American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson
(Harper, 2009, 268 pages)
Craig Ferguson is a comedian, actor and a talk show host. I enjoyed his sense of humor, but I’ve only watched him a few times. His Late Late Show is very much past my bedtime. This memoir exceeded my expectations. Ferguson was born and raised in a working class neighborhood in Glasgow Scotland. He chronicles his journey from dropping out of high school to becoming a top entertainer in the United States. Even though he stopped going to school at sixteen, he was a voracious reader. His love for literature laid the basis for his later success in writing a novel and three movies. What surprised me was his bravery and honesty in sharing his difficult battles with alcoholism and drug addictions. The book is compelling, truthful and funny. It’s a cut above the average celebrity memoir.
Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: 65 Great Chefs Teach Me How to Cook by Dana Cowin
(Ecco, 2014, 272 pages)
Dana Cowin is the editor-in-chief of Food+Wine magazine and you’re probably familiar with her face from appearances on shows like Bravo’s Top Chef. This cookbook offers up a collection of recipes that Cowin has tried and made some mistakes in execution in the process. So she pulls those recipes and asks some of her famous chef friends to walk her through how to avoid making those mistakes again, along with any tips they might have for modifying the recipe. She has commentary from people like Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali, Alex Guarneschelli, and Marcus Samuelsson.
Each recipe is introduced with a story explaining the context in which the recipe was originally made by Cowin and what went wrong in the process. The cooking instructions are clear and straight-forward. None came across as overly complicated. And the chef’s tips made sense and encouraged you to embrace the cooking process as a whole. This is an accessible book that a novice cook could feel comfortable with. Not all the recipes were for me, but there were a lot in there that I would try – even some that I currently find intimidating. Cowin makes a point of saying recipe intimidation shouldn’t keep you from trying something new.
I love a readable cookbook and that’s what this is. If you’re a novice in the kitchen or are just interested in well thought-out cookbooks I think you’ll appreciate Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen. That being said, one of the most readable cookbooks I’ve come across recently is Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn. Just in case you wanted to check that out, too 🙂
Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg
(Simon & Schuster, 2014, 241 pages)
This memoir recounts how Wizenberg and her husband Brandon found themselves starting up a restaurant not long after getting married. It was Brandon’s idea from the beginning, but he was always getting ideas and never really bringing them to fruition so Molly supported him while believing in the back of her mind that this whole restaurant idea wasn’t ever really going to happen. But gradually things fell into place. They leased a space, they perfected recipes, they acquired staff… Before she knew it, Molly was helping her husband open their restaurant, Delancey.
Opening a restaurant is no small feat and it comes with its share of tension and drama. Molly recounts that along with the benefits of having your own place and making the food you love. This memoir is a quick read and you’ll find it appealing if you’re a fan of the Orangette blog (which the author runs) or simply enjoy food-related writing.
Friendship By: Emily Gould
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2014 258 pages)
Bev and Amy have been best friends since they started working at the same publishing house. Since then, they’re lives have gone in different directions but they’ve always seemed to stay close. Bev is currently temping after moving to Madison with her boyfriend was a bust so now she’s struggling to get by in New York. Amy was on the verge of social media success before her former boss black balled her so she now works at a small known blog and spending the same amount of money as when she had her last job. Nothing seemed to rattle their friendship until Bev gets pregnant.
This was not my favorite read. I thought I would like the aspect of how major life changes can sometimes affect friendships but I was too distracted by the story as a whole. Gould included a lot of great details that could have led to deeper stories to really show off these characters but instead she just lightly touched on them before letting them go. Amy was clearly a selfish and self-centered person and I wish Gould had really went for it and played up the dynamic of the parent-child relationship Bev and Amy seemed to have. Also the dialogue bugged me with way too many “ha’s” and style changings for my liking.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
(Simon & Schuster, 2014, 620 pages)
We Are Not Ourselves impressed me with how quickly I was drawn in to the story. Told over the span of many decades we are first introduced to Eileen Tumulty and her family. Eileen’s parents came to America from Ireland in the 1930s and have high hopes for their daughter. Eileen herself has high expectations for where she sees her life going. When she meets Ed Leary she knows she’s found the man for her and the man who can give her the life she’s dreamed of. Unfortunately, Eileen’s dreams of moving up in the world don’t mesh with Ed’s vision for his own life. Eileen wants status, Ed is content with their life as it is.
