Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fat: It's for dinner.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine named the worst cookbooks of the year with regards to health. Included on the list are Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen: Recipes from the F-Word, Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That, Trisha Yearwood's Home Cooking, Top Chef's How to Cook Like a Top Chef (bacon doughnuts!), and Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint Cookbook. The Physicians Committee says that these cookbooks are the worst for containing artery-clogging recipes that include high-fat ingredients, such as bacon, cream, butter, etc.

Now, none of these chefs or cooks claim to be promoting healthy lifestyles. I know when I pick up a Barefoot Contessa cookbook that I'm not going to be getting low-cal recipes. And Gordon Ramsay is a professionally trained chef. What do you expect? They don't use skim milk and margarine in their recipes. But, is it just me or does it seem like quite a few cookbooks and cooking magazines are including ingredients that for the last 10+ years were viewed as no-no's? It seems like Cooking Light magazine has been putting more sugar and butter/cream cheese/cream, etc. back into their recipes (albeit still in moderation). Even Jamie Oliver, who is big on healthy, uses ingredients like blue cheese and bacon and has a recipe for fried pork skin in his new cookbook Jamie's America. (He does encourages readers to pair his recipes with a salad and to use rich ingredients only occasionally and in moderation.)

The Physician's Committee doesn't mention what cookbooks they did like, but I think Mark Bittman's Food Matters Cookbook has wonderful, simple, healthy recipes that emphasize a variety of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal meat. I wonder how the Physicians Committee felt about Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagen....

Monday, December 20, 2010


I have a terrible sweet tooth, but I outgrew my love for most candies like Sprees, Jolly Ranchers, Nerds, Sweet Tarts, etc. when I became an adult. Now I just have an intense passion for chocolate and baked goods. But Steve Almond is a true candy addict. His book Candyfreak is like food porn. He waxes poetic about a number of candies he remembers from his youth and bemoans his favorites that no longer exist. His life-long love for candy inspired him to travel around the country visiting candy factories and meeting other candyfreaks, historians and collectors. He even bought several cases of Kit Kat Darks to ensure that he would have a lasting supply. While it is an interesting and enjoyable read, I do take issue with him on one point. There are a few candies that he refers to as MWMs (Mistakes Were Made), such as Twizzlers, Chuckles, and white chocolate ("a scourge visited upon us by the inimical forces of Freak Evil.") So true. But he also includes Peeps and Circus Peanuts on his list of MWMs! Peeps are the best candy ever! How can a candy connoisseur not love Peeps?!? I suppose Circus Peanuts are an acquired taste, but oh, how I love them. What are some of your favorite candies from childhood? Are they still around and do you still eat them? What candies do you miss the most? I miss Velamints. My grandmother always used to carry them and they remind me of her. I think you can still get them, but I have no idea where. I never see them in stores.

Here is an interesting tidbit: Remember Pop Rocks? Pop Rocks contains sugar, corn syrup, flavor and coloring, and carbon dioxide gas compressed at 600 pounds per square inch! Yikes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why give a book? Because a tie never changed anyone's life.

Since I haven't been reading much in the way of fiction this year, I don't have a list of my favorite fiction reads for the year. But I thought I would put together a list of my favorite foodie books that I read this year. The suggestions range from history to food politics to cookbooks. These would be great gifts for the foodie in your life!

The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century
by Amanda Hesser
-Hesser, a food columnist for the New York Times, has updated and compiled more than 1,000 of the best recipes from the past 150 years. It's a hefty one, but the title says it all: it's essential.

The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion by Bill Yosses
-Yosses is the executive pastry chef for the White House. This is a mouth-watering collection of sweets with gorgeous full-color photos. I'll be honest: I've never tried any of the recipes. I just like reading them and looking at the photos. Food porn for dessert lovers.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
by Anthony Bourdain
-Anthony Bourdain. Enough said.

Fannie's Last Supper : Re-Creating One Amazing Meal From Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook
by Christopher Kimball
-Fannie Farmer was the author of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which was first published in 1896. Christopher Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine. When he attempts to re-create a meal using recipes from Farmer's cookbook, he goes through quite an ordeal to get it just right.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in one New York Tenement
by Jane Ziegelman
-This book traces the social history and culinary revolution of immigrant life through the histories of five families who all lived at 97 Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, between 1863 and 1935. Fascinating reading for history and foodie buffs.

The Dog Who Ate the Truffle : A Memoir of Stories and Recipes from Umbria
by Suzanne Carreiro
Carreiro's reflections on life in Umbria aren't as poetic as Frances Mayes's Tuscany books, but this is still a wonderful memoir about life in Italy. Carreiro meets wonderful "characters," learns to cook traditional Umbrian food, and yes, goes truffle hunting with a dog who eats the truffles. Also, I would buy this book just for the recipes. Simple, delicious, traditional Umbrian recipes.

Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman's Sweet Journey from Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker by Gesine Bullock-Prado (this was retitled as My Life From Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time when it was released in trade paperback.)
-Bullock-Prado is the sister of Sandra Bullock. Fed up with Hollywood, she leaves her career as the head of her sister's production company to move to Vermont and open her own bakery. A humorous and touching story filled with recipes from her bakery.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter
-A resident of Oakland, California, Novella decides to become an urban farmer, squat gardening in an abandoned lot and keeping chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, bees and even pigs in her back yard. Interesting, humorous, and a wonderful read.

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do
by Gabriel Thompson
-Gabriel set out to investigate jobs that are traditionally done by immigrants, which happen to be food related. Gabriel's experiences harvesting lettuce, working in a chicken processing plant, and delivering food illustrate how the food industry treats its workers. A great read for those interested in food politics.

The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated
-Ok, so it's from 2004, but I just got this one and it's become my new go-to cookbook. It has all the basics, and the numerous recipe testings and lengthy explanations we expect from Cook's Illustrated. I've made a very successful pumpkin cheesecake and the best creamy tomato soup I have ever eaten.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Great Zamperini

Laura Hillenbrand, author of the wonderful book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, has finally released a new book: Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I didn't know much about it, other than it was about a soldier whose plane crashed in the ocean and he survived several days at sea. Interesting? Sure. But it didn't sound that enticing. Strangely, it was Runner's World magazine that piqued my interest in this book. The latest issue profiles the book and Louie Zamperini, the soldier whose plane crashed into the Pacific, survived 47 days at sea, multiple shark attacks and two years in a Japanese slave labor camp. Before that, Louie was a runner and participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Louie is 93 today and still active. He can still run, just not far. What an amazing story. Be sure to put this one on hold-I did!

On another note, the Runner's World article also mentions Laura Hillenbrand's struggle with severe vertigo and chronic fatigue. Apparently it's incredibly disabling for her. She researched and wrote both of her books from home because she is not able to get out much. It took her seven years to write this latest story. Who knew?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Running with Magazines

After Monday's post on Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, our trusty Reference Librarian told me that we have a subscription to Runner's World magazine and suggested I check it out. This month's issue happened to have a feature article on Lisa Smith-Batchen, who is an ultrarunner and recently became the first person to run 50 50-mile runs, one in each state. Back to back. That's 2500 miles! She went through 18 pairs of running shoes and 5 pairs of Crocs and consumed 6000 calories a day. So amazing. And so inspiring. I went on to find several other athletes in this magazine that are such inspiring characters: the servicewoman who lost her vision from a virus she contracted while serving in Iraq and went on to run again (with her seeing-eye dog) or the man who has set numerous running records as a single-leg amputee.

And it's not all for serious, long-distance runners. There are plenty of articles about eating right, staying healthy, and tips for beginning runners. I think I've found another magazine to add to my monthly pile!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Born to Run

I recently started running and am currently training for my first 5k. It hasn't been easy. Running has never come easy to me, so when I heard a blurb about Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen that mentioned an Indian tribe that can run hundreds of miles at a time, I thought maybe it would contain some secret that would make running a breeze for me. It didn't. But, it is a fascinating book. The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico are a reclusive tribe of Indians that can run hundreds of miles across desert terrain with ease. McDougall travels to Mexico and sets off into the wild to find this tribe and discover their secrets. Along the way he meets an ex-boxer who has retreated from the world and is living like the Tarahumara, and is introduced to the world of ultra running.

