Friday, November 30, 2012

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn
Published September 2008 by Penguin Group
Source: I bought my copy after reading Flinn's The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Publisher's Summary:

This is the funny and inspiring account of Kathleen Flinn’s struggle in a stew of hot-tempered chefs, competitive classmates, her own “wretchedly inadequate” French, and the basics of French cuisine. Flinn was a thirty-six-year-old middle manager trapped on the corporate ladder—until her boss eliminated her job. So she cashed in her savings and moved to Paris to pursue her lifelong dream of attending the venerable Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.  

My Thoughts:

Having read The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, I had some idea going into this book what Flinn's writing style would be; even so, I was surprised by her willingness to be self-deprecating. I admired her courage in pursuing her dream, a dream she had had since she was a little girl. When you were having a play tea party, she was running a pretend restaurant. But she is the first to admit that she was woefully ill prepared for the coursework and for living in Paris.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry is as much a book about Flinn's romance with her now-husband, Mike and I must admit that I could have done with a little less of the romance and a little more about their time spent exploring Paris when Flinn wasn't in school. When Julia Child's wrote My Life In France, she found a way to meld  her life with husband, Paul, with the culture and food of France beautifully. On the other hand, I learned a lot more about the way the school teaches from Flinn than I did from Child. I also learned that I like to buy meat that retains no resemblance to the animal it came from. In France, apparently, rabbits are sold whole, skinned but with the head still you'll know you're not buying a cat. Really.

Some reviews have given Flinn some grief for using food as a metaphor for life lessons. Which seems a little silly to me; this is, after all, a person who was making major life changes while spending every day with food. Give the girl a break people. And it's true, the sharper your knife, the less you cry. Also the easier it will be to get stitches. Just sayin'.

As with her previous book (well, not her previous book but the book she'd written later but which I read first - would have been much faster just to name it; I see that now), Flinn includes recipes at the end of every chapter. These are more complicated, but definitely scaled down from the inspiration food prepared in the chapter and there are definitely some here I will be trying.

That wraps up this year's edition of Fall Feasting. Once again I didn't get anywhere near to reading all of the foodie books on my shelf. Which, as it turns out, sets me up perfectly for one of 2013's reading challenges. Or next year's Fall Feasting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Originally published in 1945 by Viking
Source: Sometimes it's a good thing my husband never got rid of a book in got in college - that's where we got our copy which was published in 1981 by Bantam

Publisher's Summary:

Cannery Row paints a picture of West Coast neighborhood life in the era following the Great Depression. Mack, the leader of a group of local bums, decides that he wants to do something nice for Doc, a marine biologist and neighborhood genius, so he throws Doc a party in his lab. When Doc returns home—late because he was doing research on the seashore—the party is already over and his lab has been trashed. Ashamed of the mess they’ve made, Mack and his friends make another attempt at celebrating Doc, this time with more success. A series of vignettes, introducing other residents such as Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer who extends credit to help Mack with his party, and Dora, the kind-hearted madam of the local brothel, complements the main story and offers a rich panorama of life on Cannery Row.  

My Thoughts: 
Well color me embarrassed. I've avoided Cannery Row (much as I have all of Steinbeck) for decades because I had this impression in my mind that it would be a story dripping with testosterone and depressing as hell. Well, sure it is a novella largely populated by men, but it never feels like a book solely written to appeal to men. And it is not, in any way, depressing. It is, at it's heart, about friendship, camaraderie, and being content with the life you have. There is a couple that lives in an old locomotive boiler for heaven's sake, and they are just fine with that.

Using a series of vignettes to introduce his characters, Steinbeck weaves their subplots into the greater plot. Although, to be honest, it's not really much of a plot, more of a way to tie all of the characters together. And what great characters they are. Most are more flawed than not but Steinbeck takes care to portray the good as well as the bad. Mack and his friends have no qualms about stealing the things they need or manipulating people to get what they want yet they twice work together to plan a party for Doc.

And let's be honest, nobody writes like Steinbeck, whether or not you like his stories:
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust, and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots, and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
You can just picture it, can't you? Three Steinbeck novellas, two successes. I think I'm just about ready to tackle one of the biggies. Anyone up for an East of Eden readalong?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Salon - November 25

Good morning, all! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and survived Black Friday. We were remarkably sane in our Black Friday shopping (having had such a miserable experience last year) even though we did head out the door at 5:30 a.m. We refused to shop on Thanksgiving - we were all in agreement that employees should not have to give up that day - and we were not in the least interested in being at any store when the doors opened. We may have missed a couple of things we were interested in but all came home with plenty of great buys and our sanity.

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Oh yeah, it's Christmas music time! One of my favorites is Neal and Leandra's "Listen To The Angels." Have I mentioned before how much I love this duo? Yeah, I probably have.

