Tag Archives: District of Columbia

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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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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For You Blue

Up From the Blue: A Novel by Susan Henderson (Harper; $13.99; 317 pages)

Warning: You should not take a glance at Up From the Blue, the debut novel from Susan Henderson, while you’re reading another book.   I did and found it was impossible to return to the other book until I’d completely finished this well-told and very different story.   It is the tale of Tillie Harris, an eight-year-old girl, whose mother disappears during a family move in 1975.   Tillie’s mother has been depressed and disturbed, but never suicidal.

Tillie herself is a free spirit, a younger version of her mother who should never have married an uptight Air Force officer-engineer who designs war missiles for the Pentagon.   We first meet Tillie as a pregnant adult woman who, because of some unique circumstances, must rely on her estranged father to help her get through the early delivery of her first child.   Her father’s presence at the George Washington University Hospital in D.C. is the last thing Tillie wants but time and fate deprive her of other options.   We start the story in present times before retreating to the nightmare that began in ’75.

This is not a horror story, but it is a story of a monster – the man who is Tillie’s father.   He is a cold quasi-human being, controlling and calculating, but one who people mysteriously defer to:

Even when he’s not wearing his uniform, my dad is giving orders and people just carry them out.

This is the man who supervised the dropping of almost 90,000 tons of bombs during the Persian Gulf War, but it is his actions at home that destroyed both a family and Tillie’s hope.   The young Tillie grew up wondering, “Where were the police asking if I wanted to keep my father with us or send him to jail?”

Little else of the storyline can be divulged without giving away too much.   Henderson offers the reader a highly original voice.   Once you identify with and latch on to the character of Tillie, you simply want to know what happens next in her troubled but realistic life.   Interestingly and ironically, the one recent novel with a similar voice shares the word Blue in its title – The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen.   Cohen’s novel is one that can’t be put down and is one that approaches a seemingly predictable ending before the apple cart is upset.   The same may be said about Up From the Blue.

“Sometimes what you fear, what you spend all your energy avoiding or pushing down, is not as terrifying as you thought.”

As a public service, we repeat the warning given earlier.   Do not pick up this novel unless you have time in your busy life to read it all the way through.   But if you don’t have the time, make the time.   Henderson is an author to watch and you’ll want to brag that you read her back when she was just starting out.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Split Second Timing

Capitol Betrayal by William Bernhardt (Ballantine Books, $26.00, 336 pages)

“You can tell us what the hell is going on,” Cartwright barked.   “You’re the president, not a damned flight attendant!”

The security force of the District of Columbia and its most prominent resident, the leader of the free world, are in serious peril.   Hotheaded terrorists and foreign governments are the obvious villains in this tale of gunshots, missiles and threats.   Although the premise may not be a new one, thanks to the masterful split-second timing of author William Bernhardt, it becomes fresh and vibrant.

The entire story takes place in less than a day.   Bernhardt builds the plot using one of his mainstay characters, Ben Kincaid.   Rather than having Kincaid be the featured player, Seamus McKay, a U.S. undercover operative who is nearing retirement age, provides the action and the fireworks.   Kincaid is the perfect intellectual lawyer counterpart to McKay’s clever MacGyver-like tricks and ploys.   The folks rounding out the cast of characters include some slippery and self-serving Washington insiders.

This reviewer has noted that a plot device that uses one scene depicted from the perspective of several different characters is often employed by novelists to build dramatic tension.   Bernhardt takes this device and builds the pace as though he’s smoothly double clutching in a Porsche.   Resist the temptation to peek at the ending and your self-control will be rewarded.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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