Food: A Love Story

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Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan. Originally published in 2014. 352 pages.

I can honestly and unequivocally say that if you asked me for a genre of book I thought I would never, ever, be bothered to read, I’d probably say one like this: written by a modern day stand up American comedian. I have no idea what possessed me to grab this off the featured shelf of our library on my way to check-out kiosk. Something about the photo made me snicker, curiosity got the better of me, and my state of mind this holiday season demanded that I read something that might make me laugh.

At least I hoped it would make me laugh, and thankfully, there were several moments as I read this book that literally made me laugh out loud. I read portions to members of our foodie household. The funny parts were so funny that I was able to forgive Mr. Gaffigan for the parts that were patently UN-funny.

This is not high brow, not excellent writing, and book snobs need not even bother to crack the cover. I generally consider myself a book snob, but I’m prole enough to be able to kick back and laugh with someone as low brow as I am. I’m not going to even try and discuss this book from a literary perspective because that would mean pretending that it’s literary. The fact that Gaffigan keeps making the best seller list with these books says as much about American reading habits as his books reveal about American eating habits.

So rather than go any further, I’ll just put up some funny quotes:

It would be embarrassing trying to explain what an appetizer is to someone from a starving country. “Yeah, the appetizer—that’s the food we eat before we have our food. No, no, you’re thinking of dessert—that’s food we have after we have our food. We eat tons of food. Sometimes there’s so much we just stick it in a bag and bring it home. Then we throw it out the next day. Maybe give it to the dog.

Indeed:

In America we have gone way beyond sustenance. Eating is an activity.

Gaffigan’s wife is a devout Catholic, who is also thin and pretty (nothing like him) and his five kids are very cute. This irony prefaces a few jokes in the book. This is when reached a point in his life when he decided to stop trying to get into shape, and embrace his reality:

It wasn’t defeat as much as it was acceptance. I figured, I got a hot wife. If she leaves me for getting fat, that means she’s shallow.

On trusting a skinny person’s word on what tastes (or doesn’t taste) good:

I’d still trust an overly fat person over a skinny one any day. The best adviser would have a very specific body type: pudgy or just a little overweight. This makes it clear they have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with food, but not a clinical problem.If they are morbidly obese, then you can conclude that they will probably eat everything and anything and do not have discerning taste.

My favorite part was probably his exploration of how dumb we have to be to have made bottled water into a multi-billion dollar industry. He even notes that Evian is “naive” spelled backwards, which I somehow never noticed.

Recently I tried Smartwater, which has electrolytes in it, and it’s supposed to replenish your body better than regular bottled water, therefore making you, I guess, smarter. I tried it, and it totally worked. I am now much smarter. Now I only drink tap water.

On second thought, that wasn’t my favorite part. It was this section, which I am going to end with along with an embarrassing confession. Me and my daughters? We are these people. My Benevolent Dictator thinks we are nuts:

Foodies will travel for miles in search of the perfect hamburger. “There is this place in Greenpoint that’s only an hour by train and a forty-minute walk from the subway that has the best burger in town!” It can’t be better than the burger I can get across the street. Mostly, I just want the closest best burger in town.

Yep, we drive for a great…whatever. We even got excited about trying a new local vegan donut shop and we’re as far from vegan as you can get.

Like I said, I laughed, which was the whole point. This book was basically a 300+ page stand up act, with all this implies: Some great hits, and some big misses.

Book snob grade: D

For me, out of book snob mode: Solid B+

Content advisory: The occasional four letter word here and there, but very rare.

I’m No Angel

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I’m No Angel: From Victoria’s Secret Model to Role Model, by Kylie Bisutti. Originally published in 2014. 304 pages.

Recent events, both public and not so public, set my mind to becoming curious about what books have been written on the subject of modesty. I don’t mean the kind of dogmatic, rigid approach that presupposes any bit of attractive femininity is sinful. I was looking to see what was written about the convergence of true modesty and feminine beauty in the context of a walk with Christ in the real world.

So I went to my local library’s website for the express purpose of checking out Wendy Shalit’s book, which I have read much about but never read. Somewhere along the way as I clicked, clicked and clicked some more, I ran across Kylie Bisutti’s book recounting her journey from child model to winner of the Victoria’s Secret Angel competition as a young bride of 19, to deciding less than a year later to walk away from it all as she began to realize how her career as a lingerie model dishonored both God and her husband.

