Tag Archives: sociology

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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Over The Top and Far Away

Tribal

The player accepts, even welcomes, the pain he will suffer, a sacrifice for the good of the team. Just like Jesus, come to think of it.

Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America by Diane Roberts (Harper, $25.99, 246 pages)

This book might well have been titled Fear and Loathing in Tallahassee. In theory, this is a book about a person’s love and hate relationship with college football (“A great game or a waste of money…”), specifically Florida State University football. I say in theory because the writer’s Gonzo-style of journalism means that she’s all over the place – as if there’s no filter between her mind and what she places on a page. For example, Roberts spends some time on the topic of football and religion. Oh, yes. After quoting from Saint Paul in Corinthians 6:19 she writes:

“…the (football) player begins to use his body to inflict pain. Not like Jesus… The First Church of Christ Linebacker doesn’t hold with gentle Jesus meek and mild. The Lord is a tough, manly dude, and football is an allegory of the soul’s struggle against evil.”

Wow. Seriously?

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It’s hard to tell if Roberts is putting everyone on – in the style of Hunter S. Thompson (Thompson once accused a major party’s presidential candidate of being an ibogaine addict), or if she’s simply being provocative for the sake of being so. This is a silly work which might have made for a mildly entertaining airline magazine article. But it’s not for the serious, grounded reader.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on October 27, 2015.

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Dead to the World

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

It’s not just the folks with the famous names who live outrageous lives.   Their relatives, in this case the children and grandchildren, also feel the effects of super wealth and status.   Wendy Burden falls into this category.   She is the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.   There was still plenty of money and status associated with the family when she was born.   Unfortunately, her father William A. M. Burden III, a direct descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, could  not take the pressure of life and committed suicide when Wendy was six years of age.

This sad event precipitated the handing off of Wendy and her younger brother Will to Grandpa and Grandma Burden for intermittent visits while mom escaped life and responsibilities overseas in the company of a variety of men.   This memoir is an over-the-top expose with all the dirty little stuff prominently featured.   The self-indulgence, disregard for others and general insular behavior exhibited by the Grandparents Burden is easy fodder for Wendy’s 21-gun salute to the grosser aspects of wealth.   Oh, did I happen to mention that the guns are loaded with bizarre details?

Who among us cares to know that Wendy collected dead birds and observed their decomposition a la the scientific method used at the body farm at the University of Tennessee?   If you’d rather eavesdrop on cocktails and dinner with the grandparents, you would learn that grandma was a champion at farting whenever she felt the urge.   According to Wendy, this urge was never ignored regardless of the folks in her vicinity.   The walls in their home may have been covered with museum quality paintings and sculpture; however, grandma and grandpa were usually too sloshed to notice.

The crisp details and well-crafted accounts of life with the super-rich begin to seem a bit suspicious once the reader gets past the shock and wit.   Yes, Wendy Burden is an excellent story teller.   Just how much is fact and how much is convenient recall – or perhaps fiction disguised as the truth – is anyone’s guess.   This reviewer finished the book with a sense of gratitude for a seemingly ordinary life.  

Recommended for snoopy readers who follow OMG! on the internet.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer..

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On Wisdom

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall (Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages)

Whether you’re fascinated by psychology, philosophy, or science, you’re likely to find much of interest in this survey book by Stephen Hall.   This is a search for the meaning and definition of “wisdom” with a capital W – sometimes interpreted to be emotional intelligence or an internal calmness.   Hall’s journey reads like the script for a public television documentary, one that might have been entitled: “The Search for Wisdom.”

Boomers will like the conclusion that older persons are apparently wiser, calmer and far more content than those with their entire futures ahead of them.   Research shows that younger people become angrier about daily slights and hold onto these negative feelings longer than their elders.

Although the language in this nonfiction work is generally clear, it unfortunately sometimes sounds like an academic textbook.   It also often comes close to parody (“proverbs and aphorisms…  are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom”; large events in the world can “change the lens of one’s emotional view like a new prescription from a spiritual optometrist.”).   Wisdom could have used a lot of wise editing, still it offers both old and young readers a chance to re-examine their lives and their yet-to-be-made choices.

Recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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30 Days in the Hole

Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson (Henry Holt and Company)

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Perkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being socially friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has visited Pelican Bay; this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core repeat offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some obtuse language) is the application of  The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain as an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.

If one has never read a book about the U.S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

A pre-release review copy was received from the publisher.

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The Other Wes Moore

other wes moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)

“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.   The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow.   He is the successful Wes Moore.   His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution.   The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.

The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight.   He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident.   I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people?   There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame.   The book would provide the answer.

Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness.   What you see is definitely what you get.   His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.

The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood.   The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age.   The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.

The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice.   The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus.   The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.

Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities.   The opportunities were provided by family and friends.   Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text.   They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives.   The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be.   He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.

Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book.   The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth.   Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.

A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk.   Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.

The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman”, “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in the novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never fully been resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls from Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet, they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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