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John Brumbaugh

Book Review: Buttermilk Graffiti

 •  Filed under book reviews

When I first saw Buttermilk Graffiti on Amazon, I was thinking that it would be another cookbook from Ed Lee. Not like that is a bad thing, as it would have been a purchase as I loved his previous cookbook Smoke & Pickles. But I was pleasantly surprised to see it was more of a book version of Anthony Bourdain's show with Lee going to different parts of the United States and seeing how their regional cuisine came into be with recipes at the end of the chapters. This discovery made this book the next one I would purchase, and allowed me to do so on the Kindle which meant I would definitely read it more.

As Lee travels across the country to learn more about the different regional cuisines in America, the reader is brought into his head in much the same way the viewer of Ugly Delicious is brought into David Chang's head. I found the parallels to each story interesting in that they were both less focused on the fine dining aspects of cuisine and more on what people were eating day in and day out. Lee didn't go to a famous soul food restaurant, he went to two places that were sort of just women cooking from their houses that became restaurants. He didn't hit up Milwaukee's best restaurants, he went to the places that time has passed and were still serving the same thing from the early 1900s, but very few people were coming to outside of an older clientelle.

The theme running through the entire book is that food itself is a journey, and that every one goes on a different food journey. Lee was trying to learn everyone's food journeys to help him understand his own, and force the reader to understand their own. All of this talk on people's food journeys and history really made me think: what has been my food journey?

What I discovered is that I don't have a family cuisine. Sure, there are things that my mom cooked that I really liked and I asked her for the recipes (Swedish meatballs, stronganoff, etc.), but we didn't have a culture of food in our house. There wasn't something in place that I knew every Sunday our family would sit down and have a large meal that was a tradition. There wasn't one group of food that we had more than any other. Why was this? I don't really know. Food just wasn't and still really isn't in our family's DNA. Sure we all love going out for nice meals, but sitting down and just cooking something together was never a thing we did. In fact, I would say the biggest food memories I have are of my dad burning things well cooking them on the grill.

I gew up believing that it was only my dad who had such lousy taste in food, but a lot of my parents' generation ate poorly regardless of nationality or wealth. Much has been written about the ills of the commercial food industry and the rise of fast food that dominated the 1960s and '70s in America. My dad was a part of that generation, and for him, eating at McDonald's was what you did if you wanted to assimilate into American culture.

Of course, neither of my parents had to assimilate into American culture. They were born here, but this passage resonated with me as a way to sort of describe our family's food background. Treats as a kid were going to your TGI Friday's, Chili's, McDonald's, etc. These were Friday night family meals and I have fond memories of them and still crave these places from time to time. I mean who can pass up the Chili's queso dip?

With this background, it really wasn't until a little over ten years ago that food even became a big thing for me. It was on a bachelor party to Las Vegas where I sat down and ate at Mesa Grill for the first time that I discovered how good food could be. It took me on a journey that led me first into hitting up as much fine dining as I could and then to cooking more and more. Now, cooking is something that I do both because I like to do it, and also now I hope that my family can have a food tradition.

But what is the basis of that food tradition?

I think that's what this book brought out in me. There doesn't need to be centuries of history for something, though it helps. There just has to be a tradition of what we do as a family that will end up having a huge impact on Jack and George as they grow older and continue to grow on what we are starting now.

the best cooking is not about perfection, but rather the flawed process of how we aim for a desired flavor.

Sure Lee here was talking about the different ways people ended up making cornbread, but this should end up being the way I think both about cooking and setting up traditions at home. It's not about being perfect, it's about aiming for a flavor or just something as simple as a nightly dinner with Steph, Jack, and George that turns into something more.

Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Standard Deviation

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Picking out what book to read next for me is always one of those things that depends on the mood I am in when I finish reading the last book. This of course normally happens when I am tired as I read either on the subway or before I fall asleep every night. In this instance, I was looking for a more traditional fiction novel. Something that was a character study on modern living, and had added Standard Deviation to my Amazon Wish List, aka the queue of books I think I may want to read at one point.

