Wendy’s Word

Not your mama’s blog….

Wendy’s Word Meets Open Culture September 6, 2011

Filed under: Books,Music,Uncategorized — wendy @ 6:07 pm
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Two great blogs together — Wendy’s Word and Open Culture. Will there be enough air in the room? Uh, yes. Wendy’s Word doesn’t require much air, and Open Culture, well let’s just say that Dan Colman, of the great Open Culture blog, is modest and doesn’t take up the air he deserves.

I jest about the two great blogs thing. But I really did spend part of a day with Dan Colman, and he is genuinely nice, talented, capable, indefatigable, and extremely modest. All of which gives me a good excuse to introduce you to his blog.

Open Culture is an incredibly informative blog. Every day, there’s at least one posting of a video clip or link on a vast array of subjects, including classic film, philosophy, art, science, and much more. For example, there was recently a 1970’s clip of the Velvet Underground singing Sweet Jane along with a current one of Lou Reed singing it with Metallica. There was also a clip about a graphic novel about Richard Feynman’s life. Such is the diversity of Open Culture.

But Open Culture’s raison d’etre is to provide readers with easy access to free educational content on the internet. There is an exhaustive (or should I say exhausting) list of free educational resources available on the web. Everything from college courses to foreign language podcasts to classic movies and literature available as free mp3’s.  Classes or lectures are available from every school you never got accepted into for college — like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Columbia.  Best of all, they’re free, and no pressure to get a good grade!  Just the great lectures without the stress of schoolwork, finals, or tuition.  Check out today’s posting.

I guarantee you will love Open Culture.  One of my friends frequently forwards me postings he loves, and I have to remind him that I’m the one who introduced him to Open Culture in the first place!!

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Books About Food September 4, 2011

Filed under: Books,Food — wendy @ 8:25 pm

Yes, I have read more books about food.  I would hate to disappoint.  Here’s the latest fare:

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, by Anthony Bourdain.  Bourdain is always entertaining, and this book is no exception.  It’s not as good as Kitchen Confidential or A Cook’s Tour, but I still enjoyed it.  The book is a bit of an apologist for Kitchen Confidential, explaining that he was angry when he wrote it.  No need for apologies — Kitchen Confidential was insanely funny and informative.  It gave an insightful look at just how grueling restaurant work is.  Medium Raw seems like Bourdain’s attempt to justify his selling out and becoming a celebrity chef (without the chef part, since he no longer has a restaurant) since he mocked celebrity chefs so mercilessly in Kitchen Confidential.  Medium Raw goes over some of the same ground as A Cook’s Tour — eating around the world — but in less detail.  If you’re only going to read one Bourdain book, I would not recommend Medium Raw, but I enjoyed getting his perspective now that he’s older and had different life experiences.  And like the other books, Medium Raw is funny.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, by Lisa Abend.  At first, I hated this book.  Probably because I hated the idea of El Bulli.  I love to cook and eat, but I don’t think food is “important.”  I don’t think it should be taken that seriously, or manipulated so intently.  But I got into the book, and I ended up liking it very much.  The book follows several stagieres, or young chefs doing unpaid interships at the restaurant for the season.  Reading about the stagieres’ backgrounds and motivations was interesting, but more interesting was their attitude about El Bulli.  Some revered Ferran Adria, El Bulli’s chef, and wanted to continue making avant garde cuisine.  But others disliked the drudgery and longed to cook, rather than making these high-concept creations that didn’t really involve actual cooking.  The book gives you a sense of what it’s like to be a stagiere — the long, unpaid hours, the sacrifice to the stagieres’ personal life, the constant pressure to be perfect and to get noticed by Adria and his team, the pressure of not wanting to disappoint diners who have traveled to this remote part of Spain to eat the meal of their lives.  After reading the book, I had little desire to eat at El Bulli.  I’d rather not travel to another continent, brave a treacherous mountain road, and pay a fortune to be forced to eat rabbit tongue and other dubious creations.  That’s just too much pressure for me.

