Tag Archives: 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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Babysitting Grandma

how-to-babysit

How to Babysit a Grandma by Jean Reagan; illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 32 pages)

Consider a sleepover at grandma’s house from her granddaughter’s perspective. Rather than grandma running the show, it’s the little girl’s turn. This book is one of a series of “How to…” books written by Jean Reagan. The text is directed at the child with gentle guidance for managing the visit. There are shifts in typeface from purple handwritten lettering to standard black 18-point New Century Schoolbook. The purple lettering focuses on fun and silly sounds to make during activities. The black typeface conveys the directions for what to do in each situation that happens during a sleepover.

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Mommy and Daddy make brief appearances in the story at the beginning (drop off) and at the end (pick up). They provide the premise for the story. The rest is pure fun for the lucky grandma and grandddaughter. Having a shift to a child’s list of activities is empowering and a delightful way for grandma to experience the visit. By the way, there is ample coaching for the little girl to let grandma know what to choose. I’m guessing the cute blond pigtailed girl depicted in this book is somewhere around five or six years old.

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Grandma is provided her choice of activities – going to the park, singing together and dressing up, to name a few. Making silly faces with food, playing shoe store and dressing as twins were new to this reviewer who happens to be the grandma of a nearly six-year-old blonde who sometimes wears pigtails. When shown the book’s cover during a Face Time visit recently, she immediately identified herself! The doggie in the story is white with black spots, just like my granddaughter’s. The only thing missing is the fluffy brown Maine Coon cat who adores her mistress.

The illustrations by Lee Wildish are bright and cheerful with spot on proportions for the characters in keeping with the drawings of someone who is six or thereabouts. Surprisingly, they were created digitally. Regardless of the method, their fresh, light-hearted quality is a perfect match for the text.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Turn! Turn! Turn!

last season hardcover

The Last Season: A Father, A Son, and a Lifetime of College Football by Stuart Stevens (Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages)

“All along, the football season had been just an excuse to spend time together, and now that we were toward the end of the season, it seemed less important to pretend the games were really the best moments.”

A reader wrote on Amazon that, “Every Ole Miss fan, every SEC fan… will love this book.” Well, no. A key flaw with this book is that it is horribly and sadly biased. Political consultant Stevens writes that, “The SEC draws the best (athletes) in the country.” And he attempts to pile on by calling the SEC “college football’s brightest stage.” Well, this may be true in some years, but certainly not all.

This is intended to be a moving memoir about a son who celebrates what is likely his 95-year-old father’s final year on earth by attending every University of Mississippi football game. But it’s a missed opportunity. Stevens never wastes a chance to go sideways by inserting his ineffable personal opinion on, oh, almost everything. For example, “I didn’t really like New Orleans. It wasn’t interesting, it was boring and predictable.” Really?

Stevens also makes broad characterizations which are clearly not credible: “This love of college football and it’s importance in life’s schemes are natural for a southerner but difficult for (others) to grasp.” Really?

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Steven’s father never comes to life in this work. And the conclusion leaves the reader wondering if this was, in fact, the final season.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

The Last Season was released on September 18, 2015.

My Losing Season 2

Note: A great book that the sports-minded reader might want to consider reading is My Losing Season: A Memoir by Pat Conroy. “Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass.” Pat Conroy

“…maybe the finest book Pat Conroy has written.” The Washington Post

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A Quiet Emotional Work

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, $25.95, 249 pages; Vintage, $15.95, 272 pages)

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In his novel The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield uses the phrase, “quiet emotional” in place of the more typical “quite emotional.” This is a quiet emotional memoir about how Salinger helped a young woman, Joanna Rakoff, find her role, her place, her calling in life – which was to become a writer.

“Have you read Salinger?” Rakoff asks the reader. “Very likely you have. Can you recall the moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you’d previously encountered. I loved Holden, in his grief-fueled rage.”