I didn't really learn any secrets that have improved my running. I did get some chia seeds(yes, like the chia pets), which the Tarahumara supposedly eat and credit with their endurance. They aren't bad, but I don't think they are doing much for my running. And I'm not trading in my running shoes for some flimsy sandals. But, the book did introduce me to a whole world of running I never knew existed. There are people (besides the Tarahumara) who actually run 50, 100, even 200 miles or more for fun! It's called ultra running or ultra marathons. Can you imagine? It's fascinating to read about the athletes that train for these runs, what the runs are like and what it can do to your body. So, I'm still struggling with my running and have no desire to ever undertake ultra running, but it is a fascinating and inspiring book. Definitely worth a read, even if you aren't a runner.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Make a difference: VOTE!

Yes, elections are over, and if you're like me, you're probably tired of all the campaign signs and nasty television ads. But, there is another opportunity for you to vote for a great cause. We promise there won't be any mean or snarky ads, just fun pictures!

Out of hundreds of entries, the Deerfield Public Library was selected as one of the Top 10 finalists in the Playaway Picture This Contest! The object of this contest was to submit the most creative pictures of a display promoting Playaways, and Deerfield Public Library was voted a finalist! Online voting begins November 1st, and closes on December 17th, 2010. We need your support and votes to help us win the $10,000 prize for our library, so vote today at http://vote.playaway.com/deerfield

Our children's department is so creative. They come up with the best displays. I love the giant earbuds. I bet they would be the perfect size for Grawp.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Good Novel

Europa Editions, the publisher that brought us The Elegance of the Hedgehog, has published another gem by French author Laurence Cosse, A Novel Bookstore. Ivan and Francesca have opened a unique bookstore called The Good Novel. The Good Novel only stocks good novels. Observe:

"And the more people asked him, Is this good? the bolder he became, going from a hesitant Mmmyeah to an openly disparaging, Not bad, then soon to a frank, Good? It is downright awful. Very quickly the idea of selling books that he himself would not advise people to read infuriated him. By July, when the store opened again for the summer, Ivan had resolved the contradiction. All that remained in his little shop were those books which enchanted him. Van would open the boxfuls of books sent automatically every week by the major publishers, and as soon as he had unpacked them and had a look through, nine times out of ten he put everything back in the box and returned it." [Can you imagine? I need a job at this place!]

But when members of The Good Novel's secret selection committee are suddenly terrorized by thugs, mystery and mayhem ensue. This is another wonderful, subtle French novel, filled with intriguing characters and sly humor.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I've lost my appetite

I've been sifting through a very entertaining book about the history of food in 20th century America, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren. It breaks down the 20th century into decades, discusses what was going on in the country at the time and how that affected what people were eating. It also includes recipes from those periods. Most of them are fun to read, but I just found one from the 1930s that actually made me gag. Enjoy:

Peanut Butter Tea Sandwiches:
1 Cup natural smooth peanut butter
2 Tablespoons ketchup
2 Tablespoons finely chopped sweet pickles
1 loaf white bread, buttered and thinly sliced
1 head iceberg lettuce

"Make a paste of the peanut butter, ketchup, and pickles. [Yep. That's right. A paste of peanut butter and ketchup. Ugh.] Spread on thin slices of bread. Top with a lettuce leaf and another buttered slice of bread. Cut off the crusts and slice the sandwich into three fingers."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Countess

I had never heard of Countess Erzsebet Bathory until I came across her in Dacre Stoker's sequel to Dracula, Dracula: The Un-Dead. In this novel, she is portrayed as a vampire, more evil than Dracula himself; a woman who brutally killed hundreds of young women and drank their blood. It turns out that Countess Bathory did in fact exist. She lived in Hungary from 1560-1614. She was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and was imprisoned and bricked into a room until her death. Legends of her include accounts of her bathing in the blood of virgins, and she has been given nicknames such as the Blood Countess and Countess Dracula. How did I not know about this intriguing person? This story just begs to be told.*

Fortunately, Rebecca Johns has told Erzsebet Bathory's story in her new novel, The Countess, set to be released this month. The novel begins as Erzsebet is being walled inside her castle tower. As she endures her imprisonment, Erzsebet recollects the events of her life: her childhood, her betrothal and marriage to Count Nadasdy, her husband's death and her fear for her and her children's survival. Oh, and her killing of a few maidservants.

The Countess is not a typical bloody, gruesome horror story, which is why I liked it so much. Johns has written an exceptional, well-researched historical novel, slowly building this ominous and creepy tone throughout the story. Her choice of telling the story from Erzsebet's point of view also adds to this feeling. Erzsebet's calm demeanor, downplaying of violence and rationalization of her crimes is chilling. But at times, I found myself empathizing with Erzsebet, unable to believe her capable of such crimes, which I think is a credit to Johns's talent. This is a captivating story that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

*So it turns out that Johns's book is not the only fictionalized account of Bathory. In 2008, Andrei Codrescu published The Blood Countess, which did get some good reviews. Johns also mentions in her acknowledgements that she relied on Tony Thorne's book Countess Dracula: Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. I'm fascinated by Bathory, so I'd like to read them as well.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whatever Sells

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how a book landed in a certain section of the library
(or bookstore); it may even be tough to identify the real author. Libraries and stores, of course, are busy public places, constantly in flux. Where’s the book I want, we ask? The answer so often is that it was moved. Why? So many books, so many categories; or so many books, so little space. And many books, these days, are written by authors (or author teams) using pen names. Figuring it all out can be exhausting.

Take The Housekeeper and the Professor, a first novel by the young Japanese writer
Yoko Ogawa. The book was written by written by a first-time novelist using her own name. It should be simple to find in any bookstore or library, right? Well, the book is a lovely, spare novel that could be read by adults or teens. It also includes more than a small dose of mathematics, right there on the page. So—is it a young adult novel or an adult novel or math book? As those commercials for kitchen choppers and cleaning cloths might say, it’s all three! Really. It is. So the decision is the publisher’s initially. How to market it? Math book? Nope; it’s a novel. For teens or adults? Both, of course, like Harry Potter or Twilight. Well, then, who wants to read a novel with math in it?

Not me, or so I thought until Ogawa captured me with her spare, elegant prose and the reminder that math is really about the symmetry of everything, from a leaf to an archway. Near the end of the novel the professor asks a young boy he has grown to love to picture 1 +1 = 0 this way: one bird lands, and then another. Both fly away, and we are left with sky and a tree and a complicated, imaginary number. Now where to you put a book like that? I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my copy in a backpack these days.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Urban Farming, Part 2

Any romantic notions I've been harboring about starting my own little urban farm have been severely curtailed after reading Manny Howard's memoir, My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm. Novella Carpenter's experience with her Oakland urban farm is uplifting and positive. Although she experiences some difficulties, her farm does fairly well and she has a way of making it seem like anyone could do it. Manny, on the other hand, makes me think "how on earth did I ever think I could do something like this?" Manny undertakes constructing an urban farm in his Brooklyn backyard and is, frankly, terrible at it. While I can chuckle over failed attempts at growing vegetables, I cannot abide the stories of numerous animals dying because he is unprepared and ill-equipped to raise them. But as I read, I realized, this is probably a more realistic example of urban farming than Carpenter's book. Farming, even on a small scale, is not easy and should not be undertaken lightly. Carpenter genuinely seemed to enjoy farming and raising her own food seemed to be a source of pride for her. Her parents did some of their own farming when she was a child, so it wasn't an entirely new concept for her. Whereas Manny took on the task solely because he was paid to do it and write about it. He seems to see this strictly as another "project" rather than having any romantic notions about knowing where his food comes from. Although I liked Carpenter's book better, Manny's story taught me something important: I am not ready for chickens.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Running with Knitting Needles

I can't believe it's been a month since my last post! My apologies, readers. I've been caught up in so many things, time has just gotten away from me. But fortunately I have a number of books to tell you about, so stay tuned!

