Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris: A-

From the inside flap:
This is the story of a working-class guy from Ohio with little real knowledge of Ambidextrous Presidents, Things Made of Rubber, and hundreds of other categories, but who nonetheless plunges so far into cramming for Jeopardy! that it changes his relationships, bends his worldview, and literally leads him to the ends of the earth, trying to understand it all.

Prisoner of Trebekistan is more than just a memoir of some guy who played on Jeopardy! It’s a book about memory, and what is required for loads of random information to become stuck in one’s brain. It’s about how to and also how not to prepare for the game, and how the relationships around one might suffer if one dwells too long in “Trebekistan,” the realm of learning where the myriad connections between seemingly random things suddenly come into focus. And it’s also a pretty sweet love story.

Harris’ writing is generally amusing and he uses lots of colorful examples to demonstrate how the brain prioritizes memories. My only gripe about this is that when, in the first real biographical chapter, he mentions a mystery receipt he found and begans to insert all the random items he could’ve bought into his tale, I thought it was a memory exercise and tried to remember them all. I also disliked that he implied that his girlfriend (the awesome Jane) had died of cancer, when I know she hasn’t. He later explained he’d done this so the reader would experience jubilation equal to his own at learning she’d be fine. It still annoyed me.

Details of Harris’ games and strategy are included, and he’s candid about admitting his mistakes. One could read the book purely as a how-to guide and come away with valuable insight. There’s also an appendix of recommended reading for anyone who might be considering giving it a go. This book itself, however, isn’t where one should go to find a list of stuff to memorize, though I did pick up a few random bits of trivia along the way.

As Harris learns to relax more and simply have fun playing the game, he makes many good friends as he keeps getting asked back to play in various tournaments. One of these friendships results in Harris officiating at a marriage ceremony held on the Jeopardy! set. It’s completely awesome. Alex Trebek signed off on the marriage certificate as the official witness and everything.

I was initially interested in this book because of the Buffy connection, and it’s actually pretty neat. Harris is a friend of Danny Strong, who played the character of Jonathan. When the episode “Superstar,” which focused on Jonathan, aired, Strong invited friends over to watch it. Harris, who had gone through a series of chicks who assuaged his insecurities but weren’t a good match, admired the writer’s cleverness, and was soon set up on a blind date with her. Jane, as described in the book, sounds every bit as goofy and wonderful as she’s seemed to me in episode commentary or on her website. Their love story is a great (if sometimes a little skittish) one, and provides an excellent ending, as well. She totally needs to show up on my doorstep so we can hang out. Maybe go bowling or something.

I recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan on several fronts, therefore. Harris has another book out now about world conflicts that I hope to be reading eventually, as well.

Identical Strangers by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein: A

From the back cover:
This is the astonishing true story of Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who shared a personal history for more than three decades—and didn’t know it. In her mid-30s, Schein finally decided to call an adoption agency to learn about her biological mother. Not expecting much, she instead got the surprise of her life. Her identical twin sister, Bernstein, lived just minutes away.

Identical Strangers chronicled not only the meeting of a pair of twins who were adopted by different families, but also their search to understand the secret study they and other separated twins were part of and their efforts to locate information on their birth mother. Elyse and Paula told their story together, alternating sections of the narrative in a way that occasionally overlapped—showing different perspectives on the same events—but was never confusing.

The story, as one might imagine, was a very interesting one. The investigation into both the study and their origins was engrossing, but what I liked best was the honest evaluation of their efforts to get to know one another. Paula admitted to initially wishing that she had never been found by Elyse, since her life was settled and she hadn’t been looking for anything else. Elyse, who’d always keenly felt something was missing in her life, couldn’t understand this perspective at all. Though they did eventually become close, I appreciated that the moments of tension and awkwardness were left intact.

Rounding out the story of the dual investigations were a series of anecdotes about other separated twins and the remarkable similarities they discovered when meeting up for the first time as adults. Some relevant statistics on genetics and inherited traits were also included. These, combined with Elyse and Paula’s own discoveries, made a sound argument for the ability of nature to trump nurture in a child’s development.

Identical Strangers was a great read, and is duly recommended.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl: B

From the back cover:
Ruth Reichl knows that to be a good restaurant critic you have to be anonymous, but when she signs up to be the most important restaurant critic in the country, her picture is posted in every four-star, low-star, and no-star kitchen in town. What’s a critic in search of the truth to do?

And so begin Reichl’s “adventures in deception.” She dons a frumpy blonde wig and an off-season beige Armani suit, and on the advice of a friend—an acting coach with a Pygmalion complex—she starts to assemble her new character’s backstory. She takes to the assignment with astonishing ardor, and thus Molly Hollis, the retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan, nouveau riche from her husband’s real estate speculation, is born. Molly is duly ignored, mishandled, and condescended to by the high-power staff at Le Cirque. The result: Reichl’s famous double review, first as she ate there as Molly and then as she was coddled and pampered on her visit there as Ruth, New York Times food critic.

As Reichl metes out her critical stars, she gives a remarkable account of how one’s outer appearance can influence one’s inner character, expectations, and appetites. She writes, “Every restaurant is a theater… even the modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while.”

Garlic and Sapphires was at its best when skewering the conceits of smug food snobs or championing the merits of overlooked ethnic cuisine. At its worst, however, it could be pretentious, the author claiming that after she took a bite of a dessert that she was “in a wild garden, with the wind blowing through my hair” or that a certain soup tasted “as if the chef were dreaming of the sea.”

Most of the time, though, the book was enjoyable, and I think I managed to absorb a little bit of knowledge about gourmet cuisine. Not that I’m really too keen to try most of the stuff mentioned—about 60% of it was seafood (clams in black bean sauce, anyone?) and most of the rest was stuff like squab or duck that really doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, at one point as she was describing an intricate Chinese dish involving shrimp, I was sitting in the drive-thru line of a local chicken finger place.

I liked that, after the story was told of a visit to a restaurant, the full text of Ruth’s review as it appeared in The New York Times was included. I had fun guessing, from the narration of her experience, how many stars a particular establishment would ultimately end up earning. Would I try any of them if I were ever in New York? The steak places, certainly, and Kurumazushi, the fabulous sushi place. The rest, not so much.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin: A-

From the inside flap:
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Having heard that Steve Martin is somewhat of a difficult person, I had some trepidations going into this book. I really needn’t have worried. This memoir of his stand-up years is affectionate above all else, with liberal sprinklings of self-mockery scattered throughout.

There are some personal details in the book, about his family or certain romantic milestones (never sordid), but the majority of the book deals with the influences on and refinement of his stand-up act. I thought he did a really great job in chronicling its evolution from the early days, when it was just magic tricks cobbled together with one-liners gleaned from various sources, through the middle period, by which time he wrote all his own material and had completely eschewed the traditional “jokes must have punchlines” approach, until its final days, where the ability to experiment was lost and everything felt like it was on automatic pilot.

It probably wouldn’t even be necessary to be a fan of his stand-up act to find this description of the process fascinating. And, for what it’s worth, if I had experienced some of the instances where he was treated more like a product than a person, I’d probably be rather difficult myself.