Blood, Bones, and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton.   I would have liked this book better if it wasn’t for Anthony Bourdain.  His quote on the front cover said that it was “the best memoir by a chef ever.  EVER.”  Really?  I’ve read alot of chef memoirs – and I mean a lot.  You’ll see many titles listed if you look in this blog’s book index, and those are only the ones I’ve read since I started this blog — I’ve read many other before that.  So I can confidently say that it was NOT the best memoir by a chef ever.  However, it was pretty good.  Hamilton had a tough childhood – her parents’ divorce bounced her around and ultimately left her living on her own too young.  She got into drugs and drifted about — but always maintained a strong work ethic, so she was able to work and support herself throughout.  And then there’s her crazy love life – she’s a lesbian but marries a man with whom she’s having a relationship but who also happens to need a green card.  Although their marriage has problems, he provides her with the loving, effusive family she sometimes longs for.

Ultimately, she became the chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York.  I enjoyed reading about her rise and respect the fact that she is entirely self-made.  She is also a good writer — she received a masters’ degree in writing along the way.  But I found her unsympathetic and complaining at times, so I didn’t love the book as much as I probably should have — or at least as much as Anthony Bourdain thinks I should have.

 

Spring Reading May 22, 2011

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 9:02 pm

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Renee is a concierge of a hotel particuleur in Paris who hides her intellect in keeping with her social position. Paloma is a precocious 12-year-old who hides her intellect to fit in with other kids. That is, until a wealthy Japanese man moves into the building, discovers their secrets, and befriends them. This book is beautifully written, as the two misfits ponder the nature of beauty, language, wealth, and what’s really important in the world. The transition from solitary musing to sharing their thoughts with a kindred spirit is heartening.

Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, by Kim Severson. I’m a sucker for food books. Kim Severson was a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. She writes about the eight women cooks who are her heroines and who got her through the hard times of alcoholism and figuring out who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. Some are famous – Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan, Alice Waters, Rachael Ray – and others are not. It’s fun to get the low-down on these revered chefs. But I also enjoyed reading Severson’s coming-of-age story about herself.

Comfort Me With Apples, by Ruth Reichl.  I’ve completed the trilogy.  Comfort Me With Apples is the second in Ruth Reichl’s trilogy of memoirs.  The first, Tender at the Bone, is about her upbringing, coming of age as a person and a cook, and ends with her becoming a food writer.  Comfort Me With Apples is about her transition from freelance food writer to esteemed restaurant critic, with a large dose of personal history about her marriage, fraught relationships with men including but not limited to her husband, and her desire for a child.  The third, Garlic and Sapphires (reviewed on this blog), is about her experiences as restaurant critic of the New York Times.  The fun about Comfort Me With Apples is Reichl’s encounters with young chefs whom we now know to be mega-famous, such as Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel (owner of my favorite special occasion restaurant in LA), Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman (whom I always see on Top Chef Masters).  I love reading Ruth Reichl because she seems fearless — she’ll travel anywhere and eat anything.

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan.  Winner of the Booker Prize.  Composer Clive Linley and editor Vernon Halliday are thrown together after the death of their common lover Molly Lane.  They discover other lovers, namely Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, who has a huge secret.  When Halliday is tipped off to this secret, it causes a huge moral dilemma and the possible end of Clive and Vernon’s longtime close friendship.  The ending seems dumb and arbitrary, although you can see it coming, but upon thinking about it later, perhaps the ending is farcical rather than dumb.  It did win a Booker Prize, after all.

The Last Resort, by Allison Lurie.  I enjoyed this very fast read, but it also made me mad.  It’s about a well-known professor and naturalist who thinks he’s dying so plans to commit suicide.  Meanwhile, his wife suspects something is wrong and makes plans for them to go to Key West for a few weeks.  Characters get caught up in each others’ lives in a semi-soap opera-ish and comic way.  The main character, the professor’s wife, is so bland that I care nothing about her, and I can’t see why any of the other characters care about her.  She’s described as being totally devoted to her husband — her life’s work is helping him with his important work.  Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, but much less interesting.  Can she see that her husband is a pompous jerk and if so, does she regret devoting her life to him?  We can’t tell.  A little more effort in character development would have made this book much better.

 

Book Update May 3, 2011

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 8:25 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about books, and as a result, I’m starting to forget what I’ve been reading.  Part of my original motivation to start a blog was to remember (and share) what I read!  So here are my brief synopses.

