Monday, December 28, 2009

A HOMEMADE LIFE : a great read from Molly Wizenberg

With "A Homemade Life" author Molly Wizenberg continues a trend first successful with the book “Julie and Julia” – a foodie blog brought to life in book form. Like “Julie and Julia” Wizenberg writes invitingly about her years in the kitchen and the many life-happenings that result from her delight in cooking. But unlike its successful predecessor, “A Homemade Life” takes us on a world-wide food journey, grounded in Wizenberg’s growing up years in Oklahoma, her college years in San Francisco and her contemporary life with husband (and fellow foodie Brandon) in Seattle - but spanning the Atlantic to take us on an extended visit to Paris - city of lights, food and romance - as well.

Meandering with Wizenberg in these pages we’re treated to many mouth-watering homemade recipes - the stuff most of us grew up eating and enjoying – and glimpses into Wizenberg’s life and travels as well. She takes us deep into the heart of her family, sharing the many joys (her romantic encounters both in the US and abroad, in Paris, are delightful reads for example) and, as this is a book based on real life, we share the sadnesses of her family too.

Holiday notes abound in the book but you won’t find one chapter devoted to Christmas or any other one holiday. Nor will you find the traditional “meats and poultry”, “fish”, "veggies", or "desserts"….type of organization either (albeit there is a nifty index in the back). Instead we DO find a wonderful mish mash of goodies that have brought joy or special meaning into Wizenberg’s life – and of course, hopefully into ours!

And hey, there’s a hint of Indiana in these pages too – check out the recipe for “Hoosier Pie” early on in the book – and have a bottle of high class bourbon on hand – Wizenberg assures us it’s a key ingredient for this Hoosier named treat!

In the end Wizenberg’s is an upbeat tale, featuring an author and a family that celebrate the good times with conviviality and with food - a book that only gets better the more we read.

For a special treat check out the blog that started it all: http://orangette.blogspot.com/

and catch her monthly column in "bon appetite" magazine (available at the WL Public Library).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Worked in a service job? You'll enjoy WAITER RANT....

Yes, hot on the heels of the books JULIE AND JULIA and Anthony Bourdain’s KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL we have a new, engaging – if cynical – insight into the world of lower income service jobs – WAITER RANT.

WAITER RANT reads as much as a contemporary confessional novel as the nonfiction rant of a thirty something waiter it claims to be. And this story-telling is what raises WATIER RANT from a mere collection of blog posts to an engaging, page turning read. The author’s well honed writing skills – he’s been writing a waiter blog for years - and it's on display often in these pages.

Our nameless author pulls us into his tale from the start, relating to us his disaffection with his efforts to become a priest at a seminary where he grew cynical about the ways of the contemporary church; leaving his path to the ministry our author next offers us his erstwhile attempt to offer ethical, caring care to the mentally challenged, a series of jobs which left him still in his 20’s and fed up with duplicity of the health care system. Down on his luck, willing to take just about any temporary employment as a way to make money – we get to the core of this tale – our authors’ fiery plunge into the world of waiting tables in the world of New York City’s fine dining – an experience that he relates with humor and not a little sarcasm.

Our author goes on to become the manager of a new fine dining establishment in a nearby upscale town – he labels it “The Bistro” in his blog and this book – and finds that managing a restaurant is more daring and challenging that he at first thought. As we read we’re offered his thoughts on any number of dining topics – some of the most cutting and hilarious revolving around the less than stellar impact on American dining life caused by the success of the FOOD CHANNEL and its 24 hour/7 day a week superstars and the development in the American dining world of a type of diner our author labels “foodies”.

WAITER RANT ends, appropriately enough, with “in your face” recommendations to those of us who dine out - a part of the book not to be missed!

All of this said let me give you fair warning – WAITER RANT is NOT for the faint of heart – the language can be salty, the subjects at times more “adult” than “family” and this former seminarian proves his cynicism with his sometimes caustic view of humanity.

Yet for all its 21st century sarcasm, WAITER RANT is as one critic wrote “never overbearing and certainly never self-righteous”. One critic of the book even compares it favorably to the runaway-hit TV show THE OFFICE… ”parts of the book were just flat out funny, in that kind of way that Office Space is funny to those who work in the corporate world.”

As is becoming usual, if you’re intrigued by my review of WAITER RANT I invite you to launch yourself into the reviews found at the major internet book sites – some these folks are writing their OWN books as they review this one – WAITER RANT is that inspiring to some readers! Maybe you'll feel that way about WAITER RANT too?