Watching: "Gone With The Wind" and "Midway" with my extended family the way only we can do it. Which is to say that "Gone With The Wind" is now R-rated and politically incorrect. "Midway," a very serious World War II movie by any standard, is a raucous comedy (and also politically incorrect) complete with prop flotation devices and [candy] cigarettes. For next year's annual viewing goggles and scarves will be added. It's our own "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

photo courtesy of Lora Higgins

Reading: Still Cannery Row. Haven't picked up a book in more than two days. I will finish it today and then I really am getting on to The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn to finish up Fall Feasting. What are you reading this week?

Making: The house look Christmasy this week. Just when I got all of the storage boxes into their new homes, it's time to pull them all back out again. It's going to take a while this year as I'm planning on changing things up and adding some new things.

Planning: Despite a rather extended reading slump which I still haven't worked my way through, hope springs eternal and I'm starting to make reading plans for 2013. I'll no longer be hosting the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge (even I haven't done a good job with it) but I am pondering a challenge for great American authors (you know, Steinbeck, Welty, Wharton, Twain, Hemingway). What do you think?

Grateful for: Family - the one I was born into and the one I was blessed to marry into. 

Loving: Albuteral. I've caught a bug that's set off my asthma and I spent the entire week sounding like a person with a 60 year, 2-pack a day habit but at least I had the thing I needed to keep going. How did asthmatics survive without this??

Looking forward to: Well, I think that's pretty obvious! Last year I had such a miserable December between working eighty hours a week and battling gallstones. This year I am bound and determined to savor the season just as I've enjoyed the fall.

What are you looking forward to this week?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Guest Reviews: C.B. DeMille: The Man Who Invented Hollywood by Robert Hammond

C.B DeMille The Man Who Invented Hollywood by Robert Hammond
Published August 2012 by New Way Press
Source: our copy courtesy of the author in exchange for this review

When this book was offered to me, I knew I wasn't going to have time to get to it in, say, the next couple of years. But I thought it might be something The Big Guy would like - and it's just his length! I'm not sure the publisher's summary makes it clear, but this is a novel, not a biography.

Publisher's Summary:

The epic adventure of visionary filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille who established Hollywood as the film capital of the world. DeMille was the creative force behind Paramount Pictures with seventy feature films to his credit, including such epics as The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and the Greatest Show on Earth. C.B. DeMille reveals his struggle to make Biblical epics against the greed of New York moneymen and the allure of California starlets.
The Big Guy's Thoughts:

This book states that it is a novel and has a lengthy disclaimer discussing that it has certain situations, characterizations and conversations that were created for literary entertainment and educational purposes. It reads more like a biography in that it has mostly believable conversations, settings and facts that seem consistent with the time frame and how one would believe a Hollywood mogul to speak and act.

Being a cat of the attention deficit variety that I am, I appreciated the novel.  It was a way for me to get what I presume are fairly accurate facts and a flavor for C.B. DeMille, his family, some of the actors and the Hollywood setting over the course of his life.  I was able to get all of this in a 160 page book with fairly large print that can be easily read in a few evenings.   In most biographies we have to wade through gallons of facts and figures and learn all details of the subject's life from the time they are pooping their pants until they are again pooping their pants.

I can tell Mr. Hammond was a screen writer as he boiled it down to the essential parts like a movie, where time does not allow for excess and the dialog is tight and believable. For those like myself that like history, the movies and the aura of California from bygone years before the term Californication was invented it was an enjoyable romp.

ROBERT HAMMOND is an award-winning writer, producer, and screenwriting instructor. He has authored ten self-help books and is a popular national speaker on the subject of personal and professional achievement. He has an MFA in Creative Writing and develops literary properties for film and television. Hammond is the author of Ready When You Are: Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments for Success and the novel/adapted screenplay C.B. DeMille: The Greatest Showman on Earth - soon to be a major motion picture.

Thanks Big Guy - another unique review! Although after the "pooping their pants" comment, I may have to relegate you to reviews of children's books!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing All Of My U.S. Readers A Happy Thanksgiving!

Love children's books for all of the holidays? Here are some that were popular with the kids in Chez Shepp:

My First Thanksgiving by Tomie dePaola

If You Were At...The First Thanksgiving by Anne Kamma

A Turkey For Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey

N. C. Wyeth's Pilgrims by Robert San Souci

We didn't actually have this last one, it's just one I found that would have been perfect for Grandpa K to read with the grandkids!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published January 2007 by Penguin Group
Source: I bought this one

Publisher's Summary:

After a messy divorce and other personal missteps, Elizabeth Gilbert confronts the "twin goons" of depression and loneliness by traveling to three countries that she intuited had something she was seeking. First, in Italy, she seeks to master the art of pleasure by indulging her senses. Then, in an Indian ashram, she learns the rigors and liberation of mind-exalting hours of meditation. Her final destination is Bali, where she achieves a precarious, yet precious equilibrium.

