Tag Archives: a book review by Joseph Arellano

Black Like Me

Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stern (Knopf, $26.00, 271 pages)

There were moments when I felt like I was being called the N-word with no one actually saying it. No one had to and maybe they were too smart to. So it was left to me to decide whether it was because I was black or because I was just me…

Anyone who has read and enjoyed the classic Kitchen Confidential by the late Anthony Bourdain may enjoy the memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Ounwuachi. Like Bourdain, Onwuachi is an interesting mix of confidence and uncertainty. While struggling with numerous aspects of working in the restaurant industry, Onwuachi can come off as bombastic and arrogant as when he writes that “my arrival (in the District of Columbia) was greeted with a lot of excitement and anticipation.” Perhaps so, but it did not result in enough people visiting Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi’s signature restaurant, for it to remain in business.

The key reason Shaw Bijou failed likely goes to the base cover charge – sold as an admission ticket, of $185 per person, not including tip and drinks. The flaw in this account by a talented young chef is that he attributes most of his stumbles and unforced errors to racism, even when the reader sees other factors in play. Still, Onwuachi has gone on to earn the title of “The most important chef in America” from the San Francisco Chronicle. You will need to read the sometimes surreal Notes – an entertaining, imperfect story – to find out why.

Recommended for foodies and those interested in what it takes to run a successful restaurant and why restaurants fail.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Alfred A. Knopf. This book, which includes thirteen recipes, was released on April 9, 2019.

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Real Lives, Real Medicine

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different type of doctor – the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died during his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery faded as he prayed to simply survive a brutally demanding and challenging near-year as a new doctor.

The Real Doctor

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year by Matt McCarthy (Crown, $27.00, 323 pages)

“After 10 months of being an intern, I no longer experienced life like a normal person… I now viewed everything through the lens of medicine. It wasn’t something I had planned or particularly wanted, it just happened.”

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly is a very well written, engaging and entertaining look at what Dr. Matt McCarthy – a one-time minor league baseball pitcher who wrote the memoir The Odd Man Out – calls the “wonderfully insane” world of medicine. While serving as an intern in New York City, McCarthy was to practice – in the most literal sense – at both the massive Columbia/NYU Medical Center with 2,478 beds and the small 201-bed Allen Hospital (Motto: “Amazing things are happening here.”). McCarthy experienced a needle stick early on while treating a patient with HIV and Hepatitis C. In this sense, he became a patient himself, receiving prophylactic treatment and resting while waiting to find out if he had infected himself with one or both of these conditions.

McCarthy draws on the reader’s empathy by focusing not just on himself but also on two infirm patients: Benny, a middle-aged, seemingly healthy individual waiting endlessly for a heart transplant donor; and Carl Gladstone, a university professor whose life is nearly destroyed by a sudden heart attack. We see that, as with many things in life, luck and timing may override fate.

McCarthy goes from being a resident “who had been practicing medicine for less than a week” to a full-fledged hospital physician and Cornell University assistant professor of medicine. It’s an amazing journey, one well worth experiencing.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: If you enjoyed reading Complications, Better, or Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande or One Doctor by Brendan Reilly, M.D., you will want to consider reading The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Driven to Tears

i-knew-youd-be-lovely

I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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