Friday, January 29, 2010

Stretching the truth

There was an interesting article in PW's January 18th issue by Steve Weinberg. He says that books touting a "nomination" for a National Book Award, Pulitzer or National Book Critics Circle Award are misleading. There is no nomination process for these awards, except for publishers to submit a work, as well as an admission fee. "Nominations" are no indicator of quality, only of the publisher's willingness to shell out the cash to get the book considered. Sneaky.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tweets are the future of writing.

Want to capture all of your brilliant and clever tweets to pass on to your children and your children's children? Now you can! Tweetbookz allows you to create high quality books of your tweets. The books feature up to 200 of your tweets, one per page, are available in soft or hard covers, and in four unique designs.

Because why wouldn't a tweet like this need to be preserved?

"Im not gonna shave today I got that Bret Farve thing going on and I kinda like it."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And the nominees are...

The National Book Critics Circle has announced the finalists for the 2010 awards.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stupid characters make me mad.

I don't know what to think about Ian McEwan. I loved, loved, loved his novel Atonement. So of course, I wanted to read his other novels. Chesil Beach: not so much. Saturday: I didn't even get through the first chapter. I just finished The Comfort of Strangers, and I was left feeling like it was a good concept, but really could have been better.

Mary and Colin are on holiday in a foreign city. The vacation seems to be a fairly uneventful one: eating, napping, sightseeing. One evening, they leave their hotel later than usual for dinner. Unable to find a restaurant that is still open, they begin wandering the streets. A man, Robert, approaches them and offers to take them somewhere. Now, I am very apprehensive about strangers, and tend to avoid them even to the point of being rude. But I know that not everyone is as neurotic as me, so I can see how it's possible that Mary and Colin agreed to go with Robert. Robert takes them to a bar, where they stay until the early morning, drinking wine, and hearing about Robert's messed up childhood. The next day, Mary and Colin are sitting in a cafe, nursing hangovers, and who should they see? Robert, of course. What a coincidence. He insists that they come to his home for a rest and stay for dinner, and although they are slightly apprehensive, Colin and Mary accept. Ok, red flags would have been flying if it were me. No way would I have gone to his house. Never go to the second location. Duh. But Colin and Mary accompany this complete stranger to his home, where they nap for several hours, and then have dinner with Robert and his wife, Caroline. Oh yea, and Caroline is totally weird. She admits that she watched them while they were sleeping. Even if I were stupid enough to have gone to this guy's house, I would have run out of there at that point. Not Colin and Mary. The dinner is somewhat awkward and uncomfortable and Colin and Mary eventually go back to their hotel and spend the next few days relaxing. Meanwhile, something about Robert is nagging at the back of Mary's mind, and when she finally puts her finger on it, she realizes that she saw a picture of Colin (taken from a distance) in Robert and Caroline's apartment. Do Colin and Mary call the police? Leave town? Nope. They do what everyone does when they realize they are being stalked: go back to Robert's house. Needless to say, things don't end well. The story had this ominous, foreboding feeling throughout, which I really liked. And I liked the general plot, the idea of both Robert and Caroline being totally nuts and luring this couple into their lives. But I was so stuck on how stupid Colin and Mary were for not recognizing that this couple was crazy, I couldn't stand them. That could have been done better. It also needed more exploration of the crazy, less dwelling on Colin and Mary's vacation sex.

I hope that Atonement isn't his crowning achievement and I am able to find something else I enjoy as much. Solar comes out in March, so maybe.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel

I really enjoy re-tellings of classical children's fairy tales, so that is probably why Louise Murphy's novel, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel caught my attention. The story takes place in Poland during WWII. A Jewish family escapes from the ghetto and is on the run from the Nazis. Hoping to at least save the children, the parents hide them in the forest. Telling them to forget their Jewish names, they are left with new names: Hansel and Gretel. The young children wander through the forest until coming upon a hut. They are intrigued by the bread that is tacked to the sides of the hut. Magda, the old woman who lives in the hut, takes the children in. Although many of the villagers call her a witch, she is a trusted healer and midwife. She is able to pass the children off as her grandchildren and cares for them during the waning days of the war. Meanwhile, the Russians are beginning to push the Nazis back, and the Nazis attempt to tighten their grip on the Poles. Of course, the Nazis do horrible things, which is not left out of this story, and everyone's survival is uncertain.

