“Kitchen Yarns” by Ann Hood and “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

Kitchen YarnsA couple of years ago, Ann Hood was the subject of the New York Times’ “Vows” column, which reported on her wedding to the food writer Michael Ruhlman. The article made it clear that both of these divorced people had finally found true love, and their previous spouses simply didn’t measure up.

“I get the sense that from the moment I was born, I started knowing her,” said Ruhlman of Hood. “There is the platonic notion of love in which Plato postulated that one soul is separated from the other at birth and they each spend the rest of their lives searching for the other half. Well, if that’s true, then I’ve finally found the soul I’ve been searching for.” The article then went on to quote a lifelong friend of Ruhlman’s, who said that “in all the years I’ve known Michael, I’ve never seen him happier.”

It has to be awkward for an ex-spouse to see that sort of thing in the Newspaper of Record. It made sense, though, that Ann Hood would consent to have her wedding covered by the Times, since she’s never exactly been shy about discussing her personal life, from the tragic death of her daughter Grace to her first divorce (in the 1995 anthology Women on Divorce: A Bedside Companion).

Hood’s divorce does come up several times in her memoir Kitchen Yarns, which is rich in anecdotes about her life as reflected through the food she cooked and ate. From her mother’s meatball recipe and her grandmother’s Italian red sauce, to the Silver Palate Chicken Marbella recipe Hood cooked as a young single woman in New York, we learn about her life, loves and losses. When she’s struck with memories of her daughter, she reaches for comfort food, like a grilled cheese sandwich; exhausted from a trip, she concocts Italian rice and peas; to feed a crowd, she bakes tomato pies.

Ruhlman contributes a couple of recipes, but he plays a fairly small role in Kitchen Yarns. At several points, I felt that certain aspects of Hood’s life were being repeated over and over again—on page 221, she writes, “In 1978 I became a flight attendant for TWA,” something that had already been mentioned numerous times earlier in the book. The last page informed me that many of the essays in Kitchen Yarns had already been published elsewhere, so that explains why it doesn’t always seem like a cohesive whole, and why there’s not more content about her relationship with soul mate Ruhlman. Still, it’s a fun light read for anyone who enjoys the stories behind cherished family recipes. And I’m looking forward to tomato season so I can make that pie.

The Library BookIt’s rare that I read two nonfiction books in a row, but I received a notification that my copy of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book had come in at (where else) my local library. I love libraries. The first thing I did when I moved to my current town was get a library card. Like Orlean, I was an avid library user as a child. “The place was so bountiful,” she recalls of the suburban branch she frequented with her mother. “In the library I could have everything I wanted.”

That’s still a little miracle, isn’t it? And yet I am sometimes guilty of taking libraries for granted. A great way of deepening your appreciation is to read The Library Book, which is not just the story of the 1986 Los Angeles library fire which destroyed 400,000 books, but a story about libraries themselves, and all the ways they serve their communities. Almost every detour Orlean takes, from the way modern libraries must grapple with homeless people using the facilities, to how remote communities are served (Colombia has a donkey-powered “Biblioburro” service, in which the animals are outfitted with saddlebags of books), to literacy classes helping adults learn to read, could fill an entire volume. Each chapter begins with a list of three or four book titles, including their Dewey decimal classification, that gives a hint as to what the next few pages will contain. (How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, 615.9 B638, precedes a chapter that discusses health issues faced by the librarians who worked in the building post-fire.)

There’s also a true-crime element, since the case was never definitively solved, though a man named Harry Peak was accused of starting the fire. Orlean dives into Peak’s past, trying to unravel the shifting alibis he presented. He died several years ago, and the difficult nature of investigating arson means we’ll probably never know exactly what happened. “A fire can smolder slowly. The arsonist has plenty of time to walk away before anything seems amiss,” she writes. “Of all the major criminal offenses, arson is the least successfully prosecuted… An arsonist has a ninety-nine percent likelihood of getting away with the crime.” The old building was also a bit of a fire-trap, so it could have been caused completely by accident.

