karenmerguerian

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Blood, Bones & Butter

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I read this because it was excerpted in The New Yorker and the excerpt was a really beautiful essay, moving and evocative. I was favorably disposed to the author, and moved by the difficulties of her childhood, which was not only disrupted by divorce, but perhaps because of her vulnerable age appears to have been like a casting out from the garden of Eden. The fact that the details and logistics have escaped from her memory is a testament to how confused and disoriented the separation left her. But as I moved through the book, I discovered that if you've read the New Yorker excerpt (or continuing to the end of chapter 2), you've read the best part. Later, Hamilton emerges as a tough, hardworking person (like a lot of entrepreneurs she doesn't suffer lazy people, which I do like about her), but also as egotistical, selfish, unforgiving, and surprisingly lacking in self-awareness. There were so many examples. Why, if she has "blood sugar" issues, does everyone around her have to learn to be watchful for "the signs" that she's about to blow her top, instead of just putting some granola bars in her purse? Why does she choose to have two kids when her job keeps her out of the house from 8am to 2 am every day? And why make that decision more difficult for everyone by not living in the same apartment and neighborhood as her husband? Why doesn't she talk to her mom or most of her siblings? (Her apparently charismatic father is unfortunately an elusive figure in the book.) Her cruel two-timing of her lover is glossed over without any regret to say nothing of self-recrimination. Interestingly, her abrupt change of sexual identity--if indeed she changed, it's not clear--is not discussed at all.Her impatience with her husband is an example of the failure of her prose to help us understand her. I'm the first to sympathize with wives of frustrating husbands, but even I was on the husband's side in this one, and it kind of undermined a lot of the author's credibility overall. She refuses to talk to him for 15 days (!!!) because when she expects words of affection, he instead says, "I want a new iPhone". She criticizes the sandwiches he makes for her on their first date (not enough meat or butter, but never mind, he subsequently learned to do it right apparently). At one point, her husband spends all day making ravioli for her and her staff by hand. As a food preparer, she knows the value of thanks and appreciation, and values the generous spirit that is poured into food when it's offered for a guest or friend. But that all suddenly goes out the window. Now she can't resist, two chapters after the ravioli gift, mentioning that in fact, it was "inedible" because he hadn't blanched the pancetta, if you please, and it was too salty to eat. I wouldn't pour her a glass of water after that if I were her husband. For me the apotheosis of this selfish world view was the chapter where she's invited to talk at a CIA panel about women in the food industry. Instead of seeing herself as a leader, or offering sympathy for those who've experienced discrimination, she starts by blaming women. For example, she criticizes women who go into food publishing and idolize male chefs (note--her sister does exactly this in an earlier chapter!). A particularly wounding example: she says "invariably" a woman chef will treat other women worse than any man, even though she herself received tremendous support and a true refuge thanks to Misty, a female chef in Michigan who became her lifelong friend! This is what I mean by "selfish" --a refusal to acknowledge what has been real and true in her life. She criticizes the panel for not telling the CIA students to focus on "hard work" while in the same breath admitting that dealing with men in the kitchen is equivalent to a "double shift" of work. She finally decides the best thing about being a chef and a mom is that her toughness in the kitchen will prepare her for anything her kids can throw at her. Is that the best she can do? Is that better than being a great parent, so they don't throw stuff at you at all? Or creating a new kind of work environment, one that's not about who's the best at staying late, ignoring their family, scrubbing the floor on your knees at 39 weeks, and general warrior-level self-sacrifice? These answers are not easy for any working woman, and crying all the way home on the train doesn't get you off the hook for accusing those who try to discuss discrimination of being "reductionist".It's interesting that one of the biggest problems for any small businessperson, including and especially women and minorities, is raising capital. This important institutional barrier is something that women may not be able to surmount simply by hard work because informal networks are so important. Hamilton admits that she doesn't have any money when she starts her place, so how does she do it? Do her family members help? Is there no awareness that there are real financial barriers, no advice for overcoming them, or an honest accounting of how she did it?Finally, the unselfconscious authenticity of her mom's cooking has made Hamilton a total curmudgeon about today's interest in local and sustainable farming. Because her French mom sought out local produce way back when, before it was crushed by big agribusiness, she finds the return to it somehow phoney and pretentious. Like the Seattle teen who liked Nirvana before they hit the charts, she goes on irrationally about why she hates farmer's markets, their customers, and their hipster proprietors now that they are everywhere. We get it, you're a busy woman and you don't have time to wait for the biker putting a few small items in her basket to get out of your path. You don't have time to befriend the farmers so they let you taste the produce. Fine, order wholesale, and leave the market to the rest of us. We don't want to have to eat Wonder Bread while we listen to you undermine our local growers just because you don't think the new yuppie farmer is as "genuine" as the Italian brothers in your hometown whose family has been butchering for a hundred years. There is some great writing in this book, especially the opening about her childhood, and in some of the parts about her travels in Greece and France, but I went away from it thinking she's just like all the other obnoxious egotistical chefs you read about. She calls herself "badass" but maybe that's just another word for something else.
Zeitoun

