Sunday, January 30, 2011


HILLENBRAND, LAURA. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6416-8. Pp. 473. $27.00.

Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, has written another book about an athlete, albeit a human one. Louie Zamperini was a world-famous miler who ran the 5,000m race at the 1936 Olympics. As an athlete he never reached his peak due to his experiences, related in almost excruciating detail in this book, as a B-24 bombardier and a POW in Japan. Reading Unbroken so soon after Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love comes as something of a shock. Do Americans want to read about a blond's blissful and successful search for inner peace and love? Or do we want a story filled with brutal beatings and dysentery? Honestly, I'd choose the latter because Hillenbrand's book is absolutely riveting, at least until the end of the war. Zamperini's alcoholism and discovery of Jesus I found less interesting, as, I think, will most readers.

The story Hillenbrand tells, while clearly well researched and almost unflaggingly interesting, has some weak points. Most noticeably, the author is not a very good writer. Having read excerpts of Zamperini's letters, I wouldn't say that he could have improved his own story by writing it, but Hillenbrand is less of an interpreter than an inscriber. It seems clear in the stilted writing that the author drew almost exclusively from letters, interviews, and notes. Not a trickle of imagination seeps through her writing.

There are, arguably, six stages of Zamperini's life that Hillenbrand relates here. The two weakest are the first and last, the first being an uninteresting description of the subject's childhood. I didn't know the Artful Dodger grew up to be an Olympic runner, but there you have it. Speed picks up (both figuratively and literally) when Louis takes up running in high school, coached by devoted older brother Pete. I have to admit the race scenes left my heart thumping, but part of this was residual feelings from my experiences as a cross country and track runner. Still, Hillenbrand's timing is masterful in these scenes, probably from her past experiences writing about horse racing. Oddly enough, the least interesting race is the 5,000m that Zamperini ran in Berlin. He had gained twelve pounds during the nine-day cruise across the Atlantic with the other Olympic contestants, and ran a fairly sluggish race, save for the last lap, which he ran in a mind-blowing 56 seconds. When he met Hitler, the man said, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish." Being only nineteen at the time, Zamperini was expected to have a brilliant running career ahead of him.

Instead, there was World War II for which Zamperini became a bombardier stationed in Hawaii, where he had a brilliant, if brief, career. Cruelly enough, this career ended not in battle, but during a search expedition for another downed plane. He and a number of men were coerced into taking an almost unflyable B-24, the Green Hornet, which crashed in the Pacific, and killed all but three of the men on board. Of the three who survived the crash, two would live to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Before meeting up with the Japanese, they had floated 2,000 miles over the course of 47 days.

A large portion of the book is about Zamperini's experiences in a number of POW camps over the course of two and a half years. Though I found it perversely absorbing, the number of beatings and bouts of dysentery that Hillenbrand relays gets awfully repetitive after a hundred or so pages. What's more, the majority of this section is recounted in anecdotal sketches, many of which start with the word "Once," or "One time," and many of which don't lead anywhere. Hillenbrand's interest in her subjects noticeably flags, and the focus moves more towards Mutsuhiro Watanabe, "the Bird," a corporal at two of the POW camps in which Zamperini was taken, who took a special interest in beating and bullying him. After the war ended, this man seems to be the exclusive cause of Zamperini's post-traumatic street disorder and Hillenbrand takes a special interest in describing the "sexual rapture" the Bird seemed to exude after beating a man half to death.

What I found most troubling about this book, is the ending, which swiftly describes the rest of Zamperini's life until the present day (the man is still alive at the age of 93). Hillenbrand manages to portray Zamperini's adult life and old age as a mediocrity (the man was a motivational speaker and opened a camp for troubled boys), leaving the book with a vaguely unsettling message.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Next week

Next week: Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.

What the Night Knows

KOONTZ, DEAN. What the Night Knows. New York: Bantam Books, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-553-80772-1. Pp. 442. $28.00.

Everything in Dean Koontz's newest novel seems to be haunted. People, houses, mirrors. Even the dedication reads: "To Gerda, who has haunted my heart since the day we met". I'm pretty sure that my copy comes to life at night, because one morning I woke up to inexplicably find a hairball and two dead cockroaches on my living room floor. An omen, perhaps?

