Lab Girl.

Botanist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for the best autobiographical work of 2016, is a wildly compelling, inspiring read, the story of a woman who has fought mental illness, institutional sexism, and the indifference of a country that would rather fund wars than basic science to become a successful researcher and professor. It’s full of observations on the lives of plants, processes largely beneath our awareness because plants aren’t sentient or, in most cases, particularly mobile. But more than anything else, Lab Girl is the story of Jahren’s unusual, decades-long friendship with a lab partner and co-conspirator named Bill, who threatens to overtake Jahren in her own life story.

Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota where most of the local economy revolved around the town’s hog slaughterhouse, the lone daughter of a scientist father and frustrated-scientist mother, and was drawn to science from an early age. She chronicles her meandering path to her current post at the University of Hawai’i by way of undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota (where she also worked in the hospital’s pharmacy, filling bags and running them to patient rooms) and graduate work at Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins.

The heart of Jahren’s story, however, is this quixotic relationship she has with the itinerant Bill, whom she first encounters while they work at a research lab in California and then takes with her to Atlanta, Baltimore, and now Honolulu. Bill appears only in anecdotes and his dialogue revolves largely around a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund, but he comes across as a character right out of Inherent Vice – witty, gifted, cutting, loyal, poorly dressed, and a stoner. Jahren has some career ambition, driven in part by the sexism she meets at every stop – some overt, most just subtle enough to not get every one of those assholes hauled in front of HR – but also by lessons of her childhood. Bill, on the other hand, wants to be in the lab. He wants to work in the lab, yes, but also to inhabit the lab, which he actually does at a few points over the course of their shared history. His limited personal needs become fodder for inadvertent humor, such as the time he cuts most of his shaggy hair off … and stores it in the trunk of a nearby tree so he can go visit it. Every time Bill shows up on the page, the book goes from good to great.

Jahren manages to wrest the spotlight back from Bill a few times, especially in her descriptions of her bipolar disorder, which she depicts as occasionally useful for her work but also disastrous for her life and a major problem for the first 26 weeks of her one pregnancy. (I didn’t get the sense she intends for there to be a second.) Bipolar disorder, often misnamed as manic-depressive disorder, is still a widely misunderstood mental illness, even as we creep toward greater societal acceptance of the most common diseases like depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Jahren’s story doesn’t revolved around her illness, but it is a shining example of how much someone can achieve in spite of that obstacle.

Lab Girl won as an autobiography, and it is much more that than it is a science book. Jahren explains her love of plants (and soil – you can’t separate the two) with concise lessons on topics like leaf structure, plant sex (fertilization), or how plants survive in the desert. She also takes us to some widely varying settings and depicts them with evocative, bright language, from the greenery of Ireland to the barren terrain of a nearly plantless Arctic island north of Nunavut. As someone who reads and enjoys popular science books, I was hoping for a bit more of this, and given the book’s length (under 300 pages), there was certainly room for that. For one important example, Jahren talks at length about the scarcity of funds for basic science research like hers – research that won’t help us in war or directly lead to a cure or a product – but climate change gets the drive-by treatment in the last two chapters. In an era when one of our two political parties has embraced climate change denial, and has recruited swaths of the religious right to join them in this delusion, we need more voices like Jahren to speak out about the truth.

I sell, share, or donate a lot of the books I acquire, because if I stored them all, I’d need a second room just to shelve them. (Also, books are heavy, and I’ve made two cross-country moves in the last seven years.) I’m going to keep Lab Girl for a few years; my daughter is eleven and enjoys science, so once she’s ready for the book’s vocabulary, she’ll devour it.

Next up: Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novel The Wanderer, which is just $3.82 for the Kindle.

Blood, Bones & Butter.

A little admin stuff first – my new weekly podcast for ESPN, Behind the Dish, debuted today, featuring an interview with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and a conversation with fellow writer Joe Sheehan. I appreciate the support of all of you who listened to Baseball Today and mourned its end, so I hope you’ll tune in to the new show. It should be up on iTunes today (there’s a technical problem on their end, I’m told). Spread the word.

Also, I have new posts for Insiders on Jeff Samardzija, David Holmberg, and other Cubs and Dbacks and on Yordano Ventura, Brandon Belt, Tyler Skaggs, and more.