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Could not put it down, very well paced and suspenseful. The backstory of Kathy and Zeitoun is almost as gripping as the story of their experience during Hurricane Katrina, which is the main subject o the book. A reminder of how every individual in New Orleans--and who lives through any disaster--has a saga, no matter how many there are and how much we blend them together in our minds. Also a sober reminder of what happens when people, especially those in authority, fail to recognize that. Every American should read this book.
Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines

by and

Every software designer and web designer should read this book! It explains in an organized, easy-to-understand way how the brain works and what the implications are for designing software tools that meet user needs. Apart from it's practicality, the descriptions of how the brain perceives, stores and operates on information are fascinating on their own. The examples are illustrative and relevant. I expect to refer to it frequently and thoroughly enjoyed reading it as well.
I Remember Nothing

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There's one really good essay in this--the one about how she falls in love with journalism. All the rest seemed kind of throwaway to me, I didn't feel she had anything new to say.
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Freedom

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If you like realism in novels, you'll like this, it's very similar to the work of Tom Wolfe in the sense that the story is very much grounded in the social and political world we live in today. Quite a lot of the book is set in the environmental movement and in the Washington political world of the second Iraq war; it takes both of these seriously and mocks them from a very knowledgeable standpoint. The main characters were all selfish and unsympathetic (with the exception of one, Connie who is so generous as to be self-destructive, and another who is killed in short order perhaps because she becomes a loose end in the plot). So a major flaw of the novel for me was my inability to identify with or empathize with any of them. I won't say you can't feel their humanity, as they are all so deeply flawed. The couple who anchor the book, Walter and Patty, were difficult for me to connect to, with the one exception of the section of the novel in which Patty is raped and fails to get protection and support from her family; though they support her cause in the abstract, they do not support her personally; this subplot is treated with understanding and compassion without being maudlin or voyeuristic. (This section of the novel was excerpted in the New Yorker if you want to read it there.)
Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life

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If you are interested in Chanel you should read this but there are some caveats. First the photographs and reproductions are excellent but, instead of being grouped in the center as with many biographies, they are scattered throughout, and perhaps to ennhance them, all the paper has some gloss, which makes it very tiring to read the text due to glare. Second, the text is in a sans serif font with thin lines which is very hard on the eyes. It would be very stylish for short texts or ads, but for a book length text it's not appropriate and along with the glare from the choice of paper makes reading this extremely difficult.Finally on content: the book goes on and on about Chanel's friends and lovers at the expense of discussion of her work as a designer. Because she obfuscated her childhood the chapters on Chanel's life up to the early 1920s are difficult to follow and the book doesn't move exactly chronologically so it's hard to tell what things were happening when. And then there are endless paragraphs of backstory about the families, friends, and lovers of her friends and lovers and it's not always clear how that information helps us understand Chanel herself or why we should care. The biggest disappointment is how little information there is about Chanel's clothing designs. For example, there's more information about the house she built on the Riviera than there is about the clothes she designed at the same time. I know very little about her artistic development, and I'd like to learn about the salient features of her notable collections and individual pieces--and less about her glamorous "lifestyle" and the yachts of the husbands of her friends.
Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford

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I get the feeling Spoto wants to like Joan Crawford. What I think makes it hard to bring her to life is that she was a dramatic actress who carefully cultivated her public image, so it becomes difficult to go behind her mask and learn what she was truly like. Spoto's tries to dig, however. He looks for the good to balance out the bad. His final portrait is one of a kind and generous person (mentoring Ann Blyth, donating to a hospital) who had some faults. I don't know that there is a tremendous amount of new material, many of the stories I had heard already, and her faults are significant and go deeply to her character.Crawford was obsessed with her career over her children, she had trouble maintaining healthy personal relationships, she drank for many years, she was imperious and manipulative on movie sets. At the end of her life, having achieved stardom, she seems to have repented or reconsidered, cutting out the booze, marrying and staying faithful to a man she and her children loved, and writing memoirs that were generous to her colleagues and co-stars. Because she went out of her way to adopt children, acquiring them (sometimes through questionable means) on the market, and offering to their families and brokers a life of tremendous opportunity and wealth, her responsibility for them should be held to a very high standard. Instead of using her wealth and influence to help them adjust and build happy lives, she was clearly a control freak who could not abide by the whimsies of children, lost her temper frequently and tried to force them to accommodate her obsessions and compulsions. She failed to be present for them while making films and then tried to make it up to them by showering them with obscenely expensive gifts and smothering attention. She failed to provide a stable family life in their early years, with her string of sometimes violent and abusive relationships with men. Finally, for many years she drank as a way of coping, which also has long-term detrimental effects on children. Spoto addresses the accusations (most famously, though not exclusively, made by her oldest daughter) but in fact in this book he is her partisan, and rather than criticize her character he treats the evidence as if it is a series of accessories that she shed as she grew older. All I can say is if you adopt four children and you wind up disinheriting two of them, your legacy is going to have to reflect, above all, the toxic family dynamic you provided in the place of a loving home. Spoto tries to show that Crawford's contributions to the cinema were so significant that they should form the preponderance of her legacy. While this book indeed made me want to see many of them, especially the early dramas and comedies she made at MGM, on balance I felt he did not succeed in whitewashing the coldness and selfishness of her ambition, which cost her a happy family life and long-term respect and admiration.
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