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What We're Reading, April 19 - 25

Mito Habe-Evans

Gwyneth Paltrow cooks and tells family stories; a sumptuous illustrated biography of Diana Vreeland now in paperback; a comprehensive Latin American poetry anthology; an expose of working at the mall.


My Father's Daughter

Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness

by Gwyneth Paltrow

Please, don't be put off by the idea of a slender beauty who looks like she lives on air writing a cookbook. In particular, a famous actress once also known for her rigid macrobiotic diet, and whose website, GOOP, offered so many recipes involving kale that cooler and snarkier blogs had a heyday ridiculing it. Gwyneth Paltrow may be an unlikely domestic goddess, but her cookbook mostly delivers on the promise of its subtitle: delicious, easy recipes celebrating family and togetherness. Among the taste treats are her father Bruce Paltrow's famous pancakes and her mother Blythe Danner's blueberry muffins — plus her Jewish grandmother's brisket (OK, with fresh onions substituting for the onion soup mix used in the traditional recipe). The recipes are simple and, predictably, eschew processed foods in favor of fresh, mostly local ingredients. But key to this cookbook's appeal are the stories behind the recipes. Let's just say that "chicken and dumplings" becomes a lot more glamorous when the recipe dates to a childhood sojourn in Beaufort, S.C., while your mother is starring in The Great Santini.

I'm a pushover for a father-daughter story, having been raised by a father I adore. My dad's single culinary achievement was a great fudge. It's a treat I remember less for the taste than for the long, precious minutes spent stirring, my hand on his. Which is why Gwyneth Paltrow had me at the title. Bruce Paltrow sounds like fun — a Hollywood success who delighted in his discovery of California cuisine yet never stopped indulging in the hot dogs of his Long Island childhood. And though this is an essentially sunny book, running through is the dark knowledge of Bruce Paltrow's early demise from throat cancer. It was a particularly grim ending for a man who loved, above all, sharing good food and wine with his daughter. Gwyneth Paltrow writes that her favorite recipe in the book is for Duck Ragu, a dish that brings back memories of the last meal she shared with her dad, who — despite the cancer that made eating and drinking hard for him — took her on a culinary road trip from Umbria to Tuscany for her 30th birthday. Perhaps some of these recipes could use more salt (the tomato soup, for one). And a couple of ingredients are a bit esoteric. But in the end, this cookbook comes across as a tasty and charming love letter to a great father and the joys of sharing great food. — Renee Montagne, Host, Morning Edition

Hardcover, 272 pages; Grand Central; list price, $30; publication date, April 13


Diana Vreeland: An Illustrated Biography

By Eleanor Dwight, Introduction by Andre Leon Talley

It is not often in today's market that a publisher issues a paperback version of a beautiful coffee table book, so when it happens, you pay attention. Dwight's lovely biography of Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor to rival all other fashion editors, first emerged in 2002, when Publisher's Weekly called it "sweeping," and now it has been re-issued in beautiful, glossy, Cadillac-red paperback, the way Vreeland might have wanted it. With a new introduction by the flamboyant Vogue editor and Vreeland protege Andre Leon Talley, the book, even though it is not new, is perhaps the chic fashion publication of the season.

I am a sucker for biographies of powerful and eccentric women, and it seems that Eleanor Dwight is the same. Before turning her attention to Diana Vreeland, Dwight wrote books on Edith Wharton and the Gilded Age. She highlights women who made their lives about a very particular kind of luxurious beauty, a beauty I happen to find fascinating. So I knew I would be in good hands with this book, but I didn't realize how pleasing I would find the experience of leafing through it. It is a paperback, but an oversized, lacquered-red one — the kind of book that you want to keep on your coffee table as opposed to your nightstand. Diana Vreeland, who was the editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1971, may not be as famous as that publication's editor today (no one made a Devil Wears Prada film allegory for her tenure), but she was just as powerful in the fashion world. Her aesthetic, honed from her beginnings in New York society but shaped by her associations with figures like Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Coco Chanel, was purely her own. She was a handsome woman of will, and great power, with a keen eye for the bold and boundary-pushing. This is a book for the fashion-lover in your life, but also for any woman who is trying to stand out and define herself as a cultural observer. The plentiful, color-saturated pictures are just a bonus. — Rachel Syme, books editor