Since I've been so busy lately, I've been too distracted and tired to read much, so I've been turning more and more to one of my other favorite past-times: knitting. Knitting is something I can do without having to think much and the result is something beautiful, so I find it very relaxing and satisfying. Plus, I can listen to audiobooks at the same time, which makes it even better. I came across Adrienne Martini's memoir Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously and it had a picture of colorful balls of yarn on the cover. For you non-knitters: knitters are easily drawn in by colorful balls of yarn. Like moths to a flame. I was hooked.

But as I was reading, I realized something. I have a number of friends who knit and we knit together regularly. But we don't talk about knitting while we are doing it. We don't debate the merits of various techniques or the history of certain patterns. Why? Because it's boring. In her memoir, Martini chronicles her attempt to knit an intricate sweater using a technique called Fair Isle. To many knitters (and non-knitters) Fair Isle seems quite difficult and can be very intimidating. And the particular pattern she attempts seems impossible for any but the very advanced knitter. So I thought this might be an entertaining and funny story of dropped stitches, misshaped armholes, and fights with the hubby over how much money was being spent on yarn. Meh. She delves into various knitting techniques, the background of Fair Isle knitting and the background of the woman who created this particular sweater pattern. I'm a knitter and I was bored. There were a few parts where she talked about meeting other knitters that was semi-interesting, but that was about it. This is definitely not a book for someone who isn't really, really in to knitting. And even then.... I get that there is something satisfying in reading someone's memoir about something you also enjoy or have also experienced. Cooking? Yes. Running a marathon? Sure. But I don't think it works well with knitting.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vampire Tourism

Even though I’ve read the Twilight series (okay, only the first two) and am aware of the whole vampire craze, I was shocked to see its effect on tourism in the actual towns featured in the books. A waitress from Port Angeles, Washington, recently told me that business has picked up at the local Italian restaurant featured in the book. In fact, some tourists are stopping by to dine with those life-size cutouts of Edward.

I found the whole thing hard to believe, so I decided to check it out for myself when we stopped in another Twilight location: Forks. Sure enough, the town was teeming with vampire fanatics buying up Twilight gear and signing on for Twilight tours. A local real estate brochure encouraged would-be entrepreneurs to buy commercial real estate in the hot new “vampire” area. And (why not?) you can buy “vampire blood” (syrup?) along with your Tully’s coffee at the local café.

The whole thing had me thinking of people who select vacation fiction that features the area where they will be traveling. I’m not that organized, but I did find myself fondly remembering a charming old memoir by Betty MacDonald called Onions in the Stew that details the author’s life with her young daughters on Vashon Island. MacDonald, who died in the late 1950s, was better known for The Egg and I. But her obscure memoir stayed with me for years and sprang to mind as I rode the ferry from Seattle toward the Olympic peninsula.

The amazing trees in Washington’s national parks also reminded me of how much I want to read Timothy Egan’s new book, The Big Burn, about the 1910 forest fire that inspired Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation efforts (in Montana and Idaho, not Washington).

So before you pack that next vacation book, why not consider choosing something related to your destination. Wherever you go, there you are, with a great book in your hand.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tip it!

Maggie Griffin is the mother of comedian Kathy Griffin. If you've watched Kathy's show My Life on the D-List or seen her comedy routines, you are probably familiar with Maggie. She is often the source of Kathy's amusing stories or subjected to Kathy's outrageous behavior. Maggie is famous for her mumus and love of boxed wine. But Maggie is finally getting her say with her new book Tip It! The World According to Maggie. It's a quick little read filled with stories of Maggie's childhood, her family, her husband and children, life in Hollywood, as well as her thoughts on various subjects, such as Bill O'Reilly and how much things cost. The family stories are charming and sweet and her observations are humorous. A lot of time it reminded me of my grandparents saying "when I was young, we..." which was comforting. Kathy adds her two cents here and there, adding to the humor, and I loved the back and forth conversations between them. Though Kathy teases her a lot and makes jokes at her expense, you can tell they really love each other, which is nice.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Best Cookbooks Ever

The Observer released it's list of the 50 best cookbooks of all time. Of course we see Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Alice Waters, and Fergus Henderson. Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver even make the list. I don't think Thomas Keller made the list, which I thought was strange. There were quite a few that I have never heard of. But it got me thinking: what was the criteria for the list? What would make my list? To me, a great cookbook is one that has a pleasing design, includes beautiful pictures and recipes that I can (somewhat) easily replicate myself. And, they are cookbooks that I would turn to regularly. Although many of these cookbooks are considered classics, I don't regularly cook from any of them. I've cooked from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but it's not something I would do regularly. Momofuku is gorgeous, sure. But who (aside from the serious cook) actually cooks from it? Same with The Complete Robuchon and Henderson's The Whole Beast. While these are great cookbooks to read, what are the best cookbooks of all time for the average home cook? What are the cookbooks that you regularly turn to?

I am having a hard time coming up with titles. I have repeatedly used Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and The Joy of Cooking for reference, but I don't know if I would put them on the "best cookbooks ever" list. Let's hear from you: what would you put on your list?

Friday, August 13, 2010

If you make it through zombies, you can make it through anything.

Now that you've found a new love from Alikewise, find out whether your relationship will stand the test of a zombie Apocalypse. Apparently, I would not do well.

My relationship would survive for weeks in the zombie apocalypse!

Take the How Long Would Your Relationship Survive in the Zombie Apocalypse? Quiz at JessePetersen.net

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Forget eHarmony and Match.com

Not that I'm looking, but this great website was just passed on to me called Alikewise. Alikewise is a dating site that allows you to find people based on their book tastes. Perfect for librarians and book lovers, right?

I spent a little time browsing the site. For research purposes. I don't think there are many people using this site yet, because most of the searches I did resulted in the same 3 or 4 guys each time. None of which were of interest to me. But that got me thinking: is it a dealbreaker if your mate doesn't like the same literature as you? My husband is not a reader, but this has never been a problem for us. Whenever I talk to him about something I'm reading, he just nods his head and pretends like he is listening. And he tolerates my need to listen to audiobooks in the car, even if he'd rather be listening to some horrible death metal. I'm not sure if I would want a partner who is as into books as I am. At least he balances out my nerdiness and makes sure I am exposed to things like Jersey Shore and Ice Road Truckers.* What do you think? Is the same taste in literature important in a relationship? What if your mate is not into literature at all?

*In his defense, my husband does watch a lot of decent TV, like the History and Discovery channels.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Do you think my neighbors would mind a few chickens?

I've always loved the idea of having a small little farm: a garden where I can grow my own veggies, a few chickens to produce eggs, even some bees for honey. But alas, I live in the city and the likelihood of moving to the country is nil, so it remains a dream for me. But city life didn't stop Novella Carpenter. A resident of Oakland, California, Novella decides to become an urban farmer, squat gardening in an abandoned lot and keeping chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, bees and even pigs in her back yard. Her book Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer is an entertaining tale of her attempts to create a farm amidst concrete and violence. Barbara Kingsolver's memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is probably a more well-known tale of do-it-yourself farming, but I found Novella's story more endearing. The urban aspect created some humorous situations, as well as some unlikely friendships with neighbors. Her farm not only serves to provide her with food, but it also provides a sense of community. Neighbors stop by to help with weeding and enjoy fresh produce. Young children get a chance to see pigs and rabbits for the first time. When Novella is dumpster diving for pig food, she meets the chef of a local restaurant who teaches her how to make salami and prosciutto from her pigs.

Novella's farm gives me hope. Perhaps I can have a chicken or some bees after all. My village's code is a little vague. I just read that Novella is working on a how-to book for urban farming, due out in the Spring of 2012. Yay! Maybe by then I'll have convinced my husband this is a good idea.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Well-Deserved Success

Although I truly enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel The Help, I have to admit that her seemingly instant success bugged me. I mean, who writes a first novel that seems incapable of sinking below the fourth slot on the New York Times bestseller list AND gets made into a movie by Spielberg? Some reviewers were as bothered by Stockett’s use of heavy dialect and ability to cash in on a dark chapter in African American history (Stockett is a white Southerner) as they were by her white heroine Skeeter’s decision to begin her writing career by editing and transcribing the stories of African American maids. Was the story really Kathryn or Skeeter’s to tell?

