Saturday, June 30, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE: Barbara Kingsolver: HarperCollins: Nonfiction: 370 pages

Barbara Kingsolver, the acclaimed author of The Poisonwood Bible, with her husband and two daughters moved from Tucson to a farm in Virginia, where they lived for one year eating only what they produced themselves or what they could find locally produced. Interspersed with tales of raising turkeys and growing asparagus are short essays from Kingsolver’s husband about agriculture and ecology and recipes and meal plans from Kingsolver’s older daughter.

Put this on your shelf between Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette. It is PACKED with information and resources on organic farming and gardening, farmers’ markets, environmental legislation, home production, and more. Kingsolver's passionate and eloquent call for responsible eating sent me straight out to our local farmers' market.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Four Dorothys

THE FOUR DOROTHYS: Paul Ruditis: Simon Pulse: Young Adult: 236 pages

At the elite Orion Academy in Malibu, the spring musical is out of control. Four people are cast to play Dorothy, but mishaps keep knocking Dorothys out of the show. Brian Stark, aspiring comedian and best friend to the most talented Dorothy, narrates the drama swirling around the show as well as the romantic ups and downs of the cast.

This is pretty standard teen lit. Everybody’s here: the rich and evil girl who gets what she deserves in the end, the poor but talented charity student, the three best friends, and the super sports-playing boyfriend. Readers who like The Four Dorothys might also like Tyne O’Connell’s Calypso Chronicles and Jacquelyn Mitchard's Now You See Her.


Monday, June 25, 2007

French Women Don't Get Fat

FRENCH WOMEN DON'T GET FAT: Mireille Guiliano: Random House Audio Voices: Nonfiction: 2005: AudioCD--3 CDs/3 hrs .

Good news. Contrary to what the title intimates, French women aren’t genetically thin. And Mireille Guiliano shares the secrets they‘ve been hiding all these years. She relates how as a teenager she returned to France decidedly chubbier after living in America as an exchange student. Feeling fat and frumpy next to her girl friends, she learned how to slim down and keep it off through the help of “Dr. Miracle”, the local family physician. NOT a 10 step to-do list or 30-day diet plan, Mireille discloses each morsel of advice intertwined with personal anecdotes of her own efforts and success at what the French call "reducing". She writes it all in a lovely, essayist style she owes to her old countryman, Montaigne. For a diet book, it reads like a novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sadly, portion control is encouraged, and we all know Americans don’t like portion control. We want foreign secrets and immediate success—having our cake and eating it too. And it encourages making an actual event out of eating, not throwing something in your mouth on the way to the car or eating in front of the television. It’s not all leek soup and yogurt though, wine and c•h•o•c•o•l•a•t•e encouraged! Mais, bien sur(but, of course)—after all, she IS French. It’s sensible with more than a little exotic glamour. And the bonus is listening to the audiobook read in the author’s own, deliciously accented voice. With the endorsement by Oprah, how can you resist?

Vivé la France.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

'Salem's Lot

'SALEM'S LOT: Stephen King: Simon and Schuster Audio: 2004: Audio Book 15 Disks: Fiction

This was my first Stephen King novel, and for the first two thirds of the book I was convinced that Stephen King had been given a bad rap by censoring Mothers and snobby "literary" types. I was really charmed by the interactions of the small town, the developing relationship between the main character Ben and small town sweetheart Susan Norton, and the growing spookiness that seemed to settle increasingly on the town. Towards the end it got a bit too vampire crusady for me, and I could see how mom's might want to censor and snob literary types might want to reduce it to mere pulp horror fluff (if there is such a thing). HOWEVER, all and all I liked it. I was quit entertained, and found the storyline gripping during most of the narration.


Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras

COOKED: FROM THE STREETS TO THE STOVE, FROM COCAINE TO FOIE GRAS: Jeff Henderson: William Morrow Publishing: c2007: Biography: 275 pgs.

This ain’t yo mama’s cookbook. This is Jeff Henderson’s bio—and it isn’t for the faint of heart. Former gangsta’ and current chef du jour, Henderson recounts how he began life as a ghetto kid--cooking crack cocaine in the streets. The narrative seems commonplace enough and the usual stereotypes apply: black kid, poverty-stricken, no father, mother working 2 jobs, street crime turns into prison time. But that’s when the recipe changes because "Cooked" has an unconventional, fairy-tale ending.

