Leave it to Snowball to tag me for a meme that not only speaks to one of my core pleasures (as well as one of my most stubborn character flaws), but also will allow me to rabbit on a bit more about Scotland. What a woman.
Total number of books I've owned: Like Snow and Kristi (who Snow also tagged), I don't know if I can even hazard a guess at a number. In my life I have been a bookworm child, an English major, a culinary school student and an allaround literature junkie. At one point I was also an underemployed and debt-ridden bookstore clerk, and I ended up selling a sizable portion of my book collection to pay the rent, which was terrible, and in the end, didn't yield me nearly the money I needed. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on your point of view -- nature hates a vacuum, and as soon as my fortunes had reversed themselves, I was back at the bookshop. In 1994 I took my first trip to Kitchen Arts and Letters, the magnificent food and wine bookshop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and, to paraphrase that nice Mr. Sondheim, the world would never be the same. Let's say that between me and Lloyd, whose literature habit is not that different from mine, we have a few hundred books stuffed into our three-room apartment. Of my share of the collection, maybe 150 of them are cookbooks.
The last book I bought: This should be a simple question to answer, but I've never seen a simple question I can't make more complicated in the answering. Yesterday I bought the newly revised and expanded edition of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Mr. McGee was in New York for the James Beard Awards while I was in Scotland, and he paid a visit to Kitchen Arts. The store manager had put aside a copy for me, and Mr. McGee was gracious enough to inscribe it to me and sign it. If you are not familiar with it, the first edition of On Food and Cooking is, literally, a key text for culinary school students; at the CIA (and not just there, either, I'm guessing), it is known with simply as "McGee." I keep looking at the inscription in wonder, as if it would disappear if I looked away. In addition to the McGee, I also picked up Dianne Jacob's business-of-foodwriting primer, Will Write for Food, which doesn't sound terribly exciting but is actually enjoyable and reassuring. Of course, I can't leave well enough alone with these two books; no, I have to confess that May was National New Book Buying Month chez us, particularly for the two weeks we were in Scotland. Before we left, I bought The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski, about the life and death of the French chef Bernard Loiseau, to read on the plane. While on vacation, I bought and read Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab is My Washpot; Betsy Lerner's memoir Food and Loathing; John Diamond's memoir C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too; Susan Seligson's Going with the Grain: Travels for the Love of Bread; Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (a brilliant philippic on the rise of absurdity and pseudoscience, which I picked up after reading about it in Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree -- another brilliant book, come to think of it); Meera Syal's wonderful novel Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee (now a three-part BBC series); and a cookbook of British-Asian home cooking, Cooking Like Mummyji by Vicky Bhogal, a book so joyous, funny and fabulous to cook from that it deserves a post all its own.
The last book I read: After months of sniping about how the last thing the world needed was another lame diet book, especially one with a title like French Women Don't Get Fat, I happened to pick up my mother's copy while visiting her last weekend; 24 hours later I was at Coliseum Books, snapping up my own copy. It is not a lame diet book. It is a hoot. The message that Mireille Guiliano delivers is not a new one -- keep a record of what you eat, determine what indulgences you really can't do without and which ones you indulge out of sheer unthinking habit, if you take a little more walking in a day you don't have to punish yourself on a Stairmaster -- but in her bright, funny, warmhearted prose, it's a message I don't mind revisiting. The last work of fiction I read was the aforementioned Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee. Have I mentioned lately that I really like Meera Syal a lot?
Five books that mean a lot to me: Now this is going to be a tough one. If you think I went on a bit on "the last book I bought," trust me: that only scratches the surface compared to how I could go on about the dozens of books that mean a lot to me. For you, though, dear friends, I'll try to rein it in a bit.
I have mentioned before in this space what a pivotal role the works of Laurie Colwin have played in both my reading and cooking life. I could not live without her collections of food essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. They are cheering, funny, erudite, and a fine whetstone for your appetite. Ms. Colwin died young, in 1992, and I still miss her as much as I ever did.
Likewise, I have mentioned before in this space the new eyes through which I viewed the world after reading The Taste of America by John L. Hess and Karen Hess. I will not rehash it here; I will say only that I still mean every word of it.
Many people I know have cited Charlotte's Web by E.B. White as one of their favorite books from childhood, and while I love it, too, there's another E.B. White novel I love even better, The Trumpet of the Swan. Trumpet is the tale of a cygnet (baby swan) named Louis who is born without a voice, and how he learns to communicate. If this sounds like prosaic nature writing and storytelling, I hasten to add that part of Louis's attempts to communicate with the world around him incorporate a kindhearted boy named Sam, a stint in elementary school, a theft of a trumpet from a music store in Billings, Montana (a theft carried out by Louis the Swan's father!), and Louis's subsequent employment as a swan boat guide in Boston, summer camp counselor and jazz musician in Philadelphia as he tries to make enough money to pay for the stolen trumpet. There is a love story, a travelogue, and a nifty poem written by Sam about the Philadelphia Zoo. When I was in third grade, my teacher set aside half an hour after recess every day to read aloud to us from chapter books, great stuff like Ribsy by Beverly Cleary and Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. When she read Trumpet of the Swan to us, no one was ever late coming back from recess.
There is all manner of joy to be found in reading, but I've always found a particularly singular joy in picking up a book, reading the flaps (or back copy, if it's a paperback), opening the book to the first page, and instantly falling into the story, craving more, wondering if you can convincingly feign a bilious attack when you get back to the office so that you can go home and keep reading. For me, the book that brought me to this lovely state was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Selling the Lite of Heaven, which I must have read about 700 times since I bought it in 1996, a book that made me crave every lunch hour, every subway ride to work and every corresponding ride home. It is sweet without being saccharine, sharp without being smug, filled with both aching sadness and quiet happiness, as comfortable as a warm sweater and as thrilling as falling in love. I hope it never, ever, ever goes out of print.
Tag 5 people and have them fill this out on their blog: Even though he doesn't have a blog of his own, I am leaving the keys under the flowerpot for 'mouse. We have had so many dazzling book-based conversations that I just know he'll dazzle all of you as well, and then maybe he'll finally take my advice and start blogging already, for the love of Pete Nelson. Likewise, goliard at PCAMB is a passionate reader and a crackerjack writer, and I'd love to see how she answers these. I'm also betting that Bunni will have some amazing books to explicate and tales to tell, because she is genetically incapable of being anything but amazing. Kimberly at Music and Cats is already generous with her book recommendations, but heck, I'm going to tag her anyway. And I know that orionoir is on a badly-needed blog sabbatical right now, but I also know that he'll be back, and I know that his answers will be as labyrinthine and captivating as ever.