The Blue Sweater.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of a non-profit called Acumen, which funds and encourages poverty-reduction efforts that work like business endeavors rather than aid dumps. Foreign aid itself is, in general, not very useful, and often nothing more than a way to prop up corrupt third-world regimes; the U.S. is slated to send out $42 billion in foreign aid in FY2017, but there’s little to no information on how well it works – something like an ROI, for eample. Novogratz has spent over three decades working in the developing world, including substantial time in Rwanda both before and after that country’s civil war and genocide, and her 2009 memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, chronicles some of her work – but also has an unfortunate tendency to show her inability to escape her own privilege when describing the people she’s met and places where she’s worked.

The book works as part memoir – Novogratz has lived an incredible life, not least of which is the incredible story of the titular sweater, which she gave away to a donation outlet while in high school only to find a boy wearing the sweater ten years later in Rwanda – and part plea for a more sensible, rational approach to helping alleviate poverty. Novogratz details projects in multiple countries, from creating jobs for women in central Africa to developing mosquito nets that don’t lose effectiveness to expanding access to cataract surgery in India, where a small upfront investment coupled with some expertise led to a substantial return, particularly in economic growth for people who had no opportunities beyond subsistence farming and in improving health and sanitation conditions. (If you’re poor, and you’re not healthy or don’t have access to clean water, you’re much more likely to stay poor, since you can’t work if you’re sick and then can’t pay for the care to get well.)

Her individual anecdotes tend to be pretty compelling, in part because Novogratz has worked in some areas that were either desperately poor or were caught up in conflicts. One of Novogratz’ close colleagues in Rwanda was killed, perhaps assassinated, for pushing women’s rights, and another, mentioned above, ended up a leader in the genocide. She runs into surprising interference from women in Africa who resent her presence – that local men will listen to her, a white woman from the west, but not to local women, even if they boast some western education. Getting money isn’t a problem per se; it’s getting it from donors who are willing to think small, who’ll accept modest goals that people on the ground can achieve, rather than lofty goals (let’s end hunger! Let’s cure AIDS!) that are unattainable. It’s the idea behind sites like GlobalGiving, where the projects are small but the objectives clear and reasonable.

Novogratz speaks of her work in these countries with two voices, one of which tends to undermine the other. When speaking about the actual plans and execution, she sounds like a businessperson, keeping others accountable, asking questions that an investor in a startup might ask, and ensuring that money is going to where it will do some lasting good. But when she starts to talk about the locals in Rwanda, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere, or to describe the places themselves, she sounds like a tourist. Everyone is beautiful, every color is radiant, everyone is so nice, even the ones who turn out to be corrupt or, in one case, associated with the genocide (and later imprisoned for her role). There’s a strain in travel literature where the white westerner fetishizes the natives of developing countries, and that’s on display here. I can’t doubt Novogratz’ sincerity, and it sounds like she’s tough on locals who come in for microloans with half-formed plans, but she appears to have met a long string of perfect and handsome people while traveling the world. The stories themselves are interesting, and I salute the sacrifices she’s made to live this life and try to improve the world, but The Blue Sweater doesn’t do enough to convince the reader that this is the right way to help the world’s poor.

Next up: I’m still several books behind in reviews, but I’m currently reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

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.

Aké: The Years of Childhood.

In case you missed it, my second go at projecting this year’s first round went up for Insiders on Tuesday. My next mock will go up on Tuesday, June 3rd, and I’ll have an updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors this Friday. I’ll also be on Baseball Tonight tomorrow night, May 29th, at 10 pm ET.

At the turn of the century, the rush to compile “best of the last 100 years” lists of books tended to leave a lot of postcolonial writers behind, something that the Zimbabwe International Book Fair attempted to address by assembling a list of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century. I saw the list not long after it was released in February of 2002, and had heard of exactly two books on the list: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which I’d already read once and subsequently re-read; and Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, the first book of his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy.

