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.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading at the Table: The Compassionate Carnivore

Just like Nina Planck's Real Food, Catherine Friend's The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint and Still Eat Meat will not be earth-shattering information if you've been keeping up on food politics. Much of the information about factory farming practices was not new to me, but it is still heavy reading. I had to take a break while reading because I just couldn't stand to read anymore about it. But what I loved about this book is Friend's perspective on ethical eating is much more realistic than many others. First off, Friend is firm in her decision to continue eating meat. She readily admits that she enjoys meat and has no plans to quit eating it, while many others think that vegetarianism is the only way to fight factory farming. Friend also recognizes that eating "happy meat" is difficult. She recognizes that it is more costly and more difficult to find and sometimes it's just easier to close your eyes and buy the cheaper meat. She also recognizes that there will be times when we must eat factory meat, like at a restaurant or a family gathering. She admits that she doesn't eat this way all the time, but makes an effort to eat this way most of the time. She and her partner have their own small farm, where they raise sheep and chicken, so she is familiar with farming practices and lingo and she explains the differences in labeling terms (organic, free-range, vegetarian-fed, pastured, finished, etc). She also provides suggestions on how to find sources for happy meat and what questions to ask the farmers and butchers. A good resource for those who are interested in eating ethically.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading at the Table: Real Food

If you've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, much of Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why will not be new information. But I did pick up a few new things and it is an interesting read, even though I'm skeptical about some of her beliefs. Planck argues that much of the food we eat today is "industrialized food." Industrialized food is a replica of real food, such as margarine, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Eating all this industrialized food has led to health issues and obesity. She argues that we should be eating "real" meat such as real beef from cows that have been grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed. Again, nothing new here. But, I did learn that the term "cage-free" and "vegetarian-fed" with regards to chicken is very misleading. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians because they eat grubs and worms when they are allowed outdoors. If a chicken is labeled as vegetarian-fed, it usually means they have not had access to the outdoors. And "cage-free" does not necessarily mean they have been allowed access to the outdoors either. They may all be cageless, but still kept in a large building. The key is to look for "pastured" chickens, meaning that they have been raised with access to the outdoors. Good to know. I also learned that salmon farming in Alaska has been banned, so all Alaskan salmon is wild, which is useful information when I'm trying to remember what fish is ok to eat. She provides a great list of which fruits and vegetables you should buy organic and which ones are ok to buy conventional. She also provides several resources for finding "real food." Where I disagree with Planck is her aversion to low-fat dairy. She believes that raw, unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk is the way to go. No low-fat milk or cheese for her. While I agree that the taste is far superior than the low-fat versions, I'm not convinced that it is healthier. And if I lived on a farm, raw milk would be ideal, but I would be really hesitant to drink raw milk otherwise. She's also a proponent for using real lard, which makes my arteries constrict just thinking about it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

All the Latest...

Elizabeth Strout's novel Olive Kitteridge has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Annette Gordon-Reed's book The Hemingses of Monticello has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

The America Booksellers Association has announced the winners of its Indies Choice Awards. For Best Indie Buzz Book (Fiction): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. For Best Conversation Starter (Nonfiction): The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. For Best Author Discovery: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. For Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book (Fiction): The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

British novelist J. G. Ballard died this Sunday, April 19th. Ballard was probably best known for his novel Crash, an exploration of sexual fetishism connected to automobile accidents, and his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, about his childhood internment by the Japanese during World War II.

The American Library Association has released its list of most challenged books of 2008. Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner makes the list and Tango Makes Three tops the list again.

In publishing news...Dan Brown's long-awaited continuation of the Robert Langdon series will be released September 15th and is titled The Lost Symbol. The publisher will print 5 million copies in the first printing. Kate Jacobs' third novel in her Knitting Club series will be released in November and is titled Knit the Season. Stephen King's next novel will also be released in November. Under the Dome is a story about a small town in Maine that is mysteriously sealed off from the rest of the world by a dome. The novel comes in at about 1000 pages and took King 25 years to write. Hugo Award-winner Greg Bear will be writing a trilogy based on the popular video game Halo. Margaret Drabble claims she is retiring from writing.

