Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolved

It is my New Year's resolution not to make any more reading resolutions. I'm just setting myself up for failure. Last year, I resolved to read less commercial fiction and more classics and literary fiction. I did make an attempt at this, but I still feel like most of what I read this year was fluff. I also wanted to read more books than I did last year. I signed up for The Year of Readers to raise money for Room to Read, so I wanted to read as much as I could. But I only read 99 books this year (78 print and 21 audiobooks). That's down from 108 books last year and 125 the year before! How can that be? I feel like I'm always reading. In any case, no more reading pressure. I'm just going to read what I want, when I want.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Return to Cranford!

OMG! I just heard that PBS's Masterpiece Theater is airing the sequel to the delightfully fantastic Cranford! Return to Cranford will be aired in two parts, on January 10th and 17th. And a new version of Jane Austen's Emma will be shown on January 24th and February 7th. Joy of joys! The New Year will be blessed with good TV!

For your entertainment...

Didn't get a chance to see the movie version of Stephenie Meyer's New Moon? Don't worry. Jen Lancaster has it covered.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrapping it up

Once again we are at the end of another year and it's time to talk about our favorite reads of the year.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help has been a huge hit this year, and was one of my favorites. While the story was good, I think it was the exceptional audiobook performance that really made it stand out. My other fiction picks are Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. For nonfiction, while the writing in David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite wasn't anything to get excited about, the subject matter was fascinating.

What were your favorites? Disappointments?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cleaving

I knew when Julie Powell admitted at the beginning of her new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, that she had been having an affair, that my admiration and adoration for her would be tested. I loved her book Julie & Julia, but my feelings for her have soured after finishing her latest book. However, I tried to set my personal feelings aside and focus on the story for its own merits. In a nutshell, shortly after Julie & Julia was published, some old boyfriend looked her up and they began having an affair. She becomes obsessed with this guy. In a freaky stalker-ish sort of way. Her husband finds out about it, but she continues the affair. For whatever reason, she decides that becoming a butcher will help her deal with her issues, so she takes an apprenticeship in a butcher's shop a few hours outside of New York. After the apprenticeship is over, she still hasn't resolved her issues, so she decides to travel. Argentina, Ukraine, Tanzania, Japan.

The butchery aspect of the story was interesting. It's a little gruesome, but interesting if you really want to know where different cuts of meat come from, how animals are broken down, what it's like to work in a butcher shop, etc. How butchery is a metaphor for marriage, I'm still not clear. Her trip to Argentina was also interesting. Seeing how cows are bought and sold fit well with the meat theme. The rest of her trips, while interesting, didn't seem to fit with the theme as well. I started getting this Eat, Pray, Love feeling, I'm sorry to say. (Woman with love issues, who doesn't have to worry about a 9 to 5 job, decides she's just going to take an extended vacation from life and then throw it all together in a book.) Some people enjoy these types of memoirs, but they aren't for me. I eventually started skimming over the obsessive musings and reading only the parts about meat. It feels very disjointed, and the interesting bits are constantly interrupted with her obsessive relationship, freaky sex, and self-loathing. Save that crap for your therapist and give me more food! Had she focused just on the butchery, or just on the travel, I think she would have had a much better book. Unfortunately, this is not a book I will be recommending to people.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women

I have mixed feelings about Ilana Stanger-Ross's first novel Sima's Undergarments for Women. Sima Goldner is the owner of a Brooklyn shop that specializes in women's lingerie. When she hires young Timna as a seamstress, her growing affection for her forces her to confront her feelings about her inability to have her own children and its affect on her marriage. On one hand, it's a pretty good story. The characters and conflict are engrossing and the details of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood are interesting, especially since I know so little about that culture. But on the other hand, I didn't really like Sima. She was frustrating, and even though she did experience some growth, I don't think she redeemed herself very much. I was also confused about the feelings she had for Timna. At times it seemed motherly and at times it felt like Sima envied her, but it also felt very sexual, so I was confused. For example: Sima follows Timna on several occasions. Is she doing it to watch over her and protect her? Or is she doing it out of jealousy? Or is she doing it because she's a creepy stalker? I couldn't tell. Nevertheless, I think it might be a good choice for a book discussion. There seems to be a lot that can be discussed here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If you were wondering what to get me...

National Geographic always publishes beautiful books and I love giving (and getting) them as gifts. Just released from National Geographic is Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe. This would make a great gift for the foodie in your life (like me). It's a monster of a book and retails for $40, but it has the most gorgeous photographs and details all kinds of culinary adventures all over the world. From the Top 10 Cooking Schools in Italy to street food in Israel, there is much to make your mouth water. I was excited to see that I can check 2 of the journeys off the list: sachertorte at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna and Key Lime Pie from Kermit's Key West Lime Shoppe. Mmmm.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Pirate's Life For Me

Although Michael Crichton died last year, a finished draft of his last novel was found on his computer and just released last month. Crichton has written historical fiction in the past, but he is probably best known for his science thrillers. But his final novel, Pirate Latitudes, is a good, old-fashioned pirate adventure novel. And what an adventure! The story begins in 1665 on the island of Jamaica, which is one of the few islands under British control, compared to the many controlled by the Spanish. The dashing scoundrel Captain Charles Hunter is a well-known, successful "privateer" in Jamaica. When word reaches him that a Spanish treasure galleon is sitting in the bay of a nearby island, Hunter sets out with a band of rogues to capture this ship and claim its treasure. What follows is an epic adventure: an attack at sea, a daring escape, storming a Spanish fortress, battles with a Spanish war ship, the sea, and a giant sea monster.

Although this is a fast-paced adventure story, Crichton also includes a lot of detail. He explains how the ships were constructed and sailed, how the cannons and weaponry worked, and details of the sea and weather. Crichton is very talented at interspersing these details in the story, so that you learn a great deal, but the story doesn't get bogged down in the facts. The cast of characters is an interesting bunch, and I would have liked to know more about them. Unfortunately this book will not appeal to all readers, so it's not a book that I can recommend to everyone. I hate to categorize books as men's or women's fiction, but this does seem to be a book that will probably have more appeal to men. It's a sea adventure, heavy on the action and details, light on the character development and relationships. There is also a lot of violence and some gory details. I happened to like it because I have a thing for pirates, and I do like a lot of historical detail, but it's not for everyone.

Steven Spielberg has already signed on to produce the movie. I wonder who will play Captain Hunter? Hunter reminds me of Han Solo, but Harrison Ford might be getting a little too old for the role. It should definitely make for an exciting, action-packed movie.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Brooklyn

Colm Toibin doesn't know it yet, but he is currently being considered for inclusion on my favorite authors list. Anything Irish has an automatic advantage with me-Irish writer, Irish character, set in Ireland-I'm hooked. I think I was Irish in a previous life. It was the young-Irish-woman-comes-to-America story that attracted me to Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn, and now I'm wondering why I've never heard of him before. Such a good story! Wonderful writing, with that wistful tone that I've come to expect from Irish stories. An ending that isn't tied up with a pretty ribbon, yet still satisfying. In a way, it reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's Queen of the Big Time, which I absolutely loved. However, I'm not counting him amongst my favorites just yet because I've only read the one book, and I'm afraid that my bias for all things Irish may have clouded my judgment. Also, the audiobook narrator was fantastic, so that may also have heightened my enjoyment. So I have checked out his novel, The Master, to see whether this was just a fling, or the real thing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

East of Eden

So after the disaster with The Brothers Karamazov, my little group of coworkers and I decided to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck for our next classic undertaking. Soooooo much better. In fact, a great story. Fascinating characters, great drama, so much to discuss. This was a great reminder that not all "classics" have to be difficult novels you have to slog through. If you haven't read this, move it to the top of your list.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wade's Walden