Within that broader list, the jury identified a dozen titles as the best of the best, without trying to rank any of the books, probably a thankless task given the effort required just to compile the nominations for the final hundred. The Nigerian-born author Wole Soyinka, the first native African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, made the top 100 twice, with his play Death and the King’s Horsemen appearing on the main list and his first memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood, earning special mention in the top twelve.

Aké is the name of the town where Soyinka grew up, on the grounds of a parsonage with his mother, whom he calls “Wild Christian,” and his father the teacher, whom he calls “Essay,” as well as a nearby collection of relatives, friends/workers, and spirits. The book takes magical realism and transplants it into the realm of the autobiography – Soyinka never pauses to consider whether these memories of ghosts, spectres, or other otherworldy entities are real; they simply are. Yet the stories he remembers revolve around more mundane matters, not least of which is what on earth a family was to do with a precocious, argumentative child in a country still ruled autocratically by the local puppets of a distant white government.

The memoir, however, is a joyous one, even around the crises and tragedies and the eventual buildup to the book’s concluding chapters, where the women of Ak&ecaute; agitate for more local rights, less corruption, and lower taxation. Soyinka renders even those scenes, which always threatened to devolve into violence, humorously, through the eyes of a mischievous child watching when he shouldn’t be watching or playing rebel by delivering message between various outposts of protesters. His memories of his time in school, where the lawyering he used to stymie his parents runs up against the wall of a headmaster who’s already seen that act before, and of the town’s market, with extensive descriptions of fresh fruits and African foods of which I’d never heard, show off Soyinka’s ability to evoke colorful scenes with precise descriptions and light prose that puts the reader right on the dirt road in the middle of all the market’s vendors.

Soyinka devotes another section to his childhood addiction … to powdered baby formula, which he sneaks from the family’s pantry now that their youngest child no longer needs it, only to end up playing cat-and-mouse with his parents to avoid detection. He also offers several anecdotes on the local blend of Christianity and native traditions, such as the fellow student who tries to counter “bad juju” by repeating “S.M.O.G.” – which stands for “Save Me Oh God” but he claims is faster to say in acronym form while running from your enemies.

The one weakness of Aké is its lack of structure; it’s a collection of stories and recollections, but there’s no single narrative because the book ends while Soyinka is still a child, so we haven’t driven towards a specific goal or endpoint. That doesn’t make the book less enjoyable or less vivid, although it means it more resembles a set of interconnected short stories than a non-fiction novel. It compares favorably to my favorite memoir, Gabriel García Marquez’ Living to Tell the Tale, although GGM’s prose flowed more easily, as Soyinka’s syntax and even punctuation often threw me off (e.g., he omits a lot of commas we’d consider essential in American English). For me, Aké ranks somewhere in the middle of the seven titles I’ve read from the top twelve on that African literature list, below Things Fall Apart, A Grain of Wheat, and Nervous Conditions but above Sleepwalking Land, Chaka, and L’amour, la fantasia.

Yes, Chef.

Marcus Samuelsson stands out in the world of celebrity chefs for several reasons – he’s a star here in the United States, but was raised in Sweden, and his cuisine is global in many ways … but he’s black, and that fact alone would make him close to unique in the clique of American celebrity chefs. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but his birth mother died of tuberculosis when Marcus was only about four, after which he and his sister were adopted by a couple in Goteborg, Sweden, where his soccer career stalled out because he was too slight to keep up with his competitors, only to lead to a career in the kitchen that forms the basis for his memoir, Yes, Chef.