Paperback, 320 pages; Harper Design; list price, $29.99; publication date, April 19


The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology

Edited by Ilan Stavans

"Poetry refurbishes itself through translation," writes Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans in the introduction to this doorstop of an anthology. The majority of the poems in this collection are written in Spanish and Portuguese, but Stavans also makes a point of including works written in indigenous languages such as Nahuatl, Quechua and Zapotec. All of the expected big names are in place: Jorge Luis Borges, Ruben Dario, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. But, less widely translated writers also make the roster: Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Dulce Maria Loynaz and Gabriela Mistral. Translators featured in this comprehensive collection range from Joan Baez to Mark Strand.

I feel like a punching bag after reading this anthology, repeatedly walloped by the force of the original poems and again by the translations. I had never read Mexican poets Enrique Gonzalez Martinez or Amado Nervo, but for me they are now linked with the vibrant translations written by Samuel Beckett. I used to think Afro-Cuban author Nicolas Guillen's "Negro Bembon" and "Tu no sabe ingle" were all about what gets lost in translation from Cuban Spanish to American English. No more. Cuban American novelist Achy Obejas has written a daring interpretation that sounds just right in English. But it is Ursula K. Le Guin who has written the best translation of the bunch. For best, I mean effective plus beautiful. Le Guin's translation of a dreamy Gabriela Mistral poem is so good that it's almost as if the American and Chilean writers sat down to write the same work from scratch in two languages at the same time. "The Sleep-Wave" and "La Ola Del SueNo" read as if they were destined to be twinned. — Luis Clemens, senior editor

Hardcover, 768 pages; FSG; list price, $50; publication date, March 29



My Unintentional Career in Retail

By Caitlin Kelly

It's a common recession tale: midcareer woman who has been working in a dying field (journalism) gets laid off and has to somehow make ends meet. In the case of former Daily News writer Caitlin Kelly, she decides to pay her bills by going to work at her local mall, just outside of New York City. Kelly worked part-time for lifestyle store The North Face for two years and three months, never failing to take notes along the way. Her personal story of working in retail is not quite as compelling as the journalistic facts she unearths about low-wage workers at large, both in the United States and abroad. She uses her own experience to expound on the way we take sales clerks for granted, and how those at the grisly front lines of the $4 trillion retail industry must survive on pennies.

Where I grew up, you had two choices for summer jobs: Work at the mall, or work at a restaurant. I chose to go the coffee shop route, but several of my friends could be found spending their days folding shirts at The Gap and spritzing raspberry mist on customers at Bath and Body Works. From where I stood, they seemed to have the better gig, but then, I was 16 and didn't know anything about jobs. I now know, after having worked several jobs myself, that retail work is pretty grueling. You are on your feet, in fluorescent lights, repeating the same tasks over and over for a pittance. Caitlin Kelly found the same hardships when working at the mall for her stint, but she liked her job initially: It got her out of the house and allowed her to become knowledgeable about a product and to service people. She actually enjoyed the work and her co-workers a great deal — that is, until she got bored and decided she would rather write a book about it than fold another Polarfleece vest. And this is the problem with Malled -- Kelly doesn't need the work, not particularly. She is a freelancer when she starts working part-time, and while she notes that she could use the extra cash, she is not destitute, just isolated and looking for an easy gig. She does make some incisive points about the state of American (and international) retail workers, and how under-appreciated they are, but it is hard to discern her social insights from her whiny tone about the dull realities of day-to-day work. What is intended as a shrewd expose ends up sounding a bit like a long, angry letter to the local shopping plex. — Rachel Syme, books editor

Hardcover, 240 pages; Portfolio; list price, $25.95; publication date, April 14

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