My thoughts: 

 This one took me for a ride. I loved the descriptions of the food and towns in Italy, I "got" Gilbert's sense of humor, and people Gilbert met in Bali were so interesting On the other hand, I finally took to skimming the chapters set in India. It's not that I had a problem with learning about Gilbert's experiences at the Ashram or even learning about Yoga. But, dang, it felt like a tutorial on Yoga and gurus and self-awareness at times and I finally had to just acknowledge that there was no way I was going to get through this without skimming.  Perhaps this section suffered in comparison as well because the reader learns almost nothing about India whereas Gilbert did a fine job of teaching me new things about the history and lifestyles of both Italy and Bali.

I always have a problem with books turned into movies. Should I see the movie first so I don't risk being disappointed by the adaptation or read the book first so I don't spend the entire book with the actors in my head instead of forming my own impressions?  The other problem with this second option is that I still spend the entire time comparing the book and the movie. I spent all of this book thinking "well, this is different than the movie," or "ah, so they combined these two scenes in the movie," or "this wasn't in the movie at all." Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing; I think they did a fine job of adapting the book and it was a comparison that held up well (except the ending - I liked the ending in the movie much better but then it was probably one of the very reasons that critics didn't love the movie).

Is Eat, Pray, Love self-indulgent at times? Yes. Did I sometimes want to slap Gilbert upside the head and tell her to just get over it? Yes. But I liked this book...a lot It made me think, it made me laugh and that's enough.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
Published September 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: purchased for reading with the Omaha Bookworms

Publisher's Summary:

In pre-war Prague, the dreams of two young lovers are shattered when they are separated by the Nazi invasion. Then, decades later, thousands of miles away in New York, there's an inescapable glance of recognition between two strangers. Providence is giving Lenka and Josef one more chance.

My Summary:

Because, wow, that summary really doesn't give the least glimpse into what this book is about. It's true that Joseph and Lenka are reunited decades after they are separated but the book both opens and closes with the two of them recognizing each other and the improbable wedding of their grandchildren but there is little more than that between them, perhaps twenty pages total.

In between those two scenes, we meet Joseph and Lenka, children of well-to-do Jewish families in pre-WWII Prague who have never wanted for anything. The pair meet through his sister who is her best friend and fall in love without anyone in their families knowing. When the Nazis begin moving into Czechoslovakia, Joseph's family makes plans to leave. Knowing that the only way to save Lenka is to marry her and take her with him as part of the family, Joseph asks Lenka to marry him. She believes that he will be able to arrange safe passage for her entire family. When she finds out on the day after their marriage that he can't, she makes the agonizing decision to stay behind with her family.

Through dual narratives, Richman moves back and forth in time following both Joseph and Lenka as he adjusts to life alone in the United States and she lives through Terazin, one of the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis, and Auschwitz both of them believing that the other has died.

I have, as I suppose most of you do, a hard time reading books about the Jewish experience during World War II. There are no happy endings. Even those who survived carry with them pain that can never fully be erased. The other problem for me is the question as to why the author is writing about the subject. Do they really offer anything new on the subject or will this just be another attempt to put into words something that is almost impossible to describe? I was leery as the book led up to Lenka's family be removed from Prague.

Richman managed to bring something new to my understanding of what happened to the Jews during this horrible time by putting Lenka's family in Terezin. By putting Lenka and her mother into work assignments that allowed them interaction with the artwork done at Terezin, she allowed me to learn not only about the artwork the Jews were forced to do for the Nazis but about the way the Jews used artwork as a means of rebellion. Lenka is first placed in an area where Jews with artistic talent are forced to paint reproductions of great masterworks and postcards. Her mother is a teacher in the school the Jews were able to maintain for the children. All of those involved in any area where they had access to art supplies stole as much as they could so that they could continue to create and so that they could pass supplies onto the children. So of what the adults did was smuggled out as a means to show the world what was happening to them. Most was hidden.

As I am prone to do when reading historical fiction, particularly when I'm planning on discussing it with my book club, I try to learn how much of the book is based on fact. Certainly Richman made up some of the characters Lenka is involved with in her time at Terezin, but many of them were real people. Art really was used as a way to rebel and the children really did create artwork. After the war, over 4000 works of art created by the children and hidden by their teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, were discovered.

I can't say that I cared much for the story of Lenka and Joseph; I found it to be a little contrived and melodramatic. But I very much appreciated the opportunity to learn about the art of Terezin and, along with that, the incredible capacity of mankind to fight back in any way they can. Unfortunately, none of the other Bookworms had read the book so I wasn't even able to discuss this with them.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Salon - November 18

Happy Thanksgiving week! Why yes, I have already been taking sneak peek at Black Friday sale ads this week but I will, almost definitely, not be among those shopping on Thanksgiving. I hate that so many stores are going to be open and not allowing their employees the time to be with their families.

