Extreme Reading

Can you imagine a writer picking out a random shelf of books in a New York library, spending over a year to read them, and then writing a book about the experience ? Crazy idea, isn’t it ? And, yet author Phyllis Rose did exactly that. Realizing that we usually choose our reading from a list recommended by reviewers, librarians, teachers etc, she decided to select her reading almost blindly. She did set herself some ground rules : A mix of contemporary and older works, at least one of which had to be a classic. Several authors on the shelf, none of whom she had previously read. And, at most, one author represented by five or more books, of which she would read no more than three.
These were difficult criteria to meet but after surveying over 200 shelves( out of 1,350) at the New York Society Library on E.79th Street in NYC, she settled on the LEQ – LES shelf. The book she wrote is The Shelf, Adventures in Extreme Reading.
Who would want to read a book about Reading? Crazy, isn’t it ?
I thought so, too particularly when I saw that the list of authors on the shelf included William le Queux, Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner ,Alexander Lernet- Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James le Rossignol. Margaret Leroy, Alain-Rene Le Sage and John Lescroart. Not exactly household names even if some of them were famous in their day. For me, the only familiar name amongst them was John Lescroart, a dozen of whose mysteries- legal thrillers I have read. I got The Shelf just to satisfy my curiosity, certain that I would dump it after I’d read a small part of it.
Want to know something crazy? I read the book from cover to cover and loved it.
Had this book only been a writer’s opinions about the books she read, I would not have gotten very far before throwing in the towel .However, it is much more than that. Much, much more.
Phyllis Rose is nothing if not thorough. The first book on the shelf she read was One for the Devil(1968), by Etienne Leroux, an obscure South African author writing in Afrikaans. Though she didn’t like it , she skimmed through another book in the trilogy, read about the author on various sources and even saw a Youtube video clip of his long ago funeral. The second book, A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov she read in four different translations, including one by Vladimir Nabakov and his son , Dimitri. The Nabakov translation is replete with explanatory footnotes running down the book being translated, and Rose comments acidly how ” one writer swallows and ingests another in order to create himself”.
I had thrilled to The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway but I did not know that it was based on a novel by Gaston Leroux. Rose reads two of Leroux’s detective novels ( terrible) and then goes into great detail about the author and the genesis of Phantom. There are details about the construction of the Paris Opera House where the action takes place, a discussion of the 1925 silent film classic starring Lon Chaney ( imagine that: a silent film about the power of music !) and about the enduring fascination with the Phantom theme. Rose points out the similarities with George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby ( about the hypnotist, Svengali who hypnotizes a young girl and turns her into a great singer) and the popular Gothic fiction of that time including Dracula. Interesting stuff.
To be frank, I would not want to read the books that Rose did. I have no interest in Austrian writers even if one of them( Jelinek) did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004.Neither would I care to read books by Lisa Lerner or Margaret Leroy, good though they might be. The only book that might interest me is Gil Blas, the picaresque 18th century novel by Alain – Rene Le Sage but, at 758 pages, it is too long for me.
What does interest me are Rose’s digressions on book related matters, authors and libraries. Among them : Why there are comparatively few women writers. The difficulties that women writers face. Regionalism and Realism. Womens fiction as opposed to ” Real Literature”. And how libraries decided which books to discard. It is a complex process depending on the date it was last published, when it was last taken out by a patron and six other factors, As a library report states (” .. it can take much longer to select a book for withdrawal than to select it for purchase”.)
Reading Phyllis Rose’s modus operandi for her extreme reading made feel envious of her perspicacity and the depth of her knowledge even as it made feel ashamed of my slapdash approach to books. I read for enjoyment and my choice of books is , well … eclectic. I go to the library and prowl the stacks looking for titles and subjects that interest me. In a way, it is as random as can be. Mostly detective/ mysteries/thrillers, some non-fiction on a grab bag of topics, a few biographies and some history. Very often, I discard a book that ceases to interest and I rarely spend more than a week on a book. Right now, I am reading Second Wind by a gerontologist, Dr. Bill Phillips, about leading a slower, deeper, more connected life. It’s taking him a long time to get to the point and I may or may not finish it. I am also dipping into You Must Remember This ,an oral history of Manhattan compiled by Jeff Kisseloff.(Terrific). Next up are two South African mysteries by a young South African writer, Malla Nunn. All these far removed from what Phyllis Rose might read but, hey, we’re all different.
Do try The Shelf. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.
P.S. I was disappointed to find that Ms. Rose did not care for the John Lescroart mysteries. Ah well, different strokes for different folks.

