A Review of Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

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As food memoirs go, this is a good one. The premise is that New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford “accidentally” invited celebrity chef Mario Batali to a dinner party at his home in 2002 (Batali was a friend of a friend of Buford’s), and Batali staged a bit of a coup in Buford’s kitchen. This humiliating takeover prompted Buford – an ambitious but oft-frustrated home cook – to ask Batali if he could apprentice with him in the kitchen of his restaurant, Babbo. This book tells several parallel stories: that of Buford’s training both in and out of Babbo’s kitchen, of course, but also that of Batali’s education as a chef and those of the other culinary maestros that Buford learns from over the course of his self-imposed odyssey. Published in 2006, this book is also a cultural artifact of sorts, in that it showcases (and excuses) many of the problem behaviors that led to Batali’s fall from grace in the winter of 2017. If it isn’t already, I suspect that excerpts from this book will be studied in gender studies classes and in other places where people gauge the complicated relationship between gender, power, and license.

Some aspects of this book are predictable. Life in the kitchens of trendy restaurants is stressful and intense. Buford’s experiences vacillate between boredom and awkwardness at not being allowed (due to inexperience) to do much of anything and, at the other extreme, “lining up pitchers of water” (85) at the grill station, knowing he would have no relief from the nonstop seasoning, grilling, and plating of meat and fish for eight or nine hours. Chefs are screaming, swearing assholes; the people who work under them either become inured to the abuse or bide their time, waiting until it is their turn to become screaming, swearing assholes themselves.

According to Buford, Batali was less of an asshole than many chefs. He was an exacting boss – rifling through the trash and berating employees for throwing out the leaves at the ends of celery stalks, for example – but he wasn’t verbally abusive. Buford seems inclined to praise Batali for this restraint, contrasting him favorably to both Batali’s own mentor, the British chef Marco Pierre White, and to an underling named Frankie who took charge of Babbo’s kitchen when Batali moved on to a new venture. But his tone is flatly neutral when describing Batali’s obnoxious advances on waitresses: “It’s not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, could you take off your blouse for the others?” (313). On the very next page, Buford refers to a medieval French king as a “philandering scumbag” (314); couldn’t he have set aside some of that level of criticism to serve up to his mentor and boss?

This book is also a travelogue. Buford wasn’t content to learn only what Batali himself could teach him; he also made multiple trips to Italy to learn from some of Batali’s early teachers and also branch out on his own; when he trains under the Dante-quoting butcher of the title, he progresses well beyond Batali’s own expertise in the preparation of meat. The travel sections of this book were some of my favorites; Buford does a great job of bringing to life the eccentric characters he met in rural Italy and detailing the minutiae of their culinary traditions. He also delves into Italian history, studying medieval cookbooks and fact-checking the lore he hears from his Italian mentors. One research question that proves especially elusive is the question of when exactly eggs were added to pasta dough. Buford never arrives at a clear answer, but following along on his research journey was quite engaging.

Buford also does an excellent job of conveying the physicality of cooking and butchering: the incredible heat of the grill station, the large, sweaty bodies crashing into each other in the tiny kitchen, the experience of thrusting one’s arm into a dead cow in order to sever one specific muscle or tendon just so, without even the benefit of seeing the darn thing. This physicality has got to be at least part of the reason that the culture of professional cooking lends itself to inappropriate talk and actions. Intimacy breeds intimacy – when one’s job requires one to spend nine or ten hours a day in a hot kitchen in constant close proximity to other hot, sweaty people, it makes sense that sooner or later, someone will try to add sex to the occasion. Since professional cooking (unlike home cooking) has historically been a male-dominated field, the result is the kind of “locker-room talk” (and worse) that pervades other subsets of our culture, including entertainment, the military, and, well, politics. I don’t excuse Batali’s behavior or Buford’s dismissal of it, but I recognize it as something that’s so ordinary as to be mundane. In some ways, the fact that Buford, as a white male who is sympathetic to Batali, documented this behavior at all is a gift. Future historians and sociologists will have no shortage of #metoo memoirs written by victims; a source like this, which condemns Batali even while trying to pay him homage, will provide a valuable alternate perspective.