Apart from being a horror novel, What the Night Knows also has a streak of detective thriller in it. Except that this book starts where most mysteries end, with the detective, John Calvino, face to face with the killer, mild-mannered fourteen-year-old Billy Lucas, who up and violently murdered his family one day. As it turns out, Billy was haunted by the spirit of the real killer, Alton Turner Blackwood, whom Calvino had shot and killed twenty years ago, but only after Blackwood had killed Calvino's entire family. That Calvino survived while his family perished is bad enough. Unfortunately for his conscience, he survived because he had sneaked off to have sex at his girlfriend's house. Now, twenty years later, Blackwood has come back to finish off the job. I guess.

If it weren't for the gory violence, I would say this book should really be for children. Three of the novel's protagonists are John Calvino's children, aged thirteen, eleven, and eight, and while the book is written in the third person, the voice changes depending on who is dominating the scene. Thus do we get a lot of sentences such as this one, "Sister Half-Pint had infected Naomi with spookitis;" or "Now he was going to search the service mezzanine not because a bad guy was lurking around up there, scheming and cackling like some Phantom of the Opera wannabe, but just for the principle of it, to prove to himself that he wasn't a chickenhearted, gritless jellyfish."As an adult reader, I found this kind of narrative, straight out of E. Nesbit or the Boxcar children, exasperatingly cloying.

Unfortunately, John Calvino, while at the center of the action, carries little weight as a character. Even as a detective he is ineffectual, being on unpaid leave throughout most of the book. Fortunately his wife is a successful artist, whose good luck has brought them a large house and a married couple who do all the cooking and cleaning. Throughout the novel, Calvino witnesses countless brutal murders, and while we are assured that he is affected by what he sees, his demeanor changes not a bit from the beginning to the end of the novel. I don't really want to give away the ending, but he is given a magical opportunity to go back and change the past and right his wrongs, a veritable narrative cop-out if you ask me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Next Week

Next week: Dean Koontz's What the Night Knows.

Rachel Ray's Look + Cook

RAY, RACHEL. Rachel Ray's Look + Cook. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-307-59050-3. Pp. 320. $24.99.

Rachel Ray is best known for her 30-minutes meals and that reassuring mantra "Good food and fine living are not reserved for the rich". Which does not really explain why she is selling a paperback cookbook at a hard cover price. But never mind.

Ray's newest book is special because (and I think I've got this right) it has 600 photographs. I guess seeing the process on the page is reassuring to a less experienced cook, but I've never trusted glamor shots of food and I wouldn't normally buy a cookbook for the pictures. In this case I didn't really pay much attention to the images while I was cooking because I was too busy following the instructions, but I did find them extremely distracting and unattractive. On any given page you'll find three separate pictures of raw chicken and ground beef, usually strategically place where page numbers would have been useful. Again, never mind the book's appearance. What matters is that the recipes yielded something delicious.

Look + Cook is actually two books slapped together for some indeterminate reason. The first is the legitimate product, with the 600 photographs and glossy paper. The second book (entitled "More Recipes!"), which makes up almost a third of the actual tome, is more like an unfortunate afterthought. No photographs. Orange ink. Matte paper. The superior section is comprised of three chapters; the second of eight. Because I was following the same protocol as with Ina Garten's How Easy Is That?, I made one recipe from each chapter, which puts the glossier section in a secondary position in this review.

Chapter One: Cozy Food. I'd already made a bolognese recipe from How Easy Is That? and thought I would compare and contrast it with Ray's Bolognese with Pappardelle. Papparedelle is not an exotic secret ingredient, unfortunately. It's just a kind of long flat pasta. I couldn't find any at the grocery store and substituted it with fettuccine. I hope it didn't compromise the taste... Ray has the very annoying tendency to call for "2 tablespoons EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)," therefore defeating the purpose of condensing extra-virgin olive oil. She does this, I've noticed, in every since recipe that contains EVOO, which is to say, every recipe in the book. Except for the dessert recipes. Anyway, the outcome was good, but I preferred Garten's version. Especially since her's tasted better and took half the time to make. (This one involves simmering the sauce for an hour to an hour and a half).

