Sunday, September 4, 2011

50BC2011 #10:Mission Street Food

Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable RestaurantMission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant by Karen Leibowitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Cookbook” doesn’t begin to touch this amazingly honest, engaging, inspiring, and creative narrative about two people, their friends, their perseverance, their sheer luck, and the joy to be had in both dreams and realities.

From flatbreads on a food truck to a full-fledged restaurant, Mission Street Food is a tale told in the words of its two heroes, chef Anthony Myint and his wife, Karen Leibowitz. It is the story of a “start-up” like no other, set on the streets (mainly one street) of San Francisco, transforming a “mom-and-pop” Guatemalan snack cart into a thriving and charitable food experience. The authors aren’t shy about sharing the many bumps in the road, but both Myint and Leibowitz write with an enviable sense of humor in the face of each challenge. Leibowitz recalls opening night on the food truck, as a line of people formed down the block:

“It had never occurred to us that we might have more than a few customers at a time, so we had no system for organizing orders. On the fly, I decided to give each person a letter, which was a big mistake. A lot of letters sound the same, so I spent the night yelling things like “Order D! D as in Depeche Mode!” It was like taking a free-association test in front of a hundred people. I had no cash register, of course, so I kept ones and fives in my front pockets, tens and twenties in my back pockets—a regular carnie.”(p.31).

When Myint and Leibowitz found more permanent facilities for MSF at a “decrepit Chinese joint,” they continued to surmount obstacle after obstacle, all the while creating unique and inspired cuisine, at no profit. One gets a sense the venture was one part grassroots endeavor to two parts spontaneity that would rival 1960s “Happenings.” In amidst the entertaining tales of small victories and near-mishaps, Leibowitz tucks in what ultimately makes this book so very appealing:

“When we got home, I felt exhausted to the point of despondency, but I also felt a little bit sentimental. Anthony had become a chef. I had become a restaurant manager/dishwasher. Our friends were pulling for us. We were incompetent. We were successful. Nothing made any sense. I felt really lucky.” (p. 54).

And truly that’s what this book is about. You need not be a “foodie” or even remotely interested in starting a restaurant in order to enjoy this remarkable project. Myint and Leibowitz are testaments to the value of spirit, energy, friendship, and love. Their story is one of turning dreams into living one’s life to the fullest, rather than waiting for “something to happen.” It is hard not to be inspired by Mission Street Food, and you’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along with the authors. Along the way, you’ll also learn how portion your own steaks from a rib roast, how a CO2 charger might provide 30 seconds of pure joy for your dinner guests, and that jalapeños and snickerdoodles can make excellent bedfellows.

Read this book for the fantastic photographs. Read this book for the excellent writing and the entertaining story. Read this book for the comic strip on pages 37-44. Read this book for recipes that will challenge and inspire you. But most of all, read this book because chances are, at some point, you’ll need a reminder of your own aspirations and possibilities.

(Reposted at

50BC2011 #9: Schuman, Persichetti and Mennin

The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter MenninThe Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin by Walter Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

professional review forthcoming

50BC2011 #8: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I held off writing this review until I had read the sequel, which is why this is listed as 50BC2011 #8 instead of #7 (The Girl Who Played With Fire).

This is an intriguing book because Larsson didn't seem to know whether he wanted it to be a mystery, a thriller, a novel, or some combination thereof. The story is really fascinating, but if you are an instant-gratification kind-of reader, you'll be disappointed. Larsson takes his time in getting to the juicy mystery-type material. I like that Salander is instantly enigmatically likeable, even though he reveals very little about her in the first book. She's an excellent character--complex, but honest in that she occasionally surprises herself. I did feel the book is a bit heavy-handed with all the references to technology--there are pages that read like Mac ads. The Girl Who Played with Fire moves much more quickly, so I'm glad I stuck with this one long enough to want to read the second one.

50BC2011 #7: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this one much more than The Girl with the Dragon moves at a much faster pace and didn't seem quite so intent on creating reality by including technical minutiae all over the place. It is nice to have a slightly better sense of Salander's character, as well, although she's still hard to pin down (and that is part of her character). I did NOT like the ending--it just doesn't ring true. I'll be curious to read the next one.