Samuelsson came to national prominence during a lengthy run as the executive chef at New York’s Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant that included a casual menu serving traditional Swedish fare and a fine-dining menu where Samuelsson could stretch out and use Swedish cuisine as the basis for a more progressive and comprehensive approach to food. I tried Aquavit shortly before Samuelsson departed and was highly impressed, especially by the fish, both its quality and preparation, including a hot-smoked salmon plate that forever hooked me on smoked fish. He’s also responsible for the best food item Starbucks has ever sold, a chocolate cinnamon “bread” (in the sense that banana bread or Northern corn bread are “breads,” when really they’re just cakes) that was both delicious and paired quite well with coffee, even the stuff they call coffee at Starbucks. The recipe was included in a cookbook only sold at Starbucks locations, although I believe many of that book’s recipes ended up in his The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. His new venture, Red Rooster, has been a huge success despite a slightly off-the-radar location in Harlem, where Samuelsson lives, borrowing the name of a classic restaurant of the area while integrating old and new culinary traditions.

Samuelsson’s life and career follow a somewhat unexpected narrative path: After his very difficult beginning, he finds himself in a comfortable setting, raised by loving adoptive parents in a country where racism existed but not to the extent we face it here. Instead, Samuelsson’s challenges increased after he reached adulthood, facing institutional racism in the kitchen and his own naivete on the business side of cooking, while also watching several friends and colleagues die far too young and eventually finding himself in a little trouble of his own making. He clearly has tremendous drive, as well as a deep passion for food (for flavors, in his words, and in finding new ways to combine them), but there are hints of regret sprinkled throughout the book for what that singlemindedness may have cost him when he was younger, some of which can’t be regained now that his success has given him the flexibility to have a personal life.

The book is written in the first person, in a style evocative enough to put the reader in the kitchens alongside Samuelsson, even though the prose likely came from his friend and co-author Veronica Chambers, who first received widespread plaudits for her own memoir, Mama’s Girl. I was never conscious of the story coming through the second filter of a co-author, even though it’s hard to imagine Samuelsson writing so clearly in what is at best his third language (he seems to speak at least four). First-person narratives can suffer from excessively florid prose, but here Chambers stays out of the way and lets Samuelsson’s story, which is compelling enough to require no embellishment, take center stage.

If Yes, Chef has a flaw, it’s that the treatment of the highs and lows of Samuelsson’s life often feels a little cursory; friends and colleagues die, and we get a page or less of grief, and Marcus has moved on. He’s up for the James Beard Award against some amazing competitors, and then, boom, he’s won it, and we’re on to the next subject. His victory on Top Chef Masters, coming right as he was preparing to cook the first state dinner of Barack Obama’s presidency, receives very little discussion, even though his win that season had its own interesting narrative – he wasn’t near the top in any challenges until the final sprint, like his friend and season three winner Floyd Cardoz. Samuelsson appears to open himself up to the reader at many points of the book, like discussing his daughter (the result of a one-night stand when he was still just 19) or the experience of reconnecting with his extended family in Ethiopia when he was in his 30s, that it’s jarring to see other significant life events receive superficial treatment in a book that could easily have added another 20 pages without feeling long.

The obvious comparison here is to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, another memoir by a successful chef, but one written by a chef with more training in creative writing than in the culinary arts. Hamilton’s prose shines, elevating her story from good to great; Samuelsson’s story is stronger, and might have suffered from Hamilton’s literary flourishes, but could have benefited from the level of introspection she showed in her book. Nothing in Yes, Chef goes as deep as Hamilton’s examination of her marriage to an aloof Italian doctor and, by extension, into his family in Italy, yet a similar treatment of Samuelsson’s visit to Ethiopia would have made the book even more compelling.

Next up: Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, which I read and reviewed in 2010.

52 Loaves.

I’ve got a new Insider column up on possible demotions/promotions, looking at whether there’s any sense in those moves. I also recorded an extremely fun episode of Behind the Dish today, featuring Michael Schur of Parks & Recreation and FJM fame.

William Alexander’s 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust is a peculiar mix of memoir, baking how-to, and experiential non-fiction (“I did this weird/crazy thing so I could write a book about it”) that never quite hits on any of those areas until its final passage, where Alexander’s quixotic efforts to bake the perfect loaf of French country bread lands him in the disused bakery at a French monastery, teaching one of the brothers how to bake bread. It’s poorly written and just as poorly organized, yet when Alexander finally steps back and lets an actual story unfold, it makes the aggravation of the first 200-odd pages worthwhile.

