Posts from October 2016
October 31st, 2016
Our book today is a slim little garlic tart: Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother, a 130-page guide to proper behavior written by Jeremiah Tower, whose author-note refers to him, non-ironically and without so much as a glance in the direction of the Maidu or Mojave, as “the forefather of Californian cuisine.” Tower has opened a number of chi-chi restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere, and since the stereotypical characterization of habitual restauranteurs as brutish, mobbed-up arrivistes is only one thin translucent onion-slice away from being photographically accurate, a reader could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the thought of a manners guide being offered by anybody who’s ever made himself hoarse and red-faced screaming at busboys he pays $1.50 an hour.
Luckily, when you look closer at the thing, you realize it’s saved by its modest scope. “Table manners” is exactly right: this is Tower’s little book about what he knows best: behavior, appalling and otherwise, specifically centered on the preparation, consumption, and sharing of food. There’s no section on how to treat your employees with even a modicum of basic civility if you happen to own the chi-chi restaurant where they work, but everything else is covered.
The book is playfully illustrated by an artist with the charmingly Edith Whartonesque name of Libby Vanderploeg, and there are short, punchy, almost pugnacious (there’s that stereotype again) chapters on how to host a dinner party, how to attend a dinner party, how to navigate a group meal at a restaurant, and even a chapter called “Techiquette” on what to do when Instagram, Facebook, and live-tweeting make unwanted appearances at your carefully-planned social gathering. But wherever two or more of you are gathered in the name of gastronomy, there Tower is also, with ready quips about, for instance, bringing your own food on a plane:
Just because US airlines have turned to barbarism doesn’t mean you have to. Once you’re in your seat, it’s too late to wonder why you brought smelly, messy, spillable food with you. Raw garlic may be ambrosia to you, but smelly clouds of it spreading over the rows around you may not be to anyone else.
Or sharing food at a table full of guests:
If you dig in for a taste of someone’s food without asking first, then that person had better be in love with you.
Or his comment about the quantity of food to be served, a comment likely to leave the average Irish reader slack-jawed in scandalized objection:
If the guests leave the event stuffed and uncomfortable, they will think of you not as a successful host, but a blundering one.
(Here Tower’s somewhat elitist leanings – there’s a whole section on the proper use of finger bowls – lead him a bit afield from the experiences of most of his readers, I’m betting; among the simple folk, the clear and Heaven-ordained end goal of any friendly food-oriented gathering is for your guests to waddle homeward a good six pounds heavier than they were when they arrived at your door)(or, to put the whole thing in explicitly canine terms: “stuffed” is never “uncomfortable”)
There’s a pleasing strand running throughout the book that stands in sharp, welcome contrast to the Selfie Era: Tower is forever urging his readers to watch, to listen, to accede, to go along – to restrain, in other words, their self-absorption in order to make others feel more comfortable. He calls it the Platinum Rule:
This book should be viewed as less about rules and more about suggestions. The world changes. But the general principle of good table manners will never change. You are always correct and safe from any embarrassing gaffes if you remember the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do.
The telegraphic brevity of Table Manners is, in fact, its only real concession to modern attention spans geared to 140 characters; all the rest is the kind of thing that was being written (at greater length and, it must be said, with very much greater charm) by the great Miss Manners half a century ago. The sad truth is that even these bare minimum maxims of public courtesy are rapidly fading from collective memory, to the point where Tower’s book already looks a little anachronistic. But there’s no harm in trying.
October 28th, 2016
Our book today is Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love, a glorious result of photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky’s journeys around the United States, talking to people about their old dogs. This is a book that will bring a painful smile to the face of any dog owner, because its subject is the contradiction at the heart of the relationship.
Dogs are not stately, like horses, and they aren’t stealthy, like cats; they’re direct, bounding – active. We instinctively picture them running, jumping, (occasionally something that rhymes with ‘jumping’), playing; the dog is, as Henry Ward Beecher immortally put it, the god of frolic.
