Tag Archives: Alfred A. Knopf

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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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan.

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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A Blurb Too Far

OK, so we all know that book blurbs (those quotes of high praise you find on the front and back covers of books) can be more than a bit full of hyperbole.   But most of them attempt to remain within the bounds of reality.   The following one may be an exception and it’s one that’s getting a lot of attention online.   (So we’ll add to that attention.)  

This blurb was written by one Nicole Krauss about To the End of the Land, a forthcoming novel by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.   Are you ready?   Fasten your seatbelts.   Here’s the fantastical blurb:

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it nothing can ever be the same.   Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.   To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude.   David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique sense of her humanity.   For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it.   To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense.   To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.

Wow!   And she wrote that, I’m sure, while typing with her gloves on and without taking a breath.   No, I don’t know exactly what I mean, but did she?   Whew…   Unflinching, unique light, turned back into a human being, all of that and more.   (So much more.)

So let me ask you – Would you  want to read a book that takes you apart and touches you at the place of your essence?   Me neither but, who knows, it could be a good read anyway.   LOL.

To the End of the Land will be released to the physical universe by Knopf in hardbound form and in a cozy digital Kindle Edition on September 21, 2010.   The novel will run 592 pages, so you’ve been warned…  But if you love it (especially if it turns you back into a human being), remember that you first heard about it here!

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The Boxer

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Chicago Review Press, $18.95, 480 pages)

sweet thunder

“It was a savage sport, but it held a kind of sacredness to him – a mystery.”

Few biographies of great athletes manage to conquer the legend; to place the athlete in context as a walking, talking, human being.   It may be because they tend to be either fawning – relying on “good stories” without regard to their accuracy – or they’re overly bloodless and academic.   (None of the biographies of Michael Jordan, for example, have seemed to capture the man behind the uniform.)   There have been some exceptions…   Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegal was fascinating and brutally honest/factual, as was Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy, and Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Ben Cramer.   But these remain the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now add to the exceptions list Wil Haygood’s biography, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.   Haygood – who earlier wrote a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. – manages to capture the personality of the man in addition to the accomplishments of the athlete.   Robinson was, no doubt, one of the handful of best boxers who has ever lived, yet he was notoriously envious of the skills of other public figures and entertainers – most notably musicians.   (“He wanted desperately to know about life on the road for musicians.”)   Haygood uses this angle to produce some excellent comparisons between Robinson and jazz players such as trumpeter Miles Davis.   But the analogy only goes so far, as musicians’ errors are masked by other musicians.   The boxer enters the ring alone and stands or falls on his own.

Haygood fully acknowledges the fact that Robinson – a kind man on his own – could be vicious in the boxing ring.   After killing Jimmy Doyle of Los Angeles in a fight, Robinson was asked at the inquest if he knew or suspected that Doyle was in trouble.   His response was that, as a professional fighter, it was his job to get men “into trouble.”

This period piece is also a glorious overview of post-World War II Harlem, a time when jazz was at its peak and the issue of civil rights was about to break.   The general acceptance of black public figures like Robinson (the third African-American/Negro to have his face on the cover of Time magazine) made them pioneers in the then-burgeoning movement.   But the author does not take things too far in this direction as this is not a sociology or history textbook.   Nor does he bore us with literal blow-by-blow accounts of every single amateur and professional fight that Sugar Ray Robinson fought.   No, instead he tells us just enough to understand and recognize the greatness of this late athlete’s (1921-1989) life within and outside the world of sports.

This, then, is the well told story of a man blessed with great skills:   “I had it tonight; yes, sir, I had it tonight when I needed it – thank God.”   This is the true tale of the man who did so much to advance The Sweet Science, which is perhaps why he was the first of three highly gifted boxers (Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley) to be known as Sugar.   A New York Times reporter once wrote of Robinson, “He’s too incredible, too colossal to be true.”

Highly recommended.   Haygood captures both the man and the legend.   Excellent!

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“The French had called him Le Sucre Merveilleux – the marvelous Sugar.”

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