I have no idea why I picked up Wade Rouse's memoir, At Least Someone in the City Would Hear Me Scream. Maybe the title caught my attention. Whatever the reason, it was a great laugh. Rouse and his partner Gary decide to sell their house in the city and move to rural Michigan in an effort to live simply, ala Thoreau's Walden. But years of living in the city have spoiled them with Starbucks, Pottery Barns and Whole Foods, none of which are available in rural Michigan. Wade must learn to do without his morning latte and Kashi Go Lean cereal and find shoes that are suitable for snowy Michigan weather. His adventures embracing the solitary life and his rural brethren, and his attempts to eschew fashion and entertainment and learn to live off the land are a never-ending source of laughs. Wade has a great sense of humor and I can't wait to read his other book, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler. That ought to be a good one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dracula, Part Deux

I enjoyed Bram Stoker's Dracula immensely when I was younger, but until now have steered clear of most other vampire fiction. I hoped his great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, might have inherited some of his writing genius, so I decided to check out his sequel, Dracula: The Un-dead. The sequel picks up 20+ years after the original. A gruesome murder leads some to believe that Jack the Ripper has returned, but those that battled Dracula before recognize the signs of the vampire. Believing that Dracula is not truly dead, Mina Harker and members of the original band, set out to finally stop him. But it turns out that there is something even more evil than Dracula out there. I don't know if you would call it great literature, but it sure was a good, fast-paced, exciting read. Dracula's nemesis has an interesting, albeit dark, history, which made for a good story. Simon Prebble narrates the audiobook and is absolutely fantastic. He really should narrate all historical fiction that requires English accents.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wolf Hall

In Bookforum, Wendy Lesser claims that Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain. Having just won the Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall, maybe she'll start getting some of that well-deserved appreciation. I can certainly say that she is underappreciated in the U.S. I was not familiar with Mantel until her recent Booker win, but am looking forward to reading her other novels. Wolf Hall is not for the faint of heart. At 532 pages, it is not a quick or easy read. And although it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to Henry VIII's counsel and his assistance in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, this is not a novel in the vein of Philippa Gregory. Those looking for a court drama should look elsewhere. Those looking for well-written, historical fiction with artful language and subtle wit should definitely give this a shot.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Author Visit!

Friday, December 11th at 6:30 pm. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, will be at the Bookstall in Winnetka for a reading and signing of her latest book Her Fearful Symmetry, a ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London.

Ford County

John Grisham's new collection of short stories was surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Grisham's legal thrillers. But his stand-alone novels, like Playing for Pizza, have been pretty weak. So I was not expecting much when I picked up this collection. I intended to read just one or two of the stories to get a feel for them, but ended up reading the entire book. Grisham returns to Clanton and Ford County, Mississippi, the setting of several of his legal thrillers. I've always enjoyed Grisham's depiction of this small southern town and its flawed, but interesting characters. There is no lack of interesting and flawed characters in this collection--from drunken rednecks attempting to donate blood to a retirement home aide ingratiating himself with the residents, the characters in these stories may not be pillars of the community, but they do have very compelling stories. Although I'm not a big fan of short stories, I found these to be very satisfying.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

November Failures

I've talked before about books you are "supposed" to read and books you given up on, so I thought it might make for an interesting monthly discussion. In November I picked up two books that I would put in the category "books you should read" and inevitably didn't finish them.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
The Office is one of my favorite TV shows and Jim (John Krasinski), who I love, recently adapted and directed the movie version of Brief Interviews. He is also one of the narrators for the audiobook version, so I decided to give it a listen. Yes, sometimes this is how I decide what books I read/listen to. Anyway, I didn't even get to Jim's portion of the narration. I found it a little weird. Random short stories about men of various ages, talking about various things (although sex seemed to be a frequent topic). I didn't get it and it seemed a little pervy. What was the point?

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
Muller is a Romanian-born German novelist and just won the Nobel Prize for literature, so I thought I should read one of her books. People in other countries have complained that Americans are so isolated when it comes to literature, so I thought it would be nice to broaden my selections. This did not go well. I didn't get very far. The language is very poetic, but there doesn't seem to be much happening. And what was all the talk about barbers and nail-clippers? I'm sure it was significant and meant something, but it was completely beyond me. I seem to remember trying to read one of French novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio's novels last year (he won last year's Nobel Prize) and not getting very far with it either.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Author Events

There aren't many author events in the area this month, but there are a few big ones.

Anthony Bourdain will be speaking this Friday, November 6th at 8pm at the Genesee Theater in Waukegan. Here's the rub: tickets range from $39.50 to $75. The $75 VIP tickets will get you a meet and greet and autograph from Bourdain. Now, I swoon for Anthony Bourdain. Love his books, love his show. But I'm not sure I love him $75 worth. That's a bit obnoxious. Besides, if I met him I would probably just embarrass myself.

Kate Jacobs, author of The Friday Night Knitting Club, will be speaking at the Warren Newport Public Library in Gurnee, this Saturday, November 7th at 2pm. She is supporting Warming Families' effort to collect 25,000 hats for the homeless in 2009.

The Chicago Public Library will be hosting 2 major authors this month at the Harold Washington center. Jonathan Safran Foer will be discussing his new nonfiction book, Eating Animals, on November 18th at 6pm. Audrey Niffenegger will be discussing her new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, on November 19th at 6pm.

Friday, October 30, 2009

How to become a kitchen pimp

My immediate response when I first heard about Cookin' With Coolio: 5 Star Meals at a 1 Star Price, due out next month, was to cringe in horror. Seriously, Coolio? Rollin' with my homies Coolio? Writing a cookbook? What can he possibly have to teach anyone about cooking? According to the synopsis, Coolio has been cooking since he was 10 years old and has developed a style of cooking that is built around solid comfort foods with a healthy twist that don't break the bank, which he calls Ghetto Gourmet. At this point, I'm actually groaning out load. But then I remind myself that "ghetto fiction" or "street lit" is a very popular genre, so perhaps there is an audience for ghetto gourmet. So I took a look at the sneak peek. I gotta say, it's pretty entertaining. Here's what Coolio has to say about setting up your mise en place:

"Pimpin' ain't easy, but it's necessary, especially if you wanna fully utilize the power of your kitchen....Having the right utensils is a good start, but then you gotta show them who's the boss up in this bitch....To begin your culinary battle, make sure you have these handy: A set of sharp-ass knives...An aluminum roasting pan big enough to fit my nephew in."

And his terminology:
"Peench: This is when you put a little bit of a spice between your fingers and throw it on your food. It's a lot like a pinch, except for the motherf[ing] fact that gangstas don't pinch. They peench.
Dime Bag: This is a little bag that some people put some things into. I just use them to hold onto my spices."

Mastering the Art of French Cooking it is not, but I think it would be fun to read.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Special Powers now extend to book awards.

Apparently the finalists for the National Book Award were announced last week. I could have sworn they were announced weeks ago. When I saw the list posted on a website recently, I thought, "This person is really behind. This is old news." I guess I'm the one that's behind. But I distinctly remember seeing Let the Great World Spin and Lark & Termite on what I thought was the list of the National Book Award finalists. So, either I'm remembering another award list, or my Special Powers were at work and I "saw" these two books on the list beforehand. It's true, I have Special Powers. The problem is, they are inconsistent and unreliable, so they are pretty much useless and just freak me out. If only I could channel these powers more effectively so I could predict the winners. Do bookies take bets on book awards?

Let's Talk About Books

I know, I know. I've been totally slacking on my posts, so here's a quick rundown of what I've been reading lately.

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan by Doug Stanton. Unfortunately I didn't have time to finish this book. I renewed it twice and it was overdue, and I was just too busy to get through it, so I thought I'd better let someone else have a chance at it. Anyway, from what I read, I thought this was a very interesting book. The book recounts the team of Special Forces soldiers who went into Afghanistan after 9/11. You get an intimate look at the soldiers, great descriptions of Afghanistan, and a side of the war you may not have heard about. One detail really floored me: before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, we were not at all prepared to go to war. Soldiers didn't have the necessary equipment needed for their missions, so many of them were buying out supplies in camping stores and REIs! A must for fans of Black Hawk Down and other exciting military adventures.