Friday, August 26, 2011

50BC2011 #6: Let The Great World Spin

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the concept of telling the story of the world that spun beneath the tightrope. That said, I always had the sense that the author was trying to hide plot points that weren't really hidden, so that I spent much of the book just wondering when these revelations were going to poke their head out of the narrative. I enjoyed the moments inside Phillipe Petit's mind, and McCann does a great job of crafting NYC and its stories as a figurative gyroscope spinning around the axis of a single event.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

50BC11 #5: Letters by a Modern Mystic

Letters by a Modern MysticLetters by a Modern Mystic by Frank C. Laubach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was skeptical going in when I ordered this book upon the recommendation of a friend. I was pleasantly surprised at Laubach's equanimity when it came to Islam v. Christianity. For example:

"A good Muslim would fill his life with God. I fear there are few good Muslims. But so would a real Christlike Christian speak to God every time he did anything--and I fear there are few good Christians. What right then have I or any other person to come here and change the name of these people from Muslim to Christian, unless I lead them to a life fuller of God than they have now? job here is not to go to the town plaza and make proselytes, it is to live wrapped in God, trembling to His thoughts..." (13)

I liked this idea of the reflective missionary--one who is as much on a mission for himself as looking to spread the Gospel. I used the book for my Lenten meditations and it worked very well for that. As for the "Game with Minutes," at the end? I didn't like it. I found the metaphor sort of silly and glib and it was a rather bizarre shift of tone from the letters, which are filled with the real anguished questioning and blissful moments of a true spiritual sojourn.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

50BC11 #4: Like The Flowing River

Like the Flowing River, Stories 1998-2005Like the Flowing River, Stories 1998-2005 by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great book of meditations large and small in the form of stories and true vignettes from the life of the author. I recommend keeping it on your nightstand and reading just one or two stories before you go to bed--you'll sleep well. If you are familiar with Coelho's works, you'll recognize the "warrior of the light" and the reference to "personal legends" (see The Alchemist). The collection is a testament to Coelho's expansive horizon (see The Valkyries: An Encounter with Angels) and will likely inject you with little doses of inspiration for your personal legend.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

50BC11 #3: Putting Away Childish Things

Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern FaithPutting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith by Marcus J. Borg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll be honest and say that I'd like to give this book two different ratings. As a novel, I'd give it only three, maybe 3.5, stars. As a "didatic novel" (what Borg calls it), it rates higher (hence the four stars). So, in the end, I think I really wanted to read a novel, not the latter.

On a personal level, I had a lot in common with the protagonist, Kate--a young introspective professor, who drives a red Volvo! Borg does a good job of developing her character as well as presenting a vivid supporting cast in Fredrika, Geoff, and to some extent, Martin (although I wanted more there).

Depending on the reader's background in theology and desire for it, this novel will at times seem tedious as the various characters exchange in Christian theological discussions which are largely meant to educate the reader. I felt the classroom discussions were rather contrived, although I congratulate Marcus Borg if those discussions were based on his actual teaching experience. Kate's class is one that most professors will only dream of having.

There was, however, quite a bit that touched me in this novel, largely through the protagonist. Universal themes of rejection, self-doubt, growth, leaps of faith--it is all there, and much of it was very resonant as I am familiar with the political environment of academia.

I admire Borg's non-fiction writing to a tremendous degree and hope that a second novel will aim to be less didactic, perhaps, because the strength of this novel was actually obfuscated by the "teaching" aspect.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

50BC11 #2: Dark Tide:The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you aren't aware of the Molasses Flood of 1919, you are likely, as I was, to chuckle just thinking about the Boston waterfront coated in the sticky stuff. But Stephen Puleo's narrative of this event is terrifying, heartbreaking, dramatic, yet never seems sensationalist. He opens the door to reveal a history not just of an isolated terrible tragedy, but the ongoing struggle between corporate power, politics, and ethnic/class stratification. This book isn't just about the fifteen foot high wave that killed over 20 people (according the legal ruling) and injured multitudes of others, but is about what justice really means when an unexpected tragedy takes center stage against the backdrop of society's everyday tragedies. Beautifully written and extensively researched, this is one of the most riveting historical accounts I've ever read.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

50BC11 #1: The Book of Joby

Happy New Year!
Well, I spent the first day of 2011 reading--and doing little else. I managed to polish off the last 300 pages of this one, which now qualifies as my first book in 2011's 50 Book Challenge.

The Book of JobyThe Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an epic undertaking for a first novel, and succeeds admirably, if sometimes a bit unevenly. From about page 300 to page 638, I had trouble putting the book down. Ferrari's rhythm of revelation is masterful, keeping facets of the narrative in the dark for the reader and the characters, but rarely at the same time. The beginning set up does feel a little cliché at times and maybe even corny, but as you read further into the book, the characters become important in and of themselves, no matter who they "represent." It is a wonderful read--full of imaginative description and plenty of action, but also with a lot of allegorical insight for the reader who wants more than just a fun story. My only real criticism is the Epilogue. I'd outlaw epilogues for fiction If I could. Sometimes it is ok to just leave loose ends rather than to tie them up in a few short pages.