Despair/Food (Books Acquired 6.08.2012)

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 Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0’s blurb:

Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead’; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.

Full review on deck.

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Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:

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Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

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New Books from Dinaw Mengestu, Stephen-Paul Martin, and Susan Straight

Dinaw Menestu’s new novel How to Read the Air tells the story of a family over two generations. The novel opens in the 1970s as Mariam and Josef, a young married couple from Ethiopia, take a road trip through the American heartland. The pair has been separated for over three years–after just one year of marriage–and they hope that the trip will help renew their bonds and in some way forge their new identities as Americans. But they don’t really know each other, and perhaps they can’t; the violence they sought to escape in Ethiopia’s communist revolution recapitulates in their own marriage, eventually sundering it. Nearly 30 years later, their son Jonas–the introspective, sensitive, and inventive narrator of this novel–tries to come to terms with his own crumbling marriage, job, and identity, by re-examining the past. By literally recreating his parents’ journey, Jonas tries to convert his father’s pain and fear into a stable identity in this moving novel about family, place, and the need to move both our bodies and our souls. How to Read the Air is new in hardback from Riverhead Books.

There’s a thread of vengeful anger that runs through Stephen-Paul Martin’s new collection of stories, Changing the Subject. Although a tidy portion of that anger is reserved for George W. Bush and his nefarious gang (the stories seem to have been composed under last decade’s regime), Martin’s various characters also aim their anger at scientists, whalers, cell phones, born-again Christians, college students, journalists, fast food restaurants, Americans, and all the people of the world. That anger works best when working in a reflective mode, especially when Martin blends his vitriol with humor. The opening paragraph of the first story “Safety Somewhere Else” provides a nice illustration of Martin at his finest–

The greatest mistake of all time took place thousands of years ago, when God let Noah’s family survive the flood. God’s plan was to start a new human race with a man he though he could trust, but the limits of Noah’s moral awareness were obvious right from the start. No sooner had God’s rainbow vanished into the clouds than Noah was getting drunk and cursing his grandson, declaring that Canaan’s descendants–one-third of the human race–would be the lowest of slaves, a monstrous over-reaction that would have tragic consequences for countless generations of innocent people. Clearly, Noah wasn’t the man God thought he was.

The story then shifts into a bizarre picaresque involving revenge against a scientist who uses animals as research subjects (there’s also an attack on a whaling vessel, a fascinating reading of The Odyssey, and a woman whose son was consumed by a bear). Great stuff, but I think I would have been just as happy to hear more of Martin’s thoughts (or, his narrator’s thoughts, to be fair) on the Old Testament. Changing the Subject is new in trade paperback from Ellipsis Press.


Susan Straight’s
new novel Take One Candle Light a Room explores the physical and psychic traumas that evince from America’s long, painful, complicated history of race relations. FX Antoine, the novel’s narrator, is an LA-based travel writer who found herself, as a young girl, transplanted from rural Louisiana to California at the end of the fifties, in order to escape the rapes perpetrated by a local plantation owner on three of her sisters. In 2005, FX–Fantine to her friends and family–watches over Victor, her godson, a recent community college graduate. Fantine encourages Victor to expand his unlikely success (he is the son of a crack-addicted murder victim, one of Fantine’s childhood friends) by applying to four-year schools; however, after Victor is implicated in a shooting (wrong place, wrong time), he runs away to Louisiana. Fantine follows, attempting to save the young man and find some sense of personal redemption as well. The novel’s climax is set against the devastating backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. For more on Take One Candle, read Francesca Mari’s review at The New York Times. Take One Candle Light a Room is new in hardback from Pantheon Books.