I first encountered Mrs. Bisutti’s story in 2012, and even blogged about her at the time, so I was slightly familiar with it. I expected the book to be slog to get through,  but as I was embarking on a project of sorts, I was willing to tough it out even if it turned out to be horrible. Thankfully, it was not horrible and I read through it in three nights online via hoopla since our library system did not have access to a hard copy.

The book was surprisingly interesting. High brow it is not, and I was a little bugged by Kylie Bissuti’s dependence on the teaching’s of Joyce Meyer as she struggled emotionally through an industry that she both loved and felt increasingly out of sorts with.  Nevertheless, she told a compelling story.

The best parts of the book were without question, the behind the scenes glimpses of what life is really like in the modeling industry. After the release of her book, Victoria’s Secret fired back numerous accusations concerning the facts of her story, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from them.

I felt a bit of compassion for 17-year-old Kylie when at 5’9″, 1115 pounds, her agent called her a cow in front of an office full of people and demanded that she come back from her holiday break 8 pounds lighter. I found this particularly shocking, as she realized that her 36-inch hips was relegating her to the designation of curvy, and not it a complimentary way:

Not big hips, mind you- just hips. In the modeling industry, anything over 30 inches is considered curvy, and curvy does not play well on the runway- especially in high fashion, where being rail thin is considered the ideal. Horrifying as it may sound, some models even go so far as to have their hip bones surgically shaved down to reach that precious 30-inch mark. Others have their bottom ribs removed so that they look ultra thin. It just felt like part of the industry to me when I was starting out, but now it breaks my heart to think of girls and young women using surgery to deform the beautiful way that God created them.

With a recounting of her childhood, teenage years, and the very brief courtship she shared with her husband Mike, Kylie Bissuti makes a run at presenting a well rounded recounting of her life. Interwoven within all of it were the numerous moments of nagging doubt that she felt the urge to walk away and didn’t- starting with her HS boyfriend all the way up to the very uncomfortable party after winning the Victoria’s Secret modeling competition.

In the end this turned out not to be a book about modesty as much as it was about one young woman’s struggle to do the right thing. I didn’t come away from it feeling as if it had been a total waste of four and a half hours of my life, so that’s something.

Grade: C

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoirMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

The memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is an engaging book. While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his story than that unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing up years was so compelling that I almost forgot that it was the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s title references Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she thought they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas makes it clear that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. His grandfather taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and how to rise above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it a bit odd that Clarence Thomas was painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite the fact that I was a faithful, idealistic, 20-year-old card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even then because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a  man born and raised in 1950’s Georgia be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

Of course, I learned later and his memoir confirmed that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind  follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal, state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That isn’t a popular position to take, and it’s even less tolerable coming from a black person as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he began to notice the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and acquiesce in response to every demand made by black “leaders” even if the demands were illogical and damaging to black people over the long-term. What’s more, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was ever called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community actually choke the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated with me.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was simply disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought that gained its foothold during his coming of age years. The fact that he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that the task of raising their son and ushering him to manhood would be best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understands the challenge facing young black men and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike may of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. Of course, his version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, except when he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal began to wear on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. As I watched them I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  Or so I thought, as this was before I started thinking through these issues. Even then I remember having a difficult time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and nothing else.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a senator particularly hostile to him. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” There was no judicial paper trail so the senators tried to gauge his position through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response and one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

the-glass-castle The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.

One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.

If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.

This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.

As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.

Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?

They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.

My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.

The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.

Worth a read.

Grade:B-

Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)

 

 

 

 

 

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. Originally published in 2004. 256 pages.

Eric Brende and his wife Mary embarked on an 18-month sabbatical away from urban life to live among a group of people he called the Minimites,  a community which eschewed all forms of modern technology. The author’s life, along with his wife’s, was irrevocably changed.

I first learned of this book after reading a review offered by Booky McBookerson. I was instantly intrigued, mainly because the author was interested in more than the popular arguments surrounding personal technology so prevalent today. He wanted to examine the way technology has impacted life in ways that we have long accepted as harmless, lifestyle enhancement that “everyone” agrees has made life better. For example, the burdens inherent with ownership of an automobile and the way cars impact our associations with those in our immediate vicinity.

