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Gin and Juice

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee (Free Press, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is the biography of Craig Claiborne, a food writer and premier restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, who was to attack the bland, boring, heavy American diet of the 1960s and substitute, in its place, “a refined, if painstaking, cuisine.”   The food championed by Claiborne was international, primarily French, but with the understanding that each and every culture in the American melting pot offers outstanding dishes.   It may be that Claiborne’s prime mission was to de-anglicize the starchy, meat and potatoes diet that was once the province of the American cafeteria; a diet that – ironically – has returned to rule the roost via fast food outlets (with all the related health problems attached to such a non-diverse menu).

Claiborne might have said that variety  is the spice of diet, and he was nothing if not courageous in popularizing Chilean, Mexican, Greek, Turkish, Indian and other foods during his career.   Thomas McNamee earlier wrote the highly acclaimed bio of California’s Alice Waters,  Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and while he praises Claiborne, this account is much less laudatory.   It seems that Claiborne had a number of issues as a human being, and they’re all put on the table in this telling.   (Unfortunately, the account is harmed by some odd typos and errors.   For example, on page 97 of the finished book, the year 1961 is referred to as “Ninety-sixty-one”.)

Claiborne grew up rather poor, but he came to identify with what we would now call the “one percenters.”   He was always to fly first class on his frequent trips to Europe, even when he had very little money to his name.   Later, the Times would take care of his expense accounts but Claiborne became controversial for his outlandish spending habits.   In 1978, he wrote a front page story about a $4,000 dinner he arranged in Paris.   The paper received 1,000 letters of complaint – there was a recession on after all.   At least two-thirds of the letters were very negative about Claiborne’s “in your face” ostentatiousness.   As McNamee notes, three years later interviewers were still asking Claiborne – the once poor boy from Sunflower, Missouri – to justify his behavior.

While Claiborne’s mother ran a bed-and-breakfast and taught him much about food preparation, he was to literally disown her and refused to attend the funerals of his mother and his brother.   Claiborne was in the closet during his lifetime, and he attached himself to two different married men, neither of whom went on to leave his spouse.   And while Claiborne lived to the age of 79, his days included no exercise and no less than 14 alcoholic drinks per day.   Claiborne was to openly admit to People magazine that he drank six margaritas before dinner, six glasses of wine during dinner, and as many stingers “as he needed…” until he got the “click in (his) head that makes me feel peaceful.”   In 1979, his blood pressure rate was found to be 186/112 – compared to an upper normal rate of 140/80 for a man in his late 50s.

You might wonder how Claiborne, as a public figure, got away with all of this…?   Well, he had his tricks.   After suffering a brain hemorrhage, he was to enlist his physician in his drinking activities.   Yes, his own doctor, who had ordered Claiborne to significantly reduce his alcohol intake, was charmed enough by the then-celebrity to sit and drink with him in restaurants.   Sometimes the doctor even included his wife in these drinking parties.

McNamee is just as honest – despite the book’s title – about Claiborne’s role in changing American eating habits.   Although Claiborne wrote the national bestseller, The New York Times Cook Book, McNamee admits that, “it is impossible to say whether the book had caught the wave of an entirely new American enthusiasm for food and cooking or had set it in motion.”   But the man is given full credit, as is his due, for popularizing the foods of all cultures and changing the once-dull face of food in The Big Apple:

“The clear result of his critical rigor was a continuous increase in the quality of New York’s restaurants and in others across the country…  By the time Craig left the Times, New York was teeming with restaurants as varied as the city’s clans, cults, allegiances, and heritages.   From the Bronx to the Battery were Chinese restaurants galore – including the fiery (regional dishes) that Craig had done so much to popularize.   Virtually every corner of Italy was represented.   Japanese cuisine of high refinement was easily had.   There were Brazilian, Vietnamese, Cuban-Chinese, Swiss, Swedish, and Syrian restaurants.   No longer were Greek, Indian and Mexican food served only in cheap joints.