But Henderson had no fairy godmother. After being sentenced to 20 years in prison, he drew lots and got stuck with dish duty. Except once he realized his street skills had value, he quickly became interested in the more creative aspects of cooking. It all started with smuggling Ramen Noodle seasoning packets into the kitchen from care packages sent to inmates at holidays. That’s when the nacho cheese sauce went from bland to kickin’. After tasting this culinary masterpiece, his brothers in the pen wanted more, and his spiced up sauce was only the beginning. And the tale goes on, following Jeff as he flambé(s) his way to his present status as executive chef of the illustrious 5-star restaurant at the Bellagio, Las Vegas.

To fit into his new lifestyle, Henderson was forced to re-image himself from a tattooed street thug into a Hollywood cover model. However, one thing Henderson didn’t leave in the streets was his use of expletives—he’s profane and prolifically so. I snapped up the book after listening to a riveting NPR interview with the master chef. But, if you don’t find vulgarity tasty be prepared for disappointment. If using certain profanities more than twice makes a movie rated ‘R’, then "Cooked" makes the cut starting page 2.



AUSTENLAND: Shannon Hale: Bloomsbury: 197 pages

Jane Hayes LOVES the BBC film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth (who doesn’t, really?), and nothing in real life is quite as perfect. In fact, Mr. Darcy has become an obsession and all the real men in Jane’s life fail to measure up to him. When her great-aunt dies and leaves her a vacation at Pembrook Park, an Austen-themed resort, Jane decides to indulge her fantasies one last time before kicking her Pride and Prejudice addiction for good.

This is a fun, quick, romantic read with plenty of references to Austen’s books and films. Unfortunately, the beginning and ending are weak, and the whole thing feels a little thin. The overall story idea is clever and Jane’s time at Pembrook Park is engaging, so Austen fans (and Shannon Hale fans) will probably still eat this up.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind The Images of 9/11

WATCHING THE WORLD CHANGE: THE STORIES BEHIND THE IMAGES OF 9/11: David Friend: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: 2006: Nonfiction: 435 pgs.

This is an amazing book for those who want to break free from the complacency of collective grief and allow themselves to appreciate individual suffering.

Like everyone else, I watched the newscasts over and over, ad infinitum, all day long on September 11, 2001. I’ve seen the images, photographs and journal articles that documented the catastrophe. I know about 9/11. But like many, the mass murder was just that—a "mass" murder. I don’t know anyone who lost their life. I don’t know anyone who even knows anyone who lost their life. It was horrific, but not on a specific, personal level. But David Friend changes that. Instead of merely knowing about 9/11, Friend allows you to know it.

David Friend, director of the documentary "9/11", collects hundreds of personal stories in "Watching the World Change"--a book which allows those on the periphery to know. In documentary style, Friend helps us know the affect of terrorism. He shares tiny details from the lives of the victims, their friends, and their families. He creates an inside, intimate perspective of each minute leading up to the attack, and then the minutes, hours, and days following it. Friend pieces the narrative vignettes together in a manner that illuminates the terror from numberless angles. He covers the fall of the Twin Towers, the Pennsylvania crash, the Pentagon disaster…everything. He even includes some of the more well known photos of Ground Zero, while explaining how each photographer and photograph came to be.

‘Never Forget’--the epitaph some people attribute to that day--seems to have been Friend’s mantra. And for me, while reading story after story, the people killed by the terrorist attacks have become more than just 'stories'. "Watching the World Change" makes it impossible to forget.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Water for Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: Algonquin Books: April 2007: Fiction: 355

I was completely charmed by this delightful, though sometimes gritty, story about a second rate circus in the 30’s. Jacob Jankowski narrates the story as his 93 year old self and shares how a young Ivy League educated veterinarian ends up running away with the circus. Jacob should have been on the fast track to joining his father’s veterinarian practice, but instead he gets tangled up with the Benzini Brothers Circus including a polish speaking elephant, and her rider, Marlena, who he soon grows to desperately love. Of course Marlena is already married to the erratic and abusive animal trainer, August, but when he crosses the line she is determined to run away with Jacob.

