Friday, February 26, 2010

Knives at Dawn

While the rest of you have been watching the Olympics on TV, I have been reading about what is essentially, the Olympics of cooking. The Bocuse d'Or is the most prestigious cooking competition in the world. Twenty-four countries compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals. Each country is represented by a team of two-a chef and an assistant. They have five hours to produce a meat platter and a fish platter. So, like Iron Chef, right? Well, yes in the sense that it's a timed competition, but this is like Iron Chef extreme. The contestants know their ingredients ahead of time and have months to invent their dishes and practice preparation. The food they are cooking is anything but ordinary. They are expected to produce very elaborate, intricate, precise, fancy-schmancy dishes. The U.S. has never won a medal at the Bocuse d'Or. The French have been big winners in the past, but Norway has become a big contender. Tim Hollingsworth, a chef at Thomas Keller's famous The French Laundry, led the U.S. team in the 2009 competition.

Andrew Friedman's Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition is a mind-blowing account of the U.S. team's preparation for, and participation in, this competition. It really is quite an amazing story. Something I didn't realize about this type of cooking is the importance placed on presentation. Presentation is just as important as taste. Attention to intricate details, precision, and timing are a big part of the competition. Are all the arugula leaves exactly the same size? Are there exactly the same number of carrot shavings in each dish? Oy. The story gets a little bogged down in all the people involved, but when Friedman describes the actual cooking, the pace picks up. His ability to describe the details of the intricate dishes is impressive. The dishes will not be familiar to most readers, so his ability to create a picture in the reader's eye is what makes this story successful (and the pictures help too). Although he is a whiz at describing the physical aspects of the dishes, the descriptions of taste were lacking. Having never eaten scallop mousse or beef cheeks, this book didn't make me drool. I couldn't taste the food in my mouth. I can honestly say this is the first food book that didn't make me want to run right out and get this food. Except maybe the bacon chips. Mmmm.

One could argue that cooking at this level is just as rigorous as an athletic competition, so this book would be a good read not only for those interested in food, but those that are interested in sports competitions. The preparation, the practices, the training, the stories of the competitors, and the pulse-pounding account of the actual competition reminded me of David Halberstam's The Amateurs, which, although I care nothing for rowing, was a great read.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


From 1852 to 1855, Tawawa Resort in Xenia, Ohio was a popular vacation spot for Southern slave owners. Slave owners were able to vacation at this resort with their slave "mistresses." Dolen Perkins-Valdez's debut novel, Wench, imagines the lives of four slave women who accompany their masters to this resort over the course of several summers. Rennie and Mawu's masters are brutal and unrelenting, viewing these women as nothing more than property. Sweet and Lizzie's masters treat them with a little more humanity, and Lizzie is treated almost like Drayle's wife. She is the mother of his children and shares a room with him in the main house. But none of the women have any choice or control over their lives. The descriptions of the conditions under which the slave women were forced to live are so vivid and gut-wrenching. Their fear and despair is palpable.The women are well-developed, strong, characters with unique voices. The novel starts off a little slow, but as you get to know each of the women, their stories draw you in. This was a good read from a first-time novelist.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fall of Anne Boleyn

What is it about Anne Boleyn that continues to captivate us? Her life and the lives of Henry VIII and the members of the Tudor court are continually explored in fiction, nonfiction, movies, and television. I never tire of reading about these scheming, grasping characters, especially Anne. Probably because there are so many conflicting versions of her personality. In some accounts she is painted as a heroine, and in some she is painted as a scheming seductress. I like to think of her as somewhere in between. There are also many conflicting versions of the truth. Did she commit adultery? Did she have an incestuous relationship with her brother? Or did Henry (or one of his cronies) just concoct these allegations so he could get her out of the way and move on to his next wife? We will never truly know for sure, so there is much room for speculation. Alison Weir is one of my favorite writers of Tudor history, both nonfiction and fiction. Her latest work, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, is a nonfiction account of the last few months of Anne's life and the events that led up to her beheading. Weir suggests that Thomas Cromwell, Henry's minister, headed a conspiracy against Anne and the Boleyn family. She suggests that Henry may simply have had his marriage to Anne annulled after she failed to provide him with a male heir, and did not consider executing her until these vicious rumors (encouraged by Cromwell) reached him. Hilary Mantel painted a much different picture of Cromwell in her recent novel, Wolf Hall, and disagrees with this assumption.

Either way, it makes for some great drama. And sadly, Cromwell ended up in the same boat as Anne and many others in Henry's circle: used, and then executed, by Henry when he failed to provide him with whatever he wanted at the current moment. The moral of the story: Kings are trouble. Stick with the stable boy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Billionaire's Vinegar

Although I love food, that love does not extend to wine. I can manage a sickly sweet dessert wine or a glass of champagne every now and then, but the rest of it tastes like gasoline to me. I couldn't tell the difference between a Lafite and a Three Buck Chuck. I've tried to learn to like it, or at least be able to appreciate why other people like it, but it eludes me. So I find it unbelievable that someone would pay thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars on a bottle of wine! But people do. The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction was a 1787 Chateau Lafite that was said to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson. The bottle was bought by the Forbes family for $156,000.

