Sunday, January 4, 2015

More Cluster Critiques

Delicious!: A Novel by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl (pictured), one of the world’s foremost food critics (NY Times, LA Times, etc.), editor of Gourmet magazine for 15 years, and co-owner of the famed The Swallow Restaurant, has written some of my favorite books about food and cooking, i.e., Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, Garlic and Sapphires. Now, apparently inspired by the surprise closing of Gourmet magazine by publisher Condé Nast, Reichl made the bold move into the world of fiction with her first novel Delicious! Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as “a bittersweet pudding with some lumps in the batter,” and The Washington Post says it is “a surprisingly amateurish performance for a writer as skilled and versatile as Reichl.” But I’m going to cut her some slack and say that I thought it was pretty tasty.

Main character Billie Breskin, having lived her life in the shadow of her prettier, smarter sister, is a bit of a wallflower, but one blessed with what NPR cleverly coined as “the culinary equivalent of perfect pitch.” Billie can distinguish flavors like nobody’s business, which ultimately lands her a day job for a food magazine called Delicious, which is housed in an old Greenwich Village mansion with secret rooms and a juicy history. Billie also gets a weekend gig at an eclectic cheese shop in Little Italy. Both settings provide a ton of ingredients for characters and stories that will keep you salivating, including a series of very old letters from a young food prodigy to James Beard that Billie discovers catalogued in a manner requiring “Sherlock-ian” skills; and the roguishly handsome “grumpy complainer” that frequents the cheese shop and ends up being an architectural historian (and a good kisser).

I’m not sure why Reichl chose to write about a twenty-something girl, and if I have any complaint, it’s that the story tends to feel a little angst-y at times. But just about the time it gets annoying, Reichl springs a new story flavor and you forgive her. Delicious! isn’t really, but it is pretty yummy.

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

Around 1982-83, when I was managing a small mountain retreat in New Mexico belonging to some eccentric  horse lovers, I hosted a couple that ran (what was at the time) the Harare Game Reserve in Zimbabwe South Africa.  Their stories of life in Africa sounded exceptionally exotic and dangerous and forever sparked my interest in that part of the world. So when I saw The Elephant Whisperer profiled on one of the several websites I troll daily looking for good reads, I knew I had to read it and I’m glad I did.

If not for books, I would probably never know what it was like to live in the wilds of Africa, surrounded by animals intent upon eating me or stomping me into the turf. Author Lawrence Anthony safely transported me to those parts of the world and that lifestyle, beautifully conveying his love and respect for the wildlife in Africa. The Elephant Whisperer tells a touching story of Anthony adopting a pack of rogue elephants with a reputation for violence, and if not saved by Anthony, would have been put down.

Although one might assume that caring for elephants is as simple as building a strong fence, that is not the case. Elephants are smarter than the average bear, and they don’t like being fenced in. And so the struggle ensues with Anthony trying to balance the enforcer and the animal lover in himself. After many adventures and a few tragedies, man and elephant find a peaceful place for coexisting, and the reader learns a lot about elephants, elephants and humans, and about living in Africa.  

I so thoroughly enjoyed The Elephant Whisperer that I sought out another of Anthony’s books. Babylon’s Ark, a heart-wrenching tale of how he and a small and scraggly army of British and Iraq civilians, and a surly band of American soldiers, worked through horrifying circumstances over a period of weeks to rescue the abandoned, starving, ill and injured animals in the Bagdad Zoo just following the American invasion of Bagdad. I recommend both of these books, especially if you have an interest in animal conservation, or if you just like a good story.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

Kai Bird (pictured) wrote one of my all-time favorite books, American Prometheus, which is a very personal, in-depth look at the life of Robert Oppenheimer, and for which Bird won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. So I looked forward with much anticipation to reading The Good Spy, his story about the "legendary" CIA operative, Bob Ames. What also excited me about reading this book was that I can never seem to appreciate the importance of the American spy network, and how that impacts American policy and world events. I’ve always felt that business was over dramatized by the James Bond and other movies, and to the extent that The Good Spy was almost boring, sort of proves out that theory.

Although Robert Ames was a career CIA operative, somewhat renowned for his capacity to establish and maintain clandestine relationships as a conduit for acquiring information beneficial to the US about our enemies, his life was pretty mundane. He went home every night to have dinner with his family. He never carried or shot a gun. He traveled little. In fact, because his activities were so open to public observation and frankly a little dull, I’m not entirely sure why he is so legendary. Perhaps it is the fact that he rarely made waves at the office, got along with everyone, and did his job. Or maybe it was because he had one really good source of insider information (cultivated over a period of 20 years), or because he died in the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut.

If you are looking for an exciting story about an American spy, this is not your book. If you enjoy well-written narrative about one character in a long history of American undercover work in the Middle East that won’t put you to sleep (not too quickly anyway), you will enjoy The Good Spy.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

When the hubby and I hop in the car and I introduce an audio book with something like, “Now I know you are going to think this crazy, but just give it a chance,” he knows it is going to be about some bazaar, off-the-wall topic. Such was the case one bright spring day as we set off for Houston and I plugged in my iPhone and began Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus. Although there have been a few books that the old man flat out refused, or simply dosed off to, Rabid held even his rapt attention throughout the entire book, as it did mine.

Wired senior editor Bill Wasik and his veterinarian wife Dr. Monica Murphy (pictured) did a commendable job of taking a topic about which people have an a unique aversion to, and turning it into a fascinating story. To their advantage, however, is the fact that the topic of rabies is fabulously entertaining with little help. Many of our horror icons, werewolves, vampires and zombies all evolved from tales of rabid animals and humans – and it all evolved from our innate fear of becoming inhuman – which is what rabies does to people. Watch the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s book Cujo about a beautiful St. Bernard that becomes rabid and holds a mother and her son prisoners in a car for days and you'll see how frightening rabies can be.

Did you know that rabies is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans? Did you know that you do not have to be bitten by a rabid animal to contract this disease? You only need to allow the virus access to your mucous membranes. The virus is present in all body fluids of an infected animal and if you get such fluids on your hands and rub your eyes or pick your nose, you can contract the disease. If you wait until you have symptoms, it's too late.  

Unlike almost any other virus, instead of spreading through the bloodstream, rabies travels through the nerves, and heads straight for the head, hell-bent on suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal in us. Or as the authors more charmingly write, “Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.”

Here’s a little factoid you won’t hear about rabies on The Today Show. It causes hypersexuality, with some patients experiencing hourly involuntary orgasms. One of those “too much of a good thing” things! It's rumored that Edgar Allen Poe died of rabies.

Although less know for it, Louis Pasteur, the "father of microbiology," did us a pretty super favor of developing the rabies vaccine, at terrible risk for he and his assistants, as illustrated in this excerpt from the book.
When Louis Pasteur was developing the very vaccine to fight the menace and had to extract the virus from the jaws of madly growling infected dogs, a loaded revolver was placed within reach of he and his assistants. If a terrible accident were to happen to one of them, the more courageous of the two others would put a bullet in his head.

Surprise yourself. Read Rabid.

Still Foolin' 'Em by Billy Crystal

A rehash of many of the same old stories and jokes? 

Yes, mostly. But hey, it’s Billy Crystal, and the man is never not entertaining.

Read it? Nawww.

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