Batali’s toxic masculinity is no reason not to read this book. If you enjoy well-written food memoirs – or if you just want to spend a few days in your apartment drooling over Italian food that exists only in your head, as I just did – I recommend this book highly.

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Posted in Authors, Bill Buford, Fascinating Cultural Artifacts, Nonfiction - Food and Cooking, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Avi’s The Button War

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Summer is here and I’m reading like a maniac. At least half of the books I’ve read this month are for kids, since I just finished my first year teaching elementary and middle school (after ten years at the high school level) and still feel very behind the game in children’s literature published since 1990 or so, and I believe I’m about to do something I’ve never done once in the six years since Jill and I have been blogging: I am going to write a review of a children’s book that is 100% positive.

I hold children’s books to the same standards I hold books meant for adults. I expect them to show rather than tell, to feature well-rounded characters, to avoid weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and to avoid being didactic and moralistic. I expect their plots to emerge subtly from character and conflict and be guided but not overpowered by narrative voice. Before I started blogging, I didn’t realize what a tough customer this made me in the world of children’s books. But slowly I’ve discovered that children’s books that meet these standards are out there, and Avi’s The Button War is one of them.

This novel is set in a tiny village in Poland in the early months of World War I. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a twelve year-old boy named Patryk, and he’s part of a group of seven friends that are “nothing like a club, or a gang – more like a flock of wild goats” (2). Patryk’s community is so isolated that he doesn’t even know where the roads that leave his village go. He has been told that if you travel along one of them for a very long time, you will reach a city – but this fact holds the quality of myth. He doesn’t seem to know anyone who has visited that city or contemplate visiting it someday himself. The boys don’t even entirely agree that their village is located in Poland. Of his six friends, the one who occupies the most space in Patryk’s mental and emotional landscape is Jurek. Jurek is an orphan who lives with his older sister, who often kicks him out of the house when he misbehaves. For that reason, Jurek is semi-feral. He spends a lot of time in the woods hanging out at some ruins. We don’t know what kinds of structures these ruins used to be, but they are clearly a sign of some kind of past violence and – it soon becomes clear – a harbinger of violence to come. Jurek insists that these ruins are “his” because he is a descendant of “King Boleslaw,” whose palace Jurek believes the ruins to be. Patryk knows this story to be untrue, but he also resents it. It’s as if he knows that Jurek is a pathetic unloved kid who salvages his pride by claiming to be the descendant of a king but at the same time can’t help resenting Jurek for the little bit of pride this delusion allows him. Based on both my memory of being a kid and on my experience with kids as a teacher, this seems plausible to me. Kids have little patience with other people’s emotional defense mechanisms.

One of Patryk’s few connections with the outside world is the presence in his village of Russian soldiers. The boys accept the soldiers as part of their landscape and don’t seem to give them much thought – though Patryk notes that some of the adults in town “don’t like Russians.” One day, when the boys are hanging out near the ruins, Patryk finds a button on the ground that fell off of a Russian military uniform. Jurek insists that the button is his property because the ruins are his; Patryk will have none of it, and they both get their hackles up about this button and everyone goes home angry. Then one day, out of nowhere, the Germans bomb the local school. Patryk sees it happen. He has never seen or even heard of an airplane before, nor does he entirely know who Germans are or that a world war has begun – so this incident is enormously shocking. Not only that, but the village teacher is killed in the bombing, as is one of the boys’ classmates. In the aftermath, Jurek explores the rubble and finds the cane that the teacher used to beat the boys and declares that whichever of his friends can find the “best” military button will win the cane as a prize.

