Friday, October 14, 2016

Daniel's Reading List: eating in Japan and sorting out the Mitford sisters

Yes, I read books that are not for upcoming events.

Super Sushi Ramen Express: One Family's Journey Through the Belly of Japan, by Michael Booth.
European*-based journalist Booth, whose previous works chronicled travels in Scandinavia, and retracing the steps of Hans Christian Andersen, takes the family to Japan for a giant serving of sushi, tempura, ramen, and many other Japanese delicacies. One thing you learn is that while there are many regional specialties, the country is mostly divided in cuisine between East (Kanto, centered in Tokyo) and West (Kansei, represented by Kyoto and Osaka), particularly after the revered cookbook writer Shizuo Tsuji died in 1993. For just one example, the West is into udon while the East does soba. The focus in the story is on food, with the story told in fairly short bursts about, say, takoyaki, a popular street food which is like a savory donut with bits of octopus inside. Wasabi, dashi, bonito, and fugu, the potentially dangerous puffer fish made popular stateside by Home Simpson, get their moment, and Booth’s kitchen tour brings him to many obscure and invitation-only places, such as the restaurant where your noodles are tossed in a spring and you catch and eat them downstream. The personal narrative is a bit more muted than Bill Bryson and the focus is more on food than funny, but then you’ll get his take on the burgeoning Japanese wine industry: “I’ve tasted it, so you don’t have to.” In the end, Super Sushi Ramen Express did the trick, making me curious, hungry, and more forgiving of MSG.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson.
A helpful hint in sorting out the Mitford sisters suggested listing them like the wives of King Henry VIII: novelist, countrywoman, Fascist, Nazi, communist, Duchess. What this group biography does is explain how their fates were much tied to their relationships – Unity’s Nazi leanings were probably enhanced by Diana falling in with Fascists, while Jessica’s jump to the Left was also probably exacerbated as a reaction against the other sisters move to the Right. In other words, everything was personal, and many of their later stories were a reaction to Nancy chronicling their lives in the bestselling The Pursuit of Love**. When I told my fellow bookseller that I was reading a group biography of the Mitford sisters, she wondered if it was The Sisters, a 15-year-old group biography from Mary Lovell, and that led to a discussion about how much had already been written about the family, but that said, this new addition is both a great introduction for Mitford novices and according to critics (I bow to them because I wouldn’t know), a welcome addition for experts. You never know when you’ll see a Mitford connection. Just after I finished the book, I noticed that Robert Gottlieb, in a review for Avid Reader, was the editor for Jessica Mitford’s breakout bestseller, The American Way of Death. I still have a very distinct memory of my sales rep Tom selling The American Way of Birth to me over 20 years ago***. I have no idea why. I also don’t understand why the publisher changed the title from the British edition, which was called the Michael-Aptedy Take Six Girls. The book had already been reviewed widely in British press, and in the days of the Internet, the title change just confuses the issue.

*Bios had him living in both Denmark and France, so I went cautious.

**Which I now want to read.

***It did not do as well as the publisher hoped.

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