Friday, October 08, 2004

Cultural Diversions: Mundanities 

It's been awhile since I've written one of these reviews. In part that's because some of the stuff I've been listening to or reading doesn't lend itself to discussion here. I don't think I could write anything enlightening about the 7-CD Talich Quartet recording of the complete Beethoven String Quartets (let alone anyone want to read it) I got recently, and it seems just weird to write about the Clash's London Calling, an album I've listened to in its entirety for the first time just recently (and, no, not the recently-issued expanded version -- just the plain vanilla version). I could say the same thing about the books I've been reading.

Nothing exciting, but that's the theme of this review -- making something interesting out of nothing at all. (It's not quite like making love out of nothing at all, but eh.)

There were three articles of note in The New Yorker's Sept. 6 issue, which was a special "Food" issue. It included 3 articles I found entertaining. In ascending order of entertainment...
1) Burkhard Bilger's article on gourmet salad. Want to know why you can find all sorts of bagged salad in the refrigerated produce section? Want to know how the chemical basics of those salad bags affects the type of lettuce sold? Want to read an article that puts California restauranteur Alice Waters in a bad light? Read this.
2) Malcolm Gladwell's article on ketchup. Gladwell has always posted his New Yorker articles on his own website, and so you can actually read this one without tracking down the hard copy. It's amusing, and the article doesn't quite overreach like Bilger's -- not every review of a minor foodstuff can be turned into a review of a culture, which can be turned into a broad review of "truth." (By the way, in trying to find Gladwell's website, I stumbled across this interview of Gladwell by Rob Neyer; the interview appears to be a couple years old.)
3) Adam Gopnik's review of a book on wine (whose title escapes me now) makes the above point exactly (that's where I stole it from) -- sometimes a book about food should just be about food. The reason I enjoyed this review so much is that as Gopnik discussed how a Baltimore lawyer Robert Parker revolutionized wine by ranking wines "objectively," I thought immediately of how Bill James did the same to baseball... and then Gopnik made the same exact point in his article. But it's an interesting article even beyond that.

I also recently finished David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I've been a fan of Sedaris ever since his first book Barrel Fever. Over time, Sedaris has increasingly turned his skewed view of the world away from the world and onto his own family, never more so than in Dress Your Family. You sometimes wonder why his family puts up with him because he constantly paints them in less-than-flattering ways. (In fact, one of the best stories in the collection concerns this very subject and one of his sisters.) I worry, however, that Sedaris is writing himself into a corner. Yes, his stories now have an underpinning of sadness and self-realization they didn't have a decade ago. But I wish that he'd dip his toe back into the water of absurdist comedy he used to spend much more time in.

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