Super in the City by Daphne Uviller. A single, twenty-something who can't make up her mind about what to do with her life, is thrust into the position of super of her parent's NYC apartment building. A secret staircase erected by the previous super drives Zephyr Zuckerman's already overactive imagination into overdrive. Meanwhile, a fledgling affair with the exterminator and an obnoxious, demanding tenant keep her busy. Humorous chick lit.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I put off reading this book for quite some time, because after the sob fests I endured when I read Marley & Me and Merle's Door, I could not bear another story of doggy death. But so many people had been raving about it, I decided to give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong-there is a doggy death. Enzo, the dog, tells us up front that he is aging and getting close to death. But his death is not too dramatic and I got through it with a minimal amount of tears. You've probably heard about this book, so you probably know that the story is told from the dog's point of view. I thought this would be cheesy, but it's not. Enzo is an interesting character, humorous, intelligent, and has a lot to say. A great read.

I just did The 19th Wife by David Ebershof for a book discussion, and I now know more about the Mormon Church and its history than I ever thought I would. There are 2 story lines going in this novel. The first story is of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th-ish wife of Brigham Young, who divorced him and went on a crusade to end polygamy. The second story is a present day murder mystery about the murder of a polygamous man living in a fundamentalist LDS community. I loved the historical aspect of the story, since I knew very little about the LDS Church. But I also enjoyed the shocking story of the present day fundamentalist Mormons, and what it means to live in that kind of a community. This is one you won't want to put down.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And the winner is...

Two major literary awards were announced today. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Herta Muller, a Romanian-born, German novelist, poet and essayist noted for her works depicting the harsh conditions of life in Communist Romania.

The Booker Prize was awarded to Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall, an historical fiction novel of the Tudor period told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. How on earth did I miss this one?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Day After Night

There seems to be so much fiction that takes place during WWII. Experiences of war, concentration camps, escape and survival are told again and again. But there isn't a lot of fiction about right after the war. What happened to the Jews after they were liberated from the camps? Where did they go? What did they do? How did they go on with their lives? The extent of my knowledge ends with the death of Hitler, so it was enlightening to read Anita Diamant's new book, Day After Night, which follows four Jewish women who leave Europe after the war and head to Israel. Once they reach Israel, they are considered illegal immigrants and placed in Atlit, which was a detention center for Jewish immigrants seeking refuge in Palestine. Each woman must face the uncertainty of her future while confronting her own scars and memories. Although each woman's experience during the war has been quite different, they form a very close bond that sustains them during their time at Atlit. This was a great read, with well-developed and distinct characters, vivid descriptions of Atlit and Israel, and although their histories are quite horrific, the ending leaves the reader with a sense of hope.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Let's Eat!

As I am always on the lookout for new cookbooks that promise healthy meals in very little time, I was eagerly awaiting Mark Bittman's new cookbook, Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less. Bittman is the author of the popular How to Cook Everything series, and I've always liked his easy to follow, no frills recipes. Since his last book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, he has been focusing more on healthier recipes with local and seasonal ingredients, which I like. Kitchen Express is great. The recipes are super-simple and laid back. The recipes are about a paragraph long and very few exact measurements are used. He uses phrases like "heat a couple of tablespoons of butter," "add a bunch of chopped spinach," and "beat an egg with a little buttermilk and a couple of handfuls of grated cheddar." I love that. It makes me feel less anxious about getting the exact right amount of an ingredient. And I think it encourages cooks to learn to focus on the food-when it looks done and if it tastes right, rather than trying to rigidly follow a recipe. My only complaint is the lack of photographs. I like pictures in my cookbooks and Bittman's books never have photos. The recipes are divided into seasons: Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, each featuring ingredients that are at their freshest at that time. Since I think we can definitely say we are well into fall, I'll try the Gruyere Apple Grilled Cheese, the Apple Cider and White Wine Slushy, and the Pumpkin Creme Brulee. Mmmmm. Doesn't that sound delicious?

Friday, September 25, 2009

October Author Events

Here are a few upcoming author events in the area next month...

October 1st at 7:30pm at the Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard: Jen Yates, founder of the website www.cakewrecks.com, will be signing copies of her new book Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Horribly, Hilariously Wrong. If you haven't seen this website, check it out. It's hilarious. It will also make you crave cake.

October 7th at 7:30pm at the Winnetka Congregational Church: Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, will be discussing and signing copies of his new book, Strength in What Remains. Admission is $10 per person, which will be donated to Partners in Health.

October 13th at 7pm at the Northbrook Public Library: Mystery Authors Panel with Libby Fischer Hellman, Theresa Schwegel, and Kevin Guilfoile

October 15th at 7pm at the Borders on Michigan Avenue: Alton Brown will be signing copies of his new book Good Eats, based on his TV show on the Food Network.

The Bookstall in Winnetka is hosting a Women Writers Series, where they will be having a luncheon with an author talk. Please contact the Bookstall for more information, as I believe there is a fee:
October 26th at 12pm: Sarah Dunant
October 29th at 12pm: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Gimme Shelter

Have you ever seen one of those "As seen on TV" products and thought: "I came up with that idea years ago!" Well, I just had that experience with a book. My husband and I have been trying to buy our first home for years. It has been nothing like I imagined it would be. I always thought buying our first home would be exciting, maybe even fun. Not even close. It has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Fortunately, I came across Mary Elizabeth Williams's book Gimme Shelter: Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream. I could have written this book. I should have written this book. Her story of her experience trying to buy her first home is so similar to mine, I feel a kinship with her. Like me, she is a well-educated, middle class American in a dual-income marriage. Like me, she lives in an area where the cost of living is extremely high, which makes it very difficult for a middle class family to purchase their own home. But also like me, she has an intense desire for her own home. As she says: "Of course I want a home. I'm American; it's encoded into my cultural DNA." As her desire grows to set down roots for her growing family, she begins to explore their real estate options. She quickly finds out that the influx of wealthier residents to her neighborhood and the expanding housing bubble has priced her out of all but the tiniest, grimiest, housing options. While exploring different neighborhoods, she also explores the various kinds of mortgages that are available to first-time buyers, and how the sale of some of these mortgages to unqualified borrowers has caused the mess we are in right now. Although it's a frustrating process, her humor and her strong relationship with her husband seem to sustain her, and it makes for a pretty good story.

I will concede though, that Williams definitely has it worse than me. She lives in New York City, and the housing prices for a tiny apartment are astronomical. It's hard to comprehend paying that much money for a home. And, I also learned that when you live in an apartment or co-op in NYC, you will pay a monthly maintenance fee. This is not new information to me, but what I didn't know was that the fee can be $600 or more a month! Can you imagine? Just the thought of that makes my eye start twitching.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Picking Cotton

Imagine being convicted of a crime you did not commit and serving 11 years in prison. I know this happens. I've read other stories of similar injustices, and they are truly mind-boggling, but I really wanted to read Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, because I was amazed when I heard that the victim of the crime and the man she accused, wrote this book together.

In 1983, a man broke into Jennifer Thompson's apartment and raped her. She identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life for this crime. Throughout, Ronald maintained that he was innocent, but Jennifer testified in court twice that she was absolutely, positively certain that Ronald had done it. DNA testing was finally able to prove Ronald's innocence, and he was released after serving 11 years. When I try to put myself in Ronald Cotton's shoes, I think I would be so angry. Angry at this person who accused me. Angry at the attorneys and judges who wouldn't listen. I don't know if I could forgive. But Ronald harbors no anger. Not only has Ronald Cotton forgiven Jennifer Thompson, they are friends and keep in touch with each other regularly! This is such an amazing story. Jennifer's attempt to overcome the psychological damage from her attack, and later, her guilt of condemning the wrong man; and Ronald's struggle to keep fighting and find forgiveness are truly captivating and inspiring.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Just Right

How is it possible that I have never read Elinor Lipman until now? I just finished her new novel, The Family Man, and am now in love with her. It's a good story, with likable characters, and subtle humor. It's light, but not so light that it's complete fluff. It has enough depth to make for a good story, but it's not so serious that it's depressing.