It’s a mental fixed point that makes their old age feel almost like some kind of contractual failure. Surely, the dog owner thinks every time, this old, stiff, staring duffer can’t be the same animal I held in my hand as a squirming little milk-puppy just a little while ago? The question is equal parts astonished and defensive; the easiest thing to forget, in their long sunshine years of bottomless vitality, is that dogs age ten times faster than their humans. The sheer speed with which their old age comes upon them shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s seen how fast a puppy achieves adulthood, and yet it always is a surprise. Suddenly, virtually overnight, the same person who could once leap up into your outstretched arms from a standing start needs your careful, gentle help to get up on a mattress hardly taller than your hand. And the surprise moves in both directions: they’re not exactly a species known for their sharp introspection, but even so, old dogs know they’re lessened. There’s a quick look of fear that crosses their eyes when some jump fails or some new pain flares up – fear and uncertainty. On some level, they’re often aware that some fundamental term of the compact with their humans isn’t being met anymore.
That’s where the “unconditional” of Klonsky’s title comes in. The owners she interviews and photographs are doing everything they can, every day, to alleviate those little moment of fear and uncertainty. Whether it’s Todd Collins and his 17-year-old Cheyenne, or Stacy Cohen and her 10-year-old mastiff Josie, or Sheryl Maloney and her 12-year-old golden retriever Hannah (“People may think I am silly, but I love here like she is my child, my best friend, and my soul mate. I can’t imagine these last 12 years without her by my side”), the sentiments recorded in these pages hit the same notes over and over: “She’s a gift to me,” “He’s given me more than I could ever give him,” “I am forever indebted.”
It takes a great deal of patience to care for the elderly, and this is no different for dogs than it is for humans. That patience virtually glows off these pages. John Hembree, for example, has a 13-year-old pointer named Forrest who’s suffering from an incurable spinal degeneration called myelopathy, causing the dog slowly to go lame – and Hembree has fitted him out with a metal framework on wheels, determined to do whatever it takes to keep Forrest enjoying life. Likewise Jen DeVere and her 17-year-old spaniel mix Avery, who’s been through a host of health problems but still wants to enjoy every day. “The doctors have told us that she seems to be in good spirits, so we get to have her with us a little longer,” says DeVere. “Every day is gift with her. When she woofs and wags her tail in her sleep, it still makes me smile, and I know all the effort is worth it.”
That sentiment – that every day is a gift – is shared in some capacity by every single human interviewed in Unconditional. Certain Norma-Desmondesque basset hounds notwithstanding, most dogs in their prime lavish their human companions with love and energy, and when the end comes, the awful burden of returning that great gift shifts to its recipients, who will either rise to the example that’s been set for them or fail. Anybody who’s ever worked or volunteered at a dog pound will know the dead-eyed look on the faces of the humans who fail, but such horrible moments aren’t captured in books and never will be and shouldn’t be. It’s the other group that’s celebrated here: these are the dog owners who’ve learned selflessness from their old friends. And these are the faces of those old friends – no longer able to pester or guard or guide, needing all the help they once so eagerly offered. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book, a ‘must-have’ for anybody who’s ever risen to that challenge.
October 19th, 2016
As I’ve readily admitted in the past, the lad-mags for which I have something of a pronounced sweet-tooth aren’t really the places you go if you’re looking for literary coverage. It’s true that some of them pay their freelancers well, so in the rear pages of many an issue, you can often find writing that you don’t want to miss. But that writing will almost never be about books (and that’s often a good thing – I’ve lost count of the number of “25 Books Everybody Should Read” lists with no entries by the little ladies). The editors of these magazines love to tout the well-balanced life, so they sometimes feel compelled to pop in little features about how a self-respecting dude-bro should work in a little reading in between the four-figure shoe budget and the gym squats, but the features usually have a hit-and-run quality to them.