He offers much food for thought and makes compelling arguments, but he does so in a way that is more engaging than academic. The memoir approach to recounting the experience he had with his wife during their time in this Amish community that wasn’t quite Amish enables the reader to think about these issues without a preachy tone. The experiences often speak for themselves.

One of the most important distinctions he makes is the difference between a machine and a tool, and the fact that we have badly conflated the two as one and the same. They are decidedly not, he argues, and I agree, an automated machine is markedly different from a human powered tool.

Ultimately, Brende highlights the things we instinctively know but have crowded out of our consciousness as we build lives and lifestyles which gives as much weight to technological conveniences and necessities as we do to communities and people, if not more so.

He often wrote about the hard physical labor that was a part of the life they lived there, but that it was infused with community and teamwork, giving him a new appreciation for the term “more hands make light work”. The lightness is not only a reference to less labor, but more pleasant labor because it isn’t being done in isolation.

His introduction of the concept of Gelassenheit was of particular interest not only because I’d never heard it before, but because it is stands in direct opposition to the world in which we live, while being exactly the approach to life those of us who are Christians are called to embrace:

…”he who keeps his life will lose it.” These adages, of course, come from the Bible, and they give expression to the disposition the Minimites held chief among Christian attitudes, Gelassenheit, or self-surrender. Gelassenheit referred less to any particular aim than to acceptance of what may be, a larger and partly hidden design that they did not fully understand.

Modern technology, I suspect, far from being neutral in its effects, has more than on underlying purpose or built-in tendency: besides reducing the need for physical effort (a kind of material surrender) it helps us avoid the need for cooperation or social flexibility (a kind of social or metaphysical surrender). All too readily it countermands the uncertainty that goes with Gelassenheit. Cars, telephones, message machines, caller ID, and e-mail give us unprecedented powers to associate with whom we want, when we want, to the degree we want, under the terms we want, finessing and filtering out those we don’t want-and thin out the possibilities of social growth accordingly. p. 80

Lest anyone misunderstand, I am as post modern as anyone else. I like my privacy. I was fairly mortified on the author’s behalf when the neighbor boy walked in on he and his wife at a most inopportune moment because it was the middle of the afternoon so why couldn’t you just walk into someone’s house?

I certainly appreciate my unprecedented powers to self-select with whom I will relate. I also understand however, that community based on affinity is not true community, and that my self-imposed boundaries also serve as a sort of social prison, albeit a very comfortable one. After all, technology gives plenty of opportunity for some sort of social interaction, no matter how imperfect.

For me one of the most profound downsides of our post-modern dependence on technology is the severe deficit of physical activity that plagues most of us. Working out is helpful, but it is truly no substitute for purposeful physical labor. Technology pays the bills here and we are probably never going to go much farther than walking to destinations under 2 miles and cutting the television off a few of days per week.In other words, what we do now.

The thoughts  presented here are well worth considering, and the writing was thoughtful, if occasionally choppy. Brende was good at translating his experiences into philosophical musings, but not so great at story telling in general. The story-telling wasn’t horrible, but it fell a little short from time to time.

I found this book an opportunity for thought and personal reflection on the ways we can slow down and experience life more fully and deliberately rather than a transition to a  completely tech-free life, or even a minimalist one. Technology is here to stay, but we can all re-examine ourselves and our relationship to it.

Grade: B-

 

 

 

Dust Tracks On A Road

dust tracksDust Tracks on a Road, an autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston. Originally published in 1942.

This book, written at the height of Hurston’s notoriety, is an intriguing read. Because of my personal connections to some of the historical notes Hurston lays at the beginning of her story, I read it with expectations that went unmet. It was a very detached autobiography which should not have been surprising as it was very much in keeping with Hurston’s “cards close to the vest” persona.

The foreword of the edition I read was written by Maya Angelou. Much as in the foreword by Toni Morrison of the edition I read of Their Eyes were Watching God, there was much angst. Hurston never fails to simultaneously fascinate and confound modern day black feminists. Ground breaking, politically incorrect, and seemingly born without a victim-hood bone in her body, the forewords of her books read eerily similar no matter which of the black feminists writers is entrusted to the task.

Hurston was a rebel from childhood, often aided and abetted by her mother who admired her spirit. Her father worried for the troubles she would encounter in the world if she continued to run headlong wherever it suited her fancy. She however fully expected to run into trouble, looking forward to the lessons the trouble would teach as she journeyed through life.