Ahhh, this story is just right, she said happily and she ate it all up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Catching Fire

I was able to get my hands on an advanced copy of Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, which is being released September 1st! If you aren't familiar with The Hunger Games, see my review here and then read it. I loved the book and have been eagerly awaiting the sequel. It picks up shortly after Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12. The President of Panem is unhappy with Katniss's behavior during the Hunger Games, which has sparked acts of rebellion in some of the districts. Katniss fears for her family's safety, but the punishment the President has in mind is something she never expects-and neither will you.

That's all I will say because I really don't want to give anything away. But it's a fantastic read. The book takes off right away and never looses momentum. I was trying to read it slowly, so I could make it last longer, but I wasn't able to put it down. All the major characters from the last book are back, along with a few new ones that we will hopefully see again in the next book. Some people complained that the ending of The Hunger Games was too open-ended. I disagree, but the ending of Catching Fire is a total cliffhanger! Nothing is really resolved, and the fate of many of the characters are unknown. That wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to wait for the next one!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Waiter Rant

If you've read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, you already have some idea of what it's really like to work in a restaurant. In Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip-Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, Steve Dublanica also provides insight into the workings of a restaurant, but he also has a lot to say about one topic we don't hear much about from Bourdain: the customers. Dublanica spent years working as a waiter in upscale restaurants in New York and says that restaurants bring out the worst in people. He has plenty of stories of rude, obnoxious, selfish, and just plain mean customers that are unbelievable. I thought this book would be humorous, and sometimes it is, but most of the stories are so horrible, it's just shocking. Nonetheless, it's a great gossipy, tell-all that really shows customers at their worst. It will certainly make you think twice the next time you go out to eat.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Strength in What Remains

Tracy Kidder's new book Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness is a compelling story of genocide, healing, selflessness, and perseverance. When violence between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes irrupted in Burundi in the early 1990s, Deo narrowly escaped death and spent months on the run, hiding in forests. He finally escaped from Burundi in 1994. He was 24 and had completed three years of medical school. When he arrived in New York City, he had very little money, no place to stay, and could not speak English. He ended up living in Central Park, delivering groceries twelve hours a day, making only $15. But his tenacity drove him to keep working, and eventually, with the help of new friends, he was able to enroll in Columbia University, and later Dartmouth, to complete his medical degree. He then went to work for Partners in Health with Paul Farmer, and began working on building a health care clinic in Burundi.

Kidder is a wonderful writer and storyteller. I loved his last book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and this one is just as good. He has this ability to get to the heart of his "characters" and make you feel like you know them. He also has great talent for describing life in Africa, as well as life on the streets of New York City. Burundi and the places Deo lived in New York City are so foreign to us, yet you feel as if you are there. Although there are many tragedies, this is an inspiring, engaging story that shouldn't be missed.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Julie & Julia is finally here!

Yay! Julie & Julia, the movie based on Julie Powell's memoir, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen finally opens today. Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, the adorable Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, and Nora Ephron directs, so this is sure to be a funny, feel good, chick flick. Just what I need right now.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pretty in Plaid

If you have not read any of Jen Lancaster's books, you should stop what you are doing and go out right now and get them. Well, at least finish reading this blog, then go get them. Having just finished her fourth book, Pretty in Plaid: A Life, a Witch, and a Wardrobe, or the Wonder Years Before the Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered, Smart-ass Phase, I can tell you that I have yet to find another nonfiction writer that makes me laugh so hard. I have cackled my way through each of her books and her latest continues to be fresh and fun.

Jen chronicles the early years of her life during the 70s, 80s, and 90s and how clothes were such a big part of her identity. Although Jen is a few years older than me, there was so much that I identified with in this book. In the 70s, the Girl Scout uniform and the number of badges on your sash set you apart from everyone else. If you grew up in the 80s, you probably remember Jordache jeans, Bass penny loafers, Izods, and your first Liz Claiborne purse. In the 90s, your sorority letters and lavaliere were the foundation of your wardrobe. After college, you are faced with finding the dreaded interview suit, and then realizing that now that you are on your own, you can only afford to shop at discount stores.

I have said before that Jen's stories aren't uncommon. Her life is pretty normal, and most of us have had similar experiences. But it's her personality and the way she tells the stories with her sarcastic humor that make reading her books so much fun. Jen is also completely confident in herself and makes no apologies for who she is, which is so refreshing. If you are looking for a trip down memory lane, a fun story, and a great laugh, Pretty in Plaid will not disappoint.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Help

Every once in a while a book comes along that you just love. And everybody else loves it too. It's one of those books that gets out mainly by word of mouth. Everyone is reading it and talking about it. It's a book that will appeal to just about any reader. Last year, it was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. A few years ago it was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Kite Runner. I find these books hard to come by. Yes, good books are written all the time, but there are few that are "sure bets," meaning you can give it to just about anyone and they will like it. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is definitely one of these books. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, a young white woman decides to compile the stories of the colored maids that work for the white people in town. Stockett captures the voices of these women so well. Each character is very well defined and their stories are so engrossing. Stockett does a wonderful job of conveying the racial tensions in Mississippi and the fear these women have over telling their stories. The audiobook is exceptional and incorporates four different narrators, which makes the characters' voices even more distinct. This was one book that I was sorry to reach the end. The Help is Stockett's first novel, and she has set the bar pretty high for herself. I'm looking forward to reading more by this talented author.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mmmmm, cupcakes

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm a lover of cookbooks. In a recent issue of Martha Stewart Living, there was a plethora of cupcake recipes and decoration techniques, which inspired visions of me becoming an expert cupcake maker. So I've been eagerly awaiting Martha's latest cookbook on cupcakes. Because I'm supposed to be eating healthier these days, my husband was confused as to why I was buying a cookbook of cupcakes. But that's how much I love cookbooks. Even if I don't make the recipes, I like reading them, looking at the pictures, and imagining myself making them.Yes, I realize this is weird. I'm ok with it. Luckily (for me, not my coworkers) we had a staff lunch here at the Library yesterday, so I had an opportunity to try out a couple of the recipes on my coworkers. I made the peanut butter chocolate cupcakes (which was not supposed to have a frosting) and the devil's food cupcakes (which was supposed to have a ganache frosting). Um, Martha? A bit of a let down. First, the peanut butter chocolate cupcakes were quite dry. The devil's food cupcakes were good, but the ganache frosting was blech. And I didn't realize how long it would take to melt, and then cool, the frosting, so I didn't finish the frosting in time to ice the cupcakes I took to work. So, while good, no one wants to eat cupcakes with no icing. But the cupcake batter? Seriously delicious. I'd rather just eat it that way. You could sell that stuff in jars. Although I can hear my mother now: "You can't eat that! It has raw eggs in it!" Psshh. I've been licking bowls for years and never had a problem. I'm anxious to try some of the decorating techniques in this book though. That ought to be good for a few laughs.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jennifer Weiner, what is UP?