In movie news...film rights for Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger have been sold. Nicole Kidman is said to be bidding on rights to Chris Cleave's Little Bee. Brad Pitt's production company is producing the adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts. Peter Jackson is directing the adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. He says that this is one of his most difficult movies to date. Really? More difficult than all the orcs, elves, hobbits, wizards and magical rings? Warner Brothers decided to give Harry Potter fans a break and release Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince two days early. The film will now open July 15th instead of the 17th. The Soloist, based on Steve Lopez's novel, will open this weekend, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

How dysfunctional is your reading? Take this quiz at the Guardian to find out. I'm borderline.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reading at the Table: Bottomfeeder

The popularity of the Green movement has led to a huge increase in "green" books, especially regarding food. In the past few years, books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Marion Nestle's Food Politics and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation have become incredibly popular and have led to the publication of many other titles that examine the physical, ethical and environmental impact of food. In preparation for an upcoming book talk, I have been reading quite a few of these books, so I will be blogging about them over the next few weeks.

When it comes to seafood, I know there are some fish you should avoid, but I can never remember which ones. Or why. Taras Grescoe covers everything you need to know about seafood in his book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. Grescoe explains the various reasons we need to be careful about the type of fish we consume. With regards to environmental impact, many species have been overfished and many methods of capture are harmful to the ocean. Farmed fish often have a very negative impact on the environment as well. With regards to health, some species have higher levels of mercury, and some farmed fish have high levels of antibiotics and other contaminants. Grescoe very clearly outlines the issues and at the end provides a breakdown of what is and is not OK to eat.* Fascinating information about the seafood industry and fishing practices. The figures and statistics are staggering and will surely make you think twice the next time you eat fish. This is a great read for someone who wants to eat more conscientiously. And if you don't care, then you really need to read this book.

*Basically: the larger, longer-lived species of fish such as grouper and swordfish have been overfished and have higher levels of mercury. These are big no-no's. Most of the fish in the Atlantic ocean has been overfished as well, so go with Pacific. Farmed fish is usually ok if it's organic. Wild-caught is often ok if it is "local," meaning North America. Many other countries continue to overfish and use catch methods that are destructive to the ocean environment. The good news: the wild-caught Alaskan salmon is all good.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ice Ice Baby

Since the 1100's, the Thames River has frozen solid 40 times. Each chapter in Helen Humphreys's short book The Frozen Thames tells a brief story about each occasion of freezing. Humphreys imagines the people who lived and worked on the river over the centuries, as well as the people who profited from and found enjoyment in the freezing of the river. Although the stories are fiction, Humphrey mentions that most of the incidents she fictionalizes are based on documented events. I loved the pictures of what life was like throughout the centuries, and the descriptions of the ice and the freezing temperatures were enough to make me shiver. Believe me, the irony here is not lost on me. For all the complaining I have been doing about the lingering winter, I realized how odd it was that I was reading a book about a frozen river. But her images of birds dropping frozen and dead out of the sky and families with little or no heat reminded me that it could have been worse. In the author's note, Humphreys points out that because of climate change, we are in danger of losing ice from our world. Which may be the case, but it doesn't sound like that is the reason why the Thames has not frozen since the 1800s. The construction of the old London Bridge was such that it created an environment more susceptible to freezing. Whereas, when the Bridge was rebuilt in 1831, its new design enabled water to flow more freely and quickly, which made it less likely to freeze. Anyhow, it's a quick read with interesting stories and wonderful descriptions. Maybe save this one for a hot July day.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Time of Death: Page 133

Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients sounds like the perfect read for me: "...the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class....One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian’s food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen." Fiction and food almost always equal a winning recipe for me, but not this time. I started with the audio version of the book. Cassandra Campbell is a wonderful narrator and I've enjoyed listening to her before, but even her lovely voice could not make up for the annoying writing. Bauermeister seems to love similes and metaphors, using them in what seems like every other sentence. I went back to the print version and started counting--on average there are about 2 similes per page. Which probably wouldn't be so noticeable, except most of them are just ridiculous. Just to give you a taste:

"She shook the last of the water from the potatoes. The skins came off easily, like a shawl sliding off a woman's shoulders."