Dragon Tattoo series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest), by Steig Larsson.  My husband brought home the first movie and I watched it just to humor him.  Now I’ve read all three books and saw the first and third movies.  They are compelling.  The setting (Sweden) is so different from what we’re used to – the landscape, the customs (they are constantly drinking coffee!), and country characters – that it seems exotic.  The protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is unusual for her combination of aloofness bordering on hostility and superior hacking and self-defense skills.  The sexual mores of the characters are looser than typical American books.  But mostly, the action keeps you reading late into the night.  There are flaws.  The tone can be sanctimonious and preachy.  There are actually footnotes about Swedish politics.  The overarching message is that men are mostly all misogynists, using sex as a weapon against women, yet the author uses sex as a ploy to keep us reading.  The third book was utterly boring until about page 250.  Yet the series was a good read.  The movies stay true to the books.  I had no problem following the first movie without having read the book (in fact, it helped me keep the characters, with their unfamiliar Swedish names, straight when I read the book), but I don’t think you’d be able to follow the later movies without having read the books.

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.  A fictionalized version of the lives of Laura and George Bush.  An interesting story that made me want to read up on Laura Bush, to see what events were real and what were made up.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Affect Our Lives, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler.  What our friends do affects what we do.  Not really that surprising.

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott.  This book starts out, “On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.  These are desert days.  Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow death by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration.”   My first thought: oh, she’s an older writer.  My second thought: Crap, I’m going to be 49 this year – she’s my age.  Next thought: Please!  A little less self-dramatizing.  Bush has come and gone and we’re still here.  Next thought: But if you’re going to end it all, eating yourself to death is a pretty funny way to do it (reminds me of the wonderful French movie, La Grande Bouffe).  This was pretty much my thinking all the way through the book.  Anne Lamott is annoying – she’s so self-righteous with her extreme liberalism.  But she’s funny about it.  She’s well aware of her insecurities and neuroses and laughs about them with us.  Her writing is beautiful and touching.  The situations that she writes about strike a chord, particularly when she writes about the perils of raising an adolescent.  Can relate.  You need faith to raise an adolescent while keeping your sanity!

Oh The Glory of It All, by Sean Wilsey. A memoir of a kid with rich and famous parents who go through a nasty divorce.  Wilsey gains an evil stepmother, is shuttled from school to school, gets in a lot of trouble, and comes out the other end as a writer and editor of McSweeney’s.  The book is incredibly moving at the beginning and end (yes, that was me, crying on the exercise bike as I was reading), but the middle gets maddening.  Wilsey is so bad that I wondered why I was bothering to read his book.  How many times can you steal your mother’s car and expect to get sympathy from your readers, bad childhood or not?  Wilsey redeems himself just in time.  The book was so good that I passed it on to a friend.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.  Heartbreaking.  This is Joan Didion’s account of the year in which her husband unexpectedly dies and her daughter and only child is in and out of the hospital, comatose for part of that time, with what started as pneumonia and turns into a full-body infection.   I can’t imagine anything worse.  That Didion can write so beautifully about such a horrible year is a testament to her strength as a person and talent as a writer.  The book stayed with me, and I was talking about it to a friend.  The book is vague as to what happens to Didion’s daughter.  My friend told me – wait: SPOILER ALERT!  — that Didion’s daughter died after the book was completed.  I can only repeat, heartbreaking.

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald.    Winner of the 1979 Booker Prize.  This novel is about a group of people who live on barges in the Thames river.  Anyone who chooses to live on a barge is likely to be an interesting character, as are Fitzgerald’s characters.  There’s Nenna, a single mother with two daughters struggling with the desertion of her husband, Richard, the super-competent leader of the barge-dwellers who’s socially awkward and has his own marriage problems, Willis, the down-and-out artist, and Maurice, with his less-than-reputable career.  Together, they’ve created their own society.  But it’s hard to maintain their marginal lifestyle, as they learn.