Listen to the review here WBAA radio website.
Listen here: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wbaa/.jukebox?action=featured

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do you like bugs?

If so you will be fascinated with our “500 Insects: a Visual Reference” by Stephen A. Marshall. Like all the Firefly Books I have read it is a well done reference book. Marshall leads off with a good introduction, explaining the incredible number of identified insect species (over 1 million) compared to the estimated number of insect species (1.7 million) and leading it to the explanation of the taxonomy of insect names. Even with this amazing number of insects, he explains that they fall into 4 recognizable orders: Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (wasps), Coleoptera (beetles) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). He explains how you will find similar species around the globe in similar habitats. He rounds out the introduction with sections on collecting and photography as well as basic bug biology and structure. All that before we get to the beautiful photographs that make up the bulk of the material.

The photographs are grouped by orders, families and sub-families, with one page dedicated to each insect. In addition to the close-up photograph of each insect you find some interesting information about the order and family.

Friday, August 21, 2009

1942 - Pearl Harbor as it might have been? by Robert Conroy

It's 1942 and the Japanese have successfully invaded and taken Hawai'i, making it part of the Japanese empire.

Americans in occupied Hawai'i, the halls of power in Washington DC and the military labs of California respond with cunning, out-of-the-box action and a dash of on-the-run romance. Their Japanese counterparts meanwhile learn that winning a battle is only the beginning of the struggle to hold onto what they've won. With fictionalized appearances by President Franklin Roosvelt, Admiral Yammamoto and a cast of other significant - if fictional- characters 1942 is a novel of nonstop action and romance.

1942 may be "alternative history" but it rings true with its' characters very human emotions of love, patriotism, greed, and evil.

What a read!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reading from the old "Axis of Evil"

Presidents and foreign policies may change but I still get a kick out of reading books about cultures we in the West don’t study much – while we may not refer to an "axis of evil" in 2009 we're still not likely to know much about North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and a few other nations not deemed to be good friends of the USA.

So to learn more about those places that often shrouded in mystery in the past couple of years I’ve dipped my toes into such books as “Literature from the Axis of Evil” and “In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar – the latter novel is set in modern day Libya.

My newest read took me to the so called “hermit kingdom” of North Korea – by way of a mystery/detective story related by one Inspector O, a detective in the North Korean People’s Security Service. Written by a former Western “operative” stationed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the book rings true in its depiction of life in a closed society.

The world in which Inspector O works is a world of shadows and shifting shapes, a world in which not much is what it seems to be, where the Inspector and those with whom he works must be vigilant for the slightest of telltale signs – warning flags as O succinctly calls them.

O is given a case by the higher-ups in the People’s Security Service that he finds implausible at first – a daring daylight robbery of Pyongyang’s only bank. But the more O investigates the bank robbery – and soon two murders – the more O becomes aware that he has two stark choices: solve the bank robbery and the murders quickly or be sucked into a maelstrom of evil that he will need more than luck and skill to survive. In a land where the surface often hides a murky depth, HIDDEN MOON takes O much deeper into the violent world of North Korean politics than the police inspector ever wished to go.

The character of O is drawn with care and discerning by author James Church. A man truly committed to his work, O lives as keenly when out walking his beat as when in his sparsely configured office – O’s apartment, in a building overseen by a gruff and inquisitive female gatekeeper, is an afterthought in a very thoughtful life. And since there is not a lot of radio or TV going in O’s life (nor, I suspect from the book’s presentation, not in North Korea as a whole), O has time to think about stuff – and while thinking O’s favorite way to focus is by stroking, sanding or carving odd pieces of wood he has picked up over the years.

Allow me to note that there is no internet to intrude into O's world either (heck, O has trouble figuring out his cell phone much less the vastness of the ‘net – not a lot of folks seem to have cell phones in North Korea and O’s frustration with his own phone finds little solace from the few other North Korean officials who DO have one of the government issued noise makers).

O’s life is filled with characters, as any good detective novel will have. There’s Min, O’s chief - a man whose natural inclination to worry is reinforced by his weekly immersion into the People’s Republic’s political bureaucracy; the lovely Miss Chon, a mysterious banker from that aforementioned bank that was robbed – Miss Chon claims to hail from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan but O learns Miss Chon has no official background – no “file” in the North Korean police bureaucracy – unheard of for a woman not native to the fatherland. And top it all off we come to a hulking fellow from Scotland. He introduces himself to O as a detective newly arrived in Pyongyang to handle security for a soon-to-be-visiting British dignitary – sent because our Scotsman is a European with some limited Korean language skills. He makes Inspector O’s life (and O's crime investigations) yet more complicated with his larger-than-life personality and presence.