Alexander’s quest to replicate a bread he’d tasted some years earlier leads to a resolution to bake a loaf of this style of bread, known as pain de campagne, every weekend for a full year (hence the title). This bread has a few key characteristics – a hard, crispy crust that shatters (in a good way) when you bite into it, and a moist crumb with plenty of air holes, sometimes a little large and irregularly shaped. It’s normally made with a levain, a wild yeast starter that can be years or decades old, and includes a blend of white and whole wheat flours. Alexander starts out from a recipe, struggles with it, and then goes out in search of expert opinions and better tools, even growing his own wheat and attempting to build an earthen oven in his backyard, while consulting people like the esteemed Peter Reinhart, whose books I regularly extol on this blog.

Alexander is fine when he’s describing these educational endeavors, from trips to grain mills and bakeries to phone and email conversations with bakers, but he’s in the book himself far too much, unfortunate as he’s not an interesting character and shares way, way too much information (especially about his sex life with his wife, who I assume has since castrated him for doing so). He’s also just not a good writer at all, verbose when he needs to be terse, and desperately unfunny, as in this description of a brief conversation with his wife:

“It was Julia’s idea,” I said clumsily.
As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Lu-ceee, you got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”
Let’s start with Julia.
I’m referring of course, to the late Julia Child.

That’s about as hackneyed a phrase as you’ll find, followed by three mentions of “Julia” before he tells us which Julia … except that in a book about food, there’s only one Julia anyway, so why play coy?

Eventually, his bread-baking improves to the point where he’s at least churning out solid loaves, albeit not exactly up to his own high standards, so Alexander starts reaching out to monasteries in Europe in search of one that still bakes its own breads in-house. That search leads him to one that has a bakery, including a wood-fired oven, but hasn’t used it in some time; that monastery agrees to let Alexander, an agnostic, come bake in their ovens for a week or so if he agrees to teach one of the brothers how to do it so they can restart the tradition after he leaves. Alexander’s experiences there, building unexpected bonds with his protege and others in the monastery, while himself pondering some big questions (without coming to any real conclusions or experiencing a conversion), is so compelling and so well-written that it felt like it came from the pen of a different writer. The forced jocularity of the first three-fourths of the book disappears when there’s something significant at stake – he has to teach this novice how to bake this one kind of bread in a matter of a few days, using unfamiliar equipment while conforming to the monastery’s rigid schedule of prayer and services. And Alexander’s own reaction to that schedule, even attending some of the services himself and sharing meals with the brothers, gives us a much more mature picture of the man than his puerile jokes about rebuffing his wife’s advances because he needs to feed the starter do.

52 Loaves includes recipes at the end, including his method of developing and growing a levain (starter) as well as the unique recipe he developed for the monastery, adapting to the ingredients available there. (There are some differences between our flours and those you can buy in Europe, another informative section that showed Alexander can educate his readers when he wants to do so.) I have used a starter, and kept one going for about two years in Boston, but don’t bake enough bread to justify the work involved in keeping one, since the Arizona summers are so hot that we don’t want to run the oven at those temperatures for long periods of time. When the urge to bake bread strikes, I use a biga, a sort of overnight starter that begins with ¼ tsp of commercial, active yeast, allowing it to develop overnight in the fridge to get some of the flavor you’d get with a wild yeast starter – an inferior substitute, but not one most people (myself included) are that likely to notice.

Next up: In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World by Ian Stewart, presumably not the third baseman.

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.

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

I have a new post up on Ryu Hyun-Jin and Yasiel Puig and did a Klawchat as well.

One more negative book review before I move on to one I’m really enjoying, this time on Kathleen Flinn’s flimsy cooking-school memoir The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, in which the author tells the story of her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which coincided with her engagement and marriage to the love of her life. Unfortunately, the book just isn’t very well written (in terms of prose) and the telling is so superficial that we’re not getting enough of the food nor are we getting enough of the personal anecdotes that could make a book like this a fun read even if it’s light on the cooking.

