22 July 2021

Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker

 I am convinced that this book — especially towards the beginning — was shaped by an editor, or person at the press, or someone, who gave Bosker some bad advice about what she needed to do to make the book better, by counseling her to play up the eccentricities of the culture she was describing, and make herself more "relatable." I am willing to believe that this was some outsider's input, because about a third of the way through, that annoying fembot routine (mercifully) falls away and the book becomes far more interesting, and better written. 

And I'll even add that, in the defense of the bad advice giver, this book faces significant challenges in identifying its audience, and speaking to their interests. Because basically, it's a book about how Bosker learned to love wine, or rather, it's a book about why wine is interesting, which means there are lengthy sections that detail various things about wine that a lay-person...will probably not find interesting. The ostensible plan is to convince the average reader that they *should* find it interesting, but the fact of the matter is, it's really hard to do that through words alone. You can talk about your own experience, you can talk about the various properties of wine, but I suspect that none of that will really persuade someone who isn't already at least somewhat on board, and frankly, they probably have to be a bit of a nerd, too. But for such a reader, the first chunk of the book, when Bosker is trying to do that persuasive work to spark the initial curiosity, is likely to be tedious, if not downright annoying. I found it so obnoxious that I almost stopped reading. 

The other tough pill to swallow is watching Bosker repeatedly talk her way into incredible opportunities that she is completely unqualified for. How nice for her! If you are a person who works, or has worked, in the restaurant industry, this will drive you absolutely up the wall. Watching her use connections to get into events that other people would kill for, or get hired and make awful mistakes that not only cost lots of money, but also screw over her co-workers, is so, so infuriating, and the blithe way the she skates past it all doesn't help. This is not really a book about the restaurant industry — yes, at the end, she is working in a wine bar, but she still always seems like an outsider, and like someone who is only there passing time until she can do the thing she really wants to do (which, of course, is true of plenty of other people in the industry as well). She also remains deeply skeptical of a lot of the pomp and pretension in fine dining, fair enough! But the result is that she implicitly casts people who make a career out of it as mostly insane.

Despite all that, I did come around on the book in the later portion, largely because what she says about wine really is quite interesting, and you can tell that she genuinely gets into it. Some internet sleuthing tells me that she did, however, quit her wine job, and it seems that she's devoting herself to being a full-time writer. I wouldn't mind reading another book of hers, but I hope that whatever she pursues next, she isn't just inserting herself into a new subculture and being a privileged, incompetent asshole while wringing whatever good material she can out of it.

20 July 2021

Foucault in Warsaw, Remigiusz Ryziński

The topic of the book, ostensibly, is Michel Foucault's sojourn in Warsaw in 1958. The problem is, very little is known about it, and almost all records seem to have been destroyed. So the book is also a kind of detective fiction, as Ryziński tracks what few leads are available, trying to piece together what happened, and to imagine what Foucault's experiences in Poland were like. There's not much to work with, so the book wanders a bit, trying to evoke the milieu of queer life in Communist Poland. Which is a fascinating topic!

A few years ago, I did a handful of translations for a zine called DIK: a Fagazine, and one of the issues focused specifically on queer culture during Communism. I loved learning about that world (and the photographs, especially, were just so marvelous) — gorgeous, brave, sometimes tragic. And Karol Radziszewski, the force behind DIK, did such fantastic work in bringing it to life, in no small part because of his incredible talents as an interviewer and artist (DIK isn't available online, but Karol's instagram is also excellent).

Foucault in Warsaw, unfortunately, is less effective. Because the book relies heavily on information drawn from secret police files (part of Operation Hyacinth, a project to create a database of queer people in Poland and track their activities), there's a much grimmer tone to the whole thing. Of course, homophobia past and present is a big part of this story, but I think it's absolutely crucial to also capture the vibrancy and joy, and Ryziński struggles to do that effectively.

