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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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All Good Things

Paul Newman: A Life by Lawrence J. Quirk (Taylor Made; $16.95; 360 pages)

“Sometimes God makes perfect people, and Paul Newman was one of them.”   Sally Field

“This country is better for his being in it.”   Robert Redford

I may have met Paul Newman twice, although it is far from certain.   According to family legend, I was one of the children in the park at night in Stockton, California watching as the filming of Cool Hand Luke took place in front of the Catholic church.   This was the scene in which a very drunk Luke chops off the heads of parking meters.   Whether I was actually present or not, I do not know.   What I am certain of is that years later I met Newman, for a few seconds, as he walked around the spectator grounds of the Long Beach Grand Prix.   It seems that he had just won a celebrity race and he was celebrating.   With the assistance of two younger men, he was offering plastic tumblers of fine wine – or red party cups filled with beer – to everyone he encountered.   It took only a couple of seconds to see that this was a man in love with life and living.   The joy in his blue eyes was one-of-a-kind.

Perhaps it’s precisely because Newman showed us the sparkle of joy in simple living that he had such an impact on so many.   As I purchased a Newman’s Own product yesterday, the grocery clerk told me, “I can’t believe that he’s gone.”   It’s a feeling and sentiment shared by many.

Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography is one of two with the same title; this is the superior one.   It’s the better account because Quirk is a movie expert and he does a fine job of explaining why Newman went into acting, and of reviewing the highs and lows of the actor’s career.   This Paul Newman was not perfect, he was human, but a very lucky one.   As Quirk relates, Newman – who was certain in his belief that he would  never win an Oscar – rose to the very top of his profession.   And so, “his greatest dream came true.”

Quirk, with his expertise, does not fawn over Newman as an actor.   For example, in writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he opines that, “although Newman is very good in the film, he’s not quite as good as Redford…  (and) neither actor is exactly convincing as an old-time outlaw…”   Yet it’s this tough standard that makes Quirk’s sometime praise of Newman so valuable.   And he reminds us that Newman was not just an actor, he was a philanthropist whose Newman’s Own Foundation has never failed to raise and distribute less than $55 million a year for charities around the world.

If Paul Newman had just been terribly handsome, he would have been loved only by women.   But he could also be a man’s man, a guy’s guy:

“…he was essentially a likeable, friendly guy, especially with several beers in him, and he frequently bought the beer, (which) just made him even more appealing to his buddies…  (There were those who felt) extremely flattered by the attention of famous people, who feel proud and somehow legitimized that someone the whole world knows is taking an interest in them.”

“Newman has personality to spare; he loves practical jokes, having good times with his buddies, and lots of beer…”

Quirk notes that while Newman the actor usually starred in “macho fantasies,” as a director of movies like Rachel, Rachel he “showed a more sensitive side that he seemed determined in all other aspects of his life to keep hidden.”

Paul Newman was a fascinating man, something which Quirk affirms so well in this biography, and he was – Quirk never lets us forget – first and foremost an actor.   He was an Academy Award-winning actor, and loyal husband (“Newman was never really a skirt chaser…”).   He was a man who lived each day with gusto until he left us at 6:45 p.m. on September 26, 2008.   It was such a loss for this country, and for the world.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A copy of this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Our House

No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (Harmony Books, $23.00, 251 pages)

“There are so many times I have asked the question: Am I home?

This is a fun one that will remind adult readers of the struggling times in their twenties, looking for stability, romance and a  place that feels like home.   Brooke Berman tells about her period as a struggling young playwright and writer in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the period from 1998 through the summer of 2002.   It was in these years that the chronically  penniless Berman lived in 39 different apartments.

One thing that’s entertaining about this memoir is learning about the language of real estate in New York City.   There are terms like floor-through apartments, couch-surf, railroad flat (I once lived in one in Los Angeles) and 420 friendly.   OK, the latter term is not actually mentioned by Berman but she made apartment shopping in Manhattan and Brooklyn sound so interesting that I came upon the term online.

Note:  420 friendly means that one’s prospective roommates smoke pot and want their new tenant to be cool with that.

There’s also the reminder of what it’s like to be without money among people of prosperity.   Part of the experience, for Berman, is a good one:  “When I’m struggling, I know what to do and who to be:  I don’t spend money…  When I have money, I am forced to make choices.”   I recall a friend who in college said, “I feel pure when, as a struggling student, I have no money.   It feels better than when I do have money and I feel like I’ve done something wrong.”

But because Berman was raised by a stylish mother in the fashion industry in Michigan, she also knows how far she’s fallen…

“I was the only eight-year-old in the Detroit suburbs who could speak on Giorgio Armani’s fall line.  …now I feel like I come more from Avenue A.   From the poppy-seed cafe and dance workshops, downtown sublets and unmatched clothes, care of Salvation Armani.”

