The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season In The Kitchen At Ferran Adria's elBulli
By Lisa Abend; hardcover, 304 pages; Free Press; list price: $26
There have been plenty of books devoted to the renown Spanish restaurant elBulli over the years, but having just read Life, on the Line, the wonderful memoir from elBulli graduate Grant Achatz, I was intrigued to read journalist Lisa Abend's account of the stagiaires — or apprentices — that keep the world's top restaurant going. Though the stagiaires come from restaurants at the level of The French Laundry and, yes, Alinea, once they arrive at elBulli, it's back to square one: Chefs work unpaid in exchange for experience and insight that they can use later in their careers. Unlike other apprenticeships, the program at elBulli doesn't really have an educational component. But even more problematic is the fact that that most of the techniques in modernist cuisine are time consuming and could not be duplicated without free manpower. As Abend makes clear, elBulli could not exist without the stagiaire program, which begs the question: What really is the program about — preparation for a career or indentured servitude? And yet, while many of the chefs are frustrated by the internship, most of them emerge grateful for the experience — or at least they seem to be. Add this insight to a generous helping of detail about modernist cuisine, and you get a delightfully satisfying narrative.
My Korean Deli: Risking It All For A Convenience Store
By Ben Ryder Howe; hardcover, 320 pages; Henry Holt and Co.; list price: $25
When I think of New York, instead of iconic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, I think of those newsstands and corner stores with flowers and fruit outside, and a steam table within. So you can imagine my attraction to this engaging memoir, wherein Ben Ryder Howe, his corporate lawyer wife Gab and his mother-in-law Kay team up to buy and run a convenience store in Boerum Hill. Kay has experience in running restaurants and bakeries, though her vision of America is much shaped by gigs in Ohio and Texas; New York is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. And Boerum Hill turns out to be not exactly what they expected either. It's gentrifying, but not that quickly. Change the coffee to something drinkable (and more expensive) or get rid of the "cash in a flash" lottery machine and face the consequences! The resulting store turns out to be not quite a Korean Deli so much as a "Ko-dega." Throughout it all, Ben keeps his day job at The Paris Review, where he becomes a professional-amateur that recalls editor George Plimpton's own pursuits — only instead of playing football, Ryder sells hot sauce.
Ex Libris: The Art Of Bookplates
By Kevin Wilson; paperback, 112 pages; Yale University Press; list price: $15
The bookplate is said to have come into usage just after the death of Gutenberg. Originally woodcuts, and then engravings, these personalized plates were used to identify one of the owner's most valuable possessions, a book library. Early bookplates focused on the coat of arms, while later ones would display the owners' interests. This collection from the British Museum features full-color replications that document the bookplate craze that went from the 1880s to the 1920s. As plates become popular, the middle class was able to purchase bookplates that allowed them to fill in their own names on a ready-made plate. Most would say "ex libris" or "from the library of." Some well-known artists such as Aubrey Beardsley designed book plates, and Rudyard Kipling created one for his publisher's daughter. Meanwhile, Calvin Coolidge created one with a bust of his icon, Benjamin Franklin. This exquisite, modestly-priced book would be a welcome publication at any time, but in a year when we are contemplating the future of the printed word, a collection that celebrates the physical book and its connection to the reader is a particular treat.
The Solitude Of Prime Numbers
By Paolo Giordano; hardcover, 288 pages; Pamela Dorman Books; list price: $25.95
If you are hard-pressed to name many Italian novelists of the last half century beyond Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, you are probably not alone. Paolo Giordano's novel won the Premio Strega – Italy's premiere literary prize — but many of the winners do not even get an American publication. And while you are probably thinking that this book has a mathematical angle (especially since its author is a former physicist) the title is simply a metaphor for two sad and lonely people, divisible by one and themselves. Alice Della Rocha and Mattia Balossini are twin primes, pairs of primes that are only two apart (like 17 and 19), with just an even number between them. Like primes, they become increasingly rare, but also like primes, it is conjectured that there is an infinite number of them. Alice is crippled by a childhood accident, and her body image issues have led to serious eating disorders. Mattia has a childhood secret regarding his twin sister, and this has led him to be unable to excel in anything except his studies. Both characters are quite memorable, and the story is filled with sparkling, beautiful, distinctly Italian prose.
By Nina Revoyr; paperback, 230 pages; Akashic Books; list price: $15.95
What makes a person hate? That question is central to Nina Revoyr's fourth novel, which is set in a small central Wisconsin town circa 1974. The story is narrated by young Michelle "Mikey" LeBeau, a half-Japanese outsider being raised by her bookish grandmother and her good-old-boy grandfather Charlie. Though Charlie was unhappy with his son's mixed marriage and only reluctantly took Mikey on, he's bonded with her over their shared love of the outdoors and Charlie's retired hunting dog Brett. The antipathy of the town towards Mikey, however, is nothing compared to the hatred that bubbles up with an African American couple moves to town, with the center of hatred coming from Charlie's good friend, Earl Watson, the local gun shop owner. Revoyr sure can tell a story, and though there's not a lot of gray area in her book's moral universe, Charlie LeBeau winds up being a fascinatingly tortured character.
My American Unhappiness
By Dean Bakopoulos; hardcover, 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; list price: $24
In Dean Bakopoulos' hilarious and heartfelt new novel, Zeke Pappas is head of a small nonprofit that grants funds for cultural projects in the Midwest. He also happens to be a widower who is taking care of his two orphaned nieces, an arrangement made precarious by the fact that Zeke's mom, who officially has custody, is dying of cancer, and has decreed that if Zeke isn't married by the time she passes, the kids should go to his sister-in-law. But don't worry, as Zeke's got prospects — sort of. In addition to his assistant and a local barrista, he's also interested in Sofia Coppola. At the same time, Zeke's work at Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative is under investigation by a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let their biggest donor use his GMHI credit cards for sexual trysts. All this could threaten Zeke's pet project, the "Inventory of American Unhappiness," which is a sort of "This I Believe" for this distraught. This funny-sad novel seems to take elements of the author's own life (happily married, with kids) and twists them in a funhouse mirror — with delightful results.