Flinn’s reason for going to cooking school is easily the best aspect of the book: Laid off from a dot-com job with Microsoft’s unit (it’s never named, but if you’re familiar with the industry it’s obvious who she worked for), Flinn decided to chase a long-denied dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious culinary arts programs, one she was encouraged to pursue years earlier by none other than Julia Child. Flinn’s then-boyfriend Mike encourages her to do it, even leaving his own career on hold for a year-plus to move to Paris with her and have what I imagine was the adventure of a lifetime.

However, that sense of adventure just never comes through on Sharper‘s pages. There’s a rote sense to Flinn’s days in school – go in, cook, screw some stuff up, take the food home – that we don’t get any of the color of the school itself as we did in Michael Ruhlman’s seminal The Making of a Chef, yet we also get only the slightest feel of life as an expat in Paris, or of the terrific romance between Kathleen and Mike. Side characters are painted in two dimensions, and sometimes one, like their overbearing, freeloading houseguests from Seattle, a lesbian couple who seem to be on the verge of a breakup with every interaction. I closed the book with no clear picture of who anyone was except for Kathleen herself, and even she came through in a faded image, driven by hackneyed life advice more than an abiding passion for food. (I’m sure she has that passion, but it never comes through on the pages.) Flinn’s habit of ending sections and chapters with awful cliches – “Sometimes, the places life takes us can be so unexpected” or “I wonder if graduating higher in the class rankings is worth the price she may ultimately pay” – is grating and indicative of a broader writing style that reads like it was written by someone who hasn’t read enough great writers, who believes that this is how you craft a story.

If this subject interests you, I can’t recommend Ruhlman’s book highly enough, as it balances the food and the educational experience very well against the fascinating personalities with whom he went through the school. I just found Flinn’s book paled in comparison and was much harder to push through given the weakness of the prose.

Next up: I’m just 50 pages into Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter and it’s amazing, extremely well-written and, thus far, a compelling story.


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.

Christ Stopped at Eboli.

I’m starting to fall behind here, so this will be a quick writeup. Carlo Levi was a doctor and political activist in fascist Italy who repeatedly fell afoul of the Mussolini regime, and one of his sentences was to spend a year in exile in the very poor Lucania region of southern Italy. His book about that experience, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, is a memoir that doubles as a sociological treatise with a subtle air of protest at the existence and treatment of this Italian underclass (although the subtlety disappears in the last five pages, where Levi shifts voice from narrator to activist.) The title refers to the local saying that Christ stopped at the town of Eboli and never made it to the poorest villages of the hinterlands, where the people are more pagan than Christian and are treated as less than human by the various governing authorities of the region and of Italy.

It’s not quite a nonfiction novel because of the lack of any singular plot strand, but instead works as a series of anecdotes and observations of peasant life in grinding poverty and under various forms of oppression, from direct government action to government inaction on issues like the rampant malaria that affects the region. Levi takes the ideal path of the neutral, objective observer, so that the peasants and their stories come through rather than Levi’s judgment on their customs and superstitions. The stories range from heartbreaking (there are a lot of dead children and husbands who left for the New World and never returned) to humorous (the fatuous mayor is almost too absurd to be true), but I did find the absence of some narrative force or unanswered question made the reading slow, especially in the final third or so of the book.

Next up: I’ve already finished Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

Top 25 non-fiction books.

Since this is probably going to be my lone post of the week, I figured it should be a long one. I started out planning to offer a list of the ten best nonfiction books I’ve read, and then found I’d written down thirty titles. I trimmed a few and settled on twenty-five. I’ve omitted self-help/instruction books (like books on cooking) and stuck to more serious topics, although some are lightly treated.

25. Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. Heard the movie was terrible, which is a shame because the book was great. It’s a classic underdog story – horse thought to be too small, jockey blind in one eye, trainer with unorthodox methods, and so on – with Seabiscuit’s rise punctuated by several high moments and an almost too-good-to-be-true shot at redemption when he gets one last chance to win the race that has always eluded him.

24. The Catholic Church: A Short History, by Hans Küng. I’ll admit that this book may have a narrow appeal, but I think it’s a solid read even for those with no direct interest in the Catholic Church. Küng is the Church’s greatest internal critic, a Catholic priest and theologian who underwent an excommunication proceeding for his teachings. He rejects or questions several doctrines of the mundane Church, pointing out that such concepts as papal infallibility and the celibacy requirement for clergy are man-made, not divinely granted. The Catholic Church serves as a summary of many of his major works to date within the context of a Catholic’s history of the Church itself, dating back to its early days as a small-c catholic church hewing much more closely to the teachings of Christ than the bloated and often corrupt bureaucracy we see today.

23. The Prize Game, by Donald Petrie. A bit short and a bit slow, The Prize Game still has a fascinating and improbable story at its core: Piracy was once a government-sanctioned business with clear rules of engagement. Captured ships were known as “prizes” and there were strict guidelines for how captured cargo and sailors were to be treated. This style of privateering was all but ended after 1815, although the book does go briefly into privateering during the U.S. Civil War. If you’ve read any Patrick O’Brian books or perhaps played the Sid Meier game Pirates!, this book’s right up your alley.

22. The Invention of Clouds, by Richard Hamblyn. Reviewed briefly here. Hamblyn tells an interesting story about the amateur meteorologist who came up with the system of nomenclature and descriptions for clouds that is still more or less in use today. The only hitch here is that there wasn’t a lot of drama in the book – not that Hamblyn should have made any up – so the book just sort of flows along without the tension that tends to drive successful history of science books forward. There are some interesting asides, and it’s amazing to think that there was a time when science presentations to the public resulted in packed houses.

21. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. Hilarious and cutting and explosive in its revelations of kitchen culture, Kitchen Confidential will make you think twice when deciding where to eat when eating out. And I would hope that it would teach all of you to head in the other direction when you see a sign that says “Discount Sushi.”

20. Catch Me If You Can, by Frank Abagnale. The movie sucked, but the book was great, and it’ll make you wonder why the movie’s producers felt the need to alter anything given how outrageous Abagnale’s life of deception was. He pioneered a new type of check-kiting and is one of the greatest social engineers the world has ever seen – all because he wanted to impress the ladies. And if his tale is to be believed, impress them he did.

19. The Power of Babel, by John McWhorter. Reviewed in depth here, Power offers us a history of human languages with a good dose of McWhorter’s own opinions, including his view that language is a dynamic, living entity that can only be constrained through fiat. He also takes the view that all “languages” are merely dialects, and explains why some languages still have nasty features like noun declensions and the subjunctive mood while others have lost them over time.

18. The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey. The Island of Lost Maps tells the story of one of the boldest and for a time most successful thieves of whom you’ve never heard, a milquetoast man – appropriately named Bland – who cut antique maps out of rare books in university libraries and sell them to collectors. Bland made about a half-million dollars in the early 1990s before he was caught. Harvey weaves Bland’s story in with a few other narratives, including a description of the map-collecting industry, the history of this sort of maps, and his own obsession with the story and with learning about the map world. That last thread is the one major negative of Island, as I’m firmly in the camp that says that a nonfiction book’s author doesn’t belong in the book unless he’s the subject as well.

17. God’s Equation, by Amir Aczel. Aczel’s first book was Fermat’s Last Theorem, a history of that famous equation and the math that led up to the ultimate solution by Andrew Wiles. The book started with a riveting description of Wiles’ first presentation of his solution – I’m serious, you’ll be caught up in it too – but the rest of the book was dry and very mathy, with only the occasional bit of real-life drama (like the suicide of one of the Japanese mathematicians whose work was invaluable to Wiles) to keep it moving. For his second book, however, Aczel chose a broader topic and crafted a much stronger narrative, describing how Albert Einstein’s greatest “mistake,” that of the cosmological constant (a sort of high-physics fudge factor) turned out, in the end, to be correct.