Craig Claiborne may have been a man flawed in his personal habits, but he was also a visionary who proved the truth of the words that in diversity there is strength.   This is an engaging read for foodies and non-foodies alike.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A review of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $15.00, 302 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…   That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental illness.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to their mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released in trade paper form on August 9, 2011.   “This is an extraordinary book.”   Audrey Niffenegger

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Take the Long Way Home

Long Drive Home: A Novel by Will Allison (Free Press, $22.00, 215 pages)

To be honest, each of us has read stories that we just don’t “get,” and this was the case for me with this short novel.   Long Drive Home is actually a novella, literally a small book that just exceeds 200 pages.   Even then it felt long, as there was never any tension surrounding the unusual plot.

Here’s a brief synopsis:  Glen is an accountant who lives in New Jersey with his wife and six-year-old daughter, Sara.   The fact that he’s an accountant is supposed to bring home the point that he’s a staid, conservative introvert.   One day, he’s driving Sara home when he almost becomes involved in an accident – it creates some surprising road rage in our otherwise calm protagonist.   So he drives a few blocks more until he’s on the street where he lives…   Guess what happens?   A young driver is speeding down his street and Glen – whose adrenaline is still flowing – decides to pretend to make a left turn in front of this teenage driver…   Guess what happens?   Even though it’s a feint (Glen doesn’t actually block the street), the young man flies off of the road, and crashes into an ancient tree – he’s dead before Glen can park his own car.

This incident, around which the entire tale revolves, never felt real.   We’re told that Glen made the left turn feint, then after the young man’s auto passed by, he turned into his driveway but overshot it due to his excitement.   Now, really, who would turn into his driveway after a car has just sped past and crashed?   If anything, the driver would stop in the street and then run towards the crashed vehicle.   But then several things didn’t add up here…

One troubling fact is that Glen is white and the reader comes to learn that the young man who’s killed is African-American.   Why throw in this racial aspect, when there’s nothing else in the telling that’s pertinent to race?   Supposedly, we’re informed that the dead young man is black because it means that the local police are less likely to investigate the case as a crime.   The cops will presume that the young man had alcohol or drugs in his system (and, luckily for Glen, he did) and caused his own demise through his recklessness.

“I was the only obvious defendant…”

According to another source “…wondering whether Glen will be arrested is what keeps you turning the pages.”   And we’re thrown a curve because in the village where Glen lives, it will take 4 to 6 months to get the autopsy results back on the dead youth.   OK, but, in fact, there’s never any tension in the story.   Why?   Because as far as the reader knows, there were no witnesses to the accident – no neighbors who happened to look out of the front window at the sound of a speeding car in a very quiet neighborhood.   If there are no witnesses, it will only be Glen’s word against that of…   Well, no one.

For a responsible citizen, Glen begins to act out in strange ways.   He lies to the investigative detective (who is naturally suspicious of the implausible events), keeps the detective from talking to Sara (see, she’s the only eyewitness), and goes on to find, stalk and fight with the driver who first got him upset on that fateful day.   Although that man is much bigger and tougher than Glen, our now strangely-acting accountant elects to  take him on.

It’s all quite bizarre, including the fact that with no crime and no eyewitnesses – and no intent on Glen’s part to commit a felony – it’s supposed to take not just several months but years before the police close the investigation and let our formerly staid protagonist off the hook.   If only author Allison had written in an eyewitness – say, a retired neighbor woman who observed exactly what Glen did or didn’t do prior to the strange accident – then turning the pages might have been justified.   Sadly, it was not to be and this novella winds up being a wreck in itself.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Take away:   It’s odd to have an investigative mystery in which there’s no crime and no witnesses to the incident in question.   Perhaps if protagonist Glen had been involved in a front-end collision with the young man who died, and then fled the scene and hid his vehicle from the authorities (actions of a guilty man), there would have been some actual tension in the telling.   There’s no such tension in this story of an innocent man.

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A review of Long Drive Home: A Novel by Will Allison.

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On the Border

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, $14.00, 240 pages)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl who was Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is in fact primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half of the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the hotel maids, and the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent (Hospital) and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexicano, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiosity pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers will be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can rachet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known for silent films — not for drive-by shootings.”   NPR

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