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 MiƩville 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 (, 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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cake Hangover

I'm nursing a cake hangover this morning, thanks to Leslie Miller. I knew her book Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt, would make me hungry for cake. Most food books make me crave the food it describes, but after reading page after page of descriptions of cakes and frostings, I could take it no longer. I'm ashamed to say that I actually went to the store and bought one of those bakery cakes with the enormous amounts of frosting. In my defense, it was a small cake and I didn't eat the entire thing, but I'm paying for it this morning.

When Miller takes a cake decorating class, she talks about the ingredients that most cake bakers use. More concerned with sculpting beautiful cakes, they aren't too concerned with the ingredients. Crisco is still the ingredient of choice! And all kinds of other artificial ingredients and flavors to make it taste real and fresh. Hydrogenated oils and trans fats galore. I always knew the frosting was bad, but I figured it was just a bunch of butter and sugar. Sure enough, when I got said cake home last night and looked at the label, it had a long, long list of ingredients I could barely pronounce, let alone recognize. Could that be why there is a funny taste in my mouth this morning?

Miller's exploration of the history and culture of cake, examination of small and large-scale bakeries, and her attempts at cake baking and decorating are certainly entertaining. But this book is dangerous. Cake lovers: your willpower will be tested.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Dairi Burger

Just a week ago I was reminiscing about the Sweet Valley Twins and was turned on to a blog by a librarian who is re-reading the Sweet Valley High series. Weren't those covers great? Those were the days....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Friend of the Family

A friend once told me that all literary fiction follows the same formula. The narrator introduces herself and, in effect, announces “Hi, I’m a brilliant young woman who’s going to tell you about my troubled family.” In her new novel A Friend of the Family, Laura Grodstein tackles not one but two troubled families linked by lifelong friendship and the budding romance between two of their children.

Alec, the narrator’s son, is a college dropout and aspiring artist at loose ends when he’s suddenly reacquainted with Laura, a beautiful family friend with a notorious past. As a teenager, Laura hid a pregnancy and may have murdered the resulting premature infant shortly after its birth. While Alec’s mother feels Laura deserves compassion and the benefit of the doubt, Alec’s father is less sure. In fact, Pete is horrified when Alec becomes involved with the older Laura. His desire to protect his son eventually borders on obsession and causes him to neglect other responsibilities with life-changing results.

Although the pacing of the novel seems a bit off, with too many plot complications hastily resolved at the end of the book, Grodstein excels at creating fascinating well-rounded characters and asking larger questions. How well do we know the people closest to us? Are we all capable of violence given the right circumstances? A Friend of the Family is an imperfect book but a worthwhile read with memorable characters and an intriguing plot.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Working in the Shadows

Some people complain that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. I've never understood this. I've never had a job that I felt in danger of losing to an immigrant. Outsourcing to another country? Maybe. But it has always seemed to me that most immigrants are working in the jobs that most Americans don't want, like cleaning our homes and offices, working in food services, manual labor, etc. So Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do piqued my interest. Gabriel decides to investigate some of the jobs that are known for employing large numbers of immigrants. His experiences make for some very interesting, and even entertaining, reading.

He starts by traveling to Yuma, Arizona to find a job cutting lettuce. When he inquires about a job, he raises a few eyebrows. Wouldn't he rather have a job in the plant? Or as a supervisor? When he insists that he is looking for a job cutting lettuce, he is repeatedly told that it is a very difficult job. White people do not take these jobs. And the few who have, haven't lasted more than a few days. He persists and is finally given a job in the fields. It is extremely difficult, back-breaking labor. He consistently suffers from pain in his back, feet and hands. Most of the people on his team are not actually immigrants, but residents of Mexico who are guest workers. They cross the border each day to work and return home in the evenings. In the U.S., they are able to make about $8 an hour, whereas in Mexico they would be lucky to make $12 for an entire day's worth of work.

After enduring two months in the lettuce fields (an astonishing feat for a white person), he travels to Alabama, where he hopes to find employment in a chicken processing plant. He finds that immigrants make up about a third of the plant's employees. He specifically applies for a job deboning chickens, which is known to be done mostly by immigrants. Again, eyebrows raise. Wouldn't he like an easier job? Although he is hired, he never is put in the deboning department, but is given jobs separating and packing the meat. He finds it to be extremely repetitive and mind-numbing, as well as disgusting and painful. He works the night shift, which is also hard on his body, never adjusting to sleeping during the day. But while he goes home in the morning, many of his coworkers go on to second jobs or home to take care of their children. Despite having a full-time job, and sometimes two jobs, most of his coworkers, immigrants and Americans, are barely getting by.