Take, as the latest instance, the November issue of Men’s Fitness. It’s got a bald no-neck thug on the cover, and it’s got a full-page ad for the Amazon Kindle that made me want to push somebody off a rock wall worse than I’ve ever wanted that in my life, and sure enough, there was a little factoid article about reading. It was written by James Rosenthal, and it read in its entirety:
Getting your nose out of the gossipy websites, clicking off all the streaming screens and picking up a book for just 30 minutes a day can help you live longer. Yale researchers surveyed general data (income, education, health) on 3,600 subjects, ages 50 or over, who’d participated in a previous study. They looked at how often the subjects read books, periodicals, or nothing at all. Over the course of the study, researchers found, people who read books more than 3 ½ hours a week had a 23% decrease in morality compared with those who didn’t read at all. Those who averaged 3 ½ hours of book reading had a 17% lower risk. In all, book readers lived 23 months longer than their non-reading counterparts. Interestingly, newspaper and periodical readers had an 11% drop in mortality risk – but only if they read at least seven hours a week. Scientists speculate this may be because books are longer and more complex plots, so they require more brain power than periodicals (not counting the one you’re holding, of course). So finish this up, then go grab yourself a hardcover.
These kinds of name-checks always prompt conflicting responses in me. On the one hand, I’m glad to see the periodical bros getting exposed to anything more complex than cross-training and the latest oatmeal trend. But on the other hand, the diffident, embarrassed tone the writers take is depressingly confusing. I mean, just look at those stats from Yale: reading books decreases mortality by an enormous chunk. Even on the outside chance that there’s any validity to anything Rosenthal quotes, why wouldn’t those figures stop Men’s Fitness readers in their tracks? Nothing else in the November issue – or any other issue – comes anywhere close to promising a 23% decrease in mortality, and yet is this little squib the headline of the issue? Is it anything perusing dude-bros will pause over for more than a second or two?
It’s a shame, in balance, and this time – as always – I finish my own two-second perusal hoping for a Books issue of a lad-mag, just once.
October 18th, 2016
Our book today is a kind of thing I’ve praised here at Stevereads many times in the past: regional natural history, in this case a pretty new volume from University Press of New England called Through a Naturalist’s Eyes: Exploring the Nature of New England, written by Michael Caduto and illustrated throughout by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol.
One possible unfortunate upshot of these author-artist combos can be the little natural history book where you’re quickly convinced the artist was brought on as some kind of bitter family favor, and you train yourself to squint just enough at facing pages so that you don’t quite see the loused up lynxes and botched bobolinks. The other possible unfortunate upshot is the reverse, where the illustrations are little oases of subtlety amidst a great parching desert of dull prose. Caduto raises the worry of this second scenario immediately, by opening the book with a groaner of a line: “New England is a land that dwells in the heart of its people with a passion unequaled.”
Luckily for us readers, things brighten considerably after that; neither hypothetical mis-match happens in Through a Naturalist’s Eyes. The illustrations by seasoned pro Tyrol are charming and evocative throughout, and Caduto’s narrative lives up to the book’s title: every little scenario that one might encounter while wandering in a New England wood or field or marsh is illuminated both with some friendly personal anecdote and also with great blocks of exposition shared with the conversational ease of a life-long teacher:
And don’t get the idea that boreal birds are food-flighty – departing at the first sign of shortage. Animals prepare well for the cold, preserve their energy stores, and only undertake a long winter journey when normal feeding behavior won’t suffice. Many birds mitigate the dangers of food scacity by stashing food for later use. Gray jays or “whiskey jacks” use saliva to glue their food to tree trunks and branches above the normal snowline. Chickadees store considerable quantities of seeds, insects, spiders, and other foods by jamming them into bark crevices and other nooks. Research shows that chickadees may cache up to 100,000 morsels of food each year, and that, using visual cues, they are able to recall where they put their food for up to several weeks.
In just this way, any reader will be both fascinated and educated throughout, and the only price those readers will have to pay is the occasional suffering of Caduto’s – how to put it? – idiosyncratic sense of humor. Like being dive-bombed by a jay, the experience can leave you surprised, maybe a bit stunned, but almost on principle never amused:
As winter progresses and sap starts to flow, red squirrels sometimes chew holes in the bark of sugar maples and other hardwoods. After the sap oozes out and evaporation concentrates the sugar, the squirrels return to lap up the sweetness. The Europeans who first came to New England learned maple sugaring from indigenous peoples, but we’ll never know how red squirrels figured it out. That closely guarded secret is only handed down on a need-to-gnaw basis.
