Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Review: Cookoff

Book Trout Book Review:

Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, by Amy Sutherland (NY: Viking, 2003)

My grandmother collected recipe booklets from food manufacturers from the 1930s through the 1970s, saving labels from cans and bottles, cutting out tabs from cardboard packages and redeeming them with her postpaid envelopes to get various soft cover cookbooks prominently featuring the company product, whether it was shortening, flavored gelatins, canned pineapple or baking powder. I remember many summer afternoons leafing through her cookbook collection and getting the sense that every home cook wore a ruffled pinafore apron, a happy smile and high heels. My grandma and her wonderful cookbooks made meal preparation seem like a fun and rewarding thing to do and I think of her a lot when I'm cooking.

It was with that sense of fuzzy nostalgia that I picked up a copy of Sutherland's book, expecting that I would snack on satisfying stories of plucky cooks rewriting bespattered copies of family heirloom recipes and winning fabulous prizes. Was I wrong. The American competitive corporate cooking scene is more like a grim battle among a small cadre of obsessed contesters (the major leaguers who have hundreds of contest wins and cheerlessly run through recipes designed for corporate marketing appeal rather than taste). Grandma would be sad and puzzled to meet up with these robotic chefs.

What an unappealing lot these major leaguers are with their whining websites, backstabbing complaints about fellow contestants, and mean-spirited attempts to psyche out the hapless few amateur cooks who blunder into this tense scene. Sutherland certainly doesn't describe any joy at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the Build a Better Burger Contest or even the Gilroy Garlic Festival. If you can't have fun while wearing a garland of the stinking rose, it is a sad day indeed.

There is an interesting chapter about muy macho barbecue and chili cookoffs and the decidedly-not-corporate contesters who spend their vacations (and retirements) (and their retirement savings) at these events. Certainly the accounts of the various eccentrics who name their barbecue teams and trailer-sized cookers and imbibe liver-busting amounts of alcohol at these events seem to have a little more camaraderie.

Cookoff was an eye-opening book for me and one that ultimately got rather depressing. I didn't even feel like jotting down any of the contest-winning recipes because I got so disgusted at the winning cooks. I applaud Sutherland for keeping her cool when surrounded by so much self-absorbed nastiness in the kitchens. The writing could have been a little more punchy, but I guess when your main characters are so leaden, it is hard to keep things light.

Recommended reading for foodies, the strong-hearted and military strategists.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pruning the Bookstore

Last month the Bookshop Blog had an interesting post about deadwood book categories that should be expurgated from the bookshop. Despite a suppressed desire to become the Empress of Books and thus have copies of every out-of-print book, I realize that there is only so much shelf and floor space at Old Saratoga Books and therefore, routine book pruning is required. I have "killed" sections at our shop in the past, such as the foreign languages section and the various categories of paperback romances that I used to shelve by publisher and number (oh, the humanity!).

After reading the Bookshop Blog post I am tempted to wield the book pruning shears again. While I don't agree with the blog comment advising the consignment of the biographies to the guillotine, it does make sense to shelve artists in the art section, authors in their own literary biography section, scientists in science, etc. There are always oddball and interesting biographies, though, and so we do retain a larger-than-I-would-like biography section, but I do keep a gimlet eye on them every time I go upstairs. If someone's been hanging out too long, they get sent to the rack...the bargain rack.

I am often tempted to ax the true crime section. I love a good fictional murder mystery, but reading about real people getting killed is creepy. I am little scared by the purchasers of these books and I try to offload most of them into the bargain carts or sell them in box lots on ebay just to get them out of here. I do have the true crime section in the furthest reaches of the upstairs just so the weirdos that buy them are out of my sight. Lately there has been a flush of interest in Mafia-related books, probably because of the success of the Sopranos television series, so I haven't yet whacked this section. It's definitely on probation. Same goes for the off-putting horror fiction section.

