Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Reviews: Untangling My Chopsticks & Absinthe

I am squeezing in two short book reviews to complete the Books About Food reading challenge today. Interestingly, both books are centered around green beverages: green tea and absinthe. The first book, "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto", by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (NY: Broadway Books, 2003), recounts the author's year spent in Kyoto, Japan, learning about the art of kaiseki. Kaiseki is the traditional and highly ritualized series of foods to accompany green tea ceremonies and involves a series of small dishes of exquisitely prepared and garnished foods.

Riccardi lands in Kyoto without much knowledge of Japanese culture or language, but is fortunate to have some friends of friends to stay with until she finds other lodging, enrolls in language classes and snags a coveted spot in a prestigious tea kaiseki school where there is an American ex-pat to help her navigate the new culinary and language challenges she faces.

The kaiseki banquets she studies sound exquisite; they evolved from Buddhist monastery traditions into highly formal social dining banquets in which tastings of thick and thin whipped green tea are interspersed with samples of the freshest, seasonal dishes, exquisitely garnished. She also provides interesting glimpses of Japanese home cooking and ordinary restaurant fare, and includes many recipes easily adapted to Western kitchens.

Though this book is but a glimpse into a highly complex Japanese culinary tradition, it was a mouthwatering introduction and I will be referring back to it when attempting my own forays into Japanese cooking.

The concluding book for this Books About Food reading challenge is actually about a distilled spirit, and one which not only does not provide any nourishment butwas historically considered quite deadly in large doses. The spirit in question is Absinthe, that green spirit made from wormwood and the favorite tipple of many an artist, writer and dreamer in 19th century Europe, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

The fascinating history of this often-outlawed beverage is fleshed out in "Absinthe: Sip of Seduction: A Contemporary Guide", by Betina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch (Golden, CO: Speck Press, 2008). This revised edition is an entertaining look at the rituals of drinking this bitter spirit, which involve diluting it with water and straining it through an absinthe spoon and sugar cube to produce an opalescent, cloudy cocktail. Absinthe was perhaps the most vilified alcoholic beverage during the temperance movement that swept the West over the last century, associated as it was with the excesses of the bohemian lifestyle, but it has since become legal to imbibe in the United States and Europe again.

The book contains a wealth of illustrations of Art Nouveau posters, postcards, absinthe drinking paraphrenalia and photographs of Absinthe fans from Aleister Crowley to Johnny Depp, so this makes for an entertaining foray into the lore and truths about this infamous beverage.

This concludes my reading for this short but sweet Books About Food Reading Challenge. In addition to the two books reviewed succinctly above, I also enjoyed reading:

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber

A Bowl of Red:The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants by Frank X. Tolbert

Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen

My original list of Books About Food was changed to suit my mood, but all were enjoyable and recommended reading. Now I am primed to read some more science and classics books. Off to the couch!

Friday, March 20, 2009

More Change at the Bookstore

It must be a sign of the times. Schuylerville, New York is not an economic hot spot, but lately I have more and more customers at Old Saratoga Books paying with coins. Usually it's just kids who come in for one or more of our 25 cent kids books or people killing time in between washer loads from the nearby laundromat. But not lately. There has been a notable uptick in the number of folks forking over handfuls of dimes, quarters and nickels to pay for their paperback and hardcover escapes.

Are they raiding piggy banks for some cheap entertainment? Hunting through couch cushions so as to procure the next installment in their mystery or fantasy series? (note to self: check couch tonite).

Ditto for the surge in phone calls asking if we are buying books right now (answer: VERY sparingly, as I'm trying to balance the yin/yang of the OSB till) and in the number of sales calls for all manner of business services.

Another more encouraging trend is the increase in sales and requests for books about such self-reliant skills as gardening, canning, appliance repair, alternative energy, weatherization and home repairs, and cooking.

I am trying more sale piles of books in the shop and these seem to be selling well and easing the groaning of the shelves. I've been successful with stacks of books by the same author (Stephen King, John Sandford, Doris Lessing and Solzhenitsyn have all been lugged out of the shop to make way for more fiction), and by subject (religious books, gardening and furniture repair have all gone out). If you are one of my regular in-store customers, come on down to see what's stacked up cheap and if you are one of my on-line customers, feel free to call or email to inquire about any inexpensive book lots I might have lying about for sale. Requests for particular authors/titles/subjects also considered.

Gotta go roll some change.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: The Extinction Club by Robert Twigger

The second book on my Science Books Challenge reading list is Robert Twigger's "The Extinction Club" (NY: William Morrow, 2001). My husband had read and enjoyed the author's book about trekking after jungle reptiles in "Big Snake" and I looked forward to diving into this book about the rare Chinese Milu or Pere David deer.

The Milu (Elapharus davidianus) are a native Chinese deer which were only allowed to be kept and hunted by the imperial court. A Basque missionary and amateur naturalist, Pere David, wrote about the deer and smuggled some butchered deer parts back to the West in a French diplomatic pouch (quel odeur!), paving the way for part of the herd to be imported back to various private hunting grounds and sanctuaries back in Europe when the Chinese empire was carved up after the Boxer Rebellion.

Though the book was not the natural history adventure I expected, Twigger's writing is witty and easy to dive into. Just like the Milu, with their camel necks, stag horns, donkey tails and reindeer feet, this book is an amalgam of parts: part philosophical musings on big questions like the meaning of extinction, part history (the carving up of the Chinese empire by Western powers is sad and fascinating), part memoir about writerly angst and only a very small part of information about the subject deer.

Twigger uses a diverting brand of creative non-fiction to juggle these disparate themes and most of the time it works well and reads easily. Other times, it is confusing, as when he invents a maniacal retired Army Major who has the means to cause the extinction of fragile species of fish by pouring chemicals into remote lakes. I thought this fellow was a real person until rereading several passages over again. Then I began to question whether other characters and scenes in the book were real or imagined, so ultimately I have to say that while I was highly entertained by the book, I can't say that I am more informed about Chinese-European history or the saga of the Milu after reading this book. Or was I?