Thomas tells the story from the perspectives of all three members of the Leary family: Ed, Eileen, and their son Connell. But the book primarily revolves around Eileen – she’s the driving force behind the family and it’s her dreams she focuses on seeing fulfilled. Things start to shift when the family has to face an unexpected and life-altering event. Now Eileen’s goals for the future seem less feasible and less important.
This novel has great depth and you shouldn’t let it’s length deter you from picking it up. I thought it was incredibly well-written and while I occasionally had a hard time with Eileen (she’s not always the most likable character) I was always looking forward to finding time to pick up where I’d left off.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
(Random House, 2014, 624 pages)
When Holly was younger, she used to have visits from what she called “the radio people.” After one scary incident with “the radio people” her mom took her to a doctor who magically banished them from Holly’s life. Years later though, they mysteriously return when Holly runs away from home after a fight with her mother. The further away from home Holly goes, stranger events start happening. Through the years after her running away, the people she loves most start to be affected by these “radio people” that cause her life to turn in unexpected ways.
I admit that wasn’t a very good description of this book but it was weirdly wonderful. Each chapter (and the chapters are long) makes a significant jump in time and focuses on someone different in Holly’s life that is affected by these “radio people.” The fantasy element was well done but even without those parts the book would have been interesting and worth the read. I loved how slyly Mitchell connected characters and elements from Holly’s life together. This book is definitely on the top of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year by Andy Cohen
(Henry Holt and Co., 2014, 352 pages)
Inspired by Andy Worhol’s book of diaries, Andy Cohen published his own diary of a year in his own life. Cohen does not hold anything back between name dropping celebrities to his secret wishes to buy the apartment above him after the elderly tenant passes away. Andy seemed to filter himself a bit when dealing with Housewives drama but also seemed to drop enough hints that readers could figure out who was causing the latest behind the scenes drama. Cohen had a busy year between announcing his new deal with Bravo and his production company and hosting multiple big name guests on his show Watch What Happens Live but the biggest addition to his life was his rescue dog, Wacha.
I really enjoyed Andy’s last book, Most Talkative, so I was happy to hear he was coming out with his own diary over the past year. He started out a tad grumpy but that quickly changes once he hires a trainer and adds Wacha to his life. Andy doesn’t try to make the book more than it’s supposed to be and is honest about all his encounters with friends and random celebrities (good or bad). One of my favorite parts of the book was seeing that he asked his doorman to provide a blurb for the back cover of his book, which just adds to the fact that this is a fun, lighthearted read.
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre
(Notre Dame University Press, 1988, 410 pages)
This is a classic of modern philosophical ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre follows up the argument that he previously made regarding the collapse of a coherent modern ethical theory in After Virtue. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre makes the case that rival cultural and intellectual traditions fail to come to agreement about such important issues as the nature of justice because these competing traditions have incommensurable accounts of practical rationality. In a liberal democracy, where the rights of individuals are valued above all and no particular tradition is granted supremacy, those who work to resolve serious moral disagreements are often left with consensus rather than true agreement.
MacIntyre makes his case through a narrative history of Western ethical theory, starting with Homer and progressing through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Hume. Through this history, MacIntyre shows how all rationality is conditioned by the assumptions and considerations of particular traditions. There is no such thing as reasoning from a place that is divested of historical and cultural concerns. MacIntyre gives an account of how seemingly incompatible traditions (like Aristotelian ethics and Augustinian theology) have been generously and brilliantly engaged and evaluated so as to mutually correct and inform one another (as Aquinas was able to with Aristotle and Augustine in the 13th century). He critiques modern liberalism for its assumption that individuals have recourse to universal and tradition free practical reasoning. Liberalism, in its elevation of the rights and preferences of the individual over the particular vision of the good life of a whole society, has become a default tradition – but one which has no workable way or resolving major ethical conflicts.