Fall Feasting reading continues for me this week. I'll be finishing up Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and then I think I'll start The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Finn. What are you reading this week?

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Flogging Molly after watching them on Austin City Limits. All five of us like them and the boys have seen them a couple of times - they have amazing energy when they perform. I describe them as "Irish folk punk." In 37 years, Austin City Limits has never had a mosh pit before - they did last night. The regulars looked a little peeved!

On CD I've started The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I've only just started but so far I'm not sure that it's going to make the best book for me to try to listen to while I'm driving. May have to keep the physical book handy to go over when I get home if I feel like I've missed something.

Watching: The final home game of the season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Sure, I watch them every week but this week was special. Our Athletic Director, Tom Osborne, is retiring this year so this was his farewell. He has been involved with the Husker football program in some way (player, assistant coach, coach, and athletic director) for 500 games. Osborne is revered in Nebraska as much for his integrity and class as for his national championships.

Cooking: Nothing. Zip. Zilch. The Big Guy was out of town most of the week and with both of the kids working most evenings, it was just me and I was pretty lazy about my meals. This week, of course, there will be Thanksgiving goodies to be prepared.

Making: A crafting area (finally!) in my basement with everything in one place, organized, well-lit, and a table to work on. The kids and I are going to love this. Have I mentioned before that Mini-him is seriously into crafting? He has even opened a Pinterest account.

Grateful for: My job. As frustrated as I can get with the phone calls, my company is really a great place to work. They treat their employees well, run their company well, and are constantly giving back to the community. It's nice to be part of a company that's so positive after what I went through with my last job.

Happy about: Having Mini-him's cats here. There, I said it. I'm  not one who needs to have people around all of the time but it was nice to have the cats around when I was alone so much of the week otherwise. And, truly, I am feeling that they are helping reduce my stress level.

Looking forward to: Thanksgiving and spending time with my family. It looks like we'll have good weather which will make my family's traditions easier (field goal kicking when it's freezing out isn't nearly as much fun). My mother-in-law will be coming to stay for a couple of days. I'm thinking it might be time to have her try to teach me to knit again. And definitely time to have her try to teach me how to make pie crust. She makes the best pie crust!

Friday, November 16, 2012

All Things In Common

It's been a long time since I did an "All Things In Common" post, a feature where I talk about the book I'm reading that have surprising things in common. Sometimes a name will reappear from one book to the next. Sometimes, a particular event will occur in one book and two books later, the same event shows up. Themes seem to recur without any effort on my part to read books revolving around a particular theme. This week the surprising thing I found in common between two books I've been reading was the 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, more commonly known simply as Dante.

 Dante is best known for his Divine Comedy, particularly the third of the book called Inferno in which the Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through the nine circles of hell. The Matthew Pearl's debut novel, The Dante Club, a group of poets, including some historical figures, band together to assist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in translating Divine Comedy from Italian to the first English translation (which is fact) and end up helping to solve a series of murders based on the punishments depicted in Inferno (which is fiction). Clearly I was aware that this book would involve Dante when I popped that first CD into the player.

The surprise came on the same day I finished listening to The Dante Club when I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love at lunch. In explaining why she wanted to learn to speak Italian, Gilbert explained the reason the Italian language is so beautiful and poetic. It turns out that what is now thought of as "Italian" is based on Dante's written dialect, particularly the language of Florence in his time but not strictly limited to it. Prior to the Renaissance, the various city/states of Italy each had their own language but in the 16th-century a debate began in an effort to find one common language.

Well, damn, there I go again, reading strictly for pleasure and having my brain just stuffed full of new and interesting information, some of which might even be useful some day. Heck, The Dante Club made me even seriously consider reading Dante, if for no other reason than that not having read it makes me feel far inferior to 19th-century readers. Those folks demanded four printings of Longfellow's translation of Divine Comedy in the first year of its publication. In this century we've turned Fifty Shades of Grey into a best seller. Just sayin'.

Do you ever notice coincidences like this in your reading?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Book Club Cook Book by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp

The Book Club Cook Book by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp
Revised edition published March 2012 by Tarcher
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

Last year I read and reviewed Gelman's and Krupp's Table of Contents. Having enjoyed it, I was delighted to see that Gelman and Krupp had another collection combining books, recipes and book club stories. In The Book Club Cook Book, the ladies have put selected 100 books read by book clubs all over the country, including obvious choices such as The Help by Katheryn Stockett and Chocolat by Joanne Harris, to include in the collection. The starting point is obviously the book but from there the authors include the recipes and  "Novel Thoughts" and "Food For Thought," anecdotes from book clubs that have read the book sharing their food pairings and thoughts on the book.

My book club has only rarely tried to tie in the food we serve at meetings with the books we've read but there are a lot of book clubs that put a lot of thought into these things. Many of the book clubs also happen to be comprised of people with culinary experience and they often serve full meals based on the books, such as the meal served by one club after reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Their meal included stuffed grape leaves, marinated olives and spanakopita.