The "book jacket" had this as on some Best of 2017 lists like The Skimm, NPR, The Washington Post, and Minnesota Public Radio. It's summary also seemed interesting:

When Graham Cavanaugh divorced his first wife it was to marry his girlfriend, Audra, a woman as irrepressible as she is spontaneous and fun. But, Graham learns, life with Audra can also be exhausting, constantly interrupted by chatty phone calls, picky-eater houseguests, and invitations to weddings of people he’s never met. Audra firmly believes that through the sheer force of her personality she can overcome the most socially challenging interactions, shepherding her son through awkward playdates and origami club, and even deciding to establish a friendship with Graham’s first wife, Elspeth. Graham isn't sure he understands why Audra longs to be friends with the woman he divorced. After all, former spouses are hard to categorize—are they enemies, old flames, or just people you know really, really well? And as Graham and Audra share dinners, holidays, and late glasses of wine with his first wife he starts to wonder: How can anyone love two such different women? Did I make the right choice? Is there a right choice? A hilarious and rueful debut novel of love, marriage, infidelity, and origami, Standard Deviation never deviates from the superb.

So going in, this seemed like it was going to be an interesting book, and not very plot-driven. That is exactly what the book was, interesting and not really plot-driven. The plot of the book is more or less the story of Graham Cavanaugh and it jumps through what is happening in his life with his wife, his son, his ex-wife, his work, and their friends.

His wife, Audra, is an interesting character who doesn't seem like she could be a real person, at least any real person I have never met. She brings in house guests on a whim, is gregarious, and will find the interesting part of any one. Whereas Graham is more like people I know, reserved, and wonders at times just what his wife is doing.

The part of the book that I wasn't expecting was the relationship between Graham and Audra with their son, Matthew. Matthew is on the Aspergers' Spectrum, and has a huge love of origami. This leads them to finding an origami club and overly detailed discussions of the different folds that could be done. You can tell that Graham wishes his son was more "normal", but then there are times that just how much he loves his son is shown in his actions like cooking him specific foods, taking him to origami conventions, and later taking him fishing. As a parent, these parts of the book were the most heart-wrenching to me as they hit home.

The rest of the book hit home the questions of why do you love someone and what does it mean to love them. The book highlighted the differences between Audra and Graham and showed the jealousy between them, but also the mutual respect. While of course a lot of the story was driven by Graham's relationship with his ex-wife (whom he cheated on with Audra), I felt that part of the story was less about Graham and what he was going through, but more about Elspeth and how she seemed to be a woman that was in love with her job and just preferred to be alone.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Soul of Basketball

 •  Filed under book reviews, nba, bulls

If you jumped into a time machine to the Summer of 2010 and then the ensuing basketball season, there would be about three things you'd notice about me:

  1. I was always at The Gingerman (yes I know it's the GMan now, but it will always be The Gingerman to me)
  2. Basketball, specifically LeBron's free agency and the Chicago Bulls, were a constant topic of conversation both when I was sober and when I was not.
  3. I was working too much on a project in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago, so my outlet was basketball and alcohol. Two solid outlets based on points 1 and 2.

With those three things, it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up and read The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA by Ian Thomsen. The book was about what I expected, which was that I wouldn't learn much new since I was one of those people that consistently refreshed Twitter for every morsel of information from July 1 2010 until that fateful day that LeBron James announced he would be taking his talents to South Beach.

But this book was able to tell me some new things. I didn't know much of Dirk Nowitzki outside of what he did on the basketball court, so a lot of the new information I learned was about him. The history of his training regiment, his internal anguish and how much he took his team's losses on him even though outwardly he always kept that same demeanor, and how he always felt like an outside. The one thing that shocked me the most is that during the Summer of 2010, not one team besides the Mavericks went and contacted Nowitzki. They were all chasing LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. But not one reached out to him. I don't think it was because they didn't think he was worth it, but because they assumed he was re-signing in Dallas no matter what. I can't count number of times I said while discussing NBA Free Agency while drunk with friends that the Bulls should just reach out and point Dirk to Huettenbar as a rectuiting pitch and see what happened. We knew he was staying there, but the fact no one called is just crazy. I mean why not try?

Thomsen obviously had great access throughout for this book and it showed in his reporting with all four of the major characters in the title. But I think he missed an opportunity to tell the full story of the 2010-2011 NBA Season by completely ignoring the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were less than a supporting character in this novel, they were a two sentence piece during free agency and just a one sentence entry between Miami beating the Celtics and then getting to the NBA Finals against Dallas. I mean Derrick Rose was named the MVP that season pretty much because he wasn't LeBron, and that aspect of the season needed some attention on it. Also treated sort of like a by product of the season and not a real story was the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were a bit player in the Dallas run to the NBA Finals, but it would have been good to build them up more with their young core of Durant, Harden, and Westbrook that would be vanquished by Miami's Big Three. I felt both of these were storylines Thomsen could have and should have explored if he wanted to really talk about the soul of basketball and the "saving of the NBA".