Have you noticed how often the appetizers at a restaurant meal are better than the entrees? I’ve experienced this time and time again. The appetizers are great and I’m waiting with anticipation for the main course only to be disappointed. This has happened to me at Vietnamese restaurants, at Chinese restaurants, at Japanese restaurants, at Cheesecake Factory, at Chili’s and at fusion restaurants and others. The main dish never lives up to expectations the appetizers have aroused.
The main reason, I think, is that appetizers are small; there is no time to get tired of them. Two or three bites and they are gone. Mains however are larger and by the time I get to the end I am bored with the taste. Even at steakhouses, the first two or three bites of my steak are great, but then ennui sets in as the steak cools down. The later mouthfuls are not as enjoyable. This is true at other types of restaurants as well because what I want, what we all want, is variety.
There are other reasons why appetizers are tastier than entrees.
2) They are visually more appealing and daintier.
3) Chefs are more adventurous with appetizers than they are with mains.
4)We diners are hungrier at the beginning of the meal. By the time the main course is on the table, our appetite has been dulled because of the bread and the appetizers(and perhaps the soup, too) that we have already eaten.
BTW, the first three reasons also explain the popularity of cupcakes over regularsized desserts.
There are two ways to avoid letdowns when the main course arrives.
A. Don’t order a main course! Order two or three appetizers instead! This is particularly useful at places like Cheesecake Factory where the portions are plus -sized. No point in going for an entree’ when you are going to take doggie-bag half of it.
B. Order meals family style. All diners help themselves from dishes are placed in the center of the table. Particularly useful in Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other Asian restaurants where the tradition is for foods to be shared. It also works in other types of restaurants where the portions are hearty.
This reminds me of the times I used to dine in New York Chinatown restaurants. At a neighboring table, there would invariably be an out-of-town family visiting the Big Apple on a day trip. For some of these groups, it was no doubt their first experience with Szechuan or Hunan food and they would try to stick to familiar Cantonese dishes and each of them would order for himself. One would have Yungchow fried rice, another Chicken Almond Ding, yet another Moo Goo Gai Pan and so on. Then each would doggedly eat the dish he had ordered while all around them other diners were enjoying a variety of tastes and flavors and textures. Of course, things have changed now as we Americans have become more knowledgeable and adventurous about food thanks to the Food Network and other such channels.

Extreme Service

I know that companies pride themselves on the service they provide, but the length to which some of them go is unbelievable. Listen to Michael Muser , general manager at Chicago’s Grace restaurant (as quoted in Bon Apetit) :” Before you arrive we start a dossier on you.. The second we take your reservation, we note your area code on caller ID, then google your name and city. We open the diner notes section on Open Table and jot down everything we find: your job, your likes and dislikes.”
The information is used to cater to the proclivities of guests. For instance,knowing that a group of diners were all huge U2 fans, the restaurant assigned them a server who was herself a U2 nut. Sure enough, the topic came up during the meal. When another guest tweeted that he was excited to be dining at Grace even though he was sick with a fever, the chef packed him a container of chicken noodle soup to take home. Yet another guest, a food blogger, was sent an extra amuse-bouche and a dessert.

Nor is this all. Servers are expected to take notes of each diner’s experience so that they can be used to enhance the dining experience on return visits.

As Muser himself admits ” I’m well aware this must seem a little creepy. Stalkerish. But if I can enhance your dining experience I’m going to do it. It’s my job.”

You got that right, buddy. It does seem creepy to me. When I go to a restaurant, I want my server to be attentive and friendly, to offer menu suggestions if asked, to get the food out on time, keep the water glasses filled and take the dirty dishes away promptly. Nothing more. I certainly don’t want him rooting around social media to know what I do or what my likes and dislikes are. That I think is intrusive.And not even an extra dessert is going to make me change my mind.

Robin Williams suicide a couple of months ago evoked an unprecedented level of sadness and just among movie fans. Everyone who had worked with him was distraught, and I read that many of them could not speak of his passing without breaking down in tears. It seems to have been not just about the manner of his passing or the loss of a formidable talent. More than anything else, it was about his lovable, childlike personality. The actress-director Penny Marshall called him “… the sweetest, gentlest man..”.