Gabrielle Hamilton is a self-taught and, in her words, “reluctant,” chef who achieved great acclaim for her tiny New York restaurant Prune and the honest, rustic fare she has served there for the past fourteen years, eventually winning the James Beard Award as NYC’s best chef in 2001. Her brilliantly written memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, is a masterpiece of the memoir genre, a perfect emulsion of food writing and autobiography that will make your mouth water with descriptions of food yet never shies away from critical introspection.

One central thread, Hamilton’s own relationship with food and, by extension, how much that relationship tied to her relationships with friends and family, runs through the entire book, but rather than giving a single story, Hamilton splits her memoir into a sort of triptych: one section on her childhood and adolescence, one on her stop-and-go path into a career in food (with a detour to Michigan for a master’s in creative writing), and one on her unfulfilling marriage to an Italian doctor, Michele. Food is everywhere in the book, yet the book isn’t about food. It is about Hamilton’s peculiar life, with her passion for cooking a recurring character in every episode.

Hamilton’s path to culinary stardom was accidental, but also extremely odd, not something you’d ever recommend to a would-be chef. Her offbeat family imploded when her French-born mother suddenly demanded a divorce from Gabrielle’s set-designer/artist father, ushering in a period when Gabrielle was largely left without parental supervision, a tragicomic setup that led her both into the kind of libertine behavior you’d expect from a 13-year-old without adults around and into a lifetime of extreme self-reliance. She began working in restaurants and bars, as a dishwasher or a server, and eventually working insane hours for catering outfits in New York, learning how to cook as she went rather than at culinary school. Her disdain for fussy, pretentious food gives her an opportunity for some hilarious rants; her own culinary ethos is about as far from a “chef’s tasting menu” as you can get. Instead, she waxes more romantic when describing an Italian sandwich she purchased at a pork shop in Brooklyn (unnamed, sadly) or the fresh seasonal vegetables she finds during annual visits to her mother-in-law in Rome and Puglia. Even in the final section, which details her latent disaffection with her marriage, one that wasn’t founded on love and never grew into anything more than friendly co-parenting, Hamilton still uses food as the foundation for the exploration of her own emotions.

While Hamilton infuses nearly every page with her passion for food, it’s her clear yet highly evocative writing style that sets Blood, Bones & Butter apart. She can express so much in just a few sentences, as in this passage, describing the scene at a coffee place in Grand Central Station:

I hate hating women but double-skim half-decaf vanilla latte embarrasses me. I ordered a plain filtered coffee, as if I were apologizing on behalf of my gender, and when I dug through my heavy purse to pay for it I discovered in my bag a diaper, a resealable jar of apricot puree, and one of Marco’s socks, which had somehow in the general loss of boundary and private real estate that is Motherhood, made its way in there.

That second sentence there is a thing of beauty, its odd punctuation contributing to its sense of barely contained chaos, all while we get Hamilton’s scorn for overly prissy fake coffee drinks and her exasperation at the loss of self that comes with the addition of one or more kids. When Hamilton describes her experiences in catering kitchens, or takes you through Michele’s family estate in Italy, or talks about the large family meals that bookend the story – the giant lamb roasts her father organized when she was a kid, and the family meal with her now ex-in-laws that appears in the epilogue-cum-“reader’s guide” – you can hear the sizzle of the meat as it cooks. If she’s as good of a chef as she is of a writer, Prune must be amazing.

One stray thought on the book: in a passage about women’s roles and struggles in a professional kitchen, Hamilton offers this thought:

If anything, I have come to love the men who also feel that the kitchen is abetter place when women are allowed to work in it, the men who feel that if any part of society is abused, that it demeans the rest of society.

Emphasis mine there, because that summarizes quite nicely why I will block people on Twitter who use the r-word, or a gay-bashing epithet like the word for a bundle of sticks, and it explains why I find team nicknames like Indians or Braves or that odious one that plays football in Washington so offensive. Intent to demean is not required for something to demean. Simply creating a division that sets one part of the population as “other” is demeaning. We do not name sports teams after Italians or Jews or African-Americans, after lesbians or Sikhs or the disabled, yet we think nothing of naming sports teams after Native Americans, or using words that are obvious proxies for them. (Would you see the implicit racism in a sports team called the Atlanta Slaves?) Hamilton’s praise for men who want women in their kitchens and treated as equals says much about her character, and what kind of co-worker and boss she must be, especially in an industry that often adulates alpha males with domineering personalities.

Next up: Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to his 2009 novel The Magicians, which I reviewed that August.