Finally, he moves on to New York City, where he first takes a job in the flower district, unloading flowers and making deliveries. All of his coworkers are immigrants, many undocumented. They aren't paid even minimum wage or overtime and are not allowed breaks, but the workers will not complain for fear of losing their jobs or being reported. After a week, Gabriel is fired, most likely because he is less compliant and unquestioning than his immigrant coworkers. He then takes a job as a delivery person for a restaurant. What I didn't know is that many immigrants will pay $100-$200 to a "referral agency" to find jobs. These jobs are the least desirable positions and often pay less than minimum wage. It is common practice to not pay overtime to immigrant workers and Gabriel finds that many immigrants will quit rather than complain.

Although it was a completely unscientific study, it was very eye-opening. While Gabriel can't really say whether immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans, it seems to me that the jobs he attempted were jobs that only very desperate Americans were willing to do anyway. Most of the companies he approached for work did not understand why he wanted these particular jobs, and many immediately offered him better positions. Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which I loved, gave me a new appreciation for the people who are trying to get by on minimum wage jobs, but Gabriel's experiences shed light on a whole other side of the American workforce that many of us know little about.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project has been getting a fair amount of attention, and I while I don't usually go for self-help or self-improvement books, I admit this intrigued me. Can someone make themselves happier (without medication)? And is happiness determined by outside factors? I've always felt that happiness is a state of mind-either you are or you aren't and there isn't much you can do to change that. Rubin claims that she is fairly happy, but she wanted to increase her happiness. To be all that she could be. She wants to see if she can increase her happiness by making some changes in her life, such as getting more rest, quit nagging, spend more time with friends, tackling difficult projects, make new friends, etc. Her project encompasses an entire year, each month focusing on a different aspect of her life, culminating in December, when she attempts to incorporate all of her resolutions. While many of her resolutions certainly had merit and are worth doing, I doubt their ability to increase true happiness. Certainly they will make life more orderly, run more smoothly, and allow time for enjoyable activities, but will these things make her happier? Maybe, but I'm skeptical. Upon telling a friend about her project, he quoted John Stuart Mill, saying: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be." I tend to agree. But I do admire her dedication to sticking to these resolutions, many of which I'd do well to incorporate into my own life. And I did take away some good ideas for better communication with my spouse and kids (if I had any).

Monday, April 5, 2010


When I was a girl, the Sweet Valley Twins series was my absolute fav! My mom always had to buy two copies of each book because my sister and I could/would not share or be expected to wait for the other to finish reading. I always considered myself more Elizabeth and my sister was like Jessica. (Although we aren't twins, I am sorry to say that we voluntarily chose to dress alike on many occasions.) Francine Pascal will bring Elizabeth and Jessica into adulthood in Sweet Valley Confidential, slated for publication in early 2011! Although I'm sure I can guess how things have turned out for the twins (gorgeous, successful, driving convertibles), it will be fun to revisit them. I'll have to buy two copies-one for me and one for my sister.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Rainbow in the Night

I finally read a nonfiction book that isn't about food! I ran across a review of A Rainbow in the Night by Dominique LaPierre in Booklist describing it as a "highly readable, detailed overview" of the history of South Africa. Since I know little to nothing about South Africa's history, this sounded like a good place to start. Booklist was right. It is a very readable overview of South Africa's history, from the first Dutch settlement through the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela's election as president. Although there are a lot of details, LaPierre's writing style is easy to read. He includes many personal testimonies from key figures in this history, which makes it a much more enjoyable read than if it were just factual information. I'm so glad I read this book. Although I knew what apartheid was, I had no idea the extent to which it was taken and how horribly people's civil rights were violated. I also didn't realize the level of violence that occurred. Some of it was so gruesome it was difficult to read. This was a good introduction to South African history and should definitely be required reading.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Old Man and the Kraken

That was no giant fish Santiago battled for days on the open sea, but the legendary Kraken! Popular mash-ups like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies open up a world of possibilities for writers looking for a way to make a name for themselves without having to come up with an original work. I am hard at work on my re-working of Hemingway's classic story. I feel he would be proud. Booklist's Likely Stories and Library Journal's ShelfRenewal offer some more possibilities. Let's hear from you: what would your mash-up be?