I mean, other than math books (which I don't really read all that many of, sadly). I don't think I've done a book review on this blog yet, but I've been inspired to do so by Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl.
It's not that the book is so stunningly good that it kicked my non-review-writing butt into review-writing mode. But it's more substantial than the blurbs on the cover might suggest, and it felt especially relevant to my life at the moment. So for all you new readers to my blog who haven't gone back to look at my previous posts about my personal life, the big upcoming event is: in approximately 6 months (± a standard deviation of 1 month), my wife and I will travel to China to pick up an as-yet-indeterminate (though almost surely born by now) girl, whom we're adopting. The determination of the girl will probably happen around Thanksgiving. We never expected the wait to be as long as it has been (unexplained slowdowns in China), but we now know enough information to make a November referral (picture, medical history, brief description) fairly likely. The trip will be roughly 2 months after the referral.
Okay, so back to the book. Ruth Reichl was, for 6 years, the restaurant critic for the New York Times. As you can imagine, this is a position of considerable power: a good review from her could literally mean thousands of dollars of extra business for a restaurant. When it became clear to her that her mere presence at a restaurant would affect the service and quality of the food (restaurant owners offered wait staff a $500 reward if they spotted Reichl in time to butter her up), she began wearing disguises and working with an acting coach so she could eat unnoticed. In addition, some of her alter-egos were decidedly out of place in the fancy restaurants she reviewed, so she got a chance to see how the service was for "ordinary" customers. When the restaurants treated those customers badly, she was especially harsh in the review. In addition to recounting those 6 years, the book includes the actual reviews of the restaurants in her stories, and it includes recipes instead of pictures on the theory that taste, and not sight, is the primary sense in the book.
Now, I'm a little bit of a foody. I don't do any really fancy cooking, but I have a knack for throwing together something decent with few ingredients or altering a recipe just a little to make it more interesting. I also like eating out. So reading Reichl's descriptions of the food she reviewed was truly mouthwatering. Of course, I can't afford restaurants like that more than once every year or two (almost every highly rated menu included fois gras, for example). But she's well aware that she's writing for people like me, too. In fact, she considers it part of her job to keep people like me from wasting money on expensive restaurants that aren't worth it. Her use of musical terms to describe the food (an undertone of sherry, a high note of something sweet) highlights the pathetically impoverished Englsh vocabulary dedicated to discussing taste. But she uses those descriptions well, and she certainly knows her food. Her best call: identifying the flavor of squid ink when her companion thinks it's balsamic vinegar.
But the book is about more than that, too. Each disguise she dons makes her identify with some other facet of her personality—her mother, her free spirit, her embittered grouch. This is a story about character development as much as it is about food. We're given hints of her former adult life as a Berkeley bohemian cook and her subsequent path to becoming the country's most influential food critic. And over the course of her book, she realizes that she has lost some of that bohemian spirit and become the dreaded "food snob" she always loathed.
Finally, this book is about how food affects us personally, and especially how it affects our families. Reichl's adorable-sounding son learns by age 9 or so that eating at his favorite restaurant every day would ruin the experience. He goes to the kitchen in one restaurant, and the chef teaches him how to make hash browns, but swears him to secrecy; even at the age of maybe 6, he doesn't tell his mom. She lets him come to some of the fancy restaurants, and insists on decent manners, but she lets him be a kid. He learns to tell by smell when to put the matzoh in the frying pan. She gleefully lets him and his friends mess up her kitchen making a cake. This isn't food as love, it's food as nourishment, both physical and spiritual. As she considers leaving her job, the final straw is when he tells her that he wishes they could eat dinner together every day.
The restaurant business is harsh. We've all heard about how it chews up entrepreneurs and chefs alike. And the New York Times is a harsh as well. The smartest reporters and editors in the most competitive city in the country make for plenty of drama. It's no wonder Reichl could only stand it for 6 years (she's editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine now). But she learned what food meant to her and her family. And she reminded me to pay close attention to what it will mean to mine.