Stockett claims writing the novel helped her deal with homesickness in the wake of 9/11, and, although she did more conventional research as well, she also revealed that Grandaddy Stockett (98!) supplied many of the family stories that allowed Kathryn to understand an era before her time. It seems to me that all great writing is an ability to inhabit the lives of diverse characters different from ourselves. It would, after all, be difficult to populate a fictional world with only a narrow range of characters similar to the author.

Besides, Stockett worked hard to publish the novel. Although she became so discouraged at one point that she stopped tracking her correspondence to agents, she estimates that 60 of them rejected the novel before it finally found a home. So, I’ll stop envying Stockett her success and hope that Grandaddy Stockett is telling her some good stories about the Great Depression, which is the topic of her second novel in progress.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Still Missing

Chevy Stevens's debut novel Still Missing grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go. The story begins with Annie O'Sullivan's first session with a new psychiatrist. Annie has just reappeared after having been abducted and held captive for almost one year. A realtor, Annie had been hosting an open house for one of her properties. At the end of the day, she is just about to close up and go home, when a man shows up to see the house. He is friendly and personable, so Annie agrees to show him around. But she soon discovers he is not as innocent as he seems. Annie is drugged and taken to a remote cabin where she is held prisoner. The story moves between Annie's sessions with her psychiatrist, describing the events that occurred, and Annie's difficulties returning to her old life and the investigation into the man who abducted her.

Normally, I don't care for these kinds of stories. Stories with serial killers, rapists, psychos, etc. keep me awake at night, so I usually steer clear. But Stevens's novel got some good reviews and sounded intriguing, so I gave it a try. I was up pretty late last night. Not because I was scared (although it is disturbing), but because it is such a page-turner I couldn't put it down. The story is a little graphic and creepy for my taste, but I was hooked immediately, and a little twist in the middle kept me guessing right up to the end.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Beach Read for Foodies

Elin Hilderbrand’s Blue Bistro gives an insider’s view of an upscale Nantucket restaurant where heroine Adrienne Dealey is rebuilding her life after her ex-boyfriend stole her savings and left her flat broke. There to help her pick up the pieces is Thatcher Smith, charming owner of the Blue Bistro, who offers Adrienne a much-needed job, a crash course in the restaurant business, and perhaps more. Complicating the plot is Fiona, the restaurant’s talented and mysterious chef who may or may not be more than just Thatcher’s business partner. Some may find the behind-the-scenes descriptions of the restaurant a tad too detailed, but for foodies it’s the perfect frothy blend of mouth-watering menus and summer romance.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith has begun another series with his latest novel Corduroy Mansions. McCall Smith originally published Corduroy Mansions in serial form in the Telegraph in 2008. Although I read this when it was published online, I'm glad to finally see it in book form. I still prefer print over computer anyday. Fans of his Scotland Street series will be pleased to find this similar read filled with quirky new characters, including a vegetarian Pimlico terrier named Freddie de la Hay, who lost his job as a sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport as part of an affirmative action program when it was discovered that all the dogs at the airport were male.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Butcher and the Vegetarian

How have I managed to go this long reading all these foodie books and blogs and have missed Tara Austen Weaver's blog Tea and Cookies? I just finished Tara's book The Butcher and the Vegetarian and found that she has a wonderful blog filled with recipes and gorgeous photos of foods and gardens. Absolutely lovely. Just like tea and cookies!

I was intrigued by her book The Butcher and the Vegetarian because lately there have been so many foodie books advocating either vegetarianism or eating less meat, but Tara went the other way: from vegetarian to carnivore. Tara was raised as a vegetarian, but had some health issues and was advised by several doctors to start eating meat. Although the meat doesn't improve her health, she embraces the challenge. Her experiences buying meat for the first time at the butcher shop, learning how to cook it properly, and trying to overcome her squeamishness eating animals are entertaining. I appreciated her ability to see both sides of the vegetarian/meat-eating argument, unlike Jonathan Safran Foer, who is ardently opposed to eating meat and makes sure you know it in his latest book Eating Animals. The only downside was that she didn't include any recipes. Probably because her first attempts at cooking meat didn't result in any fabulous dishes, but I would have loved to see some recipes for the vegetarian dishes she mentions.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Random Tidbits

Simon Rich has a deal for his next novel, What in God's Name, where he re-imagines heaven as a celestial corporation employing incompetent but endearing angels trying haplessly to please their boss. Rich is a promising young writer and I'm thrilled to hear about his next book.

Jennifer 8. Lee talked to GalleyCat about Kindles. While she likes the Kindle, she points out some obvious flaws: you can't get them signed at book signings and you can't read them in the bathtub. She also points out that you can't see what others are reading on the subway and therefore they are less social. And I would add, they also don't have that book smell. The musty smell of an old book or the crisp, sharp smell of a new book is one of life's greatest pleasures. Although, now that the Kindle has come down even further in price, I must admit that I'm tempted.

The long list for the 2010 Man Booker Prize was announced Tuesday. Andrea Levy, David Mitchell and Peter Carey make the list.

Daniel Craig will star in the English adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Anne Rice can't seem to make up her mind. The author of the popular vampire novels, who was an atheist for many years before being "Called Out of Darkness," has apparently returned to the Darkness, declaring that she quits Christianity. Oh well. At least she got a best-seller out of it.

And last, but not least, I give you: the Jane Austen Fight Club.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Orange is the New Black

Fashion is the least of Piper Kerman’s worries when she receives a fifteen month sentence for a decade old drug charge. Ivy League educated, Kerman misspent her post-college youth in Europe, where she agreed to pick up a cash payment for a drug-dealing friend. She seemed to think of it more as running an errand for a buddy than money-laundering. Eventually, Kerman tired of her aimless existence and shady friends and moved back to the States.

Ten years later, she is living a happy life in New York with her fiancée when the police knock on the door. Soon Kerman is trading in her comfortable apartment for a cell and the bizarre culture of prison life, where inmates earn as little of 14 cents an hour and toiletries like toothpaste are a treasure to newcomers. At times, prison is as awful as she feared, complete with strip searches and creepy guards. Yet gradually Kerman adjusts, finding small unexpected joys (illegal pedicures and cheesecake? Who knew?) Her eventual affection for her fellow prisoners is touching as is her epiphany that her offense, though nonviolent, was part of a larger industry that destroyed the lives of many of the women she comes to know and care about during her stay. If you’re looking for an offbeat, nicely written memoir, try Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Art of Eating In

Yes, another food book. But I swear there is a good reason for all of these foodie book blog posts, which will hopefully be revealed in a few months.* And, I've been trying to keep my posts only to those that I've really enjoyed, so I hope you aren't tired of hearing about them.

Anyway, I recently picked up The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway. For some reason, I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did. In fact, I had only planned to skim it, but I found myself drawn into her story and pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I even found myself comparing it (favorably) to Julie and Julia. Although not as humorous as Julie and Julia, it has some similar qualities. Cathy is a New Yorker, and although she is not a professional cook, she enjoys cooking. But like most New Yorkers, she eats out for most of her meals. When she realized how much she was spending on eating out, she decided to swear off restaurants and cook for herself. And like anybody who takes up a project these days, she started blogging about it. She experiments with new recipes and cooks meals for her friends and family. She is also introduced to new lifestyles, such as urban foraging, underground supper clubs, and Freeganism, which I first learned about in Tristram Stuart's book Waste. These were fascinating chapters, and although I have been told to "step away" from the idea of trying out Freeganism, I am interested in reading more about (and possibly trying) all of these. Interspersed with her cooking adventures are stories of her friends, family, dates, and moving in with (and later, out) her boyfriend. It's a fun, light-hearted, interesting read and should please fans of Julie and Julia.

P.S. Is it just me, or does it seem like New Yorkers stay up really late? This seemed to be a theme in both Julie and Julia and Erway's book. It seems like they don't get home until late and then they are eating at 10 o'clock at night. It seems common for friends to call or come by after 10pm. Is this a New York thing? Or a young people thing? I'm not that old, but I'm in my PJs well before 10pm and unless ice cream is involved, I rarely go out after 8pm.

