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What We're Reading, March 22-28


Sarah Vowell takes on the American occupation of Hawaii (with varying degrees of success) in her latest quirky historical adventure; author Katharine Greider dives into centuries of New York history through the lens of her crumbling Manhattan row house; and Lisa Abend, a journalist working in Spain, follows the young apprentices toiling away in the molecular gastronomy labs of Ferran Adria's elBulli, often considered the best restaurant in the world.


Unfamiliar Fishes

by Sarah Vowell

America's pre-eminent historical tourist (and a regular contributor to public radio's This American Life) now voyages to Hawaii to tell the story of how Americans first came to the islands and then, eventually, stole them, in a coup d'etat against the Hawaiian royalty led by American planters and merchants in 1893. As with her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, her primary fascination is with the New England Puritans, represented in this case by the missionaries who voyaged to the savage Sandwich Islands to proselytize and civilize. Her signature breezy, charming, talkative style, and her love for arcane texts found deep in archives, makes this the only history of Hawaiian colonization likely to make the New York Times best-seller list.

We talk about a "writer's voice," but in Vowell's case, that seems literal — not only because we know the sound of hers so well, but because her writing seems like a transcript of a breathless report on her latest research, delivered over coffee, funny and opinionated and spackled with fascinating facts — did you know whale oil was used in the Apollo spacecrafts? She does. Vowell seems horrified by the zeal of the American missionaries, who repressed all worldly pleasure in themselves — and others — in exchange for God's glory to come. And yet at the same time she admires the courage that sent them around the globe to re-create Connecticut in Honolulu. (She might feel a kinship with them; the life of a researcher is much like that of an ascetic.) But toward the end of the book, as the missionaries are pushed from the narrative by larger forces of politics and commerce, she loses some enthusiasm, and lapses into standard "This, then That" historical narrative. As for the Hawaiians themselves, Vowell seems stymied by the challenge of telling the story of a people who, with few exceptions, left behind no quirky memoirs for her to mine. There's a wonderful moment in the book where she's allowed to see a priceless Hawaiian royal skirt made from the feathers of extinct birds, preserved in a museum, and you can imagine her frustration — if only she could quote it. -- Peter Sagal, host, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

Hardcover, 256 pages; Riverhead; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 22


The Sorcerer's Apprentices

A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's elBulli

By Lisa Abend

If you are a vigorous follower of all things foodie, you've probably heard about elBulli. The Spanish restaurant has been voted the best in the world many times over. Its chef/owner, Ferran Adria, creates magical dishes borne of science that play with a diner's expectations of taste, temperature and texture. Journalist Lisa Abend's book, The Sorcerer's Apprentices takes readers into Adria's kitchen, where experienced cooks come from around the world to spend a season in the presence of greatness, working without pay. Abend draws a portrait of a disciplined and exacting place, free from the chaotic, abusive excesses made famous by Anthony Bourdain, yet intense in its own right.

Ferran Adria is considered a revolutionary in some circles: half master chef, half mad scientist. He has taken haute cuisine to new hautes. He has shown that — with new tools and ingredients — round foods can appear square, liquids can appear solid, and air can actually be flavored and eaten. But if you have never encountered foie gras enrobed in cotton candy, rose petals masquerading as an artichoke, or a spherified olive ... if you've never made the pilgrimage to elBulli or one of the restaurants inspired by it (Minibar in Washington, D.C., or Alinea in Chicago, for example), you may have a hard time getting past the first 90 pages or so of The Sorcerer's Apprentices. I did. Like a hungry diner left sitting too long without at least some bread to nibble on, I was tempted to just get up and leave.

Oddly, writer Lisa Abend has chosen to leave flavor out of the opening chapters of her book. You're privy to some of the meticulous and strange food prep, but don't get to find out whether the results are actually delicious or even interesting. It's as if Abend herself didn't get to eat anything during her long months at elBulli (which may be true — the dozens of apprentices themselves do not get to taste the dishes they work so hard to prepare!). But even when Abend is beautifully describing the rituals around making the daily staff meal, she skips over the food itself. Something must have drawn these fine chefs from around the world to Catalonia to do Ferran Adria's peeling and chopping for free, but what? Abend tells us again and again that Adria is a demigod, but the reader is expected to bow down before him without proof of miracles. And the first foods you DO encounter seem more like the devil's doing: fried rabbit tongues and rabbit brains, served in rabbit ears, phlegm-like sea anemones,5-foot-long ropes of tuna marrow, fetal pigs' tails. elBulli can't just be a culinary house of horrors, or a million people wouldn't vie each year for the 8,000 reservations accepted.