All of the boys – but especially Patryk, who is determined never to be one-upped by Jurek – get really invested in the button contest. And by invested, I mean that things get out of hand and some of them die. I won’t go into details, because this book is truly riveting and I do think readers deserve not to know too much about where things go – but the stakes are high, the button war is simply one theatre in a larger and entirely real war, and the boys are not spared. What makes this novel so heartbreaking is the fact that even once some of his friends have been killed, Patryk can’t force himself to stop caring about defeating Jurek in the button contest. He knows he should stop and has long talks with himself about how he must stop hunting for buttons, but he can’t do it. His rivalry with Jurek always wins out. One of the reviewers on the book jacket compares this novel to Lord of the Flies, and the comparison is apt. Both novels are equally compelling, though this one is for a somewhat younger audience (I will be reading it with my sixth graders this fall, and they will love it). However, it reminded me more of A Separate Peace, in which Gene remains constantly focused on his rivalry with Phineas and on what he thinks Phineas is thinking and feeling, unable to get out of his own head even as the war encroaches closer and closer to his once-safe world.

I recommend this novel to middle schoolers – especially to those dreaded “reluctant readers,” and, of course, especially to boys – though I enjoyed it in and of itself and recommend it to teenagers and adults too. If you plan to read it, clear your schedule. You won’t want to do much else until you’re through.

Posted in Authors, Avi, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Typo of the Month Award Goes To…

… “he upholstered his pistol.” Instead of “unholstered” – get it? I don’t remember where I read it, but it was in a published source somewhere, and I laughed and laughed.

Also, it’s official. I’ve forgotten how to write book reviews. I tried so hard last weekend and I just couldn’t. But my school year is winding down and my shoulders are slowly unclenching themselves and maybe soon I will remember how such things are done.

Happy June, everyone!

Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Yosemite, again

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Take a look, friends.  This is beautiful Hetch Hetchy, the source of the best-tasting tap water on earth.  Say what you will about the environmental impact of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it sure is beautiful there.

And here is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, with a bonus rainbow.  It’s not nearly as big and impressive as the Hoover Dam, but the scenery around it can’t be beat.  But then I’m partial to all things Yosemite.  IMG_8020.JPG

Have a good week, everyone!

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A Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

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I didn’t time my review of this novel with the weekend of its film adaptation’s release on purpose. I started this book in December but put it down after a hundred pages for some reason, in spite of the fact that I was mostly enjoying it. I picked it up last weekend and was able to get re-invested in it quickly, but I didn’t know until two days ago that the movie was coming out yesterday. You didn’t KNOW? one of my students asked. How is it possible not to know?

Of course, on many levels this book is Not My Thing. Not My Thing at all. My reaction when I first learned of its premise years ago was something along the lines of puh-lease. A novel about a fictional video game based on the pop culture of the ‘80’s? It sounded like the sort of thing a Baby Boomer would write – or, more specifically, the sort of thing many Baby Boomers did write: all the Woodstock-worshipping, appalled-by-Nixon, I-remember-where-I-was-when-Kennedy-was-shot tripe that has been making me puke since The Wonder Years – and the idea of an author of my own generation jumping on this bandwagon was disappointing. And before I go on and explain why I really did enjoy this novel quite a lot, let me just mention one thing that no one else talks about when they talk about Ready Player One: when they say that this book revolves around ‘80’s pop culture, what they really mean is that it revolves around ‘80’s BOY pop culture. No joke: in all of this novel’s 372 pages, there is not a Cabbage Patch Kid in sight. Not a single fucking Care Bear.

Have you noticed that women don’t memorialize the ‘80’s as much as men do? Boys had Star Wars and heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and Knight Rider; we had Get in Shape, Girl! and Pretty Cut ‘n’ Grow and Punky Brewster. I never really thought about it until now, but the ‘80’s were kind of a shit decade to grow up in if you were in possession of Fallopian tubes. Someday when I have infinite time and resources, I might try to write a parody of Ready Player One where a female video game designer decides to create an infinitely complex virtual world based on her childhood in which players can compete for wealth and world domination, but even with those high stakes no one wants to play because doing so requires one to memorize which Strawberry Shortcake character smells like which fruit and consistently keep straight the names and personalities of the Sweet Valley Twins’ clichéd friends.