Many of the recipes included are Gelman's and Krupp's versions of books featured in the books or which might be appropriate to the setting of the book. Still others come from the authors themselves, such as Rebecca Skloot's (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) recipe for Chicken Diable and Chris Cleeve's (Little Bee) wife's recipe for Post-Colonial Pie. Perhaps most impressive is a recipe contributed by Queen Noor of Jordan paired with a book about her life, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life.

Cookbooks are dangerous things, bond to increase the number of recipes you want to try. This cookbook not only added a huge number of recipes to my to-try list (and another book to my shelf) but a couple of dozen more books to my to-read list. I love getting this combination of book ideas, food ideas, and thoughts for discussion that both Table of Contents and The Book Club Cook Book offer. Now I just need to get my book club talked into trying some of these combinations!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris

Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
Published: October 2012 by Penguin Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

Publisher's Synopsis:

When Vianne Rocher receives a letter from beyond the grave, she has no choice but to follow the wind that blows her back to Lansquenet, the beautiful French village in which eight years ago she opened a chocolate shop and first learned the meaning of home. But returning to one’s past can be a dangerous pursuit. Vianne, with her daughters, Anouk and Rosette, finds Lansquenet changed in unexpected ways: women veiled in black, the scent of spices and peppermint tea—and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the church, a minaret. Most surprising of all, her old nemesis, Father Francis Reynaud, desperately needs her help.

My thoughts: 

I have loved Vianne Rocher since I first met her in the movie version of Harris' Chocolat so I was delighted to see that Harris had not only written another chapter in her life but also that Vianne and her family would be returning to Lansquenet where readers first met her. In Peaches for Father Francis Vianne's magic is less present, her doubts more obvious, and Harris' lesson a little less subtle.

This time Vianne, who is now living in Paris with her family, receives a letter from her friend, Armande, forwarded to her by Armande's grandson, Luc. Vianne is surprised to find that, in a letter written before she died, Armande has asked Vianne to return to Lasquenet, predicting from the past the precise moment when the village will be in need of Vianne's particular kind of magic. A community of Muslims has settled in an area of Lansquenet which had long ago been abandoned. For many years the Catholic natives and the Muslim immigrants have lived together with very few problems. When a new man moves to town attitudes begin to change and when his sister, Ines Bencharki follows him to town, prejudices and hatred rear their ugly heads.

Harris spends a lot of this book focused on Father Francis Reynaud, Vianne's nemesis in Chocolat and the moral compass of the village. In fact, Harris uses dual narration with both Vianne and Reynaud moving the story forward. In addition to the conflict between the two factions of the village, both Vianne and Reynaud are wrestling with their own issues. Vianne has cause to doubt her relationship with Roux and Reynaud is struggling with changes in the church and his place in it. This was actually a problem for me as I struggled to determine which character was the focus of the book. Father Francis is, after all, the character in the title. But these are Vianne's stories. And then there is the mystery of Ines Bencharki.

It felt like a Harris tried to do too much in this one and I wondered if Harris felt that she had done as much as she could other than bring Vianne "home." Yet the book ends with a question as to whether or not Vianne and her family will stay together and whether or not they will stay in Lansquenet or return to Paris. It's clear that Harris intends to write another book in this series. I suppose if I think of this as a book that puts Vianne in position for her next story and also happens to tell the story of Ines Bencharki versus Father Francis, then that works for me. Oh heck, who am I kidding? I liked this book regardless of its flaws. I can vividly picture the village, the characters who inhabit it and I was happy to spend time with Vianne again. It just wasn't my favorite.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Library Book Sales Are Dangerous!

What is the one thing that someone battling her way out of a reading slump does not need? That's right, more books. Yet I am drawn like a moth to the flame by the weekly Friends of the Omaha Public Library Book Sale. Weekly. Just a few blocks from where I work. Open only on Thursdays, the day I get off work early. Seriously people, the only thing that saves me is the fact that they only take checks or cash, both of which I don't always have on me.So recently I've walked out with only one or two books. Thursday I had a crisp new twenty dollar bill. And that's how I came home with five books on audio, four paperbacks, one hardcover and $3.75 in change.

Here's what I picked up on audio:

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl - this is the one I popped in the CD player as I left the library. When the lead in music was from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, I liked the book already.

The Brief and Wonder Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - Diaz just won a Genius award so that means I had to buy this one, right?

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant - I read The Red Tent a couple of years ago but I hadn't heard of this one.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam -I actually own this one in paperback. I've owned it for several years; maybe now I'll finally get to it.

Paper Towns by John Green -My first John Green - I've been hearing great things about him so I decided it was time to try another young adult book.

In paperback I picked up:

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell - this is one that's been on my wish list for a while

Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes - I've seen the movie adaptation starring Diane Lane. I understand the book is quite a bit different but still...Tuscany? How can you go wrong?

