Life from Scratch
Alex: “What drove me to obsessively cook a meal from each of the world’s 195 countries cannot be explained by a simple passion for cooking alone,” writes Sasha Martin at the outset of her beautiful memoir-cum-cookbook. What’s most impressive to me is the balance Martin achieves. Though it’s ostensibly a recounting of her adventures cooking dishes from – and while around – the world, it’s also a deeply intimate narrative of one woman’s search for peace. Coupled with exotic recipes sampled from her Global Table Adventure blog (think: Zimbabwean Peanut Butter & Butternut Mash, Hot Algerian Lasagna, and Cambodian Grilled Eggs), it’s written with the fluency and wisdom of a woman who has thought as deeply about the experience of cooking as of the resulting food. The narrative – which begins with globe-hopping dishes but concludes with actual globe-hopping – made for ideal, if unexpected, summer escapism, and the depth of her emotional intelligence lent the work a heft that continues to resonate after the book is done. It’s a powerful demonstration of cooking as an emotional experience as much as a sensory one.
Up in the Air
Justin: Ryan Bingham has no home. His life takes place in airport lounges, executive suites, and business class. His few remaining belongings are in storage in Atlanta, though he spends most of his time in the West, tying together elaborate itineraries to reach a quixotic goal: acquiring one million frequent flier miles with Great West Airlines before his boss finds his letter of resignation and cancels his corporate credit card. Ryan’s story is in some ways an old-fashioned quest, complete with a glittery chalice at the end (in this case, a job interview at a shadowy and frightfully smart ad firm), but the journey is wonderfully convoluted. Ryan is in some ways a modern nomad, but his path is by-and-large set by Great West’s routes.
It’s Ryan’s masterfully wrought voice that propels this oddly looping narrative. Ryan’s (or really Kirn’s) attention to detail here is surprising and endearing. It’s a pleasure to listen to our charmingly broken narrator wax about his precious miles (“Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form”) and garbage airport food (“I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls”). This isn’t to say there’s nothing more to Ryan Bingham: He is a deeply screwed up guy, with a blossoming paranoia that only gets richer and stranger as the story unfolds.
Ashley: This transition from spring to summer may be the most exhilarating time for sports fanatics. The NBA Finals are on, the Women’s World Cup has begun, and baseball season is in full swing. But most important to me is the Stanley Cup Finals (go Tampa Bay!), and in honor of this strange game where big men stand on tiny blades in an often-artificial remake of a frozen tundra, I decided to finally read the sport’s one true classic, The Game, by six-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Ken Dryden.
The Game follows Dryden through his final season (1978-79) with the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden’s words meander from one topic to the next in a wonderful way, and his distance from seasons past allows him to see how everything connects. For several pages, Dryden might discuss the linguistic politics of Montreal and then, in the next passage, he’ll take us into the locker room to demonstrate how the mixture of French and English speakers influences the dynamics of the team. His writing is like the rink itself – there are zones and areas, markings to separate one area from the next, but in the end, it’s all just one big sheet of ice. In this modern era, where we have more access to athlete’s thoughts via Twitter and constant ESPN coverage, Dryden’s perspectives still feel so fresh, and ring far more true than the canned soundbites we’re used to.
Running Through Beijing
Freya: Welcome to the seedy underworld of Beijing. Far from the glitz of modern China’s rapidly rising super-rich, this gritty, gray economy is home to prostitutes and counterfeiters, hustling their wares on dust-covered, polluted streets. Broke and directionless, Dunhuang has nowhere to go after a three-month stint in jail for selling fake IDs. A chance encounter with a girl hawking pirated DVDs leads him back underground, constantly looking over his shoulder and running from the police.
Despite the culture shock, there’s familiarity in the uncertainty in which these characters live their lives. From their transient existences (constantly moving to new jobs, new loves, new homes) to their uncertainty about what they want from their lives, Xu Zechen’s characters will speak to anyone who’s felt aimless in their twenties. At the heart of this is also a recognizable love story: Dunhuang’s two love interests are diametrically opposed: One wants family and simplicity while the other craves wealth and independence, with Dunhuang himself constantly torn between the two. Xu writes with a distinctly punk sensibility, crafting a gripping and chaotic tale that moves at a breathless pace – like running for your life through a Beijing dust storm.