Happily, the Los Angeles main library is thriving today, and so are libraries in general, despite the occasional cries that they’re irrelevant in the age of the Internet. “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone,” writes Orlean. “The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Orlean is certainly worth listening to, and The Library Book is a must-read for anyone who believes in the power of libraries.

“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“All the Answers” by Michael Kupperman

All the AnswersWho were the Quiz Kids? I had never heard of them, but my guess is that the name will definitely ring a bell for anyone who was around in the 1940s and 50s. The Quiz Kids were brainy children who answered tough questions on a radio program based out of Chicago, and eventually a TV show, that ran between 1940 and 1956. It was a phenomenon, especially during the WWII years, when the Kids toured the country to sell war bonds and boost morale.

The Kids hobnobbed with celebrities like Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford. When each Kid turned 16, now more of an adult than a cute child prodigy, he or she “graduated” and left the show. Except for one, the most famous Kid of all: Joel Kupperman, the math genius who first appeared on the show at the age of six and continued until he was in college. Despite his dad’s decade-plus of fame, Joel’s son Michael knew very little about the Quiz Kids years; now a college professor, Joel shunned Quiz Kid reunions and didn’t give interviews, and treated his childhood as a “forbidden subject.”

After Joel is diagnosed with dementia, Michael realizes that it’s his last chance to find out what really happened to his father. An exhaustive search of the family home finally turns up several scrapbooks stuffed with Quiz Kids memorabilia. Michael begins to research the life of Joel Kupperman, kid genius, and makes some disturbing discoveries.

This graphic novel is a quick read, with bold, simple and effective black-and-white drawings, but the author manages to develop a lot of big themes in the book’s 220 pages, including the importance of several of the Kids’ Jewishness (particularly during WWII and its aftermath), the way “special” children were commonly put on display back then (the Quiz Kids had some things in common with the Dionne quintuplets, who were a tourist attraction in a sort of human zoo until they turned eight), and the game show scandals of the 1950s.

Quotes at the beginning of each chapter show what a pop-culture phenomenon the Quiz Kids were in their day. (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth referenced Joel Kupperman in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.) All the Answers is often tragic, and constantly fascinating.

“Boys Keep Swinging” by Jake Shears

Boys Keep Swinging by Jake ShearsI picked up Jake Shears’ memoir Boys Keep Swinging because I was a fan of his glam-rock/disco band the Scissor Sisters, who have been M.I.A. over the past few years. (In case you’ve never heard them, here’s a popular track from 2009.) Shears also wrote songs for the “Tales of the City” musical that I loved so much back in 2011; I still nurture a hope that it’ll go on to have a second life someday.

As it turns out, Boys Keep Swinging doesn’t deal at all with the band’s lengthy hiatus, or “Tales of the City”—it stops around the time he’s about to start working on the Scissor Sisters’ second album. So this is really a book about how a kid named Jason Sellards, who grew up feeling like an outcast, became the platinum-selling rock star Jake Shears, and hints at why he had to walk away from it all for a while.

I’ve seen Shears on Dan Savage’s husband Terry Miller’s social media, but until I read Boys Keep Swinging, I had no idea that Shears was a frequent caller to Savage’s radio call-in show when he was a high school student. Savage became something of a mentor to Shears after telling him on air that he should come out as gay to his parents; he took the advice, but it didn’t go very well, unfortunately. Savage even brought young Jason to the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS to demonstrate the importance of staying safe.

Eventually, Shears moved to New York and studied fiction writing at the New School, picking up gigs as a go-go dancer at clubs and writing for the fashionably hip Paper magazine. (He also dated Anderson Cooper back when the future CNN newsman was hosting a TV game show!) In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Shears and his pal Scott Hoffman made their first appearance as the Scissor Sisters—”People were sad,” he writes. “They needed to be entertained.” Performing a goofy song called “Bicycle of the Devil,” while wearing nothing but a kimono plus “a leather G-string, combat boots, and a harness,” a star was born. “When the number ended, people clapped and hooted. I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my body.”