I assume Jim Abbott’s story is pretty well-known: Born with a malformed right hand, Abbott became a successful multi-sport high school athlete, pitched at the University of Michigan, and spent 10 years in the big leagues, pitching for the Angels, White Sox, Brewers, and Yankees, throwing a no-hitter for that last club that happens to be the only professional no-hitter I have ever attended in person. In his new memoir, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, written with Yahoo!’s Tim Brown, Abbott talks about his own personal struggles with creating an identity for himself independent of his disability, of the challenges of growing up with a visible difference, and of the opportunities his success gave him to reach and sometimes inspire children growing up with similar physical issues.

The book separates Abbott’s life and career into two separate tracks. The main track begins with Abbott’s parents meeting, dating, and finding themselves about to become teenaged parents, and then facing the reality of Abbott’s condition, yet, after an adjustment period, deciding not to let the disability become an excuse for him or for them. The sections dealing with Abbott’s childhood tell seemingly tangential anecdotes that turn out to be important in his professional career as he tries to deal with the sudden fame and just as sudden decline all within the first five or six years after college. The second track pulls Abbott’s no-hitter out of the main story and gives it its own narrative, one that I enjoyed reading because of my personal connection to that game but that only gave occasional glimpses into the mind of a pitcher as he’s throwing the game. (I’d love for any pitcher to sit down after a no-hitter – and after the ensuing celebration – and write down everything he remembers thinking or doing during that game. Abbott’s retelling here has some of that, but much of it reads like a man remembering a game he pitched almost twenty years ago, not the more precise in-the-moment recollections we’d get if it was something he’d written the day after the game occurred.)

Those two interesting stories are intertwined in an obvious and ultimately unsuccessful gimmick to try to create some parallels between them, which only serves to distract the reader from both of the narratives without adding anything to the overall story. Abbott’s no-hitter started slowly, picked up speed in the middle innings, and then reached a crescendo in the ninth inning. His career arc looked nothing like that, and ended first with a whimper, a brief comeback, and then a final great good-night. It’s awkward to read about a no-hitter in nine brief chapters separated by longer discursions dating back as much as twenty years – and it’s just as awkward to read about Abbott’s career and have the no-hitter omitted entirely. It reads to me as if the no-hitter was this book’s equivalent of Oakland’s twenty-game winning streak in the movie version of Moneyball: Someone decided that the film needed a Big Triumph, regardless of that event’s place in the greater narrative. Imperfect wouldn’t have been perfect with a more conventional structure, but it would have read better.

I also struggled with the book’s occasional lapses into purple prose; Abbott’s voice (which I’m assuming is what we’re getting for most of the first-person narratives) is clear and simple, so when he refers to a taxi as a “metered ride” or says he didn’t have the “temerity” to ask teammates why he’d been given a certain nickname, it’s like having someone crank up the volume in the middle of a song. (“Temerity” is a great word, but you can’t just drop it into a passage where it’s the two-dollar word in a paragraph of dimes.) Abbott also defines his performance primarily by his won-lost records, occasionally mentioning ERAs, which makes him a product of his time; if you’ve watched any baseball over the first ten days of this season, you already know how foolish using a pitcher’s won-lost record to measure his performance is, and the book would be stronger with anything more advanced in their stead.

Where the book really sings is in the passages about people who helped Abbott on his way up or the kids he helped once he’d gotten there. Tim Mead, the longtime PR man for the Angels, might want to get a lawyer and sue Abbott, because the book makes Mead out to be an absolutely wonderful human being. Abbott mentions the first scout to really believe in him (Don Welke, now with Texas), the teacher who taught him a trick that allowed him to tie his own shoes, the coaches and teammates who became his support network, and the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who comes through on the page exactly as I knew him from our two or three encounters in Toronto. Abbott’s recounting of his time on the Olympic team that won the gold medal in Seoul in 1988 is another highlight. And the section describing the kids and parents who would line up by the dozens across the country just to meet him so they could see that, yes, there’s someone else who looks like them, someone who made it all the way to the major leagues … well, it might get a little dusty in your living room when you get to that part.

Abbott’s early life and pro career didn’t fit the typical mold for Hollywood sports movies, but there’s plenty there for his story to stand on its own without structural gimmickry to make it seem more dramatic. I was always a Jim Abbott fan – if you liked baseball at the time and didn’t root for him, you probably weren’t human – and enjoyed reading about his experiences, but the story’s packaging took something away from what he had to say.

Next up: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.