It never occurred to Hurston to be afraid of white people, having befriended and hung out near the lake with an old man from the neighboring town who took a liking to Zora precisely because she had so much spunk. He took her fishing and taught her life lessons. Later two white women were fascinated with Zora’s reading ability when they came to Eatonville to take a tour of the negro school there. Again, Zora found herself a beneficiary as a result of who she was and what she could do. It didn’t take long for Zora to conclude that while racism was a real thing, it wasn’t something she needed to fret about with regard to her own life so long as she was honest, hard working, unafraid, and generally excellent.

With the exception of her general disregard for religion (she was the master of her fate after all), Zora Neale Hurston again and again defies the  thinking of the very modern black feminists who revere her and her contributions. After the of her early years, much of the book is an exposition of Hurston’s philosophies on life and their effect on her more than any detailed information about her personal experiences.

One thing is crystal clear as Hurston tells her scrappy story, and that is that she figured out early in life that rallying for her race at the expense of her dreams and economic survival wasn’t for her. More than that, she thought that “our interests are too varied” to expect any kind of monolithic unity anyway. Some interesting quotes follow.

On being self-aware:

“I did not know then, as I know now, that people are prone to build a statue of the kind of person it pleases them to be. And few people want to be forced to ask themselves, ‘What if there is no me like my statue?'”

On not taking yourself too seriously:

“My sense of humor will always stand in the way of my seeing myself, my family, my race or my nation as the whole intent of the universe.”
On the folly of living an isolated life:
“Make the attempt if you want to, but you will find that trying to go through life without friendship, is like milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee. It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it.”
Lots of good quotes and insights to be found here, as is the case with much of what Hurston wrote. The book however, I found fair to middlin’.
Grade: B-/C+

 

The Egg and I

the egg and I The Egg and I, a memoire by Betty MacDonald. Originally published in 1945.

This is one of those books that are equal parts entertaining and educational. I really enjoyed it, it was well written, and it offered a unique insight into the life of a hard working farm wife isolated from the family and friends she left behind to support her husband as he pursued his dream. From what I learned, she later left him so there’s that, but the book covers the period of time from Betty MacDonald’s childhood through the early years of her first marriage.

There were lots of bits here and there that put to death the notion that wives and mothers of yesteryear were women who understood that life was all about fussing over every detail of home and children. Or that they viewed any outside interests as a cardinal sin. Betty MacDonald’s mother -whom I’m sure loved her children very much- was first and foremost a wife and had no reservations about leaving the children with their grandmother while she went off with their father on some grand adventure.

This left Betty with a far less adventurous spirit than her mother, since she was most heavily influenced by her grandmother, to whom adventure was much overrated. Some of the funniest moment in the early parts of the book were her grandmother’s ways of dealing with nature or the potential intruder who never paid a visit.

Nevertheless, there was one thing that Betty’s mother taught her that she took to heart and it’s this lesson with which she opens the book:

Along with teaching us that lamb must be cooked with garlic and that a lady never scratches her head nor spits, my mother taught my sisters and me that it is a wife’s bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work. “First make sure that your husband is doing the kind of work he enjoys and is best fitted for and then cheerfully accept whatever it entails. If you marry a doctor, don’t whine because he doesn’t keep the hours of a shoe clerk, and by the same token if you marry a shoe clerk, don’t complain because he doesn’t make as much money as a doctor. Be satisfied that he works regular hours,” Mother told us. page 1

It was in this spirit that Betty, as a young bride, followed her new husband Bob into his dream of being an egg farmer in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. He loved it there, thrived on the hard work, and prospered at everything he put his hand to. Betty on the other hand, worked hard and supported him, yet felt perpetually burdened by the isolation, loneliness, and way of life that was foreign to her.

Indians (Native Americans for the politically correct), illegitimacy so commonplace that half families socializing hardly raised eyebrows, a doctor known for doing abortions, and the general lack of propriety fascinated Betty who had been raised on Northeastern values. More than that however, the lack of  socialization and proper reading material weighed on her.

Despite it all, she clearly maintained a wicked sense of humor and it shines forth in The Egg and I. I recommend it. It’s a quick, funny read which offers a take on life in the late 1920’s to early 1930’s that we don’t hear much about when people wax on about the pristine, prim and proper “good ol’ days”.

Grade: B+

There is nothing in the content which merits an advisory.