The Last Town On Earth, by Thomas Mullen.  It was interesting to read this book after Philip Roth’s novel, Nemesis, about the polio epidemic.  I guess I’m a sucker for public health-related fiction!  (My day job.)  This novel is about the 1918 flu epidemic, and is based on true experiences.  A small town decides to quarantine itself from the flu — no one goes in or out.  Of course, this is almost impossible, and when a soldier approaches the guards and refuses to leave, they are faced with a dilemma that ends in gunfire.  This happens at the beginning of the novel, so I’m not giving anything away.  What ensues from that incident, as well as how the town copes with the effects of the quarantine, drives the story.  The protagonist is a gentle half-boy, half-man, who struggles with his guilt over not being able to enlist in the army because of a physical disability and the moral dilemma that guarding the town poses.  You don’t have to be a public health nerd like me to love this book.

 

Fall Reading December 23, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 10:07 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, but not a lot of blogging, so once again, I’m combining reviews into one posting.

Cheerful Money, by Tad Friend: This is Tad Friend’s (a New Yorker writer) autobiography about growing up in a WASP family.  It was very interesting to me, because I come from a Jewish immigrant family, the farthest from WASP you can get.  My takeaway is that WASPs can be pretty messed up.  On the one hand, proper and straightlaced, and wealthy.  On the other hand, excessive alcohol use, much divorce, bizarre “black sheeps,” and stinginess despite the wealth.  Like most everyone, Friend is ambivalent about his WASP environment.  He loves the traditions and eccentricities and laments the fact that his kids won’t experience the same upbringing.  However, sometimes he would like to be able to openly express an emotion.  Cheerful Money is an entertaining anthropological study of a dying breed.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby: Nick Hornby is one of my “must read” authors.  Yes, I know he’s been accused of writing “lad lit,” but then I love chick lit.  At least good chick lit.  And Nick Hornby is good.  I read and loved High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down, and How to Be Good.    Juliet Naked is about a Annie, a woman whose boyfriend Duncan is obsessed with aging and reclusive indie rock star Tucker Crowe, who is relatively obscure but obsessively followed by his hard core fans.  Annie and Duncan’s relationship is on the rocks, and Annie develops a relationship with Tucker Crowe, unbeknownst to Duncan.  Juliet, Naked is light but sweet.  Coincidentally, I had just seen the movie Crazy Heart, which is also about a washed up singer-songwriter who finds redemption in a younger woman.  And in case I have any younger readers, my 16 year old daughter read Juliet, Naked and liked it so much that she’s moved on to High Fidelity.

Hot Springs, by Stephen Hunter: Not my normal genre, but to be quite honest, my husband has been bugging me to read it forever, and I thought that if I read it, then he’d read Tree of Smoke, which I’ve been wanting him to read.  No such luck, although he swears he will read Tree of Smoke eventually.  Anyways, Hot Springs was great.  It’s about Earl Swagger, an ex-Marine just back from World War II and not quite ready for civilian life.  He gets pulled into a plan to clean up Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is a mecca for gambling and prostitution and is run, no surprise, by gangsters.  There’s politics, gangsters (Bugsy Siegel plays a role), family strife, personal strife, and lots of action and violence.  The sympathetic characters, especially Earl, are what make the book better than the average action novel.  My husband tells me there are other books featuring Earl, and some featuring his son.  Something to look forward to.

Other books I’ve read, to be reviewed sometime in the near future, perhaps:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot — in a word, great.  A must-read.  Nonfiction, but reads like fiction.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen — engrossing, but worth all the hype that Jonathan Franzen’s been getting?  Not so sure.  Actually, has a lot in common with Juliet, Naked, reviewed above.

Elements of Style, by Wendy Wasserstein — fun, chick-lit.  Nothing brilliant but doesn’t need to be.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth — it’s by Philip Roth, it’s about a public health epidemic.  Do you think I wouldn’t read it?  A short novel, but heart wrenching.

Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson — another of my fave authors.  Bill Bryson is hilarious.  This is his account of traveling through Europe.

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby — yet another of my fave authors.  Think I’ve read everything he’s written by now.  Fever Pitch is an autobiography of sorts, told through Hornby’s soccer (football) obsession.  Can’t imagine how they made it into a cheery American love story movie.

 

Summer Reading September 11, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 8:57 pm

I know it’s cheating to put several book reviews together in one posting, but I am so behind on blog entries that I decided to be expedient.  Here’s a brief update on what I’ve been reading this summer.  In case you don’t read to the end, books are Tree of Smoke, Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Almost French, and Run.