I just finished Jennifer Weiner's latest, Best Friends Forever, and I'm just confused. As I began reading it, I found myself quickly sucked into the story. Addie and Val meet at the age of 9 and instantly become best friends. But something happens during their senior year of high school and the two haven't spoken in years. On the night of their class reunion, Val shows up on Addie's doorstep asking for help. The story alternates between Addie and Val's backstory and the present-day predicament. As I was reading it, I was thinking this may very well be Weiner's best book yet. The backstory is touching and captivating. Addie is a great character. The overall tone is fairly serious, but Weiner lightens it up every now and then with her usual wit. I was a little worried about this novel. Her last two novels, while good, were not great. Not like her earlier novels. But this one was very satisfying. Until I got to the end. I won't give it away, but let's just say that it seemed like she just recycled the plot from Good in Bed. Totally unoriginal and very disappointing. I'm just so befuddled. Please don't let this stop you from reading it. It really was a wonderful read, up until the end. I'm all for a nice, happy ending, but it feels like she was just in a hurry to wrap it up and couldn't come up with anything new. What was up with that? Does anyone else feel that way?

Friday, July 24, 2009

E. Lynn Harris, 1955-2009

E. Lynn Harris, the best-selling author of novels that addressed the subject of gay black culture, died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 54. Harris was the author of ten novels (most recently, Basketball Jones) and a memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.

Painted Cats??

If you think dog lovers are a little nuts, cat lovers can be worse. I give you Why Paint Cats: The Ethics of Feline Aesthetics by Burton Silver and Heather Busch. This tiny little book is a collection of pictures of painted cats. Yes. Painted cats. I once received one of those email forwards that included a picture of a cat with a picture of a man painted around his butt, which I figured had been photoshopped. Nope. People actually pay money to have this done to their cats. Big money. Like, thousands. I did learn that people have been painting cats in India, Japan and Botswana for centuries. But painting cats is a relatively new practice in the west. Some of the designs are quite cool (the "tattooed" cat) and beautiful, but some are just absurd. And it's not even permanent! Imagine spending $5000 for something that will only last a few months! As for the ethics of painting cats, the book doesn't do a great job of answering that question. I would like to see a book called How to Paint Cats, because really, how does one paint a cat? That kind of elaborate work seems like it would take hours, and I know my cat would never sit still that long. At least not without sedation. The book doesn't really go into detail as to the methods. One artist commented that he likes to do his painting when the cat is either asleep or hypnotized. Cats can be hypnotized? How can I learn to do that? And exactly what is used for the paints? Apparently the paints are vegetable-based and safe for the animals, but where does one buy these? I also saw the phrase "prepainting petting" a few times, which I assume means that the painter has to get the cat used to the brush first by petting it with a dry brush before the painting even starts. I know exactly what my cat would do if I tried to pet her with a paint brush. Attack it. Bite me. Run away and hide.

For your enjoyment: painted cats...










Thursday, July 23, 2009

One Nation Under Dog

For those that know me, you know that I am a huge dog person. I don't have kids, at least not human ones, but I do have a dog and a cat, and they are like my children. Like mothers of human children, I can talk about my dog endlessly. I spoil her, feel guilty when I have to leave her, and spend whatever it takes to make sure she is happy and healthy. No, I am not nuts. And I am not alone. The pet industry is a $43 billion a year industry. Michael Schafffer takes a look at this phenomenon in his book One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Foods.

Pet ownership is way up, as is spending on those pets. One theory is that our social networks are more fragmented than they used to be-more single, divorced, and childless people, fewer people live close to their families, and there is less community involvement. People are using pets to fill those gaps in their lives. Couple this with an increase in people's discretionary income and we have a lot of people who are willing to spend top dollar on their furry family members. Schaffer examines all aspects of the pet industry, from the toys, to the dog spas, hotels, walkers and chauffeurs, to the improvements in pet care and foods. It's a very interesting book that examines how the changes in our lifestyles have elevated the lifestyles of our dogs. And it provides proof that there are people who are crazier than me when it comes to their dogs. (See Chapter 2 about the doggie showers and Christmas parties.)

Cat lovers, do not despair. Tomorrow we have painted cats!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

All the latest...

The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance recently announced the SIBA Awards. Ron Rash won the fiction award for his novel Serena. Rick Bragg won the nonfiction award for The Prince of Frogtown. Martha Hall Foose won for best cookbook with Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales From a Southern Cook.

I am disappointed to report that the publication of Julie Powell's new book Cleaving, which was supposed to be released in August along with the movie Julie and Julia, has been pushed back to December.

James Patterson achieves new levels of selling out with his latest novel Swimsuit. The model on the cover is shown wearing a Perry Ellis swimsuit from this summer's collection. So Patterson and Macy's teamed up for an event in which Patterson signed copies of the novel for the first 300 people who bought $100 worth of Perry Ellis swimwear.

In books to movie news....Renee Zellweger has signed on to do a third Bridget Jones movie! Yay! The movie will be based on weekly columns Fielding wrote in 2005 for the Independent in which Bridget is in her 40s and trying to have a baby. All I want to know is whether Colin Firth will be reprising his role as Mark Darcy. John Krasinski (aka "Jim" from The Office) is directing his first movie, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which will be released in September. HBO is adapting Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex for a series.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt

I cannot begin to tell you how sad I was to hear that Frank McCourt died yesterday, July 19th at the age of 78 from metastatic melanoma. Check out the article at the NY Times. McCourt was one of my favorite memoirists. I absolutely loved his stories of his childhood in Ireland, coming to America and then teaching in the New York schools. The audiobook versions are among my all time favorite audiobooks because McCourt narrated them himself. I met Frank McCourt at a book signing at the end of 2007. He was very entertaining and humorous. He said at the time that he was working on a novel, having tired of writing about himself. I have not heard whether he finished the work, but I hope so.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Goodbye Brothers Karamazov, I will not miss you.

One of my reading resolutions this year was to read more classic works of fiction. One of my co-workers suggested tackling it together, so a small group of staff members at my library decided to give it a try. Our first book was The Brothers Karamazov. We read the book in parts, meeting monthly over a period of four months to discuss. Today was our final meeting for the Brothers. I don't think I've ever been so thrilled to be finished with a book. This was such a struggle to get through. At its core, the novel raises some interesting issues, but the story gets bogged down with all this other stuff. And all the overly dramatic suffering: the crying, the weeping, the wailing, the moaning, the groaning, the pining, the hair-pulling, the teeth-gnashing, the fainting. Ugh. Enough already! Snap out of it! I just could not take any more of these absurd characters. But what I really wanted to get from this book was an understanding of what makes this book a "classic." Why is it one of those must-read-before-you-die novels? I still don't think I have the answer to that question. Nonetheless, I have read it and now I will place it on my bookshelf so I can smugly inform guests that yes, I have read The Brothers Karamazov.

Next up: East of Eden. Steinbeck should prove much more accessible than Dostoyevsky.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

84, Charing Cross Road

Not long ago Citizen Reader blogged about her joy of finding 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and instructed her readers to "GO READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY." Ok, so I didn't read it immediately, but this book has been on my list for a while, and since CR spoke so highly of it (and I usually agree with her picks), I decided to move it up on the priority list. And once again, she's right. What a lovely way to spend a morning. The book is a compilation of letters passed between Helene Hanff in New York City and a used bookstore in London over the course of twenty years. Helene is quite a character, and the relationship between her and the employees of this bookstore (one in particular) is quite humorous and even touching. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is definitely reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road, so if you enjoyed Guernsey, you should not overlook this one. I also see there is a movie version, starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, so you know what I'll be doing this weekend.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Covers can be deceiving

Sometimes I judge a book by its cover. When I pick up a book with a cover that has shoes, clothes, diamonds, or "girly" colors, I'm expecting chick lit. To me, chick lit is a light-hearted, rom-com that may have a bit of conflict, but everything turns out all right in the end. The characters tend to be in their 20s and single, but there are beginning to be more featuring married women in their 30s. A few months ago I blogged about Candace Bushnell's latest novel One Fifth Avenue. From the cover, it looked to be chick lit, but it certainly wasn't. The same thing happened to me recently when I picked up Hedge Fund Wives by Tatiana Boncompagni. The cover shows a diamond in a Tiffany box (diamonds + pastel colors = chick lit). So, I figured fun chick lit with wealthy young married women. There was nothing fun about this book. The characters all seemed miserable, and just like with Bushnell's book, I have a hard time empathising with millionaires. Or in this case, billionaires. But at least I might find out what a hedge fund is, right? Alas, no. The author spent way too much time trying to explain hedge funds and hedge fund managers, and I still don't get it. The difference between this non-chick lit book and Candace Bushnell's non-chick lit book, is that I had no problem putting this book down.