I wanted to love this book, and it definitely has some wonderfully poignant moments. But it feels like it's stretched a bit too thin. Ryziński actually has no lack of material to write about, despite the lack of information about Foucault, but he doesn't organize it effectively, and the mostly elegiac tone that the book is written in doesn't do the subject justice. The book is worth reading — it really is a fascinating subject! — but I wish it were better.

19 July 2021

Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel

 This book is exactly what I expected it to be — a collection of lovely, meandering reflections and reminiscences about books, reading, and libraries. The title is a play on Benjamin's essay, of course, and these meditations are somewhat Benjaminian in nature. I have been interested, of late, in the difference between so called auto-theory and what is often just called the essay, and this definitely seems to be more in the vein of the latter, but that still doesn't help me get a better grip on the categories! 

There is something about this collection that feels very "old school," but not in an oblivious, gross sort of way. There's an explicit shout-out to the need for a national library to have books on LGBTQ history, for instance, and other moments that mark the author's more progressive political orientations, though there are also complaints about digital culture, distraction, etc. It doesn't feel curmodgeonly, I guess is my point, though it's definitely written in a very classic sort of way.

Nothing in it surprised me, but it was a very pleasant read.

15 July 2021

Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe

 This is not a book about America's opioid epidemic. I think it's important to make that clear: the opioid epidemic is a complex phenomenon, with a lot of moving parts, and the mainstream media hasn't done an especially great job helping the public understand it. This book isn't fixing that. In some ways, it probably contributes to some of the more damaging misrepresentations of the issue.* The real focus of this book is the Sackler family, and, basically, what craven, awful people they are. Truly. You get the sense that Keefe really tried to be neutral, but gradually became so appalled by Sacklers that he just couldn't be, anymore.  Simply detailing the facts already paints a pretty devastating portrait, but actually expressing to readers what some of the implications of these facts, it becomes impossible not to sound like you're attacking them. The effect is exacerbated if you listen to the audiobook, read by the author — there's no way he could have kept it out of his voice.

I read the book mainly because I loved Keefe's previous book, Say Nothing, so much (if you haven't read it, get yourself a copy asap; it's phenomenal). And it must be admitted that this one really isn't as good. It's somewhat sloppy, with lots of minor repetitions (where he tells you something damning, with a kind of DUN-DUN-DUN air, and then awhile later, tells you the same thing again). The timeline is mostly straightforwardly chronological, but once you get into the third generation, it gets a little fuzzier, and it also gets much harder to keep the various people straight (especially because the family recycles first names). And the unwavering focus on greed and ambition — while laudable in some ways! — leaves little room for a more detailed character exploration. In particular, I wanted to know more about the family's interests in fine art. Keefe somewhat suggests that it's motivated by a desire for prestige and respect, but I wanted to know more. Of course, the material for such a profile might not have been readily available. Still, at times, I wanted less of a chronicle of what they were doing, and more insight into who these people were, or are. But honestly, despite these flaws, the material is so juicy and salacious that the book is a gripping read anyhow. 

The thing I ultimately found most fascinating was the role that artists, and performance art-style protests, had in the family's decline. Nan Goldin becomes a minor hero by the end of the book, and seems to have been the most formidable force in ending the cozy relationship the Sacklers had with many museums. This is a super interesting insight into the complex relationship between art itself and the high-powered, extremely wealthy, art world. You *can* buy some measure of success and acceptance in the art world! But only up to a point. It turns out that museums care more about their reputation than their donors. 

Ultimately, this is really a kind of pleasurable hate-read. You gain some insight into the crisis, sure — and you definitely get some insight into politics and the power of corporations (horrifying) — but mostly, this is about channeling your vitriolic hatred in a worthy direction.