Another book section worth killing would be local history section. It sounds reasonable to want to have books about your area in the shop. We certainly get a lot of inquiries about titles about Saratoga County history and the Battle of Saratoga and I used to try and scout these out in my travels and purchase them from other book dealers. They are hard to come by, as most local historians hang on to them throughout their mortal coil and because they usually have a small print run, making them even scarcer. When such a book comes into the shop, it is a rare event, and therefore, gets a rare price. The local history buff then comes in and spies this treasure but wants to pay the equivalent value of a Danielle Steel paperback and there is usually lots of whining about needing the book for important research. It's also a popular section for folks wanting to "just borrow" the book overnight or who boldly ask whether I have a copy machine. I love having history books in the shop, but one day all the local history book section will definitely be killed.

The magic about killing a section, or at least stripping it way back, as Nora of Rainy Day Books notes in the Bookshop Blog piece, is that it does seem to revitalize sales in that area. A completely full shelf of books just does not sell as well as a partially full shelf with a shiny book or two facing out. Then there is the bookseller's mojo of having touched a section that immediately makes some of these moribund titles suddenly become desirable. It's spooky how many times I've pruned, fluffed up and dusted a section only to have a book that's been in residence for years spring into a customer's hands.

Drama is a real dead dog in our particular location, but I haven't had the heart to strike a stake in the heart of Shakespeare, Beckett, O'Neill and Company. I have made sure the plays are in alphabetical order and I often pull plays out to reside in the Classics section, where they then make their way out the door.

I was interested to read the Rainy Day Books comments about having the spy/thriller section morph from "an absolute bloated dog" to a bestselling section. Hmmm. I'll have to get on that, because it is not a real seller for us. I have these "shoot 'em ups", as my uncle calls them, mixed in with regular contemporary fiction and perhaps they need their own space so they can radiate their testosterone-packed, cyber-spy, mercenary/CIA agent/misunderstood loner energy out to potential readers. It certainly is harder to ferret them out quickly by cover design as the old Cold War hammer and sickles and Nazi insignias of our erstwhile global villains have been replaced by slick techno art. I guess a big gun will always dictate their placement unless a horse is involved (western) or alien with big mammaries (sci-fi).

William from the always-interesting Hang Fire books blog ("Epic Battles in the Salvation Army, Homeric Journeys to the Post Office"), noted in his comments to this piece that in his retail bookstore experience, a Curiosities section worked well in the place of some dead zone material and I will have to follow up on that. I have a Miscellaneous section, but if I pruned out the housekeeping/organization/wacky laws and place names type books, there would be some weird and wonderful titles to perhaps shelve with the circus shelf into a Curiosities section. (Note to self: don't just type this up and forget about it).

Off to knock off some books......

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Doris Lessing, Nobel Laureate

Congratulations from the Book Trout to the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the prolific, Persian/Iranian-Rhodesian/Zimbabwan-English writer Doris Lessing. I cannot comment on Ms. Lessing's works as a whole, having read only The Golden Notebook, but she certainly seems to have been an innovator and progressive thinker. Her life has certainly been long and interesting and I think I will pick up one of her books of memoir before another work of fiction. I am intrigued by someone who when told by the journalist crowd at her door that she had won the Nobel Prize answered "Oh Christ..I couldn't care less". Perhaps she curmudgeoningly overlooked the million dollar attachment.

As a used book seller, I was selfishly happy to see this honor bestowed as I actually have a large number of her works in stock. Previous Nobel Laureates, such as Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, Austrian novelist/playwright Elfriede Jelinek and Franco-Sino writer Gao Xingjian were maddeningly underrepresented on our bookstore shelves. We do currently have a hardcover set of the five novels in Lessing's science fiction/Sufist master work The Canopus in Argos: Archives Series, as well as many other novels by Ms. Lessing in stock, so feel free to contact us at Old Saratoga Books if you would like some Nobel quality reading matter.

For more information about this interesting author, here's a great site to check out a biography of Ms. Lessing, bibliographies, and other links.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Some of the Best Novels You've Never Read?