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What are you really reading?

If you come over to my house, you will see on my coffee table The Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, and several issues of National Geographic and Smithsonian. What you won't see are Hedge Fund Wives, Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs, Pretty in Plaid, and numerous issues of Health and Real Simple magazines, which are hidden under the coffee table. These are the books and magazines that I'm actually reading, but what I put on the coffee table is what I want you to think I'm reading. Now, I am reading (slowly but surely) the things on the top of my coffee table, but certainly not with the voracity with which I read the others. Do you do this?

PK in the Terrarium recently blogged about what he tells people he is reading versus what he is actually reading. Check it out. It's pretty funny. I love that he includes Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I'm working on that one too. It's not an easy one, but I like telling people I'm reading it. It makes me feel smart. I'm intrigued by Grow Your Own Pharmacy by Linda Gray, which makes his "what I'm actually reading" list. I'll have to check this one out. Here's my list....

What I tell people I'm reading...
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Kitchen Literacy:How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back by Ann Vileisis
National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines

What I'm actually reading...
Health, Body & Soul, and Real Simple magazines
Harry Potter
Pretty in Plaid: a Life, a Witch, and a Wardrobe, or, the Wonder Years Before the Condescending, Ego-maniacal, Self-Centered, Smart-Ass Phase by Jen Lancaster
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
the JC Penny fall catalog (hey, it came in the mail and I'm easily taken in by shiny pictures)

What are on your lists?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Not Touched By Hand

Frequently my grandmother will give me recipes that include "oleo" amongst its ingredients. While I inferred that this was some type of margarine-like substance, I always thought it was a particular brand that she favored. But I have just learned from Ann Vileisis's Kitchen Literacy, oleomargarine is what they originally called fake butter when it was first produced. It was initially developed in France as a cheap substitute for butter, but we started producing it in the U.S. in order to transform the waste fats (yum) of our growing meat industry into a profitable product. When oleo first came out, people were beginning to be concerned about germs, so advertisements for oleo boasted that it was "not touched by hand."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

An afternoon with Lisa See

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a book talk and signing with Lisa See for her new novel Shanghai Girls. Unfortunately I wasn't able to finish the novel before her talk, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. The story begins in 1937 in Shanghai. Two sisters, May and Pearl, think of themselves as modern girls; girls who will marry for love rather than in an arranged marriage like their parents. But desperate times force their father to arrange marriages for both girls and soon they are on their way to Los Angeles to live with husbands they don't even know. Lisa is a wonderful story-teller, which she has proven once again. The vivid descriptions of Shanghai and the tragedies the girls live through when Japan invades, makes this a heart-wrenching story.

I have heard Lisa speak before, and she always talks about the history behind her stories, which is always interesting. She also talked a little bit about her own family history, which I never get tired of hearing about. The biography that she wrote about her family history, On Gold Mountain, is just fantastic and well worth reading. Lisa said that Shanghai Girls is the story closest to her heart and her next novel will be a sequel to this lovely story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Books I Didn't Finish

I know I've been totally slacking on the posts lately. Sorry about that. I've been spending my time listening to all the Harry Potter audiobooks, trying to make it through The Half-Blood Prince before the movie opens. And I've been slowly trudging through The Brothers Karamazov for a book group, which despite its dense prose and unlikable characters, is thought-provoking.

In the latest issue of Bookmarks magazine, the editor Jon Phillips, discusses books he didn't finish. He mentions Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which I also gave up on, even though so many others raved about it. There have been a number of new books that have gotten good reviews that I started and never finished. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (sorry Jody), How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by C. Alan Bradley, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by M. Glenn Taylor, and The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. Most of these I didn't bother posting reviews on, because as Phillips points out, "since we didn't make it to the end, we don't fully know what we're talking about." I heard Nancy Pearl speak recently, and when she was asked if she finishes a book she doesn't like, she said that she will read just enough of it to get a sense of who she would recommend it to. I like that. So many times I'll quit reading a book, feeling that I've wasted all that time. But if you look at it like Nancy does, then it's not so much a waste of time. Have there been any books that people have raved about that you just couldn't finish?

Two books that I have finished recently were The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. These are both great reads; compelling stories with interesting, yet flawed, characters. Read them-and finish them!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Food of a Younger Land

In the 1930s, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which was charged with finding work for unemployed Americans. The WPA created the Federal Writers' Project for unemployed writers. After creating hundreds of guidebooks on America, writers were asked to contribute to a project called America Eats. The plan was to produce a book of compiled essays and recipes that would describe the various traditional foods eaten throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned when the U.S. entered WWII. The essays and recipes that were written were archived in the Library of Congress, but never published until now. Mark Kurlansky has compiled these documents, adding his own commentary, in The Food of a Younger Land. The book is broken down by region: the Northeast, South, middle West, far West, and the Southwest.

What a fantastic book. I've been reading so much about industrialized food lately that it was so refreshing to read about what people ate before frozen foods and McDonald's became the norm. But I will admit that I was surprised at how unhealthy those foods would be considered by today's standards. People sure liked pork fat. And lard, lots of it. And while I couldn't say whether it's healthy or not, they also liked animals' testicles. From Rocky Mountain oysters (sheep) to Prairie oysters (cow), Kentucky oysters (hog), and lamb fries (duh), testicles seemed to be popular in just about every region in the country. What I found interesting was that while women typically were responsible for preparing food, in the case of testicles, this was considered a man's job. There were many food traditions described that I had never heard of before: sugaring-off parties in Vermont, Coca-Cola parties in Georgia, and chitterling struts in North Carolina. The eggless, butterless Depression Cake shows how people made do with the few ingredients they had during the Depression. But the beginning of convenience foods are evident in some of the essays. When one woman remembers her childhood on a Nebraska farm in the 1890s, she says that in the '90s, calories were unheard of. But today (1940s), many farm women have become more calorie conscious and are replacing heavier dishes with salads. They are also less dependent on home-made foods, getting their bread, cream and butter from a grocer and using canned vegetables. Although I don't think I'll be trying any of these recipes, it was fun to read them. It definitely made me hungry for some cornbread though.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Author Visits!

On Thursday, June 11th at 7 p.m. at the Barrington Public Library, Elizabeth Berg will sign her new novel, Home Safe.

On Friday, June 12th at 6 p.m. at the Bookstall in Winnetka, Tania James reads from and signs her critically acclaimed debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns, a poignant and funny novel about sisterhood, the tantalizing dream of America, and the secret histories and eccentricities of families.

On Saturday, June 20th at 2 p.m. at the Warren Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Jamie Freveletti will discuss her new thriller Running from the Devil.

On Tuesday, June 23rd at 7 p.m. at the Borders in Oakbrook, C. J. Box will sign his latest mystery Below Zero.

On Wednesday, June 24th at 4 p.m. at the Bookstall in Winnetka, Lisa See, author of the bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, signs her new novel, Shanghai Girls, about two sisters who leave Shanghai to find new lives in 1930s Los Angeles.