* A lot of the narrative about the epidemic has been about the individual people struggling because of their drug use, or about the potency of the drugs they're taking, or maybe about the evils of Purdue pharma, and very little of it has been about the way our society treats drug users, and how criminalization of drugs invariably leads to a lot more injury and death. Keefe acknowledges this, a little, at the end of the book, where he not only says that the book doesn't get into the intricacies of the epidemic, but also notes that he does not weigh in on controversies over how chronic pain should be managed. He makes two points which are both important and valid — first, that there is a genuine stigma attached to long-term opioid use, and that it means that people who struggle with chronic pain also struggle to receive proper care. Second, the Sackler clan has callously exploited this fact to sell more oxycontin and make more money, and we shouldn't give them a pass on that. The book very clearly demonstrates the latter, but only glancingly mentions the former. It would be easy to walk away from it with a sense that the major problem is the potency of the drugs, and increased access to them.

13 July 2021

Ticket to Childhood, Nguyen Nhat Anh

 Picked this up randomly on a recent visit to the Seminary Co-op, and I've been feeling pretty blah and unfocused lately, so I treated myself to a morning of reading in bed. The joy of short novels!

This is a charming and winsome little book — a quick read whose sly humor and meta-fictional play keeps it from being an overly saccharine meditation on the nature of childhood. It's a light and playful read, one that could easily seem grating if you weren't in the right mood, but is perfectly pleasant if you are. You can easily see why it was a massive best-seller — it's just the right amount of good cheer and casual philosophy.

08 July 2021

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez

 I was feeling sort of so-so about this collection of short stories — nothing wrong with it, just not really blowing me away — and then it was a hot hot Chicago day, and I was at my partner's mother's apartment, and she has no air conditioning, and I felt absolutely swollen with heat, so (taking advantage of my child being distracted by his grandmother) I ran myself an ice cold bath, and grabbed this book. The specific story I started reading is one about halfway through, called Adela's House, and it is terrifying. Reading it in a silent bathroom, slipping slowly into the icy water, was absolutely incredible — literally chilling. And that fantastic experience totally changed my relationship to the book: I tore through the rest over the next few days.

These are fascinating stories, to me, because they are so hard to place, generically. You want to call them gothic, but they're more like actual horror — at times, almost unbearably so — and yet, they're also deeply interested in the inner lives and feelings of the characters. The terror stems both from deeply weird and creepy things happening in the world, and from subterranean traumas in the characters' own psyches. And so the plots balance between the two, emphasizing the impossibility of any real resolution. 

It's a intensely unsettling collection, and I'm honestly not sure how I felt about it, but it's definitely unlike anything else I've read.

06 July 2021

Provence, 1970, by Luke Barr

It seemed appropriate to follow the Bourdain with another food book, this one focused on one of my great loves, MFK Fisher. I listened to the audiobook, and maybe zoned out a little here and there, unfortunately, but nonetheless absolutely relished this book. Written by Fisher's grand-nephew, it focuses mostly on her, and a pivotal moment in 1970, where she felt the world, and her life, changing, as the food scene evolved, and France no longer seemed as idyllic as it had formerly. It's a wonderful portrayal of an older woman who is reflecting on her successes, and relationships, and loves, and pondering what she wants. And for Fisher fans, it's just a pleasure to be in her orbit, so to speak. The pleasure was heightened, because over the weekend I got to have dinner at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, and they still have one of my favorite dishes on the menu, the boquerones, and having those with a small glass of sherry just feels like the perfect way to pay tribute to the woman.

But in addition to all the great MFK Fisher content, there's also plenty of wonderfully gossipy stuff about the (sometimes catty) social scene of all the major food writers — the Childs, James Beard, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney. And some interesting reflections on the changing American food scene, from the loving embrace of French cooking, and local produce, and the later rise of appreciation for various ethnic foods. There's a particular interest in the links to snobbery and pretension, and some occasional gestures towards our foodie present, and the culture of celebrity chefs and cooking shows. I didn't track this as much, regrettably, because my attention is rather divided these days, but there's some good stuff there.

Overall though, it's just an excellent summer read. The prose is lovely, and there are plenty of great descriptions of incredible meals. A very enjoyable book.