I don’t think I have ever seen anyone with his genius for improvisation. Wayne Brady and his cohorts on Whose Line is it Anyway? are very good but it is no criticism to say that they are not in the same class as Robin Williams. The only one who even came close was Jonathan Winters. Both Williams and he had a quicksilver wit, lightning fast and unpredictable in the directions it took. They were always on; their minds were never still. Perhaps because they were never able to relax, both men suffered from mental disorders. Winters had nervous breakdowns and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder; Williams suffered from depression which led to battles with cocaine and alcohol. As far as their personae were concerned, Williams was like a big kid, his rubber face and zany look making him instantly likable; Winters, on the other hand. sometimes came across as scary.

One story about Robin Williams that illustrates his wit, and which I will always remember, is this: Penny Marshall ( Laverne) had directed a 1990 movie ” Awakening”, in which Robin Williams played a doctor who tries dopamine on encephalitis victims who are unable to move. On the publicity tour for the movie, Williams came along. In Penny Marshall’s words, “I slurred and said the film was set in a menstrual hospital instead of mental hospital- and Robin immediately said ” It’s a period piece!”‘.

Only he could have instantly come up instantly with a line like that. R.I.P Robin Williams.

Wolves in the Snow

Full disclosure: this post has nothing to do with the 2002 movie, Wolves in the Snow.

At the supermarket, the shrink-wrapped meat is so nicely packaged, so clean and neat, that it is easy to forget where it originates. We think in terms “chicken”,”pork”and “beef”, not”hen”, “pig” or “cow”. It is different for those who have lived or traveled abroad. In the butcher’s shop at an English village, I was confronted by the carcass of a lamb that the butcher was preparing to breakdown. In India, I went with my father to the live poultry shop – once- to get some chicken. So, though I do eat meat, I am uncomfortably aware of where it comes from and would like to avoid thinking about it.

It was therefore with bemusement to read of the L.A artist turned chef Craig Thornton who has a very popular supper club, Wolvesmouth, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Thornton wants dining experiences at his club to be ” hyper-immersive” and his menu features a dish called, you guessed it , “Wolves in the Snow”. It’s components include grilled venison, preserved blackberry, fried moss and pine gelee and, splattered on a white plate, they are intended to evoke the aftermath of a wolf attack on a deer. He succeeds in his intention, no question, but is this what a diner wants to be reminded of while he is tucking into his food ?
Not this diner. I will not be visiting Wolvesmouth, ever.

Unthinking and Unaware

In a earlier post I had written about the bountiful supermarkets in Los Angeles and about the variety and abundance there is unparalleled. On the shelves and bins there was produce from many parts of the world. There was seafood from Vietnam, China and India; vegetables and fruits from Mexico and South America and canned and bottled products from Poland, Turkey, England, France, Armenia and a dozen other countries. Wandering the aisles and marveling at this wealth of produce, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be able to see all this and be in a position to buy some of it. Were my fellow shoppers aware of the logistics and the effort it had taken to stock these shelves ? As they picked through the bins, did they ever think how fortunate they were to be able to buy luscious grapes at 88 cents a pound or three pounds of Persian cucumbers for a dollar? I thought not , because it is our human nature to take for granted what we have.

I was reminded of an utterance by the Indian holy man, Swami Muktananda when he first came to the United States. It was in the arrivals lounge at JFK airport in New York City. He took in the spacious, well-lit lounge with the comfortable seats, the clean rest rooms so different from what he was accustomed to in India. Then he took note of the people around him: rushing to make their flights , grumbling about the lines, fussing about their luggage; tense, harried, anxious.
And he murmured,” They are in paradise and they know it not.”

A few years ago, I was in Seattle at the Pike Street Market. With me was a cousin from India and together we marveled at the beautifully arranged fruits and vegetables and the gleaming piles of fish. My cousin quietly said to me ” It does my heart good to see all this”. I perfectly understood his feeling. We who live in this country are accustomed to seeing such abundance but , even so, it sometimes takes my breath away. I recently had such an epiphany when I was visiting L.A and my brother-in-law took me to some of the supermarkets that he frequents. They were so much larger and better than I see in New Jersey that I remembered my cousin’s remark from four years ago.