On Thursday, June 25th at 6 p.m. at the Borders on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Janet Evanovich signs her new novel Finger Lickin' Fifteen.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Reading at the Table: The End of Overeating

Just last week I was berating myself for giving into a craving and eating something I shouldn't have. I battle with this frequently, as I know many others do. I have always thought that I was just weak or lazy, but it turns out that our desire for certain foods is a habit that has been ingrained in our brain chemistry (thanks to the food industry), and is extremely difficult to change. Dr. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the F.D.A., examines the cycle of overeating in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Kessler explains how the right combination of sugar, fat and salt creates foods with "hyperpalatability," meaning they stimulate the appetite. When we eat these foods, our brain chemistry changes, causing these foods to become highly rewarding stimuli, which reinforces our desire for them. The more we eat, the more our desire is reinforced, until eventually a habit is formed and we become stuck in a cycle of overeating. The food industry knows this and specifically engineers food to manipulate our desire. He speaks with numerous people involved in the food industry who readily admit this. It is frightening to realize that the food industry has essentially trained us just like lab rats are trained to go after food pellets. In the second half of the book, Kessler explains that in order to break this cycle of overeating, we must reverse the habit, which is extremely difficult to do. He outlines the steps necessary to achieve this and provides tips for "food rehab."

While the book is very "science-y," citing many animal studies and discussing brain chemistry, it is fascinating. For people who think that turning down a Twinkie is just a matter of willpower, this book explains how wrong that idea is. Understanding the science behind why we overeat is very empowering and will help people think about food in a new way. I do wish that the Food Rehab section had been a little clearer and more accessible, but readers will pick up some good tips. I've read a lot of books about food, so the evils of the food industry were not entirely new to me. But this book really made me angry. Big Food: you are now on my List!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What the Dead Know

The plot of Laura Lippman's novel, What the Dead Know, is a good one. When a woman is arrested for a hit-and-run accident, she identifies herself as Heather Bethany. But Heather and her sister Sunny disappeared 30 years ago from a shopping mall. When questioned further, "Heather" refuses to provide any more information on what happened to her or where she has been. Detective Kevin Infante, assigned to investigate the woman, is skeptical of her claim that she is the missing girl. The little information Heather provides Infante leads to nothing but dead ends. With the help of the retired cop who originally worked the case, and Heather and Sunny's mother Miriam, Infante slowly begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This is certainly an edge-of-your-seat story. I listened to the audiobook version, so I didn't have the ability to peak at the ending, which I would have done if I had the print version. I could not wait to find out who this mysterious woman was, where she had been, and why she had never come forward. I was disappointed with the level of character development though. Lippman does a good job with the girls' parents, but none of the other characters really stand out. The narrative also moves back and forth in time, which was a bit confusing. When Heather finally reveals what happened to her, the story is a little far-fetched, but overall this is a gripping story.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Put the candy bar down!

David Zinczenko's latest book in the Eat This, Not That! series is the Supermarket Survival Guide. The first book in this series, which mainly focused on restaurant food, was a huge eye-opener. The Supermarket Survival Guide also provides some shocking information that will really make you take another look at the foods you are buying. When analyzing foods, Zinczenko not only looks at calories, fat, sodium, sugars, etc., but also at other added ingredients, such as colorings and other additives. To put things in perspective, he also provides food equivalents for many items. For example, did you know that a Twix candy bar is equivalent to 11 strips of bacon!! And 1 can of Arizona's Kiwi Strawberry juice is equivalent to 7 bowls of Fruit Loops! I know I will think twice the next time I'm drooling over the Twix bars in the checkout line. He also has a section titled "Making Sense of Meat" which explains the numerous claims on our packages of meat, such as "air chilled" and "organic." There is also a chapter on fruits and veggies-when they are in season, how to pick good ones, how to store them, and the health benefits of each. The food additive glossary at the end also explains what all those additional ingredients in your food really are, and what kind of effect they have on your health. This is an extremely useful book for those who want to know what is really in the foods they are buying from the grocery store. I'm going to buy this one for my personal collection.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

All the latest...

I hope everyone will take a moment to send out some good thoughts for writer Frank McCourt, who is undergoing treatment for melanoma. His brother Malachy says his cancer is in remission and he is doing well. I love love love Frank McCourt and I hope he is well.

Alice Munro was the 2009 Man Booker International Prize winner. This award is given every two years and is based on the author's entire body of work rather than a single title.

Fox is acquiring rights to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series to develop as a vehicle for Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie as Kay Scarpetta? I'm not sure I see it.

Miramax and Focus have acquired rights to remake the French version of Tell No One, based on the novel by Harlan Coben.

A TV series is being developed based on the books Eat This, Not That! I thought the first book, a guide for restaurants, was fantastic and I'm currently reading the supermarket version, so I'm excited to hear about this show. I think it's a great idea.

The Illinois Senate unanimously passed the Elected Officials Misconduct Forfeiture Act and the bill is headed to Governor Pat Quinn to sign. The bill requires elected officials to "forfeit any monetary rights derived from any book, movie, television, radio program, or Internet depiction or detailing of the crime for which he or she was convicted." This means former governor Rod Blagojevich will be prevented from using his six figure book deal with Phoenix Books, if he is convicted for misconduct. Now, I'm no fan of Blagojevich, and I'm not a legal expert, but can they do this? It doesn't seem like this would be constitutional or legal or kosher or whatever. But this raises a good question-should criminals be allowed to profit from their crimes by selling their stories?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mating Rituals of the North American W.A.S.P.

Sometimes, nothing hits the spot like a good predictable chick lit novel. Mating Rituals of the North American W.A.S.P. by Lauren Lipton is just that. When Peggy wakes up one morning in the Las Vegas hotel room of a stranger after a drunken night of partying, she hopes to forget the whole incident. Not so fast...after she gets home to New York, she receives a call from Luke, the man from Las Vegas. It turns out that Peggy and Luke, under the influence of a lot of alcohol, tied the knot. Both hope that a quick and quiet annulment can be arranged, but when Luke's aging great-aunt finds out about the marriage, she is determined to keep the two together. Luke is the last member of the Sedgwick family, an old Connecticut family that can trace its roots back to the Pilgrims. Aunt Abigail desperately wants Luke to marry and have children to carry on the family name. Abigail offers Luke and Peggy a deal: stay married for one year, then Luke will inherit the 200+ year old family home (which he can sell for a nice profit). Luke, desperate to sell the family home, and Peggy, who needs the money to keep her fledgling business afloat, decide to pretend to be married just long enough to get the home, after which they will sell the home, split the profit and each go on their own way.

You can see what's coming. It's completely predictable, but it's a fun romance, with endearing characters, a charming small-town setting, and a sticky love triangle. This was a great book to spend a day on the couch in my PJs with. And since this is the first fiction book that I've finished in a while, I consider it a success.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Wisconsin Death Trip

I mentioned in an earlier post that Robert Golrick's new novel A Reliable Wife was influenced by a photo essay he read in the 1970s called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. Golrick's description of the book as "a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century" really intrigued me. His book left such an impression on me, I was eager to see these images that inspired the story.

Lesy's book consists of photographs that were taken by Charles Van Schaick of the residents of Black River Falls, Wisconsin over the period of 1885 to 1899. According to the introduction, many historians believe that a major psychic crisis was occurring in Americans' lives during the 1890s. There was a surge in suicides, murders, fires, and overall "degeneracy." Lesy includes clippings from the local paper as well as records from the state insane asylum reporting these events. The combination of the photos and the clippings are meant to illustrate the psychology of the people in this particular time and place.