This book exposed a really interesting aspect of the depression, as the Benzini Brothers Circus followed collapsing circuses across the United States in order to “collect” the remains. It was a great historical piece that truly captured the glamor and the feel of the 1930’s circus. This book takes a bit of a twist in the end and even though I don’t usually like a neatly tied up ending, I was absolutely sold on everyone’s happy endings this time. A great, simple story.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007


INFIDEL: Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Free Press: Biography: 353 pages.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born to a Muslim family in Somalia but as a child she lived in several countries including Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Her story is gripping. Her developing years, set amid the poverty and chaos of Somalia and Kenya, were spent in a family steeped in conservative Muslim faith but still deeply connected to tribal African traditions which included genital mutilation. As a teenager she voluntarily wore the hijab, the black cloak that protects a woman’s modesty in Islamic custom, and tried very hard to understand the Koran and be a true believer. Gradually, she came to reject the treatment of women in her society. When she was forced into an arranged marriage she traveled to Germany and then Holland, where she asked for asylum. In Holland she gradually qualified herself to become a Dutch citizen, obtained a college education and began testing and rejecting various teachings from her youth. Once she could speak Dutch she worked as a translator helping other immigrants, which gave her a comprehensive understanding of the plight of refugee families, particularly women. She eventually ran for the Dutch Parliament on a strong and controversial platform of immigrant issues.

Her views not only created controversy among the Dutch, but marked her as an infidel to Islam. The film director Theo Van Gogh was killed by a Muslim immigrant after helping Hirsi Ali create a film titled “Submission” about forced marriages of Muslim women and wife beating. From that time on Hirsi Ali required bodyguards to protect her life and eventually was forced to leave Holland to live in the United States.

Like Irshad Manji (Canadian Muslim woman of Pakistani parents) and Nonie Darwish (an American raised in Egypt), Hirsi Ali is pointed in her criticism of the treatment of women in Islamic societies. She also makes it very clear that she believes the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2007 are firmly rooted in and are inevitable products of Islamic fundamentalist movements that have been increasing in strength all over the world in the last 30 years. This book is an amazing personal story and also an eye-opening view of cultures and beliefs that are completely unknown to most of us.


Book of Air and Shadows

BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS: Michael Gruber: William Morrow: Fiction: 466 pages

Richard Bracegirdle was born in 1590 and led a rather adventurous life. He tells his story just before his death through a series of letters left to his wife. As his story unfolds he tells of becoming a spy sent to find or create proof that the successful playwright William Shakespeare was a papist. Accompanying his final confession are ciphered letters telling what he found through his dealings with Mr. Shakespeare. These documents are found in the present day and they bring unwanted drama to the lives of all those associated with them and death to a number of them.

Gruber’s story is filled with twists and turns and keeps you reading, though I have to admit I never felt compelled to keep reading and I didn’t ever feel very invested in the characters. A good read-a-like for readers of the Da Vinci Code, though it isn’t quite as gripping, it’s still intriguing and a good summer read.


Now They Call Me Infidel

NOW THEY CALL MY INFIDEL: Nonie Darwish: Sentinel (Penguin): Biography: 258 pages.

As head of Arabs for Israel, Nonie Darwish has certainly taken an unusual and difficult position for a Muslim woman. Daughter of a high-ranking military officer under Nasser, Nonie’s father was killed by a bomb delivered to his office while serving in Gaza in 1956. Deprived of her father at a young age, Nonie grew up questioning and wondering why her father had to die, why it was glorious to die as a “shahid” as her father had, why dying could be considered better than living? The answers weren’t easy to find in a culture that glorifies jihad against Israel, teaches hate for Jews, and rigidly controls and censors the actions of women. She eventually came to the United States in 1978 but after September 11, 2007, realized she had to speak out about the origins of terrorism in the teachings of Islamic fundamentalists and the propaganda of Middle Eastern dictators.

This is a very readable book. She offers personal and important insights into Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Along with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji she asks Muslims to closely examine the teachings of their faith and their national cultures and take a stand for tolerance and peace with other religions and nations.