New York magazine has an interesting article in which sixty-one literary critics discuss their favorite underrated contemporary novels (and several short story collections and memoirs). There are some authors on the exalted list who do seem to have garnered their share of attention (John Lanchester, Carol Shields, Norman Rush, Martin Amis, for examples); after all, winning the Pulitzer Prize guarantees a bit of press and book sales, but I suppose when compared to being anointed by Oprah it is small potatoes. I can heartily agree with Ron Rosenbaum's choice of John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure" as a wondrously wicked novel, and I am putting several other contenders on my Christmas wish list: Russell Banks' "The Darling"; David Fulmer's jazz mystery "Rampart Street"; and "The Extra Man" by Jonathan Ames. Hopefully some of my loved ones are reading this blog.

The Book Trout swam about Old Saratoga Books and rounded up eight of the Best Novels You've Never Read as noted in the New York article and we offer them for your consideration below. You can click on the photos of each book if you are interested in purchasing a copy from our secure website.

  • Nunn, Kem, Tapping the Source, NY The Delacorte Press 1984. "What Hemingway's Nick Adams did for fishing, Kem Nunn does for surfing".
  • Harrison, Jim, The Road Home, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998. The sequel to Harrison's novel "Dalva".
  • Sapolsky, Robert M., A Primate's Memoir, NY: Scribner, 2001. A memoir of two decades in Kenya studying baboons.
  • Epstein, Leslie, San Remo Drive, NY: Handsel Books, 2003. "It is a large, public book that explores the glamorous life of Hollywood and evokes the landscape of Southern California both as it is now and as it appeared before the migration to it of millions" (from front jacket flap).
  • DeWitt, Helen, The Last Samurai, NY: Hyperion, 2001. The author's first novel, nominated in New York Magazine by Sven Birkets for exalted literary status "for its playful, steady, angst-attuned intelligence and its utter conceptual exceptionality".
  • Rush, Norman, Mortals, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A doorstop of a novel set in Botswana.
  • Hellenga, Robert R. The Fall of a Sparrow, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998. The author's second novel, in which classics professor "Woody" Woodhull goes to Italy to attend the trial of the terrorists who killed his daughter in a bombing.
  • Shields, Carol, Unless, NY: Fourth Estate, 2003. The late author's last novel, shortlisted for theOrange Prize, the Man Booker Prize, The Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chris over at the great Book Hunter's Holiday blog, where the posts are organized as chapters, has a great review of books about books which should be perused by every bookseller and bibliophile. Chapter 33, "Required Reading for Those New to Antiquarian Books", covers biblionovels, books about used bookselling, rare booksellers' memoirs, and books about book collecting. Great stuff. And now I must add to my nightstand reading pile since there were many titles I haven't explored.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Secret of Lost Things: A Biblionovel Book Review

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay (NY: Doubleday, 2006)

After hearing a radio interview with the author I had to buy a copy of "The Secret of Lost Things". Biblionovels are one of my reading passions and this book did not disappoint. It provided a neat interweaving of bookstore novel, unusual character studies and a literary puzzle.

The book is a coming of age story about a red-maned Tasmanian daughter of a milliner. Upon her single mother's death she is taken in by her mom's best friend bookseller. The friend sagely suggests having an adventure while she is young and firmly insists that she move off her island and onto another: Manhattan. Our eighteen-year-old heroine, Rosemary Savage, then finds cheap lodging in a women's hotel managed by Lillian, the grieving mother of an Argentine professor, one of the thousands of "the disappeared", tortured and killed by the military junta that ruled during the 1970s.

Rosemary then stumbles into a job at a Strand-like used bookstore, The Arcade, where the characters are eccentric all. There is the store owner, Mr. Pike, a blustering man with Victorian speech patterns; Arcade manager, Walter Geist, an albino with failing eyesight; Nonfiction manager Oscar, an emotionally-stunted fountain of textile minutiae; Pearl, the flirtatious transsexual cashier and would-be opera singer; and the Czar of the Rare Book Room, Mr. Mitchell, a rubicund, pipe-smoking teddy bear who skillfully presses the buttons of upscale book collectors.