The news clippings are quite extraordinary. So many notices of deaths, murders, suicides, arson, bankruptcies, layoffs, crimes, and people committed to the asylum. It is definitely haunting. What is interesting is how matter-of-fact the notices were. Consider:
"Charles Gregory of Sheboygan Falls, while jumping on a moving freight...was run
over...the top of his head [was] taken off and his brains strewn on the track."
That's it. No added commentary. No interviews with bystanders. When something like that happens today, it's the highlight of the nightly news. Bystanders are interviewed. Experts are questioned. Drama is encouraged. But these notices seem to indicate that these were everyday occurrences and people were not shocked by them. The photos are also fantastic. Women in their austere clothes and hairstyles. Men with their crazy beards and mustaches. I love looking at old photos. While I liked both the photos and the clippings on their own, what I really would have preferred were descriptions of the people in the pictures. Who were these people? What were they doing? Why were they getting their picture taken? Or pictures of the people mentioned in the clippings. What did the window-breaking woman look like? Or how about some pictures of the asylum? Lesy's combination of these particular photos with these stories were not as effective as I had hoped, but still an interesting portrait of life during this time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Graphically Challenged

I've never really understood the appeal of graphic novels for adults. I can understand why kids like them. I read a few as a kid, but as I got older I became less and less interested. Nevertheless, in an effort to broaden my reading, I read my first adult graphic novel. Bill Willingham's Fables series can be described as a darker, more adult take on the classic fairy tales we grew up with. This is exactly why I loved Gregory Maguire's Wicked and Mirror, Mirror, so this sounded like a good fit for my tastes. The series is about the characters (or Fables) of Fairyland, who have been driven out of their homeland by the evil Adversary. The Fables are living in exile in a clandestine community in Manhattan. In 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Snow White visits Arabia as an emissary to convince the Sultan to stand with them against the Adversary. Snow entertains the Sultan with stories about the Fables. We hear stories about the Big Bad Wolf, King Cole, the frog prince and even Snow White herself. I enjoyed it. I did have some difficulties figuring out how to read it. Do I look at the pictures first or do I read the print first? It was a little distracting, but I understand that's common for people who aren't used to reading graphic novels. But the stories were interesting. Quite dark, which I liked. The stories were fairly short, so you can read one in a sitting. The artwork was fantastic. Each story was illustrated by a different artist, so each one has a very different feel and style of its own. I think it's an interesting concept and I'd like to read the first book in the series, in which the characters must adapt to life in 21st century Manhattan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The last refuge of the mentally destitute...

I'm re-reading W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil for a book discussion and just came across what I think is the best line...

"A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, he told her, to which she retorted that a proverb was the last refuge of the mentally destitute."

Is that not the best line ever? I have got to get that embroidered on a pillow.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reading at the Table: The Hungry Planet

One of my favorite parts on MTV Cribs was when the celebrity would show the contents of their refrigerator(s). I liked to see what the super-fit athletes and the super-skinny actresses were eating. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's Hungry Planet: What the World Eats is like a look inside the refrigerators of the rest of the world. The authors visited 30 families in 24 countries to explore the differences in the way we eat. Each family was photographed with a display of all the foods they eat in an entire week. The book is a compilation of these photographs, as well as brief descriptions of each family's daily life. As Marion Nestle points out in the Foreword, the pictures clearly reflect that although the world produces more than enough food for everyone, its distribution is anything but equal. The photo of the Sudanese family living in a refugee camp in Chad with their meager rations is shameful. The contrasting pictures of the families in rural and urban China also show how diets change as people acquire more resources. But it's also quite a eye-opener to see how differently we eat from most of the rest of the world. While we buy a lot of packaged foods and go for the cheap, easy, fast options, people in other countries rely primarily on fresh fruits and veggies, grains, and home-cooked meals. No wonder why the U.S. is known for its obesity problems. The book also contains a lot of statistics which are fascinating to compare. While I thought the U.S. would be the clear winner when it came to obesity, Kuwait actually beats us by about 2%. What's going on there? It's definitely not a country I had pegged for obesity problems. But the U.S. has the highest rate of meat consumption and the highest sugar/sweetener supply. Aside from the food, the book also gives a good sense of how people in other countries live and what their daily lives are like. It is such an interesting read and well worth a look.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

And the winner is...

A number of book awards have been given out recently.

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced in April. Marilynne Robinson's Home won the fiction award and Zoƫ Ferraris's Finding Nouf won the first fiction award.

Ursula K. LeGuin won the Nebula Award for her novel Powers.

Cormac McCarthy won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for lifetime achievement in American literature. This is the second year the PEN American center has given the $25,000 award, which recognizes excellence, ambition and scale of achievement over a sustained career.

Carol Ann Duffy was recently named the new poet laureate in England. Over its 340 year history, Duffy is the first woman to be given the honor.

The James Beard Foundation recently announced its 2009 book awards. The cookbook of the year went to Jennifer McLagan for Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. Martha Hall Foose won in the American Cooking category for Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook.

Ian R. MacLeod won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction for his novel Song of Time.

The Mystery Writers of America presented the 2009 Edgar Award to C. J. Box for his novel Blue Heaven.

Louise Penny's The Cruelest Month won the Agatha Award for best novel.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reading at the Table: Food Matters

In Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food, he sums up his advice for the proper diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Mark Bittman's new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating espouses essentially the same thing, except it includes a few recipes. Bittman is a New York Times columnist and has written several cookbooks, such as How to Cook Everything. But his latest book seems like it was just an attempt to jump on the Green food bandwagon and publish a book. His message is basically the same as Pollan's (and many others): Americans eat too much meat and refined carbs which has a negative impact on our health and weight, and the mass production of meat has a negative impact on the environment. He briefly covers how the industrialization of food production has led to overconsumption (which has been aided by our government). He proposes that if Americans cut 1/3 of the meat they currently eat, eliminate junk foods, eat fewer refined carbs, and eat more veggies/fruits/grains, we will loose weight, become healthier and our environmental impact will be lessened. While I don't disagree with anything he is saying, there really isn't anything new in this book. This is a very basic introduction to "food politics" and would be perfect for anyone that has been living in a cave for the last few years. If he had published this book 3-5 years ago, he would have been bringing something new and fresh to readers, but if you've read Pollan or Nestle or any of the many other books on this topic, this one really isn't worth your time. The recipes seem a bit mundane also, but Bittman's recipes tend to be very basic and low-frill anyway. I did learn one cool thing: Did you know that you can pop regular popcorn in a brown bag in your microwave? He has a recipe for Brown Bag Popcorn, which I'm excited to try. I always figured you had to have one of those special poppers to pop plain corn, so I've been using those microwaveable bags with all the additives and fake flavors. But no, just some plain corn, a little salt and oil, and small brown paper bag is all you need. Cheaper and healthier-a very good tip.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Country Businessman Seeks Reliable Wife

I love historical fiction, but the early 1900's in a remote Wisconsin town in the dead of winter didn't really sound like my cup of tea. But Robert Goolrick's novel A Reliable Wife is quickly becoming the book to read this spring. It has gotten a lot of buzz and good reviews, so I figured I ought to see what all the fuss is about. And...wow.

Set in northern Wisconsin in 1907, Ralph Truitt has been alone for 20 years. Plagued by despair and loneliness, Truitt decides that he does not want to be alone anymore. He places a personal ad for a wife and chooses Catherine Land from the responses. When Catherine steps off the train, Truitt knows immediately that she is not who she claims to be. I will not say any more so as to not give away too much of the plot, but it was a fantastic read. There is a beautiful paragraph towards the end that I think really sums up the feeling of the novel without giving anything away:

"It was a story of people who don't choose life over death until it's too late to know the difference, people whose goodness is forgotten, left behind like a child's toy in a dusty playroom, people who see many things and remember only a handful of them and learn from even fewer, people who hurt themselves, who wreck their own lives and then go on to wreck the lives of those around them, who cannot be helped or assuaged by love or kindness or luck or charm, who forget kindness, the feeling and practice of it, and how it can save even the worst, most mishappen life from despair. It was just a story about despair."

While I usually prefer happier fair, this was such an absorbing story. The characters are so flawed, but so real. And despite their flaws, they are incredibly interesting. The plot is unpredictable and the writing is quite good (see paragraph above). There is also some good fodder here for book groups, but there is quite a bit of sex, so keep that in mind. Goolrick says in the author's note that this book was influenced by a photo essay he read in 1973 called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. He says this book paints "a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century." You know I'll be checking that out. Stay tuned.