Groaners aside, the book is a little treasure of enthusiasm and nerdy nature-information. Any life-long walker in New England wild spaces will want a copy.
October 12th, 2016
Our book today is a lovely squat little thing from Clarkson Potter publishers: Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, subtitled “True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers.” In it, writer and illustrator Bob Eckstein visits dozens of bookshops around the world – and hears about a few that no longer exist – always eager to get a sense of the place and its people, both staff and customers, with the aim of capturing some of what makes the local bookshop such a special place.
As in most “ain’t books grand” books of this kind, big chain bookstores past or present are beyond the pale, mausoleums of pure evil where no true book-lovers would ever shop or work. Instead, Eckstein is going for the quirky, the offbeat, the kinds of shops with proudly narrow inventories and oh-so-wonderfully arrogant owners. As is practically required by contract in modern books of this kind, London’s bookstore-in-a-barge, Words on Water, has a page of its own.
Fortunately, there have been sufficient numbers of successful and semi-successful independent bookshops in the world so that a book like Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores gets plenty of opportunities to rise above cult-of-personality preciousness and touch on chords of true wonder. Eckstein has collected some wonderful places in these pages and commemorated them with some pointed quotes.
For instance, from the entry on Reykjavik’s Bokin:
Bokin was Bobby Fischer’s favorite bookstore after his 1972 victory in Iceland over Boris Spassky. The polarizing former World Chess Champion moved to Iceland in March of 2005 where he became a hermit and paranoid in the last years of his life, even having his mail sometimes delivered to the store instead of his Reykjavik apartment. He would spend hours in the back of the store, where he sometimes fell asleep.
Or this, from the Golden Notebook in Woodstock:
Once, a customer came in looking for a book for his daughter. Our children’s buyer, Gaela Pearson, was buy trying to put together a cardboard book display. She told the man, “I would be happy to help you. In fact, I’ll give you 20 percent off your purchase if you help me put together this display.” He said, “No, I don’t need a discount, but I’d be happy to help.” Gaela and the man sat on the floor and assembled the display. The man bought a book and then left. Gaela’s daughter, working in the back of the store, said, “You know who that was? Didn’t you notice his eyes were two different colors? That was David Bowie.”
Or this, where rock star Adam Ant reflects on his time as a customer at London’s storied Hatchards:
My greatest bookstore moment was meeting my idol, Dirk Bogarde, in Hatchards, Piccadilly (where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth shops after hours and enjoys a royal patent), when he signed his first volume of his autobiography, A Postillion Struck by Lightning. I was head to toe in leather. He looked immaculate, suited and booted, as if he’d just stepped out from behind the desk in Liliana Cavani’s movie The Night Porter. He had the best Windsor-knotted tie I have ever seen.
Practically every bookstore customer or clerk has a personal repertoire of stories like these, and it hardly matters that they’re so often the same story (David Bowie, for example, must have traveled the world for a solid decade anonymously helping harried workers assemble cardboard displays). The thing that Eckstein’s lovely little book captures so winningly is the magic of such places just as a general category, the slow, secure spell they cast on their customers. I’ve fallen under that spell for many decades in many places – including quite a few of the places in this book. The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, City Lights in San Francisco, Kanda-Jimbocho in Tokyo, New York’s Rizzoli Bookstore, the insufferable Shakespeare and Company in Paris, Powell’s in Portland, the mighty Strand bookstore in New York, … at one time or another, each of these was the perfect bookstore at the perfect moment for me. And of course there’s the group of Boston and Cambridge shops past and present: the Grolier poetry bookstore (only its courtly new owner is mentioned in Eckstein’s book, not its ghastly previous owner), the Harvard Bookstore, Commonwealth Books, and the Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, with its outdoor bargain book-carts I love so much. And Eckstein, bless him, includes a few shops that are now gone, once-magical places like St. Mark’s Bookshop, or the old Scribner’s in New York, or Cambridge’s once-hopping Wordsworth Books. Naturally, he could have included hundreds of such now-vanished bookshops, whole lots of them from New York’s old “Book Row” or the side-streets of Boston’s long-lost Scollay Square.