What this novel does really well, in all seriousness, is dystopian world-building. This is the reason to read this novel even if the ‘80’s video-game premise doesn’t appeal to you. There is no shortage of dystopian fiction out there, and all of it gives me an icky feeling in my stomach these days, this novel included. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is an orphan who lives in “the stacks” – a housing project in Oklahoma where RV’s and other mobile homes are stacked precariously on some scaffolding, forming a terrifying new incarnation of the high-rise. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, and he sleeps in the laundry room, his circumstances not too different from those of Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs.

The year is 2044. The U.S. economy has fallen flat, and like most people in his world, Wade spends most of his time inside the OASIS, an all-encompassing virtual-reality world that is clearly meant to have evolved from both today’s video games and today’s social media. By the time the novel starts, the OASIS has expanded to include public schools (Wade attends school using a VR headset, crouched in an abandoned pickup truck in a junkyard that he thinks of as his “hideout”) and has its own economy and currency. Wade’s real-world life is claustrophobic and smothering – and limited by the fact that he has no money and no support system – while in the OASIS people who can afford to do so jet from planet to planet on a variety of fantastical space vehicles. The creator of the OASIS was James Halliday, who embedded a contest into his VR world that was launched after he died. Whoever follows a series of clues to find the “Easter egg” Halliday hid in the OASIS will win some unfathomable amount of money and inherit control of the OASIS. Halliday is sort of a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant and bold in his designs but socially maladjusted and self-destructive in his personal life – and it amuses Halliday to force everyone who wants to be rich and powerful to study every last detail of every movie, TV show, song, and video game that he loved as a child.

This novel follows a standard “quest” narrative structure: there are three of everything, the villains are horrifically over the top and awful, and it is clear from the outset that the hero will win the contest in spite of the impossible odds he faces. There’s even a “descent-into-hell” component that takes the form of a terrifying foray into the world of corporate indentured servitude, which is how debt of more than $20,000 is handled in 2044. And as in most quests, the “real” reward is not the money and power that come from finding the stated object of the mission but some other intangible and unexpected prize that emerges from this journey; in Wade’s case, this takes the place of real-world love – a prize that seems almost impossibly rare in the world of the stacks and the OASIS.

I’ve mocked this novel more than I’ve praised it, but most of the mockery was in jest. I did enjoy this book – the characters are well-drawn, the plot manages to surprise occasionally while also adhering to form, and Cline’s vision of a dystopian near-future U.S. will intrigue you even as it gives you the willies. I recommend this book even to people like me who never played Pac-Man or D&D; this is a novel that transcends its subject matter. I suspect I missed a lot of inside jokes and private references to video games, of which I know almost nothing (I got most of the movie and TV references, I think), yet I still enjoyed the book and felt a connection to its characters.

Posted in Ernest Cline, Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, fiction - thriller, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A PfP PSA (by Jill)

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When one is doing laundry, always double check the washer for books, especially signed first edition Indiespensible hardcover books, prior to hitting the Start button.  There was green lint from the cover on every single article of clothing in this load.

Incidentally, the book was not being stored in the washer (I don’t have that many books).  I put it in my laundry basket so save myself a trip down the hallway, and then started doing other things, and by the time I got around to starting laundry I had forgotten it was in there.  I blame early onset dementia, or possibly just being overtired from a very busy work week.

We may have more PfP PSA’s in the future if we manage to so more absolutely ridiculous things to our own books, but hopefully this will be the last picture of a washed book we post.

 

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A Review of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (by Jill)

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I had a feeling this was going to be a weird book just based on the name.  It was Indiespensible #57 from back in February of 2016, which means that I’m managing to stay less than two years behind on my Indiespensible pile.  Some day I’m going to take a month off work and refuse to leave my house and try to avoid sleeping and get some serious reading done.  But until then I’ll just keep plugging away on my piles of books.