Relentless hard work and self-promotion paid off with a record deal and enormous success in England, where the band’s self-titled debut became the best-selling album of 2004. However, Shears’ self-doubt, personality clashes within the band and the physical and mental grind of constant touring took its toll. Shears was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was suffering from depression. Of course, this is a rock star’s memoir, so that process was a little bit different than it is for the average guy: “It was Elton [John] who finally had the talk with me about going on antidepressants,” he writes, going on to quote Sir Elton: “David [Furnish, John’s husband] and I are very worried about you. If you don’t like them, then just get off them. But you have to at least try it.”

Fortunately, Shears today seems like he’s in a pretty good place: he’s starring in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots” and he has a solo album due out later this year (“some of the best music I’ve made,” he notes in the epilogue to his book). Boys Keep Swinging does a great job of capturing the highs and lows of rock stardom, as well as providing a moving coming-of-age story.

“Vacationland” by John Hodgman

VacationlandI had planned to be seasonally appropriate and review a Christmas novel this week. Then I read two of them, and found them to be corny and predictable. (I later found out one of the books I read had been adapted into a Hallmark Channel movie.) I didn’t want to spend the day before Christmas Eve slamming novels that are loved by people who are more merry and bright than I am, so instead, I picked up John Hodgman’s memoir Vacationland, which he has described as “white privilege mortality comedy.”

My copy of Vacationland was procured at the author’s book event in San Francisco; he had pre-signed all the copies, so I was spared the agony of saying something dumb to him after the show and the subsequent lingering feelings of shame. The memoir itself was born out of Hodgman’s one-person show, which I attended a couple years ago. I say these things to establish the fact that I am something of a John Hodgman superfan. (I also listen to his weekly podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” and have tickets to attend the live JJH taping at the Castro Theatre next month.)

For those who have not followed Hodgman’s career as closely as I have, the Yale alum quit his job as a successful literary agent to become a writer, producing three books of fake trivia, including The Areas of My Expertise. An appearance on “The Daily Show” to promote that book led to a regular gig on the show, and he was also cast as the PC in a popular series of Apple Computer commercials. His career has made him plenty of money, and he is white, and middle-aged, and he owns two summer homes, one in rural western Massachusetts and one in Maine. The former belonged to his parents; his dad essentially gave it to him after his mom died. The latter was purchased fairly recently, because “the mercilessly painful beaches” of Maine are his wife’s favorite place in the world, and it has thus become the place, he says, “where I will eventually accept my death.”

Coastal Maine is not cool or hip, explains Hodgman. “Maine’s population is the oldest in the Union. On our peninsula the young people tend to flee for Portland or points away, leaving their parents alone and embittered.” This may be true, but Brooklin, Maine—that’s where his house is; he goes to great lengths never to come out and say the name of the town, but about two seconds of Googling will reveal it—sounds pretty nice. His fellow summer residents in Brooklin include literati like Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem.

There’s a chapter which focuses on the E.B. White House, onetime home of the celebrated writer, which is now privately owned (he never mentions E.B. White by name, either). “He did not want it to become a museum… the location of this particular local point of interest is not celebrated and definitely not advertised. It’s usually not discussed at all. It was a long time before we knew about the house, and longer before we knew where it was. But eventually the information was slipped to us, and we received it as a gift of trust.” (I will pause to mention here that the house has its own Wikipedia page, and the exact coordinates of its location are also divulged there.) Hodgman states that he once saw photos of the house on a young woman’s Instagram page, which made him “feel desperate and mad,” and he left a nasty comment on her feed. “I am the villain of this story,” he admits, mentioning that he eventually took the comment down; shortly after that, she set her account to private.

I would be very interested to hear Hodgman’s reaction to the fact that the E.B. White House is now for sale, priced at $3.7 million, and there are lavish photos of it available online. Time marches on.