My Salinger Year is a comfortable, entertaining and engaging story that does not have pretensions of being cinematic. However, Rakoff writes quite well, as in this selection, about the difference between Marc, a friend who is getting married, and Don, Rakoff’s then-boyfriend (and a sad choice of one):

“You ready for the big day?” Don asked Marc, patting him on the back. He was trying for cheer, for bonhomie, which gave him the aspect of an actor in a community theater production…

“I don’t know,” said Marc, with an enormous smile. When he smiled, he seemed to radiate pure waves of goodwill and genuine happiness. This was, I supposed, the difference between Marc and Don: Marc was fully at home in the world, content with life. He needed, he wanted, nothing more than what he had. Don wanted everything, everyone; Don wanted and wanted.

Although this true tale is about Rakoff’s work at a literary agency at the start of her professional career, it’s also a story about what happens when she leaves behind her “right guy” in Berkeley, and takes up with Don in Manhattan. Don is so clearly and absolutely wrong for her. The reader will feel some frustration while reading about her out-of-phase life with Don, a person who refused, without explanation, to take her to his best friend’s wedding.

The writer is now happily married to the “right” person, but she’s quite forthcoming about the fact that she made a key mistake in the game of love as a young woman. Fortunately, she was able to escape into the writings of J. D. Salinger, as she did on the weekend of the wedding that she was blocked from attending.

“All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Rakoff only met Salinger once but spoke to him often on the telephone. He convinced her to do what she needed to do for herself – for her own happiness. His advice convinced her to leave the safety and security of the agency job after just 12 months. It was a job that would get her no closer to writing than reading manuscripts.

Near the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff learns of Salinger’s death and reacts to it in a touching way. Salinger was, and will remain, her rescuer, her larger-than-life hero.

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Salinger was an artist who touched many people through his work. He continues to reach and touch them to this day, as when high school students experience The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey for the first time. It was his work and its effect on others that exhausted him and caused him to seek comfort in isolation: “For years, he’d tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great.”

While Salinger may have remained as distant as Joe DiMaggio on his later years, there’s no denying the fact that he left behind his bold, major impact on the world of literature.

“Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. There were no fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.”

“Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.”

“Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

You may love this book.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This review initially appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-salinger-year-joanna-rakoff/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-My-Salinger-Year-by-Joanna-Rakoff-5676983.php

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Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown

My Age of Anxiety (nook book)

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossell (Knopf, $27.95, 416 pages)

“So am I, with my phobias and worries and general twitchiness, ‘neurotically’ anxious? Or just ‘normally’ so? What’s the difference between ‘normal’ anxiety and anxiety as a clinical problem? …If anxiety disorders and depression are so similar, why do we distinguish between them? …Mightn’t my anxiety be just a normal human emotional response to life, even if the response is perhaps somewhat more severe for me than for others? How do you draw the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘clinical’?”

Scott Stossel

The unfortunate thing about this book is that the very people who will be attracted to it may be those who’ll get the least from it. I’m speaking of those who suffer from anxiety, something that Scott Stossel is unable to define although he claims to suffer from it. Stossel is not an expert but he combines a survey like approach – what he calls “a cultural and intellectual history of anxiety,” to the topic with his own experiences. (This takes up over 400 pages.) The problem with the initial approach is that Stossel plunges into deep waters quickly, discussing Kierkegaard and Sartre and the nature of Existentialism. All readers who were not Philosophy majors in college are likely to be lost immediately.

The author might have grabbed the reader by relating his own anxious experiences first. However, there are two problems with his stories. Firstly, one wonders whether some of them actually happened. And, secondly, they must have been greatly exaggerated in the telling.

Those who pick up My Age of Anxiety thinking it’s a self-help book will likely be disappointed, especially as Stossel self absorbedly and somewhat relentlessly relates the exact nature of his confused and anxious mental state ad infinitum (to infinity).

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Missing You

The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24.95, 208 pages; Random House Audio, $35.00, Unabridged on 6 CDs)

What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.   Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

Aaron Woolcott has led a life full of physical challenges.   A childhood illness left him with a crippled hand and leg.   Moreover, his sister, Nandina, has been overly protective of him.   Aaron reacts to her babying by retreating into a defensive and self-reliant personal style.   He rejects tenderness and caring which leads him to be attracted to a brusk oncology radiologist who seemingly lacks a softer side.   They meet in a work-related situation which sets the stage for further discussions and interactions.