Chapter 2: Make Your Own Takeout. I guess it's no secret that this cookbook is an alternative to takeout. That is to say, you don't usually think of people alternating Rachel Ray recipes with Julia Child or Mark Bittman, but with Pei Wei and Pizza Hut. Now she's making it even more obvious with her chapter of takeout menu recipes. We made As You Like It Citrus Soy Stir-Fry, which wasn't as Shakespearean as I would have liked. Unless Shakespeare liked having a jar of marmalade in his soy glaze. When I was dumping this ingredient in with the rest, I reassured myself that it would get drowned out by the others, and all that would be left was a faint aroma of orange rind. Oddly enough when we sat down to eat, Koch, who hates marmalade, found its pervading presence acceptable. I, on the other hand, who sacrificed a jar of my own personal marmalade to make this recipe, did not.

Chapter 3: Fancy Fake-Outs. Did I mention that Rachel Ray's favorite words are Fake-Out and Yum-O? I really shouldn't make fun, since I probably chose one of the silliest recipes in the whole chapter, a risotto without the rice called "Wild Mushroom broken spaghetti 'risotto'". The recipe was not bad, and it gave me an excuse to buy delicious porcini mushrooms and hazelnuts. Still, next time I think I'll spare myself the humiliation of breaking half a pound of spaghetti into little pieces and use rice. I'm also unsure of the point of topping it off with arugula (which I couldn't find at the grocery store, again).

Chapter 4: 30-minutes meals. It's what made Ray famous, so of course there are going to be some 30-minutes meals included here. I made the Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup with Smoky Caprese Panini for lunch on a rainy Sunday. It hit the spot, but then again, one can never go wrong with combining fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil. The soup was quite good, too. This is the recipe I most highly recommend, even if its name is too long.

Chapter 5: Yes! The Kids Will Eat It. This is where I learned that Rachel Ray loves the word Yum-O and that it is also what she has called her nonprofit organization for "empower[ing] kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking". I don't really know what this means. I didn't even know families could have unfortunate relationships with food. I'm assuming this is a veiled reference to child obesity. Anyway, I happened to make the Turkey Meat Loaves with Smashed Sweet Potatoes & Peas & Radishes on a night earlier this week when Koch was in Canada, so I ended up dividing all the ingredients by six. This including dividing an egg by six. I threw caution to the wind and assumed a splash of Eggbeaters would do. And it did. What is interesting about this recipe (and, assumedly, the other recipes in this chapter) is that it makes up an entire meal, and not just one dish. I'd never encountered that before. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

Chapter 6: Sides & Starters. I just tried the Spinach Salad with Slumped Mushrooms. I took two bites and threw it out. Too much red onion. Also, I don't like salads whose dressings consist of nothing but lemon juice.

I skipped chapter 7, which may actually be the most useful chapter. I just didn't need any "Simple Sauces & Bottom-of-the-jar tips". These recipes involve using up the last tablespoons of peanut butter  or the cereal crumbs and the bottom of the box. A very clever idea.

Finally, Chapter 8: Desserts. Ray starts off on less than a strong note: "I do not bake, because I am competitive and I know baking is just not my forte. Plus, baking is more of a science than a purely creative art, and I stink at science!" This rings false to me. How is Rachel Ray competitive, exactly? She does not boast being the best cook around. Far from it. So why not try her hand at baking? I would guess laziness. But she's already gone through the trouble of writing all these cookbooks and starring in her own cooking show. So, I guess it has something to do with the mob. Still, I found a cake recipe in this skeletal chapter and made it for my birthday, which I celebrated alone with my cats like a Tom Waits song. Did I say it was a cake recipe? That's not exactly true. It involves making a cake from a box of yellow cake-mix and substituting apple cider for water. The Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting is what makes it kind of unique, though. And it tasted like a cinnamon bun. Not a bad thing at all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

2010 Year-In Review

I took the week off so as to avoid reading Timothy Ferriss's The 4-Hour Body, but will resume this bloggerly venture next week with Rachel Ray's Look + Cook. In the mean time, here is an overview of some of the books I read this year.

Dostoevksy, Fyodor. Demons. (Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.) I'm not sure how to go about "blurbing" one of Dostoevsky's numerous heavy masterpieces, especially since I read this one back in March. I guess one could say it chronicles the political degeneracy of a Russian town, but this seems grossly inadequate. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if I can't remember any of the Russian names off the top of my head.

