December 14, 2006

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Sifting through the bookends
Gems and oddities that make reading snacks
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com.

There are the books that you read, cover to cover, and then there are the books that you read in bits and pieces over a period of months.

Want to snack read? Here are some perfect snack books.

• Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals: 20 Great Writers on Romance, Disappointment, Family, Celebration and the Meals that Inspired Them, edited and with an introduction by Douglas Bauer (Three Rivers Press, 2006, 239 pages). If loving descriptions of meals are your thing then this is your book. Jane and Michael Stern (coauthors of the column in Gourmet and the Web site named Roadfood) each contribute a piece. Peter Mayle (he of A Year in Provence), Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and McSweeny’s contributor Aimee Bender all offer up essays. Each one tackles food — usually with humor, sometimes with a lyricism that is almost like poetry — all in easily digestible 10-page-or-so bites that can be read while waiting for the dentist or standing in line. The appetizerness of these essays is perhaps what makes the book a safe bet for food fans — no winding Ruth Reichl narrative to have to remember here, just easy reading during a break from your day. B

• How to Feed An Army: Recipes And Lore From the Front Lines, by J.G. Lewin & P.J. Huff (Collins, 2006, 182 pages). This food book is equally bite-size but not nearly as romantic as Pad Thai. Whereas that book muses on comfort foods and fine dining this book examines food that plenty of people ate only because they had to. “Creamed chipped beef” fits that description nicely — sometimes, the book tells us, the concoction of dried beef, melted fat and flour had the consistency of “wallpaper paste on a slice of bread” and it also earned the charming nickname “s*** on a shingle.” The book’s recipe for this essential military food comes from World War II and, by the looks of it, things have improved a bit for current soldiers (Greek lemon turkey pasta, oriental tuna patties and crunchy vegetable burrito are just a few of the recipes credited to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”). Despite all the recipes, the book is not so much a cookbook as it is a social history of the small slice of military life that happened in the chow hall. With recipes and stories that go back to the Revolutionary War, this is the kind of book that, especially when flipped through and read in random sections, offers some light but still surprising insight into the ingenuity and make-do-with-what-we-got spirit of the American G.I. B-

• “Excuse Me, But I Was Next…”: How to Handle the Top 100 Manners Dilemmas, by Peggy Post (HarperCollins, 2006, 282 pages). From mess hall etiquette to not making a mess during a formal dinner — Post’s book (like all books by the Post family) deals with how to delicately handle life’s difficulties. The book is divided by subjects and written entirely in question-and-answer format. Questions range from correct table manners (pass to the right, leave the table if you think you are choking) to how to deal with in-laws and impertinent questions about your adoption of a child of a different ethnicity (be polite, despite your urge to tell the offending questioner to sod off). Some of these questions are more common sense but some, such as a definition of the difference between “black tie,” “black tie optional” and “semiformal” (the first essentially requires a tuxedo for men and a floor-length or cocktail dress for women, the other two offer a little more leeway) and who to gift how much at the end of the year are extremely helpful for the modern adult unsure over how to handle these social minefields. If you haven’t the patience for the great big books of Emily Post etiquette, this little volume is a good substitution. B+

• Motown in Love: Lyrics from the Golden Era edited and with an introduction by Herb Jordan (Pantheon Books, 2006, 184 pages). Motown-era songs are surely some of the most romantic love poetry ever written but they lose a bit of their luster in the black-and-white of print. “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend is rosy seduction but without Gaye’s voice turning lines like “We’re all sensitive people/with so much to give, understand me, sugar” into a liquid silk, the lyrics seem much more dated than they feel when we hear them. Motown lovers, though, will surely enjoy getting the exact lyrics to their favorite songs — probably best enjoyed while listening to the performances themselves. “You know what I’m talking about.” C+