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.