*Are you intrigued? Stay tuned.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Medium Raw

What should I say about Anthony Bourdain's new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook? If you know me or have ever read this blog, you know I have an undying love for anything that comes out of his mouth or from his pen. Whether it's deserved or not, I can't help it. I love him. I love his snarky, cynical personality and biting wit; his books are wonderfully entertaining; and his show is intelligent and creative. And, he's not bad to look at either. Had I been the editor, there are some things I might have "suggested" he change, but nonetheless, I completely loved it. The book is a bit of a mish-mash of tales from his life and travels, thoughts on the current state of cooking and the restaurant biz, a bit of food porn, praises for those he admires and rants for those he doesn't (such as the chapter titled "Alan Richman is a Douchebag"). It's what you would expect from Bourdain: entertaining musings and bad language. I don't know if it's age, or fatherhood, or simply that he has finally "made it" but Bourdain has clearly mellowed. He's still got his edge, but that anger has softened a bit. He can still massacre someone when necessary (see chapter on Alan Richman), but he seems to have softened his attitude toward many of the chefs and cooks he has railed on in the past, like Rachael Ray and Alice Waters. If you like Bourdain, or are just into foodie books, this is a no-brainer: read it.

Although no one beats Bourdain in my book, Shelf Renewal has some suggestions for other good books by cooks. Marco Pierre White? Love him too.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How could you not want to read Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story after watching this trailer?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Author Visits!

There are quite a few great authors visiting the Chicagoland area this month. Be sure to check them out!

Thursday, July 8th - 7:00pm at The Book Stall in Winnetka
Mary Karr, whose first memoir The Liars' Club kick-started a memoir revolution, talks about her third memoir, Lit, the story of her recovery from alcoholism and mental illness.

Thursday, July 8th - 7:00pm at the Borders in Lincoln Park
Jonathan Tropper talks about his successful novel, This is Where I Leave You.

Friday, July 9th - 6:00pm at The Book Stall in Winnetka
Scott Sigler signs his novel Ancestor, a horror thriller tale of genetic experimentation gone awry.

Saturday, July 10th - 2:00pm at the Warren Newport Public Library
Nancy Woodruff discusses and signs her novel, My Wife's Affair, about a failing writer who witnesses the blossoming of his wife's acting career and her increasing obsession with her portrayal of a famous eighteenth-century actress.

Tuesday, July 13th - 7:00pmat The Book Stall in Winnetka
Lily King speaks about her new novel Father of the Rain, a sharply insightful family drama in an upper-middle-class suburb, where she traces a complex and explosive father-daughter relationship from the 1970s to the present day.

Wednesday, July 14th - 7:00pm at The Book Stall in Winnetka
Laurence Gonzales, author of the bestseller Deep Survival, talks about his novel Lucy, the story of a girl rescued by an American primatologist from the war-torn Congo when the girl's father, a scientist, is brutally murdered. The child, it turns out, is the result of an experiment-part human, part ape.

Friday, July 16th - 7:00pm at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Oakbrook
Best-selling author Brad Thor discusses and signs his latest novel, Foreign Influence.

Tuesday, July 20th - 7:00pm at the Warren Newport Public Library
Carrie Bebris, author of the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery series, will discuss and sign her latest novel,The Intrigue at Highbury.

Saturday, August 7th - 2:00pm at the Warren Newport Public Library
Jamie Frevelleti discusses and signs her new novel, Running Dark, about a chemist who investigates a Somali pirate ship that may be carrying a new weapon of unknown origin.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Really, Senator?! Really??

After the third day of hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, she has been questioned on numerous important, controversial issues. Abortion, gays in the military, and vampires. Yes. Elena Kagan was asked "Team Edward or Team Jacob?"


Sure, you might think things have piled up around the house because you have a penchant for collecting or have fallen a bit behind on your filing. And you mean to read those magazines as soon as you have more time. I believe you. Just don’t let Randy Frost and Gail Steketee see that backlog, or you might be diagnosed with a subclinical case of hoarding. The two are authors of the new book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

Hoarding is receiving increased attention these days thanks to reality TV. Doctorow also tackled the topic last year in his novel Homer and Langely, about the famous Collyer brothers of New York, two eccentrics who walled out the world, living and dying in a decaying mansion packed to the rafters with stuff. This nonfiction take explores the causes of compulsive hoarding and potential treatments—from self-help groups to expensive forced cleanouts ordered by city governments worried about citizens’ safety.

Most hoarders, it turns out, are highly intelligent and creative; many are self-aware despite their inability to conquer their obsession with things. For them, every cast off object represents a lost opportunity or a failure to imagine how the strangest, smallest objects might find a new use or a new owner. Clearing away the mess requires an ability to focus, decide, and let go that are beyond the reach of hoarders. From children who weep when dirt falls off their shoe (because it belongs to them) to man who rents secret storage space to hide his hoarding from his wife, the book is packed (I couldn’t stop myself) with fascinating portraits.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Elliot Allagash

If you looked at a picture of writer Simon Rich, you might think "Who is this little kid?" Despite his youthful appearance, he's not a child, although he is pretty young for the success that he has had. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a two-book contract with Random House. Since then he published two short works of nonfiction, Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations and Free-Range Chickens. Both are hilarious. I highly recommend them. I also recommend reading them in private because I was laughing so hard, I started snorting. Ant Farm was a finalist for the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor. He has also written for several magazines and is a writer for Saturday Night Live. His first novel, Elliot Allagash, was released last month, and although I wasn't snorting with laughter this time, it was touching, clever, creepy, sad, humorous, and completely engrossing.

Seymour Herson is the most unpopular boy in his class at his private school in Manhattan. When Elliot Allagash transfers to his school, Seymour finds an unlikely friend. Elliot comes from an extremely wealthy family. When he tells Seymour "I could buy you all the popularity in this school...With a little research and some well-placed investments, I could make you a king..." Seymour jumps at the offer. What follows is a series of twisted schemes masterminded by Elliot and aided by his chauffeur. But Seymour's desperate wish to belong keeps him entangled in Elliot's dysfunctional life, and begins to send him down the same path. Publisher's Weekly criticizes Rich for his lack of character development, but I disagree. I thought Seymour was very well-developed. I found him to be sweet and funny, and he touched me in a way that few characters have. All of Rich's books are fairly short and are easy to get through quickly, so you can read it in an afternoon or two.

BTW: What's up with these Harvard grads? Nick McDonell is also a recent Harvard grad and the same age as Rich, and he has three novels under his belt already. I was pretty impressed with his latest, An Expensive Education.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Of course the cliché is true: you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But sometimes you get lucky. I picked up Fernanda Eberstadt’s new novel Rat on a whim, drawn in by the photograph of a girl peering out from behind a veil of long hair. The unusual title and hot pink spine didn’t hurt either. The novel is a coming-of-age story about teenage girl living in the South of France with her loving but deeply flawed mother. Eventually the household expands to include a charming adopted brother and her mother’s sleazy live-in boyfriend.

Even before the boyfriend makes their home unlivable for Rat and her brother, Rat (Ratkin to her mother) longs to meet her absent father and mysterious grandmother, a former model and film star. Eventually, Rat and Morgan hit the road, heading for London and a reunion with Rat’s father. Rat is a sensitive kid and a sweet, protective older sister. She forgives her mother’s mistakes and draws her somewhat aloof, artist father into a relationship.

With easy, realistic dialogue and an engaging plot, Eberstandt lures you into Rat’s world. A charming read for both adults and older teens.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Books to Movies: Never Let Me Go

The trailer for the film Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's amazing novel, has just been released. It looks fantastic! Release date is October 1st.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday is a commemoration observed annually on June 16th to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and relive the events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904.

In related news, Apple will allow Ulysses Seen, a graphic novel adaptation of Ulysses to be published as an iPad app. Apple previously asked the creators to crop out scenes with nudity, but after protest, decided it will allow it to be published as is.