Oh, so my feeling about the book being weird was right on.  But it was sneakily weird.  It started weird, then got less weird, then the end was super weird.  For some reason ghost stories dressed up as literary fiction rub me the wrong way.  Either be fantasy or be regular fiction, don’t try to be both, I think is my feeling.  But that’s wrong too.  Books like this one rub me the wrong way.  I’ve read, and loved, plenty of literary fantasy books before, like all of Deborah Harkness’ books, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, without a doubt, the best example of the modern literary ficton/fantasy genre, or if not the best, at least the first one I can think of outside of like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that ilk.  I think it’s just books that give me the impression that they are being weird just for the sake of being weird that bug me.

This novel has two time lines: one present day told in first person by Cora, a girl who finds herself pregnant and single in her mid-twenties.  She seems an average sort of person, who loves social media and has an okay job.  The other story is told at some point in the past, probably fifteen or so years prior to the present day timeline, and tells the story of Cora’s aunt Ruth and her friend Nat.  Cora’s mom and aunt were raised in a foster home run by the Father and the Mother, who are not great people but not bad enough to warrant more of a brief mention here.  Cora’s mom ages out at eighteen and leaves her much younger sister alone at the foster home.  Explanations for why El never picks up her sister are never given.  Ruth latches onto Nat, also her age, once El leaves, and says he is her new sister.  Their relationship is close but always platonic, and a little weird.  Nat says he can talk to the dead, so he and Ruth set up a little business with the kids at the school.  Eventually they hook up with Mr. Bell, who is a con artist in town, and they make a lot of money with their little show.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Cora is still pregnant and alone, and then her aunt Ruth shows up, and for some reason she doesn’t speak anymore.  Cora met Ruth and Nat once, when she was fourteen.  They came to visit El and left after one night.  Ruth and Cora take off in Cora’s car, but when it breaks down, they just start walking.  Somewhere.  Cora never quite knows where, but they walk for a long time, always heading somewhere, for the entirety of her pregnancy.

There’s a guy who snorts Comet and wants to marry Ruth, but his nose falls off and she loses interest.  There’s a religion called Ether, which is a hybridization of many other religions as well as a few songs from the seventies.  There are ghosts, real and imagined.  And looking back on it, some of the weirdness is charming and beautifully written.  Take this for example, wherein the author describes Cora going cold turkey off technology after the car breaks and she and Ruth start walking.  “The first two days without a phone, my insides are jumpy and nauseated, a true withdrawal.  My veins ache for information from the Internet, distractions from thought.  I’m lonely.  My neck, lungs, blood hurt like I’m getting a cold.  The world happens without me because I’m exiled with no Wi-Fi.  I wonder if my shoes have arrived yet.  Maybe Lord [that’s the boyfriend] is trying to reach me with news of his divorce.  I have a parasite of grotesque urges.  I want to push little buttons quickly.  I want information immediately.  I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling into the sun.  I want people to like me, like me, like me.  I want to buy things without trying them on.  I want to look at photos of drunk kids I knew back in high school.  And I want it all in my hand.  But my cyborg parts have been ripped out.  What’s the temperature?  I don’t know.  What’s the capitol of Hawaii?  I don’t know anything.  I don’t even know the automated systems in my body anymore.  I don’t know how to be hungry, how to sleep, to breathe (70).”

There are many, many beautiful and good things about this book, but there are also weird and not so good things about it.  I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though I will admit that other than the “weird for the sake of being weird” vibe I got off and on while I was reading it, generally it was quite well-written, but folks who like pure literary fiction or pure fantasy may not be able to get into it.  And here’s one complaint: if the name of the book is going to be Mr. Splitfoot, perhaps Mr. Splitfoot should play a more prominent role.

Posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Samantha Hunt | 2 Comments