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: This Could Hurt

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The older I get, the more I enjoy a good novel on workplaces and what goes on in them. I really enjoyed Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris when I read it a while ago. And the book jacket for my next book claimed this was a similar book:

A razor-sharp and deeply felt novel that illuminates the pivotal role of work in our lives—a riveting fusion of The Nest, Up in the Air, and Then We Came to the End that captures the emotional complexities of five HR colleagues trying to balance ambition, hope, and fear as their small company is buffeted by economic forces that threaten to upend them.

Just that paragraph alone had the book in my Wish List on Amazon (aka the place I put books I want to eventually read). So when I was looking for my next book and not wanting it to be another mystery or thriller, I went for This Could Hurt by Jilian Medoff, and it didn't disappoint.

This Could Hurt used a Human Resources department at a small research firm to tell the story of about five different archetypes you see in the business industry: the aging executive, the wanna be executive with an Ivy League pedigree, the stuck in a job he hates father, the woman in love with a co-worker, and the depressed gay man. Sure, all of these archetypes are pretty standard, but Medoff was able to bring something new into each of them. Medoff was able to bring both weaknesses and strengths into the characters to highlight that they were more similar than they let on, and they were all going through something that impacted their life at work.

Initally the story jumped between each of the characters as you saw how they all reacted to the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 and its impact on them and their careers. Each were saved during multiple rounds of layoffs at their organization and were asked to take on more work, with some succeeding and some floundering at it for various reasons. Each character was shown to be oblivious to the struggles of the others and some more conniving than others about getting ahead.

But as the story moved on and the team dealt with adversity, it showed that different people were making moves behind the scenes to move ahead and stab people in the back than you would have expected. Those that made the blatant moves in line with their personality ended up not faring well, and all at the same time having a change in their heads as to what they believe is important in life, family. Those scenes in which a hard-driving Ivy League graduate learn that his goal at becoming the best having the best title is not enough in life really hit home for me, not because I chase titles (though I do think they are important), but because I know I would give up any title in the world just to spend more time with my family if they needed me.

**Quick Review: ** 4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Jefferson Key

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The weaving of historical fact with some fiction and conspiracy theories are always good choices for me to read in novels. I know they aren't true, but they could be and that makes them even more interesting. So when I ended up seeing on Amazon a link that I should read The Bishop's Pawn, I saw that it was a part of a series, the Cotton Malone Series. Of course, I didn't even realize that I had read another one of the books at the time, The Lincoln Myth. Since I remembered liking that one, I looked through the series order and decided to start at Book Seven, The Jefferson Key. I mean who wouldn't want to read a story that links together every assassination of a United States President to a group of pirates called The Commonwealth.

Four United States presidents have been assassinated—in 1865, 1881, 1901, and 1963—each murder seemingly unrelated and separated by time.
But what if those presidents were all killed for the same reason: a clause in the United States Constitution—contained within Article 1, Section 8—that would shock Americans?

While I normally try to pick up a series at the beginning, I decided not to at this time. I was wondering what I would end up missing, and it didn't seem like I missed too much. Though there was a character Jonathan Wyatt who seemed to have a history with Malone. I went back and looked after, and that history was actually filled out in a short story that was attached to the end of the book in my purchase on a Kindle. So I hadn't missed anything.

The Jefferson Key started with action almost right away. The book jumped right in on the attempted assassination of the President, Danny Daniels. Cotton Malone was asked to a hotel room by who he thought was his former boss of the Magellan Billet, a fictional agency within the Justice Department, sending him a letter that she needed help. But it turns out he was lured there by Jonathan Wyatt, who held a vendetta against Malone, to both stop the assassination attempt and hopefully get killed in the process.

The rest of the novel intertwines the perspectives of four different major characters: (1) Cotton Malone, (2) Jonathan Wyatt, (3) Cassiopea Vitt, Malone's "girlfriend", and (4) Alexander Hale, the head of the Commonwealth. While there are some other charcters involved including the other three leaders of The Commonwealth and a head of another major intelligence agency in the government, these four characters are involved directly in the plot moving the book forward.

Without going a bit more into the plot, I will say the book itself is paced extremely well. I am a fan of quick chapters (less than five minutes on the Kindle timings) in novels like this, and this book provided me with those. It just makes it easier to pick up and read on the train and to end up getting a quick chapter or two completed before I end up falling asleep. I realize I haven't spoken much of the writing or plot, but these books aren't about the writing, and discussing the plot can be too much at times.

Quick Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars