Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: A Second Birth

Book Review: Ru by Kim Thuy Translated by Sheila Fischman (Bloomsbury Press, 2012)

When winter comes, I find myself drawn to books with a strong authorial voice that matches my inward thoughts: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust; To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf; The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, to name just a few. Joining these is Kim Thuy’s Ru, a recently translated novel that tells the story of a young girl growing up in a fractured Saigon, eventually forced to run with her family all the way to Canada.

Ru, the title of Kim Thuy’s new novel, means lullaby in Vietnamese, the author’s native language, and in Quebec, the author’s second home, the word refers to a small stream, The double-lull of the title quickly becomes a thousand shreds of firecrackers that “coloured the ground red, like the petals of cherry blossoms, or like the blood of the two million soldiers,” as our introduction to our 10-year-old narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, is underway. We’re told it is the Year of the Monkey and, more importantly, the year of the Tet Offensive.

Read the rest of the review, originally published on The Brooklyn Rail.

Book Review: A Fork by Any Other Name

Book Review: Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat

“There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures; but all the peoples of the world use spoons.” And so, after an introduction on the usefulness of wooden spoons, we dive into Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. In this book, Wilson, a food critic and historian, tackles what she calls the technology of the kitchen; namely why we use what we use to prepare, cook, and eat, and how that has evolved both our cultures and our diet over the past centuries.

 But before we talk spoons, let’s dish about knives. I had never given much thought to the utilitarian utensil before reading this book, but knives are inherently dangerous. In fact, as Wilson points out, they are tools of violence. In medieval and Renaissance Europe you carried your knife on your body at all times. Wilson tells us, “Almost everyone had a personal eating knife in a sheath dangling from a belt.” These knives could be used to eat as well as, perhaps, pin someone against a wall. Yet times began to change, knives got duller, which both altered social skills (no picking food out of your teeth with your dagger) as well as the food (the duller the knife, the softer the food). What were these knives made of? Metal, of course. However, most metals have adverse reactions to certain foods, namely fish. This wasn’t resolved until the advent of stainless steel, in the twentieth century, which Wilson calls “another step towards domesticating the knife.”

Read the rest of the review, originally published on the Inquisitive Eater.

Book Review: Ye Olde Guidebook

Book Review: The Epicure’s Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London

Your dream, if you’re a book out of print, is that some benevolent author discovers you and brings you back to life. Epicure’s Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London is just that book. And Janet Ing Freeman is just that fairy god author. As an example of some of the earliest guidebooks from its time, The Epicure’s Almanack (yelp before it was yelp) was first published in 1815.

Ralph Rylance, the author of this guidebook, was working as a freelance reader, translator, indexer and editor, when he was contacted by a local publisher who had just produced a popular guidebook, The Picture of London, which aimed at the curiosities in and near London. Rylance was engaged to produce a companion piece to The Picturethat focused solely on food, drink and lodging.

It took Rylance almost two years to finish the book and when it finally came out, the publisher spent thirty guineas to advertise its arrival. Despite the financial support, the book was deemed a failure when, after almost two years, it had sold fewer than three hundred copies. The remaining print run was pulped and Rylance went back to freelancing. Flash forward almost two hundred years and you can now read an early example of dining reviews.

Read the rest of the review, originally published on the Inquisitive Eater.