A Thousand Days In Venice by Marlena De Blasi - this one was recommended to me by my aunt and uncle some time ago. 

A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle - which the volunteer at the sale told me I must read with a glass of wine in my hand. I can do that.

And for a measly quarter, I found A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Every time I go to the sale, I learn something new. This time it was that anything with a red X is only a quarter. This could be a very bad thing to have learned!

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty
Published July 2003, audio by Recorded Books LLC
Source: I found this one for $2 at my library book sale

Publisher's Summary:

  In Laura Moriarty's extraordinary first novel, a young girl tries to make sense of an unruly world spinning around her. Growing up with a single mother who is chronically out of work and dating a married man, 10-year old Evelyn Bucknow learns early how to fend for herself. Offering an affecting portrayal of a troubled mother/daughter relationship, one in which the daughter is very often expected to play the role of the adult, the novel also gives readers a searing rendering of the claustrophobia of small town midwestern life, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Evelyn must come to terms with the heartbreaking lesson of first love -- that not all loves are meant to be -- and determine who she is and who she wants to be. Stuck in the middle of Kansas, between best friends, and in the midst of her mother's love, Evelyn finds herself . . . in The Center of Everything.

My Thoughts:

I'm a bit lost on what to say about The Center of Everything to be honest. I so loved Moriarty's The Chaperone; I couldn't wait to read another of her books. Perhaps it was the narration, perhaps it was the entirely different kind of story, but this book just did not do it for me. I kept waiting for something to happen. More importantly, I guess, I kept waiting to like Evelyn again.

In the beginning I liked Evelyn and her mother, Tina. Tina is a young mother, a girl who got pregnant as a teen, resulting in irreparable damage to Tina's relationship with her father. Life isn't easy for Tina and Evelyn but they had each other and it seemed that Tina understood her responsibility to Evelyn.

And then it was as if the wheels fell off of the wagon. Tina didn't make good choices, couldn't keep her emotions in check; Evelyn became, well, something of a brat. And that's where they stayed - battling each other as much as their circumstances. I wanted to shake Evelyn constantly and tell her to stop feeling sorry for herself.

Then again, maybe it was just the voice. Really, it grated on my nerves. Perhaps if I had read this book, Evelyn would have been a more sympathetic character for me. Readers who have posted reviews on Barnes & Noble almost all loved this book and loved Evelyn. I wish I would have.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Salon - November 11

Happy Sunday from chilly Omaha where today finds me planning to spend time curled up reading thanks to a very productive Saturday. Happy Veteran's Day and a big thank you to all who have served our country in military service.

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Mumford and Sons with Emmy Lou Harris. I saw them performing on Palladia and had to see if I could find them online. Love both Emmy Lou and Mumford and Sons; throw in a Paul Simon song - happy me! While I was looking for this video, I also found one of Mumford and Sons doing Amazing Grace at Bonnaroo. I recommend it as well.

Watching: "The Voice" - The Big Guy, Miss H and I have all become big fans of the show. We like the fact that, just as in our house, this appears to be a musical competition show that appeals to more than just teen aged girls. Miss H's favorite is Cassadee Pope who was formerly with a band she's seen many times in concert.

We also saw a really interesting piece about video game addiction on "Rock Center" last week. Mini-him struggled with this when he was in high school - it really struck home to watch them interview a guy who was addicted to the very game Mini-him finally had to give up entirely.

Cooking: Steel-cut oats in a water bath in the slow cooker (thanks, Trish - it worked wonderfully!), chili (because while yesterday was so warm we had to turn on fans, today feels like winter), and homemade peanut butter. I need to tweak the peanut butter recipe to get the consistency I want but it tastes delicious.

Making: Christmas gifts but that's all I can tell you because some of my family actually read this blog.

Grateful for: Miss H for writing her first book review. She's not a big reader; I'm glad we were able to find a book that appealed to her. Fiction just does not work for my girl but she does enjoy biographies and memoirs.

Happy about: These past few gloriously warm and sunny days. We've had windows open, shorts on, and we've been able to finally get the rest of the outdoor things done for winter.

Looking forward to: Book club this week; although, I don't hold out much hope any more that any of the other members will have read the book. I was so disappointed last month to be the only person who had finished The Night Circus. At least I know I'm going to get to spend a few hours with a group of ladies I really enjoy spending time with!