This confounds me for so many reasons. First, if you pay that much money for a bottle of wine, do you drink it or not? If you drink it, you've spent $156,000 on something that you enjoy for maybe an hour. If you don't drink it, then you're a tool for having such an amazing bottle of wine just collecting dust in your cellar. And if you wanted it simply for the historical value of the bottle, what does it matter that there is wine in it or not?

Second, if you drink it, how on earth could a 200+ year old anything taste good? I let a bottle of wine sit for several months once and then tried to drink it. It was like rotten vinegar. True, this was some cheap bottle from the grocery store and not a Lafite, but I still don't think something that old, regardless of it's quality, could still be drinkable. I would be skeptical if it did taste good. And if it doesn't taste good, you've spent $156,000 on something that tastes terrible.

Third, how do you know it's truly a 200 year old wine? Does anyone really know what a 200 year old wine should taste like? That is the question behind Benjamin Wallace's The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. From the very beginning, the authenticity of this bottle of wine was questioned. The bottle was "found" by German wine collector, Hardy Rodenstock, walled up in the basement of a Paris home. Rodenstock was very secretive about the exact location of the house and how many bottles had been found. If the bottle was authentic, this was an amazing find. Christie's examined the bottle and determined it to be the real thing, which created a frenzy among wine collectors. Aside from this bottle, Rodenstock privately sold other Jefferson bottles, as well as other rare, old wines. When many respected collectors started questioning the authenticity of Rodenstock's wines, one of his clients began an investigation. I love stories about forgery-art, documents, money, etc. I think it's fascinating the lengths forgers go to, and how experts can tell if something is fake. The science behind the tests is also amazing. I learned more about old wine and wine collectors than I ever wanted to know, but this was a very interesting book. A good read for fans of books like Brian Innes' Fakes and Forgeries or Frank Abagnale's memoir, Catch Me If You Can. The only disappointment is that there really is no justice or resolution. Although the mystery is solved, the bad guy, at least for now, gets away.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Do you know where that book has been?

When it comes to library materials, you expect that they aren't always in great condition. When books get used, they show wear. Bindings break, covers get worn, pages fall out. It doesn't usually bother me because it means that people are reading the books, and that's what we want, right? Part of my job is to examine the books that come back damaged beyond the usual wear and tear. I have to decide if they can be repaired or if they need to be/can be replaced. And since our circulation is way up, I'm seeing a lot more damaged materials. This can be fun because there are usually some interesting items. The majority of books that I see are just typical broken bindings, torn covers-things you would expect. But occasionally I'll get an audiobook that looks like someone used it as a Frisbee with their dog. Or, I can tell when a book has been to the beach because little particles of sand fall out. Sometimes I like to play "guess that stain." This amuses me. What does not amuse me? When a book is returned, labeled as "water damage" and I find that it is not, in fact, water at all. Or coffee, or juice. But what looks suspiciously like urine. First, gross. Second, how on earth did this happen? How does a book get urine on it? And third, why did you return it?

I'm not usually a big germaphobe, but this? Almost makes me want to start wearing gloves.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Forgery of Venus

The plot of Michael Gruber's The Forgery of Venus seems a bit convoluted, but I found it to be a very satisfying read. When talented painter Chaz Wilmot gets involved in a dangerous, but financially lucrative plot to forge a famous painting by a Spanish master, his life and his sanity are at risk. The story begins with Chaz mysteriously delivering a CD to an old college classmate, and then disappearing. On the CD are hours of recordings of Chaz, telling a story that becomes stranger by the minute. As his classmate begins to listen to Chaz's tale, he begins to wonder whether Chaz has lost his mind. Chaz, a very talented painter, has never made much of his talent. When Chaz agrees to participate in a psychological drug study, he begins to hallucinate that he is living the life of a famous Spanish painter, Velazquez, who lived in the 1600s. A shady European art dealer gets wind of Chaz's hallucinations and offers him a job he can't refuse forging a famous Velazquez painting. Soon, Chaz is consumed with the painting and begins having difficulty telling reality from his hallucinations.

I probably picked this book up because it seems to have a lot of the elements I like in a suspense novel: art, Nazi art theft, and history. But Gruber also incorporates some unique features that made this one stand out from the others. I loved how the story was written as if it was a transcription from a recording. It sounds just the way someone (who is slightly nuts) might tell a story verbally. Gruber also transitioned Chaz from the present into his hallucinations so seamlessly, it takes a second to realize what is happening, which makes it seem so real. And his descriptions of Velazquez's life are so vivid. I also found myself stopping and trying to figure out what was real and what was just a hallucination, which also made it seem more realistic. The one disappointment was that we don't really know how or why Chaz seemed to inhabit Velazquez's life, which I thought was one of the most intriguing aspects of the story.