For those interested in reading Ulysses but are a little intimidated, the Evanston Public Library is starting a year-long book discussion series, Mission Impossible: Ulysses. "Enjoy the support and encouragement of others on this journey to finish a seemingly impossible novel." The first meeting is, of course, tonight.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is this milk still good?

About every week I go through my refrigerator and throw out all the expired foods, leftovers, and produce that has gone bad. I'm always ashamed of myself, but I would bet that everyone reading this blog has done this. Tristram Stuart's book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal examines the topic of wasted food, but on a much larger and more global scale. When I was younger I used to hear all the time that there were starving people in Africa, so I should finish the food on my plate. While it is true that there are starving people all over the world, it is not because there is a lack of food. Stuart claims that there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, but because so much food is wasted, people go hungry. He examines the enormous levels of food waste created by affluent countries, such as the U.S. and western Europe, from the farmers, to the grocery stores and consumers. He also examines the factors that cause much food to be wasted in countries where poverty and hunger is rampant, such as Pakistan. Stuart suggests solutions we can all incorporate into our lives, such as reducing the amount of food we buy (no more BOGO free), not sticking to the strict and overly cautious expiration dates (not a problem for me!), and composting. One of Stuart's personal solutions to this problem was to become a "freegan" which is someone who essentially dumpster dives for food. While I'm not sure I could do this, he finds a shocking amount of perfectly good food. This is a fascinating book, and has definitely made me think twice about letting food go to waste. The pictures alone of the piles of wasted food are enough to make you cry.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I'm sorry to say this, but Philip Pullman's new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, was such a huge disappointment. I loved The Golden Compass and was so hoping for another wonderful story, but this was soooo boring I just couldn't bring myself to finish it. I got the audio version, which Pullman narrates and is fantastic, but even that only got me about halfway through before I couldn't take it any longer. The premise is that Mary gave birth to twins, one named Jesus and the other Christ. Sounds interesting, no? I love new takes on old stories. But, ugh. It was so slow and dense and boring. I really wanted to like this book, but there was just nothing about it that I liked.

On a positive note, Philip Pullman is an extraordinarily talented narrator. I would put him up there with my favorites, Jim Dale, Scott Brick, and Kate Reading. His voice is just magical. He could make a living just narrating audiobooks. Maybe I'll start listening to His Dark Materials again.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I think I decided to read Philippe Djian's novel, Unforgivable, simply because he is French. I loved Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, so my reasoning was: maybe it's a French thing, and all French writers are great, and I've been missing out. Djian is a best-selling French author who has written over 20 novels, so he's been around longer than Barbery, and Unforgivable received the 2009 Prix Jean Freustie, which sounds important.

The premise sounds like your typical mystery or thriller. Francis is an aging author, whose wife and daughter were killed in an accident several years ago. His surviving daughter, Alice, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished without a trace. With no help from the police, Francis hires an old friend to investigate her disappearance. Now, in a typical American best-seller, this would become a fast-paced thrill ride, with Francis getting involved in the investigation, chasing after bad guys, etc. But thankfully, this is not like a typical American best-seller. The novel takes a much slower pace. Francis is consumed by his feelings of helplessness and worry. The strain takes a toll on his already failing second marriage, and he reflects on his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and the accident that changed their lives. The conclusion to his daughter's disappearance is not a shocking event, but the outcome nevertheless changes everyone's lives forever. A compelling and contemplative story that examines the lives of very flawed individuals and explores the question of forgiveness. A best-seller in America? Doubtful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Fair Lazy

Although I love Jen Lancaster, and I enjoyed her latest book My Fair Lazy: One reality television addict's attempt to discover if not being a dumb ass is the new black, or a culture-up manifesto, I think this has been her weakest book so far. It contains her typical humor and personality, but it was a little on the weak side when it came to "plot" and didn't feel very cohesive. Jen decides that she has been watching way too much reality television, and as a result, can't seem to hold her own in grown-up conversations. She decides to read more, attend the theater, watch musicals and operas, try new foods, etc. Basically get out of her comfort zone and try new things. She has some funny adventures, but it felt as if she was struggling to find a topic to write about and half-heartedly came up with this. Nevertheless, the girl is hilarious, which more than makes up for it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Muggle's Guide to the Wizarding World

Last month, I mentioned a book that I stumbled on, The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter by Allan and Elizabeth Kronzek. I was mainly interested in it because of its reference to animal trials, but after reading more, it turns out to be full of interesting facts. I always thought that J. K. Rowling was so creative to come up with all those creatures and magical terms, but it turns out that much of what she includes in her books are not new ideas at all. Of course I have heard of unicorns, giants, goblins and mermaids, but I didn't know that grindylows, kappas, and hinkypunks have all been a part of legend and folklore for ages. Herbology and Divination have also been practiced for years as well. This book explains the history behind so much of Harry Potter's world, including the difference between a ghost and a ghoul, the legend of the grim, as well as the use of cats, toads and owls in the magical world. A very interesting and useful book for Muggles.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You Done With That Tissue?

On the heels of the recent health care debate comes a timely bestseller about medical history and ethics: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It tells the story of the woman behind HeLa cells, the first “immortal” line of cells grown in a lab. Although her cells facilitated everything from cancer research to cloning to the polio vaccine, the Lacks family never consented to their donation nor made a dime of profit from their use. In fact, they struggled to afford health care, and one son actually volunteered for medical testing to get a little money and a place to sleep. Lacks herself grew up in poverty, died at a young age from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

The book raises interesting questions about medical ethics. Should we care if doctors routinely use discarded tissue for medical research? Should patient consent be required? Should the companies who convert these materials into medical products be the only ones to profit from their use, or do they owe something to the people who provided their raw materials?

Skloot is a gifted writer who profiles the characters in her tale as carefully as any novelist and makes complex scientific topics understandable and engaging reading. The book reminds us of the real, ordinary lives behind every scientific discovery and every historical event. And it illustrates once again how considerations of medical ethics lag behind technological and scientific advances.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mr. Right?

Forget what those online dating sites say about how they’re able to locate your soul mate with a series of insightful survey questions. Everyone knows it’s tougher than that. It’s especially tough for Polly, the heroine of Nevada Barr’s stand-alone thriller 13 ½. Having survived a horrendous childhood of poverty and neglect, Polly is a successful professor and single mother of two when she meets Marshall Marchand, a New Orleans architect. Her daughters do what any level-headed pair of sisters would do when faced with the prospect of a step-father: they schedule an interview, which Marshall aces. Polly, however, asks for some time to think.

And as the novel proceeds, there’s plenty to consider. Did Marshall rescue Polly and the girls in the nick of time or was he the one who caused their peril? What connection does Marshall have to the fortune teller Polly meets? Why is Marshall’s brother always hovering nearby, and can Polly trust him when he warns her about Marshall?

13 ½ is a decidedly creepy little novel told from multiple points of view, including a disconcerting deadpan voice with an interest in famous serial killers. And then there are the axe murders; did I mention the axe murders?

Fast-paced and tightly written, Barr’s novel made the New York Times best of the year list last year. You won’t be able to put it down.

Now it’s time to read about something nicer. Anyone know of a good novel about kittens drinking warm milk?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Time to Party

So how will you answer this fall when the teacher asks for that “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” theme? If you can stand the heat, it might be time to head to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. No matter how many times I read that book or see the movie, no matter how many awkward middle school essays it has indirectly forced me to grade over the years, I just never tire of Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus and Boo. Who can resist the quiet moral authority of Gregory Peck patiently reading on the jailhouse steps, waiting for the mob he knows will arrive? What is more terrifying than the huge shadows on the Radley house at night or the kids fleeing through the woods to escape their unseen attacker?