The first place we visited was Super Kings and I was instantly entranced. We went first to the vegetable/fruit section which is nearest the entrance and I have never seen such a profusion of fresh produce anywhere. The quality and variety were outstanding. I counted seven different types of hot peppers, four kinds of eggplants, and tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, mushrooms, apples, pears, pluots( a cross between plums and apricots), peaches, grapes and melons all at the height of freshness. Southern Cal has large numbers of immigrants from Asia and Mexico and the produce on the shelves was a reflection of their tastes and of the bounty of California. In addition to the usual veggies, there were nopales ( cactus paddles), cactus pears, yucca, pasilla peppers, and other stuff that I had no clue about.

Prices, on average, were about half to two-thirds of what I am accustomed to paying in New Jersey. Here are some of them: figures in [ ] are N.J prices. Yellow peaches, nectarines, pluots or prune plums 77c/lb [$ 1.49-1.99], Gala apples 88c/lb [$1.49],large cantaloupes 2 for $3 [ 2/ $4] red or yellow bell peppers 88c/lb [ $1.99], on the vine cluster tomatoes 88c/lb.{ $ 1.29] and … you get the idea. What really blew my mind was a special on Persian cucumbers that Super Kings was running that week. These are thin-skinned, dark green cucumbers about six inches long and having very few seeds. On the East coast, where they are known as Indian cucumbers, they usually retail for $ 1.99 per lb; at Super Kings they were three pounds for a dollar! Unbelievable.
The only item I noticed that was more expensive in California than in New Jersey was green beans, $1,69 at Super Kings and usually $ 129-1.49 in N.J.I didn’t notice the price of lemons which I understand has gone through the roof because of California’s perennial drought. However, limes which are imported from Mexico were 15 for $1.99 {8/$1.99]. What a difference from a few months ago when the Mexican cartels had cornered the market in limes, making them so expensive that bartenders were moaning about having to use them in mixed drinks.

Seeing the vegetables at Super Kings moved me to say that, with variety like this, I wouldn’t mind becoming a vegetarian. However, when I moved to the meats section I quickly retracted my statement. Here, there was the same abundance and variety that I’d remarked about in the vegetable section. There were many more cuts of meat, both fresh and marinated, than I’m accustomed to seeing. Another thing that I noticed is many of the cuts were thin and flat ( suitable for grilling) or in bite size pieces ( good for tacos and other Mexican entrees). Prices for the meats and fish were slightly lower than on the east coast, not as marked as the difference in the prices of vegetables and fruits. Here and there , though, there were some prices that took me by surprise. For instance, Halibut was $8.99 / lb [$ 14.99 here].

One other thing that was noteworthy was the number of countries that the foods came from. In addition to California products, the fresh produce came from Mexico and South America while the frozen or canned goods came from Vietnam, China, India, Chile, Armenia, Poland and a dozen other countries. The totality of what I saw reminded me of a giant cornucopia with a never-ending stream of food spilling out of it.

Super King was the first and biggest of the three supermarkets that I visited and it spoiled me, I must admit. The other two, Sprouts Farm Market and Vallarta were equally impressive but, after Super Kings, the displays of fruit and vegetables and other goods did not overwhelm me. How quickly we get spoiled! Sprouts, though it calls itself a farm market, is indistinguishable from a supermarket. Here and at Vallarta, the variety and prices were comparable to those at Super Kings but the quantities on display were not nearly as humongous. Each of them had its strong points. Sprouts had huge bins of nuts and many types of trail mixes. I also seem to recall many prepared foods, particularly Italian specialties. Vallarta, which caters to a largely Mexican clientele, had a taco and enchilada stand, a bakery featuring Mexican breads and cakes and a greater number of canned goods from south of the border. I enjoyed the large sugar dusted Mexican cookies ( which reminded me of the Indian nankhatai) but didn’t care mush for the doughy bolillos.

All in all, a fantastic experience and one I wouldn’t mind repeating.

P.S. Back in N.J, I was feeling a little deprived thinking of the supermarkets of California. The only thing here that is comparable is H-Mart, the Korean supermarket chain but while the quality at H. Mart is pretty good, the produce is geared only to Asian and local tastes. Then, I discovered the Twin City supermarket in nearby Somerville. Here are the peppers and other south American products I saw at Super Kings though the quantities on display are far, far smaller and the prices higher. Regardless, I will be spending many happy hours there and I won’t be neglecting H-Mart either.


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