I've got three reviews scheduled this week, Laura Moriarty's The Center of Everything, Joanne Harris' Peaches for Father Francis, and The Book Club Cookbook by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp. Right now I'm finishing Alyson Richman's The Lost Wife which is the Omaha Bookworms November selection then I'm going to pick up anther book for Fall Feasting. What are you reading this week? Any big plans?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Guest Review: Katy Perry: An Unofficial Biography by Alice Montgomery

Katy Perry: An Unofficial Biography by Alice Montgomery
Published September 2011 by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books
Source: our copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

Some time ago, well quite a while ago actually, I was approached with the opportunity to review this book.  It wasn't anything that I was interested in but I sure knew someone who loves Katy Perry. Thinking that maybe this was just the thing to get my reluctant reader to pick up a book, I asked Miss H if she'd like to read this book and do a review of it. "Sure," she said. When the book arrived she sat right down and started reading it. And then she stopped reading. Months passed and then one night she discovered that what I've been telling her for years is true. Reading when you can't sleep is a great way to pass time and try to help yourself fall back to sleep. So now I've got two things: a book review and another chance to say "I told you so." Not that I would ever say that, of course!

Publisher's Synopsis:

Ever since the international chart-topping hit, I Kissed a Girl, Katy Perry hasn't stopped making headlines. From reaching number one in charts worldwide to selling out concerts around the globe, her phenomenal success has propelled her to the A-list. But it didn't always seem like she was destined for stardom. Brought up in a deeply religious community, Katy was allowed to listen only to church music. However, with her astounding musical gift, along with plenty of willpower, Katy was determined to follow her dream. Her rise to the top was cemented in 2010, when after a flurry of media gossip, she married the most controversial figure on British TV -­ Russell Brand. Bestselling biographer Alice Montgomery traces Katy's steps to stardom from her choir girl beginnings to her breakthrough in the music business and her secret wedding ceremony in India, to reveal the intimate story behind the most exciting and unpredictable pop star around.

Miss H's Thoughts:

Katy Perry: An Unofficial Biography  starts with a lot of background information and facts about Katy's early years and I learned a lot about her life in a very religious family. The book shows how Katy went from having it all when she was living with her family to having nothing when she started her music career and now back to having it all.

The pictures that were included in the book were a good addition; they really showed how Katy Perry has changed and how far she's come. I also thought that Montgomery did a good job bringing in the details of Perry's life including her political views and other people's feelings about her and her fame (including her very provocative costumes). In fact, the ending of the book spends a lot of time talking about the way Katy's mother feels about her and the ways she's changed and moved away from the way her parents raised her. I liked learning about the people Katy has worked with and the songs she's been featured in when working with other people.

As a big fan of both Katy Perry and Russell Brand, I was interested in reading about their relationship and I loved reading about their wedding. Unfortunately, the parts about Katy's relationships were also the parts I had problems with. The book dragged on a lot about a former boyfriend Katy had from the band Reliant K and his parents and life. This felt like information that wasn't relevant to Perry's story. Even some of the parts about Brand dragged for me and it didn't seem like Montgomery needed to include them. It didn't seem like it was important for fans of Perry to know about other girls Russell had sex with.

There were a couple of errors I found in the book. At one point Montgomery talked about the Disney show "Hannah Montana," but she spelled it "Hanna." In the part about Russell Brand, Montgomery talked about a movie he was in, "Get Him To The Greek," but she called it "Get Me To The Greek."  These kinds of things distracted me, but it wasn't anything that turned me away from the book and it didn't make me think any less of it.

Because I was reading late at night and because I like to end my reading at the end of a chapter, I wished the chapters would have been shorter. I found myself getting bored as I tried to get to the end of the chapters. But Montgomery was able to keep me interested in the book overall. I learned a lot about Katy Perry and liked the book. It's definitely a book I would recommend to anyone who is a Katy Perry fan or is interested in seeing what she's about and where she came from.

Thanks, Miss H! I'm glad we were able to find you a book you liked. Next up for Miss H is a book by Ellen DeGeneres. This is a girl who clearly likes her nonfiction!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee by Thomas J. Craughwell

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How A Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine To America by Thomas J. Craughwell
Published September 2012 by Quirk Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

From the publisher:

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson struck a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James Hemings. The Founding Father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose”—to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.

My thoughts:
I can't remember how I found out about this book but as a history buff and a fan of Jefferson's, I thought this book would be great for Fall Feasting. I made a mistake with it, though. It's small and not very long (just 258 pages) and coming from Quirk Books (publishers of the monster smash hits Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina). I thought it would make a great readathon book, quick and fun. Fluff this is not. Which made it not necessarily the best choice for a readathon and having not made a very good choice, I found myself starting to resent the book through no fault of its own.

I knew I needed to wait a bit to write my review, to give my brain some time to consider this book on its merits and not on my expectations. Craughwell has crafted a well researched exploration of early American eating and Thomas Jefferson's significant contributions to food in this country. We all know that early settlers on this continent had a tendency to die from starvation but were you aware that they largely refused to eat seafood and fish, food sources in good supply even in the winter or times of crop failure. Craughwell also explains the way food consumption on France changed over time before and during Jefferson's time there.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee is also an interesting look at Jefferson's conflicted relationship with his slaves. James Hemings and Jefferson's wife, Martha, shared the same father. Although he was living in his sister's home, James was the property of the Jeffersons. He was granted his freedom in exchange for his cooperation in Jefferson's French experience, although even then Jefferson may have had ulterior motives. In France at that time, a slave need only, essentially, walk away from his master; Jefferson had to find a way to prevent that.