That should give you a hint of Berman’s humor which is laced through more serious things.   During this period she seems to be extremely unlucky in love, always choosing the guy who’s exactly wrong for her.   It’s as if she has a personal radar system for finding Not the Right Guy or Mr. Wrong.   There’s also the fact of having to deal with her mother’s illness and apparent demise after not one but two kidney transplant operations:  “My mother’s death is the thing I have been most afraid of my entire life…  The fear of (her) death is more threatening to me, and more primal, than anything.”

Brooke’s mother’s illness seems to stand as a symbol of the things that have gone wrong in Brooke’s life:  “I want to feel better, too.”

While this is an engaging memoir, it does have one disturbing flaw.   Like Julie Metz in her memoir Perfection, Berman tells us far more about her sex life (with whom she did what, and exactly what) than we’d care to know.   Too much information, girl, way too much.   Is there some type of anti-privacy virus going around that makes  people disclose everyone they’ve gotten next to in their lives?

And, yet, the true tale ends with Berman living happily ever after in perfect city abodes, with the perfect “forever” partner and the long dreamt of career.   Who says that modern fairy tales don’t come true?

Recommended.

“To deny change is to deny life.   And the present moment contains miracles.  …I can say now that I have many homes.”

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Thanks to Elaine at Wink Public Relations (wink pr) for her assistance.

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Every Story Tells A Picture

When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From A Persuasive Man by Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen (Hachette Audio, Unabridged on 8 CDs; $29.98).

“I’ve never been afraid to fail.”   Jerry Weintraub

If you’re going to experience a book based on an “old man’s” stories of his life, you might as well hear them in the voice of the man himself, Jerry Weintraub.   Weintraub, now 72, has worked with the biggest of the big in the music and movie businesses.   Yes, everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan – who wrote the introductory poem – and Led Zeppelin in music; Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Gene Hackman (with whom he attended acting school) in film.

Weintraub was also the Zelig-like figure who befriended the biggest figures in politics including a young John F. Kennedy, CIA Director George Herbert Walker Bush, and a peanut farmer by the name of Jimmy Carter.

I first attempted to read the standard book version of Talking, but something was missing.   The stories were entertaining but I couldn’t get a feel for the narrator, the person telling the stories.   This all changed when I began to listen to the audio book.   Initially, Weintraub sounds every year of his age and I began to wonder if a young actor should have been hired to voice the tales.   But within just a few minutes one becomes mesmerized by his voice.

Weintraub likes to say that there are differences between a person’s appearance and his/her behaviors and true personality; but it takes some time to learn about the individual’s soul.   The same is true here…  Only by spending time with the man do you get past his appearance as one of “the suits” in New York City and Hollywood/Los Angeles.   Eventually you get to the man and his soul – what makes him tick, what really drives him, and what he thinks life – success – is really about.

Jerry Weintraub takes the listener on a journey which begins with him as a poor Jewish kid on the streets of Brooklyn.   In his early twenties he becomes the most ambitious young man working in the mail room at the famed William Morris Agency in Manhattan.   After a couple of very quick promotions, he quits William Morris – now who would do that? – as he has the idea of taking Elvis on his first nationwide concert tour.   In order to do this he needs to come up with a cool $1 million deposit to hand to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager.   How does he come up with the money?   This is just one of the many great, highly entertaining, stories told in this anthology of true tales.

“While we’re here, we may as well smile.”   Armand Hammer

It comes as a surprise that the most fascinating stories are about the secondary figures, such as John Denver, George Burns, Dean Martin, Dorothy Hamill (who married Dean Paul “Dino” Martin), Colonel Parker (who was originally a carnival barker), and Armand Hammer.   But Weintraub saves the very best for last, when this very mature man touches upon spirituality, religion, mortality and family.   By his own admission, Weintraub has never been religious and yet he has come to work closely with Catholic charities and Jewish congregations.   It is all very personal, as he explains in Talking and some of the connections have to be heard to be believed.   (Yes, real life is so much stranger than fiction.)

It is when he talks of the death of his parents that we come to feel the emotional soul of Mr. Weintraub.   His voice breaking, he tells us that “everything changes in life when you lose your parents.”   Materialism takes a sudden back seat to memories, to one’s basic values as one comes to realize that we’re all renters in this place.

Jerry Weintraub, we come to know, was proud of his success but so much more so because he could share it with his parents – such as with his skeptical father who came to doubt that he “really knew” President Carter and the First Lady until the Weintraubs were invited to a State Dinner at the White House.   (Weintraub’s father once wondered aloud if his son had made millions as a Jewish member of the Mafia.)

By the end of Talking, you’ll come to feel that Jerry Weintraub is a very nice man, one you’d be happy to invite to one of those special “10 people you would like to have dinner with” events.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by 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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Hello, Louis!

