As far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or th...moreAs far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or the margarita. Most mixed drinks have about eighteen different people who claim to have invented them. Bullshit origin stories abound on the web, and some of these tall tales are printed with gravitas in actual reference books. I guess it makes sense. I mean who wouldn't want to lay claim on inventing the margarita?
Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar soothes my soul by reconciling the two parts of my character, the bon vivant and the extreme nerd. Not only is this book all about booze, but it's also packed with arcane information. Better yet, Wondrich actually explains how he came by the arcane information. In other words, he doesn't just state facts, he also debunks all the stories he sifted through in order to get to them. Sometimes Wondrich falls into the trap of taking the whole mixology business a little too seriously, but he also has a great eye for the idiosyncrasies of history, and most of the text is quite funny. Also, it's loaded with good drink recipes. And if Wondrich is a little too serious about the art of the cocktail sometimes, I can forgive him. Drinking is a serious business, is it not?(less)
I loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biogr...moreI loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biography is not about the political history of London or the people that shaped the political history of London. The book is somewhat chronological, but Acroyd doesn't seem overly concerned with adhering to a clear timeline. Aside from paragraph-long sketches of interesting London characters, the author barely focuses on individuals at all. Instead he attempts to capture the heaving, mysterious soul of London in a giant compilation of essays arranged by subject matter. He writes about Roman walls, ancient tunnels, bickering fishwives, ice carnivals on the Thames, unlikely murders, the city's bars and eateries throughout its immense history...This can feel haphazard, but in the end it works--I got the impression he just focused on the interesting bits and left out all the rest. Occasionally the rhythm of the writing gets a bit dirgelike, but in general this is a fantastic book--amusing and enlightening and absorbing. (less)
A series of first-hand accounts from the victims of the Tokyo subway gas attacks, followed by interviews with some of the members of the cult that per...moreA series of first-hand accounts from the victims of the Tokyo subway gas attacks, followed by interviews with some of the members of the cult that perpetrated the attacks. Fascinating, though the section of victims stories starts to feel overly repetitive. That said, Murakami's rendering of the stories creates clear windows into Japanese culture. Recommended to anyone interested in Japan or the psychology of alienation. (less)
I had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the Goodw...moreI had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the Goodwill in Florence, Oregon. This book contains 920 thin pages covered in small print. It was published in 1969. When I finished reading it, I was tempted to start back at the beginning and read it again. Furnas, who was born in 1906, writes sentences so tart and exquisitely elaborate that his writing is somehow reminiscent of Emily Post, though etiquette is but one of thousands of topics he revisits in this comprehensive and fascinating cultural history of the United States. To whit:
Furnas on early 20th C. journalism:
"Ambrose Bierce, a longtime fixture in Hearst's papers who combined high writing skill with the disposition of a molting rattlesnake, presently contributed to Hearst's current war on President McKinley some grimly tasteless verses..."
Furnas on 19th C. fashion:
"Changes in women's fashion were not so benign...The bizarre successor of the hoop was the bustle--a horsehair pad or wire frame tied on behind under the dress to make a lady's rear look like the rear view of a horse and rider. This not only gave the illusion of a really monstrous streatopygia but also prevented sitting comfortably on anything but a stool. In that era of jigsawed verandas and rococo hatstands, fashionable gowns were naturally more elaborate than they have ever been before or since--amazing complexes of overskirts, capes, flounces, trains, ruchings, jabots, cravats, frogs, pointless buttons, lace insertions--often in dark, heavy-rich materials dragging in the dirt unless the wearer confined herself to house and carriage."
On the history of refrigeration: "But every plus implies a minus somewhere. Mechanical refrigeration also greatly heightened the breweries' capacity to age beer. Ensuing overproduction led to the consolidation of breweries into savagely competing giant concerns. Desperate for outlets, they set up chains of captive saloons owned outright or controlled by mortgages on building or fixtures and forced to sell only Brand X beer. Too many saloons per capita in large cities meant lowering what standards of decent operation there were and an increasingly blackened reputation for the enemies of the saloon to exploit. That had much to do with the success of the Anti-Saloon League's strategy of "The Saloon Must Go," which, embarked on in the late 1890s, led to the Eighteenth Amendment."
