Writing away from interviews originally written for the Times, Severson writes about her own life as an adolescent misfit, an alcoholic, a Lesbian; a daughter, wife, and mother; a journalist who worked her way from Anchorage to San Francisco to New York. She cites these eight cooks — the other four being Leah Chase, Marcella Hazan, Rachael Ray, and her mother, Anne Zappa Severson — as having helped her cope with her problems, offering (sometimes without even realizing it) life lessons. Bottom line: things are as they are; play the hand you're dealt as well as you can; stay the course; look out for others.
I wish I'd found this book more readable. It's repetitive, sometimes unclear. The idea is fascinating: an extremely knowledgable man (Ahmed has been, among other things, the Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations) leads his young students on a long journey in Muslim lands, visiting schools and homes, discussing contemporary issues frankly with students, imams, people in the street, government officials. Much of the description is lively and fascinating, and the difficulties faced by these various Islamic responses to globalism are sympathetically drawn.
But the author is often too self-congratulatingly present, and his students, though frequently mentioned, never really revealed in their own responses. Geert Mak's fine In Europe (see my entry of three years ago here) came too often to mind as an invidious comparison: I kept wishing Ahmed were as invisibly yet intelligently present in his similar survey.
Such were my quick comments on finishing the book, a month or so ago, as I added them to the Librarything page on the book, where three or four other reviews had variously irritated me. (Two examples: "I'm torn with this book… his references are somewhat out there…" and "…a fairly perceptive enumeration of some of the things that make Tintin special mixed with an embarrassingly bad attempt at showing off the author's knowledge of French literary criticism.") A better, more extensive, more professional review by Matt Bowman can be found here at The Quarterly Conversation, a website I'll likely return to.