Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #7


Blood Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House

I am not a “foodie." I have no obsession or even great love of food. I don’t ever have conversations about it or dream about what I am going to make for dinner. I don’t wax poetic about recipes…and no, I don’t take pictures of my meals (unless I suspect that the $4.99 Chinese buffet I came across on the road may come back to haunt me. In that case I take a photo of the buffet, the health inspection, and the manager on duty).   Now before you think I am complete animal…I do believe I enjoy a large bowl of pasta (every night if I could) more than the average person. I’ve never read a food memoir…no not even Ruth Reichl or M.F.K. Fisher. I did however read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and my literary senses tell me Roald Dahl was the Anthony Bordain of his time. [Having traveled and eaten with Gianna for years now, let me state this: she's Italian and she LIKES the Olive Garden.  Let that sit on your tongue and dissolve for a bit.] 

Gabrielle Hamilton...
who's lost her shoes?
So why, Gianna, why do you love Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter so much? I mean, it’s your #7 for the love of pasta! Well, first of all Hamilton is an amazing writer.  She earned her MFA from the University of Michigan and she has written for The New York Times, GQ, Food & Wine, and The New Yorker. Her work has been included in six volumes of Best of Food Writing. In other words, she has writing chops (get it “chops”? Like pork chops or some other food chop…or just chopping…? Hilarious). [Kill me, you hateful punner.]

Hamilton writes beautifully about her parents, particularly about her mother (who she credits with giving her the love of food), and the parties they would throw. It seems their house was never empty, and the year’s highlight was their annual spring lamb roast where they would have over 200 guests.  Hamilton’s parents divorce, and her life changes quickly and dramatically. She and her siblings are left alone an entire summer foraging for their own food and, left to their own devices, Hamilton discovers drugs at the age of 13.  The book picks up again as we follow Hamilton through the kitchens of her life, ending with her own restaurant, Prune, in New York City.

This memoir is lyrical, honest, funny, thoughtful and a bit dark (Hamilton has not spoken to her mother in about 20 years). For me the read was The Liar’s Club meets The Glass Castle meets the best food writing you’ve ever experienced.  [...Like the instructions on a Hot Pocket?] Don’t take my word for it (always a mistake); here is what Anthony Bourdain says: “ Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” 


The Tiger's Wife
Tea Obreht
Random House

I can't remember a year more heavily dominated by terrific first novels.  Just looking at my list, have five in my top ten, and I'm not alone.  Of The New York Times Book Review's five best fiction works of 2011, four were first novels with Stephen King as the noted veteran.  One of those NYT best books is Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.

Since the beginning of the year, I've engaged in an ongoing debate with a bookseller friend about which book--The  Tiger's Wife or Swamplandia! by Karen Russell--would win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.  He was right--The Tiger's Wife was a finalist for the National Book Award (and I still think that Swamplandia! will win the Pulitzer).
Tea Obreht

The 25 year-old Tea Obreht writes much more maturely than her age suggests, and The Tiger's Wife is the novel most writers never manage to achieve.  It is splendid--a literary work with passion and memorable characters and beautiful storytelling.  Blending history, family, and folklore, The Tiger's Wife tells the story of a young doctor, Natalia, grieving for her grandfather's death through the memory of his stories.  Interwoven is the history of the Balkans from World War II to the present, her grandfather's love of Kipling's The Jungle Book, and of the tiger wandering through the darkness.  This is a book of secrets and family and love.  It's a masterpiece.

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