This memoir has the advantage of a fascinating topic: the author's family, particularly her mother and stepfather, who both escaped Russia during the...moreThis memoir has the advantage of a fascinating topic: the author's family, particularly her mother and stepfather, who both escaped Russia during the revolutionary era to resettle in Paris. A chunk of the book is set in France prior and during the Nazi invasion, and the rest in the parlors of New York City's fashion elite. Full to the brim with interesting characters, including Marlene Dietrich and Salvador Dali. The one real flaw is that the author occasionally sounds whiny and vindictive. (less)
Unlike most biographers, Starkey doesn't seem in love with his subject. He's able to describe Elizabeth's good points, but he doesn't try to excuse he...moreUnlike most biographers, Starkey doesn't seem in love with his subject. He's able to describe Elizabeth's good points, but he doesn't try to excuse her bad behavior. The cast of characters is a little hard to keep track of and the last 100 pages get bogged down in boring court politics, but in general this is a fast, interesting read that seems to be based on solid research. (less)
I am not a big online shopper and I rarely have spare money, but there was no way I could restrain myself from ordering a book called Alcohol in Ancie...moreI am not a big online shopper and I rarely have spare money, but there was no way I could restrain myself from ordering a book called Alcohol in Ancient Mexico. I’m sorry, but even I can’t actually come up with a title better aimed to entrap me. Cheese in Ancient Mexico comes close, but would of course have to be a fantasy, since obviously dairy products were not a part of the ancient Mexican diet. Not to, uh, sound like a nerd or anything.
I’m sure it’ll come in handy, I told myself as I spent 14 vital dollars worth of grocery money at Amazon.com. I imagine I am part of a fairly small subclass of people who believe that a manuscript originally published in 1940 as a P.h.d. dissertation on native corn beers is going to be useful.
Actually, I am currently writing an article (upcoming here on the blog) on Mexican brewing, and will be pleased to get my 14 dollars worth when I reference Mexico’s original craft brewers, the Huichol indians. In fact, Henry J. Bruman’s book is full of interesting descriptions of ancient methods of fermentation, many of which he observed firsthand when he did fieldwork in the late 1930s. The author trecked across Mexico’s sierras, spending time with the Huicholes, the Totonac, the Maya, and a number of other tribes. Over the course of a year of research, he traveled as far south as Honduras.
Naturally, he was able to observe and record many practices that are extremely rare (if not extinct) these days. The picture on the dust jacket shows a smiling, mustachioed guy in a work shirt, glasses, and a felt hat. His shoulders are strung with Huichol bags, not a typical fashion statement for a gringo geographer in the 1930s. The photo reminds me of old pictures of my parents from the days when we used to travel with the Huicholes and it makes me think that Henry J. Bruman was not your average bird.
Unlike their sober counterparts to the north, the native people of Mexico were enthusiastic and creative in their brewing and fermenting endeavors. The book includes chapters on pulque, tesquino, mescal and sotol, as well as explorations of more obscure indigenous beverges such as Yucatecan balché bark mead and toad infused chicha. Fascinating appendixes called things like “checklist of intoxicating beverages” are also a pleasure to peruse. As you may gather, Alcohol in Ancient Mexico is pretty much for nerds only, but if you are a brew nerd or a serious student of Mexican history and customs, Bruman is your guy and I highly recommend the book.
(this review originally published by me at the peoplesguidetomexico.com)(less)
Peter Sagal, the hilarious host of NPR's brilliant "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" pontificates on excess. During the course of the book, he visits a swi...morePeter Sagal, the hilarious host of NPR's brilliant "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" pontificates on excess. During the course of the book, he visits a swingers club, hangs out with porn stars, drinks a 700 dollar bottle of wine, and interviews gambling kingpins. Sagal's observations are intelligent and often funny, but none of his conclusions about why people do what they do seemed particularly fresh.(However, I have devoted a good deal of my life to contemplating vice, so his findings might be more useful to a less degenerate reader.) Also, he comes across stuffier in writing than his surprisingly bawdy (surprising for NPR anyway) radio persona. That said, this was an enjoyable, amusing read. (less)
I just read a salon.com article about Jackson that describes this book as deceptively light, and I can't top that description. Jackson wrote the famou...moreI just read a salon.com article about Jackson that describes this book as deceptively light, and I can't top that description. Jackson wrote the famously disturbing short story, "The Lottery" and several horror classics, and suffered from various neurosis, a back story that adds dimension to these sunny accounts of harried parenthood in the 1940s. Jackson writes well, and her stories about her children are funny. My own grandmother, who, like Jackson, was neurotic and strange and a notoriously indifferent housekeeper, was raising three boys during the same era, so reading Life Among the Savages seemed to add details to my own family history: I could only imagine that my dad wore the same brand of shoes as Laurie, and that my grandmother encountered similar frustrations regarding social niceties. The title is apt. Jackson captures the essential wild strangeness of children, and the book is littered with barbed asides and eerie observations: 'I personally have always believed in ghosts; I taught Laurie later a small charm against evil spirits, disguising it as a nursery rhyme' that make it well worth reading.(less)
In this book, a middle-aged American man travels around Mexico by train and ruminates on Mexican history and the soul of Mexico. The problem with the...moreIn this book, a middle-aged American man travels around Mexico by train and ruminates on Mexican history and the soul of Mexico. The problem with the book is that the author, Terry Pindell, is too comfortable to have any real adventures. He always stays at luxury hotels, and he cheats and takes planes and luxury liners when trains are late or don't offer proper nighttime accommodations. And although he traverses most of Mexico, he keeps coming and going, returning to the states and flying back in, so his story lacks the humorous pathos that is born of a long journey. That said, Pindell is a good writer and his descriptions of Mexico are evocative and interesting. He provides a solid overview of Mexican history: If you are looking to brush up your existent knowledge of the country's history, this is good but not revelatory read. If you don't know much about Mexican history, but are interested, this is a non-threatening and entertaining place to start.(less)
An avid hunter and fisherman stumbles across Le Guide Culinaire, the masterwork of the legendary French chef Augueste Escoffier, who cooked for Kaiser...moreAn avid hunter and fisherman stumbles across Le Guide Culinaire, the masterwork of the legendary French chef Augueste Escoffier, who cooked for Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Duke of Orleans, Queen Victoria, and the Shah of Persia. In reading through the recipes he notices that scads of the required wild ingredients are no longer available for purchase, so he decides to scavenge their American equivalents and prepare and elaborate feast for his friends and hunting buddies. The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine is the story of his year-long food gathering adventure. Rinella's writing is vivid, matter-of-fact, and funny. Most of his inventive similes are effective, but occasionally he'll go too far and, when coupled with a few expository lines on what he learned from an experience, the passage will momentarily evoke an unusually creative high school essay. Surprisingly, these awkward moments don't mar the book--instead they are endearing reminders of Rinella's excitement about the subject. I share Rinella's obsession with meat, so I read with interest his detailed descriptions of capturing and dressing animals. I was a little disappointed he didn't gather any other types of wild ingredients, and I would have enjoyed reading more about the actual cooking process. He does devote several chapters to preparing and eating the feast, but most of the book is about procuring meat. As I am a cook and not a hunter, I found the chapters on cooking more personally useful, though I did enjoy reading his hunting tips.(Some part of me still retains my childhood fantasy that I will one day run away and live in a hollow tree and be forced to trap my own food using ingenious methods. I file away ideas for my future survival.) This book is recommended, particularly if you enjoy reading about food or the outdoors. (less)
Evocative and entertaining, A Trip to the Light Fantastic delves into the lives of a troupe of Mexican circus performers. Hickman, who is British, ex...moreEvocative and entertaining, A Trip to the Light Fantastic delves into the lives of a troupe of Mexican circus performers. Hickman, who is British, expertly conjures Mexico in all of its conflicted glory. I was glad I was in Mexico when I read it because otherwise I'm sure it would have made me homesick. Highly recommended. (less)
I love James Ellroy's fiction, so I was psyched to find this memoir, which details his mother's unsolved murder and his struggle to come to terms with...moreI love James Ellroy's fiction, so I was psyched to find this memoir, which details his mother's unsolved murder and his struggle to come to terms with the past. I think Ellroy is one of the greatest crime writers of all time, and it's fascinating to seem him apply his talents to a murder that is, literally, so close to home. Always quite dark, Ellroy's writing is downright feverish in the section that describes his youth as a petty thief, peeping tom, drunk, and drug addict. These sections are tempered by his thoughtful (though often obsessive) analysis of the crime and other crimes that took place in the same area. The overall story arc is graceful and surprising, but, as with many highly personal works, some of the individual passages are weak on organization. Highly recommended to fans of crime writing, fictional or otherwise, and for anyone with a taste for bluntly poetic prose with a driving beat.(less)
Not the sort of thing I normally read. As someone who is terrified of doctors, medical literature is not exactly my cup of tea. That said, I found thi...moreNot the sort of thing I normally read. As someone who is terrified of doctors, medical literature is not exactly my cup of tea. That said, I found this collection of case studies of bizarre neurological disorders to be fascinating, informative, and often moving. Most of the disorders seem surreal; I kept thinking they would be good subjects for Borges short stories and was amused to discover a Borges quote in a chapter toward the end of the book. The author, a neurologist, writes beautifully, and with compassion for his subjects. If I'd ever had a doctor like him maybe I wouldn't have such antipathy for the profession. Then again, it's probably a good thing that I've never had to visit a neurologist...(less)