16. The Lighthouse Stevensons, by Bella Bathurst. The family of Robert Louis Stevenson is known for something very non-literary: constructing a series of lighthouses around the dangerous coastlines of the British Isles. Not only were these projects dangerous and very difficult, they also disenfranchised the various communities of wreckers who thrived on the proceeds of shipwrecks off their shores, often killing survivors to ensure their hauls. (Bathurst, also a journalist and the author of one novel, started to lose her hearing a few years ago after a head trauma suffered in a car crash, and wrote a column on how the loss is not entirely without compensations.)

15. The Tummy Trilogy/Feeding a Yen, both by Calvin Trillin. A series of four books that are more collections of stories of the quest for good eats across America and eventually the world. The Tummy Trilogy’s stories are more folksy, while Feeding a Yen seemed more focused on the food, although the disappearance of Trillin’s wife Alice midway through that tome is a sad reminder of her early death in 2001.

14. All the President’s Men , by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Still riveting thirty-plus years later, the book is more about the reporters’ gradual uncovering of the Watergate scandal than it is about the scandal itself. Loses a bit of its romance now that we know who “Deep Throat” was.

13. Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King. The story of the construction of the cupola on the duomo of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome focuses on the technological advances that Brunelleschi had to drive to be able to construct such a large dome without internal supports or risk of collapse. The story offers a surprising intensity because of the deadlines, the pressure from the Church, and various other external factors that make the project’s completion seem uncertain, although I can assure you from firsthand experience that it all worked out in the end. If you enjoyed this one, you might like the similar but fluffier Tilt, by Nicholas Shrady, about that crooked tower an hour down the A11 in Pisa.

12. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton. I picked this one up in the remainders room of a local independent bookstore for no other reason than the inclusion of my favorite spice in the book’s title. It turns out that it’s a riveting and thorough history of the Indonesian spice trade, which has not a little to do with the fact that we in the United States are speaking English today and not Dutch. Black pepper, mace (the aril covering the nutmeg seed itself), and cinnamon all make appearances, but nutmeg was the spice that drove the markets and led to fierce battles and even torture over the control of the Spice Islands, particularly the tiny nutmeg-producing island of Run.

11. Millionaire, by Janet Gleeson. I may be biased on this one, as the subject of Millionaire is the inventor of paper money, a manor-born English ne’er-do-well named John Law. Law’s financial genius (just sounds right, doesn’t it?) led to the development of modern currency systems and credit markets, but also created one of the biggest speculative booms and crashes in history, and led to the need for a new word to describe those who had amassed so much wealth: “millionaire.”

10. The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto. The story of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam, the early history of Manhattan (starting with the arrival of the Europeans, that is), and the enduring influence of the Dutch culture, language, and society on New York, both city and state, and the United States in general. Shorto had access to a recently-unearthed trove of over 12,000 pages of documents from the Dutch colonial government, and the result is a fascinating story with two heroes, the idealistic Adriaen van der Donck and the better-known but half-villian Peter Stuyvesant, some serious villains in the English, the Swedes’ short-lived foray into colonization, and early experiments in things like democracy, tolerance, and free trade.

9. Living to Tell the Tale, by Gabriel García Marquéz. I’m not big on memoirs, but this book has a lot of the feel of a Marquez novel, and if you’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude, then Living to Tell the Tale will give you a lot of insight into where the amazing stories from that novel originated. He’s lived a fascinating life, and his role as a journalist in the midst of revolutions and strife provides some incredible and often darkly comic stories.

8. Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar. Still the best book about Major League Baseball I’ve ever read, although it’s somewhat out of date. Helyar looks at MLB as a business and delves into a lot of the self-dealing and corruption that have shaped the monolithic monopoly we see today. And indeed, the self-dealing hasn’t stopped since the book’s publication.

7. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The book responsible for the -onomics nomenclature scourge does do wonders to lift the image of the dismal science, showing how we can use data to learn things about human behavior and how we respond to changes in our economic world. Freakonomics includes a highly-controversial study of the connection between the legalization of abortion and the drop in crime in the 1990s, but also includes an interesting chapter on the life cycles of baby names, a chapter on why realtors – excuse me, Realtors® – are running a bit of a scam, and an ever more relevant chapter on cheating.

6. The Professor and the Madman/The Meaning of Everything, both by Simon Winchester. These two books, not strictly original/sequel but still inextricably linked, revolve around the production of the Oxford English Dictionary, a 70-year project that outlived all of its original heads and contributors. Professor is the better-known and more successful of the two books, telling the story of the asylum-bound murderer who proved to be one of the most prolific contributors of example sentences to the OED project, but I found it lacked the sort of narrative greed that propels Meaning, which tells the story of the OED’s history from genesis through publication, forward. I don’t see why you’d read one and not jump to read the other, though, since each offers a built-in teaser for its partner book.

5. Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis. I’ve got some serious issues with Moneyball, where Lewis put the narrative ahead of strict adherence to the facts, fabricating the anecdote that includes a mention of me towards the end of the book (and declining to correct it between the hardcover and paperback editions when I pointed out that it wasn’t true). As a result, I look at Liar’s Poker with a slightly jaundiced eye, because I’m not sure if the same accuracy problems infect Lewis’ other books. But I can’t deny that Lewis is a master of prose and storycraft, and Liar’s Poker is a cracking good read, with hilarious stories and comical characters and the intensity you’d expect to see in scenes set in a bond-trading room in the wild boom leading up to the 1987 crash.

4. Longitude, by Dava Sobel. I’ve always seen Longitude as the book that started the whole history-of-science book craze, by taking an esoteric story around a forgotten hero and crafting it as a novel, complete with villains, setbacks, and a linear plot that leads to a big climax. And as it turns out with so many of the best books in the genre, the invention at the heart of Longitude made the world as we know it possible: Transoceanic voyages were not safe until the invention of the chronometer, a device that allowed a ship in the middle of the ocean to determine its longitudinal location and thus its distance from Europe or the Americas. Longitude remains one of the kings in this field because the trials and tribulations faced by its hero, clockmaker John Harrison, were so severe.

3. Mauve, by Simon Garfield. The remarkable story of a teenaged chemist named William Perkin who in effect invented a color while trying to create a synthetic form of the anti-malarial compound quinine. Perkin’s mistake left him with a strong dye he called mauveine and an industrial process that would allow for easy, large-scale production. Perkin became a global celebrity, and his visit to the United States in 1906 was front-page news in the New York Times. He’s all but forgotten today outside of an award named after him that is given to a leading scientist in the field of applied chemistry.

2. Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile. Reviewed at length here, and soon to be a major feature film adapted by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Hanks. The book revolves around two amazing characters and their successful launching of the largest covert military operation in history, the U.S. funding and arming of the Afghan mujahideen, whose guerrilla warfare against Russian invaders was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

1. Barbarians at the Gate, by Brian Burrough and John Helyar. Still, for my money, the most novelesque non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Helyar and Burrough couldn’t have created better characters if they tried. The superficial story here is the takeover battle for RJR Nabisco, but the real story is how some very wealthy and intelligent men managed to act like teenaged boys when winning became more important than maximizing profits. The leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, until 2007 the largest LBO in history, ended up costing the victors in the battle nearly 50% more per share than the original offer due to the bidding war between multiple suitors, with the primary players being a management-led group that includes Shearson-Lehman, the buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and rival buyout firm Forstman Little. One entertaining subplot is RJR’s then-failing effort to introduce a smokeless cigarette without admitting that cigarette smoke itself was a health hazard. Good luck with that.