Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Garlic & Sapphires: Delicious Deception



Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, is what I’d call a “food voyeur” title. This is a growing genre of memoirs about lives spent in and around the big city restaurant scene – usually in New York. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was my introduction to food voyeurism—and I imagine many others’ introduction as well—and it’s still the standard by which I gauge other books of this type, because of its honesty, hilarity and accessibility. (Just thinking about his riff on vegans can still make me chuckle!) Reichl turns the usual formula on its ear – she allows us a glimpse not of the kitchen, but of some of the finest dining rooms in New York City. And in so doing, I think she manages to expand the boundaries of a genre I’ve come to enjoy.

G&S details Reichl’s tenure as the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times, a coveted and significant job in the food world to say the least. Although she’s a native New Yorker, Reichl’s food sensibilities were developed and perfected on the West Coast, and that pushes the boundaries of what she considers great cuisine, causing a rather large rift between her and the previous, Euro-centric chief restaurant critic, which is one of the central tensions of the book.

Reichl shows us the woman’s perspective on what is often thought of as a man’s world. This is partially done through the many disguises she employed to keep her identity secret while she’s working on a restaurant review. The treatment she gets in most restaurants seems linked to the persona she has assumed, and I loved how she used her position to bring attention to the glamor of the dining experience to those who don’t get to dine at great restaurants often – or ever, for that matter.

The woman’s perspective is also clear in the implications of her job – both the credits and the debits – on her husband and son. Eating out sure is fun, but how does a 4- or 5-year old manage so many nights without mom? Or so many late meals with the grownups? Her reflections on these questions – and on her feelings about her duel identities – are deeply reflective and denote a woman who is willing to look critically at her life in order to get the most out of it.

On a personal note, having lived in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s, I loved re-reading her reviews of some of the top restaurants of that era, which brought to mind romantic dinners with my then-fiancĂ© (now husband of nearly 20 years) at places like the Rainbow Room, Cellar in the Sky, Union Pacific, and even – and you’ll have to read the book to see why this is so darned funny – Tavern on the Green. Her witty style really brings the “characters” that make up the front end a restaurant to life – both those that extend diners dignity, and those that do not. Anyone who has ever waited for a table at a trendy restaurant will feel the author’s pain at times; anyone who has unexpectedly gotten the best seat in the house just because the hostess was in the right mood will recognize her exultation. It’s a really fun read, and it goes by too fast.

So as food voyeuristic reads go, put Garlic and Sapphires right up there with Bourdain’s classic exposĂ©, and way ahead of recent entries, such as Heat. That’s book number 5 in the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge: a plant. My last title has to contain a title. I held off on The Professor and the Madman because it also fits into the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge that I’m working on this summer, so that I’ll finish up with that in early June, and then start working on the other two challenges I’ve joined!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Kindle and the Threat to Intellectual Property

Last night, my good buddy Jess mentioned her fear of her work being “trawled” by Amazon if she purchased a Kindle: based on what I can see, this is not an unreasonable fear. Especially when you think about something that Jess and I – and just about every writer and researcher I know – do at some point: write in the margins! Not merely highlighting the author’s work, but scribbling down new ideas of our own?

You see, that Popular Highlights feature is linked to another nifty Kindle feature: Notes. This basically allows you to “scribble in the margins” of your e-book, just as you would a paper copy. But according to the Kindle terms of service:
The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service. Information we receive is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200144530)

Which means, from what I can tell, that this information is subject not only to aggregation, but also to scrutiny at the individual level!

There is no opt-out, folks. Kindle is data mining what has hitherto been completely private: your thoughts!

In the history of book-reading humanity, some pretty interesting ideas have come from notes in the margins: theorems, ideas for novels, new recipes. A book was once a quiet place for the individual to contemplate and extend thought. However, in the Kindle environment, a third-party is taking ownership of that once-private space for meditation.

They are stalking your next idea. That’s like eavesdropping on your prayers!

There is no clear answer to the question about what they might do with your thoughts. Could they sell a mathematical proof written in the “Notes” of a journal article downloaded on Kindle to another mathematician? Could they collect your recipe ideas and include them in their Kooking with Kindle collection? Sounds crazy, I know, but since they won’t say they won’t, that means that they could! And they will retain the right to do it unless someone tells them they can’t!