Thursday, June 7, 2007

Edenville Owls

EDENVILLE OWLS; Robert B. Parker; Philomel; Young Adult; 2007; 224 pp.
Bobby and his friends are coming of age just after World War II, and are confronted with a mystery when Bobby sees a creepy-looking guy terrorizing his new teacher. Miss Delaney begs him to forget about it, but Bobby, his friend Joanie, and his pickup basketball team decide to do what they can to protect their teacher. At the same time, the boys form a basketball team, the Edenville Owls, and without a coach try to prepare themselves to enter the district tournament.
Tension on the sports front and suspense on the teacher front, and Parker's pithy dialogue make this a fast and entertaining read. Troublesome aspects include frequent use of ugly racial epithets which though all-too-normal for the time, seem obscene to the modern ear; also, the teens have a more saintly aspect than seems quite normal. Mr. Parker's making himself the hero of this autobiographical tale might be annoying to adults, but kids won't care.


Confessions of an Unbalanced Woman

CONFESSIONS OF AN UNBALANCED WOMAN: Emily Watts: Deseret Book: Nonfiction: 58 pages

Watts is a wife, mother, homemaker, and editor. She pulls from her life experience to discuss what balance is. Filled with funny metaphors, touching stories, and scriptures, this short self-help book lays out a pattern to give perspective about what balance truly is and how to keep it.

I’ll admit I picked this up because I liked the title and cover. It is an incredibly quick read which was just want I needed. Not quite a short story, it’s closer to religious words of wisdom from a humorous perspective. If you’re looking for a little encouragement and a fast self-help book to get at the root of what life is really all about this is it.


Notes from the Midnight Driver

NOTES FROM THE MIDNIGHT DRIVER; Jordan Sonnenblick; Scholastic; 2006; Young Adult; 272pp.
Good kid Alex Gregory is so upset over his parents' divorce that he gets likkered up, steals his mom's car, and heads to his father's girlfriend's house to demand satisfaction. Unfortunately he lurches into a neighbor's yard, beheads a lawn gnome, and winds up doing 100 hours of public service for a cranky old man at a retirement home. Notes from a Midnight Driver has many familiar elements: Alex is horrified by Sol's mocking behavior, and by his Yiddish
name-calling. By and by he and Sol start getting along, find a common interest, and Alex grows up. What distinguishes this book from others of its kind is its laugh-out-loud good humor. Alex and his friend Joanie are a couple of big-league crack-ups, and Alex's growing understanding of what it means to be compassionate and responsible is nourishing indeed.


Monday, June 4, 2007

I Heard That Song Before

I HEARD THAT SONG BEFORE: Mary Higgins Clark: Simon & Schuster: Mystery: 318 pages

At the center of her novel is Kay Lansing, who has grown up in Englewood, New Jersey, daughter of the landscaper to the wealthy and powerful Carrington family. Their mansion -- a historic seventeenth-century manor house transported stone by stone from Wales in 1848 -- has a hidden chapel. One day, accompanying her father to work, six-year-old Kay succumbs to curiosity and sneaks into the chapel. There, she overhears a quarrel between a man and a woman who is demanding money from him. When she says that this will be the last time, his caustic response is: "I heard that song before."
That same evening, the Carringtons hold a formal dinner dance after which Peter Carrington, a student at Princeton, drives home Susan Althorp, the eighteen-year-old daughter of neighbors. While her parents hear her come in, she is not in her room the next morning and is never seen or heard from again.

As much as I have enjoyed Mary Higgins Clark in the past, this wasn’t my favorite from her. It seemed like it took so long for the story to begin. I almost figured out “who did it” by the end, but most of the characters I just didn’t really get that interested in. Not her best, but still a good read.


A Thousand Splendid Suns

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS; Khaled Hosseini; Penguin; 2007; Fiction

Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns," like "The Kite Runner" before it, is both heartbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful. Hosseini tells the story of two Afghan women--Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Kabul businessman who is married to a much older man to get her out of the household, and Laila who, through a series of disasters which you should be allowed to encounter as the story unfolds, is separated from her one true love and forced into a loveless and abusive marriage.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is dedicated to "the women of Afghanistan," and the text is charged with the relentless, hopeless constraint of their lives during the Soviet occupation and the reign of the Taliban. Hosseini's story is of interior lives, in both meanings of the phrase. Afghan women must physically live indoors, not allowed outside without a man, and likewise must never express their true feelings. It would seem impossible to find redemption in such lives, but redemption does come. How could we not remember these two women forever?