One of my guilty pleasures is gossip blind items, but Hodgman’s avoidance of naming names sometimes struck me as eye-rollingly coy. (I would love to know the identity of the “famous movie star” who once gave his wife a Scientology “touch assist.”) In some cases, it couldn’t possibly matter; a chapter about his visit to a “lovely, small liberal arts college” to deliver its annual “Samuel Clemens Address” is hilarious, and yet for some reason, I felt deeply compelled to figure out the identity of the school (it’s St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and it’s actually called the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor & Culture). I’m probably a monster and one of the reasons we can’t have nice things.

Do I nitpick this book too much? There were parts that made me laugh, and parts that are genuinely moving, such as the chapter about his mother’s death. I’m actually quite happy that Hodgman feels compelled to wrestle with his self-consciousness about being a rich white middle-aged man in today’s America, because it proves he is a sensitive and caring human being.

I was going to say that it would only be fitting if next summer, Perry’s Nut House, a historic souvenir shop described in the book, stocks copies of Vacationland, but then I looked it up online and found that like the E.B. White House, Perry’s is also for sale. As Hodgman states early in the book: “Everything ends. Nothing lasts.” If you don’t want to face those facts, there’s always the Hallmark Channel.

“Party of One” by Dave Holmes

Party of OneI picked up Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs because I am a fan of Dave Holmes’ comedy podcast “International Waters,” but reading it was like a trip back in time. You see, while I am now a demographically-undesirable Gen X’er, long ago, I was a proud member of the MTV Generation. This was back in the days when the network still devoted the bulk of its programming to videos, presented by a stable of video jockeys (VJs). On-air personalities like Kevin Seal, Martha Quinn, Matt Pinfield and newsman Kurt Loder may have been reading from teleprompters, but they seemed genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music.

Then came the dark day in the 1990s when MTV held its first “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. One of the entrants was a guy named Jesse Camp. I thought he was the most irritating person I’d ever seen on a TV screen. Seriously, see if you can make it through this 15-second video of Jesse without lunging for the pause button. Camp was born Josiah A. Camp III in Connecticut, where he attended a fancy boarding school, but on MTV, he presented a spacey, burned-out street kid persona. Somehow, Jesse managed to win the competition—later, there were claims that the voting was rigged by a hacker who “did it because everyone else at MTV is just corporate bullshit”—but at the time, the fact that MTV viewers had chosen this teenaged clown made me so angry that I decided I had finally outgrown the channel and I was done with it forever.

The second-place contestant was none other than Dave Holmes. “I looked like Walter Cronkite in cargo pants” next to Jesse, he writes in a chapter called “Notes on (Jesse) Camp.” “If I was a little disappointed to lose the job to him, the Talent Department was straight up confused and frightened. Like, who is this guy, and how exactly do you take care of him? What does he eat? Does he eat? What, if anything, is he on? Who’s going to get him to work? Most pressingly: is he always going to be like this?”

The powers that be wisely decided to hire Holmes as well as Camp, and the runner-up went on to enjoy a successful career at the network (“His MTV career lasted about three years longer than Camp’s,” per Wikipedia). Since his MTV days, Holmes has worked steadily as a TV host, radio personality and actor; he’s currently a writer-at-large for Esquire, and has contributed some pieces I’ve just adored, like his hilarious reviews of “mother!” and “The Emoji Movie.”

Party of One is a fun read for Holmes’ fellow pop-culture obsessives; the book contains one of the best celebrity stories I’ve ever read (about actress Tara Reid and her friend at an MTV spring break shoot in Cancun), along with candid tales about growing up gay and Catholic, experimenting with drugs (only twice! but both incidents were memorable), and getting advice at a critical juncture in his life from the pop duo Indigo Girls, whom he happened to run into at an Applebee’s (“It was as though they had seen some kind of gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and reported for duty”). And I’ll admit to a teensy bit of schadenfreude over the fact that Holmes has a great, wide-ranging career, whereas Jesse is the topic of occasional where-are-they-now pieces.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.