early start and her youthful look even as  middle-aged woman, she became known as the girl poet and for much of her career impressed a mostly male critics circle with her femininity as much as her talent.  Millay’s talent, beauty and charm made her one of the most sought after women of her time and though she did eventually marry it was an open marriage that allowed Millay the freedom to continue to have affairs with both men and women for much of her life.  Milford does a superb job of describing Millay’s life and personality in the context of her extraordinary talent, her gender and the age in which she lived.  This was one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time both because it introduced me to the life of an incredible woman and artist and because it was well-written, thoroughly researched and perfectly distilled by Milford.

Link to the book here:  http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Beauty-Life-Vincent-Millay/dp/039457589X

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Janet Wallach: Desert Queen- The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

Posted by nybookworm on September 21, 2009

bellI always like to read but I’m sure I’m not alone in that I read a bit less during the summer months when the weather is beautiful and I’m more likely to spend time outdoors.  Still, I have been reading so I owe you some reviews, which I will try to catch-up on in the next couple of days.

One of my recent reads was Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach.  I know that’s a long title and the reason I insist on repeating it is because I think the title is generally indicative of the content of the book- ie, Wallach had some difficulties editing content.  One of the most important talents of a skilled biographer is to be able to spend years researching her subject and then distill that research into a readable text that pieces together a life without dwelling too much on the mundane and importing just enough of the context of the time.  It is often apparent from a biography (as it is from this one) that the author has become so entangled in the life of her subject that she feels compelled to include details that are probably better left in her notes.  The result is a long, somewhat dry and at times confusing book that leaves the reader slightly unsatisfied (if she is able to finish). 

The flaws of the book aside, I do think Desert Queenis a fascinating read that could have been even more so with a little more aggressive editing.  Its subject, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a Victorian British woman (and anti-suffragette) who became one of the key political figures in the formation of the Middle East prior to and after WWI.  She traveled the Arabian desert alone, meeting with tribal leaders and mapping the territory until the British government was forced, despite her sex, to give her a political appointment in its foreign service because no one knew the area or its leaders better than her.   After WWI, she became one of King Faisal’s most trusted political advisers and a key figure in the formation of modern day Iraq. 

I would recommend this if you’re interested in the formation of the modern Middle East (and have some background knowledge already) or if you are interested in history generally or the history of women in political life.  Because it is a little dry and long, I probably would not recommend it broadly and particularly not for those who don’t often read nonfiction or history. 

Amazon Link here: http://www.amazon.com/Desert-Queen-Extraordinary-Gertrude-Adventurer/dp/0385495757

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Giulia Melucci: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti

Posted by nybookworm on May 17, 2009

I_Loved_I_Lost_I_Made_SpaghettiI wanted to like this book and its author, Giulia Melucci, because she was self aware enough to write this book and to honestly reflect on her failed relationships but I had a hard time.  This book is Melucci’s story of her adult dating life from approximately aged 22 to 40 with recipes she cooked during relationships and at transformational moments sprinkled throughout.  Truthfully, the recipes (almost all of which looked so good I stopped dog earring pages because I realized I was marking every page) were the best part of this book.  It was difficult to read through Melucci’s failed lover affairs precisely because she is self-aware enough to chronicle all of her doubts and hesitations, almost all of which surfaced almost immediately into relationships, some of which she ended up carrying on for years.  She is someone who clearly wants love and a family but who gets in her own way so much through the choices she makes and the way she approaches dating that it is hearbreaking and because she knows precisely what she’s doing, it is difficult reading.  But since this book probably has more recipes that I’d love to make than most of my cookbooks, I recommend it and think it is actually worth owning.

Link to the book here: http://www.amazon.com/I-Loved-Lost-Made-Spaghetti/dp/0446534420

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Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential

Posted by nybookworm on April 7, 2009

anthony_bourdain31Kitchen Confidential is more or less Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography of his working life as a chef- the restaurants he worked at, his cooking philosophy and his work ethic.   Unlike some of the other chef autobiographies that have been written, Bourdain is actually a writer and definitely has a distinct conversational tone that makes his writing very approachable.  He makes it very clear from the beginning that his chief aim is to provide a realist view of the life of a chef.  To that extent, there are many pages spent describing the nocturnal life, the manual labor, the sexists and vulgar kitchen atmosphere, the lack of room for creativity and the ungrateful diners.  At times there is definitely a feeling that he’s trying very hard to discourage home cooks aspiring to culinary school to forget it.  That being said, this book was published in 2001, at the naiscent stages of the Food Network and celebrity chefs and it is definitely a condemnation of the glorification of the celebrity chef.  Bordain wants us to understand that it is a gritty, thankless job that very few home cooks could ever endure across a lifetime.  Ironically enough Bourdain himself has since become a celebrity chef/writer of sorts with his own travel show (No Reservations) and follow-up books and articles.  He has become far less famous for his cooking (he was a chef at Les Halles an NY brasserie) than his writing about cooking and having eaten at Les Halles, to me, that makes sense.  He continues to be an inflammatory and entertaining contrarian voice to the Rachel Rays and Bobby Flays of the world and this is not the last of his books that will be reviewed on this site.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Kitchen-Confidential-Adventures-Culinary-Underbelly/dp/0060934913

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Marco Pierre White: The Devil in the Kitchen

Posted by nybookworm on March 24, 2009

marcopw1Marco Pierre White is sort of the original celebrity chef enfant terrible.  He trained Gordon Ramsey and Mario Batali and was the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (he’s British, his mother was Italian).  He was a famous chef before the Food Network and before televised cooking shows.  He wrote this book well after he’d become a success and even retired and in many ways that very much colors the narrative.  It is clearly a look back and some parts of his life that he now finds nostalgic probably weren’t as rosy while he was living them.  He makes no effort to hide his personality conflicts with most everyone that crosses his path and the portrait that emerges is that of a slightly bitter and vain man with a talent that was clearly very much ahead of his time.  I enjoyed this book but it was one of the last in a long line of cooking books/chefographies I read and don’t think was the best.  If you’re a beginner in the genre, I would suggest “Heat” or “Kitchen Confidential” both a little more easily digestable if only because they’re more contemporary and take place in American kitchens with American food.  I did like this book, though and if you want to understand one of the pioneers of the generation of chefs everyone recognizes today, this book is the one to read.

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Lance Armstrong: It’s not About the Bike

Posted by nybookworm on March 23, 2009

lance-armstrong_jpg4Seems odd to begin my book review blogging career with this book but it just happens to be the last book I read.  I picked it up at the airport for a cross-country flight and managed to finish it before we landed back in New York (yeah, there were delays).  I’ve been getting into biking lately and was more interested in what Armstrong had to say about the Tour de France than anything else but was pleasantly surprised by the whole book.  It’s not exactly genius prose or an unexpected ending but there were quite a few insider moments into the Tour and, of course, the happy ending to his battle with cancer that one might expect.  I would recommend this book for a long flight- it’s an easy read and although it deals with some difficult topics, it does so in a very approachable way.  If you don’t care about the maillot jaune or care to read about cancer I would definitely skip this one.

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