One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2009

Why Newspapers Go Bankrupt – From Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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How tough is it to write about food for a major newspaper? Let the former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni tell you in a passage from his new memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater (Penguin, 354 pp., $25.95), which also deals with his youthful bulimia and weight problems and with his gay love affairs. Bruni writes that before his predecessor William “Biff” Grimes assumed his post, the newspaper gave him time in which to travel for just for research and to eat in places whose cuisines he wanted to know better:

“Over many weeks he drove slowly through Italy and France.

“Now the same extreme hardship was being visited upon me, and I needed a strategy and itinerary of my own. Italy I knew: whenever I had gone anywhere in the country for work or fun, I’d sampled the local restaurants. But I hadn’t spent much time in France. So I planned a week in Paris, during which I’d hit a Michelin one-star restaurant, a Michelin two-star restaurant, a Michelin three-star restaurant (the highest rating). I also planned a week in Hong Kong, which served as a crossroads for many Asian cuisines, sometimes fused: Cantonese, Sichuan, Indian, Thai, Japanese.

“But what I needed first and foremost was to reacquaint myself with New York. I hadn’t eaten in some of the most important restaurants that had opened over the last five years, not to mention a few important restaurants that had opened earlier than that. So I scheduled three weeks there, during which I’d eat out for dinner every day and for lunch, too, on many days. New York would be the first stop on my gastronomic tour.

“I wanted to hit all five of the restaurants that had ratings of four stars – which signaled an ‘extraordinary’ experience and was the highest number of stars on the Times scale – either from Biff or Ruth Reichl, so I made reservations at Daniel, Jean Georges, Bouley, Alain Ducasse and Le Bernardin.”

Over the next eight pages of Born Round, Bruni describes the highlights his gastronomic tour, which included a meal of twenty or so courses at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, “America’s most celebrated temple of haute cuisine.”

March 26, 2008

A Restaurant Calls It a Day in ‘Last Night at the Lobster’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:27 am
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Wastin’ away in Lobsteritaville, looking for his lost shaker of salt

Last Night at the Lobster. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking, 146 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is the American On Chesil Beach without the bad sex to provide occasional comic relief.

Like Ian McEwan’s bestseller, Last Night at the Lobster is a slender, earnest account of the transforming effects of a single evening on a small number of characters. Both novels come from well-respected authors who have set all or most of the action in a commercial establishment in a town near the ocean – a resort hotel in Britain in McEwan’s case and a Red Lobster in New Britain in O’Nan’s. And both have plots that involve meals, missed romantic cues and diligent research substituting for real character development.

Did you know that restaurant managers close up their restaurants from back to front? “For security reasons, managers can’t leave out the back, or alone,” O’Nan writes.

These similarities between the books can only be coincidental, given that Last Night at the Lobster came out just two months after On Chesil Beach. And yet, both are so lightweight that you have to wonder if their authors are getting tired, or if they think we are.

In O’Nan’s novel, an underperforming Red Lobster is being shut down by Darden Restaurants five days before Christmas. Manny DeLeon, the decent and hard-working 35-year-old manager, doesn’t quite understand why this is happening, though he knows his numbers haven’t met expectations: “He’s done everything they asked, yet there must have been something more, something he missed.”

Still, on his last night at the Lobster, Manny is as diligent as ever, though distracted by the presence of an ex-girlfriend with whom he will no longer be working and by the pregnancy of the woman he now sees. He hopes to put up strong final numbers – as much for himself as for Darden – but a winter storm dooms that hope. And one by one, he sees his goals for the day evaporate.

There is a certain poignancy to his plight – the unspoken suggestion that he’ll turn into Willy Loman in a decade or two – but it’s mostly unexploited. O’Nan shows Manny’s Hispanic heritage by having him refer frequently his recently deceased abuelita, with whom he lived. But nothing else about him is clearly Latino, so these comments are more distracting than edifying.

Big Night, one of the great films of the 1990s, made much more of a similar premise in its tragicomic depiction of the last night of a restaurant run by two Italian-immigrant brothers. That movie bursts with the love and joy that the men poured into their failing venture, which invests it with a depth of feeling Last Night at the Lobster never achieves. Like Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, O’Nan seems to be trying to tell us that “attention must be paid” to men like his hero. He’s right. But it’s hard to feel much sorrow for Manny’s plight when his tragedy – as the novel depicts it – is that Darden Restaurants is transferring him to a nearby Olive Garden.

Best line: “Roz swings in shouldering a tray of lipstick-smudged wine glasses and peeled beer bottles and gives him a sympathetic frown commonly reserved for toddlers, pouting with her bottom lip out. ‘Uh-oh. Looks like there’s trouble in paradise.’

This is paradise?’ Manny asks.

‘Could be if you play your cards right.’”

Worst line: “Like any longtime acquaintances, there’s a comfortable slackness to their conversations.”

Published: November 2007

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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