The North Korea portrayed in HIDDEN MOON is a human-ized land. Yes, there are plenty of moments when one realizes we’re not reading a mystery set in Tokyo, or New York, Paris, Rio, Cairo or Beijing. But that said there we read of young lovers sitting together at sunset on benches along the city’s river; Club Blue offers enough vice and underworld action to fit into any good detective story.

Yet at the same time Pyongyang is portrayed as having an obviously limited evening social life (though there IS an after hours bar scene), not many plane flights in or out (the arrival of a key character – the Scotsman - on a private plane throws off O and his boss who are accustomed to the weekly arrival and departure of visitors not the sudden appearance of a foreigner!), and the threat of a immediate posting to the “countryside” or the mountains (far from urban Pyongyang in more ways than just geography) is a real threat that looms in the background of O and the men and women with whom he interacts.

HIDDEN MOON is the second in what is now a continuing series of detective novels set in the North Korean capital – and we know the series is doing well when we learn that the newest Inspector O novel is available now in large print as well as regular print size.

Inspector O is a fellow I’ve come to appreciate – the kind of guy I might want to have a beer with – if I enjoyed drinking beer!

NOTE: You can listen to my book reviews on WBAA radio. Go to the "Arts and Culture" section of the website. Let me know what you think of my comments!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J. O'Donnell

James J. O’Donnell’s ancient Rome is quite different from the Rome we all learned about in school – this is a Rome of complexity, of a vibrant – if ultimately corrupt and leaderless – political life even in its waning days.

This is a story of the Rome that lost its major breadbasket (North Africa) to invading peoples its wiser rulers and generals had earlier attempted to co-opt into the Empire in centuries past. This is a Rome so taken up with chauvinism and religious disputes over the merits of this or that form of Christianity that its people and its leaders failed to see the opportunities for compromise and inclusion that the so-called barbarian Christians offered; a Rome that now labeled as “barbarian” the very same peoples it had so assiduously courted in past centuries to settle its frontiers and staff its vastly superior armies.

Like the most famous of Western writers on the subject of Rome – Gibbon’s monumental “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” - O’Donnell too has a point of view to get across to his reader- a point that urges us to learn from the glories and the mistakes of the past so that we are not doomed to repeat them in our time. And O’Donnell’s point of view is as timely now as it ought to have been in the 5th century CE.

O'Donnell's point of view? It is this: Rome did not “fall” because of barbarian invasions or too much lead in their urban water pipes. No, the great and mighty Roman empire of old fell in large part because it refused to respond positively to the changes forced upon it – Ancient Rome clung too often to its storied past so tightly that it failed to grasp the opportunities for fresh points of view and fresh chances to strengthen itself through the energies of the so-called barbarians that Gibbons and others since him have blamed for the fall of the “cultured” Romans. The “illegal immigrants”/”barbarian invaders” of ancient Rome could have been the saviors of the Empire!

To drive his point home, O‘Donnell spends two chapters writing about these lost opportunities with chapters titled “The World that Might Have Been” and “Opportunities Lost” …. it can’t get much more direct than that.
Harkening back to his introductory chapter comments, O’Donnell points out in not so subtle prose that arguments waged and opportunities lost by the ancient Romans loom large in our modern world today – religious arguments over dogma, refusal to see immigration as a blessing rather than a curse, rigid concern with making society reflect the values of the past rather than the emerging values of a more prosperous future – O’Donnell infers again and again that we need to learn today what the ancient Romans did not.

Yes, THE RUIN OF ROME can suffer from too much detail at times – while we’re not confronted with dates galore – the glaring annoyance of many a student of history – we ARE presented with Roman and barbarian names enough to fill a modern city! But here’s my advice - If you read THE RUIN OF ROME for the sweep of the story that is told in these pages you will NOT be disappointed.
Though it is a work of nonfiction, the arc of THE RUIN OF ROME is not unlike that of a novel; we open with a chapter describing the late Roman Empire as it was titled “The World in 500”, move forward with chapters that take us into the last great flowering of Western Roman empire with what many see as “barbarian” rule under Emperors Odoacer and Theodoric and then the final rise of Roman might and glory under the great Byzantine-based emperor Justinian.
Our denouement to this once great world empire comes with the chapter “Learning to Live Again” and concludes with “The Debris of Empire” and “The Last Consul”; in closing giving us one last glimpse at a world with one last cautionary tale for our modern times as well, for this last look at Rome is through the eyes of a man O’Donnell describes as the last great leader of ancient Rome, a man who sought to hold together a world fast unraveling and a man who prophesied the end of great Rome; indeed, this last great leader of the ancient world was the prophet of….wait for it…..the biblical end of time itself – pronounced by the man now known as Pope Gregory the Great.