Pops – A Very Good Yet Flawed Biography

He is the beginning and the end of music in America.   Bing Crosby on Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout makes for very good reading, at least for most of its nearly 400 pages (475 with source notes and index).   As a young person learning the cornet and trumpet, I was well aware that Armstrong was considered the greatest horn player of all time, but not quite sure why.   Teachout makes a very good case for Armstrong’s being the person who did so much to give birth to, and advance, modern jazz in America.   “You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks as (the young) Louis Armstrong…  (he was) the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.”

The entertaining tale of Armstrong’s early years is of a poor boy from a one-room shack who is sent to reform school and then joins the Colored Waif’s Brass Band of New Orleans.   Armstrong never knew his father so he tends to make father figures of his band instructors and band leaders.   We go on in Pops – the word Armstrong used to describe himself – to see how Armstrong was a seminal figure in jazz and it’s a bit like watching a Ken Burns documentary.   So far, so good…

As with Sugar Ray Robinson in the recent biography, Sweet Thunder, we have two young men who grew up in extreme poverty (one in The Bronx, the other in N.O.) yet overcame their circumstances to become favorite citizens of the world.   The stories of both Robinson and Armstrong are cinematic in nature.   Yet the Robinson in Thunder comes off as a multi-dimensional character in a way that Armstrong never does in Pops.   True, Teachout is quite fair in showing the reader that Armstrong had his flaws as a man and human being – he was married and divorced too often; he liked his musicians to smoke pot before recording – but we never quite understand why Armstrong loved music the way he did.   We get very nice quotations, such as “Music became his reason for living…” but no real depth.

In Pops we also learn that Armstrong was self-taught and thus had very poor form as a horn player.   Despite this, he was amazingly talented, naturally gifted; but we never learn or even see a guess ventured as to where his talents originated.   Were they hereditary, or was he just an anomaly?

At the back portion of this biography, it is interesting to learn about how many years passed between Armstrong’s recording of the song It’s A Wonderful World – an initial flop that languished in sales – and its popularity once it was included in the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam.   Fascinating, as is a great deal of Pops…   Still, the subject seemed a bit out of Teachout’s reach.   Apparently the great Satchmo remains larger-than-life and the printed word.

Now, who has the courage to attempt to write the definitive biography of Miles Davis?   Anyone?

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Free Food for Millionaires

free-food

Free Food for Millionaires: A Novel by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, $9.99, 592 pages)

This is a fascinating novel by Min Jin Lee, but then it would have to be to pull a reader through its 560 pages.   The telling of the story, though, has its faults which helps to explain the divergent reviews upon its initial release.   One reviewer found it to be “extraordinary,” another found it to be the “best novel” he’d read in a long time, and another said it was “a pleasure” to read.   But Kirkus Reviews decided that it was “fitfully entertaining but not extraordinary.”   Well, perhaps this is a story that the reader simply loves or can do without…

Millionaires is set within the multi-generational Korean-American community that inhabits the Bronx and Manhattan boroughs of New York City.   This is primarily the story of one Casey Han who graduates from Princeton and may serve as the alter ego of the author, a Yale and Georgetown Law graduate.   Casey finds that her Ivy League degree fails to open the doors of success for her, and she knows and believes that she’s seen as a failure by her parents.   She’s also unlucky in love which calls forth one of the issues with this initial novel from author Lee.   There’s far more soap opera than needed, and it seems that every adult who occupies the story cheats on a loved one (spouse or partner) and then feels compelled to confess his/her infidelity.   This seems just a bit over the top.

To her credit, Lee inhabits the tale with numerous fascinating characters, about equally divided between Korean-Americans and non-Koreans.   The main character, Casey, works on Wall Street – underemployed for her level of education – and comes into contact with Type A Caucasians and super-ambitious Korean-Americans.   One would think, however, that in the real business world some of the Asians in the city would happen to be Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.

Then there’s the conflict and tension that the author seems to feel about her own people.   There are many – probably too many – negative statements made about Koreans; some stereotypes, some quite troubling.   Here’s a sampling:

“Everything with Koreans, Casey thought, was about avoiding shame…”

“Korean people like her mother and father didn’t talk about love, about feelings…”

“… Casey was an American, too – she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.”

“… she came from a culture where good intentions and clear talk wouldn’t cover all wounds.”

“This is why I never work with Koreans.   They are so goddam stuck.   You must choose yourself over the group.”

There’s also an instance where Casey thinks about Korean weddings and the “five hundred uninvited guests” who show up at them.   Ah, well, maybe Lee felt the need to include some material to get the novel some attention.   In this respect, it probably worked.

The story is actually much more about the conflict between the “old country” family members, and the younger “new country” and “American” relatives who view the world very differently.   In this respect, it could have been set among any multi-generational ethnic group.   In the end, both love and forgiveness – massive doses of each – are required to get past the intra-family differences that exist.

The author is talented and I look forward to her next work, which hopefully will be less narrow in scope.   Free Food for Millionaires…   flawed…   recommended…  but just barely.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:   Thank you to Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance: Second Edition, for providing technical assistance on this review.free food 3

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