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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ 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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Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Three Cups of Tea

Posted by nybookworm on June 17, 2009

3 cupsThree Cups of Tea has become incredibly famous and widely-read so I won’t bother with too much background.  It’s a book about one man’s (Greg Mortenson) efforts to build schools throughout rural Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan. Mortenson was an avid mountain climber, which is how he ended up in rural Pakistan in the first place (trying to climb K2) so the book is packed with references to climbers and the climber lifestyle. This is obviously a timely book that is well-written with a lot of powerful images of the poverty and lifestyle of Pakistan’s rural mountain people. It’s also entertaining and enlightening but it is obviously by no means an impartial look at Mortenson’s work and his Central Asia Institute (CAI). It’s basically a promotional pamphlet for CAI turned into a book and it should be read as such.

Link to the book’s website: www.threecupsoftea.com

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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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Peter Mayle: A Year in Provence

Posted by nybookworm on April 19, 2009

topper-provence1British writer Peter Mayle’s books chronicling his relocation to and life in Provence, France have become one of the most widely read travel books around.  A Year in Provence (1991) is about Mayle’s first year living in Provence with his wife and their quest to restore an 18th century farmhouse at the base of the Luberon mountains.   I read somewhere that when it was first published, the publisher agreed to print 3,000 copies and promised to give Mayle a discount to buy them to give as Christmas gifts. The first printing sold out within a few weeks and this book as well as his subsequent chronicles of Provencal life have now sold several million copies worldwide.  No matter how many books are written on the topic and how trite the idea becomes of relocating to an idyllic southern European country with a slower paced lifestyle and fresh local food, this type of travel book will always find an audience because we’ve all bought into the myth  (or at least those of us in big cities glued to our laptops).  We use to have the American Dream- we now have the Provencal or Tuscan dream.  But I digress.  This book is good not just because it sells an idea whose time has come but because the story is told with just the right amount of that wry wit Brit writers are able to convey with facility.  Mayle manages to poke fun at French culture and stodgy traditions while good naturedly maintaining a clear veneer of admiration for his subject.  His books are immensely entertaining and even more so if you’re a fan of French food (truffles, tarts, wine and various innards make several appearances).   I have read all of his books on Provence (Toujours Provence, Encore Provence and Provence A to Z) and have enjoyed all of them mostly because Mayle is a great writer who manages to hold your attention and capture your imagination even while he tells you how much better his life is than yours.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Year-Provence-Peter-Mayle/dp/0679731148

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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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Robert D. Kaplan: Balkan Ghosts

Posted by nybookworm on April 3, 2009

kaplanI am considering filing this book under the “classics” category because it’s definitely a book from another era in more ways than one.  Balkan Ghosts is based on Kaplan’s travels through the Balkans in the 1980s and was published in 1994 only after interest in the region escalated in the early 90s.  It’s famous for its prescient predictions of ethnic strife in the region and is supposedly one of the books Bill Clinton read when deciding whether to take action in Bosnia.  If you’ve been to the Balkans you know that they are eerily beautiful- mountains covered in fog, oldstyle farms, stern peasants, beautiful gothic cities and very diverse people (thanks to the Ottoman Empire).  I think Kaplan does a great job of conveying a sense of each place he travels and of the political and historical backdrop that colors each place.  Yes, he is pretty heavy-handed with the mysticism..after all we are in the “East” and probably simplifies some of the history and the leaders of the region but I think that’s probably a necessary side effect of writing a readable travel memoire.  I liked this book very much and if you enjoy some substance with your travel books (not “Tom Friedman substance” but real history and politics) you will be as engrossed as I was.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Balkan-Ghosts-Journey-Through-History/dp/0679749810

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Bill Buford: Heat

Posted by nybookworm on March 27, 2009

heat_bill_bufordI mentioned Heat (2006) in one of my earlier posts because it was one of the first food/chef-related books I read and it was a great beginning.   Heat is Bill Buford’s attempt to understand the “back office” of an expensive up-market restaurant, in this case Babbo in NYC ,which is the flagship restaurant of famous Italian (cuisine not heritage) chef Mario Batali.  In order to do that he begins by working all of the shifts of the Babbo kitchen and progresses to follow the path of Batali’s training by going to Italy to apprentice under a pastamaker and a butcher.  Buford is a journalist by trade and his style of analytical writing works with this format and topic.  You learn all kinds of things about the kitchen of an expensive restaurant you’d rather not know (e.g,  they cook all of the pasta in one pot the entire night) but it is a fascinating look into a world that most of us would never otherwise see.  This is a great book if you love food, enjoy dining out or generally love a book to make you feel like you’re spying on a world you would never otherwise be permitted to enter.

Amazon link to Heat here: http://www.amazon.com/Heat-Adventures-Pasta-Maker-Apprentice-Dante-Quoting/dp/1400041201

Posted in Beach Reading, Chefs/Food, Nonfiction | 2 Comments »

Jack Weatherford: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Posted by nybookworm on March 26, 2009

genghis-khanI should start by saying that this is a nonfiction book and a scholarly one at that (although it was a bestseller when it came out).   I really enjoyed this book but it is not recommended for people who don’t enjoy history.  This is a true to form revisionist history book that chronicles the life and rise of Genghis Khan and his contribution to modern warfare and enlightenement.  Turns out that Genghis Khan, far from being a blood thirsty barbarian was actually a reformer and was opposed to torture and unnecessary bloodshed far before anyone on the European continent.  He came from a small Mongol tribe and ended up conquering (and governing effectively) most of Asia and parts of Eastern Europe by doing away with tribal identity and reorganizing his troups into smaller battalions free of tribal affiliations.    He supported religious freedom and permitted conquered territories to continue practicing their religions freely even sending emissaries and diplomats to exchange information with conquered peoples (see Crusades in Europe around the same time for western “enlightened” religious views) This is a dense book packed with historical analyses and not a book you should expect to dive into and finish quickly.  It’s a slow read but well worth it.

Amazon link to the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Genghis-Khan-Making-Modern-World/dp/0609610627

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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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