The irony of course is that while Pope Gregory – the last great ruler in the ancient Roman empire - was pessimistically engaged in self-described futile efforts to hold Rome together for what he “knew” would be the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth a quite different world was a-borning – a world where the memory of the Roman Empire would live on until our day – but too a new world that saw not the coming of God on earth but the final decay of Western Roman civilization into what we now call the “Middle Ages”.
History is written by the victors – or by those who survived - and so any one point of view must be seen as only of many. And so it is with the interpretation offered in THE RUIN OF ROME.

That said, In his Epilogue O’Donnell sums up this incredible –and true – tale with these words……”Old errors are easy to reenact…Today, as in the sixth century, a calm sense for the long view, the broad view, and a pragmatic preference for the better rather than the best can have a hard time overcoming the noisy anxiety of those who would transform – that is, ruin – what they do not understand. Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise. We are not assured that it will triumph."

Available as a Podcast with additional excerpts from the book on the WBAA radio website.

Monday, April 6, 2009

THE DEEP Denizens of the Deep Seas

I cannot tell you how HAPPY I am to tell you about today’s book!

I’m sure you are aware – as am I - with humankind’s fascination with the oceans. In the past fifty or so years we’ve had any number of feature films built around the premise that there is wonder and fearful stuff “out there” in the oceans – and just about 100 years ago Jules Verne scared the heck out of his audience with his science fiction novel 10,000 Leagues under the Sea.

THE DEEP, however, is not a scary book. THE DEEP is a BEAUTIFUL book to behold – and read. Indeed, I would say that beauty and wonder are the twin reasons for reading – and looking through – THE DEEP.

The deep sea denizens photographed in THE DEEP are as bizarre and weird as any science fiction movie (or novel) you may have seen or read. Consider: 250-year-old red and white tube worms are seen waving slowly in the dark ocean depths; fish with lanterns above their heads swim into view and crab-like creatures that look for all the world like giant fleas move slowly through the deep gloom. Tiny Octopi with strange new abilities and giant 25+ foot squids that are more afraid of whales than whales are of them float by in close-up photos (the giant squid eye photo has to be seen – imagine what that experience would be like in real life!

There are photos and essays depicting the strange new (to human knowledge at least) worlds of the warmer water smoke-stacks and the cold methane flows, truly otherworldly places in the deep oceans where not photosynthesis but chemosynthesis is the engine for myriad life forms previously unknown and unimaginable even by most if in the science fiction world

And speaking of wonder, what about the possibilities that we may yet find remnants from the past …prehistoric monsters still living and even thriving far away from our human eyes? THE DEEP devotes a chapter to this possibility.

The essays themselves vary in readability. All are thoughtfully written by experts in their field – and, interestingly, are international in scope with authors from Japan, Europe, and North America all represented. But the enjoyment one derives from reading beautiful prose is not to be found in most of them.

Too, because this is a collection of essays there is repetition in the book – we learn again and again a bit about how the earth’s continents are moving about the planet, how volcanoes erupt more in certain areas of the world’s oceans than in others and about the importance of “organic rain” (dead animals and plants from the ocean above) sinks slowly down as nutrients to these denizens of the deep.

But, all that said, THE DEEP is an experience not to be missed – as a field guide to the deep oceans it is a wonder to peruse. Our author reminds us that the variety of life found in the deep oceans is thought to hugely outnumber the forms of life found on land and in the air – life forms we’re all most familiar with.

It is written more than once in THE DEEP that we’ve only begun to discover all the different forms of life the deep seas nurture – like the ongoing search for beetles and other insect life on dry land the oceans undoubtedly hold so many more wonders to behold. And as peek into the wonders and otherworldly beauties of “inner-space” as the oceans have been labeled THE DEEP is time well spent. Posted by Nick Schenkel, West Lafayette Public Library. Also available as a podcast WBAA website