Despite all of the above, Abend actually is a fantastic writer, and an artful observer. It's worth reading parts just for the prose. She doesn't succumb to the overly lush descriptions that tempt many a food writer. And if you stick with The Sorcerer's Apprentices, you will eventually get a picture of what it is that draws both the diners and the apprentices to this famous spot on the Costa Brava. But even Abend's lovingly constructed sentences didn't make me care much about the lives of the apprentices that are the focus of this book (Adria's own life story was told, to mixed reviews, in a 2010 biography by Colman Andrews). And frankly, a hyper-orderly kitchen is admirable, but not so fun to read about.

I have a sneaking suspicion that after the book had gone through several drafts, an editor (or perhaps the writer herself) took it apart and re-arranged the sections, like a deconstructed gazpacho from Adria's kitchen. Someone needed to go read back through, to make sure the new order made sense and told a proper tale. Someone needed to tell Lisa Abend that if she is going to mention Adria's famous spherified olives many times over, she can't wait another 100 pages to tell us exactly what they are, especially those of us who will never have the pleasure of tasting one. -- Alice Winkler, senior producer

Hardcover, 304 pages; Free Press; list price, $26; publication date, March 22


The Archaeology of Home

An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side

By Katharine Greider

Writer Katharine Greider and her husband had lived on the top floor of 239 E. 7th St. for five years when she received a call from an architect the couple had hired to recommend a "schedule of repairs for the dilapidated row house we called home." The architect informed her that instead of making repairs he would only make one strong suggestion — to move out, and fast. The foundations of the building were crumbling to dust, rotting out from underneath the beams. Soon, the building would need to be sealed by the city for code violations. Suddenly, Greider, her husband and their young children had to find a new place to live while fighting with the city, their neighbors and the past tenants of the house who left the building in such a precarious state. Greider launches a full-on investigation into the history of her small plot of land, tracing it back to Manhattan's Native American roots and the first Dutch settlers. She then tells the story of the house — and along with it, an abbreviated version of the story of New York itself — through the shipbuilding era, the tenement squalor, to the gritty Lower East Side of the 1970s. The neighborhood was a true melting pot over the years, playing host to Eastern European and Puerto Rican immigrants, Italians and Irish alike. In tracing back the history of 239, Greider is able to peel away chronological layers of city life, exploring the idea that in such a dense location, a house is more than just a house — it is a story, a small history of what it has meant to be "at home" over time.

I didn't expect to like The Archaeology of Home-- I am a die-hard New Yorker at heart, and I have unflinchingly high expectations for books about city life. When you have Luc Sante's brilliant Low Lifeexamining the seamy underbelly of the Lower East Side, or Pete Hamill exploring the hustle and sweat of his Brooklyn childhood on your bookshelf, you don't necessarily feel that you needanother book diving back into the city's history. But of course, New York is a city of 8 million stories, constantly regenerating and refreshing itself, and there will always be new ways to look at urban progress and an individual's experience of living on the island.

In fact, what I really enjoyed about reading Greider's book was that she acknowledges this little-explored aspect of the city; that because there is no space to expand outward, New Yorkers develop new structures right on top of the old ones, creating a kind of layer cake of human experience inside each building. New York is more like an onion than an apple; it is entirely likely that one's kitchen linoleum in a prewar Manhattan apartment has 20 other layers of flooring underneath. It is this aspect of stripping away that I found most intriguing about Archaeology of Home, the idea that Greider simply had to know what was underneath the surface of the home she bought, and why it had fallen into such a state of disrepair. Along the way, she discovers that the house was built on top of a marsh, once thought inappropriate terrain for supporting architecture; even in the beginning, the house was not entirely fit to support its own weight.

Greider writes in the kind of history-autobiography form that has become popular of late (see the Sarah Vowell review, above), weaving in her own exasperating experiences of having bought a house in retrograde with the vibrant cultural history of the neighborhood. Oftentimes, the insertion of the self into history is jarring — you wish the author would get out of the way already and let the facts speak — but in Greider's case, her story is as necessary a part of the foundation of 239 as those of the past tenants. They all share the same physical space, over the centuries, and they have all in some way left an imprint on the home. You feel deeply for Greider and her family's woes with the housing department not in spite of the tales of past residents, but because of them — the fact that there were so many missed chances to make the building more solid lends an air of tragedy to the narrator's tale.

Greider, whose last book, The Big Fix, probed inside big pharma and America's reliance on prescription drugs, is a gifted and poetic stylist, despite the number of facts that she jams into every paragraph. She is at her best, however, when she veers away from her research and off onto eloquent tangents about the very nature of "home": "In staying and going there is a corresponding vastness, one deep, the other broad," she writes. "When we are putting down roots, we can still consider or dream of movement, of breaching distant shores; when roaming, we carry an image or an idea of home. And so each of us contains these immensities always, in an inner space that, like the city, touches infinity." -- Rachel Syme, books editor

Hardcover, 352 pages; PublicAffairs; list price, $26.99; publication date, March 22

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