Ugh. After a while I found myself only half-listening and by mid-way through the book I realized I did not want to listen to this anymore. But, because I was determined to finish the book, I thought I would at least skim the rest of the print. The individual stories of the students in the class aren't bad, and I found myself wanting to find out what had brought them to this cooking class, until I got to Tom's story. Tom was deeply in love with his wife, who died of cancer. For a moment I thought I might actually continue reading after I read this moving paragraph:

"After the weeks and months of watching, of life suspended in the bottomless well of Charlie's illness, the world seemed absurdly practical. There were bills to pay, a lawn to mow...Incoming phone calls reverted to casual check-ins from friends; no longer was he the source of grim updates. The hand-delivered meals from helpful neighbors slowed and then disappeared. He went to the grocery store without wondering if she would be there when he returned, the churning in his stomach replaced by a more certain and deeper ache. She was nowhere and everywhere, and he couldn't stop looking."

But on page 133, the ridiculousness returns and that did it for me. If you really want to know what happens, you can read the book, but let's just say that it was the manner in which Tom disposes of his wife's ashes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Listening is an Act of Love

Last week I was worried about the survival of our letters and stories, so it's appropriate that I just read our community's latest selection for One Book One Zip Code, Listening is an Act of Love, which is a collection of the most memorable stories from the StoryCorps collection. StoryCorps is the country's largest oral history project and has collected thousands of stories from people across the country. This is not a book I ever would have read if it weren't for OBOZ. And, to be honest, I've kind of been putting off reading it. I'm not really sure why, but the description just didn't hook me. But almost as soon as I began reading it, I was hooked. When someone participates in StoryCorps, they sit down with someone they love and tell a story. Maybe a story from their childhood. Maybe something about their parents or grandparents. Maybe a story about their career. The stories are very short-usually 3-4 pages, so they read very quickly. Some are humorous, some are sentimental, and some are downright sad. But they are captivating. In the introduction, the editor Dave Isay says that "our stories-the stories of everyday people-are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we're bombarded with by the media every minute of the day." And in one story, a participant also says "that's the key, I think-listening to the stories of the people who are so essential but not often seen...they don't realize how rich their lives are and how rich their stories are." How true. It's a wonderful reminder that everyone has a story, and regardless of who you are, those stories are important and should be told. A wonderful read.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Duchess

Gambling addictions, eating disorders, drug use, all-night parties, and infidelity. Does this sound like the latest edition of E! News? While we are accustomed to hearing about this sort of behavior from the Hollywood set, most of us don’t think of these things happening amongst the aristocrats of the 18th century. But it turns out that things weren’t so different back then. Lady Georgiana Spencer married the Duke of Devonshire in 1774 at the age of 17. Her elevation to Duchess immediately made her one of the wealthiest and most influential members of the ton. Her fashions set the standard, and her involvement in politics was a first for women at the time. But as they say, money can’t buy everything. Despite her wealth and fame, Georgiana’s personal life was plagued by addictions and heartbreak. Her marriage was a political alliance, not a union of love, and her distant, unfaithful husband left her desperate for love and affection. Her husband’s family frequently criticized her for failing to conceive a male heir, and when her husband took her best friend as his mistress, Georgiana was heartbroken. To escape her pain and loneliness, she turned to drugs and gambling, running up enormous debts.

Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire chronicles Georgiana’s rise to fame, as well as the demons she faced in her personal life. Foreman draws on an abundance of primary sources to recreate the lives of these wealthy aristocrats. Numerous letters between Georgiana and her mother, as well as Bess (her best friend and husband’s mistress) have survived and provide much of the insight into what Georgiana was thinking and feeling at the time. Foreman also quotes from the daily newspapers, which followed the movements of Georgiana and her contemporaries much like People magazine does with today’s celebrities. The narrative does get bogged down from time to time with Foreman’s description of politics. Georgiana was heavily involved in the Whig party, so it is expected that the author would include some discussion of this topic. However, she provides a depth of detail on the rival parties, their histories, and their members that may be more than the average reader really wants to know. Because I was more interested in Georgiana’s relationships, I skimmed over much of the politics to get to the good stuff. But overall, Foreman paints a vivid portrait of 18th century aristocratic society and provides an intimate look at a fascinating woman.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The lost art of the letter

So, I'm working on a review of Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire (which I will have for you tomorrow) and so much of it is based on the numerous letters that Georgiana wrote to her mother, her sister and her friends. This is the case with many biographies of people who lived long ago. We use their letters to learn about their lives: what they were thinking and feeling, what was happening, what life was like, etc. And I'm just thinking, how will future generations learn about our lives? Who writes letters anymore? When was the last time you wrote (with pen and paper) an actual letter that you stamped and put in the mail? (Thank-you notes to your grandmother don't count.) But an actual, wordy letter that describes what is going on in your life? Cheaper telephone rates make it so much easier to just pick up the phone and call someone. But most of my communications these days are by email, text, or instant message, and those are usually quick, 2-3 sentence messages that I don't even bother to punctuate. And while a physical letter can be saved for as long as the paper holds up, how will emails be saved? Is Google archiving every single email I send, so that 200 years from now some researcher will see the emails I sent to my husband asking if he fed the dog, or my girlfriends on where to eat dinner? Maybe this blog will still be floating around out there in Internet space. But if someone wants to know more about the person who wrote this blog, how will they find out? There's not much of a paper trail. With all the wonderful technology that we have at our disposal for communication, I worry about the permanence of our personal stories. Thoughts?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Woe is me...and some other stuff

I apologize again for the lack of posts lately. My reading slump continues and I feel as if I have nothing clever to say about anything. I finished 4 books during the month of March, which for me is terrible. It feels like forever since I last finished an audiobook. I am slowly working my way through Amanda Foreman's The Duchess, which is fascinating, but dense. I've started the audiobook for Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients, but it's driving me nuts so it's only a matter of time before I give up. I'm a little worried about the length of time this slump has gone on. I know it wasn't nearly this long last year, so I'm nervous that maybe this isn't just a slump. Maybe Google really has made me stupid. What do I do?

In the meantime, here are some things you may find of interest...

Al Gore has written a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth titled Our Choice. While An Inconvenient Truth was focused on spreading the truth about global warming, his latest book will offer ways that we can fix the problem. Due out in November.

Science fiction writer Robert Jordan, who passed away in 2007, left the last installment of his Wheel of Time series unfinished. The novel has been finished by Brandon Sanderson and will be published in three separate volumes. The first volume is due out in November.

An assistant of the late Michael Crichton found a completed manuscript in Crichton's computer files titled Pirate Latitudes. The adventure story is set in 17th century Jamaica and will be published in November.

Andy Garcia is co-writing and directing a movie about the last years of Ernest Hemingway's life. Anthony Hopkins and Annette Bening are in the running to star. How great would that be? They would be perfect for those roles.

Fox has acquired film rights to adapt Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. This will not be a documentary, but a fictional feature based on the ideas in Weisman's book showing an event that would lead to man's disappearance. How uplifting.

Sana Krasikov's collection of stories titled One More Year has won the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for emerging writers of Jewish literature. Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz, has won the $25,000 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award.

The Bookstall in Winnetka has several very famous authors coming this month, including Alexander McCall Smith on April 29th! Take a look at their website for a list of all the authors appearing.