Although it's not a very cheerful novel (as these never are), it is a good story. The characters are quite remarkable, especially little Hansel, who is forced to grow up very quickly. The spirit and bravery of the villagers and the partisans keeps the story from feeling overwhelmingly bleak. I won't give away the ending, but there is a part toward the end that was completely unbelievable. I think I actually said out loud: "Oh, COME ON!" Despite this small disappointment, it's still a good read.

Friday, January 22, 2010

No soup for you!

The Soup Nazi is probably my favorite episode of Seinfeld. Anyone who has ever worked in any kind of customer service position will tell you that we secretly dream of telling difficult customers: "No [fill in your respective service] for you!" I didn't realize that this character is based on a real guy! I was just reading Alex Prud'homme's 1989 essay "Slave" from Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink thinking, "this guy sounds a lot like the Soup Nazi." Sure enough, Albert Yeganeh, the chef of New York's Soup Kitchen International, is the inspiration for this infamous character. Prud'homme describes a visit to the Soup Kitchen just as we see it on Seinfeld: a line of people out the door and down the block; have your order and money ready; no talking; place your order and move to the left; those who behave may get a side of bread. Yeganeh tells Prud'homme: "I tell you, I hate to work with the public. They treat me like a slave. My philosophy is: the customer is always wrong and I'm always right. I raised my prices to try to get rid of some of these people, but it didn't work." That must be some good soup.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More Cool Stuff I Learned in Books

Everyone has probably heard the rule about only eating oysters during months that contain the letter "R." I never really gave it much thought, but I always thought this had something to do with the oysters not being fresh during the off months. Like, maybe the oysters are old or something? It turns out that when the water temperatures get over 70 degrees (May-August), oysters will begin reproducing, and when the oyster is all full of sperm or eggs, they taste really gross. Also, oysters are capable of changing their sex. One year they can produce sperm, the next, eggs. Who knew?

Learned from: "On the Bay" by Bill Buford in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick.

Canterbury Tales

I know I read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in high school. I really don't remember anything about it, not even what the stories were about, but I do remember that I liked it and it was one of the books that sparked my interest in literature. So I picked up Peter Ackroyd's new translation to revisit the stories. And I cannot believe I read this in high school! Some of those tales are quite naughty! Don't get me wrong-I enjoy a saucy tale, but I cannot believe that my high school in my conservative small-town-in-the-middle-of-the-cornfields allowed us to read such naughtiness. Now I'm starting to think I was probably given some kind of abridged version that cut all that out. Either that, or our parents had never read them either, so they had no idea what we were reading.

What interested me the most though, was Ackroyd's introduction which gives a brief biography of Chaucer's life. I never realized that Chaucer was anything other than a writer, but it turns out that he was a royal servant, a customs official, a judge and member of parliament, and supervised the building works of the king. He was a busy guy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

More Cool Stuff I Learned From Books

Although I had read about this in Anthony Bourdain's book Typhoid Mary, The Deadly Dinner Party repeats the story, and I thought it was so interesting.

The most famous typhoid carrier in history was Mary Mallon, who later became known as Typhoid Mary. Born in Ireland in 1869, Mary came to New York City at the age of 14 and began working as a cook. In 1906, a wealthy New Yorker developed typhoid and a sanitary engineer with the New York City Health Department began investigating the cause. He found that Mary Mallon had been the family's cook. Upon further investigation into her background, he found that in every household that Mary had worked int he past 10 years, there had been an outbreak of typhoid. When Mary was confronted, she denied that she was at fault. She was arrested and quarantined in a hospital for 3 years. After promising to never work in a cooking position again, she was released. However, Mary continued working as a cook and more outbreaks were attributed to her. In 1915, she was apprehended and confined in quarantine for the rest of her life. Mary was responsible for at least 53 cases of typhoid and 3 deaths. Although there were 349 known typhoid carriers in New York City, Mary was the only one to be confined.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