With this disparate crew, Hay inserts a small voyage to retrieve a lost Melville novella. There are many interesting scenes at the New York Public Library, collectors' mansions and at Rosemary's second apartment, a heatless and downtrodden flat in the Lower East Side. The theme of the selfish collector, one who amasses the world's treasures but does not share them with others, is fleshed out perfectly with this description of the curator in charge of a millionaire collector's cabinets of curiosities:

"A peevish woman appeared, in her late twenties but dressed expensively in clothes more suited to a woman twice her age. Her hair was set severely in a bun, and she was round without seeming fleshy, somehow taut inside her clothing, at once plump and stiff".

While the novel did not contain as much bookstore gossip as I had hoped, it was an elegantly-written and -plotted book. And, oddly, the central character, Rosemary, seemed the most remote to me. She seems somewhat numb all the time, despite having the most unusual experiences. Still, an absorbing read and another book I am anxious to share with others.

I especially loved the comparison of the millinery supply shops Rosemary would travel to each year with her hatmaking mother and Mr. Mitchell's lair at the Arcade:

"No doubt my fondness for the Rare Book Room came in part from a sense of familiarity. It was a version of Foys' hat workroom from childhood visits to Sydney. There were no piles of skins, no wall of drawers filled with bric-a-brac, but each old volume amounted to something like the same thing. A book was like a drawer; one opened it and notions flew out."

Recommended reading for bibliophiles, Big Apple lovers, Melville fans and most everyone else.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Candy Freak

The promise of "Candy Freak", by the appropriately-named Steve Almond (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004) was much like unwrapping a jumbo size Sugar Daddy caramel pop : toothsome at the outset, somewhat cloying in the middle, and ultimately an unsatisfying oversaturation.

The subject is certainly interesting. Who doesn't want to relive childhood sugar rush memories? Almond's writing was breezy, informative and packed with interesting sidebars about obscure candies and the Willie Wonkas that manufacture them, but there was also too much filler about his angst over his relationship with his father and often tedious information about candy factory machinery and marketing strategies.

Where "Candy Freak" succeeded was in the author's unadulterated passion for candy and its many permutations. He could also be flat out funny. I picked up the book while on vacation this summer and read large passages while sipping white wine on my hotel's street side porch. (Literary correctness dictates that I should have been stirring a chocolate soda with a peppermint stick, but I needed a restorative libation). I snorted a large measure of Sauvignon Blanc off the hotel balcony while reading the following passage:

I have been endowed with one of those disgusting metabolisms that allow me to eat at will. To physiologists, I am a classic ectomorph, though my ex-girlfriends have tended to gravitate toward the term scrawny. The downside of this metabolic arrangement is that I am a slave to my blood sugar. If I don't eat for too long, I start thinking about murdering people, and I am inexorably drawn toward fats and carbs. I hate most vegetables, particularly what I call the evil brain trio--broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts--which tastes, to me, like flatulence that has been allowed to blossom.
Recommended reading for fellow candy freaks and candy company executives, but unfortunately not a sweet read overall.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Droolworthy Home Libraries

Dutch book lover Kim over at the fun book blog Kimbooktu has an ongoing project, Yourshelves, in which she's trying to collect images of home libraries of bibliophiles around the globe. After many years of having piles of books around, books in milk crates, bedside book ziggurats and precarious book stacks on every horizontal surface in the house, Dan crafted a beautiful library for us in our old house with warm wooden shelves along every wall. It's everyone's favorite room now and with lots of window light during the day and strategically-placed overhead lights for our aging eyes at night, it's a perfect reading room. We snuggle up on the couch with our two cats and enjoy many a good book.

If you would like to contribute a picture of your home library you can click on the leatherbound book logo above and send Kim an email.