Until Amazon clarifies their position on the ownership of “Notes,” I have purchased my last Kindle title. Because while I support a company’s right to give me information through advertising, I do not support their right to steal my intellectual property – or anyone else’s!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kindle: Big Book Brother?

I began reading Ruth Reichl’s brilliant Garlic and Sapphires yesterday, because my good friend Jess at Desperado Penguin had given it a really good review. I’m not actually ready to review G&S yet, but I am ready to weigh in on a feature of Kindle for iPhone that I discovered while reading it: Popular Highlights. My verdict: Popular Highlights is creepy, distracting, and maybe even dangerous.

According to the folks over at Amazon:
Amazon displays Popular Highlights by combining the highlights of all Kindle customers and identifying the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. Some books don't have enough highlighting in them to have Popular Highlights. Popular highlights are marked with a grey dashed underline in your reading. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_k2cont_anno?nodeId=200375840&#highlight)

Let’s think about the implications of that for a moment: Kindle is actually 1) collecting information about how you read a book, 2) combining that information with the information of others, and 3) placing that information within the book another person is reading for the first time. The default for this feature is “ON,” which means that until you figure out what’s going, weird squiggles appear under passages, and you get messages about how many people have highlighted a particular passage. Remember when you tried to save money in college and bought used textbooks? And then you found out that it was not only distracting but counterproductive, because you were over-emphasizing what someone else thought was important, instead of doing the reading yourself? That’s exactly what this is like – except this time I thought I had paid for the privilege of having a “new” book, and still got distracted by someone else’s (well, some collective other’s) idea of what was important.

Now let me admit that I didn’t read the bazillion-word terms of service agreement when I downloaded my free Kindle for iPhone software. (There must be someone who reads that stuff, but that is not me.) So I’m sure that at some point the Amazon folks told me they would be monitoring my reading habits through Kindle. But it honestly came as a surprise to me when I finally picked up a title popular enough to display this feature. And the feature has me rethinking my Kindle for iPhone use. Because while it only took a few minutes to troll the Amazon Help site and find the way to turn off the Popular Highlights display (you go to the Kindle home, touch the Information button, and turn the Popular Highlights feature “OFF”), I’m not sure I like the idea that they’re still collecting information from my reading.

Reading is nothing if not a personal experience – and while I love to discuss books, I like to choose how and when I engage in those discussions. And to focus those discussions on what was important to me, which may or may not have anything to do with the marketing potential of the book! But sales, not literature, are Amazon’s business. So what might Amazon do with the collective information they are currently gathering? Well, they might try to influence publishers to focus on certain kinds of books, based on what gets read the fastest – after all they are trying to sell more books, not fewer. They might also try to influence editors to tailor books to reader habits, adulterating the original intent of the author. Really, the publishing implications are pretty scary. (And before you start thinking that I’m some Marxist conspiracy theorist academic, let me aver that I’m an Advertising and Public Relations professor. I have no problem with marketing, but I AM sure it shouldn’t dictate literature.)

The Popular Highlights cues in G&S were based on as little as five users – that gives the first readers a lot of power to direct other people’s gaze. What’s to keep publishers, for their part, from trying to game this new system, highlighting recipes in a book (just for instance) in order to create a market for the author’s next book, which just so happens to be a cookbook? (Believe me, I am in no way saying that this is happening, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t happen somewhere down the road!)

And I haven’t even started to focus on the privacy implications of Kindle knowing what people are reading, how much time they are interacting with it and ultimately (based on 3G technology) their ability to know where people are when they read. Think about this – can your boss subpoena Kindle records to find out if you’ve been reading on the job? And, maybe more disturbing, to find out what you’ve been reading? I don’t know – but neither does anyone else, so it’s worth asking the question.

Having a book show up on your iPhone in under a minute is a wonderful benefit of modern technology – and make no mistake about it, I’m an immediate gratification kind of gal. But technology is outstripping law at this point. Features are made available before it’s clear whether or not there are ethical, legal, and moral issues that should be considered prior to their launch. So it’s worth thinking about whether or not the immediate gratification of the Kindle warrants its intrusive underbelly. I haven’t actually decided yet, but I am giving it a lot of thought.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Motion of the Ocean will make you root for monogamy


I loved Janna Cawrse Esarey’s The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of Wife. It was funny. It was personal. It moved fast, most of the time. And most importantly, it was self-reflective, but not necessarily self-absorbed, which is a pretty tough posture to assume convincingly.

The story is simple: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy leaves girl, boy meets girl again, girl dumps girl, boy meets girl, boy moves in with girl, boy marries girl (FINALLY), boy and girl sail 17,000 miles from Seattle to Hong Kong to see if their marriage will actually work. You know, that old chestnut. Janna is the “girl,” and she tells the story of her romance with passion, joy and energy. She doesn’t shy away from the nasty bits, whether discussing herself or her “boy,” Chinese-speaking, and all-around bronze bod goddy, Graeme.

Without giving away the answer to the central question of the novel, namely, can two people overcome their shared and difficult history to create one life out of the two that their break-ups have created, I can say that the book is in turns very romantic, very comic, and very disturbing. Although the backdrops are stunning – Mexico, Micronesia, and Hong Kong among them – they are not a “character” in the same way the locales are in other travel-oriented memoirs, such as Eat, Pray, Love. Rather, they play second-fiddle to the love story, providing little more than location for a story of relationships. I actually appreciated that, because the author isn’t trying to make her story some kind of allegory – the places are incidental because the story truly is paramount here.

To be honest, the author’s personality is so very close to my own (perfectionist, justice-oriented, emotional, petulant), and her husband’s so very close to my husband’s (entrepreneurial, calm, egalitarian, aloof) that even though we have 10 years both in age and marriage on the couple, I couldn’t help but root for them. I would absolutely recommend this memoir to people who love travel, who appreciate the beauty of a long-term relationship, and who have ever wondered whether love is a force of destiny or a work in progress.

So that’s my body of water title. Loved it! Two-thirds of the way through the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge. Next up is my title title, The Madman and the Professor. I’ll also be using this for the Summer Season Challenge on Goodreads.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Curry: A bit too dry and bland for my taste


Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham uses the term “curry” in the British sense, in that the real topic of the book turns out to be a food history of the Indian subcontinent – in much the same way that the British describe every dish cooked with sauce and a combination of exotic spices a curry, even though the term reduces an entire cuisine (in fact, multiple cuisines) to an Anglo-ism. The British perspective infuses the book, as Collingham gives the Raj credit for the development of what the world knows as “Indian” food, even while admitting the pale imitation of the real thing that global Indian has become – and somehow missing the point that it was only the British usurpation of the sub-continent that allowed England to borrow the closest thing it has to its own cuisine.

In fairness, Collingham has done her homework, and the beginning sections of the book, which are built around popular “Indian” menu items and the cultures and time periods to which they are related, are very interesting. The influence of Mughal rulers and the Portuguese on the cuisine is detailed along with the complex history surrounding the wax and wane of their influences on the culture. Collingham uses a variety of primary sources, and uses quotes from letters of those traveling through India to great effect.

Collingham loses her historicity, and to some extent her perspective, when she comes to the British Raj. She is just too enamored of the British occupation of what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to analyze the facts and effects. Hers is a kinder, gentler Raj than one might expect, and the outcomes of occupation and globalization – terrible things like indentured servitude and diaspora – are spun in Pollyanna fashion into the elevation of the cuisine of not only the British Isles, but Fiji, Trinidad and South Africa. Gee willikers, wasn’t it great of those affable Brits to make life so unlivable for folks in their own country that they had to skedaddle away, and take their food preferences with them? (This is the same kind of thinking that no doubt has the British taking credit for John F. Kennedy’s presidency – if we hadn’t starved the poor Irish out of their own country, they wouldn’t have gone to Boston and voted for that Irish Catholic fellow. Well done us.)

Sub-continentals are not the only ones who have a right to be aggrieved. Her knowledge of the United States seems to be limited to her belief that inhabitants take all their cues – culinary and otherwise – from the UK. As she tries to explain why the US does not share the British mania for curry, she seems stumped. One look at her sources, however, and it’s clear that she is clueless of the US beyond a few Manhattan and Chicago eateries and restaurant reviews. At one point, she even seems to imply that the British appropriation of food from the sub-continent actually led to the acceptance of ethnic cuisine. Here’s the thing – I don’t think it was the British who gave us Italian food. I think it was – wait for it – the Italians!

The book isn’t awful, just Anglo-centric, and way too long. She should have stopped while she was ahead – in Goa. I did learn a lot about the history of a fascinating cuisine, and I appreciate the author’s painstaking research in some areas. So that’s my food book, and third book in the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge complete. Next, I’m taking on a more personal history with my body of water title: The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of Wife, by Janna Cawrse Esarey.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A few words about Kindle for iPhone


I have created two additional rules for the What's in a Name 3 Reading Challenge: First, the books I'm reading are all non-fiction. Second, they must all be available on Kindle. I do not actually own a Kindle -- frankly, I am the kind of person who has trouble finding her keys 2 minutes after I've walked in the door. I was worried that if I did invest in an e-reader, it would just be another thing to find every time I finally found a few minutes to read.

But I do have an iPhone, and because I have kids, a husband and a job, I can usually be counted on to have my phone with me when I’m wandering around. So my husband, the person who is in charge of all technology issues in our home (he is the only guy, after all) mentioned I could get an app for the iPhone that turned it into an e-reader. I clicked, and downloaded. Let me say, I’m glad I did.

Kindle for iPhone is a very powerful app. Once you register your iPhone on the Amazon site, you can purchase a Kindle title and have it on your iPhone in less than a minute. The immediate gratification aspect of the app is amazing – but can also be a bit dangerous. Kindle titles are generally cheaper than paper titles, but $9.99 a piece (on average) still adds up!

The best features of Kindle for iPhone are linked to the iPhone itself. First, it is back lit. That means I can read myself to sleep without having to turn off the lights – might sound silly, but it really is a pleasant feature. It’s also great for long plane rides, since you don’t have to keep your light on to read, annoying those passengers who (curse them) can actually get to sleep on a plane – that is a group I will never understand.

Second, I almost always have my iPhone with me. So time waiting for my children to finish whatever activity they are currently building their kid-resumes with (dance class, swimming, dance class, piano lessons, dance class – you get the idea) has become a few minutes of reading time. It’s changed my attitude about idling in the car, that’s for sure! Sometimes I almost look forward to being kept waiting – at least when I’m in the middle of a good book. And that’s great for everyone.

Now, Kindle for iPhone isn’t perfect. The screen is small, which means you have to tap the screen often to turn “e-pages.” It doesn’t bother me, but I can see where it could be a pain. And for some content it’s just plain awkward. The book I’m reading right now is illustrated with old maps of the Indian subcontinent. Yes, you can expand the pictures on the iPhone, but looking at Goa without being able to see its position relative to Delhi is certainly not what the author intended. The pages with recipes have also been reduced so that the recipes fit on one iPhone “page” (they must look like illustrations in the hardcover version), rendering them a mousetype that is difficult to enjoy.

Those issues aside, I am really grateful for the Kindle for iPhone app. I am a professor, and do a lot of reading as part of my research, but I haven’t set aside much time for pleasure reading in the past couple of years. The iPhone has allowed me to steal back a little time for something I always enjoyed – getting lost in a good book!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Goat Song: An unlikely and compelling walk through the Vermont hills with goats


Brad Kessler’s Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese was just what I was hoping for when I picked it up. It was an interesting story about intelligent (and very likeable) people who chose to change their lives. There is no critical moment that forces Brad and his wife Dona’s move from New York to rural Vermont: the longing was there, and when the opportunity came, they simply took it.

The story of their first year with their goats is absolutely engrossing. Since they are so central to the book, the individual personalities of their first two milking goats, Hannah and Lizzie, are documented in extraordinary detail. In fact, the only real “antagonist” in this story becomes an uncooperative goat, which in turn becomes the vehicle through which we see the author’s maturation as a pastoralist.

The author’s musings on the significance of herding to the development of human society were very interesting, but little of the history was new to me. I enjoyed the author’s adventures in cheese making, and wished I could taste one of his artisanal tommes, to taste the flowers and grasses of the previous summer in a wedge of cheese. The author’s asides into the Christology of cheese making, and the relationship between cheese and monasticism, however, were a bit more far-fetched – and that’s coming from someone who studied medieval history as an undergraduate. I squirmed a bit as Kessler got in touch with his “inner monk.”

For a couple of crazy minutes during an insomnia-induced reading session, I actually thought about getting one of those cute Nubian goats, which tells you how wrapped up I became in Kessler’s narrative. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes microhistories, to foodies, to non-fiction lovers and to anyone who enjoys a good animal story. So that’s Book 2 in the What’s in a Name 3 Reading Challenge: a musical term. My next book is the food title, as I’m reading Lizzie Collingham’s food history of the Indian subcontinent, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.