Turgenev, Ivan. Virgin Soil. (Translation by Constance Garnett.) It may be Garnett's drab translation, but this Russian political novel did not grab me in quite the same fashion that Demons did. Thankfully, it's a lot shorter in length.

Oe, Kenzaburo. A Personal Matter. (Translation by John Nathan.) This may be the most disturbing book I read this year. Most Japanese novels seem that way. It is also the first work by Oe I've read that does not focus on World War II. Instead, it chronicles the days following the birth of "Bird's" son, who is born with a grotesquely misshapen head.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Beautiful and Damned. I know, I know. No one likes this book. Except for me, I suppose. It's such a New York-centric book that I found every bit of it comforting while I was reading it in the dreary heartland of Texas.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Glory. (Translation by Dmitri Nabokov.) This is the book I must have read exactly one year ago, and it has already completely slipped from my memory. I think it had something to do with a Russian. 

Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. This novel falls under that big umbrella known as "chick-lit," a novel in which men are always falling indiscriminately and constantly in love with women. It's very annoying.

Grass, Gunter. Cat and Mouse. (Translation by Ralph Manheim.) I fell so in love with Grass's The Tin Drum, that I've continuously gone back to the man's other books, only to be disappointed time and again. Though not his worst work, Can and Mouse seems like a paltry follower to his masterpiece.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. (Translation by Hilda Rosner.) On the cover of my edition, the publisher has cleverly written, "His most famous novel." Which is too bad, because it is certainly not his best. (I think Steppenwolf is.)

Martin, Steve. An Object of Beauty. Another great New York book. Martin deftly chronicles the art world from the early 1990's through 2009. There's not much of a plot, but the setting is really all that counts here. Also, it's short and illustrated.

I am now reading an excellent new novel by Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love, which chronicles both pre- and post-war Sierra Leone, the country in which the author was born and raised. Probably the best book I've read all year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Inside of a Dog

HOROWITZ, ALEXANDRA. Inside of a Dog. New York: Scribner, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4165-8343-1. Pp. 352. $16.00.

Hats off to Alexandra Horowitz for bumping Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love out of the number one seat. It's about time. Perhaps it goes without saying that Inside of a Dog probably will not be where it is today six months from now, but it provides a welcome change, seeing that people are losing interest in rich divorcées in favor of the dog.

You might have noticed that I own cats. Do not be fooled. I was born a dog-person and while growing up, my parents compensated my lack of dog by giving me dog books for Christmas. Thus, for someone who has never had her own dog, I know a hell of a lot about them. I feel the need to say all this to hopefully convince the untrained reader that I can appreciate a good doggy book. Which is what Inside of a Dog is. A damn good doggy book. Reading it re-awoke my childhood dream of one day being a dog owner. This is how lovingly Horowitz reconstructs for us the inner workings of her subject.

Horowitz is a psychology professor at Barnard College, with a concentration in animal psychology, which in turn is with a concentration in dog psychology. She has also written for the New Yorker. She is clearly a talented science writer, absorbing dry scientific papers and producing snappy, interesting synopses for the layman's benefit. Even her bibliography, which is impressively extensive, is interesting to read. As far as bibliographies go, of course.

Still, Horowitz is a scientist first, a writer second. More often than not I found her sentences overly convoluted, requiring a re-reading to figure out what was the object, the subject, the verb. For example, "Monkeys can make use of nearby birds' warning calls of a nearby predator to themselves take protective action". Huh? Elsewhere, Horowitz employs the repetition of certain words to get a point across, but reading the word "attention" five or six times in as many sentences can get tiresome. I also noticed in the last third of the book her growing fondness for using colons: where a comma would have done.

Nevertheless, Inside of a Dog was written with a purpose, and Horowitz realizes that purpose beautifully. I am sure that many of the people who will buy and read this book are the same people I see putting booties on their dogs and forcing them to heel a quarter of an inch away from their owner's right calf. This book lovingly explains why you should not do these things. It serves instead as a reminder of the dog-ness most of us appreciate and love, and as a plea to let the dog-ness be. I should mention that Horowitz is not anti-dog training or anything of the sort, and even provides useful tips at the end of the book. But Inside of a Dog is a celebration of dogs for what they are and what we should let them be.