All Cakes Considered

A producer of NPR's All Things Considered, Melissa Gray has compiled a collection of her favorite tried and true cake recipes into this fun collection, All Cakes Considered. In order to perfect some of her cake recipes, Melissa began baking a cake each week, which she would take in to her coworkers at NPR. Eventually it became a weekly tradition. Her reason for taking the cakes to work: "these people will eat anything." She mentions that when she brings her cake in on Monday morning, it will be gone in 90 minutes. "These people communicate and orchestrate their movements like army ants. They will appear suddenly in one long, continuous line, and they will ravish said cake. There will be nothing left. No crumbs. No icing....a chocolate cake at the office will be whittled down to the last quarter slice in less than 30 minutes." It's true, isn't it? Even at 9 a.m., people will devour a cake.

The recipes sound delicious: Sour Cream Pound Cake (aka the Man Catcher), Key Lime Cake, Drunken Monkey Banana Bread, Tunnel of Fudge Cake, Butter Rum Cake, Peppermint and Chocolate Rum Marble Cake (aka The Naughty Senator). Unfortunately, I was not able to test any of these recipes because I don't have a working oven in my new house yet, and I've found that baking in a toaster oven is a pain and does not yield great results.* So I was left with just the pictures and my imagination. I imagine I would line up like an army ant to get a piece of one of these cakes. The book begins with the easier recipes and works its way up to more advanced recipes. Readers are mean to start at the beginning and perfect the techniques of the easy cakes before moving on. She includes little stories about her family and coworkers with each recipe, which are lighthearted and fun. If I ever get a working kitchen, I'll be making some of these cakes for my coworkers.

*So much for my idea of a cookbook based on toaster oven cooking.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cool Stuff I Learned From Books

Those of you that know your Harry Potter, will remember that in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry uses a bezoar to save Ron from an accidental poisoning. We learned in potions class that a bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and is an antidote to most poisons.

It turns out that a bezoar isn't something J.K. Rowling just made up. A bezoar really is a solid mass, usually as hard as a rock, of partially digested material found in the stomach of ruminant animals like cows, sheep, deer, and goats. And in the past, people really did believe that bezoars could cure a variety of illnesses, including plague, jaundice, a weak heart, sexual impotency, and even snake bites. People can also develop bezoars. When hairs or vegetable fibers are ingested but not digested, a bezoar can accumulate in the stomach or bowel and cause an obstruction. Gross.

Learned from: "Feeling His Oats" in The Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories by Jonathan A. Edlow

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Deadly Dinner Party

I'm not generally a risk taker, but when it comes to food, I engage in some pretty risky eating behaviors. I eat food that has passed its expiration date. I'm not diligent about cooking meat to the correct temperatures. I like my tuna really really rare. I eat cookie/cake/brownie batter with raw eggs. I don't wash fruits and vegetables before eating them. Shocking, I know. But I like to live on the edge. Although after reading The Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories by Jonathan A. Edlow, I'm kind of afraid to eat anything.

This book is a compilation of puzzling medical cases. In many of these cases, the source of the illness came from food. From fish, to apple cider, to garlic, food has been the culprit of some pretty serious illnesses. Although some of the stories freaked me out, I still enjoyed this book. It reminded me of House, which is one of my favorite television shows. Although House is a doctor, he often has to think like a detective, examining seemingly insignificant details to diagnose the patient. The doctors involved with these cases also had to play detective to diagnose their patients and determine the origins of the illness. The methods of diagnosis are fascinating. The author also traces the history of each disease, describing how it was first discovered, and other famous cases, which is surprisingly interesting.

I learned several interesting pieces of trivia from this book, which I will begin featuring tomorrow in "Cool Stuff I Learned in Books." Stay tuned.