November 29, 2012
(+++) SPECIALTIES FOR THE SEASON
Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons. By Peter Trachtenberg. Da Capo. $24.
Best Food Writing 2012. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $16.
Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc—The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Led the Way across Europe. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $26.
One of the best things about giving books as gifts is how closely they can be tailored to a recipient’s personal tastes. There really is something out there for everybody, and the sensitive gift-giver will figure out what will especially delight a particular recipient, then match person with present, and end up offering something that will continue to be meaningful and enjoyable well after the holiday season. Peter Trachtenberg’s memoir of dual love affairs, with his wife and with his cat, will certainly not be to all tastes, but its sensitive writing, its focus on love and loss and the way the two sometimes merge, will intrigue people trying to come to terms with their own relationships (human and animal) and interested in a journey that proves as enlightening as it is entertaining. This is not to say that it is all entertaining, by any means. The book is a journey on multiple levels, the surface one being that Trachtenberg’s cat, Biscuit, goes missing, and Trachtenberg seeks her over a distance of, eventually, 700 miles. But the journey is more than physical, as the search leads Trachtenberg into his own past, into contemplation of the many mysteries of cats, into a search for the meaning of love as it applies not only to human-animal relationships but also to human-human ones. What gives Trachtenberg’s search a large part of its impetus is that Biscuit disappears just as Trachtenberg finds his marriage disintegrating, a state of affairs that the author recalls with considerable intensity, “but, as Freud showed us, there is such a thing as an excess of vividness.” Trachtenberg intersperses scenes from his marriage, his love life, and his cat search with sudden dips into history: “An early description of the domestic cat is this one by one Bartholomew de Glanville, written in 1240: ‘A beast of uncertain hair and color. …And he is a full lecherous in youth, swift, pliant, and merry…’” Like most memoirs, Trachtenberg’s is ultimately about his search for himself, not just for Biscuit or for love or for what has happened between him and his wife, whom he designates simply as “F.” Along the way, Trachtenberg meditates on the effects of Skype, on Schrödinger’s cat, on the Catskill Mountains’ origin in the Devonian era of 350 million years ago. The book does not build to a grand conclusion, but ends as it has progressed, as a slice of life. Another Insane Devotion is for readers who want to immerse themselves in life, love and felines.
Food fanciers will find much that is delectable in Best Food Writing 2012, a book whose eight sections encompass just about every angle from which food can be viewed and skewed with the exception of an actual cookbook. Holly Hughes arranges the book into “Food Fights,” “Farm to Table,” “Home Cooking,” “Foodways,” “Dude Food,” “The Family Table,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” and “Personal Tastes,” although that final title could really stand for every article here: all the discussions are matters of personal taste. The writing comes not only from expected sources such as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Edible Manhattan, but also from Garden & Gun, Memoir Journal and Texas Monthly, among other sources. There are 50 essays in all, on subjects so wide-ranging that the section titles only hint at them. From “Pastoral Romance” by Brett Cunningham, for example: “We have no history of a food system that does not depend on oppression of some sort, and it seems unlikely that we will be able to create a future system that avoids this fate. …[I]f a central goal of the movement is a more equitable food system, then the notion that we once had it right is deeply problematic.” From “The Pastrami Dilemma” by John Birdsall: “The owners of these three pastrami factories, kind of like dons in a benign pastrami mafia, each control their own turf.” From “Truffle in Paradise” by John Gutekanst: “As our last night in Italy winds down and Bruno’s pathetic karaoke version of ‘Baby, We Can Talk All Night’ wafts across the disco, I think about our unique tartufo adventure. Was there really danger or impending doom at the hands of the truffle mafia?” This is food writing that goes beyond food itself, that sometimes deals with the intricacies of food preparation and consumption but even more often discusses what food means, what it stands for, where it fits into life rather than where it fits into our mouths and bellies. It is for readers who find the contemplation of food in a larger context particularly delicious.
And for readers who remain enthralled by the military history of World War II, there continue to be some fine and finely detailed books available, such as Patrick K. O’Donnell’s Dog Company. This is about D Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which joined other Ranger units in climbing the 90-foot-high sheer cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day to disable and destroy the German guns pointing down on the beach from above. The 68-man company lost half its members in the assault, and the survivors had no rest, helping lead the charge inland to Germany, through the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. Books like Dog Company are, inevitably, 100% devoted to celebrations of heroism, to uncomplicated people doing great deeds in an incontrovertibly just war. Portraits of the men are fleshed out enough to make their reality apparent, but not enough to detract from the hagiographic approach. O’Donnell humanizes the members of Dog Company by discussing the five-foot-three sniper who was a professional tap dancer, the company prankster and his practical jokes, the soldier who broke both legs in a parachute training exercise and thereafter walked like a duck, the sergeant who scaled the cliffs despite being hit in the side by a machine-gun bullet, and others. He talks not only about the well-known D-Day battle but also about other, nearly forgotten ones, such as the fight for Hill 400 in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest: “Rain and fog, dense trees, deep ravines, and the ever-present shelling transformed the Hürtgen into a dark green hell.” And O’Donnell even ties Dog Company’s heroics to more-recent times: President Reagan thanked the Rangers in a speech at Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day. There is plenty of action here, plenty of detail about battles major and minor, plenty of heroism to contemplate, and plenty of material to keep readers fascinated by the events of World War II interested well beyond the holiday season.