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. Excellent book, beautiful prose.  It’s an espionage novel that takes place in Vietnam during the war, but the book is more literary than your everyday espionage novel.  Since this isn’t my regular genre, I kept getting confused about who all the Vietnamese characters were, but that’s probably just me.  The novel is nuanced, without clear cut good guys and bad guys.  Now I’m trying to convince my husband to read it, because I think he’ll really like it but mostly so I can ask him questions about the plot!

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. This book made me exhausted and not a little guilty.  It’s about Paul Farmer, a doctor who started a clinic in a poor village in Haiti while simultaneously attending medical school at Harvard, publishing papers in medical journals, lecturing all over the world, and becoming one of the foremost experts on multidrug resistant tuberculosis.  He ultimately founded Partners in Health, which provides medical treatment all over the world.  Actually Partners in Health does more than just provide medical treatment – they get involved in the community and work on social issues that have a major impact on health such as poverty and education.  And with regard to medical care, Partners in Health goes all the way – treating each individual patient as if they were a family member, pulling out all the stops to the extent of pressuring drug companies for lower cost pharmaceuticals for AIDS drugs, for example.

The guilt part came in when I found myself sympathizing with the small-minded people that Paul Farmer fought against, who looked at limited budgets and tried to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, even if it meant undertreating the severest cases.  My public health training has me looking at populations, not individual patients, whereas Farmer looks at both.  I found myself questioning the wisdom of airlifting a severely ill child to be treated in the U.S., only to die shortly after arriving.  But to Farmer and his colleagues, that’s what they would do for their own family member.

I also felt guilty because I only have a tiny fraction of Farmer’s energy!  He is tireless, and survives with few to no creature comforts.  Guilt aside, I highly recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains, even if you’re not a public health nerd like me.

The Art of Racing In the Rain, by Garth Stein. The story of a race car driver and his family drama, told from the dog’s point of view.  It sounds like a gimmick, but the book is so sweet it made me cry.  It’s funny and sad and poignant.  And it’s a super fast read.

Almost French, by Sarah Turnbull. Sarah Turnbull is an Australian journalist who moves to Paris to be with her French boyfriend.  Almost French is her memoir of adapting to French culture.  I’ve read similar books, namely French Toast and French Fried by Harriet Welty Rochefort (reviewed on this blog – see Book Index), and Almost French confirms what I read in Rochefort’s books and others.  As much as I romanticize France, it would be a difficult place to move to!  You’d have to develop a thick skin.  But the book also shows us the beauty of the city and the magic of living there.

Run, by Ann Patchett. I loved Bel Canto, another Patchett novel, so I thought I’d give Run a try.  Run is about the former mayor of Boston (fictional) who adopted two black sons, and how their family intersects with a low income black family after a car accident affects both families.  The characters were all well-drawn and sympathetic, even the ne’er-do-well brother who’s home for an extended visit.   The title refers both to politics – former mayor Doyle would like nothing more than his sons to become president of the United States, as well as to the sport, at which the boys and especially Kenya, the daughter of the other family who the Doyles take in, excel.

Currently reading: Cheerful Money, by Tad Friend.  Friend’s memoir about being a Wasp.

Next on my list: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornsby.  Got it out of the library for myself, but then daughter started reading it before I got a chance.  She liked it.

 

Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell July 18, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — wendy @ 8:47 pm

Ok, I read it.  First I saw the movie, and while I enjoyed it, I had no great desire to read the book.  I actually found Julie Powell to be kind of annoying.  But I saw it in the library and couldn’t resist.

I still think Julie Powell is kind of annoying.  She’s so self-centered, upset about her dead-end secretary job and living in a semi-squalid apartment in New York.  Guess what, Julie?  You’re college educated – you could probably find a non-secretarial job if you wanted to.  So don’t complain so much!  And she gets so uptight about her cooking challenges, blowing up with four-letter words at failed attempts to make complicated dishes.  Been there, but again, Julie?  You’ve imposed this on yourself, so don’t stress out so much about it!  There are real things in the world to get upset about, like poverty and war.

But actually, I really enjoyed Julie and Julia.  I enjoyed her saucy language, her description of her friends’ love lives, her twenty-something with the crappy job in a crappy apartment experiences.  Once you get past her self centeredness, the book is fun.  And I’m insanely jealous that her blog got more than 30 hits on the first day!