It’s a nearly perfect novel, funded by the author’s generous friends whose Christmas gift one year allowed her to leave her job in airlines reservations and take time off to write.
Harper Lee, of course, never wrote anything else, but, really, why would you bother? She divides her time between New York and Alabama, still shops at the Piggly Wiggly and likes to drink coffee at Hardee’s. Her work is done. The characters live on. Boo Radley has become the namesake for everything from a rock band to a toy novelty shop in Spokane, and folks in Monroeville plan serve up “Tequila Mockingbirds” come July. I guess I should be horrified that people want to cash in on art this way, but I’m guessing that it doesn’t bother Lee that much. When you’ve written the nation’s favorite novel, you can afford to be generous.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Son of Hamas

I admit that I know very little about the Palestinian/Israeli history and conflict, and what little I do know has probably been influenced by a pro-Israel slant. I find it to be an extremely complicated and confusing issue, so I was intrigued when I came across Mosab Hassan Yousef's memoir, Son of Hamas. Mosab is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas. Once a devout Muslim and member of Hamas, Mosab has converted to Christianity and moved to the U.S. The writing is not spectacular, and the timing of events can be a bit confusing, but his account of his childhood living amongst the violence, his arrest, torture, and imprisonment in an Israeli prison, and his decision to work for Israel's Shin Bet makes for a compelling account. Mosab does a fairly good job of explaining the history of the different Palestinian organizations, the Palestinian side of the conflict, and the attempts for peace. Although his bias does come across occasionally, he does attempt to be fair to both sides. This is certainly not a definitive, unbiased history of this conflict, but it is an interesting story from a very unique perspective.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bellfield Hall

Citizen Reader is one of my favorite book blogs, and a lot of the nonfiction books I read have been because of her reviews. Her tastes seem to be pretty similar to mine because I always enjoy the books she recommends. So when she said that Jane Austen fans should run, not walk, to get Anna Dean's new novel Bellfield Hall Or, the Observations of Miss Dido Kent, I obeyed. Well, I didn't run. One should never run in the library. But I did walk over and pick it up immediately.

She's right about its appeal for Jane Austen fans. This is an entertaining mystery set in Regency England. When Mr. Richard Montague abruptly leaves his home and new fiancé and a murdered woman is found in the shrubbery, Miss Dido Kent*, the spinster aunt to the jilted fiancé, attempts to uncover the answers to these mysterious events. Dido is clever and plucky, making her a very likeable main character. Dean does a wonderful job with the language and social customs of the time, as well as creating an interesting mystery. A fun read.

*Was Dido a popular name back then? I've never seen it used in fiction before that I can recall. Wonder why the author chose this name?

Monday, May 17, 2010

I have a maple tree I'd like to press charges against.

I was tooling around on Amazon, looking at new books, and I happened to see a blurb for a book called The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter. Of course anything having to do with Harry Potter excites me, so I decide to read the description. It turns out that this is not a new book, but Amazon's description of its contents immediately caught my attention:

"Harry Potter aficionados: remember when Buckbeak, Hagrid's pet Hippogriff, was put on trial by the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures? This crazy idea was not invented by Harry Potter's creator, J.K. Rowling. In fact, from medieval times all the way up to the 19th century, animals and even insects were often charged with crimes, arrested, imprisoned, tried, convicted, and sometimes executed."

I had to find out more. I marched over to Youth Services and found The Sorcerer's Companion, and it does contain a description of how animals were tried for crimes as early as the ninth century up to as late as the 19th century. Caterpillars, flies, locusts, worms, rats, pigs, cows, horses, etc., etc., etc. have been imprisoned and tried for crimes, sometimes tortured and even hanged. Surely, I thought, this has to be a joke someone is playing on unsuspecting kids. It's too absurd to be true. Sure enough, a little research on the Internets confirmed this. Animals have been tried for murder, theft, fraud (?), destruction of property; tortured for confessions, and even executed (unless they got a pardon). In 1386 a pig accused of murdering an infant was tried, convicted and hanged. Her six piglets were charged with being accessories to the crime but were acquitted "on account of their youth and their mother's bad example." Now, I abhor cruel treatment of any kind to animals, but this really just makes me laugh. People were really stupid.
I love my job. This is the kind of awesome stuff I learn every day.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Love in Mid Air

First-time novelist Kim Wright spins a tale of suburban discontent in her new novel Love in Mid Air. Mildly unhappy in her marriage, Elyse finds herself questioning her identity and risking her comfortable life after meeting an intriguing stranger on an airplane. Secret monthly meetings and heated cell phone exchanges ensue as Elyse begins to explore her sexuality and re-examine her life. She points out that in fiction women often leave their marriages while in real life what women do best is stay. Married for many years to a likeable if bland husband, Elyse suddenly begins to long for a more significant career and a deeper connection to those around her as Wright examines why some marriages endure while others collapse.

Although the topic is well-worn and the prose is just average, Wright develops well-rounded characters, creates believable dialogue and keeps the plot moving, tossing in a few twists and turns along the way. Love in Mid Air is a quick, engaging read from an interesting new novelist.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Did you know...

That David Ellis is the chief legal counsel to the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives? I didn't. He also worked on the impeachment of Governor Blagojevich. I quite like Ellis's fast-paced legal thrillers. Ellis's second book in his Jason Kolarich series is due out in early 2011.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Devil in the Kitchen

I've never been inclined to watch any of Gordon Ramsay's television shows, like Hell's Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares. Ramsay seems like a mean guy. He's always yelling and cursing at the chefs, which doesn't seem entertaining. But Gordon Ramsay got his start working for Marco Pierre White, who until I read The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, I knew nothing about. Forget Ramsay. Forget Anthony Bourdain. White is a real bad-ass chef. White was the first British chef, as well as the youngest chef, to be awarded three Michelin stars. And he didn't get those stars by being a nice guy. White recounts his rise to fame and success in this entertaining memoir. He is known for his temper and demanding perfection. He's famous for giving his chefs a "bollocking" and tossing out customers who complain. I loved these anecdotes. Just once.... Despite his adrenaline and nicotine-fueled lifestyle, White does not succumb to drugs and alcohol, as so many other famous chefs have admitted to, which is refreshing. The other thing I loved about White: when he had enough, White gave back his stars and retired from the kitchen. He points out that a lot of chefs, once they become famous, stop cooking but pretend that they are still at the stove, while they are really in front of the camera or off doing something else. He didn't want to lie to his customers. Although he continues to own restaurants, his focus is no longer on the stars, but on enjoying the food.

Friday, April 30, 2010

All the latest...

The Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a British award for best science fiction novel published in the U.K., was recently awarded to China Miéville for The City and the City.

The Edgar Awards, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, were recently announced. John Hart's novel The Last Child won for best novel, and Stefanie Pintoff won best first novel for In the Shadow of Gotham.

The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) recently announced their awards. Stephanie Alexander won for best cookbook with her Kitchen Garden Companion. Jeri Quinzio's Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making won for best culinary history. Tristram Stuart's Waste won for literary food writing. You can see the entire list here.

Nancy Drew turns 80 today. Boogasm celebrates with some fun facts about this famous amateur sleuth.

The Huffington Post has a list of all the latest classic monster mashups. Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter slipped by me.

The Bookstall in Winnetka has some great author events coming in May, including Kathryn Stockett on May 3rd, Scott Turow on May 10th, and Yann Martel on May 19th. Check out their website for more information.

Jen Lancaster will be signing her new book, My Fair Lazy at the Oak Brook Borders on May 27th at 7pm. Maybe I can talk to her about that new novel she is working on.

