Saturday, March 28, 2009

The last five books I've read

In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson (hat tip to CC for letting me borrow it. I promise to give it back someday). Oh, how I love Bryson. He's hilarious and I always appreciate a truly funny book (but please, for the love of God, don't tell me to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I swear, anytime I ask people to recommend something funny to read, they always say, "How about A Conf—?" and I have to cut 'em off. Quite simply: hated it. Not that I read past the first few chapters, but I didn't need to).

Anyway, Bryson's account of his travels in Australia is both amusing and fascinating, with lots of "who knew?" moments. Consider this nugget, for example: "Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else." That, my friends, is what we call a Fun Fact.

As for humor, for some unknown reason I found myself wheezing with laughter over this line Bryson found scrawled in his notebook after a night of boozing in a Canberra pub: "'I tell you, Barry, he was farting sparks!'" Bryson explains, "I believe this was a colorful turn of Aussie phrase I overheard from the people at the next table rather than any actual manifestation of flatulence of an electrical nature. But I could be wrong. I'd had a few." (Hmmm, it seemed funnier the first time I read it. Maybe because I was on a plane and the air was thinner.)

2. My Sister's Keeper, Jodi Picoult. The ending of this one sucked beyond belief. I'm gonna give it away so if you are planning to read the book — or see the upcoming film version starring Cameron Diaz — please skip down to item No. 3 on this list.

OK, now it's just us here, right? So check this out: the story revolves around a girl whose parents conceived her so she could be a blood donor to their cancer-stricken elder daughter. At age 13, the girl decides she doesn't want to give a kidney to her sister, so she sues for medical emancipation from her parents. There's this whole big stupid court case but in the end the girl gets into a car crash and winds up brain dead. At the hospital the doctor asks her parents, "Is organ donation something you'd like to consider?" That's right: after 400 pages of drama, the sister gets her kidney with a little help from her friend deus ex machina. If that's not the mother of all cop-out endings, I don't know what is.

Even before the lame ending this book got on my nerves. For one thing, each section is written in the voice of a different character, but they all sound pretty much the same, from the 13-year-old to the lawyer who has a service dog because he's epileptic (whoops, that's another spoiler. Sorry!). And most irritating of all, every chapter ends with some attempt at profundity. For example (and please note that there's a typo in this sentence; blame the author, not me): "When I look up at the girl who works the Laundromat is standing over me, with her lip ring and blue streaked dreadlocks. 'You need change?' she asks. To tell you the truth, I'm afraid to hear my own answer." Oooh! (That was the 13-year-old talking, by the way.)

3. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. My book club read this and I'm quite pleased we did. I hadn't read it since high school, when "read" was a relative term usually I just skimmed. Not surprisingly for a classic, it's excellent. Most everyone in it is loathsome, but I loved the images of ritzy Long Island parties on hot summer nights: "The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names." Pretty much perfect and best of all, it's short. (I like short books.)

4. Changing Places, David Lodge. Enormously entertaining tale of two 1960s college professors — one from a Berkeley-esque school in the U.S. and the other from a university in the U.K. Midlands — who switch jobs for a semester. It's politically incorrect — the American professor, Morris Zapp, is a bit of a pig — but that's part of its charm. I particularly liked the accounts of student unrest at both campuses, told through a series of news reports. Lodge is one clever dude.

5. Deaf Sentence, David Lodge. Yep, that's right — two Lodges in a row. Sue me: I like the guy. The book is much better than its awful pun-ny title would suggest. It's about a retired linguistics professor who, while struggling with hearing loss and the declining health of his father, gets involved with a grad student who is writing her dissertation about suicide notes. I realize this doesn't sound like big fun, but Lodge is such a fantastic writer that I really enjoyed it. It falls apart at the end — jeez, doesn't anyone know how to finish a story anymore? — but up until the last couple of chapters it's a gem.

Now let's see your lists. Recommendations for funny books (that were not written by John Kennedy Toole) are particularly welcome.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The best pizza in New York, by borough

I admit it: I am a sucker for thin-crust, brick-oven pizza. I've rarely encountered a pie of this variety that I didn't like. Still, there is a hierarchy, and after more than 18 years of living in New York, I'm finally ready to announce it. Today, March 21, 2009, I ate pizza in the Bronx, thereby completing my quest to have excellent slices in all five boroughs. (Joanne, if you are reading this,
I swear it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. We will be back and we will take your family with us.) So here it is: SZ's definitive list of the best pizza in New York (and thus the world. Save your breath, Chicago).

1. The Bronx: Zero Otto Nove. It took three trains and a bus to get there, but for that pie a melt-in-your-mouth crust topped with buffalo mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and just a hint of gorgonzola I would do it all again. Maybe even tomorrow.

2. Brooklyn: Franny's. OK, I'll give up my Queens defensiveness: Brooklyn is by far the coolest outer borough. So it's no surprise that it has the best pizza in New York. This one was a tough call. Grimaldi's is worth the painfully long wait and DiFara made me want to consume eight slices on my own. (If you haven't been there, hurry up and go before the old man, um, retires.) But Franny's clam pizza made me see God. I could probably eat this every day for the rest of my life and be happy.

3. Manhattan. Li'l Frankies. This joint never comes up when people discuss the pantheon of New York pizzerias (Lombardi's, Patsy's, John's, yada yada), yet it's always packed and the pies are never less than excellent. If the Pugliese (marinara, mozzarella, caramelized onions, cacio cavello and oregano) is the special, consider it your lucky day. Plus, they have good beer on tap and they're usually playing interesting music via East Village Radio. An aside: don't be fooled by the snobbery that is Una Pizza Napoletana. If they won't give me toppings, I don't wanna be there.

4. Queens: Nick's. The pride of my home borough. Just typing the name makes me think of basil so fresh they must grow it in the kitchen. They don't actually have a brick oven, but it's in that genre if you know what I'm sayin'. Honorable mention: Sac's Place, which gets extra points for using fresh mozzarella and being within spitting distance of my apartment. (Not that I've ever actually tried spitting at it. That would be gross.)

5. Staten Island: Joe and Pat's. I'm proud to say that of my three trips to Satan, er, Staten Island in the past decade, two were motivated entirely by pizza. Joe and Pat's wins hands down; Denino's was more memorable for the fried calamari. I like fried stuff as much as anyone but dammit, I didn't take the ferry to eat squid.