The Woolcott family’s publishing house features a series of books – The Beginner’s Guide, similar to, but less ambitious than, the popular Idiot’s Guide books.   The Beginner’s Guides are aimed at readers who want to skim the surface of a simplified topic or activity, such as hosting one’s first dinner party.   Aaron is doing background work on a new title about cancer treatment patients when he interviews Dr. Dorothy Rosales.   He is smitten right away when Dorothy comments on his physical condition in a clinical way.   Although Aaron could easily be portrayed sympathetically, there is something off-putting about him that becomes more evident as the story unfolds.

Author Tyler takes the theme of miscommunication and focuses on the way that Aaron’s approach to life has stifled and limited the relationship that he and Dorothy have shared during their marriage.   His family and work relationships have suffered as well.   Too often, what we experience within ourselves is not always in sync with what others are feeling and thinking.

As is her forte, Anne Tyler turns an accidental death into a humbling tale of grief and recovery for Aaron.   The large oak tree outside their home’s sunroom falls through the roof onto Dorothy as she sits at her desk.   Aaron is powerless to help her and the tree becomes the catalyst for the story.   Sometime after her death, Dorothy appears to Aaron as though she’s still alive.   This is not a new story device and, not surprisingly, Tyler uses it as a way to force Aaron to confront reality.   There are many lessons that each of the characters learns as he or she examines the way Dorothy’s death has triggered recovery efforts, both emotional and physical.

The audio book features Kirby Heyborne, a veteran actor who portrays Aaron in a very convincing manner.   This reviewer found the story to be the usual low-keyed take on life’s challenges that Anne Tyler is considered one of the best at writing.   It is almost too slowly paced; however, Tyler is a master at drawing in the reader so that she has the opportunity to thoroughly make her case for living a fully-conscious life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audiobook version of The Beginner’s Goodbye was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Beginner’s Goodbye: A Novel by Anne Tyler.

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Shake, Rattle and Roll

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert B. Reich (Knopf, $14.95, 192 pages)

Robert Reich’s Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future is sectioned into three parts.   In the first two sections, Reich offers arguments for why America’s growing inequality is bad.   The third offers ideas for fixing it.

Part One argues that growing inequality makes it impossible for America’s middle class to consume as much as they produce without going into debt.   The reason for the 2008 meltdown, he argues, was not that Americans had merely spent beyond their means or that Wall Street speculators had trashed the economy, though these he argues were true.   Rather, “their (middle class Americans) means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide them.”   This is the reason behind the economic collapse.

Part one is the best section of the book.   Reich’s analysis is concise, though well supported.   The argumentation is spot on.   He makes strong points, develops them and supports them without wandering too far from his central theme.   He doesn’t simplify things, but manages to explain them well.

Part two argues that growing inequality will have dangerous social implications if nothing is done to change the direction.   This section begins with a thought experiment involving a fictional future party of populist radicals.   The argument Reich makes here is that capitalism has to be saved from itself.   If the middle class can’t achieve the things they used to, radicals will harness their populist anger and the end result will be the destruction of the economy and capitalism.

The specifics of the thought experiment are a little silly, though not entirely implausible.   It’s also a drawback that he lumps all of the populist anger together into one category.   That’s a bit insulting to middle class intellligence, but maybe Reich is right.   In any case, his main point – that capitalism needs to be saved from itself – is poignant.

Part three cobbles together a  lot of small possible situations, notably changes to tax codes, getting money out of politics, and a complete expansion of Medicare.

The drawback to section three is that there aren’t a lot of connections among the small solutions he cobbles together.   None of them are politically viable.   Reich ends by suggesting that the only real way forward is if financial corporations and the financial elite heed his warning and save capitalism from itself.

The Good:  Reich’s analysis of the structural problem under-girding the American economy appears to be accurate.   His argument is well supported by short at only 147 pages.

The Bad:  Sections two and three of the book simply aren’t as good as the first section.   Section two is purely speculative.   The argument is valid, but the specifics are impractical.   Section three disappoints in its presentation of solutions, which are not politically feasible.

The Bottom Line:  Aftershock is required reading for any progressive wanting to understand the structural economic problem behind the economic meltdown and the barriers to fixing it.   Well recommended.

Trevor Kidd

You can read more from Trevor Kidd at http://trevorkidd.com/ .

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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