But that would have made for a melancholy book, and Eckstein’s clear intention here is to stress joy. Certainly I was encouraged – on deep levels difficult to describe – by the sheer number of new shops he includes in these pages, places from all over the country and all over the world where I have never been, places that, the hoping implication goes, are even now inspiring that same kind of magic feeling in their customers. It’s actor and incurable reader Alec Baldwin who gets the best (because the simplest) quote about that magic in Eckstein’s book: “I love all bookstores. Chains, independents, big, small. Once you walk into a bookstore, time stands still.”
I loved this little book with its embossed awning on the cover. I’m hoping it sells well enough in the kinds of shops its celebrates so that maybe we get a sequel or two.
October 1st, 2016
Our book today is Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private!, a 1963 collection of the cartoons and illustrations of James Stevenson, he of New Yorker fame. This volume collects dozens of Stevenson’s now-iconic little gems from his long heyday with the magazine throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
They’re every bit as much of a treat now as they were half a century ago, which is a tribute not only to Stevenson’s sly, often counter-intuitive visual style but also to his way with a zinger. The second is no surprise, given the fact that words were always his abiding passion. In addition to being an artist, Stevenson was also a caption-writer for other artists – the full reach of his deadpan wit in the New Yorker of the time would be difficult to calculate. And he was a prolific writer, producing a string of good novels and one very good one written right around the same time as most of the cartoons collected here were being drawn.
It’s easy to spot that storyteller flair in these pictures. True, many of them are just the kind of throwaway lighthearted visual gag at which the New Yorker has always excelled, but with Stevenson you quite often get much more than that. His cartoons can sneak up on you, with the visual component seeming settled and ordinary while the verbal component subverts; he revels in finding the absurd lurking just below the surface of the ordinary. In a full-page cartoon, two women have perhaps spent too much money on a gaudy antique. “Suddenly I’m scared to go home,” the caption reads, but the genius of the moment derives from how small the women seem compared to the naked, grasping trees looming above them.
All the New Yorker staples are here: tyrannical businessmen, hapless husbands, fatuous partygoers, egomaniacal children. And Stevenson could no more resist the occasional foray into topicality than could any other New Yorker artist (one cartoon shows a group of women peering through the high fence of the White House, explaining, “We’ll settle for him or her or Caroline or the baby!”). But the best bits of this collection are timeless cartoons, or rather cartoons like the one on the book’s cover, where the timeless clashes with the crude present.
And most of all, Stevenson is the illustrator of the great days of the American summer vacation, in the era when middle class families rented houses for the whole summer, loaded the car, and joined the natives at some carefully-chosen beachfront location. The boating, the swimming, the antiquing, the shelling and fishing … all of it crops up repeatedly in this book, sometimes looking very tempting to the 21st century sensibility conditioned to more stress and less relaxation than the generation Stevenson chronicles here.
The seasonal vacation is the setting for what’s widely considered his most classic creation, the cartoon sequence called “Weekend Guests,” where Stevenson’s novelistic flair is on full display in a flow of scenes depicting some of the trials that arise when summer guests are out of sync with hosts and vice versa. We get both sides of the great divide: the host and hostess looking up the stairs and saying “If they aren’t down by noon, I’m going to go up and pound on the door,” but also the guests, up in their room, trying to be quiet: “Sh-h-h! If they know we’re awake, we’ll have to go and do something.”
Stevenson wrote many books for children as well as the ones he wrote for adults; he mastered through long practice that art of the gentle barb. And decades of great work followed the period enshrined in Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private! – so far as I know, uncollected. It’s a great deal to look forward to, if any enterprising soul ever manages to create The Complete James Stevenson.