MacIntyre’s writing is dense, and his arguments require real concentration. That being said, his prose is very readable and it is unencumbered by footnotes and extended analysis of other texts. His grasp on the breadth of Western intellectual history and his ability to draw out a coherent and compelling narrative are staggering. For anyone who wants to seriously engage with the questions about justice and ethics in contemporary society, MacIntyre is an indispensable resource.
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams
(Eerdmans, 2014, 96 pages)
In reviewing Rowan Williams’ The Other Mountain, I mentioned that Williams’ scholarly writing can sometimes be close to indecipherable. This is very much not the case with this wonderful little book. Being Christian is a popular introduction to the basics of Christian practice. It was originally delivered as a set of Holy Week lectures at Canterbury Cathedral.
There are plenty of introductions to Christian faith; there are many short books that attempt to get at the core beliefs and ideas that animate Christianity. What makes Williams’ book unique in its approach is his focus on Christian practices more than Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Williams prioritizes practice over intellectual content, but rather, that he gets at what is unique about Christian belief by discussing what the Christian community does. It is joining the Church through baptism, listening for God’s voice in the diverse texts of the Bible, being welcomed into God’s company at the Eucharist, and growing to reflect the divine life through prayer that, according to Williams, “makes you realize that you are part of a Christian community” (vii). For Williams, Christianity is not simply about believing certain things, but about being identified by practices that initiate and direct a community in a particular kind of life – one characterized by love, reconciliation, careful listening, gratitude, commitment, and forgiveness.
Williams’ tone is pastoral and caring. These are the seasoned reflections of someone who has spent much time participating in, meditating on, and carefully expositing for others these basic yet inexhaustible Christian practices. The final chapter on prayer is particularly good. It is marked by Williams’ skill as a historical theologian and as a practical spiritual guide. He draws out common themes on prayer from the writings of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian. Among other things, prayer is intimately connected with a concern for justice and reconciliation; so much so, in fact, that Williams makes the simple but rather stark claim that “If people prayed seriously they would be reconciled” (71). This, along with the rest of the wisdom of this book, is a testament to an academic and clerical career that has been consistently directed toward reconciliation and marked by the distinctive practices of the Christian faith.
The Other Mountain by Rowan Williams
(Carcanet Press, 2014, 64 pages)
Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a profound and sometimes confounding theologian. Much of his writing, both scholarly and popular, focuses on the capacity of language to communicate the nature of faith, and the abstract (and occasionally indecipherable) quality of his prose embodies the inherent complexities of religious language. Williams’ poetry is an extension of this focus.
The poems that make up The Other Mountain depict the landscapes of Wales where Williams grew up, the Cambridge countryside, the beauty and danger of the Bosphorus (a strait that runs between Europe and Asia), and the budding spring seen from Blackden Hall in Cheshire, England. Williams’ view of nature is charged with a kind of sacramentalism that sees something of divinity communicated through the beauty of nature. He also meditates on Christian martyrs and peace advocates, like the second century North African slave girl Felicity, the Russian nun Maria Skobtsova who died in a concentration camp for her support of Jewish refugees in Paris, and the Japanese radiologist and advocate for disarmament Takashi Nagai. Also included are translations from the Welsh of two of Waldo Williams’ poems.
In his theological writings, Williams is often concerned with questions of peace, non-violence, and the nature of Christian witness. In these poems he depicts the shattering effects of violence and war while also envisioning the beauty of the world that makes struggling for peace a necessary endeavor. As he states in his preface, Williams’ task “is to do with what words resist butchery; what has to be said if manic violence is not the last word” (9). Reading these poems once through only feels like making a start – their depth requires more time and attention. However, spending that time offers a view of the graced nature of the world that can come through no other way.