Judging a book by its title

So yesterday's post got me thinking about book titles. Slow Death by Rubber Duck. That's a great title. If they would have titled that book 7 Deadly Chemicals, I never would have picked it up. So I started thinking about other titles that have grabbed my attention:

Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster
Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead by Saralee Rosenberg
There's a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell : A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble by Laurie Notaro
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes by Lucy Spelman
Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Sometimes I do judge a book not only by its cover, but by its title too. Without these creative titles, I might never have picked these books up. What are some of your favorite titles? Or better yet, what would you title your book so it would grab attention?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Healthy, organic, local, socially responsible, and humane. Oy. After all the food books I've been reading, these are all things I'm trying to incorporate into my diet. And let me tell you, it's not easy. I am far from successful. But now I find out that no matter what I'm eating, my body is still being exposed to all kinds of toxins from other sources, such as plastics, furniture, beauty products, frying pans, etc., etc., etc. I can't win! I knew I never should have read Rick Smith's and Bruce Lourie's Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. It is truly frightening. The authors examine the seven chemicals that are most dangerous and most prevalent in our environment, including phthalates, PFCs (Teflon), PCBs (flame retardants), mercury, BPAs (polycarbonate), pesticides, and antibacterials. Despite their toxicity and proven link to cancers, reproductive problems and hormone disruptions, they are found in pretty much everything we come in contact with on a daily basis. The authors purposely expose themselves to these chemicals and run blood and urine tests on themselves to see if the levels of these chemicals in their bodies would increase. In most cases, they did. After a while, the facts and statistics started overwhelming and depressing me, so I skimmed much of it and got to the last chapter, where the authors make suggestions on how to limit your exposure. But the bottom line: we are all doomed. No matter how hard you try, you will never succeed completely. The chemicals are too prevalent in our society. But I am glad I read this book, and I am recommending it. At least now I'm more aware, and that is the key. If people just knew what they were putting into their bodies or coming in contact with, I believe more people will begin to demand change. I also know what to look for in ingredients, I have websites that I can use to check products (http://www.safecosmetics.org/), and there are some simple things I can do like getting rid of that plastic shower curtain and using cast iron pans instead of nonstick (Yay! An excuse to buy that Le Creuset pan I've been wanting!). I felt a little smug for knowing a couple of their suggestions, like eating less big fish (mercury) and changing from a plastic reusable water bottle to stainless steel. So, despite the overwhelming and scary statistics, I think everyone needs to know these things, and the authors do a good job of explaining a complicated subject.

P.S. Here's a great little ditty you can use to remember what plastics are safe to use (check the number next to the recycling symbol): "4, 5, 1 and 2. All the rest are bad for you."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jen Lancaster stole my idea

So, I'm perusing Jen Lancaster's blog this morning, and I see her announcement:

NYT bestselling author Jen Lancaster's APOCALYPSE HOUSE, which follows a couple from the city through the frustrating and hysterical process of buying and renovating their first home in the suburbs, to Danielle Perez at NAL, in multi-book deal, by Kate Garrick at DeFiore and Company.

Don't get me wrong, I love Jen Lancaster and am so thrilled to hear she'll be writing fiction. But once again, another author has beaten me to a book I could have written! Just like Gimme Shelter. I'm telling you, I need an agent. Or whatever one needs to get a book deal.

Beautiful Boy

I don’t know about you, but much of what I learned in college and graduate school classrooms has faded away over the years. Sad, especially given how long it took me to pay off those student loans. On rare occasions, though, something floats back. It happened while I was reading Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction by David Sheff. Although Sheff’s memoir of his son’s addiction to methamphetamine is painfully honest and poignant, it becomes an irritating read at times. Why? Well, Sheff fails to avoid what lit-crit types call the “imitative fallacy.” Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying that it’s best not to write a dull story to prove that your character has a dull life.

Sheff’s story is compelling: his charming and intelligent son turns into a virtual stranger, an unpredictable drug addict who lies, steals, and breaks into his own parents’ home. Unfortunately, the natural course of the disease is a seemingly endless cycle of recovery and relapse that can exhaust the patience of even the most loving family. Similarly, Sheff’s carefully crafted prose keeps looping back over the same territory one time too often as Sheff facilitates his son’s recovery then agonizes over the inevitable setbacks. Real life, unfortunately, doesn’t shape itself into a neat narrative arc, but the best memoirists find ways to make the patterns of their lives resonate more deeply each time the writer and reader revisit them. I think of Joan Didion’s brilliant memoir The Year of Magical Thinking with its haunting refrain “life changes in an instant.”

Near the end of the book, Sheff makes the difficult but painful choice to let go of trying to control his son. He enters therapy and begins to live his own life more fully, breaking the heartbreaking cycles of recovery and despair that are so excruciating to read.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Foyle Returns!

Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle returns in the wonderful series Foyle's War. Foyle's War is a British television series about a detective in a small town on the English coast during WWII. It ran for 5 seasons and was aired in the U.S. on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery, before the show ended with the end of the war. But it was so well liked that they have reprised Foyle for another season of three episodes. Starting this Sunday, May 2nd, you can catch Foyle's War on PBS at 8pm central. The next two episodes air the following Sundays, May 9th and May 16th. The DVD will be released in June. If you haven't seen this show, check it out. It's a great show for fans of British mysteries, cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, or fans of just plain ol' good television. I have not found a mystery program I enjoy nearly as much.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I'm trying to remember what prompted me to pick up Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Both Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly gave it great reviews. I'm guessing it was PW's description that got my attention. The novel describes "the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Chapters read like exquisite short stories, turning out the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper."

I guess I should have paid more attention to the title. The stories are quite engrossing and the characters are very well-developed, but they are all seriously imperfect. The characters are so flawed that it became a little depressing. But I stuck with it. I was engrossed with these characters' lives, and I hoped that in the end there would be some kind of redemption or happiness for someone. But when something very bad happens to the only likable character, a basset hound named Schopenhauer, that was it for me. I'm mean, really? Was that necessary? That totally ruined it for me. After that, I gave up on these pathetic characters. None of them seemed to experience any growth or to even want to be happy. Maybe that was the point. Imperfectionists, indeed.

I need an Alexander McCall Smith novel to redeem my faith in humanity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti

Giulia Melucci's memoir I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti was a bit of a disappointment for me. It's basically a chronicle of her string of failed relationships, which I found more frustrating than entertaining. Most of her boyfriends are losers and I kept thinking: "Hasn't this girl read He's Just Not That Into You?" She comes off as a little desperate, which was a turnoff. I wanted to shake her and tell her to dump those idiots. But none of her relationships are so unusual that her experiences stand out from everyone else's, so I didn't really get why her experiences necessitated a book. Why does she get a book deal for that? I can write about cooking for an ungrateful husband who prefers Chef Boyardee to real food.* I think that would be infinitely more entertaining. I also thought it would at least be humorous, but I didn't really find it to be so. Cooking is a big part of Melucci's life, which was the part I enjoyed. She cooks to entice men, and to soothe her broken heart. She seems to subscribe to the notion that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, which again, I found frustrating. But she offers many recipes that are simple yet elegant, and these were the highlight of the book for me.

*Publishers and agents: call me. We'll talk.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

$2.99 shrimp is not a good deal

It's no secret that Americans love a good bargain. Big box stores and outlet malls are incredibly popular. I know people who will drive out of their way to get a better price on a product they could get a few minutes from their home for just a little more. And admit it, don't you feel good about yourself (and your purchase) when you have a coupon? Ellen Ruppel Shell's new book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture chronicles America's never-ending demand for cheaper goods. This is a fascinating account, taking us back to the beginnings of discounted goods in the 1800s, and the effects our insistence on cheaper prices has on our economy, as well as the world's economy.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to do more than skim this book, but I was particularly focused on (what else?) the food chapter. Shell outlines how advancements in technology and government subsidies have allowed us access to extremely cheap food. But the price of food in American supermarkets does not reflect the true cost, which is our health, the environment, and the social welfare of other countries. I could go on forever about this chapter, but since your eyes will start to glaze over, I will leave you with a few of the most outstanding facts I took away.

*In a world where there is absolutely no shortage of food, there are 925 million people who are starving.

*Outlet malls near the Alamo and the Liberty Bell draw more visitors than these historic landmarks. (OK, not related to food, but too good not to mention.)

*In 2009, consumption of fruits and vegetables decreased, while consumption of fast food increased.

*In 2008, the stock market lost a third of its value. On the Dow Jones, only two companies saw their share prices rise. Three guesses who it was....McDonald's and Wal-Mart.

*In terms of calories per dollar, $1 will get you 3000 calories of M&Ms. $1 will get you about 30 calories of spinach. What's the better deal?

*The USDA, who is in charge of inspecting imported meat and poultry, only inspects about 16% of imported food. The FDA, who is in charge of inspecting fruits, veggies, and other foods, inspects less than 1% of imported foods. In 2006-2007, the FDA rejected 1,901 food shipments from China, 1,787 from India, and 1,560 from Mexico because they were found to be tainted with toxins, illegal chemicals, antibiotics, or bacteria. If that's less than 1%, imagine what's getting past them.