Between them Jefferson and Hemings introduced to America to a number of foods that are staples now: macaroni and cheese, pasta, and French fries (why, yes, they really are from France although they more closely resembled what we would now call fried potatoes). Oh, yeah, I also want to give them a big thank you for bringing champagne to this continent! Yet another reason to admire a man, who despite his flaws, contributed so much to this country.

I'm glad I took some time to think this one over before writing my review. I sometimes find that I've forgotten key points to a book if I want. In this case, however, I grew to appreciate all that Craughwell had taught me about this country, the way we eat and the ways in which Jefferson (and the French) influenced it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fall Feasting

Maybe it was, pure and simple, a matter of the right books at the right time. Maybe it was just the season that made me think about food. Or maybe it was the fact that last fall my family was going through the toughest challenge we have ever faced that had me chasing comfort. Whatever it was, last fall, I spent most of October and November reading books where food played a major role and I decided to call it "Fall Feasting."

I had so much fun with it that I decided to do it again this year. I started setting aside books I already owned to read this fall and picked up a few new ones along the way. The plan had been to devote two months to all things foody. Of course, R.I.P. VII and my ongoing reading slump shot October for me. But now I'm set to get back on track. Coming up this week, my review of Thomas Graughwell's Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee. Next week, I'll share my thoughts on Joanne Harris' Peaches for Father Francis and The Book Club Cookbook. 

Also up this month will be The Sharper Your Knife, The Less It Hurts by Kathleen Flinn, Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers The Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawkes (which was recommended to me by my mom), and Harvest: An Adventure Into The Heart of America's Family Farm by Richard Horan. If there's time, I've got a couple more books I might add but I'm not going to pressure myself to try to get too much done.

Do you find yourself drawn to a particular kind of books as the seasons change? Are you a reader of foody books?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Salon - November 4

The Sunday

My computer has died. Well, at least it has decided to hibernate and Mini-him hasn't been around long enough lately to try to wake it back up. I'm borrowing my husband's work computer just now but my time on the computer will be limited until I solve the problem with my computer. I must admit that I was getting a little twitchy today being unable to get on a computer. I have been pondering trying to unplug for a week. The past couple of days probably either mean that I really need to or maybe just that I shouldn't even attempt it.

Like most of you, I spent a lot of time this past week watching the coverage of Sandy and the aftermath. Four years ago, I would have been concerned about my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island but otherwise I didn't know much of anyone that would be effected by such a storm. Since I've started blogging, though, I count so many of you on the East Coast as friends. I watched the coverage in an entirely different light. How were Joann's daughter and Teri faring in NYC? Was Care's boat going to end up on a street two block inland? Were Mari and Jo having any trouble with falling trees in New Jersey? For a worry wart like me, I was grateful that everyone, even those without power, were able to at least get on Twitter and keep us updated.

Here's what I'm:

Listening to:  Punch Brothers and The Civil Wars which I just discovered last night on Austin City Limits. Punch Brothers play what they call "aggressive bluegrass" and The Civil Wars do a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Yes, a folk version. It's fabulous.

Cooking:  Yesterday I made a crock pot of chicken thighs which I'll pull the meat off of today to freeze in meal-sized portions. I would love to have an entire shelf of my freezer devoted to pre-cooked meats; it's so nice to have that much of dinner ready any time.

Making:  If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I've spent quite a lot of time this past week making a cape. Mini-me was Robin (of Batman and Robin) for Halloween and went to a number of parties without the cape. But this weekend was NebCon, which even those in attendance might call "NerdCon," and the full costume was essential, apparently. I have never sewn anything lined, have never sewn with satiny material and have never attached a hood to anything. It was quite a learning experience. It looks pretty impressive...if you don't look too closely at all of the seams. Mini-him was very happy with it and here is where I'm supposed to say that makes it all worth it. It doesn't, not entirely; seriously, that cape took more than ten hours!

Grateful for:  That extra hour of sleep! I guess I could have gotten up an hour earlier and used that hour productively. Show of hands...anyone do that?

Happy about:  My parents coming into Omaha today. We'll celebrate my birthday and Mama Shepp's mama's birthday which was also last week.

Looking forward to:  Another quiet week ahead at Casa Shepp which I don't mind at all. I know some of you are still looking forward to getting power back this week - fingers crossed that you all have lights, heat and warm water again soon!

This week I'm really kicking off my Fall Feasting reading. I've been working it around R.I.P. challenge in October but November is really going to focus on reading and reviewing books that have food as a central theme. This week I'll